Interview: The ever-controversial Mr Phillips

Illustrated rainbow pride flag on a white background.

Trevor Phillips meets me in an office he has just moved into. The L-shaped sofa came from his own home; his framed Martin Luther King montage sits on the floor waiting to be hung.

A small silver bust of Lenin on his desk catches my eye.

The new public body of which he is chairman, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, only came into being a few days before we met.

There are boxes everywhere, as staff from the Commissions for Racial Equality, Equal Opportunities and Disability Rights, along with some new faces, move in.

Phillips’ office, at the end of an open-plan room, has a fine view of London’s City Hall, with the Tower and the City itself in the background.

As we discuss the new commission, I cannot help but wonder if Ken Livingstone can see into the EHRC offices from his mayoral lair in the distinctive building on the banks of the Thames known to its detractors as The Testicle.

Ken is not a fan of Phillips.

The two clashed bitterly over comments that Phillips, a former journalist, LWT executive and TV presenter made about the failure of multiculturalism.

While waiting in reception, as builders and maintenance people trudged in and out, I noticed that I was not, in fact, visiting the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, but the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Could the scores of stories I had written in the past year about the new CEHR all be wrong?

Being a stickler for a correct acronym, I tackled the CEHR vs. EHRC issue first.

Phillips assures me that all references to the CEHR were correct – that is the name of the institution in the Parliamentary Act that created it.

The change of name was meant to change the emphasis, he explains.

“We want people to concentrate not so much on the bureaucratic institution but more on what we do.

“It’s basically a trivial thing but I think it’s important when people talk about us to talk about the Equality and Human Rights Commission, because nobody cares if we’re a commission, or a council, or a commune.

“It wasn’t something that we spent a great deal of energy on, in a way, because it’s pretty obvious.”

With the name sorted, the next thing to consider is how this commission is going to operate.

MPs have fretted over whether the EHRC is properly funded.

Gay rights advocates complain that the commission’s responsibilities for gender, race, age, religious and disability discrimination will leave sexual orientation as an after-thought.

Trans activists are annoyed that their needs are seemingly not addressed by the EHRC, while disabled gays complain that the needs of “multiple identity” people are bound to get squeezed out by the more established concerns of the so-called legacy commissions.

Phillips is keen to stress that the first days, weeks and months of the EHRC are about listening and learning.

“We are inheriting a lot from the existing commissions and we don’t want to pretend like we’re the new thing, like we’ve discovered everything, and that everything that happened before wasn’t any good.

“Bearing in mind though as a commission we’re going into completely new ground.

“For example, Stonewall is ahead of us. We’re going to depend a lot on them to guide us.

“Secondly, before you start boasting about how wonderful you are I think it’s a good idea to make sure that the phone’s working.

“So first priority is to establish the organisation as a credible, effective source of guidance and so on before we start sending up fireworks.

“I think it would be arrogant to suppose that our staff, most of whom have come from the legacy commissions, have the level of expertise, subtlety and sophistication about the new strands of religion and sexual orientation as they have about race, gender and disability.”

The first serious challenge for Phillips and EHRC is the new Single Equality Act.

He calls the government’s Green paper “rather timid” and it is up to the commission to ensure there is equality of protection for not just all groups but all citizens.

“If your great Equality Bill is about letting people buy drinks at the golf club bar, excuse me, but don’t waste my time.

“Happily I think the new ministers have a greater and deeper ambition – Harriet Harman has been completely clear about this – we think that actually the opportunity of the Equality Bill should be more than to deal with some really specific situations.

“What it should do, rather like the Human Rights Act, is to enshrine certain values in British law.

“The value we think, since Gordon Brown wants to have a new constitutional settlement, of the Equality Act, is to say the that number one plank of a new constitutional settlement in this country, is for greater equality.”

In the preparation for the EHRC, the word “strands” came up constantly.

The commission is tasked with enforcing equality legislation on age, disability, gender, race, religion or belief, sexual orientation and transgender status, and promote human rights.

