Ethnic monitoring in Britain

Ethnic monitoring in Britain


by Joana Vassilopoulou

Belonging to an ethnic minority in Britain, can be a disadvantage per se. For instance blacks and Asians in Britain have been for a long time exposed to higher levels of unemployment, less-well paid jobs, poorer housing conditions and their children have lower educational attainments than other groups (Brown 1984; Office for National Statistics 2009). In view of that there is no uncertainty about the existence of race inequality in Britain.

The legal recognition of racial inequality in Britain has been firstly demonstrated with the introduction of the first Race Relation Act in 1965. Since then we can see a continuous extension and improvement of race equality legislation and policies in Britain (Wrench and Modood 2001). Recently we can also observe the increased spread of concepts such as diversity management, also attempting to combat discrimination (Cassell and Biswas 2000; Özbilgin 2009; Wrench 2003).

However, it is broadly acknowledged that policy does not always translate into practice (Kirton and Greene 2006). This does apply both to race equality and to diversity management policies. In order to make race equality policies effective and to ensure that its aims are being achieved, there is a need for ethnic monitoring. Without ethnic monitoring there is a substantial risk that people will just see the policy as paying lip service to race equality (CRE 2005).

The Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), now called Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC),  has been advocating ethnic monitoring since 1978, defining it as a continual process of collecting, storing, and analysing data regarding people’s ethnic backgrounds, which can “ reveal patterns of racial inequality; identify any barriers or obstacles that might account for the differences between racial groups; and help identify remedies to such problems” (CRE 1992:9).

This article starts with a brief overview of how the necessity for ethnic monitoring has been initially brought into debate, by the Commission of Race Equality (CRE). Then the focus lays on the legal implementation of ethnic monitoring into the public sector, followed by the discussion regarding the implementation of ethnic monitoring. This discussion consists of two parts. The first provides an overview and key issues regarding data protection. Then second part looks at the practicality of ethnic categories. The final section emphasises the importance that history and race relations played regarding the implementation of ethnic monitoring, and the necessity of collecting ethnic data if aiming for racial equality, while accepting its limitations.

Ethnic monitoring advocated by the Commission of Race Equality (CRE)

The Race Relations Act 1976 (the Act incorporates the earlier Race Relations Act 1965 and Race Relations Act 1968) was introduced by the British Parliament in order to prevent discrimination on the grounds of race, colour, nationality, ethnic and national origin in the fields of employment, the provision of goods and services, education and public functions. The Act also set up the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), which has been given unique powers of enforcement, a combination of investigation and the imposition of power (Lustgarten 1986).

In 1978 the Commission for Racial Equality published the first edition of “Monitoring an equal opportunity policy: a guide for employers”. This guide accentuated the need for ethnic monitoring aiming at effective equal opportunity policies. In particular the introduction laid the rationale for ethnic monitoring: “The aim of an equal opportunity policy in employment is to ensure that no job applicant or employee receives less favourable treatment on the ground of race, colour, nationality or national origins, or is disadvantaged by conditions which cannot be shown justifiable. Selection criteria and procedures should be frequently reviewed to ensure that individuals are selected, promoted and treated on the basis of their relevant merits and abilities. All employees should be given equal opportunity and, where appropriate, special training to progress within the organisation. An equal opportunity policy should be monitored in order to ensure that its aims are being achieved” (CRE 1978).

The Commission then also pronounced which data should be collected in order to attain an effective monitoring: employees and job applicants should be classified according to their ethnic origin and the information added to personnel records; the distribution and success rate of applicants according to job, grade, department, etc, should be examined by ethnic origin; and an assessment, if equal opportunities are reflected by the distribution of employees and success rates, should be undertaken.

Implementation of ethnic monitoring in the public sector

The implementation of ethnic monitoring in the public sector has been forced particularly as a result of the McPherson Inquiry and its report from 1999 (Macpherson 1999). The McPherson Inquiry, a subsequent report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence (a 18 year old, black student killed by a white racist gang in south-east London), labelled the London's police force as ‘institutionally racist’. Newspapers and the wider media landscape were dominated by this case for a long period, and the whole case influenced race relations in a negative way. One year later in 2000, the amendment of the Race Relations Act 1976 laid the legal basis for ethnic monitoring. Under the Race Relations (amendment) Act 2000, ethnic monitoring became compulsory for public bodies, contrary to the private sector which still is not legally obliged to keep ethnic records.

