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,
    including:

    • 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
    says.

    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
    commissions.”

    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
    O’Brien.

    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.”

    1
    Fairness for All: A New
    Commission for Equality and Human Rights
    , Department of Trade
    and Industry, 2004

    2
    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
    before.

    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
      diversity. 
    • 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
      harassment. 
    • 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. 

    1
    Equality and
    Diversity: Making it Happen
    , Department of Trade and Industry,
    2002

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