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The rise of the woke bureaucracy

Cash-strapped local councils are spending a fortune on ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiatives.

Laurie Wastell

Topics Identity Politics UK

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Britain’s local councils are facing grave money troubles. The most recent to go bankrupt was Nottingham City Council, following Birmingham, Croydon and numerous others. As a result, in April, millions of households in England, already enduring the highest tax burden since the Second World War, will be further pummelled by a council-tax rise of anywhere between five and 10 per cent.

If you thought such dire financial straits would prompt local authorities to focus only on the essentials, you would be sorely mistaken. In fact, two-thirds of councils are planning cutbacks on local services this year as they struggle to plug a £4 billion funding gap. There is, however, one area where councils are still gladly splashing the cash: woke bureaucracy.

New research published by the TaxPayers’ Alliance last week shows that, in the past three years, Britain’s cash-strapped councils have almost doubled their spending on ‘Equality, Diversity and Inclusion’ (EDI) roles. The number of these roles ballooned from 474 in 2020-21 to 717 in 2022-23. They are handsomely remunerated, too. An ‘assistant director of community services and EDI’ can net a tidy £103,000 a year in bankrupt Birmingham. Even amid the funding crisis, new postings continue to appear, often with innovative titles such as a ‘staying well team manager’ or a ‘diversity, inclusion and wellbeing adviser’.

The cost of these diversity commissars isn’t the only problem, of course. These initiatives also waste the time of other council employees, who are forced to sit through endless rounds of diversity training, rather than doing actual work providing services. Warwickshire County Council, for instance, has spent £677,000 on diversity training, in which staff took part in an African drumming session and played a board game about ‘respect at work’.

How any of this is supposed to relate to councils’ responsibilities for bins, schools and roads is far from clear. Indeed, as a recent report by the Mail on Sunday points out, with the £1.54million of public money spent on EDI training by Labour councils in England, they could have repaired 30,000 potholes.

As you might expect, plenty of Conservative MPs have come out of the woodwork to express outrage at all this bureaucratic bloat. Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said recently that councils should ditch diversity schemes, calling them a waste of money. Similarly, former business secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg has sniffed that these woke councils clearly ‘do not deserve extra funding from central government’. Tory MP Nick Fletcher has denounced ‘ridiculous woke spending’ that is wasting resources ‘right across our public sector’.

It is indeed an outrage. But while Labour councils are spending the most on EDI, the blame for the surge in diversity spending lies less with these individual councils than with the Tory government itself.

Woke bureaucracy did not emerge in a vacuum. Up and down the country, from Cornwall to Derbyshire, from Merton to Stevenage, councils of all stripes are engaging in these nonsense initiatives. And if we look at the latest EDI strategy for Stevenage Council, we can see exactly why all these councils are doing this. As a public-sector body, Stevenage Council explains, it is legally required to publish an ‘inclusion strategy’. Every four years, it must explain how it plans to fulfil its equalities requirements. It must also publish an annual equalities report on each protected characteristic under the Equality Act 2010, as well as its so-called gender pay gap.

All of this can be traced back to the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), which is embedded in the Equality Act. The PSED obliges all public bodies to ‘encourage persons who share a relevant protected characteristic to participate in public life or in any other activity in which participation by such persons is disproportionately low’.

This may sound innocuous enough, but it essentially commits all public bodies to a programme of bit-by-bit social engineering to achieve suitably ‘proportionate’ employment outcomes through wheezes like ‘positive action’ and diversity quotas. Councils – as well as government departments, the civil service, the BBC, the NHS and the armed forces – must all set themselves goals for how ‘diverse’ they think they ought to be, and then see to it that they achieve them.

This invariably steers public bodies away from their actual purpose, encouraging them to focus instead on demonstrating their woke credentials. It also means they are essentially obliged to hire woke pen-pushers. Those mandatory inclusion strategies won’t write themselves, after all. If the Tories’ complaints about public-sector wokery were at all serious, then they would revoke the PSED. That they haven’t speaks volumes.

In truth, the Tories have not just ignored the growing EDI bureaucracy during their 14 years in office. They have also actively encouraged it. After all, it was ‘woke and proud’ Theresa May who, as prime minister, brought in mandatory annual reporting of the public-sector gender pay gap in 2017. Making this a legal requirement has put the equalities bureaucracy on steroids.

With households feeling the cost-of-living pinch and public services continuing to deteriorate, taxpayers will be rightly outraged to see their local councils spaffing money on pointless diversity initiatives. But they shouldn’t just blame the councils – they should also blame the Tory government. Thanks to the Tories, the UK is now a world leader in woke bureaucracy. Only a total overhaul can right this course.

Laurie Wastell is a writer.

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Topics Identity Politics UK

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