From CIAC to EHRC: the long view on current controversies

From CIAC to EHRC: the long view on current controversies


Written by: Jenny Bourne

The politically chequered history of state ‘race relations’ is key to understanding the growing controversy over the workings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Such quasi-state bodies as the EHRC have long held an ambiguous position: on the one hand seen as necessary protection in a discriminatory world; on the other hand, given that governments have been consistently racist (in the main via restrictive immigration controls) their attempts to create ‘harmony’, promote ‘integration’, dispel ‘white fears’ were mistrusted. In the 1960s the very weak race relations acts and liaison and conciliatory bodies ‘to promote community relations’ were often seen as government sops to supposedly counter the racist impacts of successive immigration controls on New Commonwealth citizens. And they were also written off, at that time, in the main by black and Asian militants, as attempts to create buffering mechanisms and build a collaborative class of administrators to control and marginalise community demands. But as ‘race’laws and mechanisms became, under pressure from black organisations and anti-racists, more meaningful, they were for a time, a part of the solution, not a part of the problem. Then, they worked strategically to stretch the limits of legislation so as to protect those most vulnerable to racism and discrimination. But at other points, those running these bodies have shamelessly followed the government agenda of the day. The question to ask is what is the lie of the land today?

It’s not just Liz Truss’ appointment of David Goodhart (who is overtly opposed to much of what passes as anti-racist orthodoxy) as a Commissioner that has caused concern about the future of the government’s anti-discrimination body, the EHRC.[1] The appointment of Jessica Butcher as another Commissioner, someone who has claimed the ‘victim narrative’ disempowers women and criticised the MeToo movement, has shocked feminists, too. Two of the   EHRC’s most recent reports on racism in higher education and gender pay disparity at the BBC have been criticised for deploying a baffling methodology. And several legal challenges are also likely to be made to the EHRC’s report on antisemitism in the Labour Party, while the organisation has been criticised for not being even handed since it declined to investigate Islamophobia in the Conservative Party despite receiving a dossier containing over 300 allegations.

The balancing act

Let’s look at its history – starting some sixty-odd years ago as post-war migration from the ex-colonies was in full swing. The Commonwealth Immigrants Advisory Council (CIAC) was set up in 1962 by the Tories, then beginning to control West Indian, South Asian and African immigration via a voucher system, to advise the Home Secretary on ‘immigrant welfare’. (Note each time restriction was brought in, governments searched for a balancing tool to suggest to the white majority their concerns about being ‘over-run’ were being listened to, and to ‘newcomers’ that they were being helped to settle ie ‘integrate’.[2]) Later the Labour Party, now itself part of imposing racist immigration controls in the White Paper of 1965, created the canard that controls would somehow aid integration[3] and replaced CIAC with The National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants (NCCI) with money, staff and local liaison committees ‘to provide and coordinate on a national basis efforts directed towards the integration of Commonwealth immigrants into the community’. (That Labour stepped in to curb immigration when it did, probably had much to do with their own self-interest for they had lost the Labour seat of Smethwick to the Tories who used the overtly anti-immigrant slogan, ‘If you want a N****r for a neighbour, vote Labour’ at the general election in 1964.)

The first Race Relations Board – a buffering organisation

To ward off criticism of racist immigration controls, had to come supposedly liberal and pro-immigrant integrative measures. So, in 1965 came the first Race Relations Act which forbade discrimination in ‘places of public resort’ to be implemented by a Race Relations Board and local conciliation committees. Though almost from the start, this race legislation was criticised for having no teeth (or gums for that matter) it was US political analyst Ira Katznelson, who, examining what was happening on the ground in Nottingham, explained that the real intent of the legislation had been to set up buffering institutions to ‘retard meaningful black participation’, keep them from really having power, while allowing a few token ‘client’ spokesmen to appear to be part of negotiations. [4]

Conciliation but not enforcement: the CRC

By 1968, as Labour kept out its Kenyan Asian UK citizens with new racist immigration controls, it rearranged ‘race relations’ once again: NCCI became the Community Relations Commission (CRC), and a new race relations act forbade discrimination in employment, housing, credit and insurance and places of public resort. The Board again had to rely on conciliation, it had no powers of enforcement. Analyst Sivanandan described the 1968 Race Relations Act as not so much an act, more an attitude – brought in to ‘counter the social cost of racial friction’ as immigrants were being turned into ‘unsettled’ migrants and, with negotiations for a European Economic Community, (white) European labour beckoned. Though some critics bemoaned the fact that the Act had clearly failed – racial discrimination and exploitation of black workers were palpable – Sivanandan pointed out that it had succeeded for the state in building ‘a class of coloured collaborators who would justify the ways of the state to the blacks’.[5] (The language reflects the deeply held suspicion of such agencies.)

