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The BBC's Barnie Choudhury
"The police are once again under the spotlight"
 real 56k

Monday, 2 April, 2001, 01:59 GMT 02:59 UK
New era for race relations
Police officers
The new law covers the police and other public bodies
The police, prisons, hospitals and even the government are facing new laws compelling them to eliminate racial discrimination as the first new race legislation for 25 years comes into force in Britain on Monday.

The Race Relations (Amendment) Act is the result of a proposal put forward in the Macpherson report in 1999.

It followed the inquiry into the police handling of the case of murdered black teenager, Stephen Lawrence.

The new law strengthens the provisions of the 1976 Act and extends its scope to include public bodies, omitted from the original legislation.


For public bodies, race equality has previously just been an option. It has now become a responsibility

Gurbux Singh
Commission for Racial Equality

The 1976 law made it unlawful for companies to discriminate on grounds of race in the fields of employment, education and in the provision of goods, services and premises.

It required public bodies to 'have regard to the need to promote equality of opportunity and good race relations' .

But this was not compulsory meaning the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) had no authority to intervene.

With the introduction of the new Act public bodies are now obliged to implement a range of anti-racism measures.

They include monitoring the ethnic composition of their workforce and taking account of the effect of new policies and services on racial equality.

'Equality not just an option'

The original Bill put forward by the government two years ago did not include provisions to tackle indirect discrimination by public bodies.

Critics argued that such an omission would leave race bodies unable to tackle issues highlighted in the Macpherson report.

They cited in particular police stop-and-search operations which have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on black people.

Gurbux Singh
Gurbux Singh: 'Race equality is a responsibility'

After a threatened revolt by Labour peers and backbenchers the government relented and extended the Act to cover indirect discrimination.

The new measures are legally enforceable by the Commission for Racial Equality. Other official bodies such as Ofsted and the chief inspector of prisons can also order compliance.

The chairman of the CRE, Gurbux Singh, welcomed the new law describing it as an 'historic moment for good race relations'.

Mr Singh said: "For public bodies, race equality has previously just been an option. It has now become a responsibility."

Resources

But some organisations concerned with race issues are not convinced the new legislation will be effective.

The chairman of the Society of Black Lawyers, Raj Joshi, said more power needed to be given to individuals rather than organisations as the new law allowed for named people within organisations to be taken to court.

"The CRE is given powers but how are ordinary people going to be able to take individuals to court? They need more support and resources for that," he said.

"What worries us is the struggle we had even getting to this stage, now it is going to be a matter of how it is monitored and of how people are held accountable," he added.

Stephen Lawrence
Stephen Lawrence: Report proposed changes to law

The National Assembly Against Racism welcomed the new legislation but spokeswoman, Jude Woodward, sounded a note of caution.

"It needs to be backed up by resources made available nationally and locally to ensure this leads to real programmes of action. Otherwise there is a danger it will just be more words," she said.

The new law does not apply in Northern Ireland which is subject to the 1997 Northern Ireland Race Relations Act.

But a spokesman for the Equality Commission in Belfast, Ciaran Bradley, said they were urging the Northern Ireland assembly to incorporate the Act into law there as soon as possible.

Mr Bradley said: "Whereas Britain had race laws in place from 1976 Northern Ireland had none until four years ago. We don't want to see it lag behind again."

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See also:

22 Feb 01 | UK Politics
Views sought on new race laws
14 Apr 00 | UK Politics
Government defends race record
24 Feb 99 | UK
'New era of race relations'
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