Home Office-driven plans for a wide-ranging 10-year strategy aimed at improving race relations were shelved after then-prime minister Tony Blair voiced fears the drive would descend into a “regulation nightmare”, according to newly-released government papers.
Proposals for a white paper floated by New Labour home secretary Jack Straw in late 1998 included requiring government departments to put race equality “at the heart” of policymaking and requiring public services to commit to offering “true opportunity for all” in their employment practices.
Straw’s planned white paper also sought to introduce “systematic monitoring” of the impact of policies and service delivery on ethnic minorities, and the measures were expected to be “underpinned by a new statutory duty on public services to promote race equality”.
Straw was keen for Blair to announce the white paper shortly after the publication of the Macpherson report into the 1993 murder of black teenager Stephen Lawrence and wanted job opportunities in the civil service to be a core element.
Documents released by the National Archives last week include a letter from Straw to Blair in December 1998, in which the home secretary said the government’s plans to “deliver a real change in race equality” needed to be “firmed up quickly”.
Straw warned that the pending publication of the Macpherson Report – which came out in February 1999 and found that the Metropolitan Police was institutionally racist – would place the government’s actions on race-equality “under more scrutiny than ever before”.
He told Blair that the government had to “win back” the confidence of black and Asian youngsters in the institutions of British society.
“People from minority communities are frustrated by discrimination in recruitment and blockages to promotion,” Straw wrote. “They deserve a fair chance and I am convinced we can deliver it.”
Straw said all departments should “set targets for recruitment and progress in their own services” and said he had already committed the Home Office to taking plans forward, while some other departments were “well advanced”.
A response briefing for Blair, written by home affairs adviser Liz Lloyd on 23 December, questioned whether a white paper was the right approach to advancing race equality. Lloyd also said Straw’s team appeared to be “pinning their hopes on legislation” and aired doubts about whether a robust case had been made for recruitment targets and monitoring. “They have not shown why this is the best route given the burdens it will impose,” she wrote.
Lloyd concluded by suggesting that No.10 should “broadly welcome” Straw’s approach, but with variations proposed in the briefing.
In a handwritten comment, Blair wrote “I agree!” in the margin next to Lloyd’s observation about burdens. In a separate note at the end he agreed with her conclusion, adding: “I really don’t want a regulation nightmare out of this.”
A formal response to Straw in January 1999, written by Blair’s assistant private secretary, Clare Hawley, said the prime minister was “not yet minded to support a white paper until further work has been done to consider in detail what it might contain and achieve”.
She said: “Care needs to be taken not to raise expectations that regulation in this area would be a panacea, as legislation has not yet been shown to be the best route of action, given the burdens that it will impose”.
She added: “The prime minister is not at all attracted to ideas of imposing contract compliance and compulsory monitoring for large firms.”
However, Hawley noted that Blair supported Straw’s approach for departments to lead by example.
“All departments should look to the Home Office example of setting targets in this way, and this initiative should be integrated into the forthcoming modernising government white paper to emphasise its importance,” she wrote.
In spring 2020, Wendy Williams’s review of the Home Office’s role in the Windrush scandal stopped short of calling the department institutionally racist, however she said she had serious concerns it was “institutionally ignorant”.