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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:22 pm on 24th April 2017.

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Photo of Lord Kirkham Lord Kirkham Conservative 5:22 pm, 24th April 2017

My Lords, to minimise the danger of repetition, the scourge of all debate, my contribution is based principally on my personal experience of more than 70 years as a UK-based born and bred citizen, more than 50 years of learning about, building and directing the affairs of UK retail businesses, and more than 25 years’ involvement with charities that are dedicated to improving the prospects of young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

I start by focusing on the absolute no-brainer business case for employing people from the widest possible pool of talent, a concept I think it is impossible to dispute with any credibility. The extensive retail experience I alluded to encompassed founding and running stores, regional chains and national retail organisations, and successful FTSE companies employing from fewer than 20 to more than 20,000 people. It is generally acknowledged that the best armies have the best soldiers and the best football teams the best players, and that yes, the best businesses employ the best people. So why would any company aspiring to long-term success and prosperity not recruit the very best staff and management it could afford, regardless of their race, religion, gender, age, sexual orientation, size, shape or anything else? There is no valid reason. Why would I or any retailer do any other, when the customers who cross the threshold of our stores are a cross-section of British society today—multiethnic, multicultural and multilingual, and with an equal variety in the depths of their pockets and in their tastes? It is basic kindergarten common sense to ensure that our businesses employ the very best management and staff, enabling us magnificently to fulfil our corporate aims. Clearly, having the widest choice of talent by recruiting from the biggest possible pool is an obvious and easy way of achieving this.

The business case and the moral case march hand in hand to say that no one should be overlooked for a job or for promotion because of where they were born or how they look and speak. But we can and should do more to help those from black and minority ethnic communities to present themselves as the best candidates for any job. That is not just a matter of qualifications but of attitude and, in particular, self-belief. My close involvement with charities that work tirelessly to help disadvantaged young people make the most of their life chances—the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and Outward Bound—have demonstrated to me how much can be achieved by helping the young to gain confidence, resilience and leadership skills. Many youngsters who benefit from these experiences are in fact from minority ethnic communities in our inner cities, and businesses that we work closely with can point to direct and tangible benefits from integrating the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award, for example, into their apprenticeship programmes.

Ultimately, the best way that we can reach the goal of everyone getting the best job that they can, limited only by their own talents and aspirations, is to ensure that they are the best they can be. We can do that through education and training in schools and voluntary organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and by changing attitudes permanently and raising ambitions so that no one thinks that any position is above or beyond them.

Positively influencing the developing attitudes of the young is undoubtedly the key to creating better workers without bias who will have the drive and determination to perhaps become tomorrow’s leaders. They will also be better parents and citizens. But making job applicants better can be only part of the story. As the noble Baroness said in her excellent report, we also need to change attitudes within business. We are all sadly familiar with the sentence that begins, “I’m no racist but”, and the speaker genuinely always believes what they say. But their bias, even if unconscious, is still there. Such attitudes have grown up over generations and it is not realistic to imagine that they can be changed overnight. In changing attitudes rather than simply actions, evolution trumps revolution every time. That has certainly been my experience, which is why the best way to achieve the fine objectives of equal opportunity and equal rewards is one that puts more emphasis on persuasion than on regulation.

I have been a marketeer all my life and I have been mightily impressed by the powerful and effective attitude-changing, long-term heavyweight marketing campaigns mounted by Governments in recent decades. I am going back a bit now, but if we take road safety as an example it was not just changing the law that made people wear seat belts but advertising on TV every night that helped persuade us of the benefits. Now “clunk, click every trip” is a given. Assisted by graphic and emotive advertising, Governments have achieved a huge impact in recent years in making smoking cigarettes socially unacceptable. Drink-driving, long illegal, is similarly becoming beyond the social pale as the closure of thousands of pubs bears witness. That is an outcome massively influenced by the Government’s hard-hitting multimedia marketing.

Those changes in attitudes may have taken time, but that will always be the case where bad habits and prejudice have deep and ancient roots. While we cannot dig out unconscious bias overnight, it is well proven that it can be done over time. I know from my own experience that not only can we enhance the performance of businesses in the UK, we can create a happy and more cohesive society by maximising diversity in both recruitment and promotion. The business and the moral cases could not be better linked or clearer and I urge the Government to push this message hard and relentlessly out there with all the conviction and marketing expertise that I know they have at their disposal. The sooner we start the better. As my noble friend Lady Bottomley said earlier, it is all about action not words.