As the Equality and Human Rights Commission marks its tenth anniversary, it is running a series of events to ask: how fair is Britain? Six months on from Theresa May’s Race Disparity Audit, Daniel Bond reports on the challenge of transforming this evidence into real action on racial inequality. Photography by Paul Heartfield
One of Theresa May’s first acts as prime minister, just weeks after she stood on the steps of Downing Street and pledged to devote her premiership to tackling Britain’s ‘burning injustices’, was to order a public sector-wide audit of the country’s racial disparities.
The results, published in October last year, revealed that ethnic minorities face huge disparities in life experiences and outcomes compared with their white British counterparts, across education, health, employment and the criminal justice system.
With the true picture of racial inequality in Britain laid out for all to see, the prime minister said that “for society as a whole, for government and for our public services,” there was now “nowhere to hide”.
But how can government and civil society ensure those ‘burning injustices’ are not just highlighted but tackled? That was the topic of discussion as the Equality and Human Rights Commission brought together a panel of leading figures from the voluntary sector and politics, as part of their programme of events asking, ‘How fair is Britain?’
ALSO IN THE SERIES
Along with representatives from groups including the Runnymede Trust, Clinks, the Traveller Movement and the Coalition of Race Equality, and parliamentarians including Fiona Onasanya and Sir Peter Bottomley, the discussion was joined by Nero Ughwujabo, the prime minister’s special adviser on Social Justice, Young People and Opportunities, who is leading on the Race Disparity Audit for No 10.
Ughwujabo updated the panel on recent progress on a series of announcements made at the time of the Race Disparity Audit’s launch. Former children’s minister Edward Timpson has now been announced as the chair of review of school exclusions, he said, while a new £90m fund to tackle youth unemployment was announced last month. The Audit had revealed how Black Caribbean pupils are permanently excluded from school three times as often as white British classmates – while unemployment among black, Asian and minority ethnic people is nearly double that of white Britons.
Alongside these programmes, an advisory group, bringing together key stakeholders from across various communities, has also been established to advise and challenge departments, while Cabinet Office minister David Lidington will lead an inter-ministerial group tasked with “making sure that ministers understand the responsibility that has been given to them”.
Ughwujabo said the PM had directed “all of Whitehall” to “mobilise behind this to make sure delivery happens”. She added: “Throughout the year, the prime minister will be at the front leading the agenda on these areas.”
The Race Disparity Audit was overwhelmingly backed by the panel as an important step in the right direction. “The fact that this is a government website means it is indisputable that these are the facts,” said Dr Omar Khan, director of the Runnymede Trust. “One of the problems has been historically that the British public have been sceptical... or unaware of some of these facts around race equality. Only cranks and trolls can now dispute the evidence, and I think that’s a big step forward.”
But discussion soon turned to the huge task the government faces in overturning these entrenched disparities.
Equality and Human Rights Commission chair David Isaac said that with the facts now collected in one place, No 10 should set out a “very clear roadmap” for change, which includes a “joined-up” process led by one secretary of state. The Commission published its own Roadmap to Race Equality last October, which sets out their recommendations for tackling race inequality across health, education, employment, criminal justice and housing. “We’re optimistic that if everybody is aligned – government, parliamentarians and civil society – there is a lot more that we can do,” Isaac said. “There are lots of good intentions and easy wins.”
Jeremy Crook, the chief executive of the Black Training and Enterprise Group, welcomed the establishment of the government’s advisory group, on which he will sit. But he added that the real test would come over the next two years, and said the Commission and other groups represented around the table had a vital role to play in holding No 10’s feet to the fire to ensure real, practical action. “We have to be vigilant over the next two to three years to make sure the disparities are reduced. There’s no point having advisory groups and boards if there is no change in the experience of people in the system.”
He continued: “Essentially we’re not going to tackle the gaps without a strong race equality sector that’s got resource to have a voice and to challenge and work with public authorities and private companies. So my fundamental plea is how do we resource the race equality sector to play its part in tackling and reducing these inequalities?”
“There are eight million black and minority ethnic people but the 150,000 people who voted for the DUP have more influence on political life” – Dr Omar Khan, Runnymede Trust
Crook’s concerns were echoed by Fiona Onasanya, the Labour MP for Peterborough, who said that while the government’s Race Disparity Audit and the Lammy review had made positive contributions, the sector now needed to be “solution-orientated”. “There have been a number of reviews and reports done considering race disparity,” she said. “Pooling together all that information is very important – but what we do with it is more so.”
She stressed the importance of encouraging BAME communities to speak out about their experiences and engage in the political process. Since 1987, she pointed out, there have only been 22 MPs from BAME backgrounds. “If you want to know what it’s like being a young black woman in politics there is no point asking a white man, he will have no idea because he’s not in my position. We don’t need to segregate we need to integrate. You need to hear the voices of many, of people who come from the backgrounds you’re looking to engage with, to get a good picture of their experience and whether they believe Britain is fair.”
But Conservative MP Sir Peter Bottomley said it was also important for “white middle class men” to step up and “do more on this themselves to then provide the umbrella for all the other activity that goes on”.
The Runnymede Trust’s Dr Khan said Onasanya was right to call for the voice of black people to be “strengthened”, but agreed with Sir Peter that “we also need more White, British people on this case as well otherwise we’re not going to see social change happen.”
He warned that the sector had not been “proactive enough” in pushing for political change. “We have assumed that tolerance would just change generationally,” he said. “The public and political pressure on race isn’t really there. When there was the proposal to sell the forests, the National Trust was able to get however many million names. I don’t think we can do that on race. There are eight million black and minority ethnic people but the 150,000 people who voted for the DUP have much more influence on political life.
“So there is that question mark – how can we raise our voice so that we don’t just make the right arguments based on the evidence but put pressure on politicians to change? And I think we’ve got some way to go.”
However Jabeer Butt from the Coalition of Race Equality warned against focusing too heavily on the failures of public policy, and said the sector risked overlooking some major success stories on racial equality in recent years. “We’ve seen a dramatic rise in life expectancy amongst BAME communities. Educational attainment in London has demonstrated a significant improvement for ethnic minority children. The decline in infant mortality is a major achievement over the last 20 years and we should be rightly proud of it,” he said. “The reason for highlighting that is that what we need to start focusing on is why have things worked? Where have they worked? Who have they worked with? And are there lessons we can learn from that and build upon?”
Isaac agreed, adding that: “We need to be more courageous in relation to the things that are difficult but also to be positive about the things that are actually working.”
Ughwujabo said the prime minister had endeavoured to put in place a firm structure to make sure “bold, ambitious” solutions to these problems are not just discussed but implemented. With these processes up and running, he added, the sector now has an opportunity and a responsibility to step forward, to engage and to offer solutions and new ideas. “There is a feeling that sometimes we want to shout and want to complain about the issues,” he said. “I think we have a real opportunity now to shift that a little bit and start to work collaboratively, because there is the openness to make sure we do something significant in this area.”
He ended with a rallying cry to civil society organisations to “fully engage” with No 10. “The one thing I would ask is if you have policy proposal ideas that you feel can help to address these disparities then there is an opportunity to share those with us. You will be engaged in the process. There is a real opportunity to do some creative things during this period to move the dial.”