Thursday 28 October 2021
[Sir George Howarth in the Chair]
The Coroner Service
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering or leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the First Report of the Justice Committee, The Coroner Service, HC 68, and the Government response, HC 675.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir George, and to introduce the debate. I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for allocating time for the debate. This is an important matter that deserves further attention. I am sorry in some respects that it requires further attention, because had the Government responded more positively to what is a detailed report based on careful and substantial evidence, it might not be necessary to highlight the measure of deficiencies that are revealed in the Government’s response.
I welcome the Minister to his first justice debate in Westminster Hall, having congratulated him warmly on his debut at the Dispatch Box in the main Chamber yesterday. I appreciate that the Government response was not his responsibility, and I am not sure if he can avail himself of the young and naïve defence that was used yesterday.
Tuesday. Now that he is in post, I hope that, once he has read the Government response, he will take the opportunity to ask his officials to review it, because there are compelling reasons, which we will set out, why the Government should look again at a number of issues.
It is good to see a former member of the Justice Committee appear for the first time as a shadow Minister in Westminster Hall. The hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) certainly knows the full detail of the report because he played a substantial part in contributing to it. I hope that he will be able to agree with the contents of the report when we get to the end of the debate.
I also want to mention the presence of the hon. Member for Wallasey—
Garston and Halewood. The hon. Lady has played such an important role in the debate and has raised the issue—I know she will do so again today —of inquests into major disasters, such as Hillsborough, with great passion and expertise. I am grateful to her for her input to the report and to today’s important debate.
The debate is on an issue that is of concern to a lot of people. I am grateful to the House authorities for making an exception by allowing representatives from INQUEST and Mr Andrew McCulloch, who gave our inquiry compelling evidence about his family’s experience, to sit in the Public Gallery.
Let us start by taking an overview. The coronial system and jurisdiction date back to medieval times; it is one of our oldest jurisdictions. It grew up on the basis of a very localised approach. That means that historically it was dealt with and supported by local authorities—initially parishes, counties and then eventually it morphed into being supported by essentially top-tier authorities in the modern local government structure. That makes it completely different from any other type of court jurisdiction because we moved to a unified magistrates court service some years back. That originally came from not dissimilar localised routes, but it was recognised in the case of magistrates that logic compelled that we move to a single national system. I have to say that nothing has persuaded me that the same logic does not apply to the coronial system.
The system means that some of the procedures and levels of funding are much more variable across the country than those in any other form of court system. There are differences between it and the criminal courts in particular—the coronial system is inquisitorial, whereas the criminal court system is adversarial—even though there is, sadly, an overlap in the subject matter they both consider. The complexity and nature of the issues that now frequently come to be considered by coroners, in relation to both the evidence presented in individual inquest cases and the growth in inquests into multiple deaths, mean that the system—which started in the time of the Plantagenets and evolved through the Tudors and Hanoverians—does not work in the 21st century, based on our judgment of the evidence. That is why, on the back of very strong evidence, the Committee recommended a major reform.
This is not the first time that there have been calls for a national coroner service. Previous reports, which are well documented in our report, have argued for this in the past, but the Government have been consistently unwilling to agree to it. I am sorry to say that I cannot see any compelling reason for their stance. The argument seems to be cost, but that same argument could have been made about magistrates courts. It rightly was not. We have to balance cost with the importance of the work that coroner courts do for the public and individual families.
It is right that when tragic deaths occur, there is a proper and transparent hearing into what has happened. Many of the cases dealt with by coroner courts will be straightforward and uncontroversial. Nobody is seeking to change that, but increasingly there are cases that are not only much more complicated in terms of the causes of death, but of really high public importance. Hillsborough is the most obvious and well-documented example, but there are many others. We have seen this in the growth in issuances of prevention of future deaths letters, which is a procedure the coroner is in power to use. These are being written more often because, sadly, more instances of failures, often corporate, come to light at inquests. It is important for public policy that those issues be fully ventilated.
Those arguments lead us to the conclusion that we need to take a much more radical look at the issue. The last overhaul of the system was with the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. There was a review of the operation of that Act, as had been promised in 2015, but I regret to say that it was never published. It sits somewhere in the archives of the Ministry of Justice. Perhaps if the Minister, as I occasionally used to do when I was in post, went in on a Friday when the officials might expect him to be in his constituency and had a poke around, he might find it somewhere. I urge him to get somebody to go and have a look at it.
The simple question is: why was the review never published? What on earth was the reason, even back in 2015? We ask why it has not been published and are told that it is now out of date. If one sits on anything for long enough, it becomes out of date. We might ask whether this is a blatant cover-up, but if it is not a cover-up why not publish the review? It would cost one official’s precious little time to put it on a website—we do not need anything more than that. No doubt, there will be a suitable narrative around the review saying, “This goes back a long way and things may have changed.” As a matter of good public policy and transparency, why on earth has the Ministry of Justice not published it?
The Ministry may even say at the end of the day that it disagrees with the conclusions or does not think they are viable. It may say that the review is not appropriate any more. Put it up there and say that. To me it is the obvious thing to do. It might be that there are lessons to be learned from the review. The actual structure of the service has not changed since the 2009 Act and there have not been any significant changes, so I guarantee that not everything is purely of historic interest. I ask the Minister to respond to this issue, which I mention first simply because of the history. It is against the background of a number of reports recommending a move to a national system that that became the central part of our recommendations.
The reasons can be encapsulated as follows: coroners’ services are funded by local authorities, whose financial circumstances and priorities vary—as you well know, Sir George—because the pressures on their resources vary. As such, the service that is given to bereaved families across the country varies, as does the service provided to the public. We do not think that that is justifiable, any more than it would have been justifiable in the case of magistrates courts some time ago.
The overwhelming majority of those who submitted evidence to the inquiry called for a unified coroner service to ensure consistent standards, and that is what we recommended. The Government rejected that, saying that they did not think it would be the best solution. They said, as far as I can see, that there is merit in flexibility, but that does not at all reflect the evidence we received. I have had a few clients over the years who were faced with pretty overwhelming evidence, and I usually told them that the answer was to put their hands up. For some reason, the Government have not done that, but the evidence is just as strong—it was really quite marked how compellingly the weight of evidence was tilted in one particular direction—so I hope the Minister will take that recommendation away and have another look at it.
In particular, it was suggested that there were cost issues around the proposal, and I accept that. However, this is part of the justice system, and as some of us have said on other occasions, an effective justice system is so fundamental to the wellbeing of civil society in this country that one should not be afraid to make a proportionate amount of money available to make sure it is delivered properly. Can the Minister at least tell us whether he will share the cost analysis that backs up the Government’s conclusion in relation to this recommendation? Will it be made public? It seems to me that it ought to be. What is the basis of the Government’s assertion that it is too costly, given the benefits that the evidence clearly suggests would be achieved?
A second recommendation went hand in hand with the first. If one thought that a national service is too ambitious—which I do not—one could consider having a coroner service inspectorate: a single national inspectorate. We have inspectorates for the Crown Prosecution Service and a raft of other Ministry of Justice agencies, and it does not seem unreasonable to do that in this case. I am glad to say that in recent years there has been an important development: the creation of the post of Chief Coroner. A series of very distinguished judges have held that post, and they have undoubtedly done a lot to improve the system within the limits of their current powers.
Being head of a national service could, of course, give the Chief Coroner the proper powers of direction to ensure consistency across the piece. The CPS, the prisons and probation inspectorates, and the inspectorates assessor alongside them, are not expensive in the overall scheme of things. We all know that the budgets for the inspectorates that the Ministry of Justice run are very small compared with the day-to-day delivery costs. I would argue that that should be introduced alongside a national service, but even without one it would be a sensible, reasonable thing to do and a step in the right direction, and something that the Government could consider without prejudice to their principal position.
Has any work been conducted to assess the affordability of establishing a coroner service inspectorate? Without such an inspectorate, how are the Government going to ensure that the coroner service is sufficiently transparent and accountable? Given that the Government did not dispute the evidence of inconsistencies of practice, how will they ensure consistency of practice, or much more consistent practice than we have at the moment? That is exactly the sort of thing one would expect an inspectorate to be there for, so why not?
Another very important issue was the question of access to legal aid for bereaved persons, which is an immensely sensitive issue, as Members will understand. We heard really moving evidence from a number of families who had lost loved ones and, inevitably, found the whole process to be extremely distressing. It seems to me that a number of issues arise from that.
At the moment, there is no legal aid for bereaved families at inquest, other than exceptional case funding. To be clear, a large number—perhaps the majority—of cases that come before the coroner’s court will not require legal representation. They are very straightforward and seek to ascertain the cause of death—no more, no less. However, a significant number of cases involve more complex issues. One would, therefore, expect that it is right for families to have legal representation in those cases. However, they may have lost the principal breadwinner of the family or be going through many other pressures—is it right to expect them to go through the very complicated procedure of exceptional case funding? It is not like the ordinary legal aid application form; it is a much harder, more bureaucratic set of measures. It does not seem fair to put people through that, after such tragedies.