The amendment includes a general duty on public bodies (for example educational institutions, National Health Service (NHS), police, etc), which requires all public authorities, when carrying out their functions, to have due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, to promote equality of opportunity and to promote good relations between people of different racial groups. Under the general duty public bodies have to make the promotion of racial equality central to the way they work in order to improve the delivery of public services for everyone. The duty applies to policies, functions, service delivery and employment practices. Moreover, public bodies have to demonstrate that measures to prevent race discrimination are effective. They are also obliged to monitor their policies for any adverse impact on race equality and were necessary to develop public services that met the needs of different groups. For example schools are obliged to monitor their policies, including the impact of all their policies on pupils, staff, and parents from different racial groups. The same does apply to further and higher education institutions, which have to assess the impact of all their policies on students and staff. For that they must monitor student admissions and progress, and staff recruitment and career development by racial group (CRE 2007).

Most public authorities confined by the general duty are also subject to the employment duty, if not explicitly exempted.  Under the employment duty, public authorities are obliged to promote race equality as employers and for this purpose they have to monitor employment information. All their employees, and also all applicants for employment, promotion and training have to be monitored by their ethnic group, using the categories of the 2001 census. Further requirements apply to public bodies with more than 150 employees. Public bodies with over 150 employees have to monitor also the number of each ethnic group receiving or not receiving training and benefits, involved in complaints, disciplinary procedures and terminate employment. Additionally public authorities must publish their monitoring results annually and make them available to the public (see CRE 2007)
At the same time, the Commission for Race Equality (CRE) emphasised that it is not only important to collect ethnic data, but also it is crucially important how this data is deployed. “The employment duty is not just about collecting numbers and counting staff.  Authorities must ensure they are meeting the general duty in exercising its employment functions. Therefore in order to meet the general duty, public authorities should use the above monitoring information to: see if there are differences in the way racial groups are treated; to investigate the underlying reasons for the differences; and to deal with any unfairness, disadvantage or possible discrimination” (CRE 2007).

The debate regarding ethnic monitoring

Surely one would agree that if genuinely aiming for equal opportunity it is necessary to keep and collect ethnic records as recommended by the Commission for Race Equality. However, the implementation of ethnic monitoring is constantly accompanied by the question of its legitimacy and practicality.

Data Protection

In terms of legitimacy it is sometimes argued that to keep ethnic records is morally wrong. The collection of ethnic records has always been very contentious, especially considering the experience of 1939-45 in Germany. A concern is, that those records could fall in wrong hands and been used against ethnic minorities, for example to identify members of minorities and thus to abuse or damage them (Johnson 2008).

It is also argued that such records are unlawfully, according to the European Data Protection Directive (Directive 95/46/EC 24.10.1995) and the British Data Protection Act 1998. Both laws set out rules about how personal information can be collected and processed by organisations and also both laws show a particular awareness regarding the sensitivity of ethnic data. For instance, Article 8 of the European directive states that: “Member states shall prohibit the processing of personal data revealing racial or ethnic origin, political opinions, religious or philosophical believes …”

Nevertheless, in sub-sections of the EU Directive and the British Data Protection Act we can find exceptional cases, which allow under a number of strict conditions to process data about an individual’s racial or ethnic origin. Whereby it is seen as most important to ensure the rights and safety of the individual ethnic data can be collected when: having an explicit consent of the data subject; being legally required to process the data for employment purposes; needing to process the information in order to protect the vital interests of the data subject; dealing with the administration of justice or legal proceeding.

However, the fact that these exceptions have been created, despites the earlier described concerns, shows that it has been recognised in Britain and also in Europe that there is a need for ethnic data. In particular it has been demonstrated in Article 13 of the Amsterdam Treaty, that the collection of ethnic data related to employment and also service delivery is needed when aiming to meet the European equality targets and agenda.

Ethnic categories

Regarding the practicality, we have to talk particularly about ethnic categories. But in order to move forward it is necessary to engage briefly with the history and development of the British Census, since the Commission for Race Equality (CRE) encourages organisations to use the ethnic categories used in the 2001 census, or categories that match them very closely. This is recommended considering the need for a consistent set of terms in order to compare ethnic monitoring data with census data sets (see CRE 2007).

According to Her Majesty’s Government, the census is the most important operation in Britain, collecting information about every person in the country and produces a wide range of essential information for government, commerce and industry (Her Majesty’s Government 1988). In particular the collection of data regarding immigrants has been a concern for a long time, as Britain has received many immigrants from elsewhere throughout history. Since 1841 census, people have been asked to state their country of birth and their nationality (Sillitoe and White 1991). Apparently, in the late 1980s it became clear that questioning the country of birth and the nationality of individuals was not longer sufficient getting suitable data regarding ethnic minorities and also meeting the challenges of measuring the ethno-cultural diversity of Britain (Aspinall 2000). This acknowledgment led to the introduction of an “ethnic question” into the census 1991. The insert of the ethnic question then set the starting point for the discussion regarding ethnic categories.

