Claire Coutinho: In defence of this week’s race and disparities report

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Claire Coutinho is MP for East Surrey.

Racism exists in this country, of course it does. And we must do all we can to combat it. However, if we want to close the gaps between how different ethnic minorities succeed in the UK then it is not enough to tackle racism, we must also take a clear-eyed look at why different racial outcomes happen.

The Sewell Report, from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, provides a data-rich analysis of ethnic minority disparities in Britain today. Overall, the scorecard is unquestionably one of progress. The Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, has repeatedly said that the UK is one of the best countries to be a person of colour and this is shown to be true.

The report references a study by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in 2019 which shows the percentage of British Black respondents who reported experiencing harassment is the second-lowest in the EU, less than half that of our neighbours in Ireland.

We also have the lowest percentage of Black respondents experiencing discrimination in housing, employment, education, health services and restaurants, shops and bars. In education, the engine house of social mobility, ethnic minorities are now achieving extraordinary success outperforming the national average in most cases. As we rightly look at what more we can do, it is important that we celebrate where we have made progress.

The data also shows us that the drivers of racial inequalities are complex. It is not the case that all racial inequalities are driven by racism or even that racism is the biggest driver of racial inequality. It tells us that the Government is right to ditch the catch-all term ‘BAME. Simply being ‘non-white’ is no longer a major predictor of life chances and masks completely different pictures amongst different minorities.

Even within the category ‘Asian’, one of the clumsy ‘big five’ race labels of ‘White, Black, Asian, Mixed, Other’, outcomes are massively different for Chinese, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian people. Even amongst ‘Indians’, the urban middle-class Gujaratis and rural Mirpuri will again see extremely different outcomes.

If companies are filling their ‘BAME’ quotas with Indian and Chinese graduates from high-socio economic backgrounds, we should question whether they are in fact delivering the access to opportunity they are claiming. Because the data shows, it’s not the colour of your skin that is most likely to define your life chances in today’s Britain, but your geography, socio-economic background and family.

The report is far from universally positive. When it comes to racism, both historic and current, it does not allow us to rest on our laurels. It acknowledges repeatedly that racism is a ‘real force’ in the UK and that ‘bias, bigotry and unfairness based on race may be receding, but they still have the power to deny opportunity and painfully disrupt lives.’

From prejudices in the labour market, to biases in facial recognition technology to incidences of racial hate crimes – which have dramatically fallen but are still too high, the Commission challenges us to use all the levers at our disposal to root out racism. It particularly highlights the rise in vile online racist abuse that Thierry Henry, Alex Beresford or indeed many of the Commissioners of this report will know only too well.

Both the Left and the Right must show leadership here. Keir Starmer’s selective perception of racism doesn’t seem to extend to condemning Labour MPs linking the Sewell Report’s Commissioners to the Klu Klux Klan, but it should. It also shows us that we still have a damaging trust deficit to tackle in our criminal justice and health systems due to ugly legacies of discrimination. It calls for today’s perceptions of racial biases to be met with robust investigations so that we can rebuild trust where it previously has been broken.

However if not all racial inequalities are primarily caused by racism then we also need to look carefully at the other dominant factors. Having an accurate, evidence-based diagnosis matters. It is the only route which will lead us to the policies that best help those who are falling behind.

It will affect policies designed to close the attainment gap in education that exists for Black Caribbean students but not for the Black African students that share their classroom. It will affect how we break into the ‘snowy peaks’ in the civil service, NHS and boardrooms despite a wealth of ethnic minority talent. It will affect how to address why the average hourly pay rate is £11.87 if you are white British and £9.62 if you are Pakistani or Bangladeshi. It will affect how we address the mortality gap that exists for Black women of all socio-economic backgrounds in maternity services but not for breast cancer.

Different disparities will require us to design different solutions depending on the evidence. Take an example in education. The two lowest performing groups are Black Caribbean students and white working class boys. If family values of education and parental income and educational achievements are the dominant factor as the evidence suggests, then we should spend more time on strengthening families, parental engagement and focused programmes around these particular students.

Or take a different example in health. Low vaccine take-up in the black community has partly been caused by a legacy of deep-rooted mistrust in vaccines and health services because of historic discrimination. This cannot be overcome by Government alone and indeed it has been the collaboration and hard work of community leaders which have helped to halve the rate of vaccine hesitancy in black adults – although we still have more to do.

It should be noted that all but one of the Commissioners on the Sewell Report are from ethnic minorities with expert in the fields of health, policing and education..To express your expert view on how to make progress in inequality should not be a matter of courage, but it has become that. We owe them a debt of gratitude because their research has given us the springboard to make a meaningful difference in people’s lives.

If we can accurately diagnose the causes of racial inequality, we can design the policies that will help bring an end to it. As Conservatives, we need to unabashedly defend an evidence-led approach on racial inequality and relentlessly focus on improving outcomes. We owe that to the people and communities in this country whose ability to succeed is defined by anything other than their own hard work and talent.

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