By Barnie Choudhury
THE government’s newly appointed race commission has been widely criticised by Asian and black leaders, who said that it lacks credibility and consists of a “rigged panel whose minds are already made up”.
Some senior Tory parliamentarians accused Number 10 of setting up the latest review to “kick the burning issue of institutional, systemic and structural racism in Britain into the long grass”.
“I’m afraid there’s a reluctance to engage with this issue,” a Westminster insider told Eastern Eye. “There are a few out there who think that if we talk about it, we will damage race relations in this country.
“My response is, black and Asian communities already mistrust public services. Without a positive, engaging response to the issues which have been identified, it will have a more damaging impact.”
Last week, prime minister Boris Johnson named the 10-person panel, which will be led by Dr Tony Sewell CBE, head of the charity Generating Genius.
But his appointment as chair has been widely criticised by minority communities because of controversial views on racism that he made a decade ago.
“Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy,” Sewell wrote in Prospect Magazine in 2010.
“What we now see in schools is children undermined by poor parenting, peer-group pressure and an inability to be responsible for their own behaviour.
“They are not subjects of institutional racism. They have failed their GCSEs because they did not do the homework, did not pay attention and were disrespectful to their teachers.”
A Tory party source said, “It’s outrageous that somebody with such views, especially views he expressed quite recently, not 10 years ago – he expressed such a view recently in a [Daily] Telegraph article – so, I think it’s outrageous such a person should hold that position.”
It is a view that is shared by Preet Kaur Gill, Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and shadow international development secretary.
“For the new commission on race equality to be effective and credible, it must have the respect and confidence of the communities it has been set up to engage with,” said Gill.
“That members of the black community have criticised Dr Sewell’s appointment, given his controversial comments, shows that this government is just not serious about tackling structural racism in this country.”
Baroness Sandip Verma, the former international development minister in David Cameron’s government, was also a spokeswoman for the government in the Lords on equalities and women’s issues. She told Eastern Eye that a commission was needed “if there is no alternative, but it is not the solution”.
“I will be very concerned if the chair still believes that it’s not institutional, and those at the top are the blockers and barriers to change, deliberate or not,” she said. “But unless this is resolved, we will still be talking about this for several decades to come. The commission is sadly unbalanced and that does nothing for confidence and trust.”
Among its terms of reference, the commission will “build on” the work of Theresa May’s Race Disparity Audit, the causes of “persistent disparities”, and “consider how greater integration and addressing segregation within communities can contribute to addressing disadvantages faced by some groups”.
But some grassroots Asian Tory members say that the commission is going over old ground, and they are “reviewed-out”.
“There is absolutely nothing here that was not done by previous governments and only three years ago by Theresa May,” said one.
“(Tony) Blair had three reviews into segregation after the northern riots in 2001, Theresa (May) had some great ideas and crossed the political divide by asking David Lammy to investigate race disparities. Why on earth do we need to “review progress”? There’s already been too little progress.”
Labour MP David Lammy, who is the shadow justice secretary, carried out an independent review of the treatment of BAME people in the criminal justice system, and his findings were published in September 2017.
The view that the commission is unnecessary is shared by the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats in the Lords, Navnit Dholakia. As a former commissioner of the Commission for Racial Equality, the peer was instrumental in changing the way black and Asian people were sentenced, after investigations showed the disproportionate and harsher sentencing of ethnic minorities.
“I think one of the problems is they will come up with the same arguments that we have heard again and again since the early 1970s,” he said. “Monitoring is always the end product which effectively shows the inequality that exists in this country. It’s about time we took action to remove those inequalities.”
Lord Dholakia thinks the report will have recommendations but, like other reviews, it will be left on a shelf to gather dust.
“Rather than putting things in the long grass, it’s about time we started accepting that things are fundamentally wrong. Move forward,” he said.
“Rather than having another commission and another lot of people looking to see what happens, don’t let these reports gather dust. I’ve seen that happen from the 1960s-1980s. Things happen more quickly from pressure by communities than by writing reports.”
The government is to “provide opportunities for interested parties to offer evidence” to the panel.
Marvin Rees, the mayor of Bristol, is the first black man to be directly elected to mayoral office by the city’s constituents.
“This is the sophisticated use of power,” he said. “What they’ve just done is narrow down the alternatives, narrow down the options for outcomes. They’ve just swept away a whole suite of areas for investigation. No one doing an honest investigation would do that.”
He is concerned the commission has already made up its mind on the outcomes of its investigation.
“If you’re going to do an honest piece of research, you’re asked to open the door to the possibility that your world view is going to be challenged or found wanting. You have to approach it with that level of humility. I would say, in the same way, my understanding is there to be challenged. What it sounds like is they want solutions within their pre-existing world view, and that’s very dangerous.”
Baroness Verma thinks race and equality must be taken seriously and tackled immediately rather than waiting for recommendations and reports.
