Forces march with the times

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The Independent Online
IF THERE had been a booby prize for the major employer with the least commitment to equality of opportunity, then, in the past, the Ministry of Defence would surely have been favourite to win. But times are changing, spurred on by the Government as well as some notorious industrial tribunal cases. The armed services are at last becoming converted to the benefits of employing more women and ethnic minorities.

In March, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) lifted its threat of serving a non-discrimination notice on the MoD, having previously found it to be guilty of racial discrimination in the way it treated ethnic minority employees. Instead the CRE ended up congratulating it for being in the vanguard of employers, at least in terms of what it is committed to doing.

One upshot of this is that this year each of the services is expected to recruit two per cent of its new intake from racial minorities, rising to five per cent by 2002. To achieve this the MoD has begun targeting areas with large ethnic minority populations and high unemployment rates, such as Brixton in south London and Sandwell in the West Midlands, to promote the attractions of a military career. Even the Household Cavalry, the most visible face of the services, has more black recruits, with one ethnic minority officer brought in and another six promoted internally from the ranks.

A new tri-service equal opportunities training centre has been established, and new procedures introduced to end racial harassment. In another move, the MoD scrapped its requirement for parents of job applicants to be British or Commonwealth citizens or Irish nationals, and the five-year UK residency requirement will now, normally, be ignored.

Dr John Reid, the armed forces minister, says: "We will work together with the CRE to root out racism and to ensure that all personnel are left in no doubt that racial harassment will not be tolerated. We believe our persistent good work in implementing robust racial opportunities policies and best practice is paying off, by seeing an increase in the numbers of ethnic minority enquirers across the services."

Opportunities for women in the armed services are also being boosted. Last month, the Army announced that applicants would only have to prove a good standard of physical fitness rather than the tougher tests recruits previously had to pass. The Army says that 70 per cent of its jobs are now open to women.

However, Stonewall, the lesbian and gay men's pressure group, criticises the Government for persisting with the policy of barring lesbians and gays from the armed service. It adds that in practice, though, the services do not usually go out of their way to enforce the rules. Paradoxically, some service personnel who come out as gay are not discharged, because officers believe that personnel are lying in order to obtain an early release.

Other parts of the public services have had progressive equal opportunities policies for a long time, particularly local government which had the reputation for leading the way in employing more women and ethnic minorities.

Jill Mortimer, equality issues adviser at the Local Government Management Board, says he effects of many years of good employment practice are now being seen among the top layer of officials. "Women are slowly breaking through the glass ceiling," she says.

Despite years of positive policies, ethnic minorities remain under-represented.Councils employ the same proportion of black staff as the private sector, at slightly below the proportion of the population. Even a survey of black employees by the LGMB has failed to explain the reasons for this, with average qualifications much higher among ethnic minority workers than their white counterparts.

It is also true that across the 400 or so councils in England and Wales there is a vast diversity of practices. The response of the LGMB is to promote what it calls "mainstreaming", the idea that dealing with equality issues is central to a local authority's operations both as an employer and as a service provider.

It is often culture as much as the statistics that is important, and many years of positive policies on equal opportunities have helped local authorities to value the role of women and black employees. Creating a comparable culture in the armed services will be a far more difficult task.

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