Sir Trevor, the Muslims and the new Equalities Commission

Why should the Commission for Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR), to be launched in 2007, matter to British Muslims? Covering race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religion and human rights, with an annual budget of £70m, the CEHR will be Europe’s largest human rights body. The basic reason is that it addresses a thirty-year gap in race relations legislation that did not recognise religious origin as part of the definition of an ethnic group. This particularly affected Muslims as they were defined as a multiethnic religious group, which was not ‘legally true’ of Sikhs, Hindus or Jews (even if sociological fact is more complex).

The 2001 Census uncovered the painful fact of systemic Muslim disadvantage, the alleviation of which is still not campaigned for seriously by any of our lobby umbrella groups. A large proportion of British Muslims form an underclass. Some of the key statistics are:

• One-third live in the top 10% of most deprived areas in the UK
• Live in ‘deprived’ housing (41%), the most overcrowded (32%), the most in social rented housing (28%), and the highest proportion without central heating (12%) of any faith group
• Report the highest rates of ill health – 14% – of any faith group
• Unemployment rate (14%) is three times the national average. Muslims aged 16-24 had the highest umemployment rate of all (22%), twice the national average
• 31% of Muslims of working age have no qualifications. 14% have GCSE or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 22%), 12% have A-level or equivalent qualifications (compared to national average of 24%), and 4% have degrees compared with 9% of the general population
• Muslims of working age have the highest rates of economic inactivity: for men (30%) and for women (68%) compared to 16% of Christian men and 25% of Christian women

Ours is also a very young community, with over half under the age of 25. With all the political pressures around at present, tackling basic issues of inequality has become all the more difficult to achieve. And achieving this is even more vital if we are not going to fail our next generation.

The expectation has been that an extension in equalities legislation to cover religion and other strands as well as a new equalities commission would constitute a bulwark against all forms of inequality in British society. Discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion had already been covered back in 2003 as a result of harmonization with EU law (an advance that had nothing to do with lobbying by British Muslim groups at all). But the inclusion of a religion strand, and its shape and form, in current and upcoming equalities legislation was partly the result of discreet lobbying behind the scenes. This extends protection in the delivery of public goods and services on non-discriminatory grounds to religious groups. It is hoped that in future a new Single Equalities Act would enforce a positive duty to promote equality across all the strands making up the remit of the new Commission, including on the grounds of faith.

The arrival of the new Commission has been viewed with great reservations, particularly by the anti-racism movement, as the Commission for Racial Equality would be absorbed by it. Sir Trevor Phillips, the current Chair of the CRE, recognised this concern by successfully lobbying to get a stay of execution for the race watchdog keeping it out for an additional two years until 2009, arguing that its work was still vital in the current climate. It was therefore with some alarm, expressed by groups like the 1990 Trust and Stonewall among others, that Sir Trevor was announced as the first head of the new CEHR this month. In his previous campaign to preserve the CRE, Sir Trevor had himself described the CEHR as a ‘train wreck waiting to happen’. His change of heart looks very sudden.

There are two main qualms about this appointment. The first is Sir Trevor’s willingness to grab the attention of the more lumpen elements of the press with soundbites that stereotype Muslims (as well as other ethnic minority communities). This tendency only became publicly apparent after his appointment to the CRE, although seasoned activists noted Sir Trevor’s resistance to the faith agenda back in the late 1990s. Some of his statements include:

• In 2003, echoing the then Home Secretary, David Blunkett, he called for Muslim extremists to be deported (even before Britain had agreed memoranda of understanding with certain Muslim countries to prevent the torture or execution of deportees, which groups like Amnesty International say have no real force or validity)

• Calling for an end to multiculturalism in April 2004, which for Sir Trevor suggested ‘separateness’, a call welcomed as a ‘paradigm shift’ by the British National Party (yet multiculturalism should rather be defined as integration with variable geometries for Britain’s various and diverse communities)

• In a major speech in 2005, he misrepresented a complex issue as ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ between various ethnic or religious groups as primarily a matter of choice (But the basic facts are far from agreed, e.g. Ludi Simpson at Manchester University, argues that ‘racial self-segregation and increased racial segregation are myths for Britain’. Some say that the key factor is not segregation as such but segregation plus poverty which does apply to some of our Muslim communities according to a 2006 review of the evidence base on faith communites.)

Muslim faith schools threaten the coherence of British society (January 2005) while suggesting that black boys needed special booster classes to get better educational results (March 2005)

British Muslims willing to live by the values of Shariah law were told to move abroad (February 2006)

In addition to all these pejorative comments, Sir Trevor has not said or done enough to look at the impact of policing and anti-terrorism measures on Muslim communities during his tenure. This was particularly noticeable after 7/7, with the CRE maintaining a studious silence throughout the summer, even on areas that it regards as within its direct competence such as shoot-to-kill and stop-and-search policies. In sum, these sorts of interventions have demonstrated the closeness of Sir Trevor with the government of the day. It is clearly in the public interest that the CEHR is — and is seen to be — politically independent.

The second major qualm has been the virtual ending of proper legal enforcement through the courts of defaulters against race relations legislation in Sir Trevor’s time at the CRE. This is a very serious matter, as it is by no means provable that a co-operative, negotiated approach (said to be the preferred approach at the CRE nowadays) will do anything to change recalcitrant public and private institutions. The figures speak for themselves:

CRE – Cases with Full Legal Representation against alleged discrimination
2003 81
2004 28
2005 03

The implications of this ‘softly-softly’ approach for the CEHR look ominous.

What a shame it is that the tipsters’ second-favourite for the job, the redoubtable Shami Chakrabarti, the widely-respected human rights campaigner and current Director of Liberty, was pipped to the post by Sir Trevor. In the first flush of power back in 1997, New Labour seemed willing to delegate genuine power to major institutions such as granting the ability to the Bank of England to set interest rates. Nine years on, it seems much more inclined to play it safe with trusted ‘old hands’. A troublemaker of the best sort in Chakrabarti might have done much to strengthen human rights culture in Britain and to have created a robust institution tasked with helping to create a more inclusive and equal society.

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