Professor Surinder Sharma

Oration given by the Public Orator, Mr Nigel Siesage, on the award of an honorary degree to Mr Sharma on 12 July 2017

To put it simply, Surinder Sharma has dedicated his life to making the world a fairer place. The formal record in the programme suggests that, but a list of positions held does not reveal the personal and human qualities that Surinder has brought, and continues to bring, to the pursuit of what the American Declaration of Independence optimistically described as a self-evident truth, “that all men are created equal”.

Where does this commitment to fairness come from? It can be detected at various points in his childhood and youth.

Surinder was born in Kenya when that country was still a colony, and by definition an unequal society, even if Harold MacMillan’s “winds of change” were blowing across the empire. His father, who worked in the public service, sensed that decolonisation might not mean complete equality for people of non-African origin, and in 1965, two years after Kenyan independence, he decided to migrate, choosing the UK over the alternative of India.

This was fortunate for the UK; and by a further piece of good fortune, he had a friend in Leicester, who met them at the airport and brought them home with him. So it was that Surinder came to settle, at the age of 8, in the city he has made his home ever since, which he loves and to which he has given so much.

England came as something as a shock– as it was to do for many subsequent arrivals from East Africa. Surinder had his first encounter with snow on that first day; his father went from a white collar job into a manual one in a foundry; and his mother had to find paid work – which she did, at Fox’s Glacier Mints. Their first home was a modest one with the toilet down the garden. But Surinder flourished at school, both as a sportsman and academically. Unusually for someone of his background at the time, he shone in the humanities, particularly the study of history.

As a student at the relatively new University of Kent, Surinder read law, and provided a free legal advice surgery for local residents – a sign of things to come. It was also at Kent that he met his wife, Vijay, when she visited a friend in Canterbury. That was the start of a long, successful marriage in which they have been equal and supportive partners – though Vijay beat Surinder in the race to receive an honorary degree on this stage.

Back in Leicester after graduating, Surinder saw an advertisement for a Complaints Officer with the newly formed Commission for Racial Equality (CRE), using his legal knowledge to help people with individual cases of discrimination, leading to hearings at employment tribunals and county courts. Despite his youth, he was soon elected to the City Council and appointed as a magistrate. His path in life was set.

We should pause here to consider how the statutory enforcement of equality was perceived forty years ago. Whatever racial tensions may still exist in our society, the fact of legislation in this field is not seriously challenged. That was not the case in the 1970s.  There was considerable suspicion about the powers of the CRE, such that Lord Denning, one of the country’s most senior judges, argued that the CRE had created racial discord, comparing it to the Inquisition.

That may have been a harsh representation of the CRE. It certainly was not, either then or later, Surinder’s style. His pursuit of fairness – whether in relation to race, gender, religion or sexuality – has always been diplomatic and persuasive, not autocratic. His philosophy is to inspire people to change, not to force them; to demonstrate that understanding other people – colleagues, customers, employees or neighbours – and treating them justly is very much to everyone’s benefit.

One of the most impressive characteristics of Surinder’s work is that he has successfully applied these methods to organisations with remarkably different purposes and cultures. While at the CRE, he was responsible for advising other local authorities, such as Haringey and Strathclyde, on best practice. He then moved to BBC TV as Head of Diversity, where his remit covered not just employment practice and harassment at work but also programme content. In his time at the corporation, the proportion of women in senior positions rose to 35%, and the methods adopted have been a model for other organisations.

After 5 happy years at the BBC, he was headhunted by Littlewoods, then a major family owned retailer, with high street shops, mail order catalogues, call centres and 40,000 employees. That was followed by a further dramatic change of culture at Ford Europe, where he faced the challenge of traditional confrontational labour relations and restrictive practices. Here again his policy of persuasion, dignity and respect won the day.

Next came possibly Surinder’s biggest challenge, when he joined the Department of Health as its first National Director for Equality and Human Rights – responsible for these matters across the whole of the NHS. The sheer scale of the organisation – one of the largest employers in the world and with massive numbers of users – inevitably prompts comparisons with the difficulty of turning oil tankers; with the added complication of political interventions. So Surinder would acknowledge that progress was slower than he wished; but he undoubtedly had a considerable impact, deploying the skills and philosophy which had stood him in good stead elsewhere.

He has continued to do similar work with the international pharmaceutical company, Novartis. As a Commissioner at the Equal Opportunities Commission, he chaired its Legal Committee.  His active voluntary involvement in diverse organisations is too numerous to list but includes UNICEF, the National Space Centre and the Leicester Racial Equality Council, as well as an honorary chair at this university. Last year he was High Sheriff of Leicestershire, a role which he valued for the insights into the good that people in our community do without public recognition. All this reflects his energy and enthusiasm, the quality of his advice, and not least the pleasure that people take in his company.

By any measure his has been an outstanding contribution to diversity and inclusion, both locally and nationally, and of service to Leicester and Leicestershire.

Mr Chancellor, on the recommendation of the Senate and the Council, I present Surinder Mohan Sharma, that you may confer upon him the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws.

Share this page: