Leading Asian with taste for controversy

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The Independent Online
YESTERDAY'S PROPOSAL for tougher laws on discrimination was the swansong of Kamlesh Bahl, chairwoman of the Equal Opportunities Commission and arguably the most prominent Asian woman in Britain today.

Ms Bahl's tenure has not been without controversy. Once a Conservative activist, she headed the commission at a time when it clearly contradicted the Tory government. Ironically, she was the personal choice of John Major, the then Prime Minister, who regarded her as a safe pair of hands.

The commission was very much in favour of the national minimum wage, which the Major administration bitterly opposed. Ms Bahl also argued for a "streamlined" equality law when ministers privately opposed it. They said it would lead to inflationary pay increases.

She won few popularity votes from commission staff. While legal acumen and charm were her main weapons in dealing with ministers, officials and the media, she was often accused of authoritarianism by her own workers. She also emphasised the business advantages of promoting equal opportunities, whereas many at the commission believed it was fundamentally a civil liberties issue.

But there is little doubt that Ms Bahl was a fighter in the cause of equal opportunities - prepared by her own experiences. After reading law at Birmingham University, she applied to 250 organisations for a job. All rejected her.

She says she was a victim of "double discrimination" - both her gender and her ethnic origin as a Kenyan Asian counted against her.

Her appointment was clearly a break with the past whereby the top job at the commission usually went to a member of the "great and good". She can now claim to have joined their ranks and there is little doubt that she will end up with a seat in the House of Lords.

Ms Bahl now takes up the post of deputy vice-president of the Law Society. No doubt she will also ruffle feathers at the solicitors' trade union.