In my role as national lead for the National Breaking Through initiative colleagues frequently tell me that having a programme specifically for BME staff is unfair. I believe it’s essential that people understand why Breaking Through is important to the NHS and for them to gain this understanding people need to appreciate the difference between positive action and positive discrimination.
Understanding the difference between these two terms is key to acknowledging and perhaps appreciating why Breaking Through is such an important initiative.
The Equality Act 2010 does not allow positive discrimination or affirmative action in the UK – in other words, an employer cannot try to change the balance of the workforce by selecting someone mainly because he or she is from a particular racial group. This would be discrimination on racial grounds,
Positive discrimination, sometimes called affirmative action, is illegal in the UK. As I’ve already pointed out, there is common confusion between (illegal) positive discrimination and (legal) positive action. Preferential treatment for any group at the point of selection is illegal. Positive discrimination is legal in the US and sometimes people refer to them having quotas or certain number of specific racial groups in certain jobs.
Positive action refers to measures that may lawfully be taken to train, develop or encourage people from a racial group that is under-represented in particular work where the proportion of people from that group doing that work is small compared to its proportion of the population of Great Britain. In this case, training or encouragement can be provided exclusively for the racial group (or groups) in question. So for example less than 1% of BME leaders are at CEO level in the NHS, therefore a positive action programme like Breaking Through is totally legitimate to help to redress the balance.
Controversially, section 159 of the Equality Act 2010, permits an employer, in defined circumstances, to recruit or promote a person with one protected characteristic in preference to another person who does not have the protected characteristic, provided that they are equally qualified for the post.
I have found that providing people understand why programmes like Breaking Through are necessary they are more accepting and supportive of the initiatives and the people taking part in them.