Harry Benson: Sewell Report highlights the damage caused by family breakdown, but doesn’t offer solutions

16 Apr

Harry Benson is Research Director for the Marriage Foundation and co-author of What Mums Want (and Dads Need to Know).

The recent report by the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, released a month ago today, claims to be the first government-commissioned study on race that seriously engages with the family.

Dr Tony Sewell and colleagues quite rightly say we should not stigmatise lone parents. But nor should we turn a blind eye to the impact of family breakdown on the life chances of children.

However, by failing to identify the drivers of family breakdown, the report does exactly that. Just two of its 24 recommendations (#7 and #19) mention ‘family’. None address factors that might improve stability and reduce family breakdown, such as marriage, commitment, or even relationship quality.

For those who take their cue from data rather than opinion, the report is excellent in highlighting how factors such as family, socio-economic background, geography, culture and religion have a more significant impact on family outcomes than race. If only it hadn’t stopped there.

One of the most striking findings comes from a new release on lone parent families by the Office for National Statistics. While careful to avoid any charge of passing judgment, the report identifies how lone parent families typically face greater strain and need more support than couple families. Among ethnic groups, the range of lone parenthood rates is huge. Least stable are black Caribbean families, where 63 per cent of children live in lone parent households compared to just six per cent among Indian families, who are the most stable. By way of comparison, the proportion for the UK as a whole is 22 per cent (not 14.7 per cent, as claimed in the report).

Other than a nod to divorce and the influence of male responsibility and the welfare state, there is little attempt to explain this striking variation between groups.

In an analysis of family breakdown among 9,000 families with 11-year-olds that I did with my colleague Professor Steve McKay at the University of Lincoln, we found that ethnicity does indeed make a difference. All other factors being equal, black fathers are more likely to split from the mother and Asian mothers are less likely to split from the father. Black mothers and Asian fathers face no greater or lesser risk than their white counterparts.

However – and it is a big however – the influence of ethnicity is only a fraction as important as the mother’s age, education, or happiness and whether she is married or cohabiting when the child is born.

Being married rather than cohabiting is one of the most important factors in predicting whether couples stay together or split up. It’s more important than the mother’s education, but six times more important than mother’s ethnicity and 17 times more important than father’s ethnicity.

In another analysis we did of 14-year-olds in the next wave of the same survey, we found that ethnicity did not influence teenage boys mental health at all. But it did have a small but counterintuitive effect on girls. Black girls were slightly less likely to show high levels of mental health problems, whereas Pakistani or Bangladeshi girls were more likely. This latter effect disappeared altogether once the parents’ income was taken into account.

Once again, other factors played a far more important role than race. Family breakdown, being married when the child was born, and the mother’s education were the most important factors predicting subsequent teenage mental health.

Dr Sewell and his colleagues are absolutely right to point out that family breakdown has a much bigger effect on outcomes than race. But their recommendations fall badly short without acknowledging how marriage – and the clarity of commitment that it represents – are the key buffer against family breakdown.

Claire Coutinho: In defence of this week’s race and disparities report

3 Apr

Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

Racism exists in this country; of course it does. And we must do all we can to combat it. However, if we want to close the gaps between how different ethnic minorities succeed in the UK then it is not enough to tackle racism; we must also take a clear-eyed look at why different racial outcomes happen.

The Sewell Report, from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, provides a data-rich analysis of ethnic minority disparities in Britain today. Overall, the scorecard is unquestionably one of progress. The Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has repeatedly said that the UK is one of the best countries to be a person of colour and this is shown to be true.

The report references a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2019 which shows the percentage of British Black respondents who reported experiencing harassment is the second-lowest in the EU, less than half that of our neighbours in Ireland.

We also have the lowest percentage of Black respondents experiencing discrimination in housing, employment, education, health services, and restaurants, shops and bars. In education, the engine house of social mobility, ethnic minorities are now achieving extraordinary success, outperforming the national average in most cases. As we rightly look at what more we can do, it is important that we celebrate where we have made progress.

The data also shows us that the drivers of racial inequalities are complex. It is not the case that all racial inequalities are driven by racism or even that racism is the biggest driver of racial inequality. It tells us that the Government is right to ditch the catch-all term ‘BAME’. Simply being ‘non-white’ is no longer a major predictor of life chances and masks completely different pictures amongst different minorities.

Even within the category ‘Asian’, one of the clumsy ‘big five’ race labels of ‘White, Black, Asian, Mixed, Other’, outcomes are massively different for Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and Indian people. Even amongst ‘Indians’, the urban middle-class Gujaratis and rural Mirpuri will again see extremely different outcomes.

If companies are filling their ‘BAME’ quotas with Indian and Chinese graduates from high-socio economic backgrounds, we should question whether they are in fact delivering the access to opportunity they are claiming. Because the data shows, it’s not the colour of your skin that is most likely to define your life chances in today’s Britain, but your geography, socio-economic background, and family.

The report is far from universally positive. When it comes to racism, both historic and current, it does not allow us to rest on our laurels. It acknowledges repeatedly that racism is a ‘real force’ in the UK and that ‘bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding, but they still have the power to deny opportunity and painfully disrupt lives.’

From prejudices in the labour market, to biases in facial recognition technology to incidences of racial hate crimes – which have dramatically fallen but are still too high, the Commission challenges us to use all the levers at our disposal to root out racism. It particularly highlights the rise in vile online racist abuse that Thierry Henry, Alex Beresford, or indeed many of the Commissioners of this report will know only too well.

