The new Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 will give local
authorities a clear duty to implement racial equality and end
discrimination. But how prepared are councils to deliver on this
requirement, asks Mark Hunter.
Ever since the Race Relations Act came into force in 1976, local
authorities have had a duty to pursue racial equality and eliminate
discrimination. Or so the theory goes.
In practice the law has lacked teeth. Consequently, far too many
local authorities have been paying little more than lip-service to
the idea of racial equality among their workforce and the
communities they serve.
Hopefully, this is all about to change. The Race Relations
(Amendment) Act 2000 came into force at the beginning of this month
and all public authorities have, for the first time, been given
clearly laid out duties on racial equality, and later this year
more specific duties are planned. Crucially, councils’ performance
is to be monitored by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE)and
the duties will be legally enforceable from April next year.
How well local authorities are prepared to deal with this
increased responsibility appears to depend where they are in the
country. According to a recent report by the CRE, Local Government
Association and the Employers’ Organisation, authorities within
London and the larger metropolitan areas have made clear progress
towards meeting their new responsibilities. In more rural areas and
those with small ethnic minority populations, however, there
appears to remain an attitude that racial discrimination is someone
The report Equality in Practice1 looks at
local councils’ adoption of the CRE’s Racial Equality Means Quality
standard for local government. This five-level planning tool was
introduced six years ago and is intended to help local authorities
take stock of their practices, introduce measures to combat racial
discrimination and plan for the future.
The standard has had something of a chequered history. Despite
being taken up by the Audit Commission in 1997 as one of its
performance indicators, early adoption of the measure proved patchy
to say the least. In 1998, the CRE found that only 27 per cent of
local authorities had adopted the standard. New impetus came in
early 1999 in the shape of the Macpherson report into the murder of
black teenager Stephen Lawrence. Chastened by the report’s reminder
that “it is incumbent on every institution to examine their
policies and the outcome of their policies and practices to guard
against disadvantaging any section of our communities”, local
councils slowly began to adopt the CRE’s standard. The latest
survey finds an uptake of 69 per cent.
However, there are still some major areas of concern. Only 41
per cent of councils that have adopted the standard have conducted
an audit. Without an audit, the report points out: “A council
simply cannot be sure of the level it has reached.” Very few
councils have progressed beyond level one or two of the standard –
only one council has achieved level four of the standard and none
has reached level five.
There are also striking differences in the performance of
different departments within the same authority. Social services
and housing departments tend to perform better than education and
environment while direct services generally perform worst of
“This suggests there is considerable scope for departments or
services within a council to learn from each other,” says the
But perhaps of greatest concern is the low uptake (less than 40
per cent) of the standard among district councils. Many of these
are in areas with small ethnic minority populations and may believe
racial equality to be of little relevance to their
This is a misguided belief, says LGA policy officer on
equalities Peter Smith, who warns that no local authority, large or
small, can afford to ignore their new responsibilities outlined in
the new act.
“The act does recognise the issue of proportionality and that
small rural authorities should not have to do as much as larger
metropolitan councils,” he says. “But there is no excuse for
ignoring those duties altogether.
“It’s fair to say that although there’s been a lot of
improvement over the past two or three years, there’s still a long
way to go. Those authorities that have moved forward on the
recommendations of the Macpherson report may be well placed to meet
their new duties. But there are other authorities where there is a
lot of work to be done.”
Those authorities that do not put their house into order could
very quickly find themselves facing legal action. Smith says:
“Although on paper the duty has been there since 1976, there’s
never been the means for a legal challenge. That is now going to
change and local authorities will have a positive duty in clearly
defined areas with the CRE playing an enforcement role. Local
government is going to have to take this very seriously
One local authority to take up the CRE’s gauntlet in the wake of
the Macpherson report was Leeds Council, which began a year-long
pilot project in July 1999. The pilot, which aimed to introduce the
standard across social services, housing, leisure, recruitment and
personnel departments, has now been adopted across the whole
Leeds social services department has now achieved level one of
the standard and is aiming to reach level two within the next 12
months. According to John England, assistant director of social
services at Leeds, one of the main benefits of the exercise was
that it encouraged a comprehensive assessment of measures that were
already in place.
“We have found it very useful to step back and look at what we
have undertaken as a department to address racial discrimination,”
he says. “Like most social services departments we have been
addressing these issues for some time. But there’s always the
danger that having addressed the issue you assume everything is
alright. The standard requires you to produce evidence of what you
are doing and once you start to do that then you do become aware of
where the gaps in procedure are.”
England cites the example on an equal opportunities awareness
training programme that had been introduced “in a big blitz” for
all social services staff. However, during the process of gathering
information for the standard assessment it became clear that due to
staff turnover the numbers of staff who had been through the
training programme had diminished significantly.
“We are now aware that this needs to be a continual process and
we also found that the training needs to look more specifically at
racial issues,” says England.
According to Leeds’ equality development unit manager Ghulam
Hussain, achieving level one was as much about gathering the
evidence of what the department was already doing as it was about
introducing new policies.
“We had to show that we have up-to-date policies that are
reviewed on an annual basis, that consult the local community and
are endorsed at senior management level,” he says.
Evidence submitted to the CRE included details of the
department’s anti-harassment policies and its equal opportunities
Evidence of endorsement by senior management was offered by the
minutes of the social services department’s equal opportunities
group, which is chaired by social services director Keith Murray.
Minutes of the quarterly meetings of the social services race
equality forum were also submitted. This forum is chaired by an
assistant director and includes more than 60 representatives of
local ethnic minority groups.
Leeds’ social services employee recruitment and retention
policies include a departmental directive that each selection panel
must be chaired by someone who has been through equal opportunities
training. All first-line managers are briefed on equal
opportunities awareness and the department has annually reviewed
targets on recruitment from ethnic minorities. The staff induction
process includes equal opportunities awareness briefings and all
recruitment advertisements are cleared by the department’s equality
development unit and must be run in the ethnic minority as well as
mainstream press. There is a black workers group, which meets
regularly to discuss issues relevant to black and ethnic minority
Examples of community development policies, submitted to the
CRE, include the appointment of an Asian family placement
development officer to improve recruitment of adoptive and foster
parents from the Asian community in Leeds.
“This had been quite slow but we have seen some significant
progress,” says Hussain.
Other measures include the production of a directory of
information for people who care for children from ethnic minorities
and a booklet of information for looked-after children from ethnic
minorities. “This has been extremely popular and taken up
nationally,” says Hussain.
A meals-on-wheels service specifically aimed at ethnic
minorities is also currently being developed.
“Most of these are things that we were doing already and we have
introduced minor changes to fit in with the CRE standard,” says
1The London Borough of Hammersmith &
Fulham on behalf of the Commission for Racial Equality, the
Employers Organisation for Local Government and the Local
Government Association, Equality in Practice, February
What is the standard?
The CRE’s Racial Equality Means Quality standard sets out a
framework for improving performances on race equality in the
following five areas of activity:
- Policy and planning
- Service delivery
- Community development
- Corporate image
Within these areas are five levels that councils can attain,
depending on how much work they have done:
- Levels1 and 2 are about developing policy statements and action
- Level 3 and 4 relate to improvements that should happen as a
result of implementing the policies.
- Level 5 is a reserved for councils that re national leaders in
achieving racial equality.