“United in Britishness?”

By Alexandra MaCrae, Equalities Officer for Black Southwest Network (BSWN)

On 5th September 2013 addressing a meeting of leading Councillors and senior Council Officials from England and Wales at the QE2 Centre in Parliament Square, London Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities & Local Government paid tribute to the work done by local authorities in keeping our streets safe from crime. He began his speech, which he entitled ‘ United in Britishness’, saying: 
 
 
‘ ….many of you have direct experience of walking the streets of your city or town not knowing if you would be there the next day or whether it would have gone up in flames. Whether just one careless incident would undermine years of painstaking work.’ 
 
The Minister’s initial millennial forebodings were in contrast with the later parts of his speech which lauded British tolerance and how ‘tolerance, decency and respect for others are embedded deep within our psyche………….. our warmth and hospitality, our willingness to welcome other views and embrace other ways of life are what has made Britain a beacon of hope around the world’
 
Indeed Mr Pickles, keen to show the world British community spirit and inclusiveness towards our Muslim communities, cited the case of  Drummer Lee Rigby, apparently murdered in Woolwich, not far from his army barracks and wearing a ‘ Help for Heroes’ T-shirt, by a deluded Muslim convert and his colleague. Mr Pickles paid tribute to British Muslim communities who were united in revulsion and ’ shouted loudest of all of us to say not in my name’. As Mr Pickles rightly went on to say there were a number of subsequent attacks on mosques but still the community was resilient. Well spoken, Mr Pickles but the Minister’s words fall on deaf ears as far as our press and media are concerned. The continuing attacks on mosques by the minority of violent bigots, who sadly tarnish the reputation of British tolerance which the Minister is keen to highlight, are given little prominence. 
As  Laurie Penny points out in her column in the ‘ New Statesman’ of 30th August 2013, there have been 28 attacks on mosques since May 2013 which include firebomb and arson attacks, the latest being in Harlow, Essex. Rigby’s death received blanket press coverage for almost a fortnight whereas the mosque attacks have been reported calmly leaving space on the front pages for such urgent news as the impending birth of a panda at Edinburgh Zoo. As Penny goes on to observe: ‘ Pointing out this pattern of islamophobia…..instantly draws a horde of angry explainers keen to point out that technically Islam, like Judaism, isn’t a race – it’s a religion Thinking that those Muslim community centres might have had it coming to them is therefore technically not racist – so that’s fine, then.’
 
 Concluding his remarks, Mr Pickles, warming to his theme, says: ‘The old century was riven by discord – scarred and despoiled by the Holocaust- but we have a chance in this century. We can be determined to learn the lessons, to set aside hatred and ensure that all people of good will work together………..that instead of those who preach hate or shout slogans, we will listen to the voices of peace and hope…of a people comfortable with differences- accepting of others and united in Britishness’.
 
These are warm words from a Minister whose period in office and whose department frequently display a marked lack of interest in issues relating to race while it concentrates on other problems connected with diversity. The old century, as he says, was marked by communal hatred and discord but it   was also enlightened by Dr Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech and its consequences in the United States. It is odd that on the fiftieth anniversary of that event Mr Pickles failed to refer to it even if only to record the progress Great Britain made at the same time and from the 1960s onward laying the foundations of our own race relations legislation culminating in the 1976 Race Relations Act, the establishment of the Community Relations Council which became the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).
 
Banging the British drum, he might have mentioned that the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), the successor to the CRE is widely regarded outside the UK as a world leader in promoting equality and human rights, including racial equality. The EHRC is recognized as a member of the network of Human Rights institutions and has ‘ A’ status accreditation, the highest accolade of the International Co-ordinating Committee of National Human Rights Institutions ( a UN body ) which gives the EHRC unlimited access to the UN Human Rights Council treaty institutions and to other UN Human Rights  bodies. Instead he highlighted his department’s support for Youth United which encourages among other things young people from minority communities to belong to ‘ our great British institutions whether the scouts, the Sea Cadets or the St John’s Ambulance’.
 