Both the Left and the Right must show leadership here. Keir Starmer’s selective perception of racism doesn’t seem to extend to condemning Labour MPs linking the Sewell Report’s Commissioners to the Klu Klux Klan, but it should. It also shows us that we still have a damaging trust deficit to tackle in our criminal justice and health systems due to ugly legacies of discrimination. It calls for today’s perceptions of racial biases to be met with robust investigations so that we can rebuild trust where it previously has been broken.

However, if not all racial inequalities are primarily caused by racism, then we also need to look carefully at the other dominant factors. Having an accurate evidence-based diagnosis matters. It is the only route which will lead us to the policies that best help those who are falling behind.

It will affect policies designed to close the attainment gap in education that exists for Black Caribbean students, but not for the Black African students that share their classroom. It will affect how we break into the ‘snowy peaks’ in the civil service, NHS, and boardrooms, despite a wealth of ethnic minority talent. It will affect how to address why the average hourly pay rate is £11.87 if you are white British and £9.62 if you are Pakistani or Bangladeshi. It will affect how we address the mortality gap that exists for Black women of all socio-economic backgrounds in maternity services but not for breast cancer.

Different disparities will require us to design different solutions depending on the evidence. Take an example in education. The two lowest performing groups are Black Caribbean students and white working class boys. If family values of education and parental income and educational achievements are the dominant factor, as the evidence suggests, then we should spend more time on strengthening families, parental engagement, and focused programmes around these particular students.

Or take a different example in health. Low vaccine take-up in the black community has partly been caused by a legacy of deep-rooted mistrust in vaccines and health services because of historic discrimination. This cannot be overcome by Government alone and indeed it has been the collaboration and hard work of community leaders which have helped to halve the rate of vaccine hesitancy in black adults – although we still have more to do.

It should be noted that all but one of the Commissioners on the Sewell Report are from ethnic minorities, with expert in the fields of health, policing, and education..To express your expert view on how to make progress in inequality should not be a matter of courage, but it has become that. We owe them a debt of gratitude because their research has given us the springboard to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

If we can accurately diagnose the causes of racial inequality, we can design the policies that will help bring an end to it. As Conservatives, we need to unabashedly defend an evidence-led approach on racial inequality and relentlessly focus on improving outcomes. We owe that to the people and communities in this country whose ability to succeed is defined by anything other than their own hard work and talent.

Frank Young: Why we need to get rid of the term ‘BAME’

18 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

A generation ago, virtually all ethnic minority groups in the UK were more disadvantaged than the White British population, by almost any measure. Today, disadvantage is no longer black and white.

Too often, we have viewed ethnic minorities through lumping everyone who is non-white into a crude “BAME” category, grouping their experiences as if there are no meaningful differences between them. It is time to get rid of this useless “BAME vs. White” approach and dig a little deeper into the facts.

Outcomes for virtually all ethnic minority groups have been on a positive trajectory over the last few decades. Many ethnic minority groups are now performing better in education and the labour market than the White British group.

Before we tipped our economy upside down, official earnings data showed that young people from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds no longer had lower earnings than their White British counterparts. This is most likely because African and Bangladeshi children are outperforming the national average in bagging good GCSE grades.

When it comes to the home life that sets the template for adulthood, there are vast disparities in family structures across ethnic groups. Only 10 per cent of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are headed up by a single parent; for Caribbean households with children the figure is nearly half. We shouldn’t be surprised that children’s outcomes are so varied when the homes they return to each day are so different.

None of this is intended to suggest we take a pollyannaish approach to ethnicity – there are real problems we need to tackle. But if we want to take them on properly we need to dig a little deeper into what is going on between and within ethnic groups with very different backgrounds, cultural expectations and experiences of the world around them.

The gaps are not just between White Brits and ethnic minority groups. There are huge gaps within broad ethnic minority groups too. For instance, Indian people of working age in 2018 succeeded in closing the employment gap between themselves and the White British population, and now earn more than White British workers, on average. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have consistently had the highest unemployment rates – more than double that of the Indian population – and have some of the poorest earnings.

The differences between Black Caribbean and Black African individuals are also stark. Black African GCSE students achieve higher than average in school, whilst their Caribbean peers have some of the poorest attainment rates. Disadvantaged African students perform better, not worse, than more advantaged Caribbean students.

Simply reporting “Asian or “Black” outcomes is deeply unhelpful – let alone reporting “BAME” outcomes. You won’t hear that in the news too often, let alone reports from bureaucrats who love to lump people into groups.

It might be tempting to just blame this on “poverty” or some imagined “structural disadvantage” but the fact is some groups seem to beat the odds. Poorer Indian students (those eligible for free school meals) achieve just as highly as relatively wealthier White British students in their GCSEs. Similarly, disadvantaged Black African students achieve better GCSE results than their more advantaged Black Caribbean peers.

At the CSJ, we have always tackled the most difficult social issues head on. All the above statistics come from our newly published report, Facing the facts: ethnicity and disadvantage in Britain. We need to improve the way we understand ethnic differences by binning the nonsense term “BAME” and instead turn our attention to tackling poverty at its root causes, making sure we get those out of work into a job, preventing families from breaking apart and making education an escape route from a poorer future. The Prime Minister is tip-toeing into this area with a new commission but more ambitious action is needed.

There’s a lot to be really proud of in our country and in many ways we are a hugely successful multi-ethnic democracy. We don’t need a crude approach to ethnicity anymore than we need it in tackling poverty. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has been a catalyst for re-examining how ethnicity affects “life chances”, but it is being held back a lack of nuance.

Governments love to say they are led by the evidence, it’s time to look at the evidence on ethnicity in plotting a better future for families growing up in our poorest areas. The first step is get rid of the pointless phrase “BAME” and get a lot more interested in the lives of real people, which will show up in the data when you look carefully.