Positive discrimination has arrived in the U.K. But will it work?
It is every fair-minded employer’s nightmare: what to do when landed with two equally qualified and suitable candidates (to the extent that it is possible for two persons to be equally qualified and suitable) with one being white, middle class male, and the other a woman or a person from an ethnic group?
Either choice is fraught with risk in a climate of heightened racial and gender sensitivities, and a strong sense of entitlement that people derive from an assortment of equal opportunities laws. Hire a white male candidate at the cost of an equally qualified woman or a non-white aspirant and you risk being sued for racial or gender discrimination. And, try employing a woman or a non-white candidate ignoring the claim of a white applicant and you could end up before an employment tribunal for practising reverse discrimination.Lifeline
But now the British government has offered employers a lifeline. In a move that has already provoked controversy, it has proposed that it will be legal for employers, torn between two equally able candidates, to discriminate in favour of the person from a group which is under-represented in their company.
Last week, Equality Minister Harriet Harman braved Lok Sabha-style scenes in the Commons to announce plans that would bring the idea of affirmative action to Britain for the first time. This would apply across the board irrespective of gender, race or ethnicity so that native white Britons would be as much entitled to positive discrimination in places where they are not properly represented as members of ethnic groups would be in white-dominated institutions.
For example, Ms Harman said, if a headmistress wanted to discriminate in favour of a male candidate to redress the gender imbalance in her school, she would be free to do so. Similarly, companies with few women employees would be allowed to give preference to women candidates when faced with a choice. Ditto for ethnic groups: companies which were ghastly white would be right to choose an ethnic minority candidate over an equally qualified white person in the interest of ethnic diversity at workplace. ‘Equal and fair society’
The idea, she said, was to end the “entrenched old boys’ network” at workplace and also help organisations such as the police to reflect the communities they served better by hiring more women and ethnic minority staff. “A society which is equal and fair is one which is more at ease with itself,” she said.
But critics called it political correctness “gone bonkers” and accused the government of trying to justify another form of discrimination in the name of equality. “It’s not positive, it’s just discrimination,” ran a headline in right-wing The Sunday Telegraph.
There have been cheap personal digs at Ms Harman for her perceived old-fashioned political correctness with commentators referring to her as Ms “Harperson.” Even in liberal circles, there is some queasiness about her plans which, it is feared, could lead to calls for quotas for women and ethnic minorities. “It’s a slippery slope once we go down this path,” a critic said arguing that enlightened employers were already conscious of making sure that their staff reflected the country’s diversity. Any attempt to “dictate” to them could actually backfire.Help for employers
The government says that by proposing to legalise positive discrimination, it is simply trying to help employers who want to hire under-represented groups but hesitate for fear of being sued. “We are telling them that they can now go ahead and do it without looking over their shoulders,” one Minister said.
But will it work? Britain’s Race Relations Act is 40 years old but racial discrimination is still pervasive, especially at workplace. Employment tribunals have a field day dealing with complaints of racism not just against individual private employers but also against state-run public services. Britain’s police force, declared “institutionally racist” a decade ago by an official inquiry, continues to be dogged by allegations of racism. Even as I write, one of the country’s most senior Asian police officers is threatening to sue the Metropolitan Police for racial discrimination.
Tarique Ghaffur, Assistant Met Commissioner, is reported to have prepared a dossier running into “hundreds of pages” to back his allegations. This follows the case of a senior Sikh officer, Gurpal Virdi, who successfully sued the Met for racial discrimination and harassment and won a multi-million pound compensation.
An independent inquiry confirmed racist practices in the Met and made a series of recommendations. That was six years ago but apparently things have not improved, judging from the Ghaffur case.‘Hideously white’
Racism is also alleged to be rife in Whitehall and such high-profile public-funded bodies as the National Health Service and the British Broadcasting Corporation, which one of its own former director-generals famously described as “hideously white.”
The broadcasting industry in general remains predominantly white despite a “forest of initiatives, schemes and action plans” to promote equal opportunity as Samir Shar, an independent producer and a member of the BBC’s Board of Directors, pointed out last week.
“The difficult truth I want you to accept is this: the equal opportunities policies we have followed over the last 30 years have not worked … the upper reaches of our industry, the positions of real creative power in British broadcasting, are still controlled by a metropolitan, largely liberal, white, middle class, cultural elite — and, until recently, largely male and largely Oxbridge,” he said in a speech to the Royal Television Society.
In such a climate, is there a chance for Ms Harman’s grand project to work? Or, as her critics anticipate gleefully, will it end up as another nod to political correctness?