From 1968 to 1976 it would be fair to say that the CRC and its localised community relations councils (which, echoing its parent body, were composed of businessmen, the police, political parties, unions, clergy, headmasters etc) were never regarded as progressive institutions by radical blacks or anti-racist activists, who by-and-large organised outside such structures.

Demonstration against the 1962 Immigration Bill, with Vishnu Sharma (fifth from left) and Ernie Roberts, MP (sixth from left)

In 1976 the Race Relations Board and the CRC were incorporated into a new Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) which was to exist until 2007, when it was dissolved into the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC, of which more below). The 1976 Act extended the definition of discrimination to include indirect discrimination, gave individuals the ability to take discrimination complaints directly to civil courts or industrial tribunals, and the CRE responsibility to enforce legislation and conduct research to inform government policy on race relations.

But who was at the helm of state race relations?

But to return to the issue of David Goodhart in 2020 as well as the recent revelation that the EHRC fails to have any Black or Muslim Commissioners. If we look at the history of these race bodies over time, what is striking is the narrow class and (white, male) political base of its leadership. Up until 1993: All Oxbridgers, all establishment-approved and handpicked by the home secretary, all without any particular knowledge or attribute to make them expert in the ‘race’ field. Mark Bonham-Carter (Winchester and Balliol), grandson of Asquith and a prominent Liberal politician and friend of Labour Party home secretary Roy Jenkins was chairman of first the Race Relations Board (1966-71) and its successor the CRC (1971-77). He was followed by David Lane (Eton and Trinity) a former Tory MP who served from 1977-81; Sir Peter Newsam (Clifton College and Queen’s) 1981-85; Sir Michael Day (University College and Selwyn) 1985-1993. A change was to come in 1993 when Herman Ouseley, a comprehensive school-educated local government officer was chosen by ‘One Nation Tory’ Kenneth Clarke to become the first black Executive Chair. And he was to try to push the CRE to its political and legal limits. In 2005, he told IRR News: ‘During my stint at the CRE, we were not afraid to use the 1976 Act in a very elastic way to support individuals in the Tribunals and courts, to challenge employers and public bodies, to undertake formal investigations fearlessly into bodies such as the MoD and generate support to fund public awareness advertising campaigns focused on the effects of racism.’

Watering down and waffling

Perhaps it was those strategic interventions aimed at making state equality mechanisms work for ethnic minorities that helped set the government thinking about merging all equalities bodies into one EHRC to cover discrimination in race, religion, gender, sexuality, age and disability. It was a proposition vigorously, but vainly, opposed by Ouseley, members of the CRE staff and many black activists, for it was seen as a way to undermine links with black community groups and the specificity of racial discrimination, its history and context. Ouseley stepped down in 2000 and it was Labour-appointed TV producer Trevor Phillips who oversaw the transition to the EHRC which began work in 2007. Ouseley traces the political shift to Blair’s enthusiasm for ‘light touch regulation’ and the fact the government felt ‘that they had discharged their responsibilities for implementing the measures arising from the [1999] Macpherson report into the killing of Stephen Lawrence’ and wanted ‘to demolish the CRE and absorb it into the Equality and Human Rights Commission’, which he termed ‘a symbolic edifice for equalities high-level blue-sky waffling’. And the fact of its symbolism/waffling is reflected in the budget allocated by government, which fell from £70 million for the CRE in 2005 to £17 million for the whole EHRC in 2019, and its efficacy in casework over the years. These cuts are mirrored, not surprisingly, in its ‘outcomes’ gleaned from an FOI request. Whereas in 2007-9 sixty-four cases were totally assisted by the EHRC, by 2017, just six were. In 2007-9 four inquiries were launched, whereas in both 2012 and 2013 none were. In 2007-9 214 cases were concluded at conciliation; in 2012/13 just sixteen had been. This is the EHRC under neoliberalism, when the contract for its (badly needed) helpline Equality Advisory and Support Service (despite legal challenge and much community disquiet) has been awarded to multinational G4S for over £3million.

