Written evidence submitted by Ken Fraser, relating to the Experiences of Minority Ethnic and Migrant People in Northern Ireland inquiry (MEM0033)


My name is Ken Fraser. I joined the Northern Ireland Civil Service following an open competition to recruit a Grade 7 with experience and expertise in race matters. This evidence reflects my personal views and not those of the unit in which I work.

Before joining OFMDFM and moving to Belfast I worked on race issues in the then DTI.  I lived in Brixton and Peckham. I have very extensive experience of living in a diverse community and of race equality and good race relations. 

I took up the post – which remains my current post - on 16 September 2002. I am Head, Racial Equality Unit, TEO, with responsibility for development and implementation of racial equality and good race relations policy. I have expanded the role to cover immigration and asylum matters because of their racial equality implications. Previously the attitude in Stormont had been "Nothing to do with us. It's an excepted matter".

Unusually for a civil servant, I have not moved from post to post but have remained with the Racial Equality Unit - to help me build my experience and expertise and to develop relationships with the stakeholders. I have now had over a quarter of a century of experience in the field. It would be arrogant and presumptuous to suppose that you can have a real insight into racism and its impact and have established the necessary trust with people who experience racism for them to speak to you openly.

In my time there I have engaged very well with, and have a good knowledge of circumstances in, Scotland and England.  This is not just with the Government but NGOs as well.  I have built an extensive network of contacts, including academics. 

As you may imagine, I have been taking a keen interest in your inquiry into minority ethnic people in Northern Ireland.

Work on the race agenda started well when I started work for OFMDFM (as was). I led work on the first Racial Equality Strategy which was very well received. I was also responsible for drafting the second RES. There have been subsequent amendments which does not reflect consultation with the relevant Assembly Committee. This is also reflected in the transcript of TEO's oral evidence to NIAC on 1 December 2021 and, in particular, about access to expertise.

You asked at Q178 "do you have [...] access to, via the NIO, the Home Office, the Local Government Association or others, people from England, Wales and Scotland who are well versed in these sorts of issues and very experienced, with a long tradition in very racially mixed areas of the country?"

One of the officials told the Committee "We do not have anybody seconded in, but we are very mindful of the expertise elsewhere, so we would engage with other jurisdictions and those who are involved in other jurisdictions in some of these policy areas, around what they do, how they do it and some of the issues".

My concerns relate to the lack of engagement of officials with experience and expertise of their own colleague (me) and the lack of career progression within the NICS which I believe is also contributing to the slow progress of race matters in TEO. There is a very low level of race literacy throughout Northern Ireland for historical reasons associated with "the Troubles''. By “racial literacy” I mean the ability to recognise, respond to and counter forms of racism whatever their source. With racial literacy comes the tools and vocabulary to handle more complex ideas about race and a growing understanding of how racism operates. Racial literacy involves understanding that I “was making a joke” and “was quoted out of context” doesn’t excuse making racist remarks.

TEO is running the perennial risk of making the mistake identified by the Inquiry into RHI where resources were insufficient not only in terms of staff numbers but also "the small team was simply not provided with the necessary knowledge or experience to carry out the necessary activities; to analyse the information it received; to make the necessary judgments”.

We need to raise the level of racial literacy here very considerably across the board, including at the most senior levels. Where a person does not have a good level of racial literacy they will find it difficult or impossible to understand the issues in the first place. Minority ethnic people deserve policy makers and law makers who understand the hurdles and burdens that minority ethnic people have to deal with and that cause the racial inequalities they experience.  You can't just make it up as you go along. And enthusiasm is not a substitute for knowledge and experience.  

And to this end we must look to another recommendation of the RHI enquiry:  A fundamental shift is needed in the approach used within the Northern Ireland Civil Service with regard to recruitment and selection for government jobs. This must involve an up-front assessment of the skills that are required to fulfill the specific role in question, rather than matching a person to a role according to an individual’s grade and level of pay.  

The issue applies equally to "internal facing issues" as the external facing ones. NICS proudly declares that it has “zero tolerance for racism” within the workplace. However the people who should tackle issues in the workplace (including racism) do not recognise it. Thus it goes uninvestigated and without sanction. There is a clear lack of the necessary enforcement mechanism.

The officials spoke to you of NICS HR developing their marketing strategy for recruitment. That's all very good and recruitment is a necessary first step. But you need to ensure that minority ethnic employees rights are properly protected and that there are people to enforce the policy and who have a proper understanding of the issues. If minority ethnic people are not treated properly, skilled and talented people of colour will vote with their feet. 

TEO officials do not lack access to expertise in these matters but they need to avail of this expertise, properly value it and establish ways in which to develop a professional approach to the skills and knowledge that is needed. It is in the interests of us all to ensure that minority ethnic people are given a professional service. As it stands - whether deliberately or accidentally - our race policy is marked by institutional racism.

The Grade 5 post of the official who appeared before the Committee was described thus: "It was established that this was a general service post and that previous experience was not essential".  This is ridiculous. It is essential for our social cohesion and our economic success that we recognise that racial literacy will be as important as actual literacy, and that we appreciate the need to develop and spread the necessary skills and knowledge.

I recognise that it is unusual for me to contact you in this way but these issues around racial literacy have been going on for 16 years or so and to make our minority ethnic people wait any longer, with growing frustration, anger, disillusion and lack of trust is not just unfair but dangerous. We need to ensure that we afford minority ethnic people their rights. I don't think we are anywhere near doing that.  


January 2022