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How relevant is the CRE to Black Britons?

BP: Recent statistics show that 62% of Black men have no visible means of income. Those who are employed tend to have the lowest paid jobs regardless of their qualifications. Black people are much more likely to be stopped by the police and tend to be given longer sentences than white people charged with the same crime. The majority of victims of racism seem to hear of the CRE only when there is a high profile case. In the light of this and the above statistics, how relevant has the CRE been to the problems facing Black Britons?

Ouseley: The Commission for Racial Equality is sometimes seen as a body which has not achieved what it should have achieved. But the difficulty for them and for us - all of us in society - is expecting the CRE to eradicate discrimination. Now those people who have that expectation will see the CRE as a failure. But you have to understand what the CRE was set up to do, what it can do and what is still has to do. In my opinion the CRE is relevant because it can raise the profile of issues of racism and racial discrimination. I am not going to make apologies for the past. I can only defend what we have been doing since I joined. And what we are doing is raising awareness in a manner that doesn't switch people off, and gets people to understand the dynamics of racism and its devastating effect on the victims and the community. Secondly, we have to focus on the victims of discrimination and help the individuals who come to us, as well as carry out as thorough an investigation as we can because that is what the law requires us to do. Thirdly we do commercial work conducting equality profiles, publishing policy statements, monitoring the performance of organisations and promoting an awareness of issues of racism in them, and working in the community through racial equality councils in the various local authorities. Now all those things by themselves deal with the issue of discrimination to the extent that is necessary, but a complete change will not happen unless those in power and control of resources begin to exercise responsibilities to end discrimination and open doors to Black people which will enable them to play their parts as equals within the society. If the CRE doesn't exist, there still has to be a body to do these things.

You say that people only hear about us when there are high profile cases. We don't control the media. What the media chooses to carry is outside our control. We can try and publicise all the ten thousand or twenty thousand cases that we handle, but the extent to which we are not better known is partly outside our control.

BP: You said - in a newspaper article in January - that Politicians' oft-expressed concern about racial harassment and violence is yet to be translated into action. Specifically what sort of measures would you like the government to take to tackle this problem?

Ouseley: We put forward a number of proposals to the Home Office committee investigating the increase in cases of racial harassment. These included introducing legislation that would outlaw racial violence, but that was not successful. The Home Affairs committee itself articulated the need for legislation to deal with racial harassment but that was not accepted by the government. We are advocating racial harassment units in police stations so that the police themselves can be much more sensitive about how they respond to victims of racial harassment. We asked the government to give strong leadership in the way in which it tackled incitement to racial hatred, through legislation. The point is that the Prime Minister and Home Office might be listening, but until the people in power and with influence begin to take action, nothing will change.

There are a number of measures that we feel can contribute to tackling racism. No one is saying they are the solution. All we are saying is that there are a number of things we can try in our fight against racism.

BP: So the government has been listening to you?

Ouseley: Well, the government always listens. Listening is one thing and listening is a virtue. It is what we do having listened that matters. They have enshrined legislation against persistent harassment because they felt that a focus on this issue of racial harassment will be a in some way a negation of their responsibility to all the other victims of one form of harassment or another. But we have to look and see whether this has made any difference yet.

BP: The CRE has consistently called for the government to review the Race Relations Act of 1976. In what way does the Race Relations Act hinder the work of the CRE?

Ouseley: Well, our work is all enshrined within the Race Relations Act and we have to work within the Act. What we've done in 1985 and then again in 1992 is to review the workings of the act and recommend to the government ways in which it can be improved. We did so on both occasions and the government has responded. Let me say that there is one piece of legislation which was introduced last year which is the first piece of legislation to be introduced since 1976 when the act was passed and this has undoubtedly improved what we are trying to achieve in fighting racial discrimination. This is to remove the compensation limit which has prevented industrial tribunals from making awards which are commensurate to the suffering the victims of discrimination have had to endure. That by itself will let those employers who might want to discriminate against Black people realise that it will be costly to do so. It is not going to be a derisory slap on the wrist. The cost of litigation is another factor. And more importantly is the damage to reputation, particularly to companies that work in diverse domestic, national and international markets. The reputation of being an organisation that discriminates will count for something when you are working in competitive environment.

