THE BLOG
04/02/2016 12:04 GMT | Updated 03/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Racial Equality - Another Tory Signal to the Centre Ground

It should be shocking, yet hardly a surprise that the Prime Minister has only now awakened to the stark reality for so many people from ethnic minority communities living in Britain. Facts underpinning racial disadvantage - with poorer educational attainment, lack of employment opportunity and greater propensity to fall foul of the criminal justice system - goes back generations.

You wouldn't be alone in wondering why David Cameron has just recently come to this conclusion. That commentators seem to only be a few steps behind Cameron on this is even more seriously worrying.

This is another signal to the centre ground by Cameron, despite his followers doubtlessly hanging back from the uncomfortable truth. It is another Tory effort to wrestle the equality agenda from Labour. If the recommendations from this latest review are to truly shake the system, Cameron's successor will have a credible narrative to advance.

Labour mustn't simply respond by trashing the review. It should learn some lessons from what has worked or not, challenge conventional thinking and be bold.

There has been rather too much pussy footing around the racial divide. Inequality exists and needs to change. That isn't going to work with a few more seminars or a raft of paperwork for decreasing numbers of public servants.

The Inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence conducted by William McPherson in 1999 made 70 recommendations to show "zero tolerance" for racism. They included measures aimed at improving the accountability of the police, but went further by demanding action in other public bodies. The judicial system, the civil service, local government, the NHS and schools were required to make changes.

The centrepiece of reform was the Race Equality Duty, later encapsulating other groups to form the Public Sector Equality Duty.

This 'legal duty' is largely a paper exercise to identify inequalities in the way public services operate and determine policy. Assessments are usually broadbrush, failing to identify disproportionate impacts on 'protected groups' as defined in the Equality Act (2010).

Public bodies can't make effective decisions without monitoring, which involves robust systems for data collection. That can often prove to be bureaucratic, coupled with managers failing to apply meaningful analysis of the data as part of the evidence base for reaching decisions.

On the limited occasions when public bodies have been challenged legally, they've failed to undertake an effective analysis or consult particular groups, only then do the courts direct them to undertake the process more thoroughly. The outcome is usually the same, albeit with the odd tweak to suggest an adverse impact of a decision has been mitigated in some way.

Enforcing the law is problematic as the voluntary and community sector doesn't have the resource, capability or, perhaps, the nerve to challenge institutions. Holding public bodies to account when they fund you or provide opportunities for influence, such as a local authority or government agency, takes voluntary groups well outside their comfort zone. With cuts to their services and restrictive rules on campaigning, most charities are being neutralised. Independent thinking is stifled and they become wedded to the political dominance in their locality or policy area.

The legislative framework developed since McPherson's 1999 report and the public sector's response sets much of the context for David Lammy's review. However, it would be a mistake to get bogged down in all the detailed processes that surround the frustrations over the dismal application of public bodies to promote equality of opportunity and foster good relations.

Instead, David Lammy's challenge should be to put aside the process and go to the nub of the problem. That means swinging the pendulum from positive action for the privileged to affirmative action for many people from ethnic minority communities.

Equality isn't about treating everyone in the same way, as this clearly results in poor outcomes. It only serves those with power and resources. That may be due to institutional policies and practices, racial prejudice by some decision-makers and the unconscious bias of many decisions-makers.

The task is strategic, as life chances are determined by multiple factors. It isn't just university discriminatory admissions or the prejudice of the courts that hold people back, but the wider institutional pathways which people travel along.

New-style affirmative action measures can also act as a catalyst for change in the life chances for disabled people and other disadvantaged groups.

If Cameron is truly serious about tackling these systemic problems head on, then Lammy needs to be bold and uncompromising if change is to be delivered.

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