Government report sparks employer fears of US-style positive discrimination quotas

Business leaders fear that US-style mandatory positive discrimination is on its way to the UK in the wake of a report commissioned by the government.

The University of Bristol research, published last week, called for the UK to force certain firms to employ more people from ethnic minorities. It backed the use of contract compliance, which is used in the US to set positive action timetables for firms doing business with the state.

Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, said pressure on the government to introduce such measures was growing. “All the diversity lobby groups see positive discrimination as the answer, and this is a worry to us,” she told Personnel Today.

The lessons from the US are that positive discrimination leads to more form-filling, less control over recruitment and no increase in diversity, she added.

The Department for Work and Pensions commissioned the University of Bristol’s Centre for the Study of Ethnicity and Citizenship to analyse the outcomes of positive action in labour markets across the world.

The report concluded: “A government committed to eradicating social exclusion can legitimately and confidently engage with an advanced programme of positive action, which includes contract compliance. The time is now right for such steps.”

Jim Murphy, minister for employment and welfare reform, welcomed the report and refused to rule out enforced positive discrimination. “This research raises a number of interesting ideas,” he said. “We are determined to do more to ensure that the skills and talents of those from ethnic minorities are not wasted.”

A spokeswoman for the Commission for Racial Equality added: “This report is encouraging as it offers some valuable lessons and good practice that can be tail¬≠ored to our labour market.”

Next month, the independent Equalities Review will also recommend policy to the government.

Its chairman Trevor Phillips said last month that “special measures” were needed. “Some areas of employment will never stop being all-white without new kinds of positive action,” he said.

How contract compliance works

The US contract compliance system was identified by the report authors as one of the best ways of increasing ethnic minority employment.

Executive Order 11246 (1965) requires contractors on federally funded projects in the US to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed – and employees are treated during their employment – without regard to race, creed, colour, or national origin”.

Such employers are required to report annually to the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs on their employment of minority workers by major occupational group. They are also required to have an “affirmative action programme” with numerical goals and timetables.

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