Bristol City Council has caused a furore by banning white people from applying for a traineeship because it wants to boost staff diversity. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph the two-year training opportunity is only open to people from black or ethnic minority backgrounds because the “normal recruitment process was not rectifying” under-representation. The Council claims it can circumvent race discrimination laws because the traineeship does not guarantee a job at its conclusion. However, the scheme has been criticised as “totally racist” and Tory MP Philip Davies has said “It is an utter outrage and the council should be hanging its head in shame”. On the other hand Bristol Labour MP Kerry McCarthy said, “I would support schemes like this – it gives people an opportunity”.
So what is the law in this controversial area? Perhaps the best known example of positive discrimination is the use of “women-only shortlists” in the selection of parliamentary candidates. Again, the stated reason is to address under-representation. The general position is that positive discrimination in employment is banned although Harriet Harman is known to support a change in the law to address inequality. However, employers can give training and support exclusively to people from disadvantaged socio-economic backgrounds. This is because, technically, it is not regarded as positive discrimination because there is no legislation prohibiting discrimination based on socio-economic background. In Bristol’s case, of some 9000 staff, 8370 are white. When addressing inequality based on race the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000 gives public authorities a statutory general duty to promote race equality. The Equality and Human Rights Commission has the power to enforce adherence to the duty by issuing compliance notices. EHRC guidance identifies training as a specific area in which the duty should be applied.