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Black History Month

Volume 701: debated on Thursday 21 October 2021

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Scott Mann.)

I thank Mr Speaker for selecting this important Adjournment debate and ensuring that we can once again debate Black History Month during the month of October.

Last year, through the Backbench Business Committee, I held the first Black History Month debate in the Chamber in five years. It was an extremely well attended debate with many good contributions from across the Chamber. I am pleased that we are able to debate this topic again. I am sorry that fewer colleagues will be able to take part, although my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) is holding a Backbench Business debate in Westminster Hall next week.

Black History Month is an extremely important annual event, but I strongly believe that we should be talking about black history week in, week out rather than just once a year. The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Proud to be”, and I would like to begin my speech, as I did last year, by highlighting and celebrating a number of black Britons who have been under-appreciated and under-recognised in our national discourse. These black Britons are great Britons, and we should celebrate them as such. I again pay tribute to Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, co-ordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council, who organised the first recognition of this month in 1987.

This year, we have seen outstanding campaigning by Marcus Rashford, who has done so much to help children living in poverty. However, I also want to mention another footballer, Jack Leslie, who played for Plymouth Argyle in the 1920s. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) recently told me the story of Jack Leslie, who would, in 1925, have been the first black player in the England team, except that his name was withdrawn from selection because of the colour of his skin. It was not until 1978 that the first black player finally joined the national team. There is now an excellent campaign for a statue to be erected in Jack’s honour in Plymouth.

Mary Prince was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament and the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography. I understand that there is a petition proposing to replace the statue outside the Museum of London Docklands with a statue of her.

At this point, I commend the Mayor of London and the Black Cultural Archives for producing the black history tube map, celebrating the rich and varied contribution black people have made to London and the UK from Tudor times to the present day. I strongly encourage people to look up their local black heroes.

I congratulate my friend Lord Simon Woolley on becoming the first black man to lead an Oxbridge college. He is a trailblazer. I also must not forget to mention my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the first black woman elected to Parliament, who has been a trailblazer for many black MPs in Parliament.

I commend the hon. Lady for bringing forward this debate on a really important issue. I am here to support her for that purpose. History should be rich and we should ensure that British history is taught in schools. Does she agree that the curriculum should have time factored in each year for local history, to help children to learn the history of local communities—she has just referred to that—across the whole of the United Kingdom and the immense contribution of black history, heritage and culture to this nation?

I thank the hon. Member for mentioning that point. I completely support that and I will talk about it in detail later in my speech. It is important to know about local history.

I want to celebrate constituents such as Melrose, a nurse at Greenwich and Bexley community hospice, who said:

“Every day we”—

as black nurses—

“go to work. We take our roles seriously. However, we are confronted on a regular basis by people who don’t appreciate us because of who we are: our cultural identity is either mocked or discarded rather than accepted. We strive through hundreds of hurdles, we skip, we jump, we swim and we keep smiling. We learn, we grow and we move forward a few steps down the line and we bounce back. We are resilient.”

Melrose’s testimony reminds me of the great sacrifices many black people have made over the past years in response to the covid pandemic.

Another constituent, Florence Emakpose, part of the World of Hope organisation in Abbey Wood, worked throughout the lockdown to reach out to vulnerable families with their own food bank service.

If we are talking about black heroes and heroines, who could be more heroic than that generation of black nurses from all over the Commonwealth who helped to build the NHS post war, the NHS of which we are all so proud today?

I am delighted my right hon. Friend has mentioned that point. It is something I am particularly passionate about as our family worked in the NHS. I am concerned about the Windrush generation, for whom the Government, I have to say, have yet to provide adequate support. I hope the Minister will be able to highlight what support he will be giving to that generation, who contributed so much to the NHS, as my right hon. Friend says.

I also want to mention Lara Alabi, based in Thamesmead, who won a community award for setting up Seniors in Touch, a weekly club for over-50s in Thamesmead, to tackle isolation issues relating to health and lack of confidence.

