After the Sewell report, the race action plan seems a step in the right direction

This week, two years after Black Lives Matter protests prompted by the death of George Floyd, and the prime minister’s promise of an urgent examination into the state of racism in the UK, the government has put forward an action plan in response to the controversial Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Cred) report.

Cred was widely criticised by politicians, journalists, campaigners and the British public for downplaying the prevalence of institutional racism in Britain, to the extent that commission chair Dr Tony Sewell denied there was any evidence of its existence. Not only that, even its commissioners and contributors distanced themselves from its processes, questioned the report’s academic rigour and expressed concern about the tailoring of evidence to conform to a predetermined political narrative. No 10 was alleged to have spent three months rewriting its findings. A working group from the United Nations, an organisation usually defined by diplomatic reserve, went so far as to label the report an attempt to “normalise white supremacy”.

Understandably, then, expectations of the response from the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, were low. Matters were scarcely helped when, in her foreword to the action plan, the minister decried “the lazy consensus” around disparity. Perhaps this was the minister attempting to engage compassionately with the 75% of Black and Black British citizens who see discrimination in their everyday lives, whether through their experiences at school, in accessing housing, at work or when engaging with public services and the criminal justice system.

In the 97-page plan, the government has committed to revamping the history curriculum for schoolchildren, issuing advice to employers on how to measure and report on ethnicity pay gaps, and clamping down on online racist abuse through new legislation. There are other positive developments, including the recent establishment of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities, which could have real benefits after the disproportionate number of Covid deaths in minority ethnic communities.

However, the government could have gone further to improve the parameters by which we assess racial equality, to help achieve more positive outcomes. It would have been a quick win to introduce legislation to make ethnicity pay gap reporting mandatory, as occurred with the gender pay gap in 2017. There is also the problematic issue of the government making progress on the one hand while eroding the rights of minority ethnic communities on the other, not least with a swath of planned restrictive legislation from a combination of the policing, borders and elections bills to an overhaul of the Human Rights Act.

In its response to Cred, the plan says: “We do not agree with those who think that lack of opportunity should be seen solely through the prism of ethnic minority disadvantage.” It would seem politically convenient to reduce the struggles of life down to these terms, allowing the government to distract from the need to improve conditions for communities in the UK. I certainly don’t know one member of the minority ethnic working class, including my parents, who would couch their experiences in this language. Our communities are made up of individuals of different ethnicities who all share overlapping commonalities that bind us, including – in addition to class – age, gender, faith and sexual orientation. These identities impact every aspect of our lives in complex ways that move beyond a singular discussion of race. It is on this basis that for more than a decade the Runnymede Trust has been calling for all members of the working class to be offered protections under the Equality Act, regardless of their ethnicity, in acknowledgment of the vulnerabilities that exist across society.

There are reasons to be optimistic about the government’s action plan. In much of the offer there is a more conciliatory and considered tone than Cred’s report – which downplayed the impact of racism on inequality and lauded Britain as “a model for other white-majority countries”. Indeed, say it quietly and call me an optimist, but on early review we may even consider the government position a discreet repudiation of some of the more divisive aspects of the Cred report – maybe it is even a calling a truce in the contrived “culture war”, at least in the context of race.

In particular, the government response does not appear to make any direct reference to the term “institutional racism”. Cred’s original position on the issue was deeply flawed, with Sewell repeatedly insisting on the record that there was no evidence to support such a concept.

I am acutely aware of the timing of the response, in a week in which the Royal Society for Chemistry confirmed that the field has an institutional problem with racism, and that there is only one Black chemistry professor in the entire country. And it’s the same week that a 15-year-old Black girl was reported to have been strip-searched at school by the Metropolitan police without the presence of an appropriate adult, in an incident that the authorities are clear would not have happened had the child been white. And it comes hot on the heels of the revelation that the Cabinet Office reached a six-figure settlement for racial discrimination in a bullying case at the heart of Whitehall, which the former deputy cabinet secretary Dame Helen MacNamara linked to “systemic issues” within our country’s government apparatus.

The UK has made great strides towards achieving equality, but as Boris Johnson himself said when launching Cred: “It is no use just saying that we have made huge progress in tackling racism. There is much more that we need to do.” As always, I think of future generations in these moments. We owe it to them to act.

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