Published: 11/11/2004, Volume II4, No. 5931 Page 10

The Department of Health has lagged behind other government departments in its attempts to tackle racism and discrimination, the chair of the Commission for Racial Equality has warned.

Trevor Phillips told a conference on race equality in the NHS that some government departments had made exhaustive efforts to tackle racism, but had still not succeeded in eradicating the problem. The DoH still had more steps it could take to fight racism in the NHS, he said.

He highlighted the Ministry of Defence as a government department that had made enormous efforts to end racism, but he said it was still not hitting its targets.

He suggested that it may need some help in analysing why its efforts were not paying off.

Mr Phillips told the conference last week: 'I do not think the NHS has got that far yet because I do not think that everything that could have been done is being done. My impression is that the NHS is working very hard, but not always succeeding.'

Mr Phillips, who chairs a panel monitoring progress on the race equality action plan published in February, also reprimanded the NHS for attracting one of the highest number of applications for help with discrimination cases.

In 2003 the CRE received 903 requests for help with discrimination cases, of which 58 were against the NHS. Among those, 15 were from doctors. The biggest category of complaints was against local authorities, which notched up 135 complaints last year.

Mr Phillips said: 'Probably one of the biggest groups of discrimination claims that we are asked for help with are against health trusts or medical bodies.This tells us a lot about what is going on, or at least what people perceive is going on.'

He also warned that in an organisation the size of the NHS the subtleties of racial discrimination can be lost.

'I think there is a tendency in a very large organisation such as the NHS to forget that lots of what matters is how people behave to each other. It can be very difficult for black and ethnic minority people to explain what the problem is.'

The DoH's new director of equality and human rights, Surinder Sharma, told the NHS Confederation's conference that as the biggest employer of black and ethnic minority staff in this country, and possibly Europe, the NHS needed to be an 'exemplar' of race equality.

He said: 'The NHS can and should use its huge economic muscle for the good of the community. It is the biggest purchaser of goods and services in the UK.'