Nothing new to say, and that’s the problem

At 1am on Wednesday 11 November, the Joint Committee on Human Rights tweeted out their newest report, entitled Black people, racism and human rights. Anyone expecting a new insightful take on the subject will be disappointed. But that was very much the point. The main conclusion of the report is exactly what Black organisations have been saying for decades: the discrimination has been proven, the recommendations have been provided, but still no action has been taken.

The Committee took a broad swathe of witness evidence and written evidence. The figures provided were depressingly familiar to anyone who has been listening to the protests this year:

  • Black women die in childbirth at five times the rate of white women,
  • Black people face a higher risk of death due to coronavirus than white people (even when accounting for age, sex, economic deprivation and region),
  • Black children are four times more likely to be arrested that white children,
  • Black people are five times more likely to have force used against them by the police than white people,

and many, many more. The more data which is gathered, the more racial discrimination is found. The Committee’s only original investigation was equally unsurprising. Through a combination of focus groups, interviews and surveys, they discovered that a majority of Black people feel that they would not be treated the same as white people by the police (85%), do not believe their human rights are protected equally compared to white people (over 75%) and do not feel their health is equally protected by the NHS compared to white people (64%).

However, the fact that none of this was ground-breaking was precisely the point. As the Committee stated in their Summary, their “aim for this inquiry emphatically was not to embark on a new round of fact-finding in areas where the facts are already well established”. Reams of studies, hours of statements and decades of experience have already shown that Black people are not adequately protected or cared for by the state, and that Black people are aware of this fact. What has also been available for decades are carefully considered practical recommendations on how to remedy these issues. The Committee’s focus was to see what progress has been made on these recommendations.

The conclusion of the Committee, made up of six MPs (three Conservative, two Labour and one SNP) and six peers (two Labour, two Conservative, one Lib-Dem and one Crossbench), was clear: we know what these problems are and we know how to fix them, but the government continues to do nothing.

The Committee did not blame this unfortunate status quo on the reviewers. In fact, it made clear that the more evidence which comes to light the better. It heavily utilised previous studies, praised the current work of the Racial Disparity Audit and recommended that the “race equality strategy we propose must have at its heart a cross-government commitment to improved data collection on racial inequality” in order to plug the gaps. The issue, it found, was in enforcement.

Despite paying lip service to reviewing racial discrimination, and despite multiple studies arising which prove its existence once again, the government rarely takes any action. As the Committee said “[a]t best this can be viewed as negligent, at worst there is a sense that these reviews, which are undertaken by excellent people in good faith, are used by governments as a way of avoiding taking action to redress legitimate grievances.”

This enforcement is supposed to come from two sources. Firstly, the Public Sector Equality Duty (PSED), found in the Equality Act 2010, requires all public authorities to “eliminate discrimination, advance equality of opportunity and foster good relations between people”. Secondly, if a public authority breaches the Equality Act, the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is supposed to hold them to account.

Unfortunately, the Committee found that the PSED is far too weak (merely requiring public bodies to set their own equality objectives and publish information to show compliance) and the EHCR’s powers in this regard are not fit for purpose. With budget cuts, staffing cuts and a limited ability to actually support legal cases, a previous EHRC Commissioner described it as “a shadow of itself. It is almost frightened of its own shadow, frankly, and as a result there is little or no enforcement”. This issue of enforcement proved to be the focus of many of the report’s recommendations.

Some of the Committee’s recommendations seemed questionable, such as the introduction of annual polls of Black people to monitor how they feel about the protection of their human rights to “identify issues and check progress”. However, this solution appears less effective than inviting Black communities and leaders to participate in decision-making. In some instances, it was depressing to find that a recommendation still needed to be made at all, such as requiring the NHS to finally produce a target to end the grossly disproportionate number of Black women dying in childbirth. Overall, it cannot be denied that the report’s findings were a repetition of issues with which we are all too familiar with.

But there are points which deserve our praise. More data should be gathered on racial discrimination, Black community groups should be supported, public authorities (including the government) should be held to account when they breach the human rights of Black people. And, most significantly, the myriad of recommendations from previous studies which would help to solve these issues should be implemented. It just seems a lot to hope that this Report will not simply share the fate of its predecessors.

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