Big Trev’s leadership pushes out equality staff

Perhaps to my discredit, I have not taken a great interest in the workings of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the successor to several official equality commissions set up to monitor various anti-discrimination laws (one for sex, one for race, one for disability, of those I know), but the appointment of Trevor Phillips — let alone his reappointment last week — to run it was always going to be controversial. Three commissioners resigned last weekend, and two others have gone over the past few months, and criticisms of Trev’s leadership have been a common thread in the reasons for these resignations. The Times reported yesterday that two other commissioners, including gay campaigner Ben Summerskill, are considering their positions.

As you might have gathered from my term of reference, I do not have much respect for Trevor Phillips. Among Muslims, he is best-known for declaring that multiculturalism was dead and suggesting that the country was “sleepwalking into segregation”, which made him the darling of the anti-Islamic elements in the intelligentsia and media. Segregation is one of these terms which is often used to mean things which are much more trivial. Rape is another example: people will compare the environmental degradation caused by such things as road-widening schemes to rape (as in “the rape of such-and-such area”), sometimes when the actual damage is negligible, such as the removal of a few grass verges, as was the case with a much-needed scheme in my old home town in the 1990s. Segregation means much more than a tendency towards people choosing to live apart. It means that there are laws which enforce the separation and prevent mixed marriages and social interaction.

This interview on the Guardian’s page (MP3 download here) suggests that there are real problems with this particular organisation which aren’t all Phillips’s fault, but also that while amalgamating the official equality bodies into one is a good idea, this one has run into problems with Phillips’s leadership, which is described as autocratic and more suited to a political party than a human rights monitor. However, the problems of having one body to represent every equality or liberation campaign are well-known. The union at the college I attended in Aberystwyth had a paid women’s officer for some time in the 1990s, and in response to the question of why there couldn’t be a general equality officer, one of the officers wrote that unless we appoint the proverbial black, one-legged (Welsh) lesbian, someone is bound to feel left out. (The Welsh language was one of the union’s main liberation campaigns.) Then again, there is a limit to how many equality commissions you can justify when they are publically funded.

Of course, the proverbial one-legged black lesbian still won’t please everyone, not least because some racial issues weigh more heavily on men than on women. Phillips himself has a long history of privilege stemming from education and political connections: he was educated in Guyana (having children educated in the Caribbean is a popular option for middle-class black parents in the UK) and went onto Imperial College in London; he was president of the National Union of Students, a notorious grooming house for Labour politicians; he is personally close to Peter Mandelson and other senior figures in the Labour party and has been a presenter on, and head of current affairs for, the now-defunct London Weekend Television. It is clear that he was appointed because of his political connections rather than his popularity with those he is meant to represent.

While it’s true that he has served as a voluntary chair at the Runnymede Trust, his “suitability” to run this organisation, or the Commission for Racial Equality, comes from being a prominent, well-connected, successful black man, not a long-standing campaigner against injustice. Such a person is always going to be the most acceptable candidate from the point of view of the majority, given that the cultural gap between middle-class whites and middle-class blacks is very similar, which cannot be said for most of the Asian and even African minorities, most of whom have different religions. Women’s equality campaigners are dissatisfied with the EHRC also, as Zoe Williams points out:

Katherine Rake, the outgoing head of the Fawcett Society, says: “We would be a more militant voice, but the EOC , as a statutory agency, could command headlines in a way that we couldn’t. Since the merger, there’s been a loss of specific focus and the loss of a concerted voice.” One example she gives is Alan Sugar’s appointment as business tsar – it would have been just unthinkable for the EOC to let that pass, given Sugar’s oft-repeated views on how he tears up the CVs of women who look a bit fertile. The EHRC didn’t even comment.

However, while Phillips might be some people’s idea of an “acceptable face of blackness”, the same surely cannot be said for a man who pays out nearly £630,000 in redundancies to senior staff, all of them understood to be his hand-picked appointees, and then re-hires them as consultants at a total of £323,708 in this day and age when the public are no longer willing to spend money on MPs’ personal needs. While I don’t have personal experience of Phillips’s leadership, the reports of an autocratic “one-man show” fit in with the general tone of the New Labour era. Surely contemptuous waste and control-freakery is something we have seen more than enough of for the past decade?

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