There is also an important question of principle. Frequently, one of the interested parties will be a public body. It may well be a health authority, a police authority or chief constable, or a local authority. It might be a Government agency of one kind or another. That party will invariably have legal representation. Sheer equality of arms—a basic principle of the rule of law—would surely dictate that in circumstances where a public body is legally represented, the family should also have legal representation, even within an inquisitorial, as opposed to adversarial, system. The family have the right, as they should, to expect that the evidence given by the public body and its representatives is tested, particularly as there may be a challenge to it, and that there is a full explanation as to whether the actions of the public body, whatever it may be, contributed to the death of the deceased.
I agree very much with what the hon. Gentleman has said thus far. Does he agree that the adversarial nature of some coroner’s inquests often results from a public authority trying to defend its reputation and defend against civil or criminal liability that it may fall into as a consequence of the outcome of the inquest? Yet the families, who are also interested parties, simply want to know what happened to their loved one. Things become adversarial because of that difference in the interests of the interested parties.
That is a perfectly fair point. We have all had experience and seen a great deal of evidence of that. The more potentially sensitive the issue, the more that is likely. Let us be blunt: in some cases, there will be public bodies who desire to avoid the potentially significant claims for damages that could arise if it is found that their negligence has, to some greater or lesser extent, contributed to the death of the deceased. They therefore have a direct stake in trying to minimise their fault. There is inevitable pressure on them to do that.
In that event, it is right and proper, even within an inquisitorial system, that the coroner should not have to bear the whole burden of trying to rectify that. Instead, we should enable the other interested parties—the families—to have legal representation as well. The truth is, in these types of inquest, it is not the purely old-fashioned inquisitorial system any more. The reality is that an adversarial and defensive nature has inevitably been brought into the legal proceedings by the legal representatives —acting on the instructions, of course, of the public bodies concerned.
That is why we think it is important that there should be equality of arms. We recommended that there should be automatic entitlement to non-means-tested legal aid for legal representation for people in relation to mass inquests, where there are multiple deaths, and that non-means-tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is made available for people when public authorities are legally represented. The level of representation may vary according to the complexity of the case. However, the principle should be there.
I accept that there has been positive movement from the Government in one respect. INQUEST, in its very helpful briefing for today’s debate, recognised that the Government did announce that they would take forward legislation to remove the means test for applications to exceptional case funding for legal representation at inquests. They also announced an intention to provide non-means-tested legal help. That is also crucial. However, the suggestion that non-means-tested legal help will be contingent on cases where ECF has been granted does not seem to be logical, given the range of cases that are potentially engaged here, and the way these processes operate.
As I understand it, there are plans to remove the means test for legal help in these circumstances—I am told there will be some public consultation on this—but I hope the Minister can update us on the progress of plans to remove this and on the time frame for bringing this to a conclusion. That would remove a great deal of pressure for many of the families who contacted us during our inquiry. Even if this cannot happen for them, the fact that it would be possible for families in the same position in the future would be a great boon, would improve public confidence, and would be a humane gesture by the Government. I hope therefore, in that spirit, that the Minister will give us more detail on how the Government intend to pursue that welcome move. Having been critical in some areas, I give them credit where credit is due, but I would like to see flesh on the bones in how that will be achieved.
It has also been suggested that there should be some delay until the Government have responded to Bishop Jones’ report relating to the Hillsborough families’ experiences. That was a very important report, and I can quite see that the Government would want to take it on board, but it was published in 2017, and we still do not have the Government’s response. I know the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) will want to talk about that. I know that it sometimes takes a long time to get things done, but four years seems to be an awfully long time, particularly given the sensitivities and how that might weigh on the families of those concerned and on public confidence in the system. Can we have an indication as to when the Government intend to respond to the Bishop’s report, and a timeline for how they intend to deal with the particular issue of legal aid, which they have already moved towards?
What will be done for cases that fall outside that ECF funding to ensure families have legal help from the outset? The importance of that is not just what happens on the day, at the inquest. It is also in dealing with, for example, post-death investigation and inquest preparation. I hope the Minister will have more detail on that.
I might add, in passing, that another point in favour of a national coroners system is that it would enable the Chief Coroner to have far greater power to ensure consistency in pre-inquest hearings and that coroners, on a national basis, have a greater suite of case-management measures than they currently have—as found in the Crown court or elsewhere—to ensure that preliminary hearings are dealt with expeditiously, and that the issues are narrowed down so that evidence, when it does come from bereaved families and so on, is only that which is absolutely necessary. Sometimes, irrelevant material is attempted to be introduced, causing great pain to families without actually leading to the key conclusions in the case. That could be dealt with, and its admissibility determined, at a much earlier stage in the proceedings.
Those are all arguments for the national service, as well as for strengthening the role of the Chief Coroner—in management and so on. However, to do that properly, it is right and fair that the interested parties are legally represented on an equal footing at those preliminary hearings.
Those are some of the key areas that we addressed around the national system and the position of families in relation to inquests and representation. There are other things that we recommend should be done to help with families, particularly the experiences that all families have, which may not require legal representation but do just need a hand through the system. Even if it is not a contentious death—if I can put it that way—it is none the less a traumatic experience. The thought of having to go to court, having to identify the deceased, or so on, is a difficult circumstance for people. We thought that more work needed to be done to ensure that bereaved people know of the existence of the Ministry’s guide to coroner services; it is good that it is there, but the evidence shows that, on a consistent basis, there is nothing like the awareness of it that there should be.
We recommended that there should be work done to update the guide and make sure that it is freely available online, and where people cannot access it online, it is available in hard copy. I am glad that the Government accepted this recommendation—we appreciate that. However, we are concerned about what monitoring will be put in place, absent any form of inspectorate or national control, to ensure that this is delivered in practice and that families do receive the access that Government and the Committee want them to have. If it is locally based, what levers will the Government use to make sure it happens in every coroner’s area?
At the moment there is no central funding that goes to the coroner service; it is funded through a local government process with nothing from the Department. We think that the Government should look at a small amount of funding being made available for support services for bereaved people at inquests. That could be done as a separate stream, in the same way as we have streams for victim support in other areas of criminal justice. A small pot here could go a long way towards ensuring consistency. If it was ringfenced, and came directly from the Ministry, then it would ensure that support services for victims were not subject to the same local variations and vagaries as other elements of the system. It is a modest proposal, and I hope that the Minister might be able to tell us what the Government will do on it. Could they perhaps look at the affordability and deliverability of it? Has any work been done on it in the same way that work has been done to ensure that families get access to the guide and are signposted to other forms of support?
An unusual feature of the coroner system is that there is no right of appeal, as such. There is the right to seek a judicial review of the coroner’s decision, but the test for that is a very high one. One recommendation in our report is that there should be a straightforward appeals mechanism to the High Court, without having to go through the judicial review test—is it Wednesbury reasonable and so on. The Government said, fairly, that they would consider whether an additional appeals mechanism was appropriate, and I welcome that, but can the Minister help us as to what progress has been made in consideration of it? If there has been progress, and there is time, could we use the Judicial Review and Courts Bill to bring that forward? If not, can we have a timeframe as to when the Minister thinks the Department will be able to come up with a conclusion on an appeals mechanism and identify a vehicle that can put it in place?
As a general concern, it should be said that although there are some useful changes in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill that we debated on Tuesday, which are generally welcomed, a lot more that could have been done. I think there is a general disappointment that the Bill was not used as a vehicle to take forward a number of other issues that were raised in this report.
I wish to raise two further issues. One area of specific concern is the renumeration of pathologists—that is a real problem. The evidence is compelling; there is a real difficulty in finding sufficient pathologists to service the system. We heard that there are 580 consultant pathology vacancies in the United Kingdom, and we recommended that the Ministry should review and immediately increase coroner’s fees for pathologists. The fees have not gone up for over 20 years; it is difficult to think of any public service that could continue to attract people if the fees are not updated for 20 years. For some reason the Government have rejected that recommendation, and yet, we are not talking about vast numbers of people. We are not talking about the number of legal aid solicitors or barristers in the country; we are talking about a very small number of highly skilled and rare clinicians. To make it worthwhile for them to undertake this work, surely the Government need to look again at this.
It is pretty fundamental, is it not? At the end of the day, if the purpose of the inquest to determine the cause of death, the most important bit of the evidence in that respect will often be the pathologist’s report, so it seems strange, to put it mildly, that what is a very modest proposal in the overall scheme of things has not been pursued.
The Government said they were not convinced that the level of fees was the reason for the shortage of pathologists. I ask the Minister politely, in that case, what they think it is? If it is not the level of fees, what is the problem? The Royal College of Pathologists certainly thinks it is an issue; it says 62% of its members giving up post-mortem work cite poor remuneration as a major cause of their decision. If it is not the sole consideration, it sounds to me as if it is one of the major ones, and one that could be easily and swiftly resolved.
