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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:30 pm on 24th April 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Bertin Baroness Bertin Conservative 5:30 pm, 24th April 2017

My Lords, it is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and I congratulate my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith on what I think is an important and thorough review. Although much has improved over the past decade, reports like this shine a clear light on the fact that more needs to be done and it serves as a timely reminder to those in power that the foot cannot be taken off the pedal. I welcome many of the recommendations. I should also point noble Lords to my interests as set out in the register and say that my employer, BT, has invested heavily in this area and strives always to do better.

It is absolutely right that a simple guide should be developed on how best to discuss race in the workplace as well as ensuring easy access to an online portal and celebrating success through a list of the top 100 BME employers. The recommendation for further government collaboration with black and minority ethnic groups, relevant employer representatives and organisations such as Business in the Community is an important one, and I am pleased that the Government will be looking to work with businesses to ensure that they do all they can to fully embed changes within their organisations.

Equally, increased transparency and annual recording of diversity statistics for businesses with more than 50 employees are potentially good ways for companies to monitor what is really going on within their operations and to ensure that they are consciously acting properly in this regard, and just as importantly, making sure that they not operating on the “unconsciously biased” level, which has been referred to in connection with ICI recruitment. The review points out that that can be very common.

For businesses’ own knowledge, it is vital that they know exactly where they are on the spectrum of workforce diversity and where improvements need to be made. If you are serious about success, you have to track progress, and to track progress, you must have the figures.

Of course, social mobility and the inclusion of all in the workplace is first and foremost a moral issue, but the economic figures cannot be ignored. The review identifies the opportunity for an additional £24 billion into our economy each year just by realising the potential of BME workers alone. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if I use this opportunity to pivot into another section of society that is woefully underrepresented in our workforce. We must ensure that we close the disability work gap and this is an essential piece of work if we are ever to ensure a fair and equal society for all. We must do all we can to make sure that disabled people can lead full and rich lives in the same way as non-disabled people would expect to, and what struck me while reading my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith’s important work is that many of the recommendations could also be applied to help improve the situation for this group of people.

The UK has one of the highest disability employment gaps in Europe. Disabled people in the UK are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people, and even more worryingly, once they are in work, disabled people are significantly more likely to experience unfair treatment than the non-disabled. I suppose that the statistic I find most shocking in this regard is that only 6% of people with a learning disability are in work, yet 65% would like to be. Here perhaps I may briefly read from a Mencap report: “Employers who overlook employees with learning disabilities miss out on valuable contributions to their businesses”. According to Mencap, “employing people with learning disabilities can improve perceptions of organisations. Employees with learning disabilities are committed to their jobs, which reduces recruitment costs and people with learning disabilities take fewer sick days than other colleagues”. So this need not be an act of sympathy and it is not about ethics, it is about real productivity and economics.

Can the Minister tell the House how closely his department has been working on a direct basis with disabled and BME people, and how integrated are its views on the problems it faces, as well as its ideas for solutions? As my noble friend points out in her review, possibly the most important piece in this policy puzzle is input from the very people it affects.

The term “work” is so much more than simply employment for any of us. It builds identity, confidence and supports independence. It is clear for both moral and economic reasons that the rate of employment among BME and disabled people, and indeed anyone who faces institutional barriers into work, needs to be put at the heart of all future employment growth strategies.