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One big equality mush

Britain's black communities don't trust a single super-quango to defend their rights. Will New Labour listen?

Karen Chouhan
Tuesday November 30, 2004
The Guardian


Plans for an equalities super-quango, announced in the Queen's speech, were overshadowed by a focus on terrorism and ID cards. Ironic that these potentially discriminatory measures are being proposed at the same time as a promise to get rid of discrimination.

Proposals for a single body to deal with all equality issues have already been overwhelmingly rejected by black communities and many others concerned with equality issues, but ministers intend to plough ahead regardless. The merger of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, age, religion and human rights into one big "equalities mush" - the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR) - comes at a time when overt racism appears to be on the rise; when stop and searches of Asians under anti-terrorist laws are at shocking levels; and when the British National party's rise has been accompanied by rocketing levels of racial attacks, especially on Muslims. The government hopes that there will be an "economy of scale" with one combined administration. But, given that they have refused to give any meaningful commitment on funding, they are likely to create seven competing equalities lobbies battling it out for a meagre pot of money. The CRE is already reducing its case workload, which, at fewer than 100 cases per year, is a mere drop in the ocean of all the discrimination claims it receives. And yet support for individual cases was the biggest single concern of black communities in the government's consultation that preceded the merger decision.

There is a clear need for a body that understands the dynamics of racism and has the powers to do something about it. The CRE has rarely been popular, or particularly effective, but it is by far the most influential organisation in putting race issues on the national agenda, offering a minority perspective which rarely makes it into the media. Reform (not abolition) is the answer, with strengthened powers, more resources for casework, ring-fenced funding for race equality councils, more independence from the Home Office, and much more engagement with black communities.

The CRE chair, Trevor Phillips, began as a lukewarm supporter of the government's plans. In July he came out against the CEHR as "the wrong proposal and the wrong time". Following last-minute concessions, we wait to see what the CRE will do now. The view of black communi ties has remained consistent. Along with Operation Black Vote and the National Assembly Against Racism, the 1990 Trust undertook a nationwide ethnic-minority consultation and found that most black people believe that race equality has even less chance of being delivered by a body with divided priorities. The CEHR project has sprung from New Labour ideology, which argues that we have multiple identities. To some extent this is true, but it ignores the fact that some identities are more defining than others.

Consider that unemployment for black and Asian people is two and half times greater than that for whites, and the position has got worse for British-born descendants of migrants. Over 50% of Pakistani and Bangladeshi households, and one-third of black Caribbean, are in the 10% most deprived wards in England. Consider also that black African Caribbean people are six times more likely to be stopped and searched than white people, and that racially or religiously aggravated wounding increased 26% in 2002/3. The original government taskforce set up to advise on the content of the white paper had no minority representatives for race issues. This does not bode well for confidence in the new body among those whose interests it is supposed to represent. Like it or not, black communities would prefer race discrimination to be tackled by people who look like them, and have some understanding of their experiences, history and culture.

Labour's thinking has led to the misguided notion that what's good for one group in society must be good for the other. It is frustrating that the CRE, which struggled with limited powers and against a hostile Conservative government for the first two decades of its existence, should face the axe under New Labour, just as it is getting to grips with new powers - in the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 - to monitor 43,000 public authorities on their delivery of equality. We are not opposed to an integrated approach, but this should be achieved through targeted commissions in the six equality areas and a free-standing human rights commission, which collaborate together.

To address race equality in Britain we need more specific attention to race, not a dilution of focus. There needs to be a sustained and extensive black-led consultation with communities on the future for race equality, bringing together the DTI and any other government departments' initiatives on race - particularly concerning education, health, criminal justice and immigration. And politicians need to act on the results of these consultations, rather than cherry-pick what they want to hear. Is such a community-led, strategic approach to race equality really too much to ask for?

· Karen Chouhan is chief executive of the 1990 Trust