Between two Cultures: A Study of Relationships between Generations in the Asian Community in Britain by Community Relations Commission
(Sleep)walking with Goodhart

Phillips, who took over as head of the CRE in 2003, overseeing its abolition in 2006 and chairing (at first fulltime and then part-time) its reincarnation as the EHRC from 2007-2012, created some controversy. Staff were dismayed that he had not fought more fiercely for the ‘race’ strand within the newly amalgamated body. In 2009, six Commissioners resigned amidst accusations of poor leadership.[6] He had, like Goodhart, taken to questioning the efficacy of multiculturalism and his position was summed up in his controversial 2005 ‘sleepwalking our way into segregation’ speech in which he seemed to place much of the blame on Muslims for self-segregation, rather than institutions for their discriminatory practices. Leaving the statutory body in 2012 for, inter alia, directorships in the private sector, Phillips began to work out his theses alongside Goodhart. In 2016 they both contributed to a highly controversial publication for CIVITAS Race and Faith: the deafening silence[7] and when Goodhart brought his Integration Hub from Demos to the right-wing Policy Exchange, Phillips became its chair, with Goodhart as its director. There is no doubt of their ideological closeness.

Redefining Equalities

Liz Truss’ selection this month of iconoclast Goodhart, the Etonian son of a Tory MP,[8] a man who supports the ‘hostile environment’, decries overdiversity, writes off Muslims for their ‘grievance culture’ and insists that the white working class are now the most marginalised, as a Commissioner at the EHRC should not be seen as a shocking anomaly, but rather as the clearest of indicators of what has been happening to derail ‘Equalities’ in the UK over some years. We have moved now from the days of liaison, of buffering, of creating a client class to outright control and regulation. We have even moved from the times when one could argue for the strengthening of legislation, to having to defend the position that structured racism exists. The merging of the equalities streams, the massive decrease in its funding by 76 per cent, the fact that, as Operation Black Vote’s Simon Woolley pointed out in August there was not now one black or Muslim Commissioner and the EHRC had lost ‘its expertise and its enforcement abilities’, should have signalled that we were entering a new ball-game.[9] (The parliamentary select committee on human rights, too, published on 11 November, a very emphatic response to the poor enforcement of black people’s rights via the EHRC.[10])

And if we needed the evidence that the game has indeed changed, it was neatly served up by Ian Acheson (a security and counter-terrorism adviser at Blair’s Institute for Global Change) in a Spectator article defending Goodhart. According to the piece, Acheson was brought in between 2012 and 2015 to restore the credibility of the Commission and see that it was not ignored by government. Since then, he writes, ‘The Commission has changed dramatically’ in no small part ‘due to the stealthy introduction of commissioners who don’t regard a Conservative government as a travesty. Goodhart represents a continuation of this bridgehead’. (It goes without saying that former staff however remember his intervention somewhat differently.) But in the Spectator, he continues his gleeful hand-rubbing, ‘We’ve had psychiatrists, bankers, sportsmen and small business owners before him that have sharpened the Commission’s reputation as a legal regulator with teeth, a good custodian of public money and lately, as an enforcement agency with the courage to take on the political party that founded it and call it to account for anti-Semitism’. Goodhart, he explains, ‘is joining a maturing organisation that’s now brilliantly led and not afraid to speak truth to power’.

And, he goes on, ‘Goodhart can bring a valuable perspective that is only now gaining ground in public discourse’. The crisis of white working-class males, the underachievement of white kids. So, there we have it, majority grievances can now be the stuff of the EHRC, with presumably the (white) Goodharts, not the proven (black) experts on discrimination humming its anthem.

That is the mood music. We have come full circle. Rear-guard battles on all sides. We have the decriers that diversity has gone too far so as to threaten our way of life; we have the back to basic British values drum-beaters; we have the institutional or structured racism deniers; we have the anti-all-extremisms schools;[11] we have, now, finally, the tribunes for the white working class (not the ‘BAMEs’) as the true victims of inequality.[12] As the IRR commented last week, ‘The irony is that the institutions that are meant to protect BME communities from systemic racism, are now packed with political appointees who uphold a ‘common sense’ that either redefines institutional racism as failure to combat ‘extremist’ attitudes, or denies that it exists at all.’

Whereas, historically, however weak or muted, ‘race’ equality bodies tried to live up to their charge of acting in the public good; today, in a world where the space for civil society organisations is already shrinking, bodies such as the EHRC are increasingly (and unashamedly) dominated by the very interests they are supposedly regulating.[13]

Equalities RIP?



