Debate Magazine

The Demise of the Local Race Equality Council

Posted on the 02 November 2012 by Lesterjholloway @brolezholloway

The demise of the local race equality councilWhatever happened to the old local Race Equality Councils? You remember them, the office with dirty windows lowering the tone of the High Street. Management committees that played out internecine battles between different communities. Yes, it’s true REC’s don’t have a the most glowing of reputations. But behind the stereotypes existed many well-functioning organisations that made a real difference on the ground.

Now is an opportune time to reflect on the REC’s as they are going out of existence altogether. Sometimes you don’t miss things until they’re gone. And so it is with REC’s. They weren’t all bad. Some were quite good, in fact. The trouble is the reputation of the badly-performing REC’s cast a long shadow over the good ones.

Growing up in Shepherds Bush I got involved in the Hammersmith and Fulham REC, not an activity that most people in their early 20′s engage in, admittedly. Ignoring the feuds and personality clashes I dedicated myself to doing practical stuff like helping to organise the annual H&FCRE festival at West London College. Later, as a local councillor, I fought a desperate and ultimately unsuccessful battle to save the body. 

I demanded equitable treatment for all struggling voluntary groups in the borough. The mainstream West London Counselling organisation was in far worse shape at the time, the disputes were more vicious, the maladministration more pronounced. Yet there was a clear political choice to try and turn it around while the REC was thrown to the wall. Race was a factor, I protested. It wasn’t beyond repair. And besides we needed a local watchdog to hold the Council and other bodies in the borough to account.

I still believe that today. Thankfully my faith in REC’s was restored by the Reading REC. It was run by a Labour councillor at the time, Rajinder Sophal, and he presided over a thriving organisation delivering a wide variety of projects from an interpreting and translation unit to a contract with the local police training centre in Bramshill, Berkshire, where I was a lay trainer. Reading REC was a shining example of what can be achieved with the right leadership. It proved that strong management and a talented and supportive chair can keep all kinds of nonsense at bay.

In my journeys I came across a number of other REC’s that delivered good value for money, such as Hounslow in west London. They mastered the balancing act between, on the one hand, representing victims of race discrimination and, on the other, nurturing a close working relationship with the same agencies like the police to help them develop their own policies and programmes.

The most difficult challenge was always the local authority itself because they were joint-funders of the REC, along with the old CRE. If the Council axed its’ funding the CRE’s would disappear as well. The good REC’s managed the trick. The worst REC’s managed to get up everyone’s noses, not least the local BAME communities, and when they closed they were unlamented.

A few REC’s even verged on farce. As a reporter in the Black press I once wrote about a man in Bournemouth who was the victim of a racist attack but the police were not interested in his plight. He went to the REC to complain about the police but they weren’t interested either. Then he found out the chairman of the REC was also the chief constable of the police force.

Interviewing the former CRE chairman, Lord Herman Ouseley a few years ago I recall him being brutally honest about the failings of some REC’s. But he balanced the criticism with praise for the best ones. I think he said about a third to a quarter of them were doing a good job.

Part of the problem was structural; a management committee supposed to represent all Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities was always prone to tensions when one or another community were seen to wield disproportionate power. The other problem was if they were really doing a good job they were probably cheesing off their local Council who part funded them.

The sad thing is that today both the good and the bad REC’s have gone. And with it has gone the principle of having a local network of organisations that hold Councils, police and others to account on race.

REC’s are a creation of the 1976 Race Relations Act which also set up the Commission for Racial Equality. REC’s existed because it was recognised that one national watchdog couldn’t do everything by itself. The CRE’s job was about national policy, upholding the ’76 Act and taking on special legal cases which were likely to strengthen caselaw. 

The REC’s role, by contrast, was to take on everyday racism cases, to train and educate local authorities to deal with race better themselves and to help local bodies develop anti-racism policies and practices.

When the CRE was being abolished in 2006, the then chairman Trevor Phillips assured the British Federation of Race Equality Councils that the network – then over 80-strong – would be protected. Yet over a third of those REC’s had their grant aid stopped in the transition from the CRE to the new Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Over the next five years the number of funded REC’s has reduced from 51 to just ten today. Worse all remaining ten REC’s are due to lose every penny of EHRC funding. It is indeed the end of an era.

I am personally sad to see them go. The principle of a local race equality network at borough level is both sound and necessary for combating racism at a grassroots level. The badly performing REC’s were not beyond saving and the good ones did not deserve to be terminated.

In the end it is more a symptom of the extent to which race has slipped off the political agenda than the austerity of budget cuts.

In many ways the demise of REC’s was a precursor to what is happening to the national EHRC at the moment. It was the canary in the mine. We somehow missed it falling off it’s perch, and now the atmosphere towards equality is choking the very institution that killed off the local network.

By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway

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