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A personal approach to discrimination

CHANGING THE UK WORKPLACE: Vince Cable believes the country’s companies must embrace diversity (PA)

FOR A man considered one of the Liberal Democrats’ most charismatic figures and one who famously “declared war” on media baron Rupert Murdoch, Vince Cable comes across as mild-mannered, thoughtful and serious when we meet at his Westminster office.

But the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Skills has never been one to shy away from being provocative, speaking his mind on topics such as immigration and race which, in mainstream politics, have become dirty words or hot potatoes.

This has partly been influenced by his own experience – in the 1960s he married his first wife Olympia Rebelo, a Kenyan national of Goan descent, and had three mixed race children. In a past interview, he revealed that the union “tore his family apart.”

He says: “I’ve always had quite strong views [on equality]. As a student, I was involved in the anti-apartheid movement, but then I married a Kenyan national and had three mixed race children in a town where that was quite unusual – it was during the time of Enoch Powell.


“They have done well, but they have encountered discrimination, as you do, and that’s what hardened my conviction that you have to be sensitive to these things, because [racism] operates in quite subtle ways in a way that white society does not fully understand. You need to have very clear and hard rules on discrimination.”

Most recently, Cable, now aged 70, has spoken out about a serious absence of black people in senior positions at Britain’s leading firms which, he says, is to the detriment of the companies themselves.

“I can only think of one black guy [Prudential’s Tidjane Thiam] in a top British company and he comes from French West Africa,” highlights the business secretary, making a face at the irony. “There just isn’t that ladder of opportunity, so I think as we make progress with the women agenda we must not lose sight that there are other groups that also need profiling and supporting.”

He continues: “It’s not about political correctness or equality, though it should be. The driver is that companies lose out and perform badly if they are under-represented. If they are totally dominated by white middle aged men, they are ignoring large chunks of the population. They don’t understand the people they themselves deal with so they can function properly as companies, so there is a very powerful business case for being diverse and representative.”

A 2009 investigation, commissioned by the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP), found that while four per cent of public sector employers were likely to have discriminated against black and minority ethnic job applicants on grounds of race, 35 per cent of private sector employers were guilty of the discriminatory practice.

A Voice poll conducted last month, revealed that an overwhelming majority of respondents – 83 per cent – were in support of nameless or ‘name blind’ CVs to combat discrimination against foreign-sounding names.

It followed a study that revealed British African graduates were better qualified than other groups, though black jobseekers were more likely to experience inequality in the labour market.


The idea of nameless CVs was one first mooted by the Lib Dems ahead of the 2010 General Election, and Cable agrees there is still “a lot of attraction” in the initiative. But, he says, shifting mindsets is about more than just legislation when questioned about solutions.

“A lot of it is just constant battling and consciousness-raising,” says Cable. “You don’t need to legislate for that, not necessarily, but it does mean people like me constantly going on at companies and, first of all, making sure they disclose what they have in practice so you can see use moral pressure to hire [different types of] people.”

But getting more black people to break the glass ceiling in FTSE 100 companies is only one aspect of a wider jobs crisis. A recent Labour Force Survey, published last month, delivered more alarming news for black unemployment.

According to the figures, while employment had risen by 360,000 in 2013 for the white population (1.3 per cent), it had fallen three per cent among black people. For black women, there was a sharp 5.8 per cent drop.
Critics branded the findings a “scandal” and argued that it was a clear sign that Britain’s black and ethnic minority communities are getting a raw deal in the economic recovery.

When pressed about the statistics, Cable says: “[This problem has] been there a long time, particularly young black kids not getting the proper start in the job market, based on a lack of qualifications. Sometimes the attitude of employers who have an unwillingness to take on people with a different background.”

In his remit as business secretary, the Lib Dem has responsibility for skills and is therefore pushing alternative routes to careers through apprenticeships, which helps young people get directly into paid work.


“What we can help with is qualifications, such as apprenticeships, and getting people to look at it as a viable educational route. Vocational training is often viewed suspiciously – not as good as an academic degree, so we have to change perceptions,” he explains highlighting a project in Tower Hamlets, east London, where predominantly young black people, some of whom have been homeless or had run-ins with the police, are learning building skills.

Cable, who studied at Glasgow and Cambridge universities, adds: “Of course, educational attainment is still vastly important. On average, graduates do better for having had higher education, but there are still those who fall by the wayside. A moderate degree from a relatively low prestige institution on an oversubscribed course, such as business studies or law, probably isn’t the best preparation.

“Apprenticeships in leading engineering companies – BAE systems, BT, Jaguar, Land Rover or Nissan – are phenomenally competitive, and the kids who do get in are destined for high-paid, hugely responsible careers.”

As it stands, Cable, the incumbent MP for Twickenham, will contest the seat at next year’s General Election, and hopes black voters will consider his party.

He says the Lib Dems take a “broad approach to social justice and economics” but adds: “I think we do need to accept that we also need to be more diverse. Our parliamentary party is overwhelmingly male and white and we need to change that. We have great new candidates coming through but, at the moment, we have a lot of work to do.”

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