There are other issues that we suggested, such as working with the Department of Health and Social Care to make sure that pathologists’ work is planned within their NHS contracts. The problem is that the work they do for coroners is outside the NHS contract. If it is outside their contract and they are being paid a wholly out-of-date fee for it, no wonder it is difficult to get people to do it.
Is there a proper workforce plan for recruiting adequate numbers of pathologists? As the hon. Lady says, we almost cannot get past first base in many inquests without having the pathology services there to start with. I hope the Government will be able to look at that again. What do the Government intend to do to improve recruitment and retention of pathologists? If it is not increasing the fee levels, what else will they do? Things are clearly not sustainable as they are—having 580 vacancies is simply not viable.
The other point I wanted to touch on briefly is something I mentioned early on: the procedure for addressing fatal risks identified by coroners and juries, the prevention of further deaths reports. As I said, they have become increasingly important, and we have all seen their value in many highly publicised cases, but there is currently no consistent mechanism to ensure follow-up. Again, that is due to the highly localised and diffuse system that we have.
What progress have the Government made? They said that they recognised that more could be done and they would consider options, and I welcome that, but what progress have they made in considering how preventing future deaths reports could, first, be made more accessible and, secondly, followed up routinely? The whole point is that they ought to be out there in the public domain to change working practices, to change behaviour and to stop such things happening again.
However, as we found out with prison inspectorates and other things, all too often recommendations are left sitting there and are not followed up. The difference that was made when Her Majesty’s inspectorate of prisons had the ability, and some funding, to follow through on its recommendations was quite marked. What will the Government do to learn from what happened in the prisons system and put in place a mechanism for consistent follow-up and action? Could the Chief Coroner be given greater powers here? It would sit very logically within a coroners inspectorate system, which is perhaps another strong argument for going down that route, but in any event there ought to be a system of consistent means of follow-up and proper transparency and scrutiny.
The Government accepted our recommendation on bringing stillbirths within the coroner’s remit. That will be a considerable benefit to many bereaved families. A joint response from the Ministry of Justice and the Department of Health and Social Care was promised; can the Minister tell us when that response will be forthcoming?
I have not touched on everything, but I hope that gives an overview of what was a very substantial report, and the substantial issues it raised, by no means all of which have yet been satisfactorily answered. I know the Minister brings a fresh mind to this matter, and he is a can-do politician, so I hope he will use this opportunity to reassure us that the Government have not just closed the book on this and said, “No, thank you, that’s the end of it,” but that we can continue to have a constructive engagement with the Government about improving the system—because clearly, it does need improving.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. As a fellow Merseyside MP, I know you have long-standing experience of some of what I will discuss, particularly the first inquests into the Hillsborough disaster. I think you are the only person present who actually attended one of the many inquests at the time, so you know better than anybody how catastrophically wrong they went.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), who is the Chair of the Justice Committee, on the way he introduced this important debate. I welcome the Minister to his post. Immediately after we produced the report, all the Ministers were cleared out in the reshuffle of the Ministry of Justice. It is not something that is ever helpful for getting continuity of effort and speed of response but it is not the Minister’s fault that he has only just come into his role and I wish him well. The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said he is a can-do Minister, and I hope he is a will-do Minister too.
The report into the coroner service is not only knowledgeable and good—I am bound to think that, given that I am a member of the Justice Committee, which produced it. It also identifies issues that have come to light not just over the last couple of years but, as the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, over a couple of decades in some cases. I was the courts Minister in the MOJ for a period of time, back when Jack Straw was the Lord Chancellor in the late 2000s, as well as being the prisons Minister thereafter. I was also one of the Ministers who took the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 through the Commons, although I was not the lead Minister. Bridget Prentice did the policy development, but I did some of the work in respect of the Bill.
I recall the debates about whether we should have a national coroner service. It is always a question of cost, but somebody will have to grasp the nettle and deal with this issue at some point. As the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said, it is anomalous that it is still a local service. No matter the value of a local service, the consequence of having a local service is that people get a postcode lottery, which is not acceptable for the delivery of basic elements of our justice system. That is something for the Minister to grapple with in due course.
Perhaps my most important qualification for wanting to speak in today’s debate is as a constituency MP from a Liverpool constituency. I have been the MP there for almost 25 years, and I have a long-standing involvement with many of the bereaved families and survivors affected by the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. I have seen the horrendous experience of our justice system that they, as wholly innocent bereaved and traumatised people, have had to endure, partly because of the appalling failings of the first coroner’s inquest, which took place in 1990. That was not only the fault of the coroner who handled it at the time; in part, it was a consequence of the behaviour of public authorities, particularly the South Yorkshire police.
I am very much in favour of putting bereaved people at the heart of the coroner service, and it is not only about Hillsborough. I have had dealings with other families who have been caught up in other disasters, such as the sinking of the MV Derbyshire, although that did not involve the coroners. It happened at sea, so that involved a wreck commission. It was long before my time as an MP, but the ongoing trauma felt by bereaved families was still there when I became the MP for what was then Liverpool Garston.
There was also the Alder Hey organs scandal. Scandals and disasters happen every few years, and they can lead to decades of trauma for families.
I have had constituents who have had to deal with coroners’ inquests at the worst time in their lives—after they have lost a loved one, often in traumatic, unexplained or contentious circumstances. They have had to face a public authority that is being defensive, that is lawyered up to the eyeballs and that seemingly has an unlimited budget to spend on avoiding the blame and minimising its responsibility. That is how it often seems to bereaved relatives, who are going along as interested parties—the same status as the public authority before the court—simply to find out the truth of what happened to their loved one and to have a measure of justice done, so that they get the right verdict according to the facts. That is what families who go to inquests want, whether they are a member of a group of bereaved people who have lost their loved ones in awful circumstances or a single family who have lost a loved one and the coroner needs to be involved.
I want to say a little about the experience of families caught up in public disasters. In the case of Hillsborough, the interim report of the Taylor inquiry into the cause of the disaster—remember, this was filmed; it was on TV live, and people saw what happened—reported within four months of the 1989 event. Although time has proven it was wrong in some respects, most notably on the emergency services’ response, it has been proven entirely correct—remarkably so, given that police were changing statements to try to affect the way in which the inquiry apportioned blame—in finding that the main cause of the disaster was a failure of police control. That report was done within four months. It was quite clear at that stage what had gone wrong, yet South Yorkshire police did not like that finding and refused to take responsibility, as Taylor had said in his conclusions that they should. Instead, they used the inquests to give a very different impression, which set the tone that persisted for three decades—three decades of hurt and pain caused to the families and survivors.
There were procedural issues at the time of the first inquests. The inquests were difficult to handle and took more than a year. At that time, they were the longest inquests that had ever taken place in British legal history. The way in which the coroner chose to handle them did not work. The police exploited the way in which he chose to handle them to have evidence put that supported their story. Every individual who died had their blood alcohol levels taken, even though a third of them were children—the youngest was 10. The coroner allowed that.
So the impression was given, during the inquests, that the police story, which Taylor had refuted—that it was not the police’s fault but that of the victims and the Liverpool fans—was perpetuated, ingrained into the public imagination and reported in the newspapers every day for a year. Funnily enough, 30 years later some people still think that is what happened at Hillsborough. It was the coroner’s inquests being inappropriately conducted that led to that hurtful and difficult outcome—a year of propaganda leading to the wrong verdicts.
It took Hillsborough families until April 2016 to get the new, correct inquest verdicts of unlawful killing—a full 27 years after the events. The second inquests were not as terrible as the first. For example, the pen portraits introduced at the beginning of those inquests, which enabled families to say something about the deceased, are a wholly welcome innovation, which I know has been taken up in other proceedings. That is good. But imagine, 25 years after the events, family members having to sit and listen for two years—that is how long it took—to the same old lies being told in court by those who were still being defensive, despite the intervening years and the vast amount of evidence. It was deeply traumatic for those families and very difficult for them to cope with. Many felt they had to go every day and listen. Twenty-five years later, they had to go every day and listen, and it took two years—pretty tough.
Being an interested party at the inquest gives the bereaved family no greater locus than that of those who may be at fault for the death or who, by natural omission, failed to prevent a death, even though bereaved families have lost far more. Often, the public authority is simply using lawyers to seek to avoid blame or to protect its reputation above all other considerations. To avoid liability or cost is sometimes the main aim of the public authority that behaves in that way. It does not necessarily think about the consequences for the family.
