I don't often get invited to a local conference about equality and diversity so I was pleased to speak at the recent launch in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, of I Am Wiltshire: Minority Ethnic and Multi Faith Community Action Report.
The event was organised by Develop Enhancing Community Support, the infrastructure charity for Wiltshire, with the West Wiltshire Multi Faith Forum and funded by Wiltshire Council. I spoke about some of the tools local groups can use to defend diversity and tackle discrimination, in particular the Compact and the public sector equality duty.
I was struck by the tone and content of the Wiltshire Compact, revised and published in 2013. Several of its joint undertakings – supported by public and voluntary sector leaders across the county – were more profound in their implications than is typical of Compacts in England. For example: "We will include equality and diversity as a key requirement in all new policy development. We will demonstrate that we have done this by providing evidence of accessible services, trained staff and volunteers, and involvement of disadvantaged groups in planning at the earliest opportunity." Another read: "We will conduct equality impact assessments and then take action in any areas which are shown to need it to continually improve access to services."
I urged leaders in Wiltshire to make use of their Compact, emphasising the serious nature of its undertakings and reminding them of what a High Court judge said of the Cumbria Compact in 2007: "It is more than a wish list. It is a commitment of intent between the parties."
Farzana Saker, a community worker from West Wiltshire Multi Faith Forum, spoke movingly about the increase in hate crimes arising from growing islamophobia and anti-semitism. She skilfully mixed praise for Wiltshire Council's efforts to consult black and minority ethnic groups with criticism of its failure to discuss its response to the passage of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act with what she called "the target communities". She said: "Voluntary groups such as ours must be confident and hold statutory bodies to account."
Wali Rahman, secretary of the Wiltshire Islamic Cultural Centre, drew attention to the needs of the Moroccan community in Trowbridge – the largest in the UK outside London. Combating extremism among young people had to be combined with youth activities and meeting the needs of young women in a culturally sensitive way. Rex Webb, chair of the Salisbury Coalition Against Racism, complained about the lack of diversity at strategic meetings in Wiltshire. He said: "Since Scar was formed in 2008, I have seen little evidence that we are involving a more diverse range of people in discussions about public policy."
It was encouraging to see the public and voluntary sector leaders coming together to tackle racism and extremism in Wiltshire. People are signed up to a long-term approach with modest funding from the local council. As James Moody, chair of Develop, put it: "We have begun to break down the barriers to engagement so that more of our communities can participate in both tackling hate crime and developing the right services for people."
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser