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.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder