Friday, 17 June 2011

Positive Discrimination

Last night, I debated the following motion at the Cambridge Union: "This house believes that no discrimination can be positive." I was supported by outgoing President Francesca Hill and Julie Meyer (from Dragon's Den). On the other side, Gordon Brown's former PPS (Baroness Angela Smith), Baroness Haleh Ashfar (a prominent Muslim feminist) and a PHD student (called Jan - apologies I missed the surname).

This is the speech I gave (check against delivery):

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen.
Forty-five years ago today, Nelson Mandela was shipped out to Robben Island to begin a life sentence.
He told the court he was ‘prepared to die’ for the ideal of a society based on equal opportunity.
Last November, University of Cape Town Professor, Neville Alexander, who spent a decade with Mandela on Robben Island, railed against plans for racial benchmarks in university admissions.

He said “The government under apartheid did the same and we told them to go to hell.”
If ever there was a historic case for positive discrimination quotas it is South Africa.
But wherever it has been tried, it has proved bitterly divisive.

My father came to Britain as a refugee, a Czech Jew.
He married my mother, an English Protestant.
I married a Brazilian Catholic.
When we have children, I’ve got no idea which box they should tick on the diversity questionnaires. I hope they've been scrapped by then.
Because I want my children to grow up in a metocratic society, where they are judged as individuals – blind to race, religion, gender and sexuality.
And if we prize equality as a value, not a political bandwagon, we must apply it consistently.
There’s not two types of discrimination - good and bad, negative and positive.
They’re both wrong, on principle - and counter-productive in practice.

As a new MP, I’m surprised at the creeping Westminster consensus in the direction of positive discrimination.
Let me give you three examples, hangover provisions from the last government’s Equality Act.

First, the draft Regulations that would require 27,000 schools, police forces, councils and other public bodies to audit their staff on grounds of ethnicity, gender, sexuality, gender-reassignment, disability, religion, even political beliefs - so they can be judged on how well they are promoting minority groups.
Frankly, it’s pretty Orwellian for an employer to ask for that kind of personal information.
And I think the council has better things to be doing than counting the number of Protestants, Presbyterians, Pentecostals - let alone pagans, and post-Marxist progressives.
My constituents just want the bins collected on time.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s think this through.
Once you’ve conducted your staff diversity audit, what do you do with it?
How do you know the optimum social mix of a council in Cornwall, or a police force in Yorkshire?
Should there be benchmarks or social quotas that mirror the national population, the local area or the profession as a whole?
Do we really want our society carved up according to such artificial social categories?
The second example is the debate about gender quotas.

I have to say I am fed up with the militant agenda that belittles the enormous progress Britain has made in becoming a more tolerant and open society.
Of course, there are still social creases in modern Britain.
But, the gender pay gap has halved since the 1970s.
A man working full time earns on average 10% more than a women.
But, that looks less like endemic discrimination - and more like the challenge many women face of combining career and having a family.
If it was the result of latent prejudice, why do women in their twenties earn 2 percent more than men (on the latest ONS figures)?
Why do single, separated or divorced women earn 1% more than their male counterparts?

Sure, the number of women on FTSE 100 Boards is far too low -but it’s doubled in 10 years.
The number of female MPs in my party almost trebled at the last election.
And half the top posts in the civil service are now held by women.

Sure, we need more progress.
But, the answer is not the quick fix of anti-meritocratic quotas.
Countless women have told me they find quotas insulting and stigmatising.
And they don’t deal with the problem.

We need less of the 1970s gender warfare that pits the couples against each other in an outdated battle of the sexes.
We need more family friendly policies, like transferable parental leave, so couples can choose how to share the responsibilities of being breadwinners and child-carers between them - a common challenge most couples go through together.

And, by the way, we need to stop devaluing women - or men - who want to stay home because family is more important to them than their career.

The third, and worst, example is the gradual introduction of positive discrimination in recruitment.
One of my constituents, a young graduate, wanted to apply for one of the three work placement schemes at the Foreign Office.
He wrote to me in bitter disappointment when he was barred from even applying for the three FCO schemes, because he is white, male and middle class.
Similar bars exist on schemes are running in the Metropolitan Police and wider civil service.
They’re morally wrong, socially divisive and a political gift to the BNP.

