Omar Khan, Director of the Runnymede Trust, assesses the prospects for ethnic minorities under the new Conservative Government.
The Prime Minister David Cameron’s commitments during the 2015 campaign will continue rather than reduce racial inequalities in the labour market. His underwhelming targets suggest we need better evidence, proper legislative scrutiny and public debate to make democracy and fairness a reality for Black and minority ethnic people.
In the final two weeks of the 2015 Election campaign, Prime Minister David Cameron gave a speech in Croydon with a message to ethnic minority voters. These included a clear rejection of Lord Tebbit’s cricket test (and not simply the easier condemnation of Enoch Powell), as well as the positive message that a Conservative government would support minority faith schools and the benefits of free schools for ethnic minority parents.
In the speech Cameron also referenced employment outcomes. This is hardly surprising, given worse employment outcomes for all Black and minority ethnic groups, and that in the 2010 election unemployment was the single most important issue for BME voters.
A brief scan of the Prime Minister’s promises appears positive: a seeming commitment to clearly specified targets, including ‘20% more apprenticeships’. However, on closer inspection, the promises simply commit the government to the existing underperformance of the apprenticeship policy, and so a further entrenchment of ethnic inequalities in the labour market.
While the Prime Minister positively affirms that 190,000 apprenticeships were taken up by BME people in the last Parliament, that figure represents only 9.5% of the total of 2 million. Not only were BME people 26% of applicants (and so nearly 3 times less likely actually to secure an apprenticeship), but race equality organisations and others have been directly asking ministers at the DWP and BIS how they are going to improve these disappointing figures.
On first glance, the ‘20% more apprenticeships’ figure for BME young people looks like a clear recognition of and response to the rise in ethnic inequalities delivered by the apprenticeship policy from 2010 to 2015. However, Cameron’s commitment is that BME people will secure 300,000 of the additional 3 million apprenticeships in the next Parliament, i.e. 2015-2020. This is still only 10% of the total number, meaning that the Prime Minister’s target is for BME applicants to be 2.5 times less successful in securing apprenticeships compared to their white British peers. Consider also that 20% of 18-24 year olds are BME, or twice the Prime Minster’s target, and the much higher rates of unemployment (typically double the white British rate) among BME young people. This suggests that the Government will not seek to reduce racial inequalities even where they are very large and even for 18 years olds living in Britain today.
The Prime Minister’s commitment on employment more generally also initially appears promising: 660,000 more BME people in employment by 2020. This is indeed an impressive-looking figure, and again suggests the Prime Minister is establishing a bold, clear target. However, digging into the numbers, this commitment simply appears to reflect the changing makeup of the working age population over the next five years. Briefly, the older people retiring over the next five years are much less diverse than the younger people joining the labour market over that same period. For example, in the 2011 Census, there were 704,000 BME people aged 20-24, or 20% of the total. Conversely, only 6% of the 3.2 million people aged 60-64 were BME. The commitment to 660,000 more BME people in employment is therefore simply a statement of demographic change in Britain, and appears to require no action from the government to achieve.
Three points follow from this analysis. First is that the Government has a tendency to quote overall numbers when discussing the labour market, for example the overall number of people in work, or the overall number of BME people getting apprenticeships. They much less frequently cite the various employment rates, or the proportion of people employed, either for the overall population, or for particular demographic groups, whether women or BME people. Because the overall population is growing, as is the BME population (from 5% in 1991 to 14% in 2011 to 30% by 2051), overall figures will always appear positive. Yet if we look instead at employment rates, or the proportion in work or getting apprenticeships, the figures are far less flattering, and suggest no real improvement in the labour market.
Second is that even if we are generous in interpreting the Prime Minister’s commitment as a ‘target’, it is a very low bar, and one that should easily be cleared, at least in the case of apprenticeships. The third and final point is that the Prime Minister’s commitment will result in no improvement – and perhaps a worsening – of ethnic inequalities in Britain. Runnymede and others have questioned before whether policies that benefit all will in fact benefit everyone fairly or equally, but the apprenticeship commitment is in practical terms a commitment to implementing a policy that knowingly and predictably results in less BME people being successful. This not only falls short of an expectation that policies might actually reduce existing inequalities, but it also suggests that government will be unmotivated even to ensure so-called ‘universal’ policies fairly benefit everyone.
In 2012 the Prime Minister rejected the need for equality legislation as so much red tape on the grounds that no government minister or civil servant would ever directly or indirectly design policies that harmed ethnic minorities and other groups. Or, as he put it, ‘We have smart people in Whitehall who consider equalities issues while they’re making the policy.’ Previously we might have viewed this claim as benign ignorance of the unconscious and unintended ways in which seemingly fair and universal policies can have unfair and unequal outcomes. With these new ‘promises’, there are only two conclusions: either the Prime Minister and his aides are unaware of the facts about ethnic minorities in Britain today, or they are unconcerned about the fact that their policies will result in rising ethnic inequalities in the labour market. While briefings about the facts might better inform the clever people in Whitehall and in the Cabinet, proper implementation of the equality duty and greater public mobilisation against racial inequality are the only ways to respond to the latter.
Omar is also a partner of CoDE, the Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity.