A policy of positive discrimination, but only for privileged white men

'When jobs are obtained through patronage, the risks of sycophancy are dangerously high'
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The Independent Online

Last April I wrote a gleeful column about a tribunal case that the Lord Chancellor had lost. Lord Irvine was found guilty of indirect sex discrimination in a case brought by two bright and ambitious women, solicitor Jane Coker and Martha Osamor, a legal adviser. Neither is a fat-cat lawyer. In fact, both are not even slightly plump kittens. They work on legal aid cases, or in the thankless area of immigration, and both women have an acute sense of social responsibility and justice. The stereotypical view of lawyers as overpaid, self-interested people is unfair to committed professionals such as Coker who play a vital part in trying to ensure that the poor and dispossessed are allowed some rights.

Last April I wrote a gleeful column about a tribunal case that the Lord Chancellor had lost. Lord Irvine was found guilty of indirect sex discrimination in a case brought by two bright and ambitious women, solicitor Jane Coker and Martha Osamor, a legal adviser. Neither is a fat-cat lawyer. In fact, both are not even slightly plump kittens. They work on legal aid cases, or in the thankless area of immigration, and both women have an acute sense of social responsibility and justice. The stereotypical view of lawyers as overpaid, self-interested people is unfair to committed professionals such as Coker who play a vital part in trying to ensure that the poor and dispossessed are allowed some rights.

In a bold move, the women complained that Lord Irvine had unlawfully discriminated against them by not giving them the opportunity to apply for the job of special adviser (salary in 1999, £73,00) which he had handed over to Garry Hart, a dear friend and also godfather to Tony Blair's daughter. Add Lord Falconer to the list and you can see just how effectively privileged white men operate a tight policy of positive discrimination in favour of each other.

Want a really powerful position within the heart of New Labour? Dream on, unless you are part of an ancient fraternity built around the old school tie; the common kettle in Oxbridge or Edinburgh digs; theshared barristers' chambers and, of course, the all-male clubs such as the Garrick club, of which Lord Irvine is a member.

The tribunal accepted Coker's arguments that Lord Irvine did not look beyond his usual gang of white male acquaintances and that this was unacceptable. They concluded that with her 20 years experience as a first-class lawyer who runs her own firm, she could have applied for the position of special adviser. Ms Osamor lost her case because she was not considered experienced enough to apply, but she is appealing against this judgment with the support of the Commission for Racial Equality. It is a shame that we have no laws against class discrimination, because I don't imagine that Lord Irvine has many sons of builders as good friends either.

Instead of using this judgment to put his house in order, Lord Irvine has decided to appeal, and the Equal Opportunities Commission has just announced that it is backing the two complainants. As Julie Mellor of the EOC said: "A government that says it is committed to raising standards in public life needs to practise what it preaches and address the issue of how these kinds of appointments are made. Failing to do so leaves those who make the appointments open to accusations of cronyism."

It was revealed during the original proceedings that the Lord Chancellor had little professional contact with women and had publicly stated that he thought the women were "mischievous". Irvine did not deign to appear to face the tribunal, but as part of his defence it was argued that he did have a woman secretary. His central point was that advisers had to be people whom he could "totally trust" (we know just what untrustworthy minxes women can be), which is why he chooses close friends. So do we take it that lovers, family members, mistresses are fine too?

If this system works so well, why do we bother to have objective entry systems for top civil servants who are required to work closely with ministers too? Why not just scatter these key posts, like sweets, after every election to all the people who are good mates of Cabinet members? If we were discussing other countries, we would scornfully describe this as corruption but, as we know, this Mother of all Noble Governance is incapable of corruption, so we talk of cronyism, of sleaze, of jobs for the boys... all of which sound much more benign and less odious.

My main objection is not that this practice is patently unfair, which it is, but that it is stupid. Ministers choosing special advisers because they feel comfortable with them is more not less likely to produce sloppy decisions and dodgy assessments.

When jobs are obtained through patronage, the risks of sycophancy are dangerously high. As Dryden wrote: "What cannot praise effect in mighty minds,/ When flattery soothes, and when ambition blinds!"

I do wonder whether Lord Falconer would have allowed himself to tolerate the chaos of the Millennium Dome if he had not been given the project by someone he is so close to. We all know the difficulties of maintaining objectivity when you like someone and they know it. Now not all adviser appointments are made on grounds of intimacy. I was at the Institute of Public Policy Research, (a think tank set up by some Labour Party intellectuals) that bright May when the election was won by Labour. In the two weeks that followed, many IPPR research fellows got that golden call offering them key positions within government departments and 10 Downing Street. Some of my colleagues were more than deserving of the jobs they took. But even so, they had not been forced to compete in the marketplace against other skilful and able people. They were not tested to see who was truly the best person for the job.

The joy of being called up to join the élite club in the land, and the warm, glowy feelings that must evoke, clearly made it hard for them to wonder if this was how a real meritocracy should work. And no, since you ask, I am not at all peeved that I never had such a call from the blessed. I love my own time, space and independence too much to wish for such a privilege. I just feel that too many talented people are kept out for no good reason and that the country is losing out as a result.

The irony is that Lord Irvine himself has decided to appoint an independent commissioner (will the job be advertised?) to advise him on judicial appointments, because the present system is too secretive and is recycling clones whose life experiences are as interchangeable as those of laboratory-raised mice.

The Nolan principles and some of the radical suggestions to change the House of Lords are important moves in the right direction. But if other public institutions and the private sector are under ruthless scrutiny, it is intolerable that government ministers continue to insist that they are right, and have the right, to get their buddies in as special advisers.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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