The ever growing unemployment among ethnic minority groups is no secret in the UK. It is becoming more obvious than ever since the rates are more than twice as high as among white people of the same age. It was recently reported by the Office of National Statistics that unemployment among Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) group has doubled since 2008. Interestingly, the Government appointed researchers found that those with an African or Asian sounding surname had to send about twice as many job applications as those with a traditionally English name even to bag an interview.
Way back, before the general elections, David Cameron promised the Conservatives would tackle inequalities as did the Liberal Democrats, by claiming to put an “end to discrimination” in their manifesto. So what happened?
The body in charge of curbing inequality and human rights abuses – Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC / the Commission) has faced some drastic new changes and severe cuts to its budget. The newly appointed EHRC chief, Baroness Onora O’Neill, neither has the background nor can boast of previous experience in the field of equality or human rights. It is hoped that she does not disappoint those looking forward for the Commission to play an important role.
Some of the commissioners (Baroness Meral Hussein Ece OBE and Simon Woolley) appointed by the previous government were unable to make it to the shortlists, let alone renew their position under the new rules. They were issued with automated job responses that informed them that they were not worthy to do the job anymore. This is nothing but a poor reflection on the Commission which itself is becoming a victim of some sort. Although, the Commission has done some good work at times but it needs to admit that it has not been able to successfully combat discrimination, one of its crucial functions, and this can be partly attributed to the government’s interference with its functioning and inaction to act on the Commission’s investigations.
It is believed the budget cuts imposed on EHRC could possibly strip it of its “A” list status by the United Nations. The “B” list status is usually enjoyed by countries such as Kazakhstan and Congo-Brazzaville. The UN commissioner on Human Rights, Navanethem Pillay, had earlier issued a warning to the Home Secretary, Theresa May, stating “I would like to call on your government to review some of the proposals with a view to preserving EHRC’s independence and to ensuring its continued compliance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions”.
The government’s undue interference with these bodies, designed to safeguard people against inequality and human rights abuses remain unexplained. Maria Miller, Minister for women and equalities rather very vaguely and unconvincingly tries to make her case when she promised that the changes are meant to make the EHRC more effective and authoritative. However, only time will tell if these assurances carry weight or are mere rhetoric.
EHRC definitely needs more powers to make it independent and authoritative in order to achieve its objectives. But the government seems to be doing just the opposite by imposing staff and budget cuts and also by denying it a diverse representation. The new commissioners may not have a black or Muslim member among them. The government rarely seems to listen to the EHRC anymore and the decreased powers and reduced funding only serve to cripple the body from carrying out its duties effectively. Ultimately, it is the vulnerable that will be affected.
The government may claim unavailability of meritorious candidates did not allow them to appoint commissioners from diverse backgrounds. However, it is quite similar to an explanation given by organisations for denying employment to ethnic minority candidates at times i.e. you are not good enough and there were better candidates available. Most of the times, such reasoning is offered as an excuse to deny job to a deserving candidate because of his / her race or beliefs. Those who discriminate usually make it a point to use this argument of non-availability of meritorious candidates and not compromising on the quality of the candidate, this is even though at times there may be no set strict criteria to shortlist candidates. It is not only patronising but offensive at times.
Maybe it is time for the government to step back and keep away from any sort of interference which may impact work of such bodies. It is high time we had a more robust and an empowered watchdog but the government seems to maim these crucial bodies which are supposed to uphold the very essence of equality and human rights.
Author: Amit Kapadia
Amit is the Executive Director of the HSMP Forum. He campaigns against issues such as – unfairness, inequality and human rights abuses.
Twitter @ amit_kapadia