Black and white issue that blights Britain's race laws

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A RADICAL shake-up of Britain's race-relations laws is being demanded to make it illegal to insist on casting only white actors in a Shakespeare play or employing nly Asian waiters in a tandoori restaurant.

Under exemptions included in the Race Relations Act 1976, it is still permissible to refuse to employ someone on the grounds of race if an employer believes that such discrimination is necessary for "authenticity".

This means that restaurant employees, actors and artists' models, who are refused work because of their race have no recourse to the law.

But Sir Herman Ouseley, the chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, has asked Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, to scrap the exemptions as part of a review of Britain's race-relations legislation.

In a paper sent to the Home Office and seen by The Independent, Sir Herman says that "important weaknesses" remain in the 22-year-old Act.

He writes: "Inequality, prejudice and racial discrimination have shown great staying power as institutional complacency continues to stand in the way of action."

The commission hopes that the changes will be incorporated into amendment legislation due to be announced in the Queen's Speech in October.

The removal of the exemptions is intended to create a level playing field so that any individual could apply for any position irrespective of race. The only remaining exceptions would be where the "particular racial group of the job-holder is an essential defining feature", such as an actor playing Sir Winston Churchill or Nelson Mandela. The paper stresses: "The new formulation ... would not enable only white actors to be recruited for a production of Hamlet."

People providing "personal services" for a particular racial group such as, say, a Bangladeshi youth worker would also be exempted from the legislation.

But those providing non-personal services, such as meals-on-wheels staff, or shoppers for the elderly cannot be chosen on race grounds, under the new proposals.

In the past, some local authorities have bowed to the wishes of people who ask not to be sent community care workers of a different ethnic group.

The commission also wants to axe a section of the Act which allows people to discriminate on race grounds when appointing partners to partnerships of less than six people. The paper states: "This affects entrants to a range of professions including general medical practice, accountancy, solicitors, within all of which complaints of racial discrimination in relation to becoming a partner exist."

The commission is angry that it has not been able to fulfil the investigative role that the 1976 Act intended it to carry out.

A court challenge led to a House of Lords ruling in 1984 which meant that the commission could only investigate companies or institutions where it had prior evidence of racial discrimination.

Sir Herman feels that the ruling has forced the commission down a path of confrontation whereby its only option is to tackle discrimination in the courts and tribunals rather than through negotiation.

"It should be unambiguously stated in the Act that the commission may conduct a formal investigation - either wide-ranging or confined to a particular organisation or individual - on its own initiative for any purpose connected with the carrying out of its functions," the paper states.

"The commission should not be required to obtain and produce evidence of unlawful racial discrimination before embarking on an investigation."

The commission also wants a change to be introduced to the legislation to enable servicemen and women to be able to complain directly to an industrial tribunal. They currently have to apply in the first instance to the service's internal complaints procedure.

A Home Office spokesman said: "We have received a number of suggestions and the Home Secretary is prepared to considered whether there is a case for any amendments to the Race Relations Act."