Written by Zita Holbourne PCS national Exec, TUC Race Relations Committee member and Co Chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts ( BARAC)
I attended the TUC Black Workers conference 8-10 April both as a member of the TUC Race Relations Committee and a delegate for the PCS union.
Trevor Phillips’ introduction as a speaker at the conference was met with lukewarm polite applause from some delegates and none from others. In his opening comments he said it was good to be amongst friends then hastily added ‘some friends’ acknowledging that his presence was not welcomed by all in the conference hall.
He told us that his first message was Things have changed. Britain has changed. And that means that the equalities business has to understand that change, and to get ready for it. If we simply continue to fight battles we won yesterday we don't just waste our energies - we betray our successors by not addressing tomorrow's challenge. Today's equality warriors need to fight, yes; but they also need to win.
It’s all very well for him to preach to us about what we need to do but for a start some of the battles we fought yesterday are still not over because we still face discrimination which in many areas is increasing because of cuts, the far right and the con-dem coalition. He wants us to win - in order to win sometimes we need the backing of the body that is supposed to monitor employers and ensure that they are compliant with equality legislation – the body he heads – EHRC – how does he expect us to win if the EHRC is not adequately resourced to have a helpline to give advice to those on the receiving end and to carry out enforcement work against employers and public bodies who ignore their responsibilities on equality?
He talked about managing the economy but nothing about resisting cuts that will have a disproportionate impact on black communities, workers and service users or the multiple impact on black women and young black people.
I asked Mr Phillips in the Q & A after his speech the following;
PCS members in EHRC have just voted to take strike action over the 68% cut to budget and cuts to staffing of 50% which will have a devastating impact on the commission’s ability to carry out its duties and protect black communities from the discrimination of cuts – we understand your term as chair ends next year. Should not the vision for the EHRC be developed by the incoming Chair in conjunction with stakeholders? What do you plan to do when you leave the EHRC?
My questions were met with laughter from the conference floor. Phillips responded with laughter of his own and asked ‘What am I going to do?’ as if he was asking himself the question for the first time and added ‘anyone got a job? I’m available!’ He went on to accuse me of being a liar and said that the numbers I had mentioned were not true – just not true – cuts are nothing like that – cuts are 53 million to 45 million. The UK spends 3 times as much as any other country.
Interesting that he did not offer any alternative figures on the cuts to staffing. In 2007 EHRC had a budget of 70 million. It was reduced to 60 million and then again last year it was reduced to 53 million by the con dem government. The government plan is to cut it to £22.5 million by 2015. Within the next 12 months the government wants to cut the current staffing of 460 to 200. The government has already announced it is withdrawing funding for the EHRC’s helpline and grants programme and the commission has also decided to close its regional offices. These decisions will take effect by March 2012.
So if anyone is a liar it certainly is not me. He did not just accuse me of being a liar but my union – an allegation which I take seriously.
In a ballot of the 314 PCS members at the EHRC, more than 77% voted to strike on a turnout of 48% and the first action could take place later this month.
Phillips went on to say that unions should help EHRC and focus less on rumours and gossip. Does he believe then that our members have voted to take strike action on the back of lies? Perhaps he should read some of his own staff notices where the facts are stated which led to the vote for industrial action by PCS members in the Commission. Is he suggesting that his own staff circulars are not true?
I was able to set the record straight in a debate on a motion immediately after his speech and refer delegates to the PCS website where they could read the facts themselves but by that time Mr Phillips had made a hasty retreat from the conference.
Mr Phillip’s speech for me was stale, uninspiring, and complacent and gave me neither faith nor hope for the future of the EHRC under his leadership. He is resigned to cuts and demonstrated no concern for his own staff losing jobs not to mention the areas of work which will cease to exist.
Setting aside Phillips the mood of the conference was strong, defiant and ready for action with motion upon motion focused on the impact of con dem cuts on black communities and workers. As co-founder and co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts (BARAC) UK I was proud to hear several speakers refer to the work that BARAC is doing, calling on the union movement to work with us and that we were featured in a number of reports given to delegates. We held a very successful BARAC fringe meeting where both panel speakers and contributors from the floor made it quite clear that whilst working with the wider trade union movement against the cuts self organisation and ownership of the fight against the racism of cuts was imperative for us as black people.