Baroness Neville-Rolfe – 2016 Speech on Black and Minority People in the Workplace


Below is the text of the speech made by Baroness Neville-Rolfe in the House of Lords on 3 May 2016.

My Lords, the driver for this debate is that earlier this year the Secretary of State asked my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith to lead a review into the issues faced by business in developing black and minority talent from recruitment through to the executive level. We will be hearing from my noble friend shortly, and I know how much she will value noble Lords’ input into her review.

We need to move towards a world where ethnicity and indeed gender are not issues and only skills and experience count when it comes to assessing suitability for appointments. We are not there yet and there is much to do, but I believe that we have made progress. Consider my Secretary of State: the son of a bus driver in Rochdale and then living in a deprived part of Bristol, he rose through hard work to become a vice-president at Chase Manhattan at the age of 25 and the first BME Cabinet Minister at the age of 44.

My noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith herself is another extraordinary role model, the only Asian and female CEO of a £2 billion FTSE 250 company. She has championed change in the workplace by making the best use of female and ethnic minority talent. She has done that through her generous public contribution as a role model, first as chair to the Women’s Business Council and now as chair of the new BME talent review. Having a debate to gain insights into the issues she is addressing in this review, with secretarial support from BIS, at this early stage in her work is an excellent one. The review is looking at the business and economic case for employers to harness the potential from the widest pool of talent. I believe that we need to reach a situation where the prospects for BME individuals who want to progress at work are as good as those for their white counterparts in the same situation—neither better nor worse.

My noble friend’s review will look at obstacles to progress, including cultural and unconscious factors. I would like to make a small diversion to tell a story about how culture and attitudes can change for the better over time.

Richard Stokes MC was a brave and talented engineer who became a managing director of Ransomes & Rapier, the Ipswich engineering firm, at the age of 30. He tried to join the Conservative Party to fulfil his political aspirations, but it would not consider him as a candidate because he was a Roman Catholic. Wounded but not bowed, he joined the Labour Party instead and became MP for Ipswich, where the votes of his 2,500 employees were very useful in keeping his seat. He had a successful career, running the firm part-time and campaigning on important issues such as the inadequacy of Allied tank design; the justification—or lack of it—for the bombing of Dresden; and the ghastly forced repatriation of Yugoslavs after Yalta. He even served briefly in the Cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, before an early death. That man was my great-uncle, Uncle Dick. But the important point of the story for today’s purposes is that discrimination against Catholics, which he suffered from so acutely—in his case in the Conservative Party—has totally gone. A similar change in attitudes to BME is taking place, and that will continue.

There is evidence to that effect. I quote from the House of Lords Library Note of 29 April, produced for this very debate. It notes that the employment rate gap between the overall population and ethnic minorities is still at 11.1 percentage points. It goes on to add, significantly, that the gap has been decreasing, albeit gradually, since the series began in 1993. I believe that that accurately summarises where we are—moving in the right direction but still with a way to go.

Looking at our own House, it is a great pleasure to see my noble friends Lord Popat, Lord Sheikh and Lord Polak in their places today, each with a long history of serving business and their communities—they are role models for us all. The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, has also had a career full of challenging and high-profile roles. I am also delighted to see the noble Lord, Lord Adebowale, in his place today—he has campaigned tirelessly to improve the life chances of the homeless and unemployed—as well as the noble Baroness, Lady Hussein-Ece, who is a role model in community health. Moreover, no debate on the subject would be complete without the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Handsworth, whose passion for cricket I share. I also see the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, in his place; he and I used to work together on the UK India Business Council. Our debate today shows that ethnic minority talent is there for all to see on all sides of this House.

The review will also look at data and their role. I am opposed to quotas but I know that when the industry-led review by the noble Lord, Lord Davies, started to collect data and articulate good practice, it changed attitudes in companies. At Tesco, where I sat on the plc board as an executive, we used to monitor our top female talent and look out for opportunities to advance them. We also identified top talent of non-British origin. For us as an international company, it was important that we reflected, and were seen to reflect, the diversity of our operations. In an international company, a diverse board inspires a greater degree of solidarity within the company and a sense of fair play. One of my sons works for a French bank in the City of London, and I can tell noble Lords that that illustrates globalisation in action.

Another strand to the review’s work is promoting best practice. Sharing ideas is a great way to secure results and promote innovation, as we have seen with the Business in the Community Race Equality Awards. This year is the 10th round of annual awards, and some of the previous winners have truly inspiring stories.

Another important feature of best practice is understanding what does not work, which certainly leads to improvement. I know that my noble friend will be interested to hear of any examples that have not had the desired effect or, even worse, have hampered opportunities for ethnic minorities. As we know, the key to understanding what works and what does not is to monitor the impact of that activity and ensure buy-in from all levels of the business—something I know my noble friend is driving in her own company.

BME entrepreneurs can be rich sources of growth and of British success. In a recent debate in the other place, the Culture Minister Ed Vaizey spoke with great passion about the changes taking place in broadcasting and the opportunities it brings. This will no doubt be reflected in the BBC charter White Paper, which is due later this month.

However, for success we need better education and better training outcomes in this country. That is the best way of achieving opportunities for all. Quality apprenticeship schemes are an absolute priority for the Government. They will give us an opportunity for employer-led development and a route to success for people who do not want to go to university or who have not done well enough at school.

Improving our schools by a relentless focus especially on English and Maths means that all pupils, regardless of their background, are engaged and challenged to make the best use of their abilities. I was therefore glad to read that, for example, 81% of black African pupils achieved the expected level of attainment in reading, writing and maths at key stage 2, which is slightly above the national average of 80%.

Another important strand of the Government’s work is to encourage integration so that communities are brought together, celebrating our shared British values rather than focusing on what divides us. Work led by DCLG on cohesive communities is important. Louise Casey was asked to carry out a review of how to boost opportunity and integration in these communities, and that includes how we can ensure that people learn English. This is vital. In England and Wales, over 750,000 people have only poor or even no English. Unsurprisingly, migrants with fluent English are much more likely to be in employment and earn 20% more than those without such skills. Poor English appears to be a particular problem in Muslim communities. In 2011, 22% of Muslim women in England spoke poor or no English, compared with 2% of the overall female population.

Finally, fair recruitment matters, so that people do not feel discriminated against when they apply for a job. The announcement by the Prime Minister last October regarding the adoption of name-blind recruitment by a number of public and private sector employers is an important step in ensuring that this fairness exists and is seen to exist. Organisations such as HSBC, Deloitte, Virgin Money and KPMG, which are responsible for employing a combined 1.8 million people in the UK, joined public sector employers to show their commitment to fair recruitment.

This is an important debate and I look forward to learning a great deal from the experience and expertise of those assembled here this evening.