The Public Sector Duty enshrined in the Equality Act 2000 which has recently escaped the government axe by the skin of its teeth is precisely an example why there must be legally enshrined norms to which statutory bodies must comply - that is the public duty actively to promote equality and non-discriminatory behaviour. When people see UK Border Agency vans in their neighbourhood  with huge signs on them saying ‘ Go home or face arrest’: when UKBA officials are seen bundling black and Asian staff from shops specializing in hair and beauty products for black people into vans and when police officers are seen arresting black or Asian people as potential ‘ illegal immigrants’ while posh coffee shops staffed by Australians are unmolested when white kids obviously the worse for inhaling or ingesting illegal substances are ignored by police officers, no wonder the Daily Express reading housewife and the bloke in the pub in an all-white suburb feels she or he can preface her or his remarks with ‘ I’m not a racist but……………..’ for she or he sees Authority performing acts which are blatantly discriminatory which legitimize the remark.
 
Yet the government of which Mr Pickles is a member has presided over the emasculation of the EHRC which has had its budget cut by 60 per cent and further cuts are forecast in the government’s ‘ Cull of the Quangos’ in response to businesses’ complaints about ‘ unnecessary ‘ red tape which hampers business or in plain speak gets in the way of unscrupulous employers doing as they damn well please. It is Mr Pickles‘ government which has so drastically cut legal aid and amended the rules for Employment Tribunals that it is now practically impossible for people to pursue actions for discrimination and it now apparently has proposals to restrict the right to bring Judicial Reviews for abuse of administrative procedure which may impede actions for the breach of the Public Sector Duty. The weakened EHRC has managed to call for a review of the UKBA’s use of the offensively labelled vans but one of the other curbs introduced by the government on the EHRC is the removal of its  judicial wing which could initiate legal action where it saw a potential breach of equality legislation.
 
 
It is not only the EHRC which has been drastically undermined by this government to the extent   it has had to close its network of regional offices, including the office in Bristol which supported Race Equality Councils and other bodies working to eliminate racism and promote community cohesion in the South West. The local authorities whom Mr Pickles was addressing on 5th September and whose work in community cohesion he was lauding provided funding for a range of organisations such as Race Equality Councils who were their partners in eliminating racism and bringing people together. Since the EHRC now has no grant-awarding powers, RECs depend on local authority funding or on private fund-raising from charitable organisations. The consequence of this is that the voluntary sector as a whole is becoming to a large extent dependant on a limited number of charitable bodies who cannot cope with the demands made upon them. Some local authorities despite having to make huge cuts in services have realized the relative importance of equality and community work and have managed to continue to make some sort of contribution to their local REC but sadly too many councils, particularly those whose BME population is small, have mistakenly decided to cut all support for their local REC and the Department of Communities and Local Government’s silence on the issue of race equality and its lack of enthusiasm for the Equality Act have enabled local authorities not only to stop support for RECs but axe their own equality and diversity staff as if they were luxuries the recession entitled them to cut. Nothing in Mr Pickles’ recent speech indicated anything other than an endorsement of this trend.
 
The problem of rural racism is acute in the South West and consequently isolated BME communities now are without support and hate crime is on the rise. In the 1990s there were ten Race Equality Councils covering the whole of the South West region, each employing staff. Now there are six and only three of these can afford salaried staff. Small teams of volunteers are attempting to provide a service for huge counties with scattered and exposed BME populations where previously there were salaried staff to do the work. In the remaining three areas where the local REC can still afford staff, the remaining skeleton staff are trying to do an ever-increasing amount of work with depleted resources. No REC can afford a legal officer and therefore abuses go unchecked. The same sad picture is reflected in the position of Law Centres. Of the three Law Centres in the South West Region, only two do discrimination and immigration work. The region extends from Tewkesbury in the north east to the Scilly Isles in the far South West and to Bournemouth on the south coast. These two law centres, owing to the restrictions which rule their funding, can only serve Gloucestershire and the immediate Bristol/Bath/Swindon conurbation which leaves Bournemouth/Poole and Plymouth , two large urban areas, unserved by free legal services in the area of Discrimination and Immigration Law – to say nothing of the huge rural areas of the south western counties.
 
Yes, Mr Pickles, Puddletown Parva may be full of British grit and proud of it but if your name is Boateng, Naseem or Paderewski or you’re a Traveller and you’re the victim of drunken hate crime on a Saturday night or your child is the victim of racist bullying at school or you’ve got a problem with your visa, having nice neighbours may not be a complete answer to your problem.