Phillips emphasises the human rights aspect of the commission’s mission.

“The whole point is not to think of us as an organisation of six joined-up bits which are somehow under the same roof.

“We’re interested in all kinds of discrimination and inequality, even if it doesn’t involve any specifics in the legislation.

“For example, we’ve become very interested in the issue of carers, but obviously the six protected groups are going to be our priority because that is what is in the law and what we have to deal with.”

On trans rights, he points out that the EHRC is committed to advancing the rights of all and the commission must listen and learn from the people who know the problems and challenges.

“I have to say, working with (trans activist) Christine Burns has taught me a hell of a lot. I mean, just being around her.

“To be completely blunt about it, given the background that I come from, a Methodist Caribbean family and all the rest of it, someone like Christine is way out of my ken, frankly, but actually it just goes to show the most important thing, the most persuasive thing for people, is to meet people. Real people.”

Phillips was a controversial choice to head the EHRC.

He has been outspoken on the failures of multiculturalism, of which he had been a vocal supporter, during his time as head of the Commission for Racial Equality.

His talent for generating headlines is undeniable.

Born in London on New Year’s Eve 1953, of Guyanan parents, he went to secondary school in Georgetown, Guyana and returned to the UK to study chemistry at Imperial College London.

He became involved with left-wing politics, ultimately being elected President of the National Union of Students in 1978.

A distinguished career in television followed. At London Weekend Television he rose from a researcher to Head of Current Affairs as well as presenting The London Programme and documentaries.

Close to Tony Blair and a passionate believer in the New Labour project, he left TV to return to politics, being elected to the London Assembly in 2000. He was its chair until he resigned in 2003 to take charge of the CRE.

After three years in the job he warned that the UK is “sleepwalking into segregation” because of the accepted wisdom of multiculturalism.

The response was suitably inflammatory – Ken Livingstone accused him of pandering to the right.

“When he was appointed to run the CRE, it did an awful lot of work taking up genuine cases,” London’s Mayor told the BBC.

“What he did was turn it into a vast press department and wound down all the legal work.

“Ever since then he’s gone so far over to the other side that I expect soon he’ll be joining the BNP.”

His first controversy as head of the new commission came before they even opened for business.

He caused outrage among traditional historians with his comments about recalibrating British history to better reflect the contribution of ethnic minorities.

“When we talk about the Armada, it is only now that we are beginning to realise that part of it is Muslims – actually it was the Turks who saved us because they held the Armada for a few weeks, on the request of Elizabeth I,” he told a Labour party conference fringe event.

“Let’s rewrite that story, let’s use our heritage to rewrite that story so that it is truly inclusive.

“So that we have an identity which brings us together and binds us in the stormy times we’re going to have.”

Phillips response to the criticism is characteristically unapologetic.

“Besides the fact that black men shouldn’t have much to say about English history because what do I know? I can’t read the English language, my ancestors were nothing to do with the English Empire. Oops, never mind, they were slaves.”

Phillips asserts that he merely “calls it as I see it.

“I would say to my colleagues when I’m chair of something, the only qualification I would expect from anybody else is whatever else they’re doing in the organisation they’re better at it than me.

“So we’ve got a fantastic leadership team all of whom are better at corporate management, policy or law than I am. My job is to lead the team. Controversial?

“That’s what you have to decide with these kinds of jobs. Whether to put these things politely where nobody can hear them, or the truth spoken as the truth.

“I think the value of having a chair who is prepared to deal with difficult subjects and dilemmas is that people will know that the organisation is honest.

“The fact is that we deal with the most explosive territory in British public life, other than perhaps war.

“There are questions which we will keep bothering people about, for example now we can read people’s genetic material.

“What are we going to say when insurance companies say they ought to be able to load somebody’s premium for a condition that they are predisposed to get, but may not get later in life?

“To me that’s an equality issue. These are big moral questions and to dance around them as though there weren’t a decision to be taken around them I think is dishonest.”