That was certainly the case with Hillsborough, although I think there was also an institutional unwillingness by South Yorkshire police to accept any criticism or blame for the Hillsborough disaster. Even though—or perhaps because—Taylor had found them to be at fault, they were intent on proving that they were not, blaming someone else. The lack of consequences and the impunity for those responsible for that approach meant that South Yorkshire police were able to continue with it for decades. Right up to the second inquest, they were still advancing the same case, which had repeatedly been shown to be nonsense, to the deep hurt and pain of the families. Had the chief constable been dismissed after Hillsborough, after Taylor, a lot of what happened might have been avoided: a lot of that institutional impunity and appalling behaviour, and 30 years of extremely expensive legal actions, might have been avoided.
I met the families after I was elected. I had known some of them before, in my capacity as a junior lawyer in Liverpool at the time. They told me that the inquest had overturned Taylor—that the inquest verdicts had overturned the result of the public inquiry. As a lawyer, I said, “Oh no, they do different things,” but actually the families were right, because that is what the police set about doing and did—that was the consequence.
Not until September 2012 and the report of the Hillsborough independent panel, which was a non-legal procedure, was the truth finally known and accepted by the vast majority of people in public life in this country. Before that, politicians and other people frequently said that Hillsborough was about hooliganism. It certainly was not, but that was the impression left by the first inquests. That is what can go wrong if things are allowed to go wrong.
Although the public authorities and the bereaved families in essence had the same status—that of interested parties—at that time and still do, the fact is that the police had far, far more resources at their disposal. They seemed able to use unlimited amounts of their public funding to pursue those arguments about who was really at fault and how it was not really them. Only when the second inquest came along did the families have exceptional case funding, which I am sure ended up being extremely expensive, but they were at last able to have equality of arms.
Equality of arms between interested parties in contentious and adversarial proceedings, whether for individuals or in a disaster such as Hillsborough, is essential to establishing and getting justice and the right verdicts, and to persuading families that yes, they have been party to a proper proceeding. Bishop James Jones, in his 2017 report on the lessons of Hillsborough, recommended what he described as the “proper participation” of bereaved families at inquests. That is vital.
The bishop’s specific recommendations are similar to some of those in our report. He recommended:
“Publicly funded legal representation for bereaved families at inquests at which public bodies are legally represented”—
not all inquests, but those where public bodies are represented. He recommended:
“An end to public bodies spending limitless sums providing themselves with representation which surpasses that available to families”,
and which does not have the same tests applied to it. He recommended:
“A change to the way in which public bodies approach inquests, so that they treat them not as a reputational threat, but as an opportunity to learn and as part of their obligations to those who have died and to their family.”
That is a fundamental shift in attitude, if it can be encouraged. He also recommended:
“Changes to inquest procedures and to the training of coroners, so that bereaved families are truly placed at the centre of the process.”
One still hears examples of appalling insensitivity, if I can put it that way, by coroners. I am not saying all by any means. Some coroners are excellent at involving and engaging families properly, but not all are.
Our report proposes an automatic entitlement to non-means-tested legal representation for bereaved people at inquests into mass fatalities. That is tremendously important, but we also recommend more broadly that the MOJ should by 1 October—that deadline has passed, Minister—
“for all inquests where public authorities are legally represented, make sure that non-means tested legal aid or other public funding for legal representation is also available for the people that have been bereaved.”
I know that the Government responded to that recommendation, albeit not particularly positively. Bishop James also proposed a statutory duty of candour for police officers; our report proposes it for the coroner service, and for the Government to consider whether that should be extended to all public bodies.
There should be an equality of arms: legal aid or some kind of funding support for families in these circumstances, along with a more extensively applied statutory duty of candour. Together, those two things are a substantial part of the Hillsborough law, the Public Authority (Accountability) Bill, which Andy Burnham proposed before he left the House and of which I was co-sponsor at the time. I believe that those measures, along with the Public Advocate Bill, which was prepared by Lord Michael Wills and me, and which I have again introduced in the Commons in this Session, would go a long way towards preventing what happened to the Hillsborough families from ever happening again to families of those bereaved in public disasters.
There have been public disasters since Hillsborough, and unfortunately there will probably be more over time. One thinks of Grenfell, and one can already see things going wrong with that. The families are not satisfied with the way that the inquiry is enabling them to represent their views, and one suspects that that disaster has a long way to run before getting to the end of all the legal proceedings that are likely to happen as a consequence of that terrible disaster. The proposals made by Bishop James and in my Public Advocate Bill are not just a relic of some past disaster that would have made a difference; they will, if enacted, make a difference in future to families in that terrible situation.
It has taken the Hillsborough families 32 years to get to the position they are now in, where there is general acceptance—the truth has been officially acknowledged. They have had a measure of justice, in respect of the second inquest’s verdicts of unlawful killing; they have not had accountability for those who caused the disaster, and who over all these decades have sought to blame those who died and the footballs fans in the ground that day, rather than themselves. The Hillsborough families have not had accountability, and if we were to talk to them, they would not say that they are totally satisfied with the outcome, even after 32 years, because nobody has been held to account for what was done—the unlawful killing of 97 people. That cannot be a good day for justice in this country, if that is the outcome after all these years.
In what I would say was a somewhat disappointing response to our report—I think the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst was harsher—the Government have effectively played for time. I take the view that if they are playing for time, they have not completely said no to all the recommendations that they have played for time on. This is where the Minister comes in. This is where he can be a can-do Minister—a will-do Minister. The Government have accepted only six of our 25 recommendations.
I will—apologies, Sir George. I will make sure that the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has time.
I hope that the Minister will consider Bishop James’s report and our proposals, and come forward with a much more positive set of responses to the issues raised. In view of the time, I will not say what I wanted to about the prevention of future deaths, but more needs to be done on that. If more is done, lessons can be learned to prevent future deaths instead of the same thing happening time and again, with different coroners sending letters saying the same thing to the Government, who then do nothing about it for many years.
I am grateful for your intervention, Sir George. I do not have a lot to say, but I want to raise two specific issues, which have both been alluded to by the previous contributors. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill) and the Justice Committee on a comprehensive, timely and necessary report.
The two issues that I want to raise are coroners’ investigations into stillbirths—the subject of my private Member’s Bill—and the Shoreham air show crash. To start with the latter, I am sure that colleagues will remember that fateful day in August 2015 when at the Shoreham air show, which had been running for some 28 years, raising large amounts of money and providing a great spectacle in aid of the Royal Air Force charities, a Hawker Hunter jet crashed and 11 innocent bystanders on the ground tragically lost their lives. It was the deadliest air show accident since the Farnborough air show crash in 1952, so that activity has an extraordinary safety record over those many years.
An interim report on the crash was first produced in September 2015 by the air accidents investigation branch. A second report was produced in December 2015, and a third in March 2016. In January 2017, the Civil Aviation Authority accepted all the recommendations. In March 2017, a final report identified pilot error, and in December 2019 there was a supplementary report to the final reports from the AAIB. There was also a prosecution, and the court acquitted the pilot in March 2019. A lot has been written about the tragedy.
The only thing that has not happened is the coroner’s inquest. Six years, two months and six days on from that fateful tragedy on 22 August 2015, the families of the 11 men who lost their lives have still not have the closure that a coroner’s inquest could help to bring. That is made worse by the fact that, in the end, nobody was convicted of any fault. I make no comment about the trial that took place, but it certainly did not answer the questions those families still have. They have had to go through the trauma of not really getting to the bottom of what really happened on that day and not getting the answers that a coroner’s inquest could bring.
I share some of the misgivings about the way the coroners system is working. It is not very effective in certain cases, and it has not been remotely effective in the case of the Shoreham air show victims. There are all sorts of reasons for that. The relationship between the AAIB, the police and the CAA really needs to be looked at in detail. Giving some form of closure, information and comfort to the families of those who lost their lives must be a priority, yet they seem to come at the back of the queue in such considerations.
Something I was involved in to start with was the question of who was going to represent the families at the inquest. The original inquest opened on 2 September 2015, and was adjourned until March 2016. There were pre-inquest review dates, further pre-inquest review dates were set, and a full hearing was originally due in March 2017. That was delayed and postponed, delayed and postponed, and finally in May 2020, it was announced that the hearing would be postponed again until 2021. We are still waiting, and I hope that it will happen before too long. Throughout all that time, the coroner for West Sussex, Penny Schofield, has played a remarkable role and sought at every juncture to keep engaged with the families and keep them in touch as much as possible.
However, it was not clear whether those families would get legal representation paid for by legal aid at the outset. I hope that is now going to happen. It was estimated that 18 public bodies would be represented at the inquest, all of which would get public funds for legal representation. The only people who would not automatically receive funding for legal representation would be the families of the victims—the most important part of that inquiry, one could say. I share the concerns of the Select Committee and of Members who have spoken today: we must ensure that in tragedies such as this, legal representation is automatically available for the families, and the coroner system has to work more efficiently and effectively, not drag on for many years, as it has in this case.
