18 November 2022

British ethnic minorities expect fairness – not favours


As the Treasury’s announces that it will aim to have 6% of its staff come from black backgrounds, it’s worth revisiting the debate on racial quotas in employment. 

It has been reported in The Telegraph that a memo appeared on the department’s intranet service for civil servants last week, stating that ‘for the first time in the department’s history, the Treasury introduced a new black staff representational target of 6% at all grades’. The note was published on the Treasury’s Ethnic Diversity Network (EDN) under the title ‘Time for Change, Black History Month 2022’ and was authored by a Treasury civil servant.

While this may be a well-intentioned measure designed to address labour market inequalities, there is the possibility that it could do more harm than good. Putting aside the fact that the 6% target is somewhat higher than portion of the UK which was black in the 2011 Census (3%), the simple-minded arbitrariness of it all will do little for the economic inclusion of Black British people. Indeed, it could have the opposite effect. Goodhart’s Law – ‘when a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure’ – can be applied in this context. 

The issue here is that such a measure is unlikely to command support in either the white British mainstream or the wider ethnic minority population. Indeed, the 2010 EMBES – which remains the most comprehensive study into ethnic-minority sociopolitical attitudes in Britain – found that British ethnic minorities expect fairness, not favours. While the majority believed that opportunities needed to improve for minorities, only a minority supported forms of ‘positive discrimination’. The ethnic minority mainstream opinion is that while Britain is by no means the perfect meritocracy (something I suspect much of the white British mainstream would agree with), hyper-interventionist and arbitrary targets such as racial quotas in government departments are not the answer.

There is also the risk that employment quotas tailored for a particular racial group can undermine social cohesion and community relations. The use of racial quotas does not only threaten to displace individuals that would normally be favoured in terms of personal achievement, qualifications and skill set, but will also give rise to simmering narratives that ‘reverse discrimination’ is taking place at the heart of government – where individuals in the white British mainstream (including those from deprived working-class neighbourhoods) are ‘losing out’ to minorities. There are also non-black ethnic groups of a lower socio-economic status that have experienced long-standing forms of jobs-based discrimination – such as British people of Pakistani origin with classically Muslim-sounding names – that would not benefit from a black-specific racial quota.

There is no doubt in my mind that racial quotas for government departments is not the way forward if we wish to foster a more inclusive society – one which allocates opportunities and rewards on the ground of merit and ability. While there continues to be an obsession in recruitment when it comes to protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity and religion, Britain remains an intensely stratified society where class-based ‘connection capital’ can unfairly benefit well-connected people of all races, ethnicities and faiths. This is one of the things holding back the country from fulfilling its true potential. 

Traditional working-class representation in the machinery of government – people who are well-qualified, have direct experience of where the state is not functioning well, but are not necessarily ‘connected’ – is nowhere near as high as should be. Their talent and knowledge is needed more than over if Britain is serious about “levelling up” and spreading opportunities across the regions. Effective government outreach schemes – not arbitrary racial quotas – which are specifically designed to draw in talent and expertise from youthful and energetic working-class communities, would also have the very likely effect of organically diversifying departmental teams over time in terms of race, ethnicity and religion. 

It is remarkable that after 12 years of Conservative-led rule, we are witnessing the introduction of race-specific quotas at the Treasury. It poses a risk to social cohesion and undermines the classic conservative principle of equality of opportunity. 

To have a truly inclusive workforce, it is time we focused less on existing ‘protected characteristics’ and shift our attention towards the real problem – the lack of working-class representation in government.

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Dr Rakib Ehsan is an expert on social integration.

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