Written by:
Omar Khan

Runnymede's Director on Government's race equality announcement

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Runnymede welcomes government action, but we need to see greater ambition and commitment to tackle racial inequalities

On the steps of Downing Street for her first speech as Prime Minister Theresa May said she would tackle ‘burning injustices’, including racial inequalities. As a first step, the Prime Minister first called for an ‘audit’ of existing evidence on ‘race disparities’.

Depending on your view, the audit was either a sensible evidence-led approach to better design policy to tackle the most pressing injustices, or a way of kicking the issue into the long grass and delaying action.

The government’s announcements today move from audit to action. The Runnymede Trust welcomes government action to tackle racial inequalities, especially the focus on the labour market. However greater ambition and investment will be necessary to address the extent of inequalities revealed in the race disparity audit. Government should build on the announcements today by developing a fully funded race equality strategy across government.

The focus on the labour market in particular shows the government has listened to both experts and non-experts about arguably the major source and site of racial inequalities and injustice, and where change can happen. In fact, private sector employers are today often ahead of the public or charitable sector in both data collection and in establishing targets for increasing BME representation.

At the same time the proposed actions seem underwhelming given the scale and extent of inequalities that the race disparity audit revealed. The announced measures: a consultation on ethnic pay gap reporting, including race monitoring in public procurement, greater ethnic minority representation among teachers and the police, and supporting a business-led fairness in work standard are all good ideas, and ones that Runnymede has previously supported.

There’s three reasons to be sceptical about the promise of these laudable plans. First is that some of these proposals are still in the consultation phase. The measures are more likely to be diluted than strengthened – and there’s little evidence the government might adopt a ‘stick’ rather than ‘carrot’ approach if the announced ‘ambitions’ fall flat. Gender pay gap reporting seems to have led to some cultural change, but it has been limited to employers of more than 250 people (rather than 50 as Runnymede has previously recommended for ethnic pay gaps), and there aren’t any clear sanctions for repeat or egregious offenders.

The second reason to be cautious about the government’s proposed actions is that they are somewhat piecemeal. Hiring more BME headteachers will require tackling educational experiences in schools and universities, and initial hiring and progression routes (especially for BME women), while improving outcomes for black men in the labour market will mean addressing school exclusions as well as inequalities in the criminal justice system. There’s no evidence here of new money from central government, and a danger that this is viewed as government passing the buck on to others: to private sector employers or local public services, without providing resources, oversight, or strategic direction.

In other words, Britain needs a race equality strategy. The extent of the inequalities, the links between poor outcomes in the labour market and prior inequalities in life, and the compounding effects of those inequalities over the life course (and intergenerationally) make it difficult to tackle racial inequalities in employment only through ethnic pay gap reporting.

This is not to say the proposed action will have no effect. Rather, they need to be nested within a wider strategy, and connected to broader policy objectives around tackling discrimination and opening up opportunities.  As the Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Maria Miller said just last month: ‘it is disappointing that there is outright rejection of our call to develop a cross-departmental race equality strategy… Without such leadership there remains little hope of achieving the Prime Minister’s ambition of achieving racial equality in our society’.

Nevertheless, the government and the Prime Minister in particular deserve credit for taking action today. Few would have expected a Conservative-led government to have developed these policies. But while it’s understandable that the Prime Minster wants to take credit for her leadership on this issue, that suggests a third and final concern about the government’s ambition and commitment.

This is that the government is implementing policies that are at present increasing racial inequalities. The proposed actions don’t even address, much less mitigate the government’s commitments and priorities, particularly immigration and economic policy. Runnymede has worked with the Women’s Budget Group to show that Black and Asian households in the lowest fifth of incomes experience the biggest average drop in living standards of 19.2% and 20.1%, respectively. This equates to a real-terms annual average loss in living standard of £8,407 and £11,678 and results in 47% of black children, 54% of Pakistani children, and 59% of Bangladeshi children living in poverty. The Windrush case earlier this year showed the predictable (and predicted) consequences of a punitive immigration policy, and not just on immigrants but on British-born ethnic minorities, and is simply the most prominent and egregious example of the discriminatory effects of immigration policy.

A more explicit u-turn on the hostile environment, and a clearer commitment to ending austerity, as well as re-establishing the child poverty target would probably do more to tackle racial inequality than the proposed actions. Such measures would obviously require a shift in the government’s approach, and greater public investment. These could be bolted onto the government’s commendable proposals today as part of a more strategic race equality policy that would better tackle what the Prime Minister rightly calls ‘burning injustices’.

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