Ras Patel, himself the victim of a racial attack, is in charge of ridding construction of racism. He tells Tom Broughton that the best way forward is to persuade companies that racial equality makes good business sense.
Ras Patel knows all about racial abuse. Twenty years ago, a gang of racist thugs knifed him outside a pub in his home town of Dewsbury, West Yorkshire.

Lifting his arm and pointing to the side of his stomach and armpit area, Patel recounts the shock he felt at the attack. "When I came round I was more dazed than in pain; I felt some dampness on my body and thought it was sweat, but then I realised it was blood and that I had to go to hospital."

Patel is the man charged with the task of driving racism out of the construction industry. But, as the Commission for Racial Equality's newly appointed head of private sector policy, Patel faces a difficult task.

According to a recent report from the Royal Holloway University, entitled Retention of Black and Asian People in the Construction Industry, ethnic representation in the sector stands at 2% and is in decline because black and Asian construction students are not following up their studies by going into the industry. In addition, Building regularly runs stories about racial abuse on construction sites across the country. Even construction minister Brian Wilson has expressed concern at the situation.

But Patel is planning a new approach to the race relations problem. "For a start, I'm not happy with my title," he says. "I think it should have the word 'business' in it, because it is businesses that I'm going to deal with."

His plan is to create a strategy for the private sector to follow. "The construction industry is one of the industries at the bottom of the pile at the moment in terms of race relations. What I want to put in place is a set path for the industry to follow in order for it to improve its race relations activity," he says.

Patel is ready to sell a message to the industry. His plan of attack comes in the form of a business case to present to boardrooms on the economic benefits of promoting diversity in their workforces.

"It's time for construction firms to take the problem of racial abuse and ethnic representation more seriously, as there is also an economic benefit for them," he says with a wink – it is almost as if he knows which buttons to push to win over industry bosses …

The first part of the plan is simply to convince contractors that encouraging greater ethnic representation in their workforces will secure them more contracts, given that clients are increasingly demanding greater social responsibility from the firms they employ.

The second wave of his offensive is to ensure that boardrooms do not become complacent. Once a contractor has won a job, it needs to have an effective workforce in place to complete the work – and to continue to keep the client happy.

"If directors at construction companies have ongoing problems of racial abuse and risk losing the contracts from clients over it, then they will need to root out the problems and have the procedures in place to deal with it," he says.

It’s time for construction firms to take the problem of ethnic representation more seriously. There is an economic benefit for them

It is on this point that Patel believes his role at the CRE is crucial. He says that construction firms need help from the CRE so that they can plan to avoid problems of racial discrimination in the workplace and deal with them in an appropriate manner. He says his first task is to engage the industry.

As part of this effort, Patel is spearheading a new CRE framework for private sector companies to follow in order to encourage greater diversity. He is involved in talks with the government-backed Rethinking Construction initiative to develop a new key performance indicator for diversity.

"I can't reveal too much because the new framework hasn't been approved by the commissioners yet," he says. "But it will contain new methods for firms to evaluate and report on their progress in relation to diversity issues.

"But before any of this can be achieved, the first task is engagement – getting the bosses around the table."

Patel continues to live in the Dewsbury area with his "white, English wife" and his two children. He says that his children have suffered racial abuse, and refers to an occasion when his son, playing for the under-11s football team, was referred to as a "Paki".

"It was a terrible moment," says Patel. "But what was nice was that the rest of the team rallied around my son and made it clear that the language was unacceptable."

Patel's ethnic origin is Indian. He went to Birmingham University to study law, but he wasn't happy with the course and switched early on to drama and theatre studies. Now aged 40, he commutes three days a week from his Yorkshire home to London to be at the CRE headquarters. He works from home the rest of the week.

Patel is affable and friendly, and brings an air of common sense to the highly charged issue of race. And he is well aware he is facing a tough task in convincing the industry to change. But he is far from shocked at the horror stories from construction sites, particularly after his own experiences of racial abuse.

He tells the story of how he was assaulted. He was out one evening with two friends – one male and one female – when a group of white men in a pub began flicking beer mats at them. "I was annoyed, but I didn't want a confrontation, so I just left the pub," recalls Patel. "I didn't say a word to them."

But four of the men followed Patel out of the pub and subjected him to a vicious assault that resulted in him being stabbed by a Stanley knife.

Personal effects

What football team do you support?
Spurs. I know I’m not from London but I’ve always wanted to be different. It’s the rebel in me, I suppose.
What is your favourite television programme?
I know it isn’t on anymore but it’s the Inspector Morse series.
What book are you reading at the moment?
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.
Who’s in your family?
My wife, Tina, and two children – Blake, who is 10, and Louis, who’s 7.