Correspondence on racial justice

Over the past couple of weeks, we have received a very high volume of campaign and personalised correspondence about racial justice following the death in the US of George Floyd and the impact of coronavirus on those from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background.

Given the numbers of emails we are receiving and the need to prioritise those constituents with complex casework needs deriving from the pandemic, we cannot always guarantee a personalised reply. However, for constituents’ interest, I paste below my response to some of the different issues that have been raised.

George Floyd

Thank you for your email regarding the protests and police response in America following the death of George Floyd.

It has been incredibly distressing to watch what has been happening in the States. The protests about Mr Floyd’s untimely death need to be understood as a reaction not to an isolated incident but to a worrying number of encounters recorded between African American citizens and police officers in which a completely disproportionate use of force has been deployed.

In the UK, we have a long-standing tradition of ‘policing by consent’ whereby officers derive their authority only from continued public support. That support is contingent on the police’s ability to secure and maintain respect, such that physical force is used only when strictly necessary. It is one of the reasons why ordinary British officers are not routinely armed.

What is worrying about US citizens’ concerns about the direction of policing in their country is that all too many perceive officers as being on a different side to them rather than an intrinsic part of the community. This emergence of ‘sides’ appears to be the consequence of a fundamental breakdown in trust when it comes to the fairness and proportionality with which police powers are used, and a concern that there is a different application of those powers depending on a citizen’s ethnicity.

I fear that this situation has been many decades in the making but I hope Mr Floyd’s death proves a catalyst for things fundamentally to change. The deterioration of the protests into riots, and the consequent reaction of Federal authorities, appears to be alienating law-abiding citizens and law-abiding police officers alike, with protestors’ cause hijacked and undermined by looters and decent officers’ profession and integrity put into doubt by the actions of a few and the escalation in political rhetoric. I hope that those officers and citizens who have been pictured finding common ground in the midst of these tensions form the blueprint for a way forward. In the meantime, in relation to Mr Floyd’s death, the police officer has now been charged with second-degree murder and there will be a federal review, while the other three officers at the scene have been charged with aiding and abetting murder.

I note your calls for the UK to suspend sales of riot shields, rubber bullets and tear gas to the US government, and that request has been forwarded to the International Trade Secretary, Elizabeth Truss. I attach a letter she has already sent Shadow Trade Secretary, Emily Thornberry, about export controls. I have also made representations on your behalf to our Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab MP, requesting his analysis of the situation in the US following concerns about the escalation in the Federal government’s response.

I will share the responses received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Department for International Trade as soon as they have been received. The Prime Minister has described Mr Floyd’s death as appalling and inexcusable at Prime Minister’s Questions and reasserted the government’s support of the right to peaceful protest.

You will be aware that we in the UK have long grappled with the issue of how best to maintain public confidence in policing, particularly among citizens from BAME backgrounds following the MacPherson Review into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Over the past couple of years, the government has reformed the police complaints process, setting up the new Independent Office of Police Conduct, and police officers now routinely wear body-worn cameras, which has led to a dramatic drop in the number of complaints. Last year, I also raised the issue of data collection on ethnicity of complainants to the police so that we can see whether particular groups are overrepresented. This is further to work undertaken by the former Prime Minister, Theresa May, who commissioned a Race Disparity Audit to identify where we need to reduce any differences in how public services are delivered according to ethnic background. There is now a Racial Disparity Unit which sits within the Cabinet Office and routinely collects data on the experiences of people from different ethnic backgrounds so that government can continue to drive improvements in this area.

 

UK Protests

Some constituents have raised with me concerns about protests that have taken place in the UK in support of the Black Lives Matter movement. Just as it has been distressing to see protests in the US hijacked by anarchists and rioters, I share residents’ anger at seeing violent and criminal acts in our own country subvert and undermine protestors’ vital message of racial justice. It was utterly dismaying to see police officers derided and attacked, and property vandalised including monuments like the Cenotaph - a memorial to the ultimate sacrifice of men and women who have fought for sacred rights like our freedom to protest. The Home Secretary has given her support to an idea put forward by backbench Conservative MPs for a new law to make it easier to prosecute those who damage war memorials.

No government in a free and democratic state would wish to curtail the liberty to protest. However, in these exceptional times, I share constituents’ worry about the potential of mass protests to undermine efforts to stop the spread of covid-19. Both the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have urged people not to attend future protests given that large gatherings of people are currently unlawful. They have also made clear that those committing criminal acts during these protests will face the full force of the law.

I believe in democracy not mob rule. Mindless thuggery and intimidation of those with different views by those who shout the loudest – even if inspired by worthy cause - must never be seen as a justifiable substitute for thoughtful debate and peaceful democratic expression. Our ultimate goal here must surely be to see someone’s skin colour as irrelevant in their experience of our institutions, our justice system and our public services, as well as their interactions with fellow citizens in the workplace and community. It must not be to substitute one form of discrimination and hatred with another or to spread fear and distrust in place of the positive and enduring friendships that exist in this country between citizens of every ethnic background.

A number of constituents have written to me about protestors’ targeting of historical public monuments like Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, and the subsequent removal of a similar monument by the Mayor of London. Again, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary have condemned the protestors’ actions as criminal damage, and the Prime Minister has made clear that if people want these kinds of statues removed there are democratic avenues to achieving that goal.

I make no defence of our ancestors’ choices for public memorial, some of which we would doubtless now find morally objectionable through a subject’s words or deeds. However, I do have a philosophical opposition to historical erasure and censorship given the deeply troubling lessons left us by other societies that have sought over the centuries to expunge heritage.

