Q&A with the Commission for Racial Equality

CRE chief operating officer and director of organisational development Maxine Ayton answers our questions.

What are the CRE’s main achievements?
This year we celebrate 30 years of the CRE. Since we opened our doors back in 1976 much has changed. We have seen the introduction and strengthening of legislation against racial discrimination in Britain. The scope of the law has expanded to include employment, housing and service providers, and public authorities now have a positive responsibility to promote racial equality.

We have brought issues around race relations to the fore with debates about the roles of multiculturalism, integration and Britishness. In light of increasing migration we see this as an important agenda, where it is recognised that settled communities accept migrants will bring change.

Newcomers realise that they too will have to change if we are all to enjoy a healthy and cohesive society. Without a debate about how we can make this work, this is only a pipedream.

Has the CRE lived up to its own expectations?
We have to put into perspective the levels of discrimination back in the 1970s and compare it to modern day Britain.

Overt discrimination is all but stamped out and what we are now dealing with is “covert” discrimination. As part of our regulatory role we are constantly urging public authorities and indeed Whitehall departments to use tools such as the race equality impact assessments to produce well thought out policies and legislations that avoid discrimination.

We work closely with the private sector to emphasise the benefits of the race equality duty, even though it is not obligated like the public sector.

We offer advice and guidance to support our statutory codes, like those on employment and housing so the private sector is aware of how regulations affect them and the business benefits to be gained.

What has hindered your progress?
We don’t see issues as hindering us. We are not afraid to tackle the issues that others step around. But the landscape is constantly changing and you have to be creative and open-minded in order to find the roots of problems before you can find solutions.

Countries are looking to Britain’s race industry for lessons on how to improve their societies. In terms of our understanding of race issues we are light years ahead of other first world countries – this is as a direct result of the proactive thinking on race.

Has the CRE fundamentally failed in its duty because it has not successfully promoted the Race Relations (Amendment) Act’s duty on public authorities to promote race equality?
As recognition of the levels of discrimination that continued to be found in public authority services, the CRE lobbied to strengthen legislation by amendments to the Race Relations Act 1976. This resulted in the introduction of what is now known as the general duty – Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000.

The Commission for Racial Equality aims for a responsible and effective approach to enforcement of the Race Relations Act by attempting to resolve issues before taking costly legal action.

As a result of taking forward individual cases just this year alone we have secured compensation on behalf of our clients of about one million pounds. All those who approach us are given legal advice and assistance as far as possible.

We also fund grassroots organisations that provide legal advice, assistance and conciliation services on the ground up and down the country, to the tune of four million pounds. But those who experience discrimination in their daily lives remain our priority.

As the guardians of the Race Relations Act, the CRE uses race equality impact assessments as a way of systematically and thoroughly assessing and consulting on the effects of a proposed policy in respect of race equality.

We have discovered through our monitoring exercises that 15 Whitehall departments have been unsatisfactory in complying with their duty. We are currently in correspondence with them to resolve these issues and will use legal action if necessary.

Our findings have indicated that this lack of compliance can have a detrimental effect upon communities.

In most cases organisations respond to our warnings when we notify them that they are potentially breaching the act which is the first part of the enforcement process.

What areas does the CRE still need to work on?
Although we have achieved a lot in the past 30 years, there is still much to be done. Race still needs to be at the top of everyone’s agenda. For example, we are still finding that gypsy and traveller communities are victims of blatant forms of discrimination.

Migration also presents us with challenges, especially in the public sector which is trying to find the balance between providing services to people in established communities with the needs of people who have just arrived in the country.

There are also challenges for the private sector which needs to fill the skills gaps in the workforce while trying to strike the right balance with economic migrants and existing workers.

What we are seeing nowadays is a situation where people’s faith is becoming an increasing factor of prejudice.

While this is not currently covered by the Race Relations Act there is now more of an emphasis upon how faith and identity can play a role in society and is the basis of how an individual is accepted in their local community.

In order to understand our differences we need to be in a situation where we feel confident in coming together and finding out about each other. This is why community relations play a vital part in ensuring that people are involved and supported particularly when dealing with local tensions. 

What can the CRE do to ensure that when it merges into the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights in 2009, race doesn’t fall off the agenda?
We have already said the landscape has changed due to global events, migration and religious identity challenges. But to add to the mix we have recently seen the establishment of the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Commission on Integration and Cohesion with missions to promote equality and integration.

These have opened up the possibility of making real changes for everyone. The CRE is already working alongside the CEHR to ensure that race equality and race discrimination is given full consideration like the other strands.

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