The new big fish

Liberte, egalite, fraternite. The 18th century French
revolutionists’ rally cry has taken a modern twist in today’s
Britain with the publication last month of proposals for a new
single equality body to swallow up the Equal Opportunities
Commission, the Commission for Racial Equality and the Disability
Rights Commission (news, page 16, 20 May).1

The white paper says a new Commission for Equality and Human Rights
(CEHR) can build on the “excellent foundation” laid by the three
existing commissions – the first of which was established 30 years
ago. The document says: “A change in how we promote, enforce and
deliver equality and human rights is now necessary if we are to
achieve the prosperous and cohesive society we seek.”

The Equal Opportunities Commission is one of several organisations
supporting the creation of a new equality body. Chair Julie Mellor
says many people no longer relate to an equality agenda that
appears to be focused on certain groups. “An older black woman who
is passed over for promotion at work or a gay, disabled man facing
harassment want a fair chance in life, not a debate about what
forms of discrimination they face,” she says.

The parliamentary joint committee on human rights (JCHR) also
lobbied for a new organisation in its March 2003 report. Last
month, it detailed the functions, powers and structures it wanted
the CEHR to have from a human rights perspective.2

As well as taking on the powers of the existing bodies, it is
proposed that the CEHR will have expanded powers and duties,

  • A new duty to consult stakeholders on its strategic plans.
  • A presence in England’s nine regions in order to promote
    tailored delivery of the commission’s work, including a Scottish
    and a Welsh commissioner on its board.
  • Powers to promote human rights, including powers to undertake
    general inquiries and to intervene as a third party.
  • Powers to promote good practice and enforce the law in the new
    areas of discrimination legislation covering sexual orientation,
    age and belief or religion.

While the many aims of the CEHR are laudable, is the commission
necessary? Jenny Watson, an independent human rights consultant,
says a single commission will be able to raise awareness of the
respect and dignity due to all human beings. “Equality on its own
cannot deliver, but equality and human rights can because human
rights is the glue that holds it all together.”

Additionally, public bodies cannot go to one statutory organisation
for all the information and advice they need on human rights, she

A disability committee will be established as part of the CEHR, a
move welcomed by Nick O’Brien, director of legal services and
operations at the Disability Rights Commission. He says: “It will
be essential that this proposal is backed by sufficient resources
to secure an effective disability unit capable of embedding the
existing and planned legislation on disability rights.”

However, the fact that disability will have its own committee but
human rights and race will not has raised concerns that a hierarchy
of discrimination issues will be created. Katherine Rake, director
of equality campaigning group the Fawcett Society, believes this
depends on the CEHR’s leadership. “The risks are, unless we are
clear about how voices of people from different communities are
heard, there will be a perception of a pecking order.”

She supports the new gender duty on public bodies because current
legislation has “run into the sand” on this issue and this hands
back the responsibility to public authorities.

The three existing equality commissions are all large, established
agencies with separate budgets. Is there a chance that bringing
them together will make the new organisation unwieldy and result in
it becoming a talking shop? Local Government Association equalities
executive chair Laura Willoughby says there is no reason why this
should be the case. “When working on cross-cutting equalities
issues a single body is likely to be easier to work with than three

The Commission for Racial Equality was reluctant to discuss the
white paper last week. But it does welcome in principle a single
body that can create a strategic approach to equality and human
rights issues.

A significant departure for the new commission will be its ability
to intervene in court cases covering both equality and human
rights. Although the CEHR will only have powers to support
discrimination cases, it will be able to present human rights
arguments in discrimination cases. The government has so far not
proposed giving the new commission powers to support cases brought
under the Human Rights Act 1998.

Mellor says the CEHR should be able to continue to support cases
containing both human rights and equality issues if the
discrimination part of the case falls away. “It would be unfair to
an individual taking a claim in these circumstances if the CEHR has
to withdraw its support halfway through.”

The DRC supports funding stand-alone human rights cases that
contain a disability element and is disappointed the white paper
does not envisage enforcement powers on human rights at all, says

Although the proposed CEHR has the overwhelming support of equality
campaigners, the government’s refusal to simplify equality
legislation has not. Harmonising equality legislation that is
spread over several acts – including the Disability Discrimination
Act 1995 and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 – would
doubtless make integrating the three commissions much easier.

Many, including the Fawcett Society and the Local Government
Association, support the idea of a new equalities act. As
Willoughby says: “A single equality body will not be as effective
as it could be while it operates within the framework of the
current patchwork of equalities legislation.”

Fairness for All: A New
Commission for Equality and Human Rights
, Department of Trade
and Industry, 2004

Commission for Equality and Human Rights:
Structure, Functions and Power
, House of Lords and House of
Commons joint committee on human rights, 2004

The human dimension   

In October 2003 the government announced its intention to create
a single equality body as a result of its consultation the year

The new organisation will challenge discrimination, promote
equality and, for the first time, provide what Tony Blair describes
as “institutional support” for human rights.  It will also take on
responsibility for new laws banning discrimination on age, belief
or religion and sexual identity in the workplace. Public bodies
will have a duty to promote equality of opportunity between women
and men and make public services more responsive to needs.  
Establishing the Commission for Equality and Human Rights will
require primary legislation. Once a bill has been before parliament
a shadow commission will be created with a shadow board, chair and
three transition commissioners, each nominated by chairs of the
existing commissions. The live CEHR is expected to be launched in
2006.  Its core functions will be to: 

  • Encourage awareness and good practice on equality and
  • Promote awareness and understanding of human rights. 
  • Promote equality of opportunity between people from different
    groups protected by discrimination law. 
  • Work towards eliminating unlawful discrimination and
  • Promote good relations among different communities, and between
    these communities and wider society. 
  • Keep legislation under review. 
  • Be a centre of expertise on equality and human rights. 

Equality and
Diversity: Making it Happen
, Department of Trade and Industry,

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