The second case of “dragging on” I want to raise is that of my private Member’s Bill, the Civil Partnerships, Marriages and Deaths (Registration etc) Act 2019, which was passed by Parliament in February and became law in May of that year. Two of the measures in that Act have now come into practice, the first of which is civil partnerships between opposite-sex couples. The first of those civil partnerships happened on new year’s eve 2019, and they have been taken up by many couples and have been a great success. The second measure, which came into effect earlier this year, is the inclusion of mothers’ details on marriage certificates, a historical anomaly going back to 1837 that I am glad to say this Act corrected.
However, two parts of the Act have not come into effect, the first of which is coroners’ investigations into stillbirths, dealt with in section 4. That clause requires the Secretary of State to
“make arrangements for the preparation of a report on whether, and if so how, the law ought to be changed to enable or require coroners to investigate still-births”,
and states that
“The Secretary of State must publish the report prepared under this section”
“After the report has been published, the Lord Chancellor may by regulations amend Part 1 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (coroners etc) to—
(a) enable or require coroners to conduct investigations into still-births”.
Effectively, due to interpretation of the law, coroners cannot investigate deaths until somebody is deemed to have lived, and a baby who is stillborn is not deemed to have lived and therefore does not fall within the remit of the coroner. However, in some cases in which children have been stillborn, serious questions need to be asked. That is why, after representations from many coroners—including my own—and various baby charities, I included that clause in the Act. It is referenced on page 31 of the Justice Committee’s report, urging the Government to get on with publishing that report.
It is slightly odd that I am once again having to go over the reasons why this provision is so important, because we made the case for the Act in the long time it took to get it through Parliament. It was described as the most complicated and comprehensive private Member’s Bill ever to make the statute book, but it was widely supported in this House by Members from all sides, in the Lords, and by many baby charities. The Select Committee on Health and Social Care also included a reference to the Act in a recent report, and it has been supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Surrey (Jeremy Hunt), the former Health Secretary who is now Chair of that Committee. The reason is that, according to the charity Sands, an estimated 500 babies die or are left severely disabled because of an event during their birth that was either not anticipated or not well managed, and there is currently no independent investigation of those intrapartum deaths. That, again, leaves many questions unanswered for many parents.
There have been many improvements to the way the NHS has been dealing with stillbirths, and the Government are to be congratulated on that. Various investigation measures have been brought in, but none of them are independent. They are all within the NHS. That is why it is still deemed necessary that the coroner, in exceptional circumstances where there are unanswered questions, should have the power to investigate. The Minister was involved in my private Member’s Bill and he was very helpful with and supportive of it, but I ask him, when is the report going to be published?
I had a meeting with the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the right hon. Member for Mid Bedfordshire (Ms Dorries) when she was Health Minister as well as this Minister’s predecessor in the Ministry of Justice, in which it was suggested that various details of the consultation would be published before the summer. However, the Department was loth to go ahead with measures because they were worried about the compulsory inquest by coroners causing trauma to parents. I am afraid I do not accept that; it was parents who were asking for these powers.
I am particularly concerned about the sunset provisions in the 2019 Act. Section 4(6) reads:
“No regulations may be made under this section after the period of five years beginning with the day on which the report is published”.
Time is ticking away. I urge the Minister to investigate where the report is. It was never sent to me, so was it published on the quiet? Can we see the full result of the consultation responses? Will he go away and look at when we can have regulations brought forward, which the vast majority of people have agreed is necessary, so that the third important part of my 2019 Act can come into force? It will give great comfort to many parents who are concerned that they had a stillborn child in circumstances where many questions have not been answered.
In some cases that results in legal action taking place. The provisions in the 2019 Act will cut down on that sort of legal action and hopefully give quicker and more effective answers to those parents who have gone through the traumatic experience of suffering a stillbirth. There are good reasons why the law was passed by the House. I see no good reason why it has not become effective. Can the Minister respond as to when we can expect the good news?
It is a pleasure to see you chairing our proceedings, Sir George. I thank the Chair of the Justice Committee, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), for his comprehensive and clear setting out of the recommendations of the report and for not pulling his punches in dealing with the Government’s response. The contributions of the hon. Members for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) were much appreciated. The examples they gave were not typical of the inquest system, but the system needs to stand up to all eventualities. They talked about particularly harrowing circumstances and personal recollections from their own constituencies, which show how important it is, not just for the many people affected by coroner proceedings, but for the general public. We must get the policy right, and that is not happening, sadly, in all cases at the moment.
If the Chair of the Committee had not already outed me, as part of my duty of candour I was going to say that I was a member of Justice Committee when it heard the evidence for and approved this report. It comes as no surprise that I think very highly of the report. It deserves this debate on its merits but, as the Chair of the Committee made clear, this debate is a mark of the displeasure of the Justice Committee. The Government’s response to what has been set out is wholly inadequate. The report is the first since Tom Luce’s 2003 report almost 20 years ago that has comprehensively looked at the faults and issues in the coroner system. We might have expected something better in response.
It is clear that proceedings grind slowly in relation to reform of the coronial courts. The legislation recommended by Tom was not passed for six years and did not take effect for four years after that. We then had the review, which was six years ago, and it has not yet been published. That is not a terribly good start, but we now have the happy coincidence that the Judicial Review and Courts Bill is going through its proceedings in this House. It had its Second Reading this week and will begin its Committee stage, which the Minister and I will take part in, next week.
A whole chapter of that Bill is to do with the coroner system, which provides an opportunity to address some of these issues. Unfortunately, the current proposals in the Bill are pretty minimalist and, if they do anything, they tend to restrict transparency and accessibility rather than the other way round, which is certainly not what the Select Committee was looking for. However, let us not let this be a missed opportunity. There is time to get it right, and whether it is in this House or in the Lords, there is an opportunity for the Government to bring forward some of their responses to the Committee that they said were delayed.
I counted at least seven major omissions from the Government’s response, and many of them have been mentioned already by the contributors. One is the provision of non-means tested legal aid, which might be the most central of them. One is appeals on coroners’ decisions. One is the issue of pathologists’ fees. One is the national coroner service, which the report recommends. One is the inspectorate, which the report recommends. One is a complaints procedure. The last is the independent office. Some of those are rejected out of hand, such as higher fees for pathologists and the national coroner service. With others, we are told that the Government will consider them—not now, but they are not saying not ever—or simply that they are not responding at present. It is quite unusual that we had a response along the lines of, “Why are you bothering us with this report now? Don’t you know we’ve got a Ministry of Justice to run?” I do not think that is an adequate response.
I do not have time to go through all the issues in detail, but let me mention one or two of which I have had personal experience. It is right that the Government appear to be shifting some way on the issue of legal aid, but they are looking at it from the wrong end of the telescope. What is clearly needed is not to make some adjustments to exceptional funding and early help, but to state the situation categorically in situations where there are unrepresented families—they are almost always families—in proceedings where there are state actors who are well funded and represented.
In my time at the Bar, I appeared at many inquests, but I do not think I ever appeared in one where 18 state bodies were represented, as the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham told us about. However, I have certainly been at an inquest where there were at least six state bodies and a family who either did not have representation or had pro bono representation, and neither of those is sufficient, frankly. I hope we can get an answer to when we will see the proposals coming through and when we will have a response to the bishop’s report.
On the issue of appeals, I cannot understand why this is probably the only area of law where there is no right of appeal. That seems an anomaly.
The prevention of future deaths reports have been significant in many cases and are a welcome innovation in the process, but they do not do the job that the independent office would do—what INQUEST calls in the report the national oversight mechanism. Again, I have personal experience of this. I have done a lot of work on fire safety over the past few years, and there have been a number of inquests around the country into situations where people have sadly died because of electrical fires and other fires that have occurred, but the dots have not been joined up. There may have been an individual report, but it has not been sufficient to carry it through into national policy.
The conduct of coroners is rather dismissed out of hand in the Government response, but it is a serious issue. I have taken part in a Westminster Hall debate with representatives from across west London about the west London coroner service. There have been allegations of appalling conduct, but there is no real mechanism for addressing them, which needs to be examined. I also think that the Government should look again at the idea of a national coroner service.
I know the Government will be concerned about cost in some of these areas, but at least they should investigate the price and decide whether there is merit in some of the recommendations here. The recommendations should not be just left to rest.
I mentioned the Bill that is coming up, which includes provisions for discontinuance of investigations, inquests in writing and remote attendance inquest hearings. I will be interested to hear how the Minister defends those changes, but none of them are about the fundamental reforms we have suggested. Indeed, he may want to look at the responses from the Royal College of Pathologists, a series of bodies representing victims and, indeed, from Tom Luce himself about the opportunity presented in the Bill to make some of these changes.
I do not want to exceed the 10 minutes I have been given, Sir George, so I will conclude with this: in responding today, in the time available, I am sure the Minister cannot cover every recommendation in detail, but perhaps he could at least do two things. First, perhaps he could articulate more clearly the Government’s response to us and what the Government’s policy is towards coroner services. There is a common theme of consistency in the report, whether we are talking about appeals, the independent office, the inspectorate or the national coroner service: consistency. How do we get a high standard of consistency in the decisions being taken in coroners’ districts around the country?
