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Robert Higham and Alpa Shah.
17 October 2010.

Positive Action and Community Cohesion in the UK: Issues for India and Nepal.

On 1st October 2010 a new Equalities Act came into force across the UK. The Act introduced new measures on positive action and extended anti-discrimination legislation into the domains of religion, age and sexual orientation. This is a report on a conference held during the 2010 UK summer (July 8th) in Bloomsbury, London to debate this new legislation, with particular reference to multiculturalism. Challenges to multiculturalism have being aired increasingly in the UK and also across Europe as exemplified by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, who declared on 16th October 2010 that multiculturalism had ‘utterly failed’ in the German context.

While UK and European circumstances may seem remote to the hotly contested debates over affirmative action in India, or to the related nascent policy making in the Nepalese Constituent Assembly, there are some important overlaps. Most notably: whether and how affirmative or positive action policies can impact on unequal access to higher education, employment and (now in the UK) political representation; more broadly, how legislation and public policy should respond to social segregation and related discrimination within complex multicultural, multifaith and classed societies.

A direct comparison of the UK, India and Nepal was not attempted at the London conference but a comparative concern for South Asia lay at the heart of its inception. The conference was part of a three year British Academy UK-South Asia partnership that aims to analyze debates over affirmative action in India and Nepal and to consider their implications for emerging policy making in both countries. The partnership is led by Alpa Shah at Goldsmiths, University of London, Ajay Gudavarthy at Jawaharal Nehru University and Mukta Lama at Tribhuvan University, with core members Sara Shneiderman at University of Cambridge, Sanghamitra Mishra at Delhi University and Rob Higham at Institute of Education, University of London. Having undertaken research in India and Nepal in 2009, and before moving to engage with the Nepalese policy process in 2011, the partnership sought to consider the UK context as an alternative policy approach to ingrained inequalities and discrimination.

At the conference, the UK’s New Equalities Act was the focus of the first two papers by Maleiha Malik (Law, Kings College, University of London) and Theo Gavrielides (Director, Independent Academic Research Studies). While Indian or American forms of positive discrimination/affirmative action were shown to be illegal under UK legislation, public and private sector employers have been allowed (but not required) to undertake limited forms of ‘positive action’. This has included targeting job advertising or work-based training at individuals from underrepresented groups (who are defined to have ‘protected characteristics’ such as race or gender).

The New Equalities Act extends positive action to a wider range of groups eligible to receive such ‘special encouragement’ (from existing race, gender and disability groups to religion, age, pregnancy and sexual orientations). The Act further enables public sector bodies (i.e. Local Government, hospitals, schools etc) to preferentially target service delivery to meet specific needs of particular groups. It also allows political parties to (a) make reservations in committee seats (as long as this does not constitute formal employment) and to (b) reserve places on electoral candidate shortlists where specific groups are significantly underrepresented.

Perhaps crucially the original Act, as written by the now defeated New Labour Government, additionally allowed (but did not required) public and private sector employers to use under-representation to differentiate between candidates for employment. The heated debates over merit in India were to sidestepped here by only allowing such positive differentiation to occur as a ‘tie-breaker’ between candidates of equal merit. The new (Conservative Party dominated) UK Coalition Government has however removed these clauses from the Act’s recent implementation.

This is a regressive step. Yet, as Malik argued in London, even New Labour’s original measures were in and of themselves insufficient. Such legislation cannot unpick structural inequalities without significant supply side measures. These should include new publicly funded opportunities in education, training and employment for underrepresented groups. There is some sad irony here. Just as the seminal UK Race Relations Act of the 1970s came into force at a time of fiscal crisis, the New (slimed down) Equalities Act comes into law just weeks before the Coalition Government announces (on 20th October 2010) unprecedented c25% cuts to the public sector. For Gavrielides, this means the Act, with new public sector duties on discrimination and positive action, will be implemented at a time when public services themselves are likely to face increasing privatization.

These issues were addressed with more optimism by Anthony Heath’s (Sociology, University of Oxford) focus on procurement for equality. This is an area in which the UK is beginning to draw on American experience. Indeed it also holds relevance to South Asia as, in India for instance, public sector contracts and increasingly being secured by private individuals and companies. Heath showed how the UK’s leading edge is Northern Ireland where Catholic and/or Protestant under-representation in various private sectors has been successfully reduced by adapting and extending the US Federal Contractor Programme. The latter determines that companies with more than 50 workers that win state contracts worth more than $50,000 must submit annual affirmative action plans detailing numbers of employed men and women in different racial and ethnic groups. The companies are subject to potential compliance reviews by the US Department of Labour and failure to comply can lead to debarment from future federal contracts.

