Tony Blair has ordered the biggest-ever inquiry into discrimination against Britain's ethnic minorities in health, education and the workplace.
The Prime Minister's personal policy unit has been asked to examine the problem after research showed that the wealth gap between blacks, Asians and whites was widening.
Supporters of the inquiry hope it will also tackle the underlying causes of recent racial tension in places such as Oldham, Bradford and Burnley.
The project by Downing Street's performance and innovation unit, which will be unveiled in detail next week, will assess for the first time the role of both public services and private employers.
Whereas previous studies, such as the Macpherson and Scarman inquiries, looked at individual problems in certain areas, the scope of the new project will be much broader and nationwide in its remit.
Ministers are particularly concerned to tackle what appears to be an emerging black "underclass" of jobless youngsters who reject the traditional codes of their elders and drift into crime. Measures will be drawn up to tackle continuing high rates of unemployment, ill health and poor academic results among the poorest groups, such as Afro-Caribbeans, Bangladeshis and Pakistanis.
Crucially, the project will also seek to learn why some groups, such as Chinese and black Africans, outperform whites and others in the job market and in education.
Mr Blair, who has appointed a senior minister to oversee the project on his behalf, has told the performance and innovation unit to commission experts from business, universities and voluntary groups.
It is understood that Mr Blair decided to act after a series of academic studies and official statistics pointed out that the wealth gap between blacks and Asians and whites was widening.
While the gap in jobless rates normally widens in a recession and narrows during a boom, the British Labour Force Survey found that this difference was growing despite the booming economy.
The ratio of ethnic minority unemployment to white unemployment stands at its highest for a period of high growth. Blacks were 1.4 times more likely to be jobless in the late 1980s boom but 2.4 times more likely not to have a job in spring 2000.
The latest Labour Market Trends report by the Office for National Statistics found that in January 2001, the unemployment rate for ethnic minority men, at 13 per cent, was double that of whites.
But there were wide variations between different ethnic groups, with the rate for Indian men nearly matching whites, but blacks suffering a jobless rate of 27 per cent, nearly five times higher.
A study by the Department for Education and Employment and the University of Warwick found that educational achievement also varied greatly. Forty per cent of black Africans had higher qualifications such as a degree, compared to just 10 per cent of Bangladeshis. But even highly qualified degree-holding Bangladeshis found it much harder to find work.
A government source said: "The Prime Minister is determined to improve the effectiveness of government policies in tackling these problems, particularly those related to the labour market,"
"This is much, much bigger than Macpherson in its scope and we hope it will set the standard for other countries to follow," said another insider.
Chris Myant, of the Commission for Racial Equality, welcomed the project. He said: "In this post-Macpherson era, more people are assessing how they serve ethnic groups. Some of these difficulties are greater than even most people in ethnic minorities are aware of."Reuse content