Some will be more equal than others in proposed anti-discrimination body

As the possibility of a single equality body grows ever more
likely, it is becoming clear that some may have more to gain than
others from its creation.

The proposal to unify the race, sex and disability commissions was
made by minister for women Barbara Roche last year as part of the
“most significant review of equality in over a quarter of a

It would cover the UK and include three new strands – sexual
orientation, religious belief and age – to account for new European
Union directives on employment. By 2004, discrimination in
employment on the grounds of religious belief and sexual
orientation will be illegal. The age directive comes into force in

The general response of the organisations affected by the
establishment of a single body can be summed up as a cautious
welcome. Despite acknowledging that it is a good idea in principle,
serious concerns remain over how it may affect some of those

With less than three years’ experience, the Disability Rights
Commission worries it has not had time to develop its expertise.
Consequently, it is concerned the focus on disability might be lost
within a single equality body, as it would have to jostle for
position against the longer-established Equal Opportunities
Commission and Commission for Racial Equality.

Nick O’Brien, director of legal services at the DRC, says his
organisation would only support the change if the new set-up is
structured as an umbrella body within which separate commissions
would operate. These would share resources but have their own
committees and executive powers. Such a model would, he argues,
protect the expertise of each strand.

He adds that research in Northern Ireland, which has had a single
equality commission since 1999, shows the focus on disability has
been lost. “There are fears that this could happen here. The
legislation is still new compared with that for race and gender
and, until it has time to bite, we are anxious that it won’t get
disability on the map,” he says.

But, if the DRC feels vulnerable, those working to eliminate
discrimination in relation to sexual orientation, religious belief
and age are at an even bigger disadvantage.

On one hand, they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from
the creation of a single body as no laws exist at the moment to
protect people against discrimination on these grounds.

But it may also prove a problem for them to develop their expertise
as they will be starting from scratch.

Tessa Harding, head of policy at Help the Aged, says she
understands these concerns but points out the model the DRC favours
– in which there would be a series of mini commissions – leaves no
place for the new areas to be developed.

For Sacha Deshmukh, director of parliamentary affairs at gay rights
charity Stonewall, such a structure may also prove a problem for
people who face discrimination on more than one level as they
“would fall between different stalls”.

Both Harding and Deshmukh agree the government needs to do more to
raise awareness of the new EU directives. Although arbitration
service Acas has drawn up some guidance for employers on how to
interpret the law when it comes in, no work has been done to
prepare the public. As a result, those suffering these forms of
discrimination in the workplace will be unaware of their rights
under the new laws.

“There are no organisations that are an equivalent of a commission
to deal with the law changes,” Harding says. “We need something in
the interim. We need to be bringing people up to speed before the
new law comes in. There will be a lot for employers to do and a lot
of awareness-raising for the public. Something needs to be done
before 2006.

“At the moment, non-governmental organisations are trying to fill
the gap. But we are not set up or equipped to do that. That’s not
our function. We need a targeted effort.”

The winners in all this, then, would appear to be the more
well-established anti-discrimination watchdogs: the commissions for
race and equal opportunities, which have been around since the
first anti-discrimination legislation was introduced in the

Meeting the needs of each commission within one structure,
providing a coherent approach to equality while retaining the
expertise of each, will undoubtedly prove a challenge. However, the
co-operation between the organisations involved should help.
Regular meetings between the interested parties have been held as
part of the Equality and Diversity Forum, chaired by Sarah Spencer
of the Institute for Public Policy Research.

The group’s discussions have focused on how to progress with the
single body. And despite differing opinions on some issues, there
is one thing on which they all agree: the new organisation should
be underpinned by a single equality act that levels up the law.

As it stands, anti-discrimination law is made up of different
pieces of legislation. The CRE is again in the strongest position.
Since the Race Relations Amendment Act 2000, all public services
have had a positive duty to promote anti-discrimination on racial
grounds. The other groups want to see this duty extended to all
other areas of discrimination. The new strands are the weakest, as
they apply only to employment.

Harding says: “At the moment there is a patchwork of legislation.
It’s confusing. The other side is that we want a single message
about what is and is not discriminatory. That would make it much
easier. At the moment it is a minefield.”

The omission of any mention of changing the legal framework in the
consultation paper issued by the government, Equality and
Diversity: Making it Happen, has been criticised by the DRC. A
single equality bill piloted by Lord Lester has had its second
reading but few expect it will make it on to the statute

In its response to the government consultation, which ended last
month, the DRC says it is “deeply disappointing” that the document
leaves out any mention of changing the law.

Although there is agreement that it would be feasible to have a
unified body without the backing of a single equality act,
commissions and organisations connected to the three new strands
believe such a law would be desirable. According to Harding, the
Northern Ireland equality commission operates without a single act,
but its chief executive has indicated that it would be preferable
to have one in place.

O’Brien adds that the body will be “significantly weakened” if it
is not underpinned by such an act, putting each of the strands on
an equal footing. “It is fair to say that the government
spokespeople haven’t given any grounds for optimism that it will
come in before the single equality body and we have expressed
regret about that. It should be a precursor to the new body.”

Without a change in the law, it seems inevitable that some partners
will be more equal than others. Undoubtedly, this will lead to the
hierarchy of discrimination issues, already feared by many. More
resources could be directed to issues such as race, which has a
strong legal standing, to the detriment of the newer strands.

Some might feel that three years to tackle the issues around the
setting up of a single body is ample. But the DRC fears that, to
meet the 2006 launch, the body might have to be “rushed

O’Brien warns: “It is dangerous to underestimate the time it takes
to do this. We have three different commissions which are at
different stages plus the three new strands to get onstream.”

The government will publish its response to the consultation in the
spring, but it will focus only on reactions to the principle of a
single body. It will then launch another consultation to gauge
opinions on how it should be structured.

“It will be 2004 before anyone even has a clear idea of what the
single equality body may look like,” O’Brien says.

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