Ethnic minorities could receive extra help during the recession following Government fears they will be hardest hit as the economy deteriorates.
Work and Pensions Secretary James Purnell announced a controversial drive to ensure ethnic minority workers are not ‘left behind’.
He warned that employment levels amongst ethnic minorities fell by ten percentage points in the 1990s recession, more than other groups.
Mr Purnell, announcing the initiative in a speech to Labour’s Black Asian and Minority Ethnic annual general meeting in Leicester, said it was vital to ensure the mistakes of previous recessions were not repeated.
‘In the past too many were left behind in bad times. Ethnic minority workers suffered most in the Tory recessions,’ he said.
‘Employment levels amongst ethnic minority workers fell by 10 percentage points in the 1990s recession–much worse than rest of the country.
‘Just think of the waste of human potential. Whole communities were abandoned, families where no one then worked for generations.’
But the Government’s focus on minorities drew criticism from Conservative MPs, who warned it risked entrenching division.
Shipley MP Philip Davies said: ‘This is simply outrageous. The Government should be targeting support at all who need it.
‘The Government should be colour blind when it comes to looking who needs help. Doing otherwise will only entrench racism, as far as I’m concerned.
‘The Government should be looking now to help the groups that have already been hit, like savers.
‘This is the sort of thing that gives politics a bad name–ministers talking to different groups and telling them what they want to hear. It drives me to distraction.’
A spokesman for the TaxPayers’ Alliance campaign group said: ‘At a time when so many people are feeling the pinch, the Government should be allocating help on the basis of need.
‘Lots of people are suffering hard times in the recession. The last thing they need is for the Government to play politics with different ethnic minority and gender groups.
‘Instead, it should concentrate on an honest effort to help us all through the recession.’
The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) will assess the impact of unemployment on ethnic minorities, women, the disabled and older workers and advise ministers on steps to take.
Business groups have warned that women may bear the brunt of the economic downturn, since they are more likely to be employed part-time or on temporary contracts and may be first in line when jobs are cut.
Mr Purnell said in previous downturns, unemployment amongst older workers had also been deeper and more prolonged and said the talents of a generation of disabled people had been “squandered”.
‘Over half a million people were pushed onto incapacity benefit and forgotten about,’ he said.
‘But, as much as the Tories might have wanted them too they didn’t just disappear. We still bear the scars of those decisions in so many communities and households today.
‘In this recession evidence so far is that its effects, however painful, are being spread across the population more evenly. But we will not take any chances.’
Mr Purnell said EHRC chairman Trevor Phillips had agreed to work with the Government to assess whether any groups were suffering disproportionately in the recession.
‘When we identify particular problems, we will know we need to adapt our policies to make sure that no one is left behind this time,’ he said.
A spokesman for the Equality and Human Rights Commission said: ‘This recession has had a terrible impact for hundreds of thousands of people who have lost their job or are under threat–men and women, the old and young, white, black or Asian, students struggling to find a job, disabled people.
‘We want to understand the patterns that are already starting to emerge.
‘Are women more at risk than men? Are older workers more at risk than younger? Are disabled people more at risk than others? Are people in poorer parts of Britain more at risk than the wealthy? And, if they are, why and what can we do about it?
‘By developing a clear understanding of what is happening on the ground we can make a difference this time round.’
But shadow work and pensions secretary Theresa May said: ‘This is typical of Labour’s dithering response to the recession.
‘All James Purnell is promising is quarterly reviews and more reports. The recession is hitting all groups and all parts of the country.
‘The heart of the problem is still about getting credit flowing through to businesses to help them stay afloat and keep people in jobs.
‘That’s why they should adopt our £50 billion loan guarantee scheme and relax the rules to allow people on jobseekers allowance to take training courses immediately.”