[1] See Simon hooper, ‘”Hostile environment” supporter appointed to EHRC equality watchdog’, Middle East Eye, 12 November 2020, and Amelia Gentleman, ‘Equalities campaigners criticise EHRC appointment’, Guardian, 13 November 2020,

[2] For an anlysis of state racism and the supposedly integratory mechanisms from 1960 to 1976 see ‘Race, class and the state: the black experience in Britain’, Race & Class, Vol. XVII, no 4, Spring 1976.

[3] In the words of Labour MP Roy Hattersley, ‘Without integration limitation is inexcusable; without limitation, integration is impossible’.

[4] He wrote, ‘The lesson of Nottingham’s experience, therefore, indicates at a minimum that the recommended buffering race relations structures centring on a consultative committee to improve community relations may not only be inadequate but actually retard meaningful black participation, the prerequisite of legitimate integration.’ ‘The politics of racial buffering in Nottingham 1954-68’, RACE, XI, 4 (1970)

[5] All quotes from ‘Race, class and the state’.

[6] See Sam Jones and Afua Hirsch, “Rebels turn on Trevor Phillips’ leadership of rights body”, The Guardian, 21 July 2009 and Sam Jones and James Sturcke, “New resignation hits Equality and Human Rights Commission”, The Guardian, 25 July 2009.

[7] The book written by Phillips but with a response from Goodhart argued according to the blurb that ‘… in this new age of ‘superdiversity’, with more people of very different backgrounds arriving in greater numbers than ever before … Britain has become complacent about its ability to manage its diversity, and that integration is not treated as the priority it should be … World-views of very different groups are colliding. Incompatible attitudes to sex, religion, belief and the rule of law are producing frictions for which the tried and tested social lubricants now seem just too thin … Squeamishness about diversity risks the country sleepwalking to catastrophe, setting community against community and undermining Britain’s tradition of liberal democracy.’

[8] See Daniel Johnson, ‘The David Goodhart Affair shows why the Left’s cultural monopoly must end’, The Article, 18 November 2020.

[9] Lord Woolley, was originally chosen by Theresa May to head a new advisory board on race disparity – now kicked into the long grass. But now Boris Johnson has created, in the furore about Black Lives Matter, a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to be led by Tony Sewell who dismisses evidence of institutional racism as ‘flimsy’. See Rob Merrick, ‘Boris Johnson has “zero plans” to tackle impacts of racism warns “ousted government adviser”’. Independent, 10 October 2020

[10] It concluded that there was a common perception that the EHRC replacing the CRE had resulted in a weaker focus on race; that there was no national organisation to champion race equality; that more effective legislation to ensure black people’s human rights was needed, that a cross-government commitment to improved data collection on racial inequality was needed. See here

[11] IRR News has covered these developments in a series of pieces such as: Cameron’s Munich speech marks securitisation of race policy; Fault lines in the fight against racism and antisemitism; New Right, old racism – the battlefield of Covid-19; Unravelling the concept of unconscious bias; Whitening community cohesion?; Entering the anti-extremism debate;

[12] For a recent exposition on the dilemma of the white working class see Matthew Goodwin’s take, lauded by the Daily Mail, 17 October 2020

[13]See Liz Fekete, ‘Fault lines in the fight against racism and antisemitism’, IRR News. And for an example of the conflict of economic and political interests evident within EHRC appointees, see Phil Miller’s series of article in the Morning Star from 16 July to 13 September 2019; for example, ‘New conflict of interest row at EHRC as second board member joins law firm taking government work’, Morning Star, 13 September 2019. Journalist Peter Oborne, too, has questioned the impartiality of the EHRC. See Peter Oborne, ‘Has the UK equality watchdog become institutionally Conservative?’ Middle East Eye, 26 May 2020

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

7 thoughts on “From CIAC to EHRC: the long view on current controversies

  1. I joined the Race Relations Board as my first real job at the end of 1969. I became aghast at its culture of compromise and so called conciliation, determined as it was not to rock the white community’s boat, and left in 1976 to retrain as a lawyer. I am grateful though that the job sent me to Chapeltown, Leeds, amongst whose host community I have remained ever since.

  2. This is a very important piece. It wraps the current government’s antics, distractions and appointments in their proper context and shows them up for what they are. It also highlights the importance of using history, evidence,argument and perspective to reason through contemporary issues. Thank you.

