IS RACE BEING ERODED FROM THE GOVERNMENT’S AGENDA
The row over two equality and human rights commissioners is symptomatic of coalition failure to engage, argues Ratna Lachman from Bradford.
The news that the two of the current Equality and Human Rights commissioners – Simon Woolley and Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece have not been called for an interview despite putting their names forward to be reappointed, raises serious questions about whether the government is seeking to erode the Race agenda.
Since the coalition came to power, we have seen what amounts to an assault by the government against its minority ethnic citizens, unprecedented in scale and pointing to institutional racism deep within the heart of the administration
Before anyone is tempted to suggest ‘there they go again pleading a special case for race’, detractors only need look at the Index of Multiple Deprivation, which highlights the systemic and structural nature of the generational poverty in neighbourhoods where Britain’s Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities reside in. The disproportionate impact of current austerity measures on black and minority ethnic (BME) communities where more young black men are unemployed than currently have jobs ought to shame us as a society.
Similarly, the over-surveillance, over-policing and over-criminalisation of Britain’s Muslim, African and Caribbean communities have clear historic antecedents that are now almost half a century old. Instances of racism that continue to blight BME lives form part of the warp and weave of their daily reality. Every week JUST West Yorkshire’s Racial Justice Bulletin highlights racist attacks, abuse and murder, and the need for governmental support for anti-racism initiatives has never been more urgently needed.
It is against this background that the Coalition government’s attack on the race agenda is most insidious. Within months of assuming office, the coalition singled out equalities legislation for attack in its Red Tape challenge. It sent a clear signal to BME communities that this was to be a government of and for the establishment, and forget social justice. Failure to understand the importance of the equalities legislation should maybe not come as a surprise, but it still demonstrates how remote David Cameron and his mostly wealthy Cabinet colleagues have become from the lives of the majority in the UK. The plebs.
What we are witnessing is a colour-blind coalition that has eviscerated equalities legislation, emasculated the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and excised the race dimension within the EHRC – all culminating in the potential loss of the two commissioners. The first, Simon Woolley, has been a long-time campaigner for race equality and has relentlessly put race on the policy agenda. The second, Baroness Meral Hussein-Ece has a life-long record of campaigning for better race relations. The callousness with which their applications to renew their role as EHRC Commissioners have been treated, and the failure of the Coalition government to consult with BME communities on their intentions, highlights the lack of serious engagement and respect.
The Liberal Democrats have been equally culpable in the undermining of our rights. In his time in office, the race and equality minister Andrew Stunnell failed to develop a strategy; he never made a meaningful statement about his vision for BME advancement; and he failed to advocate or engage with BME communities. His departure has resulted in the Race portfolio being split among a number of ministers straddling different government departments, which makes co-ordinated approaches to addressing the challenges of racial injustice and discrimination impossible. To add insult to injury the statement by the recently appointed Conservative equality minister Helen Grant that targeted support would be wrong because “everyone needs help,” points to an ignorance about the dynamics of racism, disadvantage and discrimination.
The assault has also been led from the top, with the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary Theresa May and the communities minister Eric Pickles leading the charge. The PM’s call for BME citizens to denounce extremism by proving their allegiance through subscription to ‘British values’ had clear overtones of the far right. Pickles’ assault against travellers without previously considering the shortage of local authority pitches has a whiff of dog whistle politics. Theresa May’s differential treatment of Gary Mckinnon’s extradition case on the one hand and those of Babar Ahmad and Talha Ahsan on the other, can only be described as the implementation of two-tier system of justice.
The UK government’s record on race has even been criticiseded by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Commission has called on the government to develop a race equality strategy, abandon its proposals to reduce the EHRC budget and halt the regression from the protection afforded under the Equality Act. Instead of meeting its international obligations, the government has cocked al snook to the Committee.
It may be that the government has alternative proposals in mind – but the treatment accorded to the two commissioners is shameful. If the government is considering alternative representatives, it is reasonable to expect that BME communities should be consulted as the nominees must have their confidence.
As things stand they are in an angry mood across the UK and the government ignores that at its peril. The first step to restoring trust and confidence must be to listen to us, act to ameliorate the disadvantage that we experience and repair the breach that is eating away at the heart of the contract between citizen and state. Restoring the equalities legislation and reinstating the Race commissioners would be a start.
Ratna Lachman is director of JUST West Yorkshire which promotes racial justice, civil liberties and human rights in the north of England.