Published: 30/06/2005, Volume II5, No. 5962 Page 28 29

Some NHS trusts are taking their race equality work beyond the walls of their own organisations - by branching out to engage with the community. Colleen Shannon sees how

In NHS trusts and local government offices around England and Wales, race equality managers are still recovering from a hectic month. The end of May marked a key deadline for public sector organisations: to demonstrate compliance with the latest amendments to the Race Relations Act.

Part of the responsibility is to promote equality in the workplace, and many public sector employers - serving very different communities - show how organisations can reach out to local people and their staff.

Reaching out University Hospital Birmingham foundation trust is one of the biggest hospitals in the NHS and serves a diverse urban area. Regeneration was the starting point for an award-winning recruitment and training scheme, led by the trust.

'You might say that is quite a strange thing for an acute trust to be doing, ' says David Taylor, the hospital's head of regeneration. 'Our core mission is to deliver excellent healthcare, but we want to do more than that.' The hospital's catchment population includes disadvantaged neighbourhoods, where one of the best ways to improve health is to help people find employment.

'We really wanted to make a regeneration impact and felt the NHS, as a major employer, could give the lead on training and diversity, ' says Mr Taylor. 'The NHS is chronically short of staff, so improving recruitment and retention from diverse communities is also critical from a business viewpoint.' The trust's ACTIVATE scheme (see box, right), which provides training and mentoring for the long-term unemployed, was not initially conceived as a programmes specifically for ethnic minority people. It also targeted lone parents, people with disabilities and those living in deprived areas. As it turned out, 40 per cent of people entering the scheme came from ethnic minorities, so in its second phase, ACTIVATE is focusing on this group.

A world away from Birmingham is Vale Royal borough council in Cheshire, serving a rural area with few ethnic minority people. The council believes the potential for isolation, prejudice and disadvantage is higher in areas with smaller ethnic minority communities.

'Small communities must not be invisible communities - their voices, needs and aspirations must be heard, ' says Pam Bradley, corporate communications manager. The council teamed up with Cheshire Constabulary and brought in an external consultant to run the Hidden Voices of Vale Royal programme, which aimed to engage communities, highlight the needs of ethnic minority groups and gather residents' views and experiences. A black and ethnic minority focus group will be developed as a result.

Attracting staff is just the first part of the job.

Retaining and developing employees, and ensuring that everyone has a fair chance at career advancement, is arguably an even greater challenge.

Vale Royal council has a Dignity at Work scheme, with a team of employees trained to provide advice to their colleagues. The service offers discussions in a safe environment and an opportunity to explore options in an informal way. The team members are not professional counsellors, but they can offer confidentiality, a non-judgmental attitude and signposting to appropriate agencies.

Across many public sector organisations, mentoring is an approach that is more commonly used. It is working well at Guy's and St Thomas' foundation trust in London, according to Tim Higginson, director of strategy and policy.

He is quick to add that his own trust, and the NHS in general, still fall short of being the ideal employer for ethnic minority staff. 'I do not think We are the best in the business, but I do think we are trying hard. It is important to be honest and open about this, and say we haven't cracked it yet.' While the trust's overall workforce mirrors the community - about 30 per cent of employees are from ethnic minority groups - the proportion dwindles at the higher levels of management.

Better representation at the top is the current focus, says Mr Higginson. 'Clearly no single initiative is going to solve that problem.' He believes the hospital's mentoring scheme is a good start. It provides aspiring managers with an insight into how the organisation works and how to get ahead, while giving their mentors a chance to get to know people and see their potential first hand.

In Brent, north London, about half the residents belong to ethnic minority groups, a profile that is reflected in the council's workforce.

'We want to focus on getting more black and minority ethnic staff into senior management roles, ' says Tracy Walters, head of diversity for the council.

One initiative to help staff develop their careers is a black and Asian staff forum. Similar groups exist for female employees and staff with disabilities.

Brent also has a scheme to promote work-life balance, which has won support from the Department of Trade and Industry. Flexible working patterns attract people who need time to observe their religious beliefs during the working week. They also appeal to employees with family commitments or disabilities. The programme is benefiting residents as well. For example, because staff work flexible hours, the registry office is now open seven days a week.