As well as paying tribute to under-acknowledged black Britons, I want to use this debate to highlight some of the inequalities that continue to affect black people in this country and that I believe the Government must do more to address. The first is black maternity health. There have been two important Westminster Hall debates on this issue over the last year and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for leading them. I also pay tribute to the group Five X More, which has done so much to bring the issue up the political agenda. It has highlighted the stark disparity in outcomes that black women face when giving birth in this country.

Black women are four times more likely to die in pregnancy or childbirth. Black women are up to 83% more likely to suffer a near miss during pregnancy. Black babies have a 121% increased risk of stillbirth and a 50% risk of neonatal death. Miscarriage rates are 40% higher in black women, and black ethnicity is regarded as a risk factor for miscarriage. Put simply, giving birth as a black woman is considerably riskier than for women of other ethnicities. The Government know that this inequality exists and now is the time for action.

My hon. Friend has highlighted well the statistics and she will be aware that the Government still have no target to end this. Does she agree that the fact that the Government have decided not to set a target and not to look at institutional racism in the NHS goes no way to solving the issues that she so eloquently raised?

I thank my hon. Friend for the work that she has done on this issue. That is completely accurate.

We need a target to end racial maternal health inequalities and an action plan to achieve it. The plan should include action to improve data collection, to improve the support for at-risk women, to implement the recommendations of the Joint Committee on Human Rights’ report on this issue and to identify the barriers to accessing maternal mental health services. But most of all, I urge the Government to listen to the experiences of black women, to engage with them directly, to hear their concerns and to take them seriously.

I turn to another issue that affects black women and girls: the lack of specialist training for police and other agencies supporting black women who are victims of domestic abuse. Here, I pay tribute to the organisation Sistah Space, a domestic abuse charity supporting women of African and Caribbean heritage. I met its representatives recently to discuss their petition to introduce Valerie’s law. That is named in memory of Valerie Forde, who was murdered by her former partner in 2014 alongside their 22-month-old daughter. She had previously asked the police for help after her ex-partner had threatened to burn down her house with her in it, but this was recorded only as a threat to her property.

While that story is shocking, it is sadly not uncommon. Too many black women do not get the support that they need because the police are not trained to spot and deal appropriately with domestic violence in black communities. That includes things such as missing signs of domestic violence on black skin and a lack of cultural knowledge about how threats can be communicated. We need mandatory, specialist training for the police and others on all of this and more. I hope that the Government will seriously consider that as part of the renewed focus on violence against women and girls, given recent events.

I now wish to return to the asks of the Government that I made during the Black History Month debate last year. The first was action to diversify the curriculum. As I said last year, I want our children, black and white, in every single corner of this country, to better understand our national history and our national culture. This, of course, includes the good and the bad and the full range of experiences that people have had. I am pleased to see some progress on that and I pay particular tribute to the Welsh Government, who have become the first UK nation to make the teaching of black, Asian and minority ethnic histories and experiences mandatory in the school curriculum. The OCR exam board has also recently announced that it is doubling the choice of books by writers of colour in its A-level English qualification. But more action is needed from the Government on this, and I hope that the new Secretary of State for Education, who I congratulate on his appointment, will make this a priority. Black history is British history and we need to teach it all year round.

My second ask from the Government last year was to implement a race equality strategy and action plan. There has been much discussion in the past year about the inequality and structural racism that exist in our country, not least in response to the controversial Sewell report, but we have not seen anywhere near enough concrete action from the Government.

A race equality strategy and action plan covering areas such as education, health and employment is desperately needed. It should include specific proposals to address well-known inequalities such as the ethnicity pay gap, unequal access to justice and the impact of the pandemic on black people. I fully support my party’s policy to

“implement a Race Equality Act to tackle structural racial inequality at source”,

following the excellent work of Baroness Doreen Lawrence looking at how the pandemic has impacted black and other minority ethnic groups. I say to the Government: we have seen review after review, but now is the time for action.

I want to be clear that this discussion should not become a conversation about culture wars. In those culture wars, we end up pitting poor white people against poor black people. Some may say to poor white people, “You are in this situation because footballers are taking the knee.” This place is better than that. In Black History Month, our message should be that we want to give black people hope and white people hope. Our message to white people in Black History Month is “Our history is your history too. A lot of what has happened to us involves you, too. We are not saying that you are responsible, but we are saying that we all need to better understand that.”

