Lord Herman Ouseley, the former chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, explains his misgivings about the new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights.
The Equalities Bill has just been through parliament and will be enacted shortly. Its main provision is to create a new Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR) and abolish the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) and the Disability Rights Commission (DRC).
The new CEHR will take over the existing duties and responsibilities of the abolished Commissions and will also have statutory functions to work for the elimination of discrimination on the grounds of religious belief, age and sexual orientation as well as to protect statutory human rights.
It has been suggested by some organisations and anti-racist activists that race initiatives will lose their focus and therefore the CRE needs to be retained, and not absorbed in the CEHR. But such calls have not been heeded. However, whilst the CEHR will start operating in 2007, the CRE will not be absorbed until 2009 – a deal the CRE struck with the government so as to keep going independently for a while longer. Other people have argued that, as all the other interest groups will establish a stronghold in the new CEHR while the CRE stays out, later, when it joins, it will be in a weak position. Perhaps it should have agreed to go in and try to establish strong race priorities in the work of the CEHR from the outset.
The real concern about the CEHR is whether it will make any difference in challenging racism, other forms of prejudice and helping individuals who are the victims of discrimination. When the Bill was first mooted in a White Paper a few years ago, the government stated that the proposed CEHR would have ‘a light touch’ with the private sector. In other words, there will be ‘strong’ anti-discrimination legislation but not much enforcement. The lack of enforcement of anti- discrimination legislation is already reflected in the low level of support for individual cases across all the existing Commissions and there is no evidence to suggest that the government wants to upset employers who discriminate.
Who will be appointed to run the CEHR is absolutely crucial, too. It would be short-sighted to appoint any of the present Board members from the existing Commissions who might bring vested interests and carry baggage that the new body does not need. What it needs are independent people who will take decisive enforcement action, even against the government. This is in contrast to what happens now as commissioners tend to do what the government ministers want them to do. (For instance, no government department has ever been served any non-compliance notices by the CRE! Nor has any university or higher education institution.) Representatives of the CEHR should also reflect the ethnic diversity of the population and the various other interest groups for whom the CEHR should be providing protection to ensure that they can have equality and fair treatment in their everyday life.
Recently, as the Bill completed its journey through the House of Commons, some stakeholders and race equality activists, led by Lee Jasper, the CRE, and Black and Asian MPs, argued for a Race Committee along the same lines, as specified in the Bill, for a Disability Committee. However, the government rejected this proposal, offering instead follow-up meetings with those people most vociferous in arguing for amendments to the Bill.
It now seems that the only way that the new CEHR can be credible in the eyes of those people who are victims of racism is for a truly independent set of Commissioners to be appointed; for the government to provide an adequate annual budget but not interfere in any way in its running, so that it would be accountable directly to parliament; for Commissioners to reflect diversity and stakeholders’ interest to ensure widest representation; and for enforcement to be given the highest priority in the CEHR’s work.
There is no point in having legislation and not enforcing it. Equality cannot be achieved without struggle and those who are in a struggle need help to overcome injustices. There can be no justice without equality.