Gurbux Singh’s appointment as chairman of the CRE comes at a time of a big shake-up in race discrimination law. While enforcing this law is one challenge for the commission, the other is to change the attitudes of employers. Dominique Hammond reports.
Gurbux Singh, the new chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, is only two weeks into the job.
He has joined at a hectic time as he witnesses the most far reaching changes to race discrimination laws, since the Race Relations Act was passed in 1976, being pushed through Parliament. It is likely to be law by the summer.
- The changes will place a duty on all public sector employers to actively promote racial equality for the first time and give the CRE new enforcement powers to police the law. The practical details are still being worked on, but Singh sees the amendments – which the CRE lobbied hard for – as a major step forward in race relations in the workplace. They will also herald a change of focus at the CRE as it gets to grips with its new powers and reassesses its priorities.
- Announcing the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill at the beginning of the year, Home Secretary Jack Straw said the Government is "committed to achieving a step change in race equality in this country".
Singh, who sat on the Home Secretary’s Race Relations Forum, in his former role as chief executive of Haringey Council, believes that enshrining in statute the duty to promote equality could indeed signal a major transformation. Particularly as its scope is so vast – covering the public sector and its supplier organisations.
But Singh is aware that for legislation to be effective employers need explicit information about compliance and regulators the power to enforce.
“It is one thing placing a duty but another to specify the sorts of steps they have to take to get there,” he says. He wants the Government to provide detailed guidance that would require employers to set recruitment targets and to monitor them. They would report annually on their progress and the CRE would have the power to ask the courts to issue enforcement notices against organisations failing to make progress.
Employers are ambivalent about targets, recognising their usefulness but also their shortcomings. Rita Sammons, HR director at Hampshire County Council, said they can be useful as long as they are realistic and reflect the local circumstances of each employer.
“My anxiety would be that it is very difficult to have an across-the-board figure,” she said. “Local authorities perform a massive range of jobs in a massive range of environments and there is also an issue about the number of people qualified to do a specific job.”
But she added that individual targets are being set by some authorities because Best Value requires them to reflect the community they are serving, in the workforce.
Francesca Okosi, HR director at the London Borough of Brent, said, “I am sceptical because people can cynically work to a figure but not really change the culture of an organisation. We have had a very bad record at Brent in the past. We have worked very hard to raise the profile of diversity in a way that is inclusive of all staff. Diversity has to become part of the culture. It is important to have some benchmarks to work towards but it has got to be within a context.”
Singh agrees that there is more to improving diversity than forcing people to meet targets, but he is adamant that to make real progress, there has to be clear requirements set out in law. That is why he would like to see the law extended to cover the private sector.
“There is a stronger case in the public sector because we are talking about the use of public money,” he said. “I don’t think the environment is right at the moment for extending this further. It needs to be approached in sizeable chunks. But the principle must be that in the longer term there should be a formal duty in place across all sectors.
“There was a piece of research carried out among employers recently and one of the findings was that employers only take things seriously if they are required to do it by law. Legislation is the best way of forcing people to act.”
Singh does not believe that it works in isolation. One of the changes he is keen to introduce to the CRE is closer working with employers to give them practical help. The CRE will produce guidance for employers on the new law, but it also wants to take a proactive role in getting employers to address race equality.
He refers to research by the TUC that shows that unemployment rates among people from ethnic minorities in London, Manchester and the West Midlands are at 17 to 20 per cent compared to 6 to 7 per cent for white people.
“We need to do much more to sell the business case around employing people from ethnic minorities,” he said.
“The business case is that you want the best people and if you are discriminating against certain groups then you are denying yourself access to some of the best people. If you ask people do you want the white doctor, the black doctor or the best doctor, people want the best doctor.”
Building on schemes such as the Leadership Challenge, where chief executives and directors commit to promoting race equality in their companies and the Race for Opportunity, are seen as priorities. Singh also wants to work more closely with the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI.
Having a helpline and officers with expertise on setting up effective policies would be helpful to employers, said Dominic Johnson, head of employee relations at the CBI, but only if they are independent from the litigation arm.
“What the commission needs to address is the sense employers have that if they approach it with a problem, instead of getting help, they may find themselves on the wrong end of an investigation,” he said.
“More progress will be made if the commission thinks first about education, then conciliation, and only when those options have been exhausted looks at litigation. That way employers will perceive it as supporting their efforts rather than supporting litigation against them.”
Francesca Okosi agreed that the CRE needs to be more proactive and less reactive.
“We approached the CRE last year when we recognised we had a problem. They helped us pull together our action plan and had some useful information about good practice in other authorities, but they could be more proactive,” she said.
“The tendency has been to approach organisations when they are in trouble. That puts them in a position of being in conflict with the employer, and that puts the employer on the defensive. I would prefer that they are advising and supporting organisations before they get to that point.”
Reviewing the CRE’s work and its priorities will be Singh’s first job. Another area he believes needs more emphasis is lobbying Government to ensure that race is considered in every major policy development. How much regulating, advising, raising awareness and lobbying it does will depend on the details of the legislation, as only then will the commission know exactly what its role will be and what powers it will have.
“This will have serious implications for the work of the CRE. We welcome the new enforcement duty, but we will have to look very carefully at our priorities and our agenda for the future,” he said.
Race Relations (Amendments) Bill: in brief
The Bill published in December last year will extend the 1976 Race Relations Act. It will place a statutory duty on public bodies to promote race equality both within their organisations and through service delivery, meaning it will affect private sector contractors providing services.
How this will be done is not yet known but the Home Office has said there will be specific duties that employers will have to undertake.
The other change is that organisations previously excluded from provisions which prohibit indirect discrimination, will be brought within the scope of the law. Those bodies include:
Policing – all aspects of criminal investigation, arrest, bail, detention
Prisons – allocation, discipline, punishment, search of visitors
Immigration – regulation of entry, detention, asylum decisions, prosecution, deportation
Customs – search, seizure, collection of duty, prosecution
Criminal justice – prosecution, probation
Local authority enforcement powers – private landlords, street trading, environmental health, child protection
Health and Safety Executive – inspection and enforcement
Compulsory detention under the Mental Health Act
Inland Revenue – collection and enforcement
A Home Office spokesperson said the Bill is likely to become law by the summer.