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Equality Watchdog Ditches Race Experts

Posted on the 02 November 2012 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

Equality watchdog ditches race expertsTwo key race equality experts look set to be ditched by the quango responsible for upholding anti-racism laws. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) appear set not to renew the appointments of Simon Woolley and Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece as board commissioners.

The decision by the equality watchdog to axe the only two commissioners with a background in fighting racism will be seen as yet another signal that the EHRC is dumbing down and shirking its’ role to ensure all 40,000 public authorities promote race equality and combat discrimination.

Woolley, who is also head of the campaign organisation Operation Black Vote, is known to have protested about the disproportionate impact of budget cuts on the organisation’s Black staff behind closed doors as it dramatically downsizes after the Home Office imposed savage reductions in its’ grant.

Lady Hussein-Ece, who used to lead the Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats, also has a lifelong record of campaigning for better race relations. Together the removal of the pair from the commission’s board represents a purging of expertise on race equality.

The commissioners hoped that the Government would renew their terms after an internal assessment praised their performances but yesterday the deadline for interviews expired without any contact.

Hugh Muir, a Guardian journalist, writes:

Ministers are facing criticism after the apparent removal of the only black and sole Muslim member of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission from their posts, heightening fears that the coalition will place less emphasis on fighting discrimination.

Leading commissioners Simon Woolley and Lady Meral Hussein-Ece have discovered that their contracts as commissioners will not be renewed when they expire in December. Though both commissioners were invited to reapply for further terms by Lynne Featherstone, equalities minister before the reshuffle, neither has been shortlisted or called for interview.

There has been no explanation but both Woolley and Hussein-Ece have raised concerns within the commission and outside about the effect of swingeing budget cuts being imposed on the statutory body and the effect of downsizing on the minorities who work there. Woolley and Hussein-Ece, vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on race and community, were appointed commissioners three years ago on two-day-a-week contracts.

Woolley has championed issues such as police stop-and-search and disability. He is also director and one of the founders of the organisation Operation Black Vote.

Woolley would only say he was disappointed, while Hussein-Ece declined to comment. But MPs joined critics denouncing the treatment of the commissioners and calling for the decision to be reversed. “There is a credibility gap opening up between the commission and black and minority ethnic communities,” said David Lammy, MP for Tottenham and chair of the parliamentary group on race and community. “Simon and Hussein-Ece represent senior mainstream campaigners who have had cross-party respect. It is unfathomable that they were not called for interview and confirms deep fears … that the commission is turning its back on race issues.”

Diane Abbott, the shadow public health spokeswoman, said: “It’s very worrying. Simon has a wonderful record working with all political parties and had a great reference. The fact that they wouldn’t even interview him was a calculated insult. It seems to me that race is slipping off the agenda at the commission.”

Lester Holloway, an executive member of the grouping Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats – once chaired by Hussein-Ece – said they would be pursuing the matter. “A commission without Meral and Simon is like a train without a track. Looks like another nail in the EHRC’s coffin from the undertakers in the coalition.”

The move is also being opposed by the unions. “It is interesting that Simon Woolley has opposed the frontloading of cuts that would see many disabled and minority staff losing their jobs,” said Sue Bond, vice chair of the public and commercial services union and trades union chair at the commission.

“We have no assurance that a new board will itself have the diversity it needs to champion equality. We urge the government to think again.”

In a Guardian article in August I wrote that the Coalition was planning to “slash the Equality and Human Rights Commission to within an inch of its life.”

A combination of swinging budget cuts and the stripping away of many of the watchdog’s legal powers to enforce equalities laws and promote good race relations threatens to reduce the EHRC to little more than a toothless equalities think-tank.

I went into more detail in this blog piece, published in the same month.

In addition to seeing it’s budget cut in half the Commission now has an all-white executive management team and is losing most of its’ BAME staff in dramatic staff reductions.

The organisation responsible for upholding equalities laws – including the Race Relations Act 2000 – is also likely to move from its’ central London headquarters to the outskirts of London and close the regional offices. It has already scrapped the discrimination hotline and the local Race Equality Council network.

Recent adverts for commissioners placed an emphasis on business experience rather than knowledge of equalities and the retiring chairman Trevor Phillips has been replaced by the peer Lady O’Neill.

There were hopes of a new approach when Home Office equalities minister Jo Swinson she replaced Lynne Featherstone in the recent reshuffle but the axing of Woolley and Lady Hussein-Ece will increase pressure on Swinson to set out her vision for race equality.

Former Lib Dem party president Lord Navnit Dholakia has made representations to Swinson about the EHRC and a collection of grassroots activists – including myself – plan to send the minister a detailed letter setting out our concerns.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

See also:

Equality Commission is being hacked to death by the Coalition

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is being destroyed

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