Friday, 12 June 2020

The killing of George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, Policing, Protests, Statues, Public Health Report, and Amnesty International

Before I was an MP, I spent 15 years as a barrister in hundreds of criminal trials; some of the time, I acted as a legal aid lawyer on behalf of the defendant. Most of the time I was prosecuting on behalf of the state, whether that was the Crown Prosecution Service generally, or the specialist Drugs and Fraud Prosecutors. I dealt repeatedly with the police and serious crime.

I have no doubt that the killing of George Floyd was unlawful. The footage of what happened in the lead up to his death in police-custody was horrific and distressing, and his dying words have awakened anger across the world. I understand that the police officer involved has now been charged with murder, and there will be a federal review. I will be monitoring the case closely in the following weeks and months. It will be for a jury to decide the officer’s guilt and a Judge to sentence him, but I welcome the enhanced prosecution of all officers involved.

Since then, much has happened, and I will try and address as many of the issues raised as are possible in this blog. I want to start by making one thing clear. Black lives matter. Racism is abhorrent and has no place in our society, and I will always support efforts made to end it. We celebrate the diversity of this wonderful country.

Many constituents who have contacted me have called for the publication of the Public Health England report on the impact of COVID-19 on BAME communities. This was published last week; it is very detailed and runs to over 80 pages. You can read it here. The report was subsequently debated in Parliament in detail.

The statement of the Equalities Minister Kemi Badenoch, the MP for Saffron Walden, and her answers to questions from Members of Parliament across the House of Commons can be read here.

We all have a part to play in tackling racism in the UK, and I have been heartened by the solidarity shown across the country. Whilst this awful killing took place in the United States, under another jurisdiction, it is incumbent on us all to use this moment to look with renewed vigour at how Black people are treated here in the UK. That is a point the Minister, Kemi Badenoch, strongly made to parliament and I agree: the key words from her opening statement representing the government are:

“As a Black woman, and the Equalities Minister, it would be odd if I did not comment on the recent events in the US and protests in London yesterday. Like all right-minded people, regardless of their race, I was profoundly disturbed by the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police. During these moments of heightened racial tension, we must not pander to anyone who seeks to inflame those tensions. Instead, we must work together to improve the lives of people from Black and minority ethnic communities. It is in that spirit that we approach the assessment of the impact of COVID-19 on ethnic minorities. If we want to resolve the disparities identified in the PHE report, it is critical that we accurately understand the causes, based on empirical analysis of the facts and not preconceived positions.

On Tuesday, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care confirmed to the House that Public Health England has now completed its review of disparities in the risks and outcomes of COVID-19. The review confirms that COVID-19 has replicated, and in some cases increased, existing health inequalities related to risk factors including age, gender, ethnicity and geography, with higher diagnosis rates in deprived, densely populated urban areas. The review also confirmed that being Black or from a minority ethnic background is a risk factor. That racial disparity has been shown to hold even after accounting for the effect of age, deprivation, region and sex.

I thank Public Health England for undertaking this important work so quickly. I know that its findings will be a cause for concern across the House, as they are for individuals and families across the country. The Government share that concern, which is why they are now reviewing the impact and effectiveness of their actions to lessen disparities in infection and death rates of COVID-19, and to determine what further measures are necessary.

It is also clear that more needs to be done to understand the key drivers of those disparities and the relationships between different risk factors. The Government will commission further data research and analytical work by the Equalities Hub to clarify the reasons for the gaps in evidence highlighted by the report. Taking action without taking the necessary time and effort to understand the root causes of those disparities only risks worsening the situation. That is why I am taking this work forward with the Race Disparity Unit in the Cabinet Office, and the Department of Health and Social Care, and I will keep the House updated.”

I now want to talk about Policing in the US and UK, and our rights as protesters. We police by consent in this country, and I am proud of that approach. It is very different from the police in the USA. We are not the United States, where “force” is the prevailing word in policing. Our officers are unarmed. I have worked with our UK police as a lawyer, community activist and campaigner, Councillor, Member of Parliament, in the Home Office as a Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Counter Terrorism, Security and Immigration Minister, and as a Pensions Minister. I do not pretend that every policeman or woman is perfect – I have seen enough as a lawyer, in particular, to know this. But I remain very proud of the UK police and I fully support the police officers of our Northumbria Police and the other officers of the country. However, I am grateful that the Chief Constables from our forces, and the Police representatives countrywide, have set out their thoughts as follows:

We “stand alongside all those across the globe who are appalled and horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life. Justice and accountability should follow.” They go in say: “In the UK we have a long-established tradition of policing by consent, working in communities to prevent crime and solve problems. Officers are trained to use force proportionately, lawfully and only when absolutely necessary. We strive to continuously learn and improve. We will tackle bias, racism or discrimination wherever we find it.”

Other UK public institutions from the Army downwards have taken a similar approach, in light of what has happened - and I welcome that. I will be liaising with the Commanding Officer of our local barracks at Albemarle to ensure that we are addressing this locally. I don’t do a running commentary on social media of events, not least as I have been grappling with COVID-19 and its impacts on our community, businesses, health and so much more, but I remain particularly moved by the words of African American soldier, General Brown, whose are the best I have seen, and which I supported when I had the chance to listen to him. 

