The JCHR report is a reminder that equality is rarely enforced in the UK
This year has been a tragic reminder that racism can be a matter of life and death: from the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths of Black, Asian and minority ethic people, to the global protests that followed the death of George Floyd.
The Human Rights Select Committee’s latest report, “Black people, racism and human rights” paints a damningly familiar picture of structural racism across society, from health to immigration, policing, the justice system, and electoral participation.
In many ways, this report tells us little we didn’t already know, although it rightly criticises a culture which has churned out dozens of reports about anti-Black racism, whilst key recommendations have gone ignored.
It notes: “At best this can be viewed as negligent, at worst there is a sense that these reviews […] are used by governments as a way of avoiding taking action to redress legitimate grievances.”
Highlighting racism is important, and we know there are gaps in data collection, but the hope behind all such reports must be to change the status quo.
To take one example, Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth and 88% of pregnant women hospitalised with COVID-19 have been Black. The NHS regrets this but has no organisational plans to end this. It is also painfully obvious that increased support for pregnant BAME women is required, but there is no external pressure to achieve a target.
This brings us onto another important point outlined in the report. Namely, that the EHRC tasked with “policing” equality and potentially enforcing such targets, is not fit for purpose in its current form. But then, how could it be? Firstly, as an “independent arm’s length body” its major appointments are still made by the government. This must make it difficult to take action when government policies lead to inequalities or human rights breaches, something highlighted in court cases over the years.
Secondly, the EHRC appears to have limited investigation and enforcement powers, rarely using those it does have. Take the recent decision regarding the BBC. After a slew of successful Employment Tribunal cases and an 18-month investigation, the EHRC staggeringly found no evidence of unequal pay.
Finally, in 2006 the CRE had a budget of £90 million just for race issues; the EHRC currently has a budget of £17.1 million for all its work across all protected characteristics. As the report rightly states, replacing the Commission For Racial Equality with the EHRC has meant “a weaker focus on race equality issues than was previously the case.”
What has often been missing from the picture too often is what Black people think and feel about racism. At the time of the report’s publication there were no Black commissioners on the EHRC board. The select committee responsible for this report was also criticised for having no Black members and only one person of colour. This is strange comparatively when you remember that select committees are compiled from a selection of backbench MPs and Peers, and the report itself took extensive evidence from and recommended more engagement with Black communities.
A more diverse Parliament should be followed by more diverse select committees. But, in a country as diverse as ours, there is no shortage of good Black candidates to appoint to an equalities board. Representation does not always equate to liberation but those who suffer discrimination are best-placed to articulate this and lead effective change.
Black communities need less champions and more “enforcement”. Report after report reinforces not only the issues but the recommendations needed to bring about systemic change. We need to start applying them across the board.