CRE claims black doctors suffer the most from racism in Britain

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"If I were to consider what group of people are most likely to feel that they have suffered disrespect, slights and racial disadvantage, the traditional view would be that it would be poor, black people who don't get jobs. It isn't. It's doctors, senior minority doctors who are just below the level of consultant and we get shoals of complaints," Mr Phillips told The Independent.

Hundreds of complaints of racism in the higher echelons of the NHS are being investigated by the commission, he said. Many of the cases concerned black and Asian doctors who had been excluded from the "club" of consultants.

He said that the investigations could lead to a full commission inquiry into the treatment of ethnic minorities working in Britain's leading hospitals. The racism that minority doctors experienced was not overt or direct discrimination, he said.

"They're being discriminated against not because somebody's walking down the hospital corridor and saying, 'excuse me, Dr Patel, would you shine my shoes', but because they don't belong to the consultants' club."

Although nearly two thirds of senior doctors were now from an ethnic minority, they were not being promoted to the highest level, he said.

"The grade (called an SAS grade) just below consultant is absolutely stuffed with minority doctors. And they're just stuck there. That's not because they're uneducated, not because they're poor, but because they are black and Asian.

"And what is the reason? Not because they are poor, these guys are earning money but they can't break through into consultants' ranks. And if you look at the numbers, it is unmistakable."

The commission was "studying what's going on with indirect discrimination" in the NHS before deciding what action to take, Mr Phillips said.

He also warned that the UK's race legislation was failing black and Asian doctors because it was too blunt. "The judgements are ... fine and subtle and sometimes there'll be one that will stand up in court as a discrimination case. Most of them won't because the law is too clumsy an instrument."

Mr Phillips likened the situation to that in the police force shortly before a BBC documentary uncovered racism among officers at a training centre two years ago.

"When the Secret Policeman documentary came out, we had already, for two or three months, been considering whether we should instigate a formal investigation into the police."

The commission's concerns had been triggered by a series of complaints brought by black and Asian officers which drew the watchdog's attention to problems of racism in the police.

"Most of them were not cases that were so gross or 'black and white' we could say 'OK we will go to tribunal and win them on that one'. But there was a clear pattern of disrespect, of slight exclusion, of not being one of the boys, that made us think maybe we can't deal with this on one or two individual cases."As a consequence of what it found, the commission launched the biggest investigation in its history, in which it brought compliance actions against a total of 14 police forces.

"The point I am trying to make here is that sometimes race discrimination is not just about someone calling you a rude name or not giving you a job.

"It's about a pattern of behaviour or a pattern of systemic behaviour. You don't know these things by concentrating on just one or two cases."