It is everyone's responsibility to tackle racism in Parliament
Ugbana Oyet, the Chartered Engineer who last year became Parliament's first Black Serjeant At Arms | Jessica Taylor, UK Parliament
Last year Ugbana Oyet became the first Black Serjeant-at-Arms in the post’s 600-year history. The former electrical engineer reflects on his journey from Nigeria to Parliament
I recently visited an exhibition, The Stars are Bright, celebrating young Zimbabwean artists. I was impressed how they told the story of Zimbabwean village life, both reflecting on traditional culture and what it meant to embrace western European culture. It reminded me of the journey I made from an African village to the Westminster village.
I was born in my mother’s city Calabar, however in Nigeria your ancestry comes from your father’s line. In my father’s village of Agana, in the Niger Delta, everyone knows everyone else. The village square adjoins directly to the back of our house and every New Year’s Eve there was the annual celebration with masquerades and dancing groups, a carnival atmosphere. A little beyond the village square was the waterfront and I would regularly go to help my uncles when they returned from fishing.
I visited in 2014 and the village was unchanged. People migrate to work in Port Harcourt, the nearest city, as fishing, the main occupation, is no longer viable. Everyone still returns for holidays, and festivals, and there is a great sense of community.
I started school at age six. I was a quiet child and I struggled in my first year. In Nigeria there are exams every term that you must pass to progress. It took me effort to learn while my brother breezed through. I remember confronting a boy who bullied me in the first year of school. He demanded money and food from me. But at the end of the year, I passed the exam and he failed. My success erased my inferiority complex and I gained the confidence to confront my bully. I continue to have zero tolerance for bullying or harassment.
At secondary school, we went to rallies calling for an end to apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela. I also joined the Boy’s Brigade, which instilled the value of serving others, discipline, and integrity. We moved to the UK in my third year of secondary school. I studied in Chichester, going onto to Southampton University to read electrical engineering.
Another surprise, on arriving in England, was that people made a big deal of the colour of my skin – when to me my skin colour was normal
In Nigeria, we were considered ‘very English.’ My parents had worked in England and had what were considered ‘English habits’, such as eating English breakfasts, serving sandwiches and scones. I was brought up with the values of courtesy, fair play, the rule of law, diligence and adventure. I remember visiting friends’ homes and I would greet their parents “good afternoon sir or madam” and they were amazed at my manners. Some asked me to call them by their first name, but I could not, it felt uncomfortable. Another surprise, on arriving in England, was that people made a big deal of the colour of my skin – when to me my skin colour was normal.
We grew up with a strong work ethic based on Judaeo-Christian teaching. My first experience of work was serving snacks in my cousin’s café when I was about six. When in secondary school, my mum made snacks which I sold as a street hawker. If you ever watch a documentary on Nigeria and see street hawkers thrusting their wares in the faces of passengers at a bus interchange; I used to do that.
When I came to England, I did paper rounds and then got a job as a chamber person. This paid for my driving lessons and I was able to send money to help family in Nigeria.
On graduating from university, my engineering career started with a firm of engineering consultants in Poole, Dorset. I recall the senior partner said “I have every confidence in you”, that gave me the psychological safety I needed to thrive. Within about two years, I was leading my first medium sized project, a £4m redevelopment of the library at Bournemouth University and then the £120m redevelopment of the Poole Pottery site into a mixed used development, Dolphin Quays.
A few years later, I was awarded my chartership by the Institution of Electrical Engineers (IEE) and I moved to work in the public sector, for Hampshire County Council, where I developed a love for heritage.
After securing my CEng an opportunity came to work on the Dubai metro project. It was a more ambitious project than anything I had previously done. A few years later, I secured the role of principal electrical engineer and went out to Abu Dhabi to lead the design for the new development, Al Zeina, overlooking the Formula 1 racetrack. This was a $1bn programme spanning about 14km. The confidence and competence I developed here enabled me to take on other projects including the Al Falah City in Saudi Arabia. This was an entirely new city requiring a power station, water desalination plant and master planning of the residential, industrial, retail and leisure zones.
