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The American Roots of Contract Compliance

John Carr examines the treatment of race and equality in America in comparison with Great Britain.

On March 24th, the Local Government Act 1988 received Royal Assent. Section 17 of the Act, for the first time, explicitly enshrines in English law the principle of 'contract compliance'. Henceforth, companies that wish to win local authority contracts in the United Kingdom will have to give specific assurances that they are complying with the Race Relations Act of 1976 which requires them, inter alia, not to discriminate in any way against potential or actual employees. Failure to do so could render the firm ineligible to tender, thus costing them valuable business. This is not quite as tough as it first seems; the enforcement mechanisms under the Act are, deliberately, almost non-existent.

Section 17 of the Act was introduced into the Bill by the 'Conservative Government to head off stronger contract compliance policies which were being pursued by various Labour-controlled municipalities. These locally-based initiatives had real teeth; some companies had been bitten and squealed loudly. The Labour-led contract compliance policies had repeatedly been denounced by the Government and sections of the media as 'loony left'. However, the provenance of effective compliance work suggests a very different orientation.

Contract compliance is as American as apple pie. For over forty years both Republicans and Democrats have supported it as the centrepiece of US affirmative action programmes for minorities. Even President Regan's deregulatory zeal has not managed to dislodge the policy, although not for the want of trying.

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