3 February 2023

Britain will pay the price for putting diversity above delivery


Two stories this week have put the development of equalities legislation, and its impact on public services, in the spotlight.

First, reports that the RAF may soon be found to have operated illegal positive discrimination policies in order to try and hit “ambitious” diversity targets; second, the story that Labour is planning a fresh tranche of racial policies, including giving ‘African heritage firms’ a ‘fair’ share of government tenders.

Together, these stories are a reminder for centre-right people of a depressing fact: that however useless the Conservatives are – and they’ve had 13 years in office to repeal or amend the Equality Act, rather than just bleating about its effects – on many fronts a Labour government would be much worse.

Not just because of the text of any new policies but because, as the RAF story illustrates, many organisations will likely start gold-plating the requirements of legislation – even up to the point of actually breaking the law themselves.

Why might an organisation such as the Air Force be tempted to pursue compliance with such zeal that it ends up unlawfully non-compliant? The simple, if cynical, reason is that for any bureaucracy, targets related to process are much easier to hit reliably than targets related to outcomes. 

What’s more, outcomes-based targets which can be brute-forced through process – ensuring that 40% of recruits are female by 2030, for example – are easier to manage than end-use targets, such as having an operationally effective Air Force.

We spot this trend in politics and government all the time. The sugar tax had no noticeable effect on obesity, so its advocates instead insist on assessing it on how much sugar was removed from soft drinks; what was supposed to be the means of delivering the desired outcome becomes, in the absence of the outcome, the purported end of the policy.

The senior leadership of the Armed Forces have their share of questions to answer about the core functions of their organisations. A new inquiry by the Defence Select Committee into the shambles that is military procurement, chaired by Mark Francois MP, has apparently ruffled a lot of feathers at the Ministry of Defence; our reluctance to ship surplus materiel to Ukraine en masse has raised questions about how much of it is actually functional.

You can thus see why some of them might prefer a world in which they are assessed against HR metrics instead of martial ones, or at least can retreat behind the former when pressed on the latter.

Labour’s proposals to introduce the spirit of South Africa’s Black Economic Empowerment programme to these shores might likewise find plenty of fans in Whitehall, and for similar reasons, even if the results (great for the few getting contracts, bad for the many getting services) end up being of similar shape, if not scale.

The civil service’s record of negotiating contracts with the private sector is, to put it mildly, not very good. Centralised procurement deals which somehow make equipment more expensive than it would be it off the shelf are the stuff of hair-tearing frustration among my contacts in various departments – and that’s just contracts to meet the service’s own needs.

If you are a senior civil servant responsible for such things, you certainly won’t want to admit shortcomings on the part of you or your team. Even the perfectly fair explanation – that negotiating commercial contracts is hard, doing it well requires actual commercial experience, and that people who do it well command much higher salaries in the private sector than the state is prepared to offer – still entails that tacit admission.

So again, one can see how having a different, essentially political set of criteria could be very attractive. The next time you’re dragged in front of a Select Committee to explain this or that procurement disaster, you can say something like this:

‘Our priority is always delivering good services and value for money for taxpayers, in line with our duty to deliver equality, fairness, and justice in the conduct of the department’s business. We are pleased that the Equity Commissioner has given the department a gold rating for our processes, and will strive to maintain that standard of excellence as we internalise the learnings from this event.’

The longer the laundry list of non-outcomes-focused criteria that has to be addressed in making the decision, the longer that spiel can be, so one might be tempted to start gold-plating the baseline legal requirements. After all, who’s really going to start gunning for you for being too progressive? Certainly not Labour, and if the past decade and change is anything to go by, not the Tories either.

With our combination of sluggish wage growth, high inflation and industrial unrest, the press are starting to revive the phrase ‘the British disease’. But I suggest the real British disease is accountability-phobia, and a tendency across public life to elevate the way business is conducted over how well it is conducted.

This extends beyond public sector recruitment and procurement. In Government, the gradual bloat of the Cabinet – and thus its ceasing to function as a real body for collective deliberation and decision-making – has been driven in part by increased focus on the gender balance within it.

A similar dynamic has also affected the House of Commons, with successive reforms enacted since 1998 which seem to place a greater emphasis on a chamber that reflects the sexual and ethnic composition of the nation than which actually discharges its law-making function properly. The fact that truncated sitting hours mean MPs can only speak for two minutes (or not at all!) on high-profile bills would have horrified previous generations of parliamentarians, but it is the norm now.

Labour’s Annelise Dodds attacking the Government for having a ‘women problem’ over the gender balance of media appearances is a small but depressing instantiation of a deep malaise.

Sir Mike Wigston, the Air Chief Marshal, protests that his policies entailed ‘no compromise of entry standards, no impact of the standard of recruits from any background, from the front line or from operational effectiveness’, but of course they will. Any broadening of the task away from a tight focus on standards and effectiveness will do that, because you are weighting them against different and often competing criteria.

That isn’t necessarily indefensible, if you genuinely think that the diversity element is important enough to break the law for. But it is telling that even Sir Mike recognised, when pressed, what the proper focus ought to be.

Likewise, unless Labour have evidence that superior bids from ‘African heritage businesses’ have been passed over in contract bidding, then we have no reason to expect introducing a racial quota to procurement not to degrade outcomes, at least a bit (notwithstanding the thorny definitional issue of what an ‘African heritage business’ actually is). 

Given the state’s record with tenders, it isn’t impossible that Labour’s ‘hopes to ensure that black-led groups get the chance to access a fair share of the billions of pounds paid out each year through government contracts’ refers to the share they would win on merit in the absence of actual discrimination.

But if the Opposition had such evidence we’d expect them to shout about it. It seems much more likely that the plan is in the same spirit as proposals to crack down on ‘disproportionate’ criminal justice outcomes for different communities.

The key question is: what is a ‘fair share’ of government contracts, or criminal convictions, or school exclusions, or whatever? Is it in proportion to the number of deserving bids entered, or crimes committed? Or is it simply that community’s share of the population?

Some progressives seem to argue, implicitly if not explicitly, the latter position. It is a recipe for divorcing government action from the actual country it is supposed to be trying to govern. 

And the price of that approach – in underperforming contractors, bad value for taxpayer money, disrupted education, crime rates, and more – will be paid by the country, in some cases disproportionately by the very communities in whose name those policies are carried out. It is no coincidence that in the US, most black communities do not actually want to defund the police.

Nonetheless, if Labour do win the smashing victory at the next election presaged by current polling, they will have more than enough political room to deliver such a programme. The challenge for the Conservatives will be not just how quickly they can rebuild into something fit for office, but whether they can then set aside their current role as the sanctifiers of Labour’s various revolutions and do something about it.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.