Leading article: Bigger is not better

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The Independent Online

The rumours that the various bodies that handle the problems facing women, racial minorities, the elderly and gay people in this country are to be rolled into one, and that Trevor Phillips is to be head of them all as some kind of minorities tsar, is a depressing display of second-rate thinking on the part of the Government.

It is a curious notion that all minorities encounter more or less the same problems and that these can be best addressed if the various groups can be persuaded to combine and blast away on one huge trumpet, rather than sounding off separately from a range of discordant cornets.

That this idea has arisen in the first place is a telling indication of the poverty of ideas and language surrounding the issues of minority rights, and of a tendency of the representatives of the various groups to resort to tired slogans. It is because their spokespeople reach so often for an identical lexicon featuring such buzzwords as "visibility", "access" and "discrimination" that the idea has gained wings that all these groups' needs are compatible.

They are not. Minorities have little in common except that they are minorities. Other than that, the problems that gays and lesbians, the elderly, the disabled and, say, Muslim immigrants, encounter have precious little to do with each other.

Beyond this key point, there is the question of who is to run this one-size-fits-all quango. The odds-on favourite, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality, has certainly succeeded in putting himself in the public eye. He may even have done some good by challenging some of the more moth-eaten fixtures in the debate on multiculturalism - notions that white experts have failed to raise for fear of sounding racist. But serious reservations over his candidacy need to be noted. One is that he is too clearly Tony Blair's man to become a credible leader of a body whose very purpose must include vigorously challenging the Government. There is little point in having one of the Prime Minister's favourites as the leader of such an organisation.

Then again, it is not clear that Mr Phillips has much understanding of the needs of Britain's Muslim community, or rather communities, at a time when this troubled and alienated section of society evidently needs handling with particular dexterity.

Even a better candidate than Mr Phillips would not, however, rescue a flawed idea. If minorities are failing to make themselves heard effectively in this country, we need to address this. But grouping them together in one big tent, and hoping this will somehow improve matters, is not the way to go about it.