No blacks, please, we're MPs

If you want a perfect example of institutional racism, try the House of Commons itself. Anthony Bevi

Parliament passed race and sex discrimination legislation more than 20 years ago. But to look at the House of Commons itself, to say nothing of Whitehall, you would never believe it. You could wander from department to department, office to office, and see no black or Asian faces whatever. Unless, that is, you got in early, when you would see lots of black cleaners.

Parts of the Palace of Westminster, indeed, appear to operate a whites-only employment policy. Under the very noses of our MPs, the Hansard writers, badge messengers and clerks include no ethnic minority members. There are no blacks or Asians in the Vote Office, and MPs say there are few, if any, out of sight in the library, where outsiders are not allowed. In some parts of the House, there are more Freemasons than there are blacks or Asians.

The House of Commons does not break down its ethnic monitoring results into different categories of staff - in breach of the Commission for Racial Equality code of practice adopted by parliament in 1984. In 1997, Keith Vaz - the first minister of Asian origin to serve in the Commons - was given the numbers, percentages and grades of ethnic minority staff in the House. He was told that there were 24 "mainstream" or white-collar staff, amounting to about 3 per cent of employees. When he asked the same question this year, he was told that the number of blacks and Asians had more than doubled, to 49.

But he was no longer given their grade breakdown. They could be, indeed are, generally restricted to the lesser grades. The Commons estimated that 5.5 per cent of its mainstream employees were black or Asian. But that compares with 35 per cent of employees in the refreshment or catering department and with the 22.4 per cent of blacks and Asians in the economically active population in the London region.

This summer the House of Commons Commission, chaired by Betty Boothroyd, the Speaker, has been selecting a new Serjeant at Arms. He is the second most senior officer of the House, responsible for organisation and security. He gets a salary of up to £98,400, and a free Parliament Street residence. Ever since the post was created by Henry V in 1415, it has been occupied by a man, generally a former officer in the services, and always white.

The current incumbent, Peter Jennings - who retires at the end of the year - was a Royal Marine major. Before him, there was a former ambassador, who replaced a major, who succeeded a lieutenant-colonel, who followed a rear admiral. The current Deputy Serjeant, Michael Cummins, was a colonel. Of three Assistant Serjeants, one was a major, another was a naval lieutenant-commander, the third worked for the Civil Aviation Authority. Again, all male and all white.

Jennings's retirement was announced to the appropriate Commons staff on 17 May and applications to succeed him invited by 7 June. Interviews took place in July and, in the same month, the Queen approved the appointment of Cummins as the new Serjeant at Arms.

There was no public advertisement inviting applications from outside Westminster, or even a public announcement that the selection for a successor was going on.

Told what was happening, Julie Mellor, the head of the Equal Opportunities Commission, commented: "This is a very important job for which we expect to see open recruitment and selection, so as to ensure that the best possible candidates come forward. This will not happen in a situation where selection is confined to a pool known to be all male and all white."

For the Civil Service, departmental heads have signed up to a charter for action, to improve ethnic and gender recruitment and promotion. The Home Secretary, Jack Straw, said in a speech on 5 July that he was setting recruitment, retention and career progression targets not only for the police but also for the Home Office and all its services - immigration, fire, probation and prisons. The Commons has no such targets, and it does not subscribe to the charter for action.

In Sir William Macpherson's report into the Stephen Lawrence affair, institutional racism is defined as "the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin". The report adds that institutional racism "can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people". On that basis, parliament is guilty of institutional racism.

But it goes deeper than that. Recently a young black woman was walking down a corridor in the House of Lords when she passed two senior Conservative peers. Within earshot, one said to the other: "They're getting everywhere now, you know." The young woman could not believe her ears. She stopped and turned. One of the peers turned and looked at her, before turning away again.

The Commons Commission is awaiting a report on how to tackle the racism problem, following a promise given in June by its spokesman, Archy Kirkwood, the Liberal Democrat MP. The report will come from the Commons Board of Management, which has six members, including two women - but no blacks or Asians.

Yet this is not the first time the question has been addressed. If the Board of Management or the Commission were to look back through their minutes, they would find reference to a similar exercise carried out a decade ago - with no tangible result.

In 1997, when the Commission for Racial Equality was asked about the employment policies of the Royal Household (of which more later), a spokesman said: "Plenty of other people are guilty of the problem . . . As far as I'm aware, the employment policy in your newsroom is not ethnically monitored. We think it should be." It is true that very few black and Asian reporters work in the press gallery of the House of Commons. It might therefore be argued that the press should shut up, shut its eyes and ignore the problem. But the Commons risks making a fool of itself if the Home Secretary and others go around telling other people to tackle institutional racism.

Racist and sexist employment practices are as rampant in Buckingham Palace and Whitehall as at Westminster. Two years ago the Palace was challenged about its employment policies and its use of the CRE code. Again, there was no disclosure of monitoring by grade. A Palace spokesman said: "Although it's not policy to provide employment statistics, the number of current employees from an ethnic background is about 5 per cent, and that is in line with the ethnic minority representation across the Civil Service." But Buckingham Palace, like the Commons, is in London, where a fifth of employable people are black or Asian - and where black unemployment is particularly bad.

The Palace also said at the time: "Employment in the Royal Household is essentially based solely on individual merit." Of course it is; that's what they all say. They talk as if the Queen or her son were selected on merit.

Then there is Whitehall. Two-thirds of male civil servants get more than £15,000 a year, two-thirds of female civil servants get less. The result of a historical legacy, under which women were restricted to the lower orders? Maybe, but old habits die hard even under new Labour. On average, the male advisers appointed by Tony Blair's government get £6,000 a year more than the female advisers for the same work, and the advisers themselves refer scathingly to the "girls' grade". And the government's 60-odd special advisers include only one black.

Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, and the Equal Opportunity Commission's Julie Mellor said recently: "It is important that the government recognises the failure of simple exhortation to bring about fundamental change over the past two decades." They urged the government to show "the courage of its principles and use its purchasing power and funding muscle to promote equality practices among contractors and suppliers to the public sector".

But the government needs to do something about its own practices. At a recent conference a senior Foreign Office official was asked why there were no black ambassadors. He said: "It is always open to the government to make a political appointment and, if they do, it's fine by us. If the Prime Minister says, 'We're going to have a black ambassador today', we're going to have a black ambassador today."

Blair has picked a former Tory chief whip, Sir Alastair Goodlad, as Australia's next high commissioner. So why cannot he appoint a black ambassador or high commissioner? The answer is that he could, if he wanted to. And if the Foreign Office wanted to show there was a will to tackle discrimination, we would have more than six women among 150-plus heads of mission abroad.

After he became Prime Minister, Blair sent two black women to the House of Lords - Patricia Scotland QC and Valerie Amos, a management consultant and former chief executive of the Equal Opportunities Commission. There are more where they came from. Blair should lift the white man's burden, and give the rest their chance to shine.

The writer is political editor of the "Express"