Tess Finch-Lees: Phillips has done harm to a worthy cause

The equalities chief must go...
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The Independent Online

Trevor Phillips is to equality what Margaret Thatcher was to feminism. The head of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is under pressure to resign amid allegations of misuse of public funds and cronyism. The commission is losing staff and is being sued for sex discrimination, and there are pending grievances for alleged bullying and unfair treatment. Pretty grim, but there's another, more significant reason why Phillips must go. His ideology is fundamentally flawed.

A few years ago I challenged Trevor Phillips, then chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), on his suggestion that the solution to black boys' educational underperformance was to segregate them from their white counterparts. Speaking at a Confederation of British Industry conference I pointed out that there were some barriers to achievement beyond the individual's control and that those barriers had a disproportionately negative impact on black boys. For example, black pupils are more vulnerable to negative stereotypes by teachers, resulting in their being three times more likely to be excluded than their white peers.

Even though experts constantly urge political leaders to address the "festering abscess" of institutional racism, Phillips belligerently ignores their recommendations. Yet if progress is to be made on institutional forms of discrimination, the head of the EHRC must first recognise their existence.

I suggested to Phillips that his time might be better spent tackling the systemic practices which perpetuate inequality rather than advocating the ghettoising of black boys. Although at a loss for words on the podium, Mr Phillips sought me out afterwards. Towering over my slight, 5ft 3in frame, Phillips, a tall man, jabbed his finger and insisted "someone like you" had no right to question "someone like me" on the subject of race.

Despite having no apparent experience, interest or aptitude in campaigning for human rights, Phillips was appointed by the Government to lead first the CRE, then the EHRC. In my opinion, in three years at the CRE he did more to sabotage race equality than Alf Garnett. It was out with multiculturalism and in with "Britishness", as defined by the willingness to "honour Dickens and Shakespeare". He singled out Muslim men and told them how to integrate. His comments came at a time of heightened Islamophobia.

In the past decade the gap between rich and poor has widened and inequality has soared. To make people of all communities feel included and part of British society, they need to have a representative voice at the highest levels. It's this lack of a legitimate voice and the power to influence that leaves minority communities feeling disaffected and misunderstood. But Phillips doesn't seem to have grasped that.

Then there was the "sleepwalking into segregation" chestnut, for which Phillips was later forced to apologise, having misrepresented research to support his case. Having advocated integration and warned against creating neighbourhood "ghettos", Phillips later did his bizarre U-turn suggesting black and white boys should be segregated at school.

He diverts attention away from government and institutions whose policies and practices perpetuate inequalities and instead preaches to the very communities he is there to serve. His ideology merely preserves the status quo, thus securing his reappointment and winning him favour with right-wing commentators.

The ideology of a leader spreads through the veins of an organisation like a virus. In Phillips' case, the virus is haemorrhaging staff. More crucially, it also attacks the vulnerable within society at large, leaving the systems that harbour the disease intact. For that reason alone, he must go.

Tess Finch-Lees is a specialist in ethics, discrimination and human rights

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