I will not allow us to be divided. When we are divided, extremism flourishes. I will not allow that on my watch. Black History Month tells me to tell you that we learn from our past to build a better future. We must learn from our past to build a better future.

I thank the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) for securing this debate. I was keen to respond to it for the equalities team, because in my time in public life I have taken a long interest in working on equalities—not always on this area, but it is one that I want to pay attention to. I also thank colleagues who have come along to support or intervened to make specific points. It is an important debate; sometimes people think that Adjournment debates at the end of the day are not important, but they are, so I appreciate everyone who has come along to support and take part.

During Black History Month, we rightly recognise the contribution of black Britons to our national life and history, from the Windrush generation—who helped to rebuild this great country after the war and rebuild the NHS, as the hon. Lady said—to those who continue to run the NHS alongside others. We pay tribute to those black Britons who have saved countless lives working in the NHS through the pandemic.

I do not have an answer to the hon. Lady’s specific question about support, but I will make sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Women and Equalities responds fully. Generally, if there is anything that I do not cover or if any Member contacts me with questions that I have not answered, I am more than happy to ensure that my ministerial colleague writes back in full.

It is right that we pay tribute to those who take part in our life, especially those who are coming forward from the black community. I was delighted to see the Paralympic gold medallist Kadeena Cox at the first leg of the Commonwealth games baton relay in Birmingham earlier this month. At the relay from Buckingham Palace, it was quite inspirational to see one of our leading Olympians taking the baton. Her story is truly remarkable, and she is just one of the many inspiring black role models across our society in sports, arts, government and business.

If I may, I will embarrass the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). She will not remember this, but quite a long time ago I was at a dinner which she shared with Michael Portillo. It was a prize from a Stonewall fundraising event. I sat next to her throughout that dinner, and I am sorry to embarrass her, as a Tory politician, by saying that she was a role model. There was a regular feature on the back page of the Sunday Times magazine called “A Life in the Day”. I remember saying to the right hon. Lady that she was the epitome of a constituency MP, and that I thought that that was absolutely inspiring. I am sorry to embarrass her with praise from this side of the House, but, although that may have been a long time ago, the memory has never left me.

As we heard from the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead, following the events of last year Britain has engaged in a thorough examination of racial inequality, and in response the Government have carefully examined the evidence and data. We believe it is right to recognise where progress has been made, but also that we need to tackle barriers that still stand.

In just over an hour’s time, York Labour will propose that York should become an anti-racist and inclusive city. However, we do not want that to be just a name tag; we want it to be about an action plan and about our path to the future. Would the Government consider funding such initiatives in order to ensure that that aspiration becomes a reality?

The hon. Lady tempts me outside my portfolio. I cannot give spending commitments; the Chancellor might have a view on that, and my ministerial career might be cut very short. It has been six weeks so far, and I would like it to go on a little bit longer. However, I will ensure that my officials take away what the hon. Lady has said and provide her with a full response. I cannot promise that it will be a response she will like, but it will certainly be a response. I agree with her that this is something that the Government should consider.

We cannot genuinely level up the country unless we remove the obstacles that stand in the way of some of our people, and it was in that spirit that the Prime Minister established the Sewell commission on race and ethnic disparities. I know that people may have different views on that commission, but let us park those and look for the good rather than seeking to dwell on what we disagree on. The commission published its report earlier this year, and it showed that racism and discrimination remain a factor in shaping life outcomes. For instance, discrimination against names that are recognised as not being traditionally British exists when CVs are reviewed in the jobs market. That should not be happening in Britain in 2021. However, the commission found that where disparities between ethnic groups exist, factors other than racism are often the principal cause. That needs to be explored.

I can assure the House that this Government are intent on doing everything in our power to drive out discrimination. For instance, we are shocked by the torrents of online abuse that our footballers received for no other reason than their skin colour. I hope that our Online Safety Bill remains ambitious, and will help to hold to account those who are cowardly enough to hide behind online abuse.

