The trade union movement is planning to play a major role in the new single equality body – the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) – when it comes into being next year.
The TUC is currently negotiating with the government about £5m worth of funding to build up its network of equality representatives, who are expected to play a key role in promoting diversity and equality under the new system.
The CEHR, which was part of the 2006 Equality Act, will go live in October 2007, drawing together all the existing equality bodies – the Disability Rights Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities Commission – into one single authority.
At a local level the government is hoping to draw on the experience of unions, and employers, to build a strong regional presence across the country.
The CEHR transition team is consulting with employers, unions, diversity experts and the charity sector about developing a regional framework and looking at how it will function around the UK, with the most likely outcome being local offices that will provide advice and offer guidance on best practice.
Kevin Rowan, regional secretary of the Northern TUC, said this new structure would play a vital role in the CEHR because the challenges facing each part of the country are so different.
“Every part of the country faces unique challenges on equality, so the government has decided to give the new body a number of regional boards,” he told a TUC seminar in Newcastle.
Rowan wants the unions to be highly involved at local level, especially when it comes to guarding against discrimination and reporting on the situation at the front line.
“We hope that a regional trade union equalities strategy will emerge, which will identify the key economic and social policy areas where unions can make a genuine difference in helping to make the area a more equal, fair and tolerant place to live and work,” he said.
The CEHR regional offices will probably be made up of a board of local commissioners, each with a different speciality, to help avoid a ‘hierarchy of equalities’.
Barbara Roche, the former minister for women and one of the major architects of the CEHR, said the government must get things right at a local level to make it successful. “If the new body is just seen as something that is exactly the same as what has gone before or a totally London-centric body it will fail,” she said.
“It must have a very strong regional approach because there are very different experiences right across the country. The South West, for example is very different from the North East or the Midlands.”
Sarah Veale, head of the equality and employment rights at the TUC, believes that pooled resources and shared expertise will help make the CEHR a success, but admits that more equality reps need to be recruited.
“It’s rare that people are discriminated against in just one way and it usually involves several strands. That’s why the CEHR will be able to combat workplace discrimination more effectively. Equality reps are going to represent one of the biggest developments for the trade unions. We need to make sure they work well and deliver,” she added.