The UK has a proud tradition of peaceful protest and it is a right of all our citizens, subject to certain conditions agreed by successive parliaments. The police would have been quite within their rights to stop the protest last Saturday from happening at all. However, in this country, we police by consent.

I understand why so many people feel such a clear desire to make their voices heard – particularly after the death of George Floyd. However, it is important that – during the current pandemic – those who do protest observe social distancing, and do so peacefully and lawfully. The vast majority of the protesters around the world did this, and with due respect to COVID 19, its potential impact on BAME communities, and the officers who have to police any demonstration. 

Sadly, however, there is simply no justification for the violence we have seen towards the police, as well as the damage to memorials such as the Cenotaph from a small number of protesters. It is not acceptable. Add to this the defacing of Churchill’s statue on the anniversary of D-Day, together with the defacing of a statue of American President, Abraham Lincoln — the hero who emancipated American slaves — and I am at a loss with bewilderment at the insensitivity and ignorance. Such acts have nothing to do with the brutal act that took place in Wisconsin, USA. These were deliberately destructive acts of mindless violence.

I am not from Bristol and had never heard of Edward Colston before last Sunday. However, I am astonished there was a statue to such a man and can see why there was an overwhelming case for it to be removed. However, I do not agree with the approach taken. Where people want to see statues removed, we should have an open, democratic conversation about our past, and then take legally based democratic decisions. 

Criminality – no matter the justness of the cause – is wrong. In all cases, the process for change is democracy, and the legal system. I do not believe that a group of individuals pulling down statues is the right way forward. I am aware that there is now a movement to remove a variety of statues in this country. I have not studied this in detail, but my views have been asked. I do not want to see the statues of Churchill, or the statue of Gandhi, Nelsons Column in Trafalgar Square, or Grey's Monument in Newcastle taken down; nor, for the avoidance of doubt, do I want to see the statue of Marx in London taken down. I consider it a very sad situation that today the Cenotaph – the memorial for our war dead - is having to be boarded up to protect it from damage. 

Several dozen constituents have also raised an Amnesty International campaign on a number of issues arising from these events, and much of what I have written above addresses this, but I will try and answer some of the specific questions here, albeit some of these issues I am still awaiting replies to Ministers on. 

On education: If we are to learn from our past, we need to know the good and bad – we cannot erase it. It is vital for young people to learn about Black history, and I am therefore pleased that all schools have the freedom to teach it from primary school age onwards, as part of the history curriculum. Schools, and individual headteachers, have flexibility over how they teach this subject, and which resources to use from a range of organisations and sources, including the Black Curriculum if they choose. The Department for Education guidance on the national curriculum covers a number of elements of Black history including significant public figures and also the slave trade. However, I have written to the Secretary of State for Education to see what more can be done. Individual constituents can also raise this directly with their local schools, headteachers and governors.

A number of constituents have contacted me about their concerns over exports. The government takes this incredibly seriously and successive governments since the Blair administration have operated one of the world’s most robust and transparent export control regimes. Each export licence application is considered on a case-by-case basis against the Consolidated EU and National Arms Export Licensing Criteria. The Consolidated Criteria provide a thorough risk assessment framework, requiring the Government to think very carefully about the possible impact of providing equipment and its capabilities. My understanding is that the Government will not grant an export licence if doing so would be inconsistent with the criteria. I have ensured Ministers are aware of the points you make about these exports. Again, the assertion is made that British exports were used against US protesters. I have again written to the Minister in charge to try and find out if this is true and what can be done to address this issue. Again I will update you when I know more. 

Many people have also raised the tragic death of Belly Mujinga. It is clearly a heartbreaking loss of a mother, wife and key worker, and I am trying to find out if there is anything more the police can do to investigate this incident further. I understand that the original investigating authority, the British Transport Police, have said that they have “done everything to provide answers to the family of Mrs. Mujinga; but, I have joined with other colleagues across the House of Commons to see if any more can be done to either reopen or reappraise that investigation.

Many correspondents want the government to do more to tackle all forms of racism. Clearly, governments all around the world are looking at what they have done in the past and what more they can do going forward. The UK has made so much progress in tackling racism over recent decades, and I am proud to be a member of the most diverse government in the history of this country. At the same time, successive governments have brought forward the Race Disparity Audit to tackle racism. You can read more about this here. However, we must acknowledge there is more to do to tackle prejudice and create opportunity. Racism is abhorrent, it has no place in our communities and we all have to play our part in tackling it, so we can celebrate the wealth of diversity across our country.

On a practical level, there are some genuinely world-leading examples of local and national initiatives to tackle racially motivated discrimination, improving policing, and stamping out racist bullying. These follow the Hate Crime Action Plan, which you can read more about here. 

I want to finish by making these points: I believe and support equality for all, and I abhor discrimination. I remain committed to all efforts to end all racism. Today, I have joined my colleagues in pledging my support to the Conservatives Against Racism for Equality cause.

I will update this response when I know more from Ministers.