Nowhere to hide in new race laws

Changes in racial equality regulations could transform public sector HR, but
their true impact hangs on how the Government enforces them, writes John
Robinson

New legal duties on public bodies to promote race equality are the most
important changes to race discrimination laws since the Race Relations Act was
passed in 1976. They have the potential to transform personnel procedures in
the public sector.

But their true significance will only become clear when the Government says
how it intends to enforce them.

Unless a rigorous enforcement regime is put in place and employers fear
damage to their reputation as well as their coffers, the changes will have
little impact.

A spokeswoman for the Home Office said details of how the laws will be
policed are under discussion, but she admitted an option being considered is to
give greater powers to the Commission for Racial Equality.

The CRE, in its submission to the Government on the legislation, has asked
for new authority to force employers to monitor the make up of their workforce.

Enforcement

If it convinces the Government, the CRE’s role will be similar to that of
the Health and Safety Executive, enabling it to ask the courts to issue
enforcement notices against organisations which are failing in their duty to
promote race equality.

If the employer fails to mend its ways, it would be prosecuted.

A CRE spokesman said public bodies should be required to report annually to
the Audit Office on their performance in promoting equality. The CRE would
enter the fray if an institution had not carried out its duty.

"If you look across the public sector, half of the organisations, maybe
more, are not doing any sort of monitoring at all," the CRE spokesman
said. "If this Bill contains workable enforcement powers, then it will represent
an enormous change throughout these organisations. Only the very best practice
examples will get through that test."

Public-sector bodies appear confident they can meet this test. Reaction to
the Government’s announcement has been almost unwaveringly positive, with most
HR directors stressing that their organisation is already working to improve
equality policies.

"We are pursuing targets in common with all of the criminal justice
agencies," said Gareth Hadley, head of HR for HM Prison Service. "We have
launched a project called Respond which addresses the need of the organisation
to bring in a larger number of ethnic minority employees and create a working
environment in which all staff feel safe and secure."

The Prison Service, along with the police, immigration service, social
security and Civil Service, has also been brought under the law covering
indirect race discrimination. This regulation, which outlaws policies which
appear fair but result in bias, has covered most public and all private sector
organisations since the original 1976 Act.

Reassessing policies

Rita Sammons, president of local authority personnel body Socpo, said
councils had set an example on equality issues since the 1980s. But she added
that the legislation would make local authorities reassess their policies and
would force those which had neglected race issues to take action.

"I think the legislation, coupled with Best Value performance
indicators, which look at how the workforce is representative of the local
population, will require all local authorities to put comprehensive monitoring
in place and meet stringent targets," she said.

"Even though we have been working hard over a number of years, there is
still much to be done."

The view that the legislation would, if nothing else, cause the public
sector to increase its focus on equality issues was echoed by Karen Bell,
president of NHS HR association AHHRM. She added the new laws could help cut
nursing shortages by encouraging more people from ethnic minorities to join the
health service.

It is evident that the vast majority of the public sector is happy to take
the lead in eradicating race discrimination from the workplace. What remains to
be seen is how those who lag behind will be dealt with.

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