Race and immigration have been the touchiest topic in British public life for nearly 50 years. Today, Government policy is markedly more intelligent than any previous administration’s but it is still spooked by a grim history.
Two generations ago, the debate lumbered around the question ‘should they be here’? Policy was driven by the ignorant opinion that there was something wrong with immigration and successive Governments simply tried to stop it.
Thirty or so years later, is Britain a changed place? Yes and no. Firstly, there are simply fewer people alive who thought that post war immigration was temporary and then failed to adjust to the reality that it wasn’t. Britain has become a country that is enormously advantaged by a flow of new arrivals - be they from Bangladesh or the Balkans - that enrich the country. Indeed the Home Office has recently announced that migrants are net contributors to the public purse - contributing more in taxes than the cost of public services they use. The Government’s policy now acknowledges that inward migration increases GDP whilst the social and cultural impact on our economy makes us ‘a richer and more diverse place to live’.
Secondly, the settled populations from Asia, Africa and Caribbean really are here for good and their 3rd and 4th generation kids prove it. The rest of the world has also become much closer and more integrated whilst tolerance and multiculturalism have taken root as a dominant political outlook.
Yet nasty brutish racism has never been far away. And now a new anxiety has emerged that questions the robustness of our assumptions about tolerance and the experience of integration. It singles out the Muslim faith and asks if it is really compatible with Britain’s new tolerant secularism. Foreign and domestic events have led to a questioning of Muslims loyalty and commitment to Britain. The fact that these questions are asked suggests that our newly acquired tolerance is thinner than often assumed.
The Government’s response has been bewildered and piecemeal - resorting to ideas that reinforce stereotypes of disloyalty and non-integration. Yes, English language competence is a critical work-relevant skill and low fluency is a profound barrier to the labour market. But it is wrong to suggest that English should be a mandatory test for acquiring citizenship or that poor English skills imply low commitment to being British - many white people might fail that test.
Yet a much more important set of questions must be asked. Why are ethnic minorities still so economically disadvantaged - not just those who are relatively recent arrivals but also amongst populations that are long settled?
The Performance and Innovation Unit - Downing Street’s think-tank - has just published a very thorough analytical report examining the complex economic and labour position of Britain’s ethnic minority population (see p14 this issue). The fact that the PIU is devoting considerable time and effort is in itself an encouraging sign that the Government regards this as an important policy problem.
Significantly, the PIU recognises that, whilst ethnic minorities in general experience persistent disadvantage, there are also significant variations between different communities and within them too.
What should Government do? Firstly, recognise that a range of ‘special initiatives’ have failed because they are too tightly focussed on symptoms of disadvantage. Better remedies lie in making widespread improvements to general public services and to the experience and expectations that ethnic minority communities have of these - especially the police and judicial system, health, education and local authority housing services.
Secondly, do ethnic minorities suffer disadvantage because they have settled in areas of poor economic opportunity? If so, a major thrust of policy must be to promote local economic development and encourage higher levels of mobility and a more fluid housing market.
Thirdly, the Government needs to acknowledge where the labour market is failing. Although ethnic minorities presently account for just 7% of the workforce, because of demographic factors, these population groups will account for half of all growth in the labour force in the next 10 years. These workers are vital for our future. If they are held back, we will all suffer the consequences. So the education and skills system has to ensure higher success rates.
Employers have to ask serious questions about their recruitment practices and the subtle - often not so subtle - prejudicial mechanisms involved. Firms that have an institutional culture of discrimination will face acute skill shortages if they do not change. However, many businesses will not adapt to these market forces until it is too late. The Race Relations Amendment Act requires the public sector to promote race equality - to provide fair and accessible services and to improve equal opportunities in employment. But why restrict the law to just 25% of the labour market?