Civil service diversity: Labour calls for quotas at perm sec level

Exclusive: Opposition backs quotas on interview shortlists to address "glacial" pace on diversity in Whitehall's highest tier

By Matt Foster

01 Jun 2016

The civil service should introduce quotas at permanent secretary level to try and address a lack of diversity in its top tier, Labour has said.

Although women now make up a greater proportion of the Senior Civil Service (SCS) than ever before, a recent reshuffle at the top of the organisation resulted in two fewer female perm secs than at the start of the process.

And with women now leading just three major government departments, the civil service is a considerable distance from the 50/50 male/female split it achieved at perm sec level in 2011. Meanwhile, although black and minority ethnic (BME) representation has increased by 2% at SCS level since 2010, there are still no departmental chiefs hailing from a BME background.

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In a bid to make the civil service more representative, the Cabinet Office last year launched a wide-ranging "Talent Action Plan", with measures including ending all-male interview panels wherever possible and asking perm secs to set goals for improving the diversity of their departments.

But shadow cabinet office Louise Haigh has told Civil Service World that more concrete measures are needed to address the “glacial” pace of progress at the very top of Whitehall.

“You are going to have to positively discriminate for women, like we do with all-women shortlists in the Labour party,” she said.

While Haigh – who set up a staff network for women during her time at insurance firm Aviva – said she was “not a fan” of diversity targets, the shadow cabinet office minister argued that quotas on interview shortlists could be used to level the playing field.

"If we're to achieve change at anything like the speed we need it to then I think it is the only solution," she said.

"When I was in the City, I did a lot of work on women in boards. And there was a lot of pushback against quotas in that. But it really was the only way to focus minds and focus recruitment.

Haigh added: "In the latest perm sec appointment [process] I understand that the shortlist which the prime minister picked the successful applicant from was entirely male.

"So clearly there isn't enough focus on bringing women forward for those senior roles, if we can't even find one to enter the shortlists. Even if it's just quotas on shortlists – if not on the ultimately successful appointment – we need more practical and disctinctive measures like that."

The civil service has so far shied away from using quotas, with the organisation's lead official on diversity – Department for Culture, Media and Sport perm sec Sue Owen – last year speaking out against such an approach and warning it could lead to "tokenism".

Instead, she set out the case for what she dubbed the civil service's "aspirational targets" approach.

"I don't think quotas for people at the top would do anything about representation lower down," she told an audience at the Instiute for government. "I don't think quotas address entrenched biases in any way. Trying to operate quotas for gender, disability, LGBT – you can get yourself into a terrible twist about that. I don't think quotas change leadership behaviours."

But Haigh rejected the argument that bringing in quotas risked underming the civil service's long-standing commitment to making key appointments on merit.

“I would argue that we’ve perhaps not been appointing on merit for a very long time, and that women have been consciously or unconsciously discriminated against, not just in the civil service but in society at large,” she said. “Men have benefited from positive discrimination for a long time — if we’re genuine and we’re serious about tackling gender equality in any workplace, then we have to look at quotas.”

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