Palace of Westminster, London | Credit: Diliff (CC BY-SA 2.5) | Wikimedia Commons.

Free market think-tanks advising UK government lack diversity

Free market think-tanks advising the UK government are “disappointingly” lacking in both racial and gender diversity, new analysis by The Ferret can reveal.

We examined five think-tanks close to Boris Johnson’s cabinet and found that, on average, only 7.5 per cent of staff and research fellows appeared to be from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background.

In total only 27.3 per cent appeared to be women while just 3.2 per cent were women from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background, prompting concerns that policy is informed by an “echo chamber of people” sharing a “narrow set” of knowledge and priorities.

Our study analysed staff profiles on the websites of the Legatum Institute (LI), TaxPayers Alliance (TPA),  Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA), Centre for Policy Studies (CPS), and the Adam Smith Institute (ASI). Further research was done using social media network, LinkedIn.

The Ferret’s findings prompted concern from charities which promote organisational and governmental diversity.

Berkeley Wilde, director of The Diversity Trust, said that government policy will only become fairer when “leadership represents the demographics” of the country.

He added: “If government ministers are pooling feedback from a narrow group of people ‘groupthink’ is likely to be prevalent in the culture.

“Nothing changes in the culture if we don’t embrace diversity. The UK has a dynamic equality and diversity sector which the government needs to engage.”

While there were differing levels of Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic and female representation at each of the five think-tanks, none were proportionate to the UK population at large.

In the 2011 census, 8.1 million people, or 13 per cent of the total UK population, identified themselves as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic

In London, where all five think-tanks are based, this number is far higher, with 40.2 per cent of the population identifying in 2011 as Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic. That same year, 51 per cent of the UK population was female.

“If government ministers are pooling feedback from a narrow group of people ‘groupthink’ is likely to be prevalent in the culture. Nothing changes in the culture if we don’t embrace diversity." Berkeley Wilde, director of The Diversity Trust.

Think tanks are often important sources of policy advice for the government. They generate research, ideas, debate and advocate on matters that drive public policy making processes.

The worst performer was the Adam Smith Institute, which advocates free market economics and describes itself as “one of the world’s leading think-tanks”. Only 3.2 per cent of its staff appeared to be from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background, while 9.7 per cent appeared to be women.

At the IEA, which promotes free market thinking on how to solve social and economic problems, 8.5 per cent appeared to be Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic, while just over a quarter – 25.5 per cent – were women.

The stats for the TPA were 4.8 per cent for the same minorities and 28.6 per cent for women. At the CPS it was 6.3 and 31.3 per cent, respectively.

The LI, which aims to lift people out of poverty, was the most diverse, with 14.6 per cent of staff appearing to be from Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic  backgrounds, and 41.5 per cent appearing to be women.

It also employed four of the five employees across all five think-tanks who appeared to be women from a Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic background.

Our figures contain some caveats in that they do not account for how staff identify their own gender and racial identity. But critics say these think-tanks appear to be far from representative of the British population.

The five think-tanks selected for our research also have close links to the current UK Conservative government.

The four holders of the great offices of state – prime minister Boris Johnson, home secretary Priti Patel, chancellor Rishi Sunak, and foreign secretary Dominic Raab, are included in the list of cabinet members with connections to these think-tanks.

Johnson launched the Legatum Institute’s ‘prosperity for all’ initiative in 2015. In 2017, he reportedly enlisted the help of the institute’s then economic director, Shanker Singham, to draft a letter which questioned Theresa May’s handling of the Brexit process.

One of Patel advisers, Alex Wild, was also a former research director at the TaxPayers Alliance. Raab has also spoken at numerous conferences for the IEA, leading to OpenDemocracy questioning last year whether he was the think-tank’s “man in government”.

One of his special advisers, Robert Oxley, is a former campaign director at the TPA, and he blogs regularly for the think tank.

“Without listening to a variety of lived experiences, including from women and from BAME people as well as other minoritised groups such as those with disabilities, policy is going to
be informed by an echo chamber of people likely to share a relatively narrow set of experience, knowledge, and priorities."
Jacqui Hunt, European director of Equality Now.

Sunak, meanwhile, authored a report on free ports for the Centre for Policy Studies  in 2016. Nerissa Chesterfield, one of the chancellor’s special advisers, was former head of communications at the IEA.

The influence of free-market think tanks over the government’s policy agenda has been a controversial issue since the Brexit vote.

A 2018 investigation by OpenDemocracy found that Conservative MPs had been present at monthly strategy meetings with representatives from the IEA, ASI, TPA and CPS. These meetings were described by an insider as a chance for those present to “convene together and align their messaging towards the same goal.”

The same year, undercover investigators for Greenpeace recorded IEA director, Mark Littlewood, stating that his organisation was in the “Brexit-influencing game”. He also said he could put US donors on “first name terms” with cabinet ministers.

Several charities raised concerns about The Ferret’s findings. A spokesman for the Black Training and Enterprise Group (BTEG) which promotes racial diversity in business and government, called the findings “very disappointing but not surprising”.

“We’d expect all think tanks in the UK that value race equality and believe all citizens should be treated equally to actively work to have organisations that reflect or commit to achieving the UK’s ethnic diversity at all levels,” he added.

The BTEG also believes that think-tanks should recruit graduate talent from a wide range of universities to “ensure a diversity of perspectives and lived experience, and establish links with Black and Asian-led policy organisations”.

Jacqui Hunt, European director of Equality Now, which campaigns for gender equality, said it was “vital to have diverse representation at organisations guiding or developing policy that aims to govern all of us.”

“Without listening to a variety of lived experiences, including from women and from BAME people as well as other minoritised groups such as those with disabilities, policy is going to be informed by an echo chamber of people likely to share a relatively narrow set of experience, knowledge, and priorities,” she added.

The five think-tanks did not respond to our requests for a comment.

The featured photograph was published under Creative Commons licence.

This story was updated at 12.32 on 21 August 2020 to correct the description of the IEA.

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