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Positively mistaken


Admirable intentions do not always make for sound outcomes. As we report today, the Ethnic Minority Employment Task Force has authorised a pilot project affecting firms biding for selected contracts within Job Centre Plus offices, the Passport Agency and the Department for Education and Skills. Among other matters, companies who want this work will have to submit data on the ethnic composition of their labour force and how it relates to the demographics of the settlements in which they are located. While this will be by no means the sole determinant of whether they are hired, it could, nevertheless, be a significant element in that decision.

It is not difficult to imagine why the ministers concerned looked at this scheme. The levels of unemployment in certain ethnic communities are disturbingly high, there is some (albeit disputed) evidence from the United States that “positive discrimination” can encourage employers to look for more diverse recruits and some might take the view that the public sector is uniquely placed to engage in such an enterprise (although taxpayers interested solely in value-for-money might not be as charitable).

Yet there are a host of problems of principle and practicality that are exposed here. Neither employers nor employees may have much enthusiasm for allocating staff into assigned ethnic and racial classifications, especially as many people do not fit easily into a simple category. It is not obvious that it is the function of the state to be so intrusive or to add additional bureaucratic conditions when tendering for many public contracts is already a notoriously complex affair and costly as a consequence.

There might be many reasons why the ethnic make-up of a particular business could differ from its surrounding community, not least because there will be other fields in which workers from minority backgrounds are “overrepresented”. The term “ethnic communities” covers an increasingly wide range of individuals, some of whose “group” have unemployment rates that are at or below the national average and not well above it.

If this initiative is pursued, then it is likely to become a sociologist's paradise. Arcane assessments will need to be made as to how precisely to evaluate a workforce and then determine whether or not a reasonable effort has been made to be “proportionate”. It would not be surprising if the businesses involved concluded that seeking contracts at places such as Job Centre Plus offices was not worth the trouble and withdrew from consideration. If so, nothing positive will have come from this positive discrimination.

Ministers are right to think that government can play an active role in this area. That is best achieved, though, in concentrating on the fundamentals — education, training and ensuring the best possible employment information — not a ham-fisted attempt to manipulate hiring practice through access to public expenditure that will take the merit out of meritocracy. August might be an apt time quietly to set aside this misguided innovation.

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