The only equality director at strategic health authority level has called for the NHS to tackle race discrimination by setting ethnic quotas for managers if necessary.

The plea, from NHS East Midlands equality and human rights director Richard Chester, follows HSJ’s revelation of the disadvantages faced by staff from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.

Information gathered by the South East Coast BME Network showed people from minorities were shortlisted for 37 per cent of acute trust jobs, but secured only 13 per cent. They were far less likely to be represented on trust boards and were disproportionately involved in reports of bullying, grievances and disciplinaries.

Mr Chester said the health service had been slower to recognise the problem than other parts of the public sector: “The NHS hasn’t got a good track record on equality. There has been an underlying assumption that there wasn’t a problem.”

In local government there are quality standards, performance indicators and a target for the number of BME people in the top 5 per cent of earners, he said.

Asked whether he was in favour of setting a target for NHS organisations on the proportion of BME senior managers, he said: “It’s certainly on the table to set figures.” The SHA would talk to trusts before introducing such a target, he added.

NHS East Midlands is taking a hard line on organisations that fail to address race equality, with chief executive Barbara Hakin taking a personal stance, he said.

Discussing equality

A benchmarking exercise is being carried out to see which trusts spend the most and least time discussing equality issues at board level, and to find out the ethnic make-up of boards.

A crib sheet has been written with questions chairs can use to probe boards on what action is being taken. A network of equality leads and managers is meeting to share best practice.

Mr Chester, who was appointed to his newly created post last year, said action was needed because centrally driven initiatives such as Breaking Through had not been successful.

NHS London is conducting an internal audit on the ethnicity of staff at each level of the SHA. Head of human resources Maria Robson said: “There has been progress across different organisations over the years. It’s something that can be improved and needs a joined-up approach.”

The “shocking” South East Coast figures were likely to reflect the situation in London, she said.