I read with interest the reaction to Trevor Phillips’ retirement in the Guardian. The commentators Rob Berkeley, Sandra Kerr and Simon Woolley all make valid points. There is no doubt that Trevor Phillips has had a hard job to do under difficult circumstances.
Yet, when all is said and done, it is difficult to make the case that he has left a positive legacy.
I was asked for my reaction after Rob Berkeley, head of the Runnymede Trust think-tank, gave an interview to BBC Region’s Helen Bart, which was broadcast last Sunday.
He said, in essence, that our salvation does not lie with remote quangos.
I understand the sentiment and recognised this viewpoint in my Guardian article last month defending the Equality and Human Rights Commission from savage government cuts.
But this remote quango is needed because it is empowered by law to uphold and enforce Britain’s equalities laws. So it was never going to be down on the street, yet citizens who suffer discrimination do benefit from its’ work even though most of it is invisible. Take it away and we will notice.
You may not see a police officer for days but if you know they’ve been taken off the streets you are at the mercy of the criminal.
BBC Nottingham, Three Counties and Peterborough called for my reaction to Rob Berkeley’s interview. I said Rob Berkeley was right insomuch that much change comes from the grassroots but when it comes to Trevor Phillips, he occupied two powerful positions over the last 12 years and has very little to show for it.
He left the Equality and Human Rights Commission in intensive care and the other organisation he led – the Commission for Racial Equality – is pushing up daisies.
Trevor Phillips may not be entirely responsible for their demise but is responsible for his own actions. If he was a man of principle he would have raised a fuss over proposed cuts and the stripping away of the watchdog’s enforcement powers, or maybe even resigned in protest. But he chose not to.
I will remember him as someone who appeared to work with whatever the prevailing wind coming from the government of the day was, no matter how bad the smell. He had the ear of ministers but every time he was quoted by a minister to justify their views on equality you got the feeling Trevor Phillips had been telling them what they wanted to hear. Now we are left with politicians of all parties, and Right-wing media commentators, colluded in erasing race off the agenda.
Trevor Phillips’ predecessor, Herman Ouseley, oversaw the long road of putting race on the agenda. We had the Stephen Lawrence (Sir William Macpherson) public inquiry and the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. Trevor Phillips took the helm in 2003 and it’s been downhill all way since then.
His legacy is also declaring that multiculturalism was dead. That wasn’t quite what he said, but as a former TV executive with great knowledge of the media, he knew exactly how he wanted it to play in the press.
I have no wish to do a hatchet job on him, but this is an honest appraisal from my perspective. That said, on a personal level I have always found him friendly and helpful. There has been the odd occasion when he has helped me, and for that I am grateful. However, he knows I have long been critical of his record.
Rob Berkeley is right, Trevor Phillips was also dealt a bad hand when it came to the circumstances. Cuts to the Equality and Human Rights Commission come from government. But I still believe that with different choices he could have fashioned a much better legacy not just for himself but for all of us.
By Lester Holloway @brolezholloway