Building a cohesive society ‘can’t be done overnight', says EY expert

Posted On: 
29th January 2018

Speaking to PoliticsHome, EY's Darra Singh says that while there has been progress when it comes to improving diversity, the drive for change has 'slipped' in recent years.

The level of inequality in the UK was thrown into sharp relief last October however, with the publication of the Race Disparity Audit, which brings together government statistics covering ethnic breakdowns across 130 areas.
PA Images

You can track much of Darra Singh’s career to many of the most significant domestic events of the past two decades. His expertise on social cohesion has been tapped up by governments of all colours in the wake of terror attacks and civil unrest. “It sounds like my career has just hinged on one domestic incident after another,” Singh quips with customary dry humour, as we walk through his CV.

We begin with the 2001 race riots in Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, after which Singh sat on the Community Cohesion panel set up to assess social unity. This study threw up the “stark  reality” of parallel lives, Singh says, with segregation taking place in towns and cities with high levels of diversity.

Singh chaired the Commission for Integration and Cohesion set up by Tony Blair in the aftermath of the 7/7 bombings in London, and in 2011 he also chaired the Riots, Communities and Victims panel, established by David Cameron after revolts broke out across the UK during a tumultuous summer. And last September Singh was appointed to the panel of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority commission, formed by metro mayor Andy Burnham to tackle extremism and promote a more cohesive society following the atrocities at the Manchester Evening News Arena.

Given this expanse of work, is Singh of the view that Britain has become a more cohesive, equal society over the course of his career? He cites the improvement of secondary schools in the capital following the London Challenge on Education, an initiative launched by the Labour government in 2003.

“That showed, in terms of the outcome, that with focus and with time and investment, our results can be turned around,” he continues. “In terms of diversity of workforce, while it is still uneven if you compare people from different backgrounds, generally there has been an improvement and we generally find more diverse workforces.

“So while it depends on which measure you look at and there is still a lot still to be done, there’s been progress. What I think has slipped in the last few years has been the overall commitment to  to drive change.”

Singh, who was awarded both an OBE in 2004 and an honorary doctorate from Coventry University, for services to community cohesion, is a former chief executive at Jobcentre Plus, a member of the Barnardo’s board of trustees and an ex-CEO of both Luton and Ealing Borough Councils. Making the switch to the private sector, he joined EY in 2012 and has spent the last two years as head of government and public sector at the firm, advising local authorities, Whitehall departments and other public bodies on how to improve their services.

While Singh rails against the notion of a silver bullet capable of achieving greater social cohesion, and cautions that it is not something that can be achieved overnight, he asserts that at the heart of it is “tackling inequality, however it manifests itself” and economic inclusiveness.

“All the areas that I’ve come across within the UK that are focusing on fairness and focusing on creating a greater economic prosperity, are also focused on doing that in an inclusive way. So, making sure that economic prosperity and growth don’t just affect a section of society or the population, but that those benefits are cascaded,” he says.

The level of inequality in the UK was thrown into sharp relief last October however, with the publication of the Race Disparity Audit, which brings together government statistics covering ethnic breakdowns across 130 areas, including health, education and housing. Among the findings included was that black men face the highest likelihood of being found guilty in court; unemployment among black, Asian and minority ethnic people is nearly double that of white Britons; and white British pupils from poor backgrounds are likely to do worst at school.

Singh says there is a great incentive in ensuring that society is more unified. “I personally strongly believe that the more that people have a stake in society, to put it that way, the more they feel there’s a sense of belonging and they make a contribution, the more likely it is that individuals are going to be engaged in a positive way in a whole range of different means. That’s where I think social cohesion is important. Also, cohesion and making sure that everybody is able to achieve what they aspire to achieve and meet their full potential, means that we get the very best of the talent that we have.

“It’s not a very scientific answer, it’s not full of lots of data. It’s more of an emotional response. But I do believe it’s about a sense of belonging, being able to make a full contribution, achieving your potential and also then adding to the overall push for greater prosperity and economic development.”

The data from the Race Disparity Audit is being used by the commission reviewing social cohesion in Greater Manchester. The panel will consider how Greater Manchester agencies work to prevent violent extremism; review “broader determinants” of social exclusion; and engage in dialogue with local communities to develop a Greater Manchester charter setting out a set of shared values. Singh, who is assessing how businesses can contribute to achieving greater equality in the region, also says the panel will consider the example set in other countries and cities when forming its report. “In my previous experience, it’s find to hard one country or one city which has absolutely got everything sorted. [But] there are pockets of really good stuff going on in the UK.”

Singh is keen to focus on what companies such as EY can do to make young people aware of what is possible “in terms of aspiration”. Citing programs such as EY Foundation’s Smart Futures, which offers work experience opportunities to young people across the UK, Singh says corporates can help young people to “raise their horizons”.

“It is still the case in some neighbourhoods, and Greater Manchester is not alone in this, that actually getting outside of their immediate neighbourhoods, is not something that people do that often,” he explains.

“So, the point I’m trying to make is that we need to be thinking through this lens all the time about how we tackle inequality, to allow people to fulfil their full potential.”

For a man who has been at the heart of responding to landmark events in the past two decades, Singh remains remarkably sanguine about the agenda for attaining a more cohesive society.

“It is a mixed bag. But having said all of that, what the race disparity audit showed… is that there is still a heck of a lot to be done. The perennial challenges that we face are still with us, but I’m not gloomy about it. I just think we need to realise that this can’t be done overnight or through a quick fix type of approach,” he concludes.