The Equality Act goes further, allowing firms interviewing several more or less equally qualified candidates, to make diversity the decisive factor in the recruitment process.
How many here today knew that law quietly entered into force in April?
So when you leave university.
After all that hard work.
When you are interviewed for the job of your dreams.
It may be decided, not on the basis of your talent, but on social quotas.

Like, TV presenter Kat Akingbade who recently won a top Channel 4 role.
Later her boss told her she was picked because she was black.
Totally crushed, she told the Independent on Sunday: ‘Positive discrimination robs an individual of drive and self-motivation - it completely undermines the achievements of the hard-working and truly gifted.’
Is that the kind of society we want?

It gets worse.
Ludicrously, the list of favoured minority groups includes those holding, not just religious, but also political beliefs.
So, presumably, multinationals, like McKinsey, have to hire their fair share of Trotskyites and anarchists?
And The Guardian has to fill their quota of Thatcherites?
I’m not sure who I pity more.

Again, in practical terms, if firms engage in positive discrimination, how do they know when they have the right social mix?
Well, the bureaucrats produced some guidelines.
Employers don’t need any statistical data on under-represented groups. No empirical research.
The boss can just get together existing staff and ask which minority groups they feel are under-represented.
I have a picture in my mind of David Brent gathering his team at Wernham Hogg, and asking which minorities they are excluding.

But, ladies and gentlemen, this isn’t just daft political correctness.
It’s divisive.
Not the kind of society I want for my children.
And not the kind of society I want for you.

I want a society where you’re treated as an individual.
I want a society where the only thing you are discriminated on is talent and hard-work.
I want a society where in the words of the great Martin Luther King, you’re judged on the content of your character.
No more, no less - and I commend this motion to the House.


Keith Evetts said...

Good speech. I largely support. How about the kind of discrimination where bigwigs in companies or the professions give a hand to their relatives or the offspring of their friends, or on the hallowed system of mutual back-scratching? Clegg says he opposes (but seems to have profited from it); Cameron says he's in favour. Where do you stand o9n that, Dom?

Dom Raab said...

It depends what we are talking about. You can't blame parents for trying to set their children up with work experience. That said, I think any recruitment decision should be on merit. I run a work placement/ volunteer scheme in my office, and would only ever offer the position based on merit.

Keith Evetts said...

The critical issue is assessing 'merit' - whether this should be achievement itself or whether it should take into account the context in which the achievement is made. If it is the achievement itself, then we have the problem that for the well advantaged, the achievement is easier. This is where the well-intentioned 'positive discrimination' stems from. I think that it is when 'positive discrimination' becomes codified and institutionalised that its obnoxious aspects arise. As we will never be able to ensure that all have equal advantages, it would be better to concentrate on assessment of merit in its fullest context and - perhaps - require employers to take context into account?

Dom Raab said...

That sounds like a recipe for a bunch of very subjective non-meritocratic factors to be taken into account, and a burden on employers. In my view, if we are worried about disadvantage, we should focus on improving state schooling and family breakdown, rather than corrective social engineering.

Keith Evetts said...

Not totally relevant to the thread, but of interest too me, is the way in which the meaning of words changes through use. 'Discrimination' and 'discriminating' used to be positive not pejorative words - as in 'a person of discrimination' or 'a discriminating connoisseur.' I do find it unsettling when the language is insidiously inflected by politics so that 'the ability to perceive distinctions' becomes code for 'the selective application of advantage/disadvantage'.

Paul said...

So true. Manufacturing outcomes is a pernicious endeavour. To bring in more of one group because they are under-represented is to assume that all groups are equal. And I'm sorry to say that that is clearly not true. Not every group skews equally across all fields of endeavour - be it arts, sciences, mathematics, business. Equal opportunities are key to ensuring we, as a country, remain competitive. But precluding or including people based on gender, religion or race can only undermine this. It can only result in people being short-changed due to factors that have nothing to do with their innate skill. It's the comfortable face of discrimination. The frustrating thing is this form of 'PC science' seems to be seeping into all parts of society. It seems people prefer to believe the palatable lies (we are all different, but somehow also all equal), rather than face the ugly truths and consider how we create a society that works best given these truths.

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