Rishi Sunak as PM is a welcome sign but disadvantages still hamper minorities in Yorkshire - Dr Mohammed Ali OBE

When I set up QED Foundation back in 1990, it was hard to believe that Britain would one day have an Asian prime minister. At the time, all but four of our MPs were white. People from ethnic minority backgrounds hardly ever succeeded to high-profile positions in the professions, academia or the media.

Children who had watched their parents struggling to scrape a living in Yorkshire’s post-industrial towns and cities faced a future every bit as bleak and insecure. No matter how gifted they were, they did not dare hope for anything better because they couldn’t see anyone who looked like them in a position of power or influence.

So I welcome Rishi Sunak’s appointment to the highest political office in the country. It sums up QED Foundation’s mission of creating opportunities for all.

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We’ve helped leaders of large private and public sector organisations – and even government departments – to recruit and retain workforces that match the ethnic profiles of the communities they serve. We’ve encouraged young people to consider a broader range of career paths instead of following their peers into dead-end jobs or entering the limited number of professions traditionally favoured by their communities.

Rishi Sunak became the first South Asian PM of Britain. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA WireRishi Sunak became the first South Asian PM of Britain. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire
Rishi Sunak became the first South Asian PM of Britain. PIC: Owen Humphreys/PA Wire

And we’ve organised initiatives like the Yorkshire Asian Young Achievers Awards or YAYAs to celebrate positive role models, who can inspire and lead by example. On November 11, we will be holding our third annual presentation at the Cedar Court Hotel in Bradford. There will be awards for young people who have excelled in 11 categories including business, sport, media, the arts and many other areas of public life.

But the one thing that all our winners will have in common is that success won’t have come easy to them. YAYA judges look for young people who have achieved despite coming from deprived backgrounds or having to overcome obstacles or barriers to progress. Last year’s winners included 21-year-old cricketer and football player Jasmin Akhter, who was born in a refugee camp in Bangladesh, and factory production manager and volunteer fundraiser Jagjit Singh Chaggar, who suffers from ankylosing spondylitis.

This is important because their experiences are worlds away from the relatively privileged upbringings of many South Asians who do manage to make it to the top. By contrast, Rishi Sunak attended leading public school Winchester College, studied at Oxford and Stanford universities, and married the daughter of an Indian billionaire. The couple has a joint net worth of £730m.

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School leavers from inner-city areas of Bradford, Huddersfield, Leeds and Sheffield won’t believe that it is worth going on to further and higher education or training or making other sacrifices to further their careers unless they can see young people they identify with in high-profile positions.

Yet the higher levels of all too many professions still seem to be a closed shop to anyone who isn’t white. In 2021 there were no UK chief constables from an ethnic minority background on Operation Black Vote’s Colour of Power list. You could count the combined number of chief executive officers of metropolitan boroughs, NHS trusts and leading UK banks and charities on one hand. And, despite comparisons with Barack Obama, Rishi Sunak is not a directly elected premier. It is arguable whether he would have been voted in by members of the public, or even his own party, if circumstances had been different.

There are other reasons why, although the accession of Britain’s first Asian prime minister marks an important milestone for race equality, it remains to be seen whether it will indeed prove to be a cause for celebration.

Rishi Sunak is on record as admitting that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he changed funding formulae aimed at reducing imbalances in regional prosperity so that investment was channelled away from deprived areas to more affluent towns. Yet 17.4 per cent of Asians and 19.8 per cent of Black people ― including more than one in three Pakistanis and one in four Bangladeshis ― live in the UK’s most income-deprived 10 per cent of neighbourhoods compared to 8.7 per cent of White British. These are exactly the communities that were hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic and are still struggling to recover from the financial and economic fallout.

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One of QED Foundation’s key objectives has long been to increase the ethnic diversity of people in key decision-making roles. We are delighted that Rishi Sunak has appointed ministers from a wide range of minority backgrounds. However, we are concerned that research by the Sutton Trust has shown that they are among the 61 per cent of his top team who were educated at fee-paying schools.

We will be watching with interest to see whether the newly appointed ministers from Black and Asian backgrounds really do have the interests of the UK’s disadvantaged ethnic minority communities at heart.

Dr Mohammed Ali OBE is CEO of QED Foundation, a national charity he founded in 1990 that works to promote the social and economic advancement of disadvantaged communities.