We will shield minorities from the recession, vows minister

James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, is to take action to ensure that vulnerable groups are not left behind in the jobs market as unemployment begins to bite
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State aid is to be targeted at women, ethnic minorities, the elderly and disabled workers to cushion them from unemployment in the recession, James Purnell, the Work and Pensions Secretary, will announce today.

Mr Purnell will launch a major review of the labour market to prevent "at risk" groups being "left behind" as Britain sinks deeper into an economic downturn.

The Government will work with Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, to prevent the pattern of entrenched unemployment among these groups seen in previous recessions.

Employment for ethnic minorities fell by 10 per cent in the downturn of the early 1990s, compared with a 6 per cent drop overall, and Mr Purnell will pledge that Labour will not repeat the "mistakes" of the past. Women have been protected in previous recessions because they dominate the public sector, which is less vulnerable to unemployment, but there are fears that this time female workers – especially those in part-time jobs – could be cast aside by employers.

The review will produce reports every three months showing which groups are suffering disproportionately in the recession.

It will identify any particular disadvantages within the labour market as early as possible, allowing the Government to formulate "discreet policy responses" where appropriate.

In practical terms, a source close to Mr Purnell said, an example of this would mean the Government diverting money to job centres in areas with large ethnic minorities to ensure the widest scope of work is offered.

But the move will be viewed by some as a controversial politically correct measure that stops just short of positive discrimination, which is illegal.

An independent analysis of unemployment has shown that jobless figures are rising faster in middle-class areas than the traditionally disadvantaged hotspots. There is no evidence so far that any at-risk group has been hit by the downturn. In fact, official figures show that men are faring worse than women.

Mr Purnell will announce the measure at a speech to Labour's Black Asian and Minority Ethnic conference in Leicester today.

The move is a clear sign that ministers are desperate to refocus attention from rows over bonuses and pensions for bankers to fighting unemployment. It will also be seen as an attempt by Mr Purnell, a possible successor to Gordon Brown, to appeal to the left of the Labour Party, which is rebelling over the Government's plans to part-privatise the Royal Mail.

The Work and Pensions Secretary will say: "In the past, too many were left behind in bad times.

"Ethnic minority workers suffered most in the Tory recessions. Just think of the waste of human potential. Whole communities were abandoned. Families where no one then worked for generations. Unemployment among older workers was deeper and more prolonged ... And we squandered the talents of a generation of disabled people – left at home, a life on benefits with literally no help or support.

"And we know what happened to ethnic minorities, the older workers, the disabled. Over half a million were pushed on to incapacity benefit and forgotten about. But, as much as the Tories might have wanted them to, they didn't just disappear. We still bear the scars of those decisions in so many communities and households today.

"In this recession, evidence so far is that its effects ... are being spread across the population more evenly. But we will not take any chances."

A source close to Mr Purnell said: "We are determined to make sure the mistakes made in the past, when groups at risk were not given the help they needed ... are not repeated."

Over the past year, the UK female employment rate has fallen by 0.3 percentage points, while the male employment rate has fallen by 1.0 percentage points.

In the 1980s and 1990s downturns women fared comparably better than men in terms of employment. Between 1990 and 1993 the employment gap between the sexes fell from 15.5 percentage points to around 10 percentage points. However, the Women's minister, Harriet Harman, warned recently that there was a "major fear" that women will be unlawfully targeted by employers during this recession.

The demography of the country has also changed since the last recession, with the ethnic minority population increasing from 2.6 million in 2001 to 4.1 million in 2008. The number of older workers has increased, while the composition of the disabled population is changing, with a growing proportion not reporting work-limiting disabilities.