The Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), set up in 1998, with fulsome backing from the Liberal Democrats, is being deliberately weakened by the Tories in government. Its heartbeat gets fainter, its pulse and voice are weak, and the expectation must be for a long coma. The budget has been slashed; campaigning commissioners turfed out, among them respected black activist Simon Woolley and Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece, a Muslim.
Baroness Onora O’Neill, 71, has replaced Trevor Phillips as chair. Phillips was not as effective or dynamic as he needed to be, but he did understand how discrimination damaged individuals and society. O’Neill is a thoughtful philosopher, a former head of a Cambridge college, an establishment figure with no record in equality or human rights work. Oh, except for a paper on the “dark side of human rights” which suggests some victims get off on feelings of victimisation. The Hillsborough relatives and Doreen Lawrence have been accused of just that. Imagine what the Commission would be under Shami Chakrabarti, Geoffrey Robertson QC or the indomitable Helena Kennedy? They wouldn’t just play safe and would never be appointed.
The UN has just warned that the UK may lose its “A” status on human-rights protection and so be unable join in top-table discussions on those universal rights and country violations. On equality our UN figures are just as miserable. Latvia is getting better on gender parity and we are getting markedly worse. On race there is serious criticism of Government inaction.
The Tory right has always hated anti-discrimination remedies and talk of human rights. According to them, the members of this capitalist, individualistic nation should put up with hard luck and unfairness and not bother busy, busy businesses with profligate complaints. By comparison, the US, an even more fanatically individualistic, capitalist nation has had equality laws and anti-discrimination institutions since the 1960s for ethical and economic reasons. Not even George Bush and followers could persuade public opinion that such “interfering” legal protection was ruining the country.
The Human Rights Act and the Commission materialised after years of painstaking work by the Liberal Democrat lawyer Lord Anthony Lester and other civil rights and democracy experts. I remember endless seminars, fiery arguments and public meetings to work out a good model to defend all UK citizens from prejudice and injustice. That principle was what got me onside. The Commission would fight not only for black Britons and women, but white men too, old, young and gay people, anyone who had been treated unfairly. Though discrimination never stops, those rights are now firmly in our heads and hearts. Theresa May gave them as her reasons for not extraditing Gary McKinnon, Asperger’s sufferer and Pentagon hacker, to the USA recently; we are collectively profoundly upset when the human rights of children are violated as they were by Savile and others and shocked to see the abuse of vulnerable old people in some care homes, their right to human dignity violated.
I had an illuminating exchange at a party this week. A property developer wanted to know how to get the EHRC to take up his daughter’s case. Expected to get top grades, she applied to an Oxford college and was rejected. The disappointed teenager has, since, tried to kill herself: “It’s not fair, they didn’t give her a chance. They just judged her on class.” I replied I completely sympathised, and I do. And I hope he too now has some empathy with the qualified black man who never gets an interview, the old worker sacked because of his age. From being against such “PC nonsense” as he put it, the father had started to see why we need laws to safeguard us all.
David Cameron once seemed far removed from his anti-equality troglodytes. He worked tirelessly in the last election to persuade voters that under his leadership the Tories had undergone not a cosmetic makeover, but irreversible surgery. It was no longer the “ nasty party” (in Theresa May’s words), but nice, caring, sharing, modern, meritocratic, inclusive and diverse. He knew that without new blood the Conservatives were stuffed. Their most loyal white, middle-class supporters were ageing and most young Tory whippersnappers were almost as badly out of touch with modern Britain. Excluded and self-excluding voters had to be attracted to boost numbers and change the party’s image. I do think Cameron, in that moment, passionately believed and truly meant what he said – in that he is Tony Blair’s doppelgänger.
Now the PM backs off from all that idealism, dumps progressive policies and state institutions to enforce best practice, casually abandons his pre-election persona and swerves sharply right. Disabling the equalities and human rights agenda and sacrificing the Commission are offered as proof to the old guard that he is still one of them. And, as ever, Liberal Democrat leaders, warm in their ministerial cars and self-importance, do nothing to stop him or defend an institution they so wanted, so believed in.