Anthony Robinson: Commission for Racial Equality

The fight for equal treatment for all is a constant battle and one that the Commission for Racial Equality is hell-bent on winning. Joanne Harris reports

The CRE is a public body funded by the Home Office, but it is independent of the Government. Established 30 years ago, its aims are threefold: to work towards the elimination of racial discrimination and to promote equal opportunity; to encourage good relations between people of different ethnic and racial backgrounds; and to monitor the way the Race Relations Act is working.

Leading that work is legal director Anthony Robinson, who heads a 40-strong department and oversees a £3m annual budget to spend on investigations and litigation designed to promote racial equality in the UK.

The budget is spent internally and externally. Part of the CRE’s remit sees it fund other, smaller organisations advising on racial equality. Robinson says this means that £3m goes a long way.
“£1m in our hands is £1m,” he explains. “If you give funding to those organisations to start up, they’re able to lever in additional resources. So £1m becomes £5m or £6m.”

But the internal work takes more time. “We’re required to consider applications from people who want assistance with a discrimination problem,” says Robinson. “We also have the power to take action ourselves where we believe people or organisations may have discriminated against people.”

Each year the CRE receives more than 12,000 enquiries from people with problems. Most of the enquiries can be dealt with swiftly, but nearly 1,000 cases each year are taken further. Robinson and his team help the complainant with the initial stages of litigation, for example producing documents. However, very few of these cases will get to court and in 2005 the CRE took just 10 cases all the way.

In lieu of taking every problem all the way to court, the commission is funding more outside agencies and looking for cases that have the potential to influence racial equality law. Last year the CRE intervened in the landmark case of Elias v Secretary of State for Defence, in which a woman interned by the Japanese during World War II fought for her right to compensation. Robinson instructed Blackstone Chambers’ David Pannick QC to contend that the Secretary of State was in breach of obligations under the Race Relations Act by not having due regard to eliminating discrimination. Elias won the case and the judge upheld the CRE’s viewpoint.

Pannick is one of several barristers instructed by the CRE on such interventions. Others include Cloisters Chambers’ Robin Allen QC and Matrix Chambers’ Cherie Booth QC and Karon Monaghan. The organisation also uses barristers from 11 King’s Bench Walk.

Litigation is not restricted to the UK. “A lot of discrimination law is coming from Europe, so we need to be out in Europe supporting policy and taking cases on,” explains Robinson.

Much of the work handled by Robinson and his team is investigative rather than contentious. One of the biggest investigations to be carried out in recent years was the inquiry into racism in the police, launched after an undercover BBC documentary. The investigation kept 16 members of the team busy between its start in October 2003 and the report in March 2005. Robinson says it was the biggest inquiry he has handled in nearly four years at the CRE.

Robinson joined the commission from local government, where he was used to dealing with a large number of people in a streamlined team. He points out that competition between local authorities and the private sector helped to modernise local government – something that had not taken place at the CRE when he arrived.

“Local government legal departments are quite well organised – [like] really mini-law firms,” he says. In contrast, the CRE was old-fashioned. “The difference was that some of the older public service attitudes still existed in the CRE when I came. I’ll give the staff credit – they took on board what would seem to be alien suggestions and really turned themselves around,” he adds.

The new look CRE legal team consists of 20 lawyers and 20 staff. Now that the police investigation is over, Robinson is turning his mind to other issues. The CRE is examining the effects that regeneration programmes have on minority groups, such as demolishing run-down areas and replacing them with modern complexes. “When you build these huge shopping centres, these groups can’t afford to take units in there and they’re displaced. You can do it, but you’ve got to think more about it,” he insists.

The regeneration issue is likely to need the involvement of law firms, which routinely advise development agencies to help ensure that obligations are fulfilled.

According to Robinson, making public authorities more aware of their equal opportunity obligations is key to the future of racial equality. “If public authorities promote equal opportunities, the benefits to society can be so enormous,” he says. “There’s still an enormous way to go. There’s still a lot of them that aren’t doing what they need to do. We recognise that it’ll be a long slog.”

Organisation: Commission for Racial Equality (CRE)
Sector: Public sector
Turnover: £20m
Legal spend: £3m
Legal capability: 20
Legal director: Anthony Robinson
Reporting to: CRE commissioners
Main chambers: Blackstone Chambers, Cloisters Chambers, 11 King’s Bench Walk, Matrix Chambers
Anthony Robinson
Legal director
Commission for Racial Equality (CRE)