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Is the government moving towards positive discrimination?

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The Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has published a report it commissioned from the University of Bristol into programmes that help tackle low levels of ethnic minority unemployment.

As HR Zone reported last week, the DWP has also published a separate report into the commercial benefits of diverse workforces.

The Bristol report, by Dr Ravinder Singh Dhami, Professor Judith Squires and Professor Tariq Modood examines whether initiatives in Northern Ireland, the Netherlands, Canada and the United States have been successful and if they could be applied to Great Britain.

While the Netherlands and the UK stand out within the EU as countries that actively promote race equality policies, in Canada and the US contract compliance has been identified as an effective positive action tool for pursuing equality of opportunity.

Although some contract compliance exists in the UK – it is usually limited to areas such as health and safety or insurance. In the US and Canada it has been broadened to include diversity in the workforce.

In the US companies with more than 50 employees are required to produce a written affirmative action programme within 120 days of winning a government contract if it is worth more than $50,000. The programme includes monitoring of all personnel activity including recruitment, promotion, transfers and dismissals.

Once a firm has won a federal contract, then contract compliance applies to it as a whole – including divisions which are not a party to the contract.

The Bristol report suggests that the government should consider adopting contract compliance in the UK.

It points out that the US experience indicates that providing preferential treatment for unqualified individuals is not popular and can be counter-productive but that promoting diversity in a non-mechanistic manner does have widespread support.

The report says: “Contract compliance is the most effective instrument for promoting positive action in employment and particularly well suited to changing key employers’ practices with minimum pain and resistance.”

It adds that it is important to create an institution to oversee contract compliance programmes, they should be well-resourced and bureaucracy-light.

The report adds: “In addition to being clearly and coherently explained and defended, positive action policies need to be backed up by robust enforcement mechanisms if employers are to comply. These should entail mandatory goal-setting and vigorous enforcement, including sanctions (such as debarment), by government.”

Welcoming the research Jim Murphy, minister for employment and welfare reform said: “This research raises a number of interesting ideas about how we can approach the problem of low rates of ethnic minority employment, such as using the public procurement process, something which we are already considering.

“The Government has an ambitious target of achieving an 80 per cent employment rate – to reach that we must ensure we do not allow anyone to fall by the wayside.

“We are determined to do more to ensure that the skills and talents of those from ethnic minorities are not wasted. It is vital that everyone has equal access based on their ability to the opportunities that exist within the labour market.”

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