Agencies set to face equality quiz

Ethnic minority staff numbers could be made public if bill is passed in House of Commons.

PR agencies pitching for public sector business could be judged by the percentage of ethnic minorities they employ, under new plans being pushed through the House of Commons.

Labour deputy leader Harriet Harman unveiled the Equality Bill last Friday.

The bill builds on existing equality measures that require public bodies to consider how to promote race, disability and gender equality through what they spend money on.

The new legislation recommends that public sector bodies tackle discrimination and promote equality through their purchasing.

Senior industry figures said this could mean that the number of ethnic minorities at PR agencies becomes a more important factor than is currently the case.

Upward Curve PR director Helen Ashley welcomed the move but expressed concerns that it might lead to increased bureaucracy. 'Let's hope the proposals do not make public sector tendering become even more bureaucratic. And that if diversity monitoring for contractors is included, it is a meaningful process and makes a real difference in terms of the shortlisting and selection process.'

3 Monkeys head of consultancy Alison Gee took a more positive view on the bill, saying: 'Despite current market conditions, finding great people is still hard work so a predictable response to the Government's challenge would be to focus on red tape. The answer, we think, lies in being creative in attracting and rewarding minority groups.'

But PRCA director general Francis Ingham was fiercely critical of the bill, which is due for its second reading in the House of Commons next week.

He said: 'It is the wrong time to place any increased reporting burdens on businesses. Government should concentrate on stimulating employment at this tough time.'

PR agencies are notoriously low on ethnic minorities. Latest research in 2005 by the CIPR found that 6.5 per cent of PR practitioners are from ethnic minority backgrounds. This compares with eight per cent of the overall UK workforce being from ethnic minority backgrounds, according to official figures.

Some public sector clients such as the Department of Health are already asking for information on the gender and ethnic make-up of agencies' workforce at the pre-qualification stage.

However, one agency director suggested that this was a 'box-ticking exercise' with no real weight.

How I see it

Vivien Hepworth, Executive chairman, Grayling UK

The Government rightly sets standards and provides recourse for people who suffer discrimination, but the development of public sector contracting is dangerously close to state control.

It is already an excessively lengthy and complex process to tender for public sector business. What is needed is a human touch - meeting companies and understanding the people who work for them. This is done through human contact, not more form-filling. Start-ups are unable to fulfil such exacting administrative requirements. My message to Government is: for heaven's sake - back off.

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