Sir Trevor, the Muslims and the new Equalities Commission

Muslim News, Issue 210, Friday 27 October 2006 – 4 Shawwal 1427
Special Supplement — It’s politics, stupid (guest editors: Salman Sayyid and Abdoolkarim Vakil)

What is to be done about the marginalised socio-economic status of many British Muslims? The main body the Government is lining up to deal with Muslim inequality is the new Commision for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) to be launched next year. Covering race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disabilities, religion and human rights, with an annual budget of £57m, the CEHR will be one of Europe’s largest human rights bodies. 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 effectively excluded Muslims from legal protection as they were defined as a multiethnic religious group, which was not ‘legally true’ of Sikhs, Hindus or Jews, who gained protection as mono-ethnic groups.

The 2001 Census made plain 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. One-third live in the top 10% of most deprived areas in the UK. Forty one per cent live in deprived housing. Fourteen per cent have the highest rate of ill health of any faith group. At 14%, our unemployment rate is three times the national average. Almost a third of all Muslims of working age have no educational qualifications. 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, including the most marginalised parts of our community. Discrimination in employment on the grounds of religion had already been covered back in 2003 as a result of harmonization with EU law. The inclusion of a religion strand in the new equalities framework 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 (CRE) 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, Operation Black Vote 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 sudden change of heart has been reinforced by internal decision to disband the CRE next year.

There are two main reservations 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. In 2003, 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.

He called for an end to multiculturalism in 2004, which, in his view, promoted ‘separateness’, a call welcomed as a ‘paradigm shift’ by the British National Party. Yet one would have expected the head of the CRE to define multiculturalism as integration with variable geometries for Britain’s various and diverse communities. In 2005, Sir Trevor misrepresented a complex issue as ‘sleepwalking to segregation’ between various ethnic or religious groups as primarily a matter of choice. However, the basic facts are far from agreed. Ludi Simpson of Manchester University argues that “racial self-segregation and increased racial segregation are myths for Britain.” Other specialists 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 communities. Sir Trevor repeated the canard that Muslim faith schools threaten the coherence of British society. And finally he suggested in 2006, that British Muslims willing to live by the values of Shari‘ah law should be told to go back home.

On top of this, Sir Trevor has not said or done enough about 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 of 2005, 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 a propensity to a rhetoric that has arguably helped to isolate and stereotype Muslims further rather than sought to understand, support and help them. It is alarming that such a divisive approach is now to be replicated at the CEHR, and that the delivery of anti-discriminatory and equalities policies on the basis of religion is in the hands of someone who has such little sympathy or liking for Muslims.

The second major reservation 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. In 2003, the CRE provided full legal representation in 81 cases of alleged discrimination. In 2004, the number fell to 28, and last year to only three. In the eighties, the CRE had conducted 39 formal investigations compared with only three since 2000.

A new report by the Public Interest Research Unit into the regulatory performance of the CRE has concluded that the race watchdog has cut back investigations into racism in the private sector. Despite record levels of complaints about stereotyping billboard ads, the level of probes into ad campaigns has been cut. It has even failed to investigate Government departments, such as the Department of Education and Skills, for breaking parts of the Race Relations Amendments Act 2000. It only advertised its new Code of Practice to industry on its website, but neglected to mail it out, leaving many employers unaware of the new code. The implications of the CRE’s recent ‘softly-softly’ approach look ominous for the CEHR.

Yahya Birt is a Research Fellow at the Islamic Foundation in Leicestershire