Councils take on challenge of new race relations laws

Amendments
to race relations laws will make enforcing anti-discrimination policies a duty,
not an option, for public-sector employers. By Paul Nelson

A
major step towards equality at work will be taken from next month with the introduction
of new legislation for the public sector.

The
Race Relations (Amendment) Act will force public authorities to eliminate
institutional racism and promote equality of opportunity and good relations.

The
key difference between the 1976 Race Relations Act and the new statute is that
public authorities now have a duty to take action over race inequality.

From
2 April, public organisations will have to clearly define racial equality
policies and assess the impact that they have on the recruitment, retention and
promotion of ethnic minority staff. Annual results of the policies will be
published.

The
chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, Gurbux Singh, warned HR
professionals at a briefing this month that less than 50 per cent of local authorities
have implemented an action plan to take anti-racism policies forward since the
Stephen Lawrence Inquiry.

He
said, “Of course there are already examples of excellence and a great deal of
good work is being done. But the excellence of the few only highlights the
weaknesses that characterise the sector as a whole. All of us have the right to
expect the very best from everyone in the public services.”

Many
local government HR directors deny that compliance will be a serious problem.
Francesca Okosi, director of HR at the London Borough of Brent, said, “Local
authorities should be better prepared than other sectors, as we have always
complied with section 71 of the 1976 Race Relations Act.”

Compliance
is certainly on the agenda. Keith Handley, head of strategic personnel at
Bradford Metropolitan District Council, and the next president of Socpo, said,
“Never, never, never should equality drop off the HR agenda. Local government
and regional council HR teams need to take a lead on equality and show the way forward
to other sectors.”

Some
HR professionals in local authorities admit hitting the legislation’s targets
will be difficult.

Deborah
Moon, corporate personnel policy manager at Medway Council in Kent, believes
that, if accurate, the CRE’s figures are a “massive concern” and a “major
challenge”.

Local
authorities that will struggle to comply are those that have only dealt with
equality superficially in the past.

Terry
Gorman, Socpo’s current president  said,
“Most local authorities will have a statement, but if they have an action plan
that means something is another matter.”

Gorman
stressed that recruitment will be the most challenging area of compliance.
“Local government needs to improve its image, by tailoring HR policies and
strategies so they seem attractive to ethnic minorities,” he said.

The
CRE has two roles within the new legislation. Firstly it will consult and help
individual local councils draw up guidelines under the amendment, as well as
publishing general codes of practice in April.

But
if the CRE believes that a local authority, or any member of the public sector,
is not complying with the act then it has the authority to investigate the
body. The CRE will then issue recommendations resulting from the investigation.

If
still not satisfied, it has the power to issue a legally enforceable
non-discrimination notice, and ultimately take councils to court.

Singh
said, “Make no mistake, the new legislation means that racial equality is no
longer an option, it is now a duty. If it does come to enforcement action by
the CRE, we will act with care and appropriateness, but also with vigour.”

But
the CRE has stated that legal action will only be taken as a last resort, and
there is a willingness among council HR directors to bring change.

Dilys
Wynn, head of HR at Worcestershire County Council, said, “When best practice
was first implemented we all called for legislative teeth, but there were none.
This was later seen as unworkable and changed, so I think that this is the
sensible way forward.”

Okosi
agreed, saying, “Now we must measure the outcomes and look closely at our
policies and the status quo, and if they are not working, correct them.”

Experts’
views

Gurbux
Singh
Chairman, Commission for Racial Equality


“Make no mistake, the new legislation means that racial equality is no longer
an option, it is now a duty.”

Francesca
Okosi
Director of HR, London Borough of Brent


“Now we must measure the outcomes and look closely at our policies and the
status quo, and if they are not working, correct them.”

Dilys
Wynn
Head of HR, Worcestershire County Council


“When best practice was first implemented we all called for legislative teeth,
but there were none. This was later seen as unworkable and changed, so I think
that this is the sensible way forward.”

Keith
Handley
Head of strategic personnel, Bradford Metropolitan District Council


“Never, never, never should equality drop off the HR agenda. Local government and
regional council HR teams need to take a lead on equality and show the way
forward to other sectors.”

Terry
Gorman
President, Socpo


“Local government needs to improve its image, by tailoring HR policies and
strategies so they seem attractive to ethnic minorities.”

What
employers will have to do from April

All
public-sector organisations, including local and central government, the police
and NHS, will be subject to the Race Relations (Amendment) Act.

The
measures employers will have to implement include:


Monitoring the ethnicity of their workforce, and in applications for jobs,
promotion and training.


Ethnicity policies will have to be reviewed and developed to make sure that
they actively promote equal opportunities. The Commission for Racial Equality
will assist employers in this.


Employers will have to consider equality issues when dealing with grievances,
disciplinary action, performance appraisals, dismissals and other reasons for
leaving.


Annual reports will have to be published, outlining policies put in place to
deal with equal opportunities, their results and aims, objectives and policies
for the year ahead.

Importantly,
the duty will apply to all work contracted out by the public sector. This will
especially affect local councils due to the extent of outsourcing.

All
firms employed by the public sector must have similar racial equality policies.
Private companies are not covered by the legislation.

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