Londoners can’t wait another decade

Allister Heath
IT was good to hear Boris Johnson’s commitment to boosting London’s rail and road infrastructure at his speech to Mansion House last night. High speed rail is a waste of money but there are plenty of smaller, local projects, including in London, that would add far more value and tap more easily into private funds.

The current problems with the Hammersmith flyover are a bad joke. London needs a new Thames crossing, which Boris has now promised between Greenwich and Silvertown. But there is just one problem – it could take up to 10 years. Why? Come on, Boris: it’s time to speed things up. Londoners can’t wait another decade.

Meritocracy needs to be one of the UK’s core values. Companies must hire the best candidate, regardless of background or any other arbitrary criteria. Racism and prejudice are loathsome. But as anybody who has studied closely the application process for many of London’s biggest graduate employers – for example, the big professional services giants – it is clear that these companies (just like universities) already bend over backwards to try and recruit the very best candidates, regardless of background. Their intake is also increasingly global, with pan-European recruitment. It is, after all, in their obvious self-interest to hire the best candidates.

So I am deeply puzzled by one of the key proposals on boosting social mobility unveiled by Nick Clegg yesterday – half endorsed with key caveats by fifty large firms. The idea is that companies need to find ways to create job application processes to ensure that candidates can hide their names – in case it reveals their ethnicity – and hide their school – in case that gives them some advantage or disadvantage. This is an idiotic and insulting proposal which hopefully will never actually happen.

Who would want to work for a company that cannot even trust its own HR department not to be racist or not to discriminate, and is forced to hide information from them? What kind of system, in 2012, sends out a signal to 21-year old graduates or 18-year old school leavers that the only way they stand a chance of getting a job is if they hide their name and school from prospective employers, thus turning the entire job application process into a legal stand-off? And what evidence is there that discrimination or the old boys’ network is a significant barrier these days, especially in large, global City firms?

We need more meritocracy in the UK but that is not the way to achieve it. Employers would eventually meet candidates and find out their gender and ethnicity – and if they are genuinely prejudiced, they could then weed out the ones they didn’t like. If they wanted to hire their friends’ children, they would approach them directly. Has Clegg ever heard of headhunters?

It is desperately important that Britain – already the most tolerant society in the world – moves towards being a truly colour-blind society. We need greater social mobility; it is a scandal that so many poor children are robbed of opportunities because the state gives them an inadequate education and traps them in workless, crime-infested estates. But the way to tackle this is to improve educational and economic opportunities and to reform welfare. Clegg’s latest proposal will hike costs, make the recruitment process more confrontational, and do nothing to help the poor.

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