Race discrimination – Law in practice

Overt and hidden racism in all areas of life remains a hot topic throughout society, despite the wealth of anti-racism legislation. The debate about positive action and positive discrimination continues unabated.

The Race Relations Act amendments of 2003 introduced new definitions of indirect discrimination and harassment, new burden of proof requirements, and continuing protection after employment ceases. It followed amendments in 2000, which placed a statutory duty on public bodies to promote equal opportunity and good relations between racial groups and to eliminate racial discrimination.

The original ground-breaking legislation was the Race Relations Act of 1976, which prohibited discrimination on racial grounds in employment, education and the provision of goods, facilities, services and premises.

Diverse communities

Brent Council, which employs 3,200 staff and has a human resources (HR) and diversity department of 42, is unique. According to the census, it is the most diverse local authority in the UK black and minority ethnic (BME) residents constitute about 55% of the population, while 29% are white British. In primary and secondary schools, the proportion of BME pupils is 74%.

According to Office of National Statistics figures, if you were to pick two Brent residents at random, there would be an 85% chance of them coming from different ethnic communities.

“Once you understand the make-up of Brent, you realise that it is only through diversity that we can serve our communities,” says Jennifer Crook, the council’s head of diversity.

In recent years, Brent has set itself challenging targets to more closely reflect its customers. Five years ago, it launched an award-winning work-life balance initiative appealing to all sections of the workforce, and more recently, it has set up four staff forums to address the concerns of specific groups.

“Our black and Asian staff forum and its counterparts for women, gay and bisexual or disabled staff keep equality issues visible and also assist in consultation,” says Crook.

“Diversity is a core value included in our corporate plan and we work hard to both provide leadership on diversity, as well as encouraging diversity at leadership level,” she adds.

“While senior managers do come together to deliver our diversity objectives, we do not rely on top-down approaches. There are numerous groups at all levels of the council who work on diversity, with clear reporting lines to senior management,” Crook continues.

In Crook’s view – and those of many others – the authority has already delivered on diversity. The council’s wealth of awards include the 2007 Opportunity Now public sector award for gender equality and a listing in the 2006 Times Top 50 Places Where Women Want To Work. Add in the re-accreditation last April by Investors In People, and it appears that Brent’s image is certainly diversity-friendly. But what are the hard figures?

To date, Brent is the only council with a majority ethnic workforce (54%) serving a majority ethnic population (55%). Nineteen per cent of the top tier of earners at the council are of BME origin and the council also has the highest percentage of BME teaching staff in the country, at 32%. Newham, on the other hand, has a 62% BME population but only 43% of its staff reflect that diversity.

Brent has monitored job applications by gender, race, age and disability since February 2006. In all, 56% of all applications now come from BME applicants.

Work-life initiative

One of the authority’s key diversity platforms was its previously-mentioned work-life balance initiative launched in 2002. Its success in boosting the population of senior women from 30% then to 50% now, and in achieving year-on-year increases in the number of BME and disabled managers, can in part be attributed by the refusal to make better work-life balance a ‘woman-only’ affair, says Crook.

“Our work-life balance initiative was launched from a diversity platform, rather than a family-friendly one, and has introduced the flexibility for people to fulfil a wide range of outside interests.

“Instead of stereotyping women as the beneficiaries, we wanted all staff to consider the issue of work-life balance.”

Brent’s ambition now is to reach Level 3 of the Equality Standard by early 2008. While it will continue to compete with other employers to recruit the best talent, “our overall aim is to develop the skills and capacity of our existing staff to create a workforce for the future,” says Crook.

Current recruitment and development initiatives include a BME career and management development programme, and a flexible working and work-life balance strategy.

How to develop diversity

  1. Approach diversity as a change programme and identify short-, medium- and long-term targets.
  2. Consult and actively involve the community and key stakeholders.
  3. Use an evidence-based approach – mapping and analysing trends and data.
  4. Monitor and assess progress.
  5. Keep it real quality assure what you do to ensure it is genuinely making a difference.

Jennifer Crook, head of diversity, Brent Council


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