Secondly, and more immediately, can the Minister say when the response to the bishop’s report will be published, when the legal aid guidance will become clear and whether he will meet the ask in the Select Committee report on that, and whether he will consider bringing forward in the Bill some of the issues that the Government have not currently ruled out—appeals, inspection, and an independent office or national oversight mechanism?
If we can go that far, that will address many of the Committee’s concerns. If we do not, and we are left with the Government’s response as it is, they will have singularly failed again to address a service in which problems are being highlighted every day and every week by hon. Members on behalf of their constituents around the country, and in which people, often in extremis, are left to their own devices to try to represent the interests of their loved ones when they should be getting assistance from the state.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir George. My huge congratulations to the Chair of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill); he spoke fantastically on Second Reading this week, and he has done so again today. In terms of speakers today, it has been more a case of quality than of quantity on display.
I will try to cover all the points raised as far as possible, but I will leave my hon. Friend two minutes, so if I fall short in covering points in order to give him those two minutes, my apologies. I not only thank the members of the Justice Committee for their thorough and wide-ranging inquiry, but express my gratitude to the previous chief coroner, his honour Judge Mark Lucraft, QC, coroners’ charities, faith groups, medical professionals and organisations, bereaved families and many other stakeholders who provided written evidence to the Committee.
Like other public services in England and Wales, coroner services have faced, and continue to face, unprecedented challenges, exacerbated by covid-19. Despite those challenges, however, the coronial system continued to deliver. While we might say that, relative to other parts of justice, particularly criminal justice, this area arguably attracts less attention, coroners provide a vital public service that has a significant impact on bereaved people at their most vulnerable, and the Government are committed to ensuring that bereaved people are at its heart.
The Justice Committee’s report highlighted a number of key areas of concern and made 25 recommendations. My hon. Friend is very kind in what he says about a can-do attitude, but I think that responding in just two months, and then having some of those recommendations in a Bill a couple of months later, is not a bad performance time-wise. But, of course, the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) was right that we are still considering some of them. That is absolutely correct.
Five of the recommendations were for the chief coroner to consider, and we expect that Judge Teague will respond directly to the Committee on them and that the Committee will publish his response in due course. The remaining 20 recommendations were for the Government. The Government’s response explained that the Government accepted six of the recommendations outright, and we are already undertaking work on those recommendations.
One recommendation was to improve access to the Ministry of Justice’s publication, “A Guide to Coroner Services for Bereaved People”. The Committee acknowledged the value of the guide to bereaved people, and we are looking at how we ensure that hard copies are made more widely available.
Two of the Committee’s recommendations that the Government accepted relate to provisions that we are now bringing forward in the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which is currently before Parliament. I look forward to debating the provisions with the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) in the Bill Committee that starts shortly. There are five coroner measures in the Bill, and the provision to make it easier for coroner areas to merge precisely meets one of the Committee’s recommendations. Taken together, the five coroner measures in the Bill are aimed at streamlining processes in the coroner’s courts and supporting the chief coroner’s post-pandemic recovery plans, thereby meeting another of the Committee’s recommendations.
Successive chief coroners have proposed a change to the legislation to give the High Court greater flexibility when it is asked to quash or request a fresh inquest, which speaks to the point about appeals. There is, of course, a route of approaching the Attorney General for an inquest verdict to be challenged in the High Court. I do not say that that is precisely what we would call a legal route of appeal, but it is there and it is important. The Government accepted the Committee’s recommendation to adopt the proposal on quashing verdicts and we have committed to introduce this measure when parliamentary time allows.
Let me come to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton). The Government also accepted the Committee’s recommendation about the consultation on coronial investigation of stillbirths. Publication of the Government’s response has unfortunately been delayed due to the impact of covid-19 on wider priorities, but a response to the consultation is expected to be published in due course. I note my hon. Friend’s point about the sunset clause, which I will look into further.
On the terrible tragedy at the Shoreham air show, as noted by the chief coroner’s office at Shoreham, the inquests are legally and logistically complex, with large numbers of participants, and are being progressed as quickly as possible. I understand from the West Sussex coroner service website that the next Shoreham pre-inquest review is on 6 January next year. I also understand that the coroner very much regrets the delay in holding the Shoreham air show inquest—the delay is because of the pandemic—and that the coroner has applied to the High Court for permission to access material from the criminal trial. The coroner cannot continue with the inquest until the outcome of the application to the High Court is known. As we say, we expect the next pre-session in January.
I turn to the points raised by the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood, who has quite a background. She has had this job, been a solicitor, served on the Committee and, perhaps most importantly of all, has many constituents who have an interest in Hillsborough—as you do, Sir George—and has spoken on the issue many times with great passion. I very much admire the way she has done so. Of course, I can do nothing to change the amount of time that has elapsed. It is not my Department but the Home Office that will be responding in due course, and I am afraid I cannot say more than that today.
The hon. Lady made some very good points. On change of approach and the number of lawyers of either type that can be there to support public bodies, there is a protocol in the Government’s guide to coroner services that Departments must consider the number of lawyers, bearing in mind the commitment to an inquisitorial rather than an adversarial approach. The protocol is designed as a “model of behaviour”.
We are considering the independent public advocate. I know that the hon. Lady led a debate on this issue recently, which was answered by my predecessor, who is now the Solicitor General. He said there are details we need to look at, and I stress that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst raised many points. On the non-publication, shall we say, of the 2015 post-implementation review, I am afraid this is not a can-do answer. The work is almost six years old. I take my hon. Friend’s point about what happens if we sit on something long enough, but I am afraid that is our position. I am happy to speak to him further on that point offline.
The Government decided that 10 recommendations needed further consideration to determine whether the proposals could be delivered. They were not rejected, but need further work to determine whether they would be affordable and aligned with the Government’s priorities.
I will turn to legal aid, which is obviously very important. I realise that even in a Second Reading debate, several right hon. and hon. Members raised the issue of the inequality of arms and so on. We said that more work was needed on the recommendation around non-means-tested legal aid for legal representation for bereaved people at inquests. There have also been numerous calls from stakeholders for the Government to consider their position on the provision of legal aid funding for legal representation at inquests, in particular where the state is represented. The Government remain of the view that legal representation is not necessary for the vast majority of inquests because they are an inquisitorial, fact-finding process.
It is, however, one of the Department’s long-standing priorities to ensure that families are put at the heart of the inquest process. We acknowledge that there will continue to be instances where bereaved families are entitled to legal aid, for example where the state or public authority’s acts or omissions have arguably contributed to a death or where having representation at an inquest would be beneficial in the wider public interest. We believe that, where there is an exceptional case for legal aid, the process to access that support should be as straightforward as possible—not least to relieve the stress and anxiety that the application process brings to the bereaved family. With that in mind, we are in the process of amending legislation to remove the means test for exceptional case funding; I am pleased to confirm that that is currently being drafted and that we hope it will come into force early next year.
The Committee also asked the Government to consider adopting a charter of rights for bereaved families. The Government are keen to explore those issues, but explained that they would respond as part of their response to Bishop James Jones’s review of the Hillsborough families’ experiences, which is expected to be published in due course.
On the matter of—shall we say—a national service, the Government rejected the recommendation to unite coroner services into a single service for England and Wales. The Government recognise that many calls for a national coroner service stem from the view that such a service would address inconsistencies or a postcode lottery. We do not accept that nationalised organisations are necessarily the answer to such inconsistencies or postcode lotteries. I would make two points on that matter. This is about not only the cost per se, but the question of how it would be funded, given the service is currently operated by local authorities. That raises a lot of issues. We are moving from around 85 coroner areas to around 75, so there is amalgamation and there are therefore more economies of scale. However, we remain of the view that this is best as a local service.
I will wrap up there, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst that he would have time to finish. It has been a very high-quality debate, with lots of passion and very good points, some of which we are still considering and some that we have responded to. I congratulate my hon. Friend on a very thorough report on a very important matter.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response and the way he raised it, as I am to all Members who participated in the debate. I take on board some of the things the Minister said, and I welcome some of the moves that the Government are making, in particular any indication as to what will happen around legal aid. If the improvements to that came earlier in the new year rather than later, I think that we would all welcome that.
I hope that we might press the Minister in due course, via the Select Committee, for a definition of what “in due course” means. That is one of the great phrases used in this place. We have already seen about six years pass by in due course, in some instances, so I think we will need a little bit more than that. I hope he will understand if the Committee returns to that topic, because these are matters of pressing concern. The concern is that, with many other things facing the Government, those issues can get lost and slip down the agenda, which does not help anyone. While the passage of time may well be a reason for not acting on a report, I am not sure it is a very convincing reason for not actually publishing the thing, even if they then say they are not going to do anything with it. I am not quite sure why the Government are so troubled by it, frankly.