“I have always been clear on the issues of race and inequality – you are limiting the potential of your own economy and missing out on huge swathes if talented people.
“Where institutions and the leadership are failing to open access and bring people from all backgrounds in, then parliament needs to force the change. I think action can be taken now, and each recipient of public funds demonstrates within 12 months what they have put in place.”
Gill told Eastern Eye that the government already had the answers. “Much of what Dr Sewell and the panel will be looking at as part of this review has already been presented to the government.
“The commission’s priority then must be to look at why the countless recommendations from the many reviews and investigations over the years have not yet been implemented by the government. There is little point in commissioning review after review if the government will not act on their findings.”
Rees also agrees that the government needs to act rather than investigate, and is asking it to be truthful in its approach to deal with a decades-old problem.
“You don’t need another commission, we should be on implementation. It’s that which grows cynicism. You just keep asking questions at the expense of taking action, and this is the problem.
“There are so many constructive reports out there already with a whole suite of recommendations. We need to be focused on putting in place an action plan, with measurable outcomes and dates for delivery.”
He added: “Don’t begin to box the conversation about race inequality into a place in which it becomes about guilt and conflict. What we need to do is to be honest with ourselves.
“We shouldn’t allow a fear of exposing those gaps between who we are and what we want not to be put in the public domain. We sometimes fall short on the values we espouse, and I think that’s one of the things that hampers the conversation on race.”
For the Conservative party, there is another problem, and that is getting its south Asian and black members to retain their faith, analysts said. As its chair, May told the annual Conservative party conference in October 2002 that people called it the “nasty party”, and that label remains to this day, one south Asian member admitted.
“This race commission has no credibility. I’m really disappointed because there should have been wider consultation about who was going to be appointed. No one knows who these people are, they are not exactly heavyweights, are they? They ask me for fat donations year after year, but year after year, I refuse. If this is the way they carry on, then there’s even more of a big question mark.”
Another said, “It goes to the heart of what I think is one of the most fundamental British values and that is fairness. It goes to the fact that communities feel that just because of the colour of their skin, their ethnicity, they do not have the same access and the same opportunities as others, and that simply cannot be right.”
The Cabinet Office said it would only comment on complaints about the panel make up and its chair. A spokesperson would not address the specific accusations that the commission was rigged with a ready-made set of conclusions, that it lacked credibility among ethnic minority communities, and the process was an exercise in kicking the problem of racism in the UK into the long grass.
Instead, the spokesperson referred Eastern Eye to what the prime minister said when he announced the commission last month.
Johnson said, “I am thrilled to have assembled a group of 10 talented and diverse commissioners, who each bring a wealth of experience from across a range of important sectors.”
The commission is scheduled to submit its findings to the prime minister by the end of the year.
New race commission members include Asian experts
Asian experts are part of the new commission looking into race disparity in the UK.
Lord Ajay Kakkar, chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission and chair of the King’s Fund; Dr Samir Shah, CEO of Juniper TV, former BBC journalist and former chair of race relations thinktank Runnymede Trust; and businessman Aftab Chughtai, a co-founder of the campaign group Muslims for Britain, member of the Grenfell Tower Taskforce and chair of West Midlands Police Independent Advisory Group, are members of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Dr Tony Sewell, head of the charity Generating Genius, will be chair. It will report to prime minister Boris Johnson, it was announced last Thursday (16).
Set up after the anti-racism protests following the death in the US of a black man, George Floyd, in police custody, the commission is tasked with looking at all aspects of inequality, including criminal justice, education, employment and health in the UK.
Johnson said, “This cross-government commission will examine inequality in the UK, across the whole population.
“The commission will be inclusive, undertaking research and inviting submissions where necessary. It will set a positive agenda for change.”
Other members in the commission are Dr Maggie Aderin- Pocock, scientist and co-presenter of BBC’s The Sky at Night; Keith Fraser, chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales; Dr Dambisa Moyo, international economist and author; Martyn Oliver, CEO of Outwood Grange Academies Trust; Naureen Khalid, co-founder of online national school governor forum UkGovChat; and Mercy Muroki, a senior policy researcher and columnist.
The commission is expected to submit its report by the end of this year.
The exchequer secretary to the Treasury and equalities minister Kemi Badenoch said: “The Commission demonstrates this government’s mission to level up opportunity for everyone whatever their background. Our expert chair and commissioners will make evidence-based recommendations to change lives for the better. Their work will be crucial in informing and improving the national conversation on race.”
Dr Sewell CBE said: “I am delighted to be chairing this new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. I have spent my entire career in education striving to help all students achieve their full potential. I know, however that inequality exists, and I am committed to working with my fellow commissioners to understand why. Together we will set out recommendations for action across government, public bodies and the private sector, and will seek to inform a national conversation about race, led by the evidence.”