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NHSE ‘pandering to ministers’ by cutting equality team to 35

Published on: 17 Feb 2023

NHS England is ‘pandering to ministers’ by cutting its equality, diversity and inclusion teams to 35 whole-time posts, HSJ has been told, with some affected staff warning their “mission is no longer clear”.

Senior figures working in and with the team, speaking anonymously to HSJ, said they were concerned the removal of roles dedicated specifically to “workforce race equality” and “workforce disability equality” would hamper efforts to tackle discrimination in the service.

NHS England last week announced it was making reductions of 35-40 per cent of posts across its national workforce and transformation teams, including Health Education England and NHS Digital, but did not release details of the proposed new structures and teams.

But details of the proposed EDI national team structures, obtained by HSJ, show a reduction in whole-time equivalent posts to 35, from around 54 previously (a 35 per cent cut).

It appears there is no longer a “director of equality and inclusion” and seven teams, including those dedicated to the “workforce race equality standard” and “workforce disability equality standard” programmes, are merged into three: training, policy and standards.

Roles dedicated to WRES and WDES are replaced with a smaller number of roles that look after them alongside gender, health inequalities, LGBT+ and faith, under the proposals, which are currently subject to consultation with staff.

It appears the three new teams will report directly to Navina Evans, NHSE chief workforce officer.

Challenging the system

Several senior sources, including those working in the directorate, told HSJ they were concerned the cuts could lessen the overall effectiveness of EDI, with particular worries over how the restructure will impact WDES and WRES.

These have tracked measures of equality and sought to hold trusts to account for them, including senior leadership representation, which for some has gradually increased in recent years.

One official asked how NHSE would be able to continue to “track data, challenge systems and improve numbers” without specifically focused roles for programmes.

Another said there was a “genuine question” about how effective the national team had been in its current form, but argued it had been undermined by staff leaving due to “the hoops they had to jump through to get EDI to be taken seriously”.

They added: “The EDI function [in the proposed structure] is the only one without director-level oversight. Navina would argue that’s because she is responsible for it, as it is so important. Others will see it differently.

“Most of us see this [restructure] as pandering to ministers who are attacking the value of EDI roles. The language used for the job titles shows this, too.”

NHS EDI has come under significant scrutiny from ministers and sections of the media, criticising certain targets as “wokery” and roles dedicated to diversity and inclusion as a waste of taxpayers’ money.

In November, The Sun claimed health and social care secretary Steve Barclay was “ordering a crackdown on diversity jobs” in the NHS amid apparent “woke box-ticking”. Predecessor Sajid Javid once told MPs he would be “watchful of any waste or wokery”.

Another senior figure closely involved in NHSE’s EDI work told HSJ it was being “dismantled”, adding: “The EDI function was only established two and a half years ago during the pandemic. It was important in delivering risk assessments, PPE access, identifying inequalities during covid and addressing vaccine hesitancy.

“But in the name of the merger and the restructure, the mission is no longer clear.”

Dr Evans has argued that the restructure — which is seeking to take out 6,000-8,000 posts across the three organisations — will “mainstream” EDI, rather than “parking it with a few”.

NHSE told HSJ in a statement: “Race equality is everyone’s business within NHSE, and this is reinforced in the proposed new structure which staff have the opportunity to respond to and provide feedback on before it is finalised.

“The proposed teams have been designed to ensure the NHS is developing an EDI function that will support all NHS staff to deliver the best possible outcomes for patients.”