Race-bias fear over privatised rail firms

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The Independent Online
Black and Asian railway workers could face increased discrimination because of the privatisation of their industry, according to the Commission for Racial Equality.

Commission leaders yesterday declared that equal opportunities policies could be the first victim of the break-up of British Rail. Sue Scott, senior executive officer, said the fight for racial justice would be "harder work" when there were numerous companies to deal with rather than one centralised structure.

Bob Purkiss, TUC representative on the commission, said: "If an organisation becomes cash-driven one of the first things to go out of the window is equal opportunities and ethnic monitoring."

Senior representatives of the commission were speaking at the launch of a report on the selection of train drivers which urged employers in all industries to check recruitment procedures, including the allegedly scientific psychometric tests, to ensure that members of ethnic minorities were not suffering from indirect discrimination.

The study, A Fair Test? Selecting Train Drivers at British Rail, followed complaints of discrimination by eight Asian guards at Paddington who were refused jobs as drivers.

The report found that selection procedures were biased against members of ethnic minorities, especially Asians. The document had allegedly been the subject of a "gagging order" from British Rail, according to Steve Blinkhorn, its author.

Mr Blinkhorn, a consultant psychologist, said it had taken five years for BR to agree to release his findings. He had found that selection procedures were seriously flawed. "If I designed a system to discriminate against Asians, I could not have done it better," he said. The report found that many of the criteria used to choose drivers were irrelevant to the job. Employees found that if their first language was not English they were disadvantaged by the test.

His assertions were rejected by Steve Fletcher, of BR's privatised psychology unit. He said the procedures were able to discover whether or not a potential recruit would operate trains safely. Dr Fletcher pointed out that the unit's business had burgeoned under the new privatised regime and that much of its activity was involved with equal opportunities. The new businesses were concerned to ensure that such policies were maintained.

Lew Adams, general secretary of the train drivers' union Aslef, said that his organisation employed an equal opportunities official who was vigilant over the selection of women and members of ethnic minorities to driving jobs. "As a union we are absolutely opposed to racial discrimination and harassment in any form," he said.

Gareth Hadley, BR's employee relations director, said carefully-devised tests could reduce the potential for discrimination by eliminating subjectivity, but they had to be carefully applied to minimise risks of unfairness. "The lessons learnt in selection processes have been applied throughout the rail industry as part of the initiatives promoting equality of opportunities."