DNA testing, carers, trans rights – no one could say that Phillips lacks ambition for the EHRC.

But the lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans communities want protection and there is considerable concern that sexual orientation and gender identity will come a poor second to race and disability.

What can we expect from the commission?

“I think the priority is, because we’ve discussed this as commissioners, we think that in the first year we have to put a big push on hate crime and on bullying, which I think is related to this issue on sexual orientation.

“There are many things which are important, but the thing which matters most for gay and transgender people is to be able to be safe and that means we have to get a focus on hate crime and make sure the police and local authorities know what they’re doing and that people are protected.”

The CEHR exists to serve the public, and has a helpline and offers advice through its website.

Will it, like its legacy commissions, be taking forward test cases? What can a gay complainant expect from them?

“You would expect exactly the same response that anybody that comes to us with a complaint of discrimination under any of the anti-discrimination legislation.

“So as far as the complaints issue and dealing with the individuals concerned I think we’ve got the service out there, the website where they can get information, we will take the calls, and if we think the case if meritorious then we will take the case.

“A lot of people who were anxious about the commission talked about the case work and all the rest of it.

“I understand why they’re anxious about that and I want to make it absolutely clear we are not going to resile from supporting legal case.

“But people need to know that going through a case of discrimination when you are the victim, it’s not a laugh.

“It’s hard on you; it’s hard on your family. In the workplace you may end up winning but none of your workmates may talk to you.

“Rather than put people through that I would rather people prevent it from happening.

“My point is, the reason we are here is because we don’t want to have people to be heroes in order to tackle discrimination. It’s our job to try and prevent that.”

For all the talk of equal rights for all, the much-praised Sexual Orientation Regulations are civil and not criminal prohibitions.

Any determined Christian business owner is free to discriminate as much as he likes, and the worst he will suffer is a fine.

Phillips, unsurprisingly, does not share my pessimistic analysis.

“First of all it’s better to have the legislation than not have it. Secondly, any piece of legislation is only as creative as those who use it can be.

“Let’s say you’re broadly right about contempt and fines and so on.

“I think that in the arena of gay bashing or slurs in the workplace, what fine a court may hand down is important, but what is more important to people is being shamed and we will do our best to shame anybody.

“Let me put it as crudely as I can do it as a public official. If somebody is guilty of discrimination of any kind, and with sexual orientation we usually know what it’s about with sneering and contempt and all the rest of it, we want them not to be just be punished by the court but frankly to feel the contempt and hatred that they have visited on other people.

“They can argue what they like, but there’s a law now and frankly if these people want generally to pose as they often do as the decent and moral people in the community, perhaps they should remember that the first elements of decency in a liberal democracy is the rule of law.

“As far as I’m concerned there isn’t a conflict here.

“There is a law. Your faith does not protect you. I understand what you are asking me but to be perfectly honest I haven’t got time for it. If people want to use in my view, the mantle of faith to be bigots, I’m not buying it.”

Toward the end of our meeting Phillips mentions two friends who are gay – former BP boss John Browne, who had to step down after he lied in court about where he met his ex-boyfriend, and EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who was outed on national TV by a journalist.

“The fundamental reason for us being here is this. We are more diverse of a society as we have been before both objectively and subjectively.

“What I mean subjectively is, speaking specific to your readers, we are no longer in a time when it is OK and accepted that you should be quiet about your sexual orientation. We’ve seen how grotesque that can be.

“I have two friends who have been in public life in various ways, John Browne and Peter Mandelson. I have seen how quite incredibly difficult and cruel the suppression of identity can be.

“This is true when people were disabled when I was a kid.

“Disabled children didn’t exist because they were invisible. We’re in a society where that no longer is right or respectable, although over in the City the latest survey shows that a minority of people will admit to being lesbian or gay and let their colleagues know about it.

“It’s our job to let the light in on all that and let it be OK to be different.”