Mohammed Ali: Investing in BME talent can only benefit the UK

Another week, another report. This time it’s the turn of the CMI and British Academy of Management, which are asking businesses to do more to create ethnically diverse workforces.

A few weeks ago the Citizens’ Commission on Islam, Participation and Public Life entered the fray. It has just finished touring the country talking to local authorities, schools, universities, think-tanks – and just about everyone else – about how and why Muslims are prevented from playing a more active role in society.

In June, a Social Mobility Commission report highlighted how growing pay gaps are helping to create a ‘them and us’ society and in March Baroness Ruby McGregor-Smith published her review of the issues faced by businesses developing black and ethnic minority talent in the workplace.

Only two months previously the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration recommended that all immigrants should have learned English before entering the UK or be enrolled on compulsory ESOL classes on arrival. Its findings came hard on the heels of the Casey Review into integration and opportunity, which wanted to see new approaches to breaking down cultural barriers and funding for community-based language classes.

Last year, the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Healing A Divided Britain highlighted the plight of migrant workers and produced shocking statistics showing that people from ethnic minority backgrounds are much more likely to be unemployed and low-paid and less likely to secure an apprenticeship or a senior management position. It followed a House of Commons select committee report calling for programmes to improve labour market participation in areas of high Muslim unemployment.

The front cover of the 95-page McGregor-Smith review said simply ‘The Time For Talking Is Over. Now Is The Time To Act’. If only that were true. For organisations like QED Foundation, which has been trying to level the playing field between disadvantaged ethnic minority communities and their white counterparts since 1990, none of this is news. We work with the victims of Britain’s labour market inequalities every day and we know just how much more difficult it is to for people from black and Asian backgrounds to find a job, let alone secure a position that is commensurate with their skills and qualifications. For Muslims in particular, who face additional barriers to progress due to their religion, the outlook is bleak.

There has been some good news. Unemployment is at its lowest since 1975 but I suspect that a disproportionate number of those who are still looking for work come from ethnic minority communities. What is certain is that more and more people are trapped in low-paid jobs and struggling to make ends meet, with those from BME backgrounds feeling the pinch the most. So all of these reports would be very welcome if they resulted in new Government initiatives to implement their recommendations. But, as yet, there has been little sign of this.

Meanwhile, organisations like QED Foundation are paying the price of Government inaction. Like so many others, we relied on EU funding and this helped us to support 1,000 people a year to integrate into British life.

But now almost three decades’ experience of grass-roots work is under threat. For six years more than half our funding came from the EU.

But all that came to an end in June 2015. Since then we have lost many of our experienced staff and those who remain are working greatly reduced hours. Worse still, instead of delivering much-needed services to help people into employment, we are having to devote much of our time and energy to seeking replacement funding.

We have been meeting Government Ministers and officials for more than two years now. They agree that our work is needed but so far there is little sign that anyone is prepared to pay for it.

Small charities like QED Foundation that deliver at neighbourhood level can achieve outstanding results because they have an in-depth knowledge of the communities they serve. The problem is they can’t compete for contracts that pay on outcome because this requires large amounts of capital that are beyond their reach. Nor can they survive on piecemeal funding from trusts and foundations.

The application process is now so competitive that many of these funders are rejecting 90 per cent of bids and most grants will support only small-scale initiatives.

As Baroness McGregor-Smith says, now is the time to act. If we invested in making the most of the UK’s BME talent, it would boost our economy by £24bn. But if the Government continues to do nothing to help everyone fulfil their potential, we will all be much poorer.

Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is the founder and chief executive of QED Foundation, a Bradford-based charity that works to promote the social and economic progress of disadvantaged ethnic minority communities.

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