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Making a dash for a more equal society

Will Government race audit spark a bonfire of injustices?

The Government’s new ‘dashboard’ for monitoring race disparity in Britain isn’t much of a challenge to society unless ministers act on the findings too — otherwise it’ll only show what a hash we’ve made of tackling “burning injustice”. By Mark Cantrell

Theresa May hosts a roundtable on race disparity at 10 Downing Street. Tuesday, 10 October 2017

THE Government must deal with its own “toxic legacy” if it is serious about overcoming the “ethnic injustices” revealed by its study of the way race affects people’s life chances in the UK.

That’s the view put forward by the organisation Liberty in its response to the launch of the new Ethnicity Facts & Figures website earlier this week. The site presents the findings of the Government’s Race Disparity Audit and they are rather disheartening to say the least.

Life in modern Britain is far from equitable for the nation’s black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, with the data revealing disparities in the realms of employment, education, housing, the criminal justice system, and more. All told, the new website presents data covering some 130 different topics.

Little wonder,then, the occasion brought forth a flurry of criticism. If nothing else, it’s in keeping with the proposed purpose for the site and its data: to challenge society to “explain or change” disparities in how people from different backgrounds are treated. As the Prime Minister herself put it, the site will be “an essential resource in the battle to defeat ethnic injustice”.

Naturally, this is going to put the Prime Minister and the Government in the firing line; if you throw down a gauntlet, don’t be surprised if someone picks it up and hurls it right back at you. Overall, the response to the findings of this audit might be summed up best as ‘tell us something we don’t know — now what are you going to do about it?’

At the launch this week, Theresa May acknowledged the findings will come as little surprise to many.

“People who have lived with discrimination don’t need a government audit to make them aware of the scale of the challenge,” she said. “But this audit means that for society as a whole — for government, for our public services — there is nowhere to hide. These issues are now out in the open. And the message is very simple: if these disparities cannot be explained then they must be changed.

“Britain has come a long way in my lifetime in spreading equality and opportunity. But the data we are publishing will provide the definitive evidence of how far we must still go in order to truly build a country that works for everyone.”

Simon Woolley, Director of Operation Black Vote, welcomed the initiative. “The findings from the Race Disparity Audit presents us with a real opportunity to make transformative change in tackling persistent race inequality,” he said. “Yes some findings make uncomfortable reading, but unless these things are laid bare we can’t begin to resolve them.”

True enough. However, the director of Liberty was not quite so impressed. “The bleak picture this report paints of racial injustice in the UK demands an immediate and bold response. But the solutions the Government is putting up are little more than a plaster on a gaping wound,” said Martha Spurrier, the organisation’s Director.

“If Theresa May wants to show she takes racism seriously, she should start by dismantling her own toxic legacy of the intentionally ‘hostile environment’ spearheaded at the Home Office. Those policies have spread racial profiling, hate and division, made border guards of trusted public servants and are having a devastating effect on race relations, migrants’ rights and community cohesion across the UK.”

Scepticism reigns among responses to the new website, to put it mildly. For one thing, the datasets already existed, filed and largely left to gather digital dust in the servers of a host of government departments and public bodies. For another, groundbreaking though this singular source of such a wealth of information may be, it is no resolution to injustice in itself. Then there’s the way this audit came into being — on the back of a piece of political theatre.

On her first day as Prime Minister in July last year, Theresa May stood outside 10 Downing Street to promise the nation she’d stand up for the little guy and fight “burning injustice”. The Race Disparity Audit was born out of this theme in the days thereafter, an effort — essentially — to provide some substance to the rhetoric, so inevitably observers are apt to add salt according to their taste.

Even so, for all the scepticism, there is some praise for making the data publicly available. The Ethnicity Facts & Figures website is said to be the first of its kind, in terms of scale, scope and transparency. What’s more it will form a permanent resource that will continue to be updated over time. In that sense, it is bound to become a valuable resource for campaigners and policymakers alike.

“The findings of the race audit do not come as a shock to us. The Prime Minister should be applauded for laying out this information for all to see and we now need to use the data to set the foundations for real change,” said David Isaac, the chair of the Equality & Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

“Only by taking focused action to tackle race inequality can Britain become a fair country in which individuals can reach their potential and our communities can live and work together to create a strong economy and a cohesive society.

“The Government must tackle the significant disparities confirmed by the audit in order to address the entrenched inequality that is so prevalent in our society. Britain needs a comprehensive and coherent race equality strategy with concrete actions in response to these findings.”

Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Women & Equalities, however, suggests rather more; it’s not just an equalities strategy that’s needed, but a reversal in the programme of cuts and austerity that has been the hallmark of Conservative social policy these last seven or so years.

“The real ‘uncomfortable truth’ is that Theresa May knew that cuts to services would disproportionately affect groups with protected characteristics,” said Dawn Butler MP. “So much so that she wrote to the then Prime Minister in 2010 warning that ‘there are real risks’ that women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be ‘disproportionately affected’ by proposed cuts.

“But as Prime Minister, knowing full well the damage that would be caused by the Conservative cuts, Theresa May has done nothing but exacerbate the problem. Far from tackling injustices, she has added fuel to the fire… This Government’s report is not enough. What we need are solutions and a sustained effort to really tackle burning injustices.”

As a report card on Britain’s performance, the Race Disparity Audit reveals something of a poor show. But it’s not enough for Government to tut-tut from on high. Ministers must accept their role in creating the conditions that spawn inequality — and then act on the challenge too. We can all do better.




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