The Commission for Equality and Human Rights: mesh or mess?

Rumours that the first task of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) will be to re-brand itself as the EHRC remain, like so many other questions regarding the new organisation, unconfirmed.

Yet with less than a week to go before the super-quango opens its doors – replacing the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) – sceptics have warned that the internal wrangling over where the ‘c’ word should go are only the beginning.

Nick Johnson, director of policy at the CRE, believes that whatever name it takes, the new body headed by Trevor Phillips will begin life with “significant weaknesses” in terms of its ability to tackle the root causes of racial discrimination.

Doubts

Like 50% of CRE staff, Johnson has chosen not to take up a position with the CEHR, citing what he described as “philosophical reasons”. He said that while the new commission’s legal powers were “sound”, doubts persisted as to whether there was an appetite for tackling subtle problems such as social cohesion.

He also lambasted the CEHR’s apparent shyness. “The lack of engagement [with employers] during this critical transition period is a serious worry, particularly as [the commission] has had so much time to get its act together. There is no excuse for the fact that none of us actually know yet what the CEHR will be doing,” he said.

Despite question marks over Phillips’ credentials to head up the CEHR, Johnson remains loyal to his old boss. “Trevor has been accused of relying on soundbites, but he is an inspirational leader who will give the new organisation a political position and a profile,” he said.

Dangers

Commentators agree that the establishment of a single body to tackle the six separate strands of discrimination – gender, race, disability, age, faith and sexual orientation – has logic behind it. However, Johnson sided with the cynics who have argued that by amalgamating three commissions into one, it will be easier for a future government to abolish the whole thing.

A contrary view comes from Agnes Fletcher, director of policy at the DRC. Although she has chosen, for “professional reasons”, not to join the two-thirds of DRC staff who will be claiming desks at the CEHR, she was more charitable than Johnson about its intentions.

“Now is the right time to adopt a multi-strand approach to equality and, unlike critics of the commission, I wouldn’t expect such a complex body to offer much clarity regarding their priorities until well into next year,” she said.

“The DRC believes there is great potential to view discrimination issues ‘in the round’ and accept the premise that many people face inequality on more than one level. But we will, of course, be watching closely to see what the new commission’s priorities actually are,” she added.

Fletcher said the DRC had secured two guarantees from the new commission that will keep disability issues at the forefront of public awareness.

“One is that we have a statutory disability committee for the first five years of the CEHR’s life, the other is that we get a disabled commissioner,” she said.

“Both these victories suggest that even if the commission does turn out to be ineffective, the gains that we have made in the past seven years will not be reversed.”

However, Johnson and Fletcher agreed that in-fighting is inevitable as the six separate strands of discrimination fight for prominence. “There will undoubtedly be tensions, as well as a lot of jockeying for position, in terms of the legal cases the commission chooses to champion,” Johnson said.

The three newer discrimination strands might feel they deserve more attention than the other issues that have achieved progress via their separate commissions. Fletcher said that such a rebalancing was right and proper, adding that the new areas needed to catch up and “get a decent slice of the pie”.

Jenny Watson, outgoing chair of the EOC, said there was a huge amount of expectation about what the CEHR could deliver for employers, who might have close relationships with the existing bodies.

“The CEHR will need to fill that gap,” she said. “Building relationships will be critical and it needs to engage with the community of employers and service providers.”

Proactive

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, said the CEHR needed to be “proactive and progressive” from day one, and stay closely in touch with the business community.

“Although the law is a driver, the attitude of employers to diversity is vital,” she said. “We want the new commission to offer businesses pointers and tips about what they are doing right, as well as what they are doing wrong, and to give them genuine guidance on diversity.”

CEHR FACTS AND FIGURES

  • Brought into being by the Equality Act 2006
  • Official launch: 1 October 2007
  • Chair: Trevor Phillips
  • Deputy chair: Baroness Margaret Prosser
  • Proposed annual budget: £70m
  • Board will have a minimum of 10 and a maximum of 15 members, including a commissioner for Wales and Scotland and at least one commissioner who is or has been disabled.

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