Lime Legal

Race against time

Published 01 May 2023

Gurbux Singh, is soon to chair the Commission for Racial Equality. A former housing director, he has clear views on how social landlords fit into the post-Macpherson race relations agenda. Interview: John Goodwin

The debate about racism in housing is often conducted in code. The days of ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ may be long gone, but the same attitudes can persist, under the cover of the debate about sustainable communities or dispersing asylum seekers.

Gurbux Singh becomes chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) on 15 May. He takes over from Sir Herman Ouseley at a time when housing is pushing its way up the CRE’s agenda. Allocation policies are changing as social landlords try to create mixed communities. Councils are under pressure to house asylum seekers. And racism against refugees is rearing its head in the media and on the streets. All this at a time when public authorities are soul-searching over whether they are perpetrating the kind of institutional racism exposed by the Macpherson inquiry into the death of Stephen Lawrence.

Singh seems specially qualified for the job. A Sikh born in India, he was six years old when his family moved to Britain in the 1950s, and grew up in Wolverhampton when Enoch Powell was a local MP. He started work at what became the CRE in 1974 and rapidly developed an interest in housing as it probed allocation policies which dumped minority communities in the worst stock and ‘red lining’ by banks, building societies and estate agents which prevented them from moving into particular areas. His housing career continued at the GLC, Brent and Haringey, where he was director of housing and then, for the last 13 years, chief executive.

So what does a former housing director make of the new allocation proposals? Could they increase discrimination? Singh’s response is tempered by his experience in Haringey. ‘The first question is: why do it?’ he says. ‘My response is that you want to create economically and socially mixed communities, so you don’t concentrate poverty and deprivation. I see advantages in that.’

Haringey already faced a homelessness crisis even before the arrival of 2,000 Kosovan refugees in the last 15 months. Singh estimates that 10 per cent of the population of the borough – 220,000 people–- are refugees.

‘We have traditionally been a major reception area for refugees and asylum seekers. And we have a major homelessness problem. If you put the two together, given the nature of the housing stock and its location, you are likely to create communities of poverty and deprivation. Given that the people who are in severe housing need are disproportionately from minorities, we have to ask if this shift may be indirectly or directly discriminatory.’

Singh is a member of the Institute for Public Policy Research’s commission looking at the future of social housing. ‘We have a fascinating debate about how to create socially mixed communities. One aspect is the concentration of households who are unemployed and caught in the poverty trap. There’s a view that perhaps we should be engaging in some form of social engineering. It’s a very difficult debate that’s got to be had, but we need to tread very carefully.’

There is a general perception that the CRE has taken a lower profile on housing issues in recent years. Does Singh accept that, and will he be pushing them up the agenda? ‘In Sir Herman Ouseley’s opinion, we in housing have been quite successful. He felt that the housing sector, be it local government or the association movement, had made some real progress around race and housing, and because of that success the CRE could afford to place a higher priority on other matters.

‘In housing we’ve made greater strides than have many other areas. If you look at the employment profile of housing departments, you’re more likely to see employment and race addressed. You’re more likely to see a black presence in housing associations and even some led by black and minority ethnic chief executives. Other areas have been less successful. What real progress, for example, has been made in education?’

The Macpherson report heavily criticised public services, and in particular the police, for institutional racism. It also had important implications for housing. The momentum created by the report and the campaign by the Lawrence family might seem to be a major advantage in pushing the CRE’s ideas up the political agenda. But Singh believes developments since the report have been mixed. ‘The general view from the CRE is that, whilst there are some very positive examples of good things that have been done, there is a disappointment that not enough has actually happened, that insufficient institutions have responded to it.

‘There’s a real risk, if I may put it like this, that Macpherson goes the same way as Scarman. After the so-called urban disorders, Scarman produced an excellent document. It was meant to lead to significant change. It led to some momentary change but that was not sustained, and the fear is that Macpherson could go the same way.’

Singh believes the Metropolitan Police have pursued the recommendations with ‘real vigour’, but that other forces have not done so well. One recent survey showed that many forces now employ fewer black and Asian personnel than a year ago. ‘The concern that not enough is being done by the police in response to Macpherson could probably be equally applied to local government, to the housing sector and to social housing landlords. There’s a sense of disappointment, the need to do more.’

