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Meg Munn MP - Sheffield Heeley's voice in Parliament | Welcome
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A Champion for Human Rights

Monday, September 18, 2006

Meg gave the following speech at a conference organised by the Cornwall Disability Forum, held at the Eden Project.


I want to thank the Cornwall Disability Forum - Jane Sharps and her team - for inviting me today, and thank you for coming to hear about the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights. But not just hear, I hope you will want to share your views about what priorities the new Commission should adopt when established.


Throughout the time setting up this new project I’ve been struck by how engaged people are - how much they want to contribute to make this new Commission a success. I want to hear about your experiences in Cornwall of delivering equality, diversity and human rights.


There’s clearly a lot happening with the Cornwall Disability Forum - I understand it has an advice service, job-finder, intranet and Disability Discrimination training. I’ve had a look at the website and was impressed by the range and amount of information found. This is the sort of practice we need the new Commission to promote, ensuring that equality and diversity are embedded throughout all sectors of society - private, public, voluntary and community.


Like the rest of the UK, Cornwall has witnessed the wide-ranging changes that affect us all. Demographics, globalisation and migration make us more aware of different identities, cultures, religions and beliefs. There is the changing relationship between men and women, new family patterns, the fast moving requirements of the labour market and the shape of public services in the modern world.


We can take pride in our traditions of tolerance, fairness and the rule of law. Such traditions find expression in many of our public services and the legacy of our anti-discrimination legislation over the last forty years. But the world doesn’t stop turning, the increasing diversity in Britain creates both challenges and opportunities. By paying serious attention we can try and embed the positive values which are essential in an equitable and prosperous society.


Creating a New Framework

In this new landscape we need a structure that will challenge persistent patterns of discrimination and inequality, that will promote and protect diversity, good relations and human rights. I understand that the South West has already thought about the importance of equalities and set up a single regional equality body, Equality South West, to provide both information and support to the single equality strands.


Nationally it includes the creation of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights. This new Commission will begin its life with a clear mandate. This is summarised in the 2006 Equality Act as follows: “the underlying objective of the new body is to support the development of a society where:

-         there is respect for the dignity and worth of every individual,

-         there is respect for and protection of each individual’s human rights,

-         people’s ability to achieve their potential is not limited by prejudice or discrimination,

-         every individual has an equal opportunity to participate in society, and

-         there is mutual respect between groups based on understanding and valuing diversity and on shared respect for equality and human rights.”


Of course words and aspirations are all fine and good, but what can the new Commission do to ensure that discrimination is tackled, that society will embrace diversity in a genuine way? The answer is that it will be a mix; enforcement of the law alongside a duty to promote and encourage new thinking and best practice in relation to diversity, good relations and human rights.


The Commission for Equality and Human Rights will inherit all the powers of the previous Commissions, Equal Opportunity, Disability Rights and Race Equality. We were particularly concerned that the new Commission would build on the excellent work done by these existing Commissions.


The strong desire to build on the achievements of the existing Commission is also the reason that the new Commission will have a statutory Disability Committee. This Committee will have delegated powers in relation to many disability matters, especially the enforcement and promotion of the Disability Discrimination Act. It will also advise the whole Commission on areas that impact on disability, to ensure that these concerns are central to the Commission’s thinking.


On the 8th September the Secretary of State announced the first Chair of the Commission, who will be Trevor Phillips. The next stage in the process is to appoint the board of the new Commission - I hope we will be able to make these appointments later this month.


The new Commission will have significant powers to take legal action. It will also conduct investigations. These will be where the Commission has formed a reasonable belief that unlawful discrimination or harassment may have occurred. This may be a court or tribunal ruling of discrimination, or complaints combined with research evidence. There will also be enforcement powers for the new regulations outlawing discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, religion or belief and age.


A Champion for Human Rights

However, the Commission for Equality and Human Rights is not just about enforcement, it will have a huge role as a champion for equality, diversity and human rights. Some of its functions include:

-         providing information, advice and assistance on equality and diversity, human rights and good relations issues,

-         issuing  guidance and good practice to help employers and service providers embrace equality and human rights,

-         publish a ‘State of the Nation’ report every three years: showing how Britain is doing on equality and human rights; setting out outcomes to work towards and benchmarks for progress,

-         challenge prejudice against and stereotyping of particular groups, and

-         establish a strong evidence base and understanding of discrimination, to inform future policy development and best practice.


The work of the new Commission is very broad and challenging. Government recognise this and we have allocated a much larger budget than the combined total of the three existing Commissions. It will have the power to provide grants to bodies working towards the objectives of the Commission. I believe that this area of its work will deliver some of the most exciting and productive outcomes, especially when working with local networks. I say local networks because it is at the grassroots where we need to see the positive aspirations that are contained in national organisations bear fruit.


Working across the range of areas will be a challenge but it is encouraging to know that places such as the South West have been developing this approach already. Your slogan “stronger together” really does embody the underlying philosophy of the new commission.


Also part of the new framework is the work being undertaken by two reviews:

-         the Equalities Review, examining the root causes of persistent patters of inequality and how they can be tackled, expected to report later this year, and

-         the Discrimination Law Review, which is evaluating the effectiveness of current legislation, with a view to having a Single Equality Bill introduced in this Parliament.


This commitment to the future was also expressed with the creation of the new Department of Communities and Local Government. As well as responsibility for housing, urban regeneration, planning and local government, the department has been given a remit to promote community cohesion and equality. The new Department has already built strong links to the Department for Work and Pensions, which retains over all responsibility for disability matters.


What is certain is that the challenge facing the new Commission, the challenges facing us all, must be met. If we are to achieve a country where young people can grow up feeling safe, thinking they have a shot at a good career, that they are valued for who they are, we have to tackle long-standing problems that continue to divide us. By overcoming these problems we can not only make life fairer for all our citizens, we also make our country a better one in which to live.


Thank you.


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