The Equality and Human Rights Commission six months on

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) celebrates its six-month anniversary this week with the launch of a softly-softly awareness campaign on YouTube.

‘Equally Different’ will feature a series of clips showing people, including fashion journalist Gok Wan, celebrating their own uniqueness. It may be a small step in the right direction, but there is palpable impatience for more action from the much-heralded equality watchdog.

Between two stools

Launched in October to replace the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC), the Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), the EHRC was given an £70m-per-year budget to fight inequality. But Andy Rickell, executive director of charity Scope, believes that it is falling between two stools.

“If it wants to build on the gains made by the three legacy commissions, it would be diplomatic to make a show of championing some of the doubtless juicy and winnable cases that were still current when they shut their doors,” he said. “If it wants to adopt a ‘ground zero’ approach, it has to get out there and talk to stakeholders.

“After six months, plus many months of planning beforehand, the lack of either ‘jaw-jaw’ or ‘war-war’ is disappointing.”

Simon Woolley, director of pressure group Operation Black Vote, shares these frustrations.

“I have many reservations about a ‘super’ equality body and, although there are lots of good people involved, I desperately hope it begins to deliver equality sooner rather than later,” he said. “My chief worries are the emphasis on persuasion, not litigation, and the gap between the commission and the people it seeks to serve.”

Unconvincing start

Teething troubles over staffing have been considerable – particularly in the new area of human rights – and after six months, neither the EHRC’s website nor its help­line are at final-version stage. It is clear that much remains to be done to convince the public that the EHRC is alive, let alone kicking.

But Liane Venner, head of membership participation at trade union Unison, said the commission was at a big disadvantage in terms of awareness: “It was clear from the start that representing six strands of discrimination was going to be a huge challenge, particularly when the EOC and CRE were so firmly entrenched in the public consciousness,” she said.

However, she is confident that the Single Equalities Bill, still in the post-consultation stage with a government announcement expected soon, will help.

“By prioritising legislative change, the EHRC is signalling just how significant a force it intends to be,” Venner added.

While the EHRC agrees it will take time to establish itself on the political landscape, it is anxious to counter the impression that its first six months have been lacklustre.

“Putting staff in the right places has been a major issue for us, and although we have yet to launch ourselves with a big fanfare, the helpline is already receiving 5,000 calls per month,” said a spokesman. “We were heavily involved in the Sharon Coleman case [where the advocate-general ruled that as a carer, she suffered disability discrimination by association], we have launched a Human Rights Inquiry, and we have done lots of work on the Single Equality Bill.

“Of course, we need to build more awareness, but our first six months has been the build-up phase. Now that we are in take-off mode, it is our intention to go out and sell ourselves, starting with YouTube and then Facebook.”

Firm foundations

Dianah Worman, diversity adviser to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, believes the decision to spend time creating a strong foundation will be time well spent.

“We certainly need more to be going on, but we also need to bring all employers into the frame if we are to move the diversity agenda on,” she said.

Rachel Krys, director of the Employers Forum on Age, added: “There are some very impressive people inside the commission who are keen to get things done. Employers need grown-up conversations on how age discrimination can be tackled, and we are looking to the EHRC for guidance.”

By Virginia Matthews

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