Creating your own professionals

At the Crown Prosecution Service, HR director Angela O'Connor has been determined to tackle long-held beliefs that the top posts would always be reserved for white, middle-class males in their 50s. The organisation's legal scholars initiative has been successful in encouraging administrative staff up the professional ladder.

More than 300 employees have entered the scheme, which provides full support through Alevels and university. About 70 per cent of the scholars are women and around 40 per cent come from ethnic minority backgrounds.

'We are also challenging the class issue, which was very much unspoken, ' says Ms O'Connor.

'The majority come from backgrounds where going to university and becoming a lawyer was never going to be part of their future.' Some of the programme's earliest scholars are now out in the courtroom, she adds, 'getting fantastic results'. These new lawyers also help to build up a future reserve of talent for senior posts in the CPS.

Measuring success

Any diversity and equality programme must be able to demonstrate its success with hard numbers. But employee advocates think that evidence is still far too hard to come by.

To fill some of those information gaps, trade union Amicus has embarked on a joint project with NHS Employers, which will collect data on ethnic minority nurses in the health service. The project is led by Obi Amadi, who has worked in the NHS and is now head professional officer of the community nursing and health visitors section of Amicus.

People working in the health service have long sensed that difficulties at work take a toll on the health of BME nurses, says Ms Amadi. 'All the research is grey and a lot of it is anecdotal, ' she says. 'Everybody feels it but nobody has ever kept figures.' The project will gauge the effects of racism on nurses' health. It will also look for any trend towards excessively high rates of early retirement caused by ill health and determine whether pension entitlements for some nurses are being reduced as a result.

Employers need to do more work to measure and demonstrate the effectiveness of their race equality policies, concludes Gail Cartmail, head of the health sector at Amicus: 'Is it a better environment, are we beginning to make progress in the right direction?

I am not sure I've seen evidence that a robust approach to specific employment duties is taking place in any particularly effective way.'

ACTIVATE IN ACTION

THE BIRMINGHAM JOBS INITIATIVE ACTIVATE

(Assisting Communities To Identify Vocational Areas of Training and Employment), University Hospital Birmingham foundation trust:

Provides job readiness training, work experience and mentoring to the longterm unemployed.

Ethnic minorities accounted for 40 per cent of participants in the first phase: the target for the second phase is 65 per cent.

Has involved other hospitals, a primary care trust, the strategic health authority, plus a mental health trust.

Is supported by the Birmingham and Solihull Learning and Skills Council.

More than 400 people have completed the scheme since its launch in 2003; 40 per cent have found a job and 25 per cent have taken up further training.

The European Social Fund has provided more than£1m.

BLACK STAFF CHARTER

MANCHESTER CITY COUNCIL

Manchester city council promises employees it will:

Ensure that every black member of staff has access to a black workers' group.

Consult with black staff on recruitment, development and retention issues both departmentally and corporately.

Communicate with black staff and keep them informed about what is being done as a result of their feedback.

Involve black staff in decisions about providing opportunities for their development and progression.

Provide development opportunities for black staff.

Monitor progression of black staff.

FINDING THE FUNDS

Public sector employers can find extra money to support diversity and equality programmes.

Here are some tips from those who have found the necessary funds:

Winning grants requires specialist expertise and a large time commitment.

Large organisations can employ a fundraising expert, while smaller ones might do well to use outside consultants.

It is almost impossible to get 100 per cent outside funding for any project; the organisation must be prepared to commit resources of its own.

Sums do not need to be huge to make a difference.

Try the voluntary sector: the Guy's and St Thomas' charity has a long tradition of funding diversity projects at the hospital.

The ACTIVATE programme across the NHS in Birmingham won more than£1m from the European Social Fund.

Testing and promoting new ways to combat discrimination and inequality are among the fund's aims.

Some councils purposely avoid the special funding approach. Manchester city council does not routinely seek money for programmes to attract and support ethnic minority staff, but aims to embed equality and diversity in all aspects of the council's work.

www. esf. gov. uk