Cracks in the fabric of society: Chief ruffles feathers with reforming zeal: After a year as EOC chair, Kamlesh Bahl faces the challenge of tackling the Government over pensions. Barrie Clement reports

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The Independent Online
KAMLESH BAHL has not been the most popular chairwoman at the Equal Opportunities Commission. A year after her arrival at the organisation, a redoubt of feminists, left-wingers, liberals and concerned Conservatives, she has ruffled a few feathers.

A former Tory activist, her arrival was followed in short order by the departure of the chief executive, the deputy chairwoman and a number of key staff.

The organisation is in the process of being 'Kamleshised', according to one source. A personal appointee of the Prime Minister, she is accused by some of the more left-wing officials of conducting a 'political cleansing operation'. One person closely associated with the organisation described her as 'the EOC chair from hell'.

It is possible, however, that her unpopularity with staff is an inevitable consequence of her attempts to give the organisation an even higher public profile and to focus its energies on achievable goals.

Employees are worried that despite Ms Bahl's lavish public praise of commission staff, internal services will be 'contracted out' in a strategy analagous to market-testing in Whitehall.

The key function of public relations for a recent EOC report on the plight of women from ethnic minorities was handled, somewhat unsuccessfully, by an outside agency. A loyal press department, however, refuses to be drawn into criticism.

Ms Bahl was particularly keen on winning maximum media coverage of the study, partly becasue of her own experiences of prejudice. Nairobi-born and a Hindu, she found that her distinguished academic record was no guarantee of a job.

Having come first out of 220 students in the first two years of her law degree at Birmingham University and third in her final examinations, she alone of her year failed to secure articles to become a solicitor.

The now-defunct Greater London Council rescued her from unemployment. Subsequently she was employed by British Steel, Texaco and Data Logic, where she became company secretary.

Married to a north London general practitioner, Ms Bahl now combines the pounds 30,000-a-year job at the commission with a consultancy role at Data Logic.

A charming if defensive public face belies a determination to reorganise the commission in her own image and a high political ambition.

Her predecessor was Joanna Foster, a former press officer at Conservative Central Office who, despite her political past, became a thorn in the Government's side.

The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Much of the action taken by the EOC during the last year - the decision to take the Government to the European Court over British employment legislation, for instance - was set in train before Ms Bahl's arrival.

One of the biggest challenges facing the commission this year is the pensions issue. In today's White Paper the Government will confirm its plan to equate the state retirement ages at 65. The commission is seeking a common retirement age of 60.

There is little doubt that the EOC will have need to square up to the Government on the issue. It is on such matters that Ms Bahl will finally be judged. Popularity among colleagues would be nice, but not necessary.

(Photograph omitted)