We see this change in compensation as beneficial. Having said that, there are a number of refinements that we want to see which will make it easier to define discrimination and to prove discrimination because the problem we often have is how to prove that discrimination has occurred. Many people who come to us have obviously been treated badly but we often can't make the link to show that it was on racial grounds. In many cases unfortunately, we can see the injustice but we can't make the link before the tribunal.

Another area which we would like the government to address is that there are large parts of society which are exempt from the Race Relations Act, for instance, Crown and regulatory services. We should be able to bring action against these bodies.

BP: Many people say the CRE only barks but cannot bite, especially when pitted against big organisations. They usually mention the 1992 case where The Daily Mail admitted discrimination in its recruitment policies. Some people say the CRE did not take The Daily Mail to task because it is not one of your usual targets - ie small pubs, local government councils etc. How do you react to this criticism?

Ouseley: I do not know too much about this case as I wasn't here then, but I think such criticisms have an element of fairness. If you are a victim of injustice, and an organisation that should be a champion of your cause cannot help you, one can understand the frustration that you feel. Equally, people don't seem to understand the amount of legal niceties and processes within which we have to work. And why should they? They want action. They want results. As I said, I can't comment on that particular case but I do know of situations which we haven't been good at exploiting. Even now I can say that in many cases that we win - and we have won many - there are instances that we have been able to negotiate up to a position with the organisation and they decide that they want to settle out of court because they do not want any aggravation. And the victim agrees to this. We have to accept this choice. It might be a sum agreed between both parties, it might even be just an apology. And what do they do? They take it and we have to respect that, because they are the ones who've suffered. But sometimes we ourselves could have gone on and got publicity but these settlements usually have a confidentiality clause, and as such, a lot of what you hear is also constrained by this. These are some of the areas of weaknesses in the organisation. We don't get to use results of such cases to change institutions in Britain.

BP: What is the CRE's view on the proposed National ID card scheme? Do you see any threat to the country's race relations?

Ouseley: this is a very difficult one. One of the problems Black people face in this country is that when they go into certain places, they are automatically deemed as people who shouldn't be there. They are then asked to prove their identity and very often, people want to see a passport. Now who are usually asked to show their passports? It is people who are deemed to be immigrants.

It seems to me that if there is a national identity scheme, then everyone should be deemed as having equal identification for all their entitlements. It should be the same for every one. I can see advantages and I can see the objections. I think that the national identification cards scheme is seen as something which will be used by the government to root out all those whom it sees as undesirable. There might be benefits in having a standardised system to identify all of us who rightfully belong here.

BP: What is the CRE's opinion on Britain's opposition to the lifting of internal EU border controls due to the perceived "flood of immigrants"?

Ouseley: Immigration issues, as you probably know, form part of those regulatory areas outside our terms of reference. We can only look at immigration in the context of the fairness of the administration, in terms of whether the rules are being applied equally to White and Black people. There are many other agencies which are much more expert on immigration matters. Our position with regard to the issue of free movement in Europe is that Black people who have a legitimate right to be here should have the same rights to free movement as their White counterparts in Europe. We are aware that discussions on immigration issues and the movement of people can stir up racial tensions and we have to be careful to stay within our remit. We believe that many of these stories that claim that X millions of Black people would flood this country for economic benefits are stories that are designed to and can contribute to racial prejudice and hatred. And we cannot accept the way in which the debates go on sometimes. But we can't go beyond that as the CRE.

BP: Anti-racist campaigners seem to spend more time fighting each other than addressing the real issues for which they were set up. ARA and SCORE - which you are very much involved in - are two examples. Does this not make such organisations lose credibility and does this not affect the credibility of the CRE?

Ouseley: (laughs) Some people say that we don't have any credibility, anyway. But let's be honest, the nature of racism is such that it affects people in different ways and leads to different approaches of how to tackle it. These are difficult matters to deal with and there are many solutions proffered and this leads to power struggles. Power struggles have existed within Black organisations generally - not just anti-racist organisations. And these struggles often bring them down. We think that it is good for society to have different perspectives and approaches and views of all this. We think we have a responsibility to try and encourage Black self help, self determination, leadership because all these things are good for society. Because these organisations fail does not mean you should not try to put then back together again or indeed help new ones.

BP: Critics say the CRE spends too much of its ?15 million budget on itself and even more on many external organisations which have nothing to do with racial discrimination. What is your response to this charge?

