The government have confirmed the abolishment of the CRE and its replacement with the umbrella body, Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) which begs the question will the new commission do a better job fronting the campaign for racial equality or become another unpromising whitewash organisation?
When the CRE was first established under the Race Relations Act 1976, blurry visions of racial equality and social justice shifted into political focus. It seemed that the new organisation, spearheaded by Trevor Phillips, would champion the rights of ethnic minorities and challenge the supremacy of the white heterosexual males but with powers limited to advising employers and government and making recommendations to public sector bodies the CRE has made limited headway in enforcing equal opportunities. The CRE had become known for Philips’ infamous comments- such as multiculturalism is a catalyst for segregation- than for its progressive steps towards ethnic inclusion. The CRE has even been accused if neglecting the ‘hard-edged issues of urban deprivation and discrimination that fuel such racial tensions’. So of course, it must be of no surprise that the government have planned to scrap the CRE by 2009 but the CRE’s inability to have any significant social impact is not necessarily due to Philip’s bolshy remarks but down to political muscle. The CRE, despite being formed under government legislation, has as much clout as the European parliament. The British government formed an inactive talking shop with sufficient freedom to discuss the problems but not an adequate amount to enforce any possible solutions. Chatter and tea as opposed to Red Bull and resolutions. Is this a valid reason for institutional change? Most certainly. A little more power would go along way to enabling the CRE to better the opportunities available to ethnic minorities and to talking racial discrimination but this is far from the opinion of the government. After two years of round-the-table discussions the government created the Single Equality Act (SEA) 2006 in which the CEHR was theoretically formed- a super organisation that centralises the powers of the CRE, the disability commission and encompasses the fight against discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, age, religion and gender. Such an expert-filled independent body may seem credible- the banding together of resources to contest multifaceted prejudices but that is exactly what was said of the welfare state some 61 years ago before the substandard education system and a deteriorating health service.
Black rights campaigners are somewhat suspicious of the CEHR as in the aftermath of the passing of the SEA the government decided upon a 3 year opt out for the race body and admitted to the unlikelihood of their being any black commissioners in the race body. When the CRE morphs into the CEHR it could become another gentlemen’s club for (the interests of) ‘white heterosexual males’- a move that will only serve to increase the distance between ethnic communities and public bodies and a move that will ensure that such communities are overlooked in the political arena. Reassuring words and sympathetic smiles are not enough to encourage faith in the new organisation among black and Asian communities. If the CRE has so few powers but yet exists within its own right what hope is there for the campaign for racial equality in the CEHR which has just as much power but no guarantee that it will consist of a sufficient number of black representatives? It seems that the fate of ethnic minorities may fade into the political abyss. Rather than strengthening the campaign, the CEHR could be a political move to sweep it under the societal carpet and replace it with a vague and abstract view to protect human rights.
After reading the SEA one discovers two things: 1) there is very little on any of the aforementioned prejudices and 2) a significant proportion of what the CEHR does is make plans- plans for change, plans to prioritise other plans, plans to review plans for change and the odd investigation into companies displaying signs of racial unfairness. The CRE, in spite of the stigma attached to it, is the nerve centre of black political action yet the CEHR will become the all-encompassing base for the promotion of human rights but will the multidimensional organisation be able to multitask or will some activities be given precedence over the race body? It may be R.I.P CRE but this does not apply to race. If race exists then so should a body to fight for its equality; if individuals are discriminated against because of their faiths then an organisation should exist to combat it. Blanket legislation cannot adequately address the needs of such varied groups. Policies must be tailored to needs of each group. Now would be as good a time as any for politicians to make an effort to sit up and listen to the disillusioned groups they are meant to be legislating for.