View from Westiminster: We need concrete action to tackle structural racism, says Harriet Harman

News Desk (29 October, 2020)

'When we conducted the biggest ever polling of black people, three in four black Brits told us they don’t believe they have the same human rights as white people'

31615Harriet Harman

As we mark Black History Month this year we must reflect honestly on the explosion of anger at the murder of George Floyd both here and in the United States and propose meaningful action to make real progress, writes Harriet Harman…

This is not only about the appalling police brutality in the States, but also the inequality, prejudice and discrimination still faced by Black people here. We have to show solidarity to those in the US and also recognise that here in the UK, too, there is inequality, prejudice and discrimination.

As chair of parliament’s human rights select committee, I’m leading a #BlackLivesMatter inquiry looking at the extent to which human rights of non-black people in this country are unequal and how that can be changed. In particular, the committee is considering the over-representation of black people in prison and deaths in police custody; the Windrush scandal; and the greater likelihood of black mothers to die in childbirth and the lack of an equal right to vote.

Human rights are supposed to be universal, the same for every human being. Yet when we conducted the biggest ever polling of black people, three in four black Brits told us they don’t believe they have the same human rights as white people.

In the UK, you are still nine times more likely to be stopped and searched if you are black than if you are white. It is hard to see how this can change until we have equal numbers of non-white officers at all levels of the Met including right at the top. And we are a long way off that. I am demanding the police set a target to increase the number of black officers and publish the percentage of black police in every force by seniority. I am also urging the police to establish regular polling of the black community’s perception of policing and set a numerical target to increase confidence.

And the majority of Black people in the UK believe they are not treated equally by the NHS. Black women especially feel unequally treated by health service.

These findings are stark, especially as so many black people work in the NHS yet still feel that it does not value their lives equally. The fact that this is most strongly felt by black women perhaps reflects women’s greater role in caring for children and older relatives.

The results pose a major challenge to the health service, and senior figures cannot sweep them under the carpet. The state has a duty to protect life and not to discriminate. They have a duty to protect the lives of black and non-black people equally. Black women are five times more likely to die in childbirth than white women. We are demanding the NHS set a target to end the racial maternal mortality gap.

Justified anger needs recognition and demands change. Everyday experiences of racism need to be recognised as fact. And there needs to be concrete change to stop it.

A succession of reports in recent years have found structural racial inequalities in our institutions, from the Home Office treatment of the Windrush generation to David Lammy’s 2017 report on the disproportionately high numbers of black people in the youth justice system. We will report in the next couple of weeks and will be demanding the government implement the findings of these reports. Commissioning reports and failing to implement them only intensifies the lack of confidence in government on race issues.

We were appalled to hear there are no black commissioners on the Equality and Human Rights Commission. At the national level there is no black led organisation whose responsibility it is to champion race equality and lead the drive for progress. The government must sort this urgently.

The history of Southwark, and of Britain, is a history of migration. Yet fewer than 10 per cent of students learn this at school. This too must change. Our understanding of history informs our national identity – it informs our understanding of the word British and who is included in that. Teaching black history one month a year is not enough. We need to embed an understanding of our colonial past and a celebration of the immense contribution of Black Britons to this country in our school syllabus. It is not the responsibility of black people to make our society equal. It is the responsibility of all of us, particularly those of us in leading positions able to drive change. And an equal society is not only justice for black people but benefits everyone.


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