After a Human Rights Awareness event which included discussion with the British Institute of Human Rights (BIHR) the director of Oldham Race Equality Partnership was provoked into making observations about the implications of a human rights framework in the fight for race equality.
There is an enormous momentum at the moment towards submerging local race equality work within new local structures which mirror the broader responsibilities of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC). The new twist to this is the call coming from the EHRC and BIHR, apparently with government backing, to make a human rights approach the centrepiece of this ‘Single Equality’ strategy.
My question is whether such an approach can deliver on the race agenda, not just at the national but also at the local level. In particular, can it deliver on the major, unresolved aspects of racial inequality which remain after thirty years of the Commission for Racial Equality – differential educational attainment, racial harassment, the relative absence of some, mainly Muslim, ethnic groups from employment in the mainstream economy and from affluent suburbs.
Initially, it seems to me, a human rights approach has a great deal to offer local work on disability and age inequality, which is important because these two areas of work are in need of something which can drive public awareness and campaigning work and enable challenges to be made to provider agencies, both morally and legally, at the local level. The treatment of many vulnerable elderly and disabled people is a scandal and a culture of human rights and support resources to meet the consequent demands would be a great step forward. The move from talking about ‘needs’ to advocating ‘rights’ would give an impetus to tackling the issues around service provision and how people are treated by agencies.
However, it is not yet clear to me that a human rights approach to equality could deliver the same genuine impetus to the other equality strands, in which service provision and treatment by state agencies are not the areas in which the major aspects of oppression, disadvantage and inequality arise. Equal Pay, Homophobic, Racial and Religious Hate Crime, the fact that many women still have two jobs, massively high rates of economic inactivity among Muslim women, a clear pattern of marginalised employment among Muslim men, differential educational attainment, Islamaphobia, etc will, it seems to me, all be largely unaffected by a strategy which focuses on human rights.
A human rights approach could provide a new impetus for tackling the treatment of BME groups (particularly Black men) within the mental health system, which is a long-standing, unresolved, issue, as the Rocky Bennett report showed a couple of years ago. And the treatment of elderly BME-heritage people by care and health services is an issue which is going to become more important in the near future as the BME population ages and the first generation reaches retirement. Some BME communities have high rates of disability and health problems, including learning disabilities, and would potentially be helped by the kind of work around provision that a human rights approach to disability would encourage.
The treatment of BME-heritage people by the police (stop and search, etc), in prisons, the immigration service, under counter-terrorism policies, the treatment of asylum seekers and of vulnerable migrant workers in agency-based employment have clear human rights dimensions. But political implications would make them so contentious and therefore difficult for the EHRC to support, and even more difficult for local organisations to take on, except as legal casework. For this reason, I cannot see this developing into a viable area of work for either locally based Race Equality Councils (RECs) or single equality organisations. For years, the CRE steered RECs clear of immigration work because of its political implications and I expect more of the same from the EHRC.
BIHR has not yet tested the commitment of the public sector, especially local authorities and primary care trusts (PCTs), to working within a human rights framework which would call their service provision to account in ways which could really rattle their cages and cause embarrassment. Ex-CRE employees will recall how the public sector consultation took the teeth out of the first draft of the Race Relations Amendment Act (RRAA), because they could not countenance the degree and extent of formal and legal challenge, which this would have involved them in. Seventy-five per cent of local authorities have not put any Equality Impact Assessments up on their websites. As a means of delivering real change, the RRAA has been a disappointment and the public sector has learned how to ride it by treating it as a paper-based compliance exercise and incorporating it into internal bureaucratic procedures. I cannot see local authorities opting voluntarily for a more challenging environment – the PCTs, in particular, have by and large escaped effective accountability on race and the other equalities to date and are likely to be even more concerned about being challenged on human rights grounds than are local authorities.
There is a creeping tendency within these debates to label RECs as ‘dinosaurs’, clinging to a failed past and to familiar silos, rather than looking forward to a new, more successful future based upon what unites rather than what divides us. This is usually no more than easy rhetoric coming from those who tend towards wanting to be seen as ‘moving with the times’ rather than actually trying to influence how the times move.
Self-evidently discrimination casework across the board will be self-evidently enhanced by placing it within a human rights approach. But, as far as race work is concerned, legal work is quite possibly the main way in which the human rights approach has clear benefits. However, rather more than this is being claimed for the human rights approach and I am not sure that it sticks. I suspect that, for the reasons given above, most human rights challenges to public sector provision will be referred straight to legal departments rather than to policy departments. The ECHR will no doubt follow its legacy commissions and, over the next few years, produce an ever-growing set of good practice guidance toolkits, checklists and so on, but ex-CRE employees will recall the alarmingly poor take-up of the equivalent documents produced in the 1990s for the public and private sector. This – creating of compliance frameworks – seems to be one of the main default activities of national equality commissions, but it leaves very little for locally-based organisations to do by way of follow-up, because of the scale of the paper-monitoring which results. I foresee human rights work being taken forward by the EHRC in this way, with no role for either RECs or local Single Equality organisations, which will never have the resources to hold major agencies effectively accountable at local level for compliance with detailed frameworks on equalities and human rights.
Local race work in the UK was, in most places, hobbling along before the Macpherson report and the first draft RRAA based on it (there was never a more hopeful time in race work). That momentum disappeared very quickly with the pulling of the RRAA’s teeth and the advent of the era of community cohesion, which came to supply a comfort zone for all those who felt uncomfortable with the ‘R’ word. Community Cohesion is now just about all played out as a main focus agenda outside of the youth service and schools, although it does have the unfortunate legacy of associating BME communities unfairly with ‘self-segregation’ and is in many cases a means of punishing them for this assumed separatism. The climate of the war on terror has placed us even more on the back foot, with new immigration controls in the offing (and, ironically, breach the human right to family life which is unlikely to be challenged or open to effective challenge, except through international courts).
The Human Rights Act has lain there in the background – I think it was in 2001 that I was first trained in its provisions – apparently as dead from disuse as the RRAA. Now, at the formation of the EHRC, it has been dusted down and re-branded as the upcoming thing which can inject some vitality into multi-strand equality work which might otherwise just look like a cobbling together of existing, tired and largely failed areas of equality work.
My fear is that if the human rights approach comes to be accepted and promoted by the EHRC as the golden key to the Single Equality strategy, it will achieve precisely what people in RECs and in BME communities have been worrying about for some time – that race will be relegated in importance. The CRE’s parting report showed that there is much still to be done if we are to deal finally with racial inequality in the UK. It is not the fault of tiny, poorly-resourced outfits called RECs that we are still so far short of our strategic objectives and it is disingenuous for others to call us to account for this while pointing to the illusion of a better resourced and ‘less divisive’ home for our concerns within the broader agenda of Equality and Human Rights.