Race in the Workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:03 pm on 24th April 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone Conservative 5:03 pm, 24th April 2017

My Lords, I give heartfelt congratulations to my noble friend on the diligence, pragmatism and determination of her report. The evidence is excellently produced; I strongly endorse her conclusions—with minor modifications—and I am delighted that she has not overcomplicated it. As one would expect from an extraordinarily successful businesswoman, she has produced a coherent report that people can follow and take up its relevant practical points.

I have an inkling that race has never been an issue for my noble friend. She is a businesswoman, regardless of her ethnicity. It is interesting that many leaders who have achieved change have begun by avoiding, while not exactly denying, their own characteristics. It was often asked about the first woman Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher: “What did she do for women?”. The noble Lord, Lord Blunkett, who is blind, fulfilled an extraordinarily senior Cabinet position. I have never known my noble friend talk previously about ethnicity. I feel the same in my own career; originally, I would wear only a black, blue or grey suit, as one of 22 women in the House of Commons. However, there comes a moment when those of us who have broken through a barrier feel duty bound to stand up and help, support and give a pragmatic way forward, not just an aggressive rant.

With the current environment of Brexit, we need all the man- and womanpower we can muster. There remains much too much evidence of underachievement from black and ethnic minorities throughout school, into apprenticeships and sometimes at university. Therefore, if we are to be competitive and fill jobs when migration is more difficult, we have an obligation as a country more than ever before to ensure that every individual is trained and developed to the maximum of their ability. It is still not right that there are so many more exclusions from black and ethnic minorities than there are from white children and that 6% of black school leavers attend a Russell group university, compared with 11% of white school leavers and 12% of mixed or Asian school leavers. As my noble friend said, race and ethnicity are sensitive subjects and much more complex than discussing women’s issues. Different racial groups have different experiences, cultures and backgrounds and are often treated in different ways or survive better in different ways throughout our welfare and national life.

I endorse the response of my honourable friend Margot James, the Minister in another place, where she talks about this being a business-led review. Many of these policies are for business to implement—business acting in its own enlightened self-interest. My noble friend has drawn on help from Business in the Community, where Sandra Kerr has been a great force over many years in this area; from the CBI; and from Professor Susan Vinnicombe, who did so much over 20 years to draw attention to the lack of women on boards; again, not by aggressive campaigning but by relentlessly putting the evidence in the face of boards, naming and shaming, and celebrating best practice. I am delighted that my noble friend has taken this approach in her report.

I am equally pleased that in their response the Government have taken up their responsibility to act not as a legislator over business but to demonstrate best practice as an employer. I support the areas where the Government have said that they are reluctant to enforce legislation now but, my goodness, I am pleased about what is happening in the National Health Service. If the National Health Service is the biggest employer in the country, how right it is that it should demonstrate best practice. When we spoke in this House about my noble friend’s report before she commenced it, I spoke about the work that I had done with the NHS in 1993, working with the noble Lord, Lord Ouseley, talking with groups of people from black and ethnic minorities about their experience. I said then:

“I want to stress that taking action to promote equality in employment is not just a matter of moral justice or of fairness to people from minority ethnic groups. It is good, sound common sense, and it makes business sense too”.

It costs £230,000 to train a doctor. We want to be sure that every doctor’s training is well developed and they have the chance to get to the top. But why has it taken so long for those fine words, expressed in a heartfelt, sincere fashion, to translate into action?

That is why my noble friend is so right: this is not about words but action. I believe that those lessons are being learned. I am delighted that the chief executive of the NHS, Simon Stevens, himself chairs the NHS Equality and Diversity Council. A contractual requirement to drive race equality in the employment of NHS staff is written into the standard contract. Workforce data have to be published, as does information on the proportion of trust board members from BME backgrounds, the relative likelihood of BME staff being appointed once shortlisted, and on the importance of non-mandatory training and monitoring contracts. I say that because this is the Government acting as employer rather than imposing excessive rules and regulations on business. I very much hope that that will deliver a result.

Similarly, in the higher education field, if we are thinking about the pipeline and development, particularly of black and ethnic minority people such that they can fulfil their potential, all the way through we want to see people from black and ethnic minorities getting the best possible and fair opportunities. We know that in higher education there are all too few vice-chancellors from black and ethnic minorities—there are too few women but there are even fewer people from black and ethnic minorities. The noble Baroness, Lady Amos, as the vice-chancellor of SOAS, was the first black vice-chancellor, and I hope that there will be many more. However, we cannot ignore the lessons. The Equality Challenge Unit investigated the subject and came out with its recommendations last year. The House will be familiar with the themes: set up mentoring systems, formal and informal; ensure that there is representation and diversity on interview panels; set up BME networks within individual HEIs; and ensure there is access to relevant training. We hear these themes time and again, and have done for so long that people cannot now imply that they have not heard them.

There will be change only when this is owned at the highest level. Therefore, the connection with Sir John Parker’s report about ethnic diversity on boards last year is another part of the jigsaw puzzle, as my noble friend so rightly says. He points out that of the 14% BME population in this country,

“only about 1.5% of all FTSE 100 Board directors” are from black or minority ethnic groups. Again, we can look at the issues behind the process of recruitment—I declare an interest as somebody who has been involved in recruitment for many years. When we recruit, we tend to look in the mirror and not through the window. Inevitably, people recruit people who they know, like and trust. Many years ago, I kept appointing people to run NHS trusts who used to work for ICI. They were very good people; I did not even know that they had worked for ICI, but I kept doing it. Somebody said, “You know they are all from ICI, Secretary of State”, and I said, “My father worked for ICI in the early part of his career”. We appoint people from our university, from McKinsey, from BP—wherever your stable was, it is inevitable. Therefore, we have to go the extra mile to ensure that we have proper training to remove unconscious bias and ensure that people can genuinely fulfil their potential.

This is a generous-spirited country. We are going through the change of Brexit, and we have had real concern of late over hate crime; this is the moment to go the extra mile. My noble friend has helped to direct us in the right way forward.