I joined Parliament as lead electrical engineer in 2012 and led to the Long-term Engineering programme, which outlined a cohesive vision for all engineering infrastructure on the estate. Eventually, the project was split into two parts, one became what is now known as Restoration and Renewal, which focused on the Palace of Westminster, and the other became the Estate Wide Engineering Infrastructure and Resilience strategy (EWEIR). EWEIR delivered a strategic vision to reduce our carbon footprint, and achieve zero carbon by 2050, reduce our operational costs on utilities and achieve our required resilience. The project would use heat from deep below the ground to provide heating and cooling on the estate.
While at Parliament, I was seconded to the Transport Select Committee for about 18 months. I enjoyed working with Members and briefing them on important issues.
My initial priorities on appointment to the role of Serjeant at Arms were people, process, and performance. I immediately got to work. I was fortunate to have an exceptional team of doorkeepers, serjeants and operational and administrative colleagues with outstanding team leaders. We supported planning for the elections in December; we helped with 400+ office moves resulting from the elections; arrangements for new Member induction, and facilitating reasonable adjustments for Members and their staff. And, of course, the ceremonial State Opening of Parliament – it’s rare to have two within the same year.
A bigger change of course was Covid-19. We again adapted and have been able to make our team more resilient by operating new work patterns. We implemented social distancing arrangements in the Chamber and Galleries, working closely with colleagues and Members under the leadership of the Speaker and the Clerk.
I believe much more education about Black history, and the contribution of Black people to Britain, is required. Many people know about the Notting Hill carnival but few know that the event, which later became carnival, was originally organised by Claudia Jones, a Trinidadian-born activist, to “wash the taste of Notting hill and Nottingham [race riots] out of our mouths”. This Caribbean carnival was an indoor event to provide comfort and solidarity and has grown to become the Notting Hill carnival.
At times I feel I am expected to represent the views of all Black people, which is unrealistic
Fewer people know of John Kent, the first Black police officer in 1837, or of John Blanke, the Black musician who played for Henry VIII, or of the Black population living in Britain during the Roman era. During the Adjournment Debate, of 8 September 2020, the education minister Nick Gibb, responding to Theresa Villiers, on Black history in the curriculum said, “Good history teaching should always include the contribution of Black and minority ethnic people to Britain’s history.” There is a need for everyone, Black and white, to know and understand our shared history, all aspects of it, both good and bad. We also need to acknowledge the lived experience of colleagues.
We need to support colleagues to understand their power and privilege and use these to champion everyone equally. The overwhelming majority of people are not racist; however we cannot be content to be bystanders either; we need to be active allies.
Just as we have zero tolerance for bullying, we need to have zero tolerance for racism. Parliament has made progress. Since the launch of ParliREACH in 2013 we have seen a steady increase in ethnic diversity at all levels including senior levels: but more needs to be done.
One of the ways Parliament is addressing this is through the Clerk’s BAME Advisory Group, of which I am a member. The group has a clear focus on action to deliver outcomes; we will direct our efforts towards activities that will bring about long-term change rather than sticking plasters.
There is lots of work to do and we want all colleagues to engage in delivering this. Just as security is everyone’s responsibility, showing zero tolerance to racism is too.
I’ve been asked what it is like to be a Black senior leader in Parliament. In one sense it does not matter whether you are Black or white, but I do understand the sentiment behind the question as I am only the second non-white person to hold the post of Serjeant At Arms in the 600+ years of the role.
At times I feel I am expected to represent the views of all Black people, which is unrealistic. The skills, views and lived experience, of Black people is hugely diverse and I long to see more Black people in senior roles. At other times I feel like I am carrying the weight of expectation of all Black people in Britain and I must do more than succeed. I believe in excellence in everything and I intend to give my absolute best in my role. I want my wife, children and future grandchildren to have many reasons to be proud of me.
As we celebrate Black History Month I ask that you take the time to learn something new about our shared history, be more aware of your fragility and that of others especially with the ongoing pandemic, and use your power and privilege to champion everyone equally.