Ouseley: Well I would say that they don't know what they are talking about because when you say the CRE spends on itself, we spend on the work that we do to enforce the provisions of the Act. That's what we do. The government doesn't give us ?15 million so that we can have a jamboree for ourselves. It is being spent on people who we employ as complaints officers to investigate cases, do promotional work with employers, local authorities, government agencies, campaigning work.. raising the profile of the issues... that's what its about. And I say to anyone who levels that criticism that there is nothing they can identify that we have spent on that the CRE cannot justify. And we have to be accountable to the Home Office, the Home Secretary, to government, the National Audit Office, to a whole range of bodies. I think the criticism is unreasonable.....

BP: But sometimes they say that you spend so much money on staffing .....

Ouseley: Yes, but that's people. We employ 210 people. Staff costs... I can think of lots of people I would like to come and work for the CRE but they can't because we are not as competitive in the labour market as the other employers. Yes, we have good people working with us but even they move on sometimes. Yes, they have to anyway. Sometimes it is not good for people to stay to long in an organisation like this. Yes, it is a people intensive organisation because it is people who have to do those things. We do put money into external organisations but they are specifically related to the work on racial equality. You take S.C.O.R.E. for instance. It is about racial equality in Europe. And if you take the racial equality councils, that is what they are set up to do.

BP: You have held a number of high profile jobs in the past. Did you face racism? If so, how did you cope?

Ouseley: Discrimination is there all the time. I have experienced racism in being turned down for jobs, being passed over for promotion. I left one job at a very senior level because the way in which the organisation was operating was forcing me to discriminate. It was discriminating against me and trying to force me as a manager to discriminate against others and I wouldn't tolerate it so I left. Now it's about choices and being calculating. I have always been one to calculate the odds of taking a particular action. I have always found ways of getting over the barriers and I know when you get over one barrier, there is another one waiting for you. But I have to say the higher you go it doesn't mean that there is less discrimination. It only means that you are able to protect yourself better from the worst excesses. But it angers me that a lot of people get to the top and then deny that there is any racism. They do not accept that a lot people have struggled to create the situation which enabled them to get to where they are and they do not give any acknowledgement to this struggle. Yes, while other people were struggling for them, they may have been able to slip through and sometimes some of us have even been allowed through. And it was like "hey, I have got to the top, what do I care for those below?" and they pull the ladder from below them. Some people do that.

BP: What has been the most frustrating case you have had to deal with and the high point in your time as the chairman of CRE?

Ouseley: The frustration is a general one. I would not want to say it is about a case. If there is one aspect of the job that frustrates me, it is the way in which the media still focuses on the negative. It is this sense of powerlessness about how far you can influence things that are written about you. They thwart you in the messages that you are trying to get across by putting it across differently because they want to retain total control about how they project you. And linked to that obviously is that the government, through leadership, can do more. I am not saying "give us more money, give us more resources." No. What we'd like them to do is take a firmer stand in the fight against racism.

In terms of high points, It is the way in which the organisation has moved. I cannot say "hey, this is something I am really pleased about." There are a number of things that people would look at and say "that is highly successful" and I would say "hang on, nothing is highly successful until you can be sure that it's not going to repeat itself." So when we do we do something like kicking out racism from football, we raise the profile of the issues of racism in the game, we get the professional footballers association, the Football Trust, the FA, the Endsleigh league and we get sponsors backing us. We find a club like Manchester United putting out a big campaign in its programme saying "We will not tolerate racial abuse on our grounds".

We are also getting the big companies, the WHSmiths, the British Telecoms, the Marks and Spencers opening their doors to us and we are getting them to realise that Black people are an asset, and in this increasingly competitive global market it is good for business when you are seen as a fair and non-discriminatory company. The point I am trying to make is that if these institutions want to do something about racism, it gets done. If the chairman of the company says "from now on, we are going to eradicate racism from the company and I am determined that it will happen", it will.

We have got to have many different kinds of messages for different people. The way we communicate with a group of industrialists is different from the language we use for the people on the street or the kids in school. We have to move from one level to another and communicate to them in a way they understand - not the big words that will impress the industrialists but the little words that will mean something to them. That is what we have been doing.

I haven't been able to say that this is a great success, but there are pointers to show us that we are going in the right direction and if the people in power do what they should be doing, that would make a big difference in our campaign.

Interview: V. Amokeodo and J. Ogunleye
 
 
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