In reviewing lessons from these approaches, as well as pilot attempts by Transport for London, Heath argued that traditional UK approaches requiring private sector organizations to have equal opportunity policies are insufficient, as these too often exist as ‘empty shells’. Instead, action plans are needed and, crucially, some form of state monitoring of progress is essential. These lessons extend to the public sector. As Gavrielides argued, UK anti-discrimination legislation has to date followed a ‘reflexive’ approach in which legal duties on public bodies are reviewed and assessed by those same bodies. For Gavrielides this is naïve. To be meaningful, both private sector procurement and public sector duties for equality need clear action plans, timescales and powers to impose legislation.

These issues of equal access are situated within wider contemporary challenges to multiculturalism. In the UK this relates strongly to a growing perception that multiculturalism has enabled different ethnic groups to be segregated or self-separated from mainstream (white) society. This allegedly is what underpinned several weeks of social unrest in northern urban England in 2001, involving mainly British Pakistani and Bangladeshi and white British young men. The Government has been persuaded by such critiques of the need for both greater social integration and a stronger common and shared notion of what it means to be British. The policy manifestations of this have most notably been community cohesion (that includes a new duty on public bodies to increase the percentage of citizens willing to say that ‘people from different backgrounds get on together’) and citizenship (which includes new lessons in schools and for immigrants on British values).

At the conference these policy agendas were substantially critiqued. David Robinson (Geography, University of Sheffield Hallam) demonstrated that the community cohesion agenda was based on assumed rather than evidenced segregation. In relation to housing, Robinson argued there was no evidence of ethnic ghettos at a national level. In urban areas where increased ethnic residential concentration had occurred it was due to new in-migration and birth rates rather than by greater self-separation by existing citizens. There was evidence that the latter had in fact increased their geographical mobility.

Developing this critique, Kalbir Shukra (Goldsmiths, University of London) considered ethnic minority self-segregation in historical perspective. In 1970s UK, this could be seen as a rational response to discrimination and as an attempt to build a successful politics of self-empowerment. In contrast, contemporary self-segregation was interpreted as problematic and a basis for radical extremism. Relatedly, growing anti-terror policies (including Prevent) meant that, in the crucial field of community and youth work, a core philosophical message of ‘being different but equal’ was increasing hard to communicate to excluded minority ethnic youth. They were now cautious of local youth workers becoming the ‘eyes and ears of the surveillance state’.

Audrey Osler (Education, University of Leeds) traced a similar trajectory in schooling. Innovative multicultural and anti-racist approaches of the 1970s had been excluded from the new national curriculum of the 1990s. When citizenship lessons were subsequently included they encouraged a weak version of diversity that was drown out by dominantly negative media imagery of race and in particular migration and Islam. Such media, post the bombings in New York 2001 and London 2007, needs to be understood, Nazar Meer argued (Sociology, University of Southampton), as a reaction against ‘ethno-religious communitarianism’ and its associations to terrorism. Minority group and especially Muslim claims to social and political particularism are increasing difficult to accommodate and subject to intense media inspection, especially where they might involve preferential treatment.

The theme of preferential treatment was further explored by Gareth Harris (Birkbeck, University of London) in relation to the recent rise of the right-wing British Nationalist Party (BNP). The BNP has sought to attract ‘white working class’ voters by exploiting perceived economic threats (to private sector jobs and public sector resources) and cultural threats (to local values and customs) posed by immigration. A particular BNP focus has been on how local Government housing and benefit resources have been preferentially offered to immigrants and minority ethnic groups. Harris showed however that BNP voters were not predominately the most poor and culturally excluded whites, but characteristically (semi-)skilled, housing-owning older white working class men, who were particularly angry about immigration, crime and terrorism and fear of being geographically trapped in areas of cultural and ethnic change.

The discussions that followed posed questions about the unintended effects of state policy, preferential treatment, Islam and the rise of identity politics over anti-racism in the struggle for resources. This bore important comparisons to India, especially in concern over the rise of right wing political parties and the implications of politically networked ‘creamy layers’. A recurrent theme was how, while ethnicity and gender have featured strongly in contemporary UK debates, (socio-economic) class became conspicuous by its absence under New Labour. Structural drivers behind intolerance, material disadvantage and institutional inequality have been downplayed with multiple consequences. Policies such as community cohesion have been vague and content-light. Cynicism has grown among poorer and working class communities, both minority ethnic and white. A Government inspired by ‘labour’ failed to challenge increasing inequality and decreasing social mobility.