New single equality body

If the Government gets its way there will soon be one single equality body in the UK responsible for dealing with all forms of discrimination and prejudice.

The newly published Equality Bill proposes to set up a one-stop Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) from October 2007.

This would take over the functions of the existing Commission for Racial Equality, the Disability Rights Commission and the Equal Opportunity Commission.

It would also have responsibility for one of the controversial areas of the new bill - legislation to ban discrimination on the basis of religion.

Though faith groups have welcomed the proposals, others fear that it could be used to inhibit freedom of speech, criticism of a religion or even comedy.

Publishing the bill, Patricia Hewitt, Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said: "The Equality Bill marks a transformation in the way modern Britain tackles discrimination and disadvantage.

"The new Commission on Equality and Human Rights will help ensure that every individual can fulfil their potential and that discrimination, prejudice and inequality have no place in modern British society."

One concern when the possibility of a single equality body was first mooted was that it could distract from the work of the CRE. The Government has attempted to allay those concerns by setting a different implementation date. Responsibility for race discrimination will not pass to the new body until 2009.

Chair of the CRE, Trevor Phillips, said: "We welcome the publication of this much improved Bill and recognise the changes that have been made which will bolster the new Commission for Equality and Human Rights.

"Our concern that the timing for merging the CRE into a single equality body was not appropriate has been addressed and we are pleased to have been given an assurance that we will not be joining the CEHR until 2009."

Secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, Iqbal Sacranie, said that they warmly welcomed the bill's provisions.

Mr Sacranie said: "This is a timely and necessary piece of legislation to provide institutional support for the promotion and protection of equality and human rights in Britain for all its citizens.

"We are particularly pleased that the legislation will also include new provisions on religious discrimination in the delivery of goods and services, and in public functions. This has been long overdue not just for Muslims, but for all religions and beliefs."

Although it welcomed the CEHR, the British Humanist Association (BHA) questioned the extension of discrimination to cover religion. It said that instead of outlawing religious discrimination, it would in fact entrench existing discrimination.

Director Hanne Stinson said: "The bill amounts to a licence for prejudice and bigotry. The original Race Relations Act and subsequent race discrimination legislation forced reform of existing discriminatory practices, and the exceptions were narrowly defined.

"This bill is utterly different. We should be able to expect discrimination legislation to protection [sic] individuals with religious or non-religious beliefs from discrimination, but this Bill seems to have been designed to protect religious organisations (rather than individuals) and allow them to continue all their existing discriminatory practices."

The BHA claims that under the current legislation a variety of discrimination by religious groups could occur, for example hospices could be able to exclude those with other religious or non-religious beliefs, even if they receive substantial NHS funding.