  3. Excellent article and I agree with most of what you say. I worked at both the CRE and the EHRC. One point of fact, it is only Mr Acheson who says he was brought in “to restore the credibility of the Commission and see that it was not ignored by government”. I worked at the EHRC from 2007 and 2017 and have no recollection of him being leading such a mission or any evidence that it happened. Take for example the report published by the Women and Equalities Committee in July 2019. In particular see the table on page 13 which illustrates how infrequently the EHRC used its legal powers during his tenure, and in many cases the powers were not used at all. I call this the ‘table of zeros’.

  4. A very insightful and astute article. I worked as a lawyer at both the CRE and EHRC and was privileged to work with colleagues who were committed to ending discrimination, advancing equality and promoting human rights. Mr Ian Acheson, in his article in ‘The Spectator,’ denounced staff as ‘activist staff’ and given the subject matter of his article I suspect he is referring mainly to the CRE staff who accounted for most of the BAME staff. I don’t know how he defines ‘activism’ but I suspect many true activists didn’t think we were. But we were experienced lawyers and policymakers working to high professional standards under public and political scrutiny. I think what he calls ‘activism’ is passion, a strong belief in equality and human rights and quite simply having a backbone. If it is, then I am proud to be an activist. This is sorely missing from the EHRC.

  5. I’m also concerned that people are being misinformed about the true significance of EHRC’s hostile environment report, published this week. It was actually what’s termed an Assessment of the Home Office’ compliance with the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED) under the Equality Act 2010 – a less rigorous procedure than an inquiry or an investigation into ‘unlawful acts’ defined by the Act, such as discrimination or harassment.

    There might have been legal reasons for the EHRC choosing this procedure to look at the legislation which required or enabled others to discriminate (the essence of the hostile environment), as legislation is excluded from the scope of ‘unlawful acts’. But having found that the Home Office broke the law in failing to comply with the PSED, the EHRC has NOT served a compliance notice enforceable by the High Court, requiring action, which it was empowered to do, but instead, merely ‘recommended’ that the Home Office agree an action plan. A ‘gentleman’s agreement’ perhaps?

    The timing of this report also, in my view, speaks volumes. The Windrush scandal broke in April 2018, two-and-a-half years ago. Since then, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, the Home Affairs Committee, the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have all published highly critical reports, not to mention Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned review. As far back as July 2018, the Discrimination Law Association published its briefing on the hostile environment which, in effect, made a compelling case for the EHRC (which surely read its reports?) to take action against the Home Office for breach of the PSED. Why did it take over two years for the EHRC to reach the same conclusion?

  6. I am writing from the Belfast-based human rights NGO the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ). This is a timely and forensic piece. It is worth noting that related issues have arisen on this side of the Irish Sea, in the NI Secretary of States’ replacement of the six Commissioners of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) this autumn.

    Like the EHRC the NIHRC is accredited at the UN as having ‘A Status’ as a National Human Rights Institution (NHRI) through compliance with the UN Paris Principles. However, the Paris Principles deal with “composition and guarantees of independence and pluralism”. This involves the State Party ensuring an NHRI composition with “pluralist representation of the social forces (of civilian society) involved in the protection and promotion of human rights…” specifying human rights and anti racism NGOs, trade unions social and professional organisations, academic experts etc.

    In this instance (despite we now learn there being a broad number of applications from such sectors) the Secretary of State instead overhauled the Commission and appointed three (of the six) Commissioners from an RUC/PSNI (i.e. NI policing) background. The appointments per se were state-centric with five of the six from a public sector background. Of the overall total of these six plus the Chief Commissioner only two are now women. This is not to question any of the individuals appointed, but clearly is not the pluralistic representation envisaged through compliance with the Paris Principles. Indeed such appointments (as with EHRC if this is drawn to the attention of the UN by the human rights sector) may place the institutions respective A-status’ in jeopardy.

    For further detail see the following piece in our newsletter:

  7. Great article. We have transitioned from a political framwork that was based on Roy Jenkins mutual tolerance(only of course in the context of strict immigration controls and human rights abuses) to an out and out cultural war. The appointments of Munira Mirza, Tony Sewell and now Tony Goodhart to launch an ideological war on any ideas the racism has anything to do with polticial economy, cultural hegmony and the neoliberal imperalism is a game changer.

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