The government has confirmed that it is launching a single commission to deal with discrimination issues in the UK.
The new body will bring together the work of three existing equality commissions - the Commission for Racial Equality, the Equal Opportunities Commission and the Disability Rights Commission and take responsibility for new laws outlawing workplace discrimination on age, religion or belief and sexual orientation.
A joint statement by the Department for Trade and Industry and the Department for Constitutional Affairs said that under the plans, the work of existing equality commissions will come together to give greater support and more joined-up advice to individuals, businesses and communities to crackdown on discrimination, and promote equality and diversity.
The new body will also provide support for the promotion of human rights, the first government body to do so.
Both the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) said that they would support the merger, but the CRE said that that a ‘harmonisation of legislative powers’ would be needed to prevent a ‘hierarchy of equalities’.
Other specialists have warned that the proposals may lead to cuts in resources and the swamping of the interests of certain groups if they are used as an excuse for cost savings. In Australia, there was a 40 per cent budget cut following a similar merger.
Declan O’Dempsey, a barrister at of London chambers Cloisters, said today that the expertise needed to tackle disability discrimination cases could be lost or diluted as a result of the merger.
“Disability discrimination is different,” O’Dempsey said. “Other discrimination often relates to categories of people. In the case of disabled people, discrimination is often personal to the individual; it’s often about the failure to make the adjustments that he or she needs. So tackling the problem often requires expert knowledge of the particular impairment.”
“The interests of disabled people could become swamped – as happened in New Zealand when a single body was created.”
“But provided that the special knowledge and skills required for combating disability discrimination can be preserved in the single body’s structure, the introduction of the single equality body is to be welcomed.”
But a unified body could also have advantages, O’Dempsey said.
“A single equality body will get a stronger media profile and political influence – that’s happened in other countries, and employers and service providers would benefit from a single source of advice and a consistent approach”.
But O’Dempsey added that a single equality body should be introduced at the same time as a single Equality Act that would get rid of conflicts and anomalies, and provide everyone with consistent easy-to-follow standards.