The concept for a single equality body tackling all discrimination was first raised in the May 2004 white paper Fairness for All. The following November the Queen’s Speech announced an Equality Bill and plans to establish a single equality body called the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR). It will replace the three main organisations currently responsible for tackling discrimination, be it on the basis of disability, gender and race. These are the Disability Rights Commission (DRC), the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).
The Equality Bill was published in March 2005 but ran out of parliamentary time before being reintroduced after the general election in May. It proposes making unlawful discrimination on the grounds of religion or belief in the provision of goods, facilities, services, premises, education and the exercise of public functions.
Having been through the House of Commons the Equality Bill is now progressing through the House of Lords and is expected to be at the report stage on 19 and 24 October, before having its third reading.
The Equality Bill set out the duties and the powers of the CEHR. The body’s 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
Initially the CEHR was expected to be created by the end of 2006 but now looks set to be established in October 2007. It will cover all areas of discrimination except those for which the CRE is responsible. These areas will remain with the CRE until April 2009, when the CRE’s responsibilities will transfer to the CEHR.
The new single equality body’s development will be informed by the work of the government’s equalities review into understanding of the long-term causes of disadvantage, being led by CRE chair Trevor Phillips. This review will also feed into the Department of Transport and Industry’s work on simplifying and modernising equality legislation as a move towards having a single Equality Act. The review will report to the prime minister next summer.
One significant difference 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. So far the government has not proposed giving the CEHR powers to support cases brought under the Human Rights Act 1998.
Reaction to having a single equality body has been mixed. While many have welcomed the idea of having just one body to tackle all discrimination, there is concern that its powers will be watered down in comparison with those of the existing discrimination bodies. The thinking behind it has also been strongly criticised as being unachievable unless a single Equality Act is also introduced – a point the government seems to have taken on board.
The CRE has been the most vocal opponent, saying that the plan for a single body was the wrong idea at the wrong time.
Bert Massie, chair of the DRC, said disabled people needed to feel confident that the CEHR and the government “have a clear sense of what still needs to be done to improve disabled people’s lives and how they might achieve it”.