The discussion can be divided in two parts. The first part refers to the debate about whether ethnic categorisation is morally or intellectually defensible (see Bulmer 1986). There is the danger that if making distinctions by ethnic groups, ethnic differences are confused with so-called racial differences (Sillitoe and White 1992). Moreover the process of compelling people to assign themselves to one of a small number of racial or ethnic boxes has also been criticised of being racist (see Bird 1996).

The second part focuses on the controversial search for accurate terminology. The collection of ethnic group data de facto means that a categorisation into a limited set of choices must take place (Aspinall 1997). But a limited set of choices leads to impracticalities in particular considering the changing meaning of ethnicity in Britain (Bohpal and Donaldson1998). For example Max Weber sees the notion of ethnic groups as identification with common descents, which can be real or imagined (Weber 1978). Thereby the self-allocation to an ethnic group is the product of self-attribution and attribution by others (Banton 1977, 1983). Ethnicity refers to a range of attributes that make ethnic groups distinguishable (Barth 1969), attributes drawn from different cultural areas, such as language or religion. These cultural distinctions are also associated with economic and political differences, which can cause an overlap of ethnicity, culture and class (Banks 1996).

We can see that ethnicity is a complex construct and it is getting even more complex considering that ethnicity cannot be understood as static concept. As a result of changing ethnic minority communities and a changing relationship to the dominant culture and also the country of origin, ethnicity is permanently changing as well (Ballard 1994). Given that it is to anticipate that people’s self- perception and description will be changing constantly (Baumann 1995). Whereby also generational differences, or for example mixed people have to be taken into account (Aspinall and Song and Hashem 2006).

However, in Britain it is widely acknowledged and accepted that ethnicity is not a static concept and that belonging to an ethnic group has to be seen at best as a personal identity, rather than an objective fact (Makkonen 2007). Therefore self-identification is a usual practise in collecting ethnic data (Aspinall 1997), where people can pick from a selection of categories, instead of being classified by others.

Unfortunately, these available categories are far from perfect and consequently highly discussed because of their limitations. The originally defined 1991 census categories have been proved being partly insufficient. For example health and also local authorities added selected additional codes in order to capture local variations. In the 2001 census the original defined groups were then modified. However, the discussion of the practicality of current categories is ongoing as well as the modification process. It is to expect, that in 2011 a revised set of categories will be introduced, which will be tested during the year 2009 before seeking parliamentary approval. Furthermore two more questions have been suggested. One new question on ‘national identity’ has been suggested, as well as one on ‘what language can you understand, speak or write’ (Johnson 2008).


Britain has been receiving immigrants for a very long period of time now. Thereby the collection of ethnic data has been a concern since 1841, but early steps of ethnic data collection showed to be insufficient in order to meet the challenges of measuring the ethno-cultural diversity of Britain. Additionally we can observe a rising awareness of race related issues and racial inequality, during the last five decades. For instance, cases such as the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, which effected race relations in a negative way, showed the importance of ethnic monitoring.

Nowadays, there is a consensus in Britain that ethnic monitoring is needed, if aiming for race equality (see Bonnet and Carrington 2000). “While it was possible that early opposition to the introduction of ethnic monitoring was a fear of what the data might show in terms of discrimination, and a belief that if we don’t measure it we can’t be doing it, the situation has now changed” (Johnson, 2008: 2).

Despites ongoing debates about the legitimacy and the practicality of ethnic monitoring, the collection of ethnic data has become common in a growing number of institutional settings. The public sector is legally obliged to keep ethnic records and even though the private sector is not, we can see that many employers introduced systems of ethnic monitoring to audit their equal opportunity policies. However, what remains to be discussed is the need for a consistent set of categories and the practicality of those categories. It is and it will be a challenge to find categories, which match and also display the diversified population in Britain.

Ethnic monitoring will always come along with limitations, but these limitations have to be accepted. Finally and according to Bonnet and Carrington "...ethnic monitoring may be regarded as a problematic necessity, a process that itself needs constant monitoring” (Bonnet and Carrington 2000: 488)


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Joana Vassilopoulou, Soziologin, promoviert seit 2007 an der Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia. Zuvor hat sie an der Universität Duisburg-Essen u.a. zu den Themen Diversity Management und ethnische Diskriminierung gelehrt und geforscht.

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