We can move further and faster to bring diversity to the board room

Conservative Party Vice Chairman calls for government action to expose disadvantage and discrimination in the hiring of non-white candidates.

In a move designed to put the focus on gender diversity in the workforce, the government recently published regulations which include the requirement for listed companies to disclose the number of women and men within their organisation as a whole and at senior and board levels. The government has now also called on all executive headhunting firms to publish the numbers of men versus women they place in senior positions.

But the government should look into going further. Whilst gender balance is one measure of workforce diversity, ethnicity is another. Championing workforce diversity should be about improving both.
 
The regulations should be extended so listed companies also have to set out the number of employees from both white and black and ethnic minority (BME) backgrounds within their workforce as a whole, as well as at senior and board level.

Just as there is under-representation of women at senior levels there is also under-representation of those from non-European ethnic backgrounds. The latest figures from the Office for National Statistics estimate that around 12 per cent of the population in England and Wales has a non-white ethnic minority background.

By contrast, the overall proportion of ethnic minority male and female directors on the board of FTSE 100 companies is only 4.4 per cent and 1.3 per cent respectively, according to analysis published this year by Cranfield University. And only seven of the 48 male directors from minority backgrounds, are known to be British.
 
It is a real concern that there may not always be a level playing field when it comes to applying for a job. The All Party Parliamentary Group on Race and Community has just published a report on ethnic minority female unemployment which concludes that discrimination can be found at every stage of the recruitment process - when assessing applications, during interviews, at recruitment agencies and also in the work place itself. Just having a non-European name may stop a candidate from getting an interview.
 
To throw light on this the government could consider introducing a further disclosure regulation with listed companies required to breakdown, by gender and ethnicity, the total number of job applicants, interviewees and new employees over the past year. This would certainly help to highlight companies and sectors where either, ethnic minority candidates and women are just not applying in any number, or where they are not getting interviews.

Some may explain a low level of interviews to minority background applicants by the fact that not enough qualified candidates are applying.
If this really is the stumbling block, it should reinforce the need for companies to undertake more outreach work and mentoring to achieve, over time, a workforce representative of today's society.

Appointing people to jobs on merit and experience is absolutely right. But the proposed new regulations are about taking companies one step further towards focusing on what they need to do to increase diversity in the workforce.

Companies with diverse boards are more effective and outperform their rivals. If a company's workforce and senior management are representative of its customers, it is more likely to make decisions which respond to their needs and hence ultimately benefit the business. And that virtuous circle is one which every company should be looking to square.

Alok Sharma is MP for Reading West and Conservative Vice Chair with special responsibility for BME communities

The way things were and often still are. All white men. Source: Getty

Alok Sharma is the MP for Reading West and Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party with special responsibility for BME communities.

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How tribunal fees silenced low-paid workers: “it was more than I earned in a month”

The government was forced to scrap them after losing a Supreme Court case.

How much of a barrier were employment tribunal fees to low-paid workers? Ask Elaine Janes. “Bringing up six children, I didn’t have £20 spare. Every penny was spent on my children – £250 to me would have been a lot of money. My priorities would have been keeping a roof over my head.”

That fee – £250 – is what the government has been charging a woman who wants to challenge their employer, as Janes did, to pay them the same as men of a similar skills category. As for the £950 to pay for the actual hearing? “That’s probably more than I earned a month.”

Janes did go to a tribunal, but only because she was supported by Unison, her trade union. She has won her claim, although the final compensation is still being worked out. But it’s not just about the money. “It’s about justice, really,” she says. “I think everybody should be paid equally. I don’t see why a man who is doing the equivalent job to what I was doing should earn two to three times more than I was.” She believes that by setting a fee of £950, the government “wouldn’t have even begun to understand” how much it disempowered low-paid workers.

She has a point. The Taylor Review on working practices noted the sharp decline in tribunal cases after fees were introduced in 2013, and that the claimant could pay £1,200 upfront in fees, only to have their case dismissed on a technical point of their employment status. “We believe that this is unfair,” the report said. It added: "There can be no doubt that the introduction of fees has resulted in a significant reduction in the number of cases brought."

Now, the government has been forced to concede. On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Unison’s argument that the government acted unlawfully in introducing the fees. The judges said fees were set so high, they had “a deterrent effect upon discrimination claims” and put off more genuine cases than the flimsy claims the government was trying to deter.

Shortly after the judgement, the Ministry of Justice said it would stop charging employment tribunal fees immediately and refund those who had paid. This bill could amount to £27m, according to Unison estimates. 

As for Janes, she hopes low-paid workers will feel more confident to challenge unfair work practices. “For people in the future it is good news,” she says. “It gives everybody the chance to make that claim.” 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.