Head-to-head: Commission for Equality and Human Rights

In October the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) is due to start work, taking over the duties of the Equal Opportunities Commission, the Commission for  Racial Equality and the Disability Rights Commisssion. So what do those in the business community think of the CEHR? More importantly, is it possible for such a vast umbrella organisation to generate effective change within the workplace without alienating employers?

Amanda Jones, head of diversity at the Co-op Group, and Andrea Callender, head of diversity at the BBC, share their views.

Q Is the CEHR a good idea?

Amanda Jones In principle, a one-stop shop that makes life simpler has to be a good thing. But whether it’s a good idea in practice still needs to be established. They have had a significant degree of input from a wide variety of bodies, so are heading in the right direction, but really only time will tell on this one.

Andrea Callender It’s a natural, logical step. From an employer’s point of view, anything that makes it easier to access information and support makes sense. Plus, in some ways it’s what business wants as many of the conversations within organisations are increasingly about adopting this kind of all-encompassing approach anyway.

Q What are the main difficulties facing the CEHR?

Amanda Jones One of the main challenges will be recognising and understanding the diversity of the employers it will be dealing with. Each one will have a different point of diversity, as each sector of business throws up different challenges. So it will need to recognise the diversity of the groups it deals with and realise that what’s good for one organisation is not necessarily going to be good for another – it depends on size, location, sector and a host of other influences. It is going to be impossibly hard for it to get to grips with those issues.

Andrea Callender It is critical for the CEHR to have an equal focus on the different areas of diversity and equal opportunity to ensure the work that needs to happen actually happens. The strength of the new commission will also partly rely on how much it can draw on the learning curves of the outgoing commissions, who have had huge experience in building relationships with business. Fortunately, it has employed representatives from the outgoing commissions at quite a senior level around the top table who know what they’re doing. It is quite a powerful watch group.

Q Is it possible for the CEHR to fully engage with business?

Amanda Jones There’s a huge opportunity to link diversity to strategic, integrated business direction by outlining the advantages it has for products, services and talent. The commission needs to move business into the space of thinking this is not something nice to do but absolutely the right thing for its bottom line – that’s where the vision has to be created. The legislation and the rightness of the issues are a given – it is the business opportunity that has to be stressed.

Andrea Callender Courting business is something it has already been doing and there are some real heavyweight people around the table pushing things in the right direction. So there is every indication that the new commission wants to make real, genuine and extensive progress in this direction. The only way to do this it is to give all sides a chance to have their input in an open, frank discussion on the issues, and I think the commission has the experienced figures to enable this. It has the potential to be a real force for good in the workplace.

Q Is the dual role of regulator and legislator going to cause problems?

Amanda Jones This has been an issue on employer’s agendas since the beginning and we will basically just have to see how it works out. The CEHR needs to find a balance between challenging those organisations that rightly need challenging, versus helping those leading the way or who want to change. It is more than being an educator: it is about making substantive changes to the way we, as a country, can leverage the possibility of people.

Andrea Callender Every regulator I am aware of has struggled with this issue as there’s always the question of where you draw the line. Where does the conversation move beyond having a relationship and enforcement? The CEHR has such a massive remit that it’s only when they start to act that we can say if it has been a success or not.

Q How important is it for the CEHR to move beyond its role of legislator?

Amanda Jones Equality legislation is a foundation stone, whereas diversity is all about creating an atmosphere and culture that allows people to flourish. I’d like to see the CEHR in more of a diversity space as it has the opportunity to step into that role. Personally, I’d like to see it use more of a carrot rather than a stick approach ,as some employers will be passionate about wanting to make it work, while others won’t know anything about the CEHR beyond the legislative issue and will need informing and encouraging.

Andrea Callender Anyone working on diversity and equality in 2007 knows there is a lot of work to be done. So it is a case of focusing on the best way of getting that work done – whatever it takes. In reality this will mean a combination of approaches, as the commission knows there are no 1-2-3 magic steps. The commission has a vital role to play and I’m looking forward to seeing how it will happen and what it means in practice.

Viewpoint

Jonathan Cooper,
Chairman of executive committee,
Human Rights Lawyers Association

People argue the commission is too much of a monolith, but the fact we haven’t had a body looking at human rights issues has caused difficulties. If we’d had one in place in 2000 it would have solved many of the teething problems of the Human Rights Act. The Race Relations Commission, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission all had to start somewhere, and it is only thanks to them we have the current protection we do – however flawed it might be. I believe the commission will do far more and move us towards a much fairer society.

Norman Rose,
Director-general,
Business Services Association

The law is at its best when it’s living, and at present we have half a dozen bits of legislation, some of which date back 30 years. So it’s time we looked at the issues with a 21st century eye, closed any loopholes that exist and promote best practice so employees are made aware of their rights. Employers have to be alert to the fact that things will be different as the commission is looking to modernise the approach to equality and discrimination: business can’t continue to rely on old ideas and will have to both re-skill and re-think.

Dianah Worman,
Adviser for diversity,
CIPD

The commission needs to engage businesses as much as possible and see them as key change agents rather than simply using them as whipping boys. Part of this engagement comes from creating a comfort zone where business can access the information and advice it needs to make progress. Yet, quite rightly, many employers are going to be nervous about approaching a body for advice that also regulates and polices the legislation. They will quite rightly ask: will they jump on my back if I approach them with this issue? It is absolutely crucial for the commission to get this right.

Richard Dodd,
Spokesman,
British Retail Consortium

There are so many bodies being brought together there’s a danger the commission will try to find a purpose and seek to prove itself by increasing legislation and creating an extra burden for business. But we hope this is not the case, and at the moment we believe it’s unlikely. The amalgamation of bodies from three to one should help to simplify the current situation and it really ought to make life simpler than the existing, convoluted situation. With proper co-ordination it should make it far easier for businesses to gain help and expertise and get the guidance they actually need.

About the CEHR

The CEHR describes itself as an “independent, influential champion whose purpose is to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people and protect human rights.”

But when such lofty aims are openly stated, it’s only natural that some will be sceptical. A recent report by the House of Commons communities and local government committee claimed that “indecision, instability and delays” have already undermined the commission before it’s even started work. It also noted “with regret” that an equality Bill was not in the recently published draft legislative programme.

Within the business world, the CEHR aims to do the following:

  • Enforce equality legislation on age, disability and health, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation or transgender status, and encourage compliance with the Human Rights Act 1998.
  • Become a one-stop shop where employers can gain advice on all forms of equality and discrimination matters.
  • Advise on good practice and help businesses avoid costly tribunal cases by promoting awareness of equality issues and good relations.
  • Conduct inquiries and carry out investigations into working practices.
  • Make arrangements for conciliation to assist with disputes.
  • Assist individuals who believe they have been the victims of unlawful discrimination.

CEHR duties

The CEHR gets its powers from the Equality Act 2006 and aims to enforce equality legislation more effectively than ever before. It is charged with regulating the six strands of equality – age, disability, race, religion and belief, gender and sexual orientation – as well as human rights. Among the problems it will have to deal with are:

  • The gender pay gap – currently 12.6%.
  • More than one-third of retired people aged 50-69 believe they were forced to leave their jobs.
  • Indian, Pakistani and Black African women are around four times more likely than white British women to be working as packers, bottlers, canners or sewing machinists.
  • Unemployment rates for Muslims are higher than any other religion.
  • Some 45.5% of long-term disabled and 54.6% of those with work-limiting disabilities are considered economically inactive.

Source: Office for National Statistics

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