Despite this, Singh joins the CRE at a time when he sees a window of opportunity for a new framework which could lead to a step forward for race relations. As well as a fuller implementation of Macpherson, he puts great emphasis on the Race Relations Amendment Bill (see box). The bill includes an enforceable duty on public bodies to promote racial equality and is likely to outlaw indirect discrimination across a wider range of public services than under the present (1976) Act.

If Macpherson and the bill provide the political background, the increasing hysteria in the media about asylum seekers will pose an immediate challenge for the new CRE chief. Should the CRE be taking a higher profile?

Singh chooses his words carefully. ‘Clearly where there are bogus asylum seekers, then that issue needs to be tackled, but tackled fairly and with some speed. I’m not naive enough to think that there are no bogus asylum seekers. I think anybody who actually believes that that is the case is being absolutely naive.

‘There are, I suspect, some people who are economic migrants amongst the asylum seekers coming here. But I do believe that the way in which the media has been treating this issue has been over-hyped. It is not helpful and I know that a number of organisations that are concerned about asylum seekers in this country would wish to make representations to Lord Wakeham [chair of the Press Complaints Commission] about the way in which the media is treating the matter. And I suspect that the CRE will be one of those organisations.’

The CRE’s remit is to tackle racial discrimination and racial equality, not matters of strict immigration policy. But Singh acknowledges that policies on immigration and asylum do have an inevitable impact on race relations. ‘The whole asylum seekers issue is a matter which is pertinent and relevant to race relations. Clearly the arrival of asylum seekers in this country is having an impact on local community relations,’ he says.

But, coming from a borough where 10 per cent of the population are refugees, does he favour the dispersal arrangements which are being brought in for asylum seekers? ‘Again, that’s a difficult matter. The problem that Haringey is faced with is a real shortage of housing. We’ve explored all forms of temporary accommodation, but frankly we’ve exhausted the supply and to discharge our homelessness duties we are forced into a policy of re-housing some homeless families outside of Haringey.

‘We have been engaged in discussions with local authorities as far away as Birmingham to enable us to discharge our duties. Nobody is happy with that, and the politicians in Haringey took that decision after some considerable soul-searching. But I can’t actually see us finding a solution other than through some form of exportation.’

Clearly, the CRE is getting a new chief who is well aware of the pressures faced by housing authorities. Does that mean that housing will move up the agenda once he takes over in May? ‘Housing will become a more important issue than perhaps it has been over the last decade,’ he says. ‘It will re-emerge, partly because of my own background, but also because of the changes that are taking place around the new race relations duty and following Macpherson. Housing will become a significant issue.’

Enforceable duty

The Race Relations (Amendment) Bill currently going through parliament follows a CRE review of the 1976 Race Relations Act and aims to make the law more effective in tackling racial discrimination.

‘It could open the door to real progress towards racial equality,’ says the CRE.

The Macpherson inquiry report into the death of Stephen Lawrence called for ‘the full force of race relations legislation’ to be extended to all police officers. Home secretary Jack Straw responded with a commitment to bring all functions of all public bodies – not just the police – within the scope of the new Act.

Although not covered on the face of the bill, the government has announced that an amendment will be made to also make indirect discrimination by public bodies unlawful.

The bill proposes a new enforceable duty on public authorities to promote racial equality.

Gurbux Singh sees this as the most significant of the proposed changes. ‘If that was to happen, I believe that there could be a sea-change across the public sector,’ he says. ‘For the first time there will be a clear enforceable duty and other agencies, like the Audit Commission and other inspection bodies, will need to see a role for themselves in it. So I will most certainly be saying to the Audit Commission that in its auditing of local government and the health service, for example, it will need to look at how each institution is responding on race.’

Singh’s interpretation is that the ‘public bodies’ covered by the bill will include registered social landlords, although the exact definition has yet to be spelt out.

The CRE wants to see public bodies implement the new duty by:

  • assessing the impact on racial equality of their policies
  • monitoring employment and service delivery by ethnic group
  • including racial equality standards in best value and external contracts
  • undergoing inspection by the relevant statutory agency, for example the Audit Commission or OFSTED
  • providing evidence of compliance to the CRE, with the CRE having the power to serve notices requiring compliance if necessary.