I worry that the Mayor, in removing statues in the capital without discussion mere days after the protests, risks endorsing criminal damage as the most effective means of securing rapid change in our society. History is littered with examples of pain, immorality, prejudice and bloodshed – a record bequeathed for us to debate, to scrutinise and ultimately to learn from. Having shown little prior interest in taking on such roles, the Mayor has now effectively made himself judge and jury in what we take from that record, and set London up for a potentially divisive and endless debate about the character, words and actions of each of those memorialised on our streets. If he deems this a worthy use of Londoners’ taxes and time, then I look forward to him making that case in the elections which should ordinarily have taken place in May but whose postponement due to the pandemic have given him an additional year in office. It can then be for Londoners to judge whether his latest endeavour should be added to his primary responsibility to deliver better policing, transport and housing.

 

Public Health Report

I appreciate the concerns of those constituents who have written to me about the Public Health England report on Covid-19 and the review of disparities in a person’s risks and outcomes in relation to the disease. It was misreported by Sky News that publication of this report was being delayed due to concerns about the George Floyd protests. This was categorically not the case – I understand the report was being peer reviewed before ministers received initial findings. Those findings were then rapidly considered by Ministers and the report was published on Tuesday. Health Secretary, Matt Hancock MP, then informed the House of Commons of its findings on the same day and Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has since replied to an urgent question on the George Floyd protests and health inequalities. A link to both the report itself and the Health Secretary’s comments are provided at the end of this email.

The report confirmed that people from black ethnic groups were most likely to be diagnosed with Covid-19 and that death rates were highest among Black and Asian ethnic groups. The report advised that people of Chinese, Indian, Pakistani, Other Asian, Caribbean and Other Black ethnicity had between 10 and 50% higher risk of death when compared to White British. However, the report states that the analyses conducted did not account for the effect of other risk factors, such as comorbidities, obesity or occupation which are associated with the risk of acquiring Covid-19 in the first instance as well as the risk of death. Public Health England states that other evidence has shown that when comorbidities are included the difference in the risk of death among Covid-19 patients in hospital is greatly reduced.

In light of these findings on ethnicity, the Health Secretary informed the House of Commons that the Equalities Minister, Elizabeth Truss MP, will be leading work to understand the ‘drivers of these disparities, the relationships between the different risk factors and what we can do to close the gap’. I look forward to receiving further updates from the Health Secretary and the Equalities Minister on this important work. In the meantime, I refer you to an article that Kemi Badenoch wrote over the weekend about the next steps she will be taking herself to act upon the findings of the PHE report. https://twitter.com/KemiBadenoch/status/1269635306371911680?s=20

Public Health England report - https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/covid-19-review-of-disparities-in-risks-and-outcomes

Secretary of State for Health’s Statement to the House - https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-06-02/debates/F1B37A79-E882-4BBE-857C-C6BDBD2689AF/Covid-19Response

 

Belly Mulinga

Several constituents have written with concerns about the investigation of the tragic death of Belly Mujinga from Covid-19 and I understand that this incident, and the outcome of the investigation, has caused considerable distress. Over the weekend, the British Transport Police published a statement outlining why they decided to take no further action in this case, stating that, having reviewed key witness statements and CCTV, there is no evidence of spitting in this incident. They also state that the man featured within the CCTV, whom they interviewed, provided an antibody test that confirmed that he had never had Covid-19 and would therefore not be able to pass it on to her. The statement can be viewed in full at: https://media.btp.police.uk/r/17231/update__statement_regarding_victoria_station_inve

With regard to the provision of PPE for transport staff, the government has issued guidance to transport operators to help them identify and address risks to their staff as the lockdown eases. For example, the guidance encourages operators to carry out risk assessments, set out clear rules on interacting with passengers, redeploy clinically vulnerable people into roles where the risk is lower, support staff to wear face coverings safely and use screens to create a physical barrier at places such as ticket offices.

 

History Curriculum 

A number of constituents have written to me calling for black history to be put on a statutory footing within the KS1-KS4 curriculum in our schools. The history curriculum’s focus is on key events and trends, and it is organised into statutory and non-statutory parts. In this way, the curriculum sets out a broad timeline of our island story for mandatory study while giving plenty of scope to examine the diversity of input into that story, the UK’s influence on the world (both positive and negative), non-European societies and significant international figures and events. A wide range of suggested examples are provided in brackets but these are non-statutory so that teachers and their classes have freedom to explore.

The overall aim is to give pupils an understanding of the complexity of people’s lives, the process of change, the diversity of societies and relationships between different groups, as well as their own identity and the challenges of their time. The curriculum is not currently prescriptive in terms of suggesting that history be studied according to ethnicity, rather it encourages debate about individuals’ and groups’ different experiences of our collective history.

I know many schools, including in our own constituency, use dates such as Black History Month to give a particular focus to key events and this can be very helpful in highlighting that people of particular ethnic backgrounds may have very different perspectives on and experiences of history. Such dates can also be a useful mechanism in challenging historical interpretations and giving each of us a richer understanding of the cultural and political influences that have informed national life without putting one ethnicity on a statutory footing and others not.

Nonetheless, I have referred your suggestion that black history should be mandatory within the curriculum to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson MP so that he is aware of your views and I have asked for his response to the issues raised in your correspondence. I will share with you his comments once received.

 

Thank you again for taking the trouble to write to me. I appreciate constituents engaging me in these important issues and hope that these matters can continue to be debated and acted upon in a way that unites us against racial injustice while allowing a plurality of views on how best to achieve that goal.

With best wishes,

Julia