Let me turn to a couple of the hon. Lady’s questions. One was about black maternal health. Our NHS makes the UK one of the safest places in the world to have a baby, but every death is a tragedy. Last month, NHS England published a targeted plan to improve outcomes for mothers and babies from ethnic minority groups, which will provide almost £7 million of support for local maternity systems. Our most senior midwife, Professor Dunkley-Bent, is leading important work in this area. We trust her judgment, and value the brilliant work that she is doing. Of course, with operational independence, we can ensure that the NHS listens and takes heed of what we want it to do, while allowing people to get on with their professional judgments.

Another issue that the hon. Lady raised was specialist ethnicity training for the police on domestic abuse, and it is an issue that I fully understand. This is a slight segue, but as part of my equalities brief I have been raising the ability of the police to respond to same-sex domestic violence. The hon. Lady has raised a very good point. Although our police do an amazing job in many areas, they are not always fully attuned to what domestic violence is really about. I know that domestic abuse affects a wide and disparate group and that a one-size-fits-all approach is not appropriate, particularly for those with specific needs such as ethnic minority victims.

One of the things I want to recommend is that the Minister meets representatives of Sistah Space, because they have done lot of work on this, particularly on Valerie’s law. I feel very strongly that they will be able to help the Government to implement something that would really benefit a lot of individuals across the country and also the police force. This would be in line with what has happened recently in working towards the Government’s updated violence against women and girls strategy.

I thank the hon. Lady and I will ensure that my ministerial colleague gets that message. I cannot commit anything into her diary, tempting though that is to ensure that she looks at this. We are continuing to encourage and cajole forces to take the College of Policing’s domestic abuse matters training, which includes specific training on the different impacts of domestic abuse on black and minority ethnic communities. The hon. Lady makes an important point about speaking to those groups that can speak with a voice of knowledge and probably experience. I do not know the group that she mentions, but quite often these groups have personal experience, and that is far more powerful than any politician talking about the subject. She makes a valid point, and I will urge my ministerial colleague to take up that offer of a meeting.

The hon. Lady also talked about diversifying the curriculum. She is right to say that children should learn all aspects of British history. We must teach them about the contributions of Britons of all ethnicities who have made our country what it is today. The flexibility within the national history curriculum gives teachers the opportunity to focus on ethnic minority voices and experiences. Their contribution to our shared British history can and should be taught. We know that the vast majority of schools are already doing this, for example through discussing national events such as the Bristol bus boycott and the soldiers from across the world who fought alongside Britain in both world wars.

The hon. Lady has made some remarkably strong points. One of the things I always commit to when I am covering a debate for a colleague—although I am also part of the equalities team—is to ensure that the points raised are followed through on. I do not believe in standing at the Dispatch Box saying, “Yes, I’ll ask a colleague to look at it” without making sure that that happens. I will ensure that my colleague follows through on the notes that I have taken today.

The Minister’s talks about the importance of taking things back to his colleague. I was really struck by the points made by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) about the importance of hope and the importance of not sowing division. Will the Minister please take back those key messages, which have really struck me, to his ministerial colleague?

My hon. Friend is right. There is a danger that people looking in think that we are always adversarial, and this Chamber can certainly be adversarial, but I tell people that behind the scenes we are actually much more collegiate than the television cameras suggest. Even when we have differences, I always want them to be respectful differences, so that we can work together to close any gaps in order to achieve the outcomes we want. Generally speaking, we all want the same thing. We might have differences of opinion on speed and on some of the actions, but I believe that we should create a constructive and collegiate way forward. I certainly hope that that will be my style going forward.

I should like to close this important debate by saying that racism has no place in our society and it is vital that the fight against it is emphasised not just during black history month but all year round. The Sewell commission made an important contribution to our national conversation about race and the Government’s efforts to level up and unite this country. Our response to the commission will be published shortly. It will set out a cross-Government plan for building a fairer Britain. This means not only tackling discrimination but spreading opportunity, so that regardless of where anyone lives or their socioeconomic background, they can fulfil their potential. I am sure that this is a mission the entire House can and will support.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.