England Scraps ‘Unconscious Bias’ Training for Civil Servants

By Mary Clark
Mary Clark
Mary Clark
December 15, 2020Updated: December 15, 2020

The training known as “unconscious bias” training that has been in place for civil servants in England since 2016 is not fit for purpose and has been scrapped, the government announced on Tuesday.

The training, which is supposed to combat allegedly internalised prejudice, that people are then unaware of in themselves, is widely used in the workplace, but there is no evidence that it works, Equalities Minister Julia Lopez said in a statement on Tuesday.

She said the government is “determined to eliminate discrimination in the workplace,” but that it must make sure “policy and advice on equality is evidence-based and is delivered in a way that means we can respond quickly to new insights.”

Lopez quoted a government-commissioned report from the Behavioural Insights Team as saying, “there is currently no evidence that this training changes behaviour in the long term or improves workplace equality in terms of representation of women, ethnic minorities or other minority groups.”

She said that following the report titled “Unconscious Bias and Diversity Training—What the Evidence Says,” ministers have concluded that unconscious bias training does not achieve its intended aims.

‘Unintended Negative Consequences’

She also said the report showed “emerging evidence of unintended negative consequences.”

“It will therefore be phased out in the Civil Service,” she said.

“We encourage other public sector employers to do likewise,” she added.

Reacting to the government move to scrap the training, Lucille Thirlby, general secretary of the Civil Service Union, the FDA, wrote on Twitter that “It’s easier to attack something than do something positive about it.”

“How will they [the government] ensure people are not discriminated against?” she asked.

Unconscious bias training has been proving very unpopular with many including dozens of Conservative backbenchers.

In September the Times of London reported up to 40 Conservative MPs refusing to undergo the training that has been deployed for parliamentary staff since 2016.

‘Rather Gouge My Eyes Out’

One of the MPs reportedly said at the time that “I would really rather gouge my eyes out with a blunt stick than sit through that Marxist, snake oil [expletive].”

Commenting on this type of training meta scientist and psychologist Patrick Forscher said in a statement in September that based on a “systematic review of 492 laboratory studies” that he co-led, it is “far from clear whether ethnic disparities are caused by unconscious bias.”

He also wrote that unconscious bias training “is more of a branding device than a meaningful scientific term.”

Lopez said that “Despite a growing diversity training industry and increased adoption of unconscious bias training programmes,” strong evidence shows that the one-size-fits-all training has “no sustained impact on behaviour and may even be counter-productive.”

She said evidence of possible harms from the training that had been widely “introduced by a range of organisations” in a “well-intentioned effort to build fairer and more inclusive workplaces,” featured, paradoxically, the re-enforcement of stereotypes.

Meanwhile, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote on Twitter that the government move to scrap the controversial training for civil servants was a “Sizeable step on the road back to common sense.”

“Training built on the premise we’re all internally and eternally racist was hardly ever likely to unify; only to divide. Based on no science or evidence, studies have shown negative consequences,” he wrote.

“Good riddance,” he added.

Lopez said that in light of the evidence from studies involving 87,000 participants and the scrapping of the training in the civil service, councils, the police, and the NHS should review their approaches to this kind of “tick box exercise” training.

Meanwhile, she said, the government will further work on “what works to make our workplaces fairer and unite and level up across our country.”