The Cabinet Office is seeking views from businesses on whether they should collect data on the socio-economic background of their staff and applicants. The stated purpose is to create an evidence base for measures intended to improve socio-economic diversity in the workplace. This suggestion has met with unsurprising hostility from some quarters, with the Provost of Eton College threatening to leave the Conservative Party in protest. But is it really so radical? Voluntary equal opportunities monitoring is widespread and (generally) uncontroversial. ACAS provides suggested templates for asking candidates and staff to give (anonymous) details of their ethnicity, age, gender, sexuality, any disability, etc. Collecting data on parental income or the type of school attended may not elicit responses in every case but arguably is no more intrusive.
The more controversial issue is what will be done with the data. The howls of outrage seem to stem from a belief that private school-educated applicants will be "discriminated against" in job applications.
The experience of the legal profession (where around a quarter of solicitors attended fee-paying schools compared to 7% of the population as a whole attending such schools) suggests that any measures will be much more modest, such as mentoring and outreach schemes. Some firms have begun to use contextual recruitment to assess whether individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds have significantly outperformed their peers, but only as one aspect of the recruitment process. Those firms emphasise that this is not a question of quotas or positive discrimination but an attempt to identify the most able candidates.
It remains to be seen whether the proposals will secure buy-in from businesses. Those wishing to respond to the engagement document (PDF) can do so here.
Ministers published several suggested questions today that firms could use to work out whether they are employing people from less privileged backgrounds.