However, on the big issue, I hope they will reflect in particular on a means to achieve greater national consistency, such as the oversight mechanism referred to in the course of the debate, and—even if they are not yet persuaded of it, although I hope they one day will be—a national service, a proper inspectorate, and proper oversight and greater powers for the Chief Coroner. I am glad for the reference to Mark Lucraft, an old colleague at the Bar, and Judge Teague. That would be a step forwards, at least, which I hope would be achievable within a comparatively short period.
I welcome what the Minister has said, as far as it goes, although he will not be surprised if I say that members of the Select Committee might want to go further and return to the topic. I hope there is some common ground that we can work on, as far as that is concerned.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the First Report of the Justice Committee, The Coroner Service, HC 68, and the Government response, HC 675.
Black History Month
[Sir Graham Brady in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: e-petition 324092, Teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum, and e-petition 323961, Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history, Oral evidence taken before the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee on 5 and 18 November 2020, and 25 February 2021, on Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum, HC 893, Correspondence with the Minister of State for School Standards, relating to Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum, reported to the House on 9 March 2021 and 27 April 2021, HC 893, Written evidence to the Petitions Committee and Women and Equalities Committee, on Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum, reported to the House on 8 December 2020, HC 893, and Summary of public engagement by the Petitions Committee on Black history and cultural diversity in the curriculum, reported to the House on 26 January 2021, HC 893.]
Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if coming on to the parliamentary estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House, or at home. Please also give each other and members of staff space when seated, and when entering and leaving the room.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Black History Month 2021.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship, Sir Graham. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allowing this vital debate and I extend my thanks to the hon. Members who supported my application and have joined to participate today. To some, this might be just another debate, but for black and minority ethnic communities, holding this debate in Parliament shows that we recognise and celebrate that history and their achievements right across the UK and the world. I sincerely hope that general debates to celebrate Black History Month will become a regular fixture on the parliamentary calendar.
This year’s theme for Black History Month is “Proud to Be”. That is so important because so many are made to feel uncomfortable about their ethnic heritage, cultural history and language—seen, or felt to be seen, by others as the other, inferior or a minority. However, black people have so much to be proud of culturally in the ways we have contributed to British history, and we ought to be proud to be both black and British. In her Adjournment debate last week, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) highlighted several black British individuals who make us feel proud. I am sure that colleagues will no doubt mention several more individuals who have made significant contributions to our nation’s history and who we ought to be proud of. From Yvonne Conolly, the UK’s first black headteacher, to C. L. R. James, the renowned author, from William Cuffay, the leading figure of the Chartist movement, to my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), the first black woman to be elected to this Parliament, we see figures who reflect the diversity of our country and who we can all be proud of.
The UK has its own rich civil rights history, which my generation and those before me were unfortunately never formally taught and have had to take it upon ourselves to learn. Not recognising yourself in your history can have a serious impact on your identity. How are we expected to feel “Proud to Be” if we are shown by omission that the contributions of black people are not worth being taught in our schools? Colleagues may be aware of the petition that circulated last year, which called for the UK to teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the curriculum. It achieved over 260,000 signatures and, along with similar petitions, means that the teaching of black history in schools has received the most support of any parliamentary petition in our history.
That appetite has not waned at all, because more than 660 schools in England have signed up for a diverse and anti-racist curriculum developed by teachers and council staff in the London Borough of Hackney. The Black Contribution aims to teach young people about not just the history of black people, but fundamentally the history that we all share because—as I hope everyone has heard many times throughout this month—black history is British history.
Now is the perfect time to pay tribute to the Labour Government in Wales, which have instituted black history as part of their curriculum. Seeing them lead the way and seeing how much support that has had, I cannot understand why the Government still refuse to commit to putting black history in the curriculum, when there is such widespread support. Perhaps when responding to the debate, the Minister can inform us the reason why the Government refuse to take action on this.
Instead, unfortunately, what we have seen is discussions descending into a so-called war on woke and culture wars, and other, very bizarre claims about the phrase “white privilege”, how it has affected us and the idea that it is being widely taught in schools. First, anyone who actually speaks to teachers will find that that is not a feature in any of the lessons. We do not hear about children running home from school talking about it or, indeed, about teachers asking Timmy, “What’s 1 + 1?”, Timmy saying, “2”, and the teachers saying, “Aha! Timmy, you knew the answer because of white privilege.” We do not hear such nonsense. That is not what is happening in our schools. Secondly, teaching children about race inequality, as some teachers will do during Black History Month, is not what is holding back working-class children in our education system. It was not teaching about racism that closed down hundreds of youth services or cut funding per pupil in this country; that was this Government. It is those policies that hold back working-class children from all our communities.
I completely understand why this Government may not want to talk about race, and especially not about their record on race, but ignoring these issues will not lead to the post-racial society that some people believe we are living in. We have to address them. We have to address past issues of slavery and colonialism and their lasting impact, which is the racism we face today, and we have to do it by education and other means. I would be proud to be part of a Parliament that finally apologised for the atrocities of slavery and colonialism. Yesterday I was pleased to officially launch the all-party parliamentary group on African reparations and am looking forward to policy on this. Cambridge University recently returned, and quite proudly so, two of the looted Benin bronzes, but there are over 3,000 in this country and 900 alone in the British Museum. Reparations begin with things such as that: giving back these things that do not belong to us.
We know that over the past few years there has been no shortage of discussions about racial disparities. We have had debates about the impact of covid on black and ethnic minority communities, about the need to teach black history as part of the curriculum, about racial disparities in maternal health outcomes, and about the ethnicity employment gap and the ethnicity pay gap, and of course the Black Lives Matter protests, a tragic reminder that racism can be a matter of life and death. Time and time again, we have raised the ongoing racial disparities in the UK, and time and time again we have called on the Government to act, but the response has been felt to be full of platitudes and empty gestures, with a report that told us, quite famously, that systemic racism does not exist and that in some ways actually attempted to create some racial divides.
Although it seems like we have talked about it quite a lot, given that the last CRED—Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities—report was only released earlier this year, it would be remiss of me not to mention it. As far as I am concerned, it turns back the clock on ending racial inequality. There are other reports and inquiries that have outlined how racism continues across society, and report after report outlining the social causes and political failings that underpin it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on her amazing speech. She alludes to the fact that there have been multiple reports on racial inequality in this country. Does she agree that if the Government just took some time and looked at beginning to implement some of those recommendations, we might, just maybe, begin to make some headway on racial inequality?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If we had gone down that road, perhaps we would not be having the discussions that we are having today.
We need to think about what that report said, when it decided that there was no institutional or systemic racism, and how that discounts years of lived experience and the things that people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds have experienced in this country. What I could not understand at the time was whether the Government believed they would get any buy-in for a report that was so widely discredited across our communities or to what extent, given how discredited it has been, it was actually for our communities, even though it was very much about them.
The idea that institutional racism does not exist means that there is no action for the state to take, because it is not an institutional problem. As far as I am concerned, the Government appear to be absolving themselves of responsibility to take action on institutions that fail to deliver racial equality. We did not need that report; we needed action on reports gone by. We certainly did not need a new story about slavery and colonialism, when the one that we have at the moment is not even being widely taught.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) pointed to the recommendations of reports gone by that have not been implemented, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) reminded me that the Government continue to stall on implementing fully his Lammy review. In the meantime, BAME youth custody now sits at 51%, which is an increase of 10% on when he was asked to do the review just five years ago.
The Windrush lessons learned review by Wendy Williams was also commissioned by the Government. Even the author of the report has said how woeful it is that, again, the Government continue not to act on the recommendations. Furthermore, the scandal continues, because many people caught up in it have not yet received compensation or their proper status of leave to remain in this country.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. When we talk about unimplemented reports and inquiries, we could go all the way back to the early ’80s and the Scarman inquiry. If everything that Scarman spoke about had been addressed, we would not be in the situation we are in today.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is what we want to bring to an end. We have to stop this cycle whereby something bad happens, we have a report or inquiry, and the Government—successive Governments—just push it under the carpet and wait until the next disaster in which racial inequality is raised. Part of why we are not making headway is that the bodies that are meant to protect us and to apply checks and balances on the Government simply do not have the ability to do so.
The Joint Committee on Human Rights report, “Black people, racism and human rights”, said that overall there was a very damning picture of structural racism right across society, such as in health, immigration, policing, the justice system and electoral participation. It also mentioned, in a key way, the failures of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission is tasked with policing equality and, potentially, enforcing such targets. However, it is not fit for purpose in its current form. How could it be? It is supposed to be an independent arm’s length body, but its major appointments are still made by the Government. That must make it difficult to take action when Government policies lead to inequality or human rights breaches. That has been highlighted in many court cases over the past few years. The EHRC also appears to have rarely used and limited investigation and enforcement powers, and it has an ever-dwindling budget. In practice, it has become a body with no teeth.
