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.
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