Countdown to crisis:
13 July: Gurbux Singh, chairperson of the Commission for Racial
Equality, is arrested outside Lords cricket ground in London for
threatening police officers after a one-day international between
England and India. It is alleged a drunk Singh tried to headbutt a
7 August: Singh pleads guilty to threatening police officers at
Bow Street magistrates court in London, and pays a £500 fine
plus £55 costs. He later resigns from the £120,000-a-year
job, saying: “I deeply regret this entire incident.”
8 August: News that Singh is to receive a pay-off of about
£100,000 is heavily criticised.
9 August: Mashuq Ally, head of the CRE in Wales, resigns amid
claims he behaved inappropriately towards staff. Ally cites “petty
politics within the commission” as among his reasons for
The past few weeks have not been among the Commission for Racial
First, its chairperson Gurbux Singh resigned after pleading guilty
to a public disorder offence. Then days later he was followed by
Mashuq Ally, head of the CRE in Wales, who left amid allegations
that he had behaved inappropriately towards his staff.
Criticisms of the commission have come thick and fast since the
resignations of Singh and Ally, prompting a debate about the future
of the organisation itself.
It has been said that the CRE spends a disproportionate amount of
its £20 million budget on marketing, has become remote and
inaccessible to those it is meant to help and has not been a true
critic of government policy.
To even the most charitable observer it would seem that the future
of the organisation, which this year celebrated its 25th birthday,
now looks uncertain.
This latest run of bad publicity follows an attack earlier this
year by director-general of the prison service Martin Narey. He
criticised the CRE for its slow progress on a report into racism in
It was also reported that about 60 interviews conducted as part of
an investigation into Feltham Young Offenders’ Institution had been
lost, an allegation that the CRE declined to comment on.
For Ronnie Moodley, general secretary of the Refugee and Migrant
Forum, the CRE “lost its track after Sir Herman Ouseley”. Singh’s
predecessor was more interested in finding out what was happening
at grass roots level, he says, adding that, increasingly, “the CRE
has been operating in a vacuum.”
He believes the commission was not as involved in the race and
housing inquiry, which the forum conducted with the National
Housing Federation and Housing Corporation, as it should have
According to Moodley, the inquiry often failed to exploit the
knowledge that local race equality councils had to offer.
But Moodley does not attribute the commission’s failings solely to
the personal qualities of its former leader.
He believes that the CRE should be disbanded and replaced by a
centre for democratic renewal, which he describes as a body that
would combine the interests of all members of society and deal with
all equality issues.
But he adds that if it stays, the CRE should adopt a policy whereby
an older person is appointed on an annual basis as its leader,
preventing problems of political allegiance.
Too often, he says, the head of the CRE allows decisions to be
influenced by the government of the day for fear that to oppose it
would be tantamount to career suicide.
Singh was criticised for being unwilling to voice strong opposition
to Labour policy when people expected it. His slow response to the
government’s stance on asylum seekers, for example, was seen by
many as an occasion on which he toed the party line.
Many people from Asian communities were angered that he focused
solely on issues of segregation after last summer’s riots in
Bradford, Burnley and Oldham.
Some believed his comments that ethnic minorities should make more
of an effort to integrate and learn English ignored the influence
of racist practices in education and employment.
Shajid Hashmi, chief executive of Calderdale Voluntary Action, says
he has met Singh on a number of occasions and the views he
expressed publicly in his capacity as chair of the CRE were not the
same as those he held privately.
“I think the way Singh was talking he was trying to please his
salary payers,” he says.
He adds: “Anyone who takes on the job will have to do that because
you wouldn’t want to bite the hand that feeds you.”
Like Moodley, Hashmi believes that the CRE has lost touch with what
is happening locally.
“It’s interesting that in the three places where the riots happened
they had got rid of their race equality councils,” he says.
In Calderdale, West Yorkshire, it looks likely that the race
equality council (REC) may be phased out as well (race equality
councils are local bodies funded in the main by the CRE). If that
happens, says Hashmi, people who have been victims of racial
harassment or are frustrated about race issues will have to
undertake a 45-minute train journey to Manchester or Leeds to one
of the main CRE offices to make a complaint.
However, Sharmila Gandhi, chief executive of Bradford Vision, the
city’s local strategic partnership, points out the community
cohesion agenda has moved beyond looking at equality issues
Community cohesion, she says, is not just about race relations but
a whole host of equality issues, such as gender and age.
In the current climate the local REC does seem outdated and at odds
with contemporary thinking and work being done on community
relations as a whole.
This, more than any adverse publicity about the CRE, looks likely
to be the reason for its demise. Through the community cohesion
agenda, communities are increasingly encouraged to tackle problems
of discrimination in an integrated way.
The government looks set to combine the functions of all the
discrimination watchdogs with the proposed creation of a single
In May, the government announced a Cabinet Office project to
consider possible models for a single equality body, which would be
responsible for enforcing a single equality act. The act, which is
still at bill stage, would remove inconsistencies between current
Gandhi is in favour of such an organisation because it would
“integrate all equality issues and provide a more holistic approach
to tackling them”.
Even those who believe the CRE is doing a good job, such as Dr
Cyriac Maprayil, director of Tower Hamlets race equality council in
London, believe that a single equalities commission would have much
to offer, provided that it is properly co-ordinated and
The CRE itself has voiced support for a single commission on the
condition that the priorities of tackling racial discrimination are
Seamus Taylor, director of strategy and delivery at the CRE, says:
“There should be provision for an integrated approach but a single
commission should still have specialists within each field, such as
race and disability.”
Taylor adds that it is important that any new body has a commitment
to community cohesion. “The CRE is the only one of the commissions
that has a public duty under the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000
to promote good relations between members of society,” says
Details on how the commission will be structured and operated are
at this stage sketchy, as it is unlikely to come into being before
2006 when a set of European directives come into force that will
make it unlawful to discriminate in employment on the grounds of
sexual orientation, religion and age.
Despite this, it seems likely that government will probably
replicate the model for a single equality commission introduced in
Northern Ireland in 1999. However, that has not been a completely
smooth transition with many disabled groups voicing concerns that
disability issues have fallen off the agenda since the commission’s
The CRE will have to work hard over the next four years to restore
its tarnished image.
But for whoever the Home Office appoints to replace Singh – the
commission’s acting chair is Beverley Bernard – this will be an
unenviable task. Even if the commission manages to ride out the
current storm, it is, with the planned single equalities commission
a certainty, doomed.