Seeking equality

Though not truly radical, the government's Equality Bill represents a welcome marker, argues the Dir

Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, came out fighting as she introduced the government’s long awaited Equality Bill, arguing that "[i]t will make Britain a more equal place, and help us build a stronger economy and fairer society for the future".

What black and Asian communities will want to know, however, is if this bill will strengthen the race equality agenda and tackle some of the persisting attitudes that hold talent back - a central concern for organisations such as Operation Black Vote.

Take the case of Marcia - not her real name - a 35-year-old black women who came through one of OBV's mentoring schemes. She walked one day though the magistrates courts, tapped her code into the door that gave her staff access.  Once inside she looked around at some of the photos of distinguished magistrates.  A white woman approached her, "Madam", she said politely, "members of the public are not allowed here, you’ll have to...". Before she could finish, Marcia produced her staff permit.  "Oh, okay, that’s fine came the reply". 

After some time Marcia gathered up her notes for the morning ahead.  "Court rise", came the bellowing voice from the court well as the three magistrates entered through the back door. Marcia along with the two other sitting magistrates took her place on the elevated bench.  The woman who was previously about to usher Marcia out of the restricted area respectfully bowed her head, as is the tradition of court clerks, to the three magistrates. Marcia remained impassive, but inside she was punching the air, "Yes, yes, yes!".

The OBV mentoring schemes, such as the one that helped Marcia, aim to ensure not only that public institutions are more inclusive and representative, but also that society's expectations about what certain people can do are changed. In essence the government’s Equality Bill aims to do the same but on a grander scale. Its objective, in no small measure, is to challenge prejudice and ensure greater equality of opportunity. Being an activist impatient for greater social and racial justice I would have hoped for a more radical bill, one that would have included for example, the right to have all-black political short lists - to help address the low numbers of black and Asian MPs (after all, the only measure that has radically changed the make up of women MPs) - or having anti-discriminatory duties that cover the private sector as they do the public sector. 

Nevertheless, there is much in this bill for a progressive modern society to applaud and embrace. I am particularly encouraged by the new public sector duty to consider reducing socio-economic inequalities. This will benefit both those very poor white working class areas dotted throughout the UK, as well as many black and Asian areas that are also subject to high levels of deprivation.  Understanding and acting upon factors of race inequality will still be vitally important but this systematic parallel approach takes away the oxygen that helps fuel a common misrepresentation - that black and Asian communities are prioritised over poor white communities.

Another significant area of the bill that I hope will make our society fairer is the proposal to use public procurement to improve equality.  The government plans to demand that those seeking contracts from the staggering £175 billion public procurement purse must demonstrate their equality credentials.

When we consider the irrefutable evidence that some women and black and Asian individuals are not being afforded jobs or promotion because of their race or gender, this equality barometer should set a standard to at least force those big businesses seeking government contracts to put their houses in order.

For all of this to work effectively the Commission for Equality and Human Rights (CEHR) must raise its game. Contrary to recent claims, institutional racism in the police force and many other bodies has not gone away. Therefore, the CEHR must fine-tune its role by giving each strand of equality the necessary space to articulate its priorities, and above all ensure that the stick of enforcement is at least as visible as its carrot in encouraging best behaviour.

Those who equate fairness and equality of opportunity with political correctness will surely despise everything about this piece of legislation.  There are others, myself included, who believe that the government has missed an opportunity to be truly radical.

Nevertheless, at the very least this bill sets down a marker that states, "even in, or especially in the worst economic recession for a generation, equality profoundly matters". By achieving greater equality the Marcias of this world will not look out of place on Her Majesty’s elevated benches, in FTSE 100 boardrooms, heading up City Hall, or walking into Downing Street.   

Simon Woolley is Director of Operation Black Vote

Simon is Director and co founder of OBV. He sits on a number of Gov Task forces tackling race inequality. He writes in the national media and is a regular contributor in the Black press.