The 1st October sees the launch of the new Commission on Equalities and Human Rights (CEHR). This new body will bring together the work of the now defunct Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), Disability Rights Commission (DRC) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) to champion the cause to reduce inequality, eliminate discrimination, strengthen good relations between people and protect human rights. Bringing together, for the first time, all of the various equalities strands – race, disability, gender, age, religion and belief, and sexual orientation – it will seek to take an active role in helping to achieve change to benefit some of the most vulnerable and least well represented people in our society.
Although we are optimistic about the potential for the new Commission to provide our country with opportunities to refresh our thinking and practice on issues of equality, there is evidence that the inequalities gap is widening and we fear that a unique opportunity to make a real difference will be lost. If it is, then so too will the chance to conscientiously address the discrimination and inequality that affect the everyday lives and experiences of those many British people that exist at the sharp end of society. Because of this, discrimination and inequality thus blights all our lives.
To ensure we do not lose this opportunity, we need to move away from the recent preoccupation with ‘identity’ and ‘single’ identity politics: a point made in the Commission on Integration & Cohesion report, Shared futures. The constant focus on ‘Muslims’, for example, has meant that the ‘problem’ of extremism has become something that is seen to be about ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. Not only does this hinder the need for society as a whole to take a shared responsibility for equalities issues, but it also creates misunderstandings and barriers between us. As regards extremism in particular, this preoccupation with identity also obscures, rather than illuminates: acts of terrorism are criminal acts, committed by individuals, quite irrespective of the ideology they allege to purport. For the CEHR, continuing to focus on identity rather than inequality will be both incongruent and counter-productive, weakening rather than strengthening the kind of social cohesion most of us – including the Government – want to see: one where who I am will make me more disadvantaged than who you are.
Transitions are never easy. The CEHR should lead the way, pre-empting the typical knee-jerk responses by identifying the commonalities that exist between us: our commonalities as human beings first and foremost. To be successful, it must address the ‘issues’: those current barriers that prevent all of us from being treated equally. These are not necessarily going to be the same ‘issues’ as before, so letting go of the past will be a major hurdle.
With the establishment of the CEHR, we look forward to the challenges ahead and the opportunity to work together to extend and strengthen our shared understanding of what it is to be a citizen of Britain in the 21st century. To do this, we must not allow the crucial debates to be lost: the stakes are too high and the potential rewards too great.
(This entry will form the basis of a press release from brap due 1 October 2007)