Poor data risks departments ‘remaining ignorant on racial discrimination’

Written by Tamsin Rutter on 12 June 2018 in News
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Women and Equalities Committee calls for urgent action to improve data collection across government

Maria Miller, chair of the Women and Equalities Committee. Credit: PA

The quality and depth of data on ethnicity collected by departments varies widely, which is hindering efforts to tackle racial discrimination in public services, according to MPs on parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee.

The committee welcomed last year’s Race Disparity Audit examining the inequalities inherent within public services, and the government’s Ethnicity Facts and Figures website launched to keep track of inequalities facing black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) people in the UK.

But in a new report it said that data collection across government was inconsistent, and in some cases not happening.

“Without consistent information too many government departments will remain ignorant of the uncomfortable truths they are responsible for tackling,” the report said.


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The Race Disparity Audit revealed the scale of inequality in the UK. It found, for example, that employment rates are higher for white people than for ethnic minorities, and that ethnic minorities are under-represented at senior levels across the public sector.

Alongside the audit, government published the Ethnicity Facts and Figures website based on 130 datasets, 20 of which had never been published before. The government said it had identified 300 datasets across departments, agencies and the Office for National Statistics that could be analysed by ethnicity, but they varied in quality and depth so had not all been analysed as the website went live.

The report by the Women and Equalities Committee, published yesterday, warned of a lack of consistency in how data is collected across government. The categories used to collect information vary widely, making it difficult to analyse and reach conclusions on necessary action, it said.

It called for departments to adopt the same categories as are used in the Census, as “the minimum standard for data collection on ethnicity” in all official datasets and administrative data.

The report also covered the policy response to the Race Disparity Audit. Last October prime minister Theresa May called on departments to examine the racial disparities revealed by the Audit within their remits, and to “explain or change” them.

The MPs’ report highlighted work by the Ministry of Justice in response to the Lammy Review into the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system, as well as action taken by the Department for Work and Pensions to work with employers on diversity issues, and the review of exclusions being undertaken by the Department for Education.

But it pointed out that these activities were begun before the Audit was completed, and said the government must demonstrate new action is being taken as a result of the Audit.

The committee called for specific areas of racial disparity to be prioritised, including educational attainment, employment outcomes and housing status, and for action plans to be developed by the relevant departments.

The MPs also called on the Cabinet Office, which led work to develop the Ethnicity Facts and Figures website, to take a role in coordinating and enforcing departmental plans, as well as identifying actions that require a cross-departmental response.

“Each government department should publish its own ‘explain or change’ analysis of the Race Disparity Audit, setting out a timetabled plan for action and including cross-departmental analysis and action where necessary,” they said.

“However, we see the Cabinet Office’s role as much more than simply to ‘remind’ departmental ministers of their responsibilities. A coherent cross-government approach is needed to demonstrate the best use of government money in tackling the most important disparities.”

Sir Jeremy Heywood, civil service head and cabinet secretary, tweeted about the report, pointing out that the committee had commended the Cabinet Office for the development of the Audit and welcomed the greater transparency and accessibility of data.

Maria Miller, Conservative chair of the committee, said: “We strongly commend the principle and sound intentions of the Race Disparity Audit. As the prime minister has said herself, it has helped expose many uncomfortable truths.

“However, the picture at present is that data collection across different areas of government and public services is inconsistent, not properly joined up and in some cases just isn’t happening. That isn’t good enough.”

She added that the committee was looking forward to seeing the “explain or change” analyses conducted by departments, but that coordinated action needed to come from the top. 

About the author

Tamsin Rutter is senior reporter for Civil Service World and tweets as @TamsinRutter

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