New equality commission begins work on Monday

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The Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR), Britain’s first new full spectrum equalities and human rights organisation, will open its doors next week.

The existing commissions – Disability Rights Commission, Commission for Racial Equality and Equal Opportunities Commission – will handover their responsibilities to the CEHR, which is chaired by Trevor Phillips.

Stonewall chief executive Ben Summerskill is a Commissioner of the new body, which will enforce equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation and transgender status, and promote human rights.

It will also give information and guidance to employers, the voluntary and public sectors, and to individuals.

Last month a committee of MPs expressed concern that the CEHR will not be ready to take on its new role when it starts work next week.

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee also said that equality issues, which includes gay rights, “have slipped down the Government’s agenda.”

MPs are concerned that the budget will not be sufficient and also fear that there will be some loss of expertise among the staff of the three former commissions.

“Equality and human rights is a matter for the whole of society,” the CEHR said today in a press release.

“Human rights principles can provide the framework for building good relations and resolving disputes between communities. Human rights can provide the ground rules for public authorities in how they treat individuals accessing their services.

“The new commission will encourage a society in which people can achieve their potential, free from prejudice or discrimination. To develop a culture where there is respect for the individual and an equal opportunity for them to participate in a society which values diversity and promotes equality and human rights.”

The CEHR will report to Harriet Harman, who in addition to her role as Secretary of State of Equality is also Minister for Women, Leader of the House of Commons, Labour Party Chair and Deputy Leader of the Labour party.

She praised the CEHR during a speech to equality activists at a Labour party conference fringe event earlier this week.

“The commission is not to water down the different strands of discrimination and very different routes and different solutions to tackle them,” she said.

“It is to make the campaign for equality more mighty and more powerful and I know that’s what Trevor and all the people working in the commission are determined to do and that’s why the commission was set up.

“So I hope that all of us who are so grateful to the work that has been done on the individual commissions will not feel sadness but proud for the what they’ve done and determined to see their work taken forward by the new commission.”

Ms Harman said that the proposed new Equality Act will be included in next year’s Queen’s Speech.

The purpose of the new legislation is to simplify the current piecemeal discrimination laws and to strengthen the CEHR.

The rights of disabled people, older people and women are mentioned in the consultation document on the new legislation, but some politicians have complained that transgender people are not getting enough protection.

“It is a sad fact that the Government remains totally oblivious to the needs of most trans people in the UK,” said Lorely Burt MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesperson on equality.

“Whilst the Government acknowledges people who have had, or seek, gender reassignment surgery need protection, it does not seem to think other trans people, like transvestites and cross dressers, face any discrimination at all.”

People who have undergone or are seeking gender reassignment surgery are protected by the Sex Discrimination Act.

The government proposes extending protection against discrimination when accessing goods and services to the same group of trans people.

Those who do not want surgery will not be covered.

The issue was raised by LGBT Labour activists at another fringe meeting at this week’s party conference.