A talk I gave recently to North Wales RSL Equality Partnership.
Nearly 40 years ago I was secretary to the social housing sector’s first enquiry into Race and Housing. It was established by the National Housing Federation in the wake of a period of social unrest which occurred in many inner cities in 1981.
The enquiry produced its first report in 1982. It found that housing associations and local authority housing departments were guilty of racial discrimination both in the provision of their services and in their employment practices. The report made a number of recommendations to overcome this.
40 years later we are still talking about the issue in the context of a wider debate on diversity or lack of it in social housing. Has anything changed? Clearly there has been gradual progress in some areas but a number of recent reports show that we still have a long way to go.
A report in Inside Housing revealed the extent of racism, sexism, harassment and bullying in UK Housing. I expected an outcry from the sector in response to this. But it did not come. The silence from our leaders was both shocking and shameful. It appears from the lack of comment and even more importantly the lack of action that the sector is in denial about the issue. Or does it think that it is immune?
Evidence from elsewhere suggests that it is not. Reports into similar behaviour in Parliament show that sexism, harassment and bullying are endemic. A report into activities at Save the Children tell a similar story of sexual harassment, bullying and more. The report indicates that 30% of staff reported such behaviour which compares to similar figures in other sectors. If we accept the findings in Inside Housing, this figure is almost certain to be repeated in social housing. We are not immune.
Another report showed that we are also continuing to fail in employment of senior staff. The number of women or BME executive and non-executive leaders in social housing is extremely low. In recent years the number of women leaders has increased gradually especially in Wales. The number of BME leaders has remained static or has even fallen. There was an expectation that this would change when the current generation of mainly white male leaders reached retirement age and moved on. Did it?
Inside Housing looked at 34 appointments of chief executives of larger housing associations in the last 2 years. This showed that only 1 new BME leader had been appointed and only 5 women. A once in a generation opportunity to change the diversity at the top of social housing has been lost. Many reasons have been put forward to explain this shameful failure to recognise the diversity in our society. I continue to believe that, just as they did 40 years ago, racism and sexism play their part. Although the sector again fails to recognise this. It has become the issue in social housing that dare not speak its name. Some have called for an independent enquiry to be established to investigate fully these matters. I support this call but will our sector leaders?
A recent article in 24Housing raised similar issues and rightly identified the role of housing association boards as crucial. For me this is where we start to change. Boards should set the culture of organisations especially on what behaviours are acceptable and what are not. They should insist that there is zero tolerance of racism, sexism, harassment and bullying. They should regularly ask awkward questions of senior staff and others on this. They should establish fully independent whistle blowing policies and safe areas and support for those who experience such behaviour. They should look at their own behaviour and prejudices and ensure that in their recruitment and appointments the board and senior teams reflect fully the diversity in society. All of this should be regularly monitored and reported openly at least once a year. A fully comprehensive equality and diversity report should be part of the annual report. I would go further and make it an independent regulatory issue. The reason is simple. The only time social housing made real progress on these issues was when it was part of the regulatory regime.
We began talking about these issues over 40 years ago. We have talked for too long. What we need is real action and change. That process starts with you.