Does Greater South Asian Representation in Government Equate to Improved Equality in Society?
In light of Rishi Sunak’s election as the UK’s first British-Indian Prime Minister, Sian Norris digs into the evidence on outcomes for people from a South Asian background
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Rishi Sunak has become the first Prime Minister from an ethnic minority background since Disraeli and the first person from a South Asian background to get the keys to Number 10, in what is a historic moment for representation in politics.
The significance of having more diverse political representation cannot be understated: you cannot be what you cannot see, and the Conservative Party since David Cameron has fought hard to promote greater diversity, in terms of ethnicity, gender and sexuality.
But there is a difference between symbolic representation and substantive representation: and the latter begs the question, does greater South Asian representation in Parliament equate to improved equality throughout society?
The Coronavirus pandemic laid bare the impact of health inequalities between white British people, and black and ethnic minority people. Before the pandemic, people from ethnic minority groups had a higher life expectancy than their white peers.
In the South Asian community, health inequalities manifest in a range of ways. However, people from a South Asian background are not homogenous, and health outcomes differ depending on whether a person has Indian, Pakistani or Bangladeshi heritage.
People from a Pakistani and Bangladeshi background have the poorest health outcomes across a range of indicators, along with those of a Gypsy or Irish traveller background. People from South Asian communities are more likely to have cardiovascular heart disease and diabetes, and have higher rates of infant and maternal mortality than white women. People from Bangladeshi and Pakistani groups are also more likely to report limiting long-term health conditions and poor health than their white peers.
In terms of life expectancy, people of South Asian heritage live longer than other ethnic groups, including black Caribbean and white people.
It’s not just an issue of health conditions. There’s also the experience of the health service. Patients from an ethnic minority background report a poorer experience than white British people when using a range of health services. South Asian women also have lower screening rates for breast and cervical cancer, although there is “weak evidence of ethnic inequalities in times to cancer diagnosis and staging”, according to research published by the King’s Fund.
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As with health, there are significant differences to economic outcomes within the South Asian community, with those of Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds more likely to be living in poverty, or on low incomes, than those of Indian heritage.
Children in Asian households are twice (37%) as likely to live in persistent low-income households than children from white households – and people of Bangladeshi background are most likely to live in overcrowded housing (24%). Pakistani and Bangladeshi heritage people are also more likely to be unemployed than their white peers.
However, the picture is different for people from an Indian background: while people from
Pakistani and Bangladeshi background have lowest median weekly incomes, people from an Indian background have the highest, followed by white people. Similarly, people from Pakistani and Bangladeshi background have the lowest percentage of individuals in the top fifth of incomes, people from Indian background the second highest.
Women from Bangladeshi and Pakistani backgrounds experience poverty at the intersection of race and gender: Bangladeshi women have a 28% gender gap and Pakistani women have the worst gender pay gap at 31%.
According to the Office for National Statistics, children in Bangladeshi and Pakistani households were the most likely to live in low-income and material deprivation out of all ethnic groups, while children in Indian households were the least likely. This is a warning not to homogenise the South Asian community, but to recognise the various experiences of people from different immigrant backgrounds across the country.
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Despite being more likely to live in poverty and therefore be on free school meals, Bangladeshi and Pakistani children outperform their white peers in the classroom: Bangladeshi and Pakistani children who were eligible for free school meals had higher Progress Eight scores than the national average. This is a measure published annually to show the average academic performance of a secondary school and it is calculated by adding together pupils’ highest scores across eight Government approved school subjects.
Similarly, students from a South Asian background are more likely to go to university: 54.9% of Asian state school students went on to higher education in 2021.
The broader Asian community still experiences discrimination within the criminal justice system, compared to white offenders.
Since 2016, white defendants have had a consistently lower average custodial sentence length than those from other ethnic groups. In 2020, white offenders served an average of 19.6 months in custody, compared with 28.6 months for Asian offenders. Black offenders served an average of 26.8 months. Asian offenders also faced longer custodial sentences for drug offences compared to all other ethnic groups, which ranged from 31.8 to 39.8 months.