Positive Action across the City is a must

  • Extracts from the book Dear Birmingham (2013) by Dr Karamat Iqbal

“In 1986, Birmingham City Council, a major West Midlands employer, with 50,000 full and part-time workers, decided as part of its positive action programme, that its aim would be to recruit 20% of new staff from ethnic minority communities” (Employment Report, Commission for Racial Equality, 1987). In launching the programme Councillor Bill Gray said:

“What we are saying is that from now on, regardless of other considerations, 20 per cent of recruiting must come from ethnic minorities. We are going to monitor recruitment and managers will have to explain if they have not recruited 20 per cent. It is no good just talking of being committed to an equal opportunities process- we have to demonstrate that we mean what we say.”  Bill Gray 

Then, in 2001, the Birmingham Stephen Lawrence Commission Report said:

“The institutions should take steps to ensure that they address the current under-representation of minority ethnic people in their employment. All institutions should establish workforce targets based on the current minority ethnic population of the city…You can performance manage so many things, why can’t you performance manage race?” Lawrence Commission

“If public services are to be effective in responding to more diverse needs, then a pre-requisite is to ensure that their workforce profiles are truly reflective of (the) diversity.” Lawrence Commission

Others have agreed with the approach:

“Reflective workforces are seen as effective workforces and if you are going to provide culturally competent and sensitive services then you need staff who can connect with the communities that they serve”– BRAP

John Solomos and Les Back, in their book about the City (Race, Politics and Social Change, 1995), pointed out that Birmingham has been very successful with regard to writing policies and presenting an image of itself as an authority that is in the forefront of developing race equality policies. However, it has not been as good at making sure that race equality initiatives are embraced at all levels within the organisation. The authors quote a Black officer saying: “We have created a façade that race relations have been strengthened. We go all around Europe, host conferences blowing Birmingham’s trumpet but the reality of the situation is very different…” (p191).

But, it would appear that it is not all window-dressing. There is much good practice from the past that we can learn from. I thought this Birmingham political leader, quoted in Solomos and Back, summed up my thinking on positive action:

“..If you have a history of under-representation you’ve got to do something at some point to catch up, but I am against the dropping of standards. I think what you’ve got to do is remove any other and illegitimate obstacles, personal racism of a superior within a department or something of that sort, overt discrimination. Remove that so that people can compete fairly. What I wouldn’t do is remove competition.” 

“It is very well making policy pronouncements, but you have to take it much further than this. It is just not enough to have fine pieces of paper… In employment, for example, you need to take a whole view…. If you recruit ten black people and ten years later they are in the same position, that’s not equality” Black Officer

As a policy response, we could do worse than refer to the 1984 manifesto commitment of Birmingham Labour Party. As pointed out in Solomos and Back, it committed the incoming administration to seek to achieve “proportionate employment of ethnic minorities.. at all levels.” It committed the Council to take Positive Action to ensure that there is equality of opportunity for ethnic minorities in all its initiatives. As a result, the City Council successfully pursued a target of twenty per cent ethnic minority employees, under the leadership of Bill Gray who is quoted above.

 Following this, there was writing of equal opportunities criteria into the performance contracts of senior managers. The Chief Officers of service departments made regular reports to the Personnel and Equal opportunities Committee (though this resulted in some “embarrassed and heated exchanges with members, it worked”). The “situation had been transformed radically.” By 1993, the ethnic minority presence in the City’s workforce had reached 15.4%, with a “number of departments approaching the target 20 per cent minority employment and some have completely transformed their ethnic composition.”     

City-wide programme

The earlier rules about Positive Action – in place since the Sex Discrimination Act 1975 and the Race Relations Act 1976 – have now been changed. In the past, it was limited to training or encouragement such as mentoring schemes for ethnic minority or women staff where they were under-represented at certain levels within an organisation or needed additional training provision.

Under the recent Equality Act 2010, it is now legal to recruit or promote a candidate (say a Pakistani) who is of equal merit to another candidate. However, before this can be done the employer has to reasonably think that Pakistanis are under-represented in the workforce and they suffer from a disadvantage due to being a Pakistani. For example, a service for teenagers has no employees who are Pakistani, despite being located in an area of high Pakistani population. When a vacancy arises, there are two candidates who are equally qualified for the job and the employer has to find a way to choose one of them. One candidate is Pakistani and the other candidate is not. Under the current law, it would be legal to offer the job to the Pakistani and the other candidate would not be able to make a claim of unlawful racial discrimination.

In my view, the new Positive Action rules offer us as a city a way forward. However, I would not suggest that a few organisations take such an approach in isolation from each other. Thinking of our city as one big business, Birmingham Plc, which is faced with across-the-board under-representation of ethnic minorities (more of some than others) I would like to propose a wholesale programme of Positive Action, properly resourced and co-ordinated and with one clear focus: to improve the situation in employment and service provision.