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Theresa May must tackle BAME employment barriers

HARD-HITTING: Theresa May must take a tough approach to workplace discrimination

IF A week is a long time in politics, then it feels like another era when, in the heat of the 2015 general election campaign, the then Prime Minister David Cameron set out his ‘2020’ targets for tackling ethnic inequalities in education, in the work place and in self-employment.

Cameron’s rationale was clear: despite marked improvements in educational achievement among ethnic minority pupils, there is a sustained gap in employment outcomes between ethnic minority and white people. In 2015, 63 per cent of BAME people were employed – eleven percentage points lower than the overall employment rate. There has been little improvement in outcomes since the financial crisis. And on a whole host of other measures – apprenticeship take-up, enrolment in Russell Group universities, and the likelihood of earning above the living wage – large gaps still persist.

Black African and Caribbean people face a distinct set of challenges in the labour market. Black Caribbeans are the only ethnic minority group less likely than white people to be graduates. On the other hand, Black Africans are especially likely to be over-qualified for their jobs, and are more likely than other ethnic groups – with the exception of Pakistanis and Bangladeshis – to be paid below the living wage.

Nevertheless, one year on after Cameron’s announcement, his successor Theresa May might be tempted to dismiss the targets as an electoral ploy to win over ethnic minority voters. Indeed, the 2020 targets do appear somewhat contrived, with the number ‘20’ shoehorned into every possible measure: by 2020, the proportion of apprenticeships taken up by young BAME people is pledged to go up by 20 per cent; the number of BAME students going to university is pledged to go up by 20 per cent; and the number of BAME people in employment is pledged to go up by – you guessed it – 20 per cent.

But while the cynics may be right about the origins of these targets on the Conservative campaign trail, by no account does this mean they should be forgotten in the wake of Brexit. As a Conservative campaign commitment, the targets should be honoured and respected in full. They represent an important plank of David Cameron’s ‘life chances’ agenda – an agenda to which May has given her support. If May wants the Conservatives to whole-heartedly embrace tackling social injustice then she should recommit to the 2020 targets.

In fact, if Theresa May wants to be seen as a true social reformer, then she needs to go further than just recommitting to the targets. While some improvements in outcomes will occur naturally – as the working age population simply becomes more ethnically diverse – May needs to match the rhetoric with substantive policy change to ensure the targets are met in full.

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Of course, what that change is will depend on the specifics of the target in question. Focusing again on the employment target, three priorities stand out.

First, the government should put their money where their mouth is. There needs to be additional investment at the local level for schemes and services that support young BAME people into work. This could be part of the new Cohesive Communities programme that the government announced last year and that it is expected to be launched alongside the final report of the Casey review on integration.

Second, the government should consider a tougher monitoring system for employers to tackle discrimination. May has called for a more responsible capitalism and has not balked at efforts to clamp down on businesses illegally employing irregular migrants in her role as Home Secretary. She should apply the same hard-hitting approach to workplace discrimination. A range of options are available: for instance, tasking the Equality and Human Rights Commission to hold annual ‘CV tests’ to identify evidence of employer discrimination by sending out applications to employers from fake candidates with the same experience but with names of different ethnic origin; introducing new rules to ensure diverse interview panels for large companies; or publicly naming and shaming sectors and regions where the employment gap between ethnic groups is greatest.

Third, the 2020 targets need to be complemented with a clearer set of objectives and accountability measures. The government should use additional, more ambitious targets – for instance, narrowing the gap between the BAME employment rate and the white employment rate – alongside the original pledges. It should also make bigger and more regular public statements about the targets in order to raise public awareness. As it stands, few people know about the targets and there is little information about them in the media or even on the GOV.UK website.

An annual review of government progress towards the targets could be introduced to increase media attention. And, in a further bid to improve accountability and make sure the issue doesn’t fall of the government’s radar, the new PM should appoint a minister to be responsible for the comprehensive delivery of the 2020 targets.

If the government steps up action on all three fronts, then by committing to the 2020 targets Theresa May’s government will not simply be taking on Cameron’s legacy – she will be forging a new path for tackling racial injustice in her own right.

Marley Morris is an Institute For Public Policy Research (IPPR) research fellow. Follow him on Twitter: @marleyamorri.

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