In my work on the Women and Equalities Committee, we have found that when people—the Government included—refuse to comply with what they are meant to do under equalities legislation, the Equality and Human Rights Commission appears to be able to do very little. Key to that, given that our main purpose here every day is to pass legislation, is that the Government do not produce equality impact assessments of various pieces of legislation. When they do, at times they refuse to publish them. How on earth are we meant to hold the Government to account and ensure that they are complying with our equalities law? Why does our equalities law always have to be an add-on?
Frankly, black communities need fewer champions and more enforcement of what are supposed to be the rights that protect us. Report after report has reinforced not only the issues, but the recommendations that we need to bring about systemic change. If we were clear about our equalities legislation and the guidance, we would be moving forward.
When we discuss racial inequality and call on the Government to introduce policy to change things, we are not asking for anything beyond equality; we are simply asking the Government to recognise how we are treated as a community in this country and to take meaningful action to change it. Likewise, when we ask the Government for black histories to be taught as part of the curriculum, we are not asking for that to be done over other aspects of British history; we are asking them to recognise that black history is British history—it is a part of that history—but that it is not taught widely, as it should be. They should take those key steps to ensure that that is done.
If racism is ignorance, and education is the absence of ignorance, there is an obvious answer to dealing with racial inequality; it is simple and it costs the Government nothing to start just there—with education.
I begin by declaring my non-pecuniary interest as chair of the advisory board of Conservatives Against Racism For Equality. I do not think there is any point shying away from the truth that I am the only Back-Bench Conservative who is here today. I hope that part of the purpose of CARFE can be to encourage Conservative MPs to rise to the leadership and representational responsibility that we all have.
I am very pleased to follow the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) and I congratulate her on this debate. She said that black history is British history; I absolutely agree with her. We certainly should be facing up to our history. As I listened to her, and as I reflect on what she said—as well as on some of the things that have been said to me—I realise that an element of this is that we are asking people to face up to acts and facts of shame in our history. It is a very uncomfortable thing for people to do, particularly when those of us alive today are not responsible for the crimes of the past. Nevertheless, it is necessary for us to face up to the crimes of the past and to recognise, as the hon. Lady said, that black history is British history. However painful it may be to face up to it, we must do so in a way that is inclusive and will appeal—if I may say so—to white people to be part of.
To reflect for a moment on my own journey, as I have possibly said before, growing up as part of an ordinary family in Cornwall I suppose I was able to take for granted the equality of all people for most of my childhood and adult life. I wonder what proportion of the UK public today are also able to take for granted racial equality, without reflecting much on the experience that people who are not white have—and, in particular, that black people have.
I am very proud of Wycombe; I am delighted to speak in this debate because, once again, we have an opportunity to celebrate the history, achievements and contributions of black people in Wycombe, and across the UK. Wycombe was a very popular destination for people coming from the Caribbean, and I am sorry to say that sometimes their contribution has been overlooked. I hope to put that right. I am very grateful for the work of Wycombe Museum. This October, it has been celebrating our fantastic community with a selection of events funded with support from—my notes say the Department formerly known as MHCLG—the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, as well as Thames Valley police among others. The museum has a very close relationship with the High Wycombe-based SV2G, which celebrates the second generation from St Vincent. I am incredibly proud of the whole community.
SV2G shed light on the tragic life of George Alexander Gratton, a child from St Vincent and the Grenadines born into slavery and transported to Britain. Wycombe has the largest population of Vincentians in the UK. In last year’s debate I spoke about George Alexander Gratton, and I encourage people to look at his story. I particularly want to congratulate those organisations in Wycombe for the work that they do to promote black history and to keep alive Wycombe’s place within it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson) was not able to attend today, and he asked me to put the following on the record for him:
“Black excellence is truly spread across the whole United Kingdom. Far from the turf of Wembley, the world’s first professional black football player started as a goalkeeper for Darlington. In 1882, Arthur Wharton abandoned his missionary training in the town to become Darlington’s goalkeeper; he was part of the team which reached the FA cup semi-final in only his second season at the club.
I am proud that during black history month last year, a mural was unveiled in the town to mark his achievements. Darlington’s sporting excellence is continued to this day by champions like Troy Williamson who earlier this month won the British Super Welterweight title in Liverpool.”
I know that my hon. Friend is proud to represent everyone in his community.
Turning to Government policy, I welcome the Minister’s announcement that the Government will respond to the Sewell report from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. I am very pleased that the Government will act on the recommendations in the report, in particular by seeking to further trust, fairness, inclusivity and agency. It is very important that the Government pick up on agency. We must express our belief in the dignity of every person and our recognition of their agency, so I look forward to the Government’s swift implementation of those recommendations.
The other members of CARFE and I are very excited by the establishment of the Office for Health Improvement and Disparities to properly target health disparities in the UK, focusing on research, communication and expertise to reduce those inequalities across all groups. We welcome the Government’s desire to build social and cultural capital to enrich everyone and to prevent harm, reduce crime and divert young people away from the criminal justice system. In particular, I understand that the Government are going to develop an evidence-based pilot to divert offences of low-level class B drug possession into public health services; I hope the Minister will say more about that pilot.
The Government need to replicate those factors of educational success for all communities everywhere, and I will put in a plea for levelling up in Wycombe. I am very happy to take my hon. Friend the Minister to the parts of Wycombe that certainly need extra help. The curriculum, of course, must be made more inclusive, and I again urge Ministers to make sure that we include black history as British history.
I will just touch on the idea of disaggregating the term “BAME”. I think it is unhelpful to polarise our society between white people and everybody else. With great sorrow, I would say that some of the worst racism I have ever heard was directed among different sections of the Asian community in the UK, and I think it is incumbent on us to recognise that Caribbean history is very different from the history experienced by people who have come from, for example, west Africa. I encourage the Government—I encourage everybody, actually—to disaggregate this term “BAME”. I think it leaves people separated between “white” and “everybody else”, and I want us to move into a world in which the colour of our skin does not matter any more than the colour of our eyes. We should be morally, legally and politically equal, with equal opportunities, and there should be justice in the outcomes that everyone experiences.
I am very pleased that the Race Disparity Unit has been awarded a research excellence award by the Office for National Statistics. That fact should be taken seriously, including by the Government’s critics. I welcome the Home Secretary’s endorsement of improving diversity in police forces: she has said that this is a “critical and personal priority” for her, and I think it is worth putting on the record just how diverse this Cabinet is. I am particularly proud that this Conservative Government have such a diverse Cabinet—of course, I lament that I am not in it, but I am nevertheless grateful that it is so diverse.
I am very glad that we have had this debate today. If anybody wishes to visit Wycombe, there is the opportunity to go to the “There’s Something About Wycombe” original theatre production on Friday and Saturday at Hilltop community centre. Based on a true story, it is the story of one man’s move across the world from St Vincent to High Wycombe, and the community he found there. There is also the Windrush legacy pop-up exhibition at the Eden centre, which I will be visiting on Saturday to look at the legacy of Windrush in our town.
Again, I am very proud indeed to represent Wycombe, and to represent everyone in Wycombe. As the hon. Member for Streatham said in her remarks, black history is British history. I am very proud of every section of our community, and I hope that the Minister will be able to set out an optimistic and hopeful vision of how the Government are going to help black people right across the UK.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) on securing this debate and thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. It is an important debate, and I look forward to us continuing it in the main Chamber.
As we all know, Black History Month is a chance to celebrate and reflect on the many achievements of the black British community here in the UK. This year, it is also important to celebrate black Britons across the country who have faced huge challenges as a result of the pandemic.
Whether we know it or not, we are all affected by the brave men and women who have gone before us. I am proud to stand on the shoulders of so many of those greats—women such as the abolitionist Mary Prince, the first black woman to have a memoir of her experiences of slavery published in the UK; the amazing Mary Seacole, whose statue stands tall just over the river at St Thomas’s Hospital; Lilian Bader, one of the first black women to join the British armed forces; and the activist and campaigner Olive Morris, who was born in my Battersea constituency.
As I mention those great women, I must also mention John Archer, who was elected in Battersea in 1913 as London’s first black mayor. In his election victory speech, he rightly cited his election as a critical moment for racial equality. Being a Bristol girl, I must certainly also mention those who led the Bristol bus boycott in the 1960s: Paul Stephenson, Roy Hackett and Guy Bailey, who was my youth worker when I was growing up. Their campaign led to the overturning of that racist colour bar, and the boycott also paved the way for the Labour Government’s Race Relations Act 1965.
Learning about our history is essential. That is why, this time last year, I called for black history to be part of the national curriculum, so that all children are taught about black British history. There are great examples where this is already happening, such as St George’s Church of England Primary School in my constituency. At this point, I pay tribute to The Black Curriculum social enterprise, which is helping to deliver black history across the UK. As we have all said today—and I know we all agree—black history is British history, after all.
This year’s Black History Month comes 40 years on from the New Cross fires in south-east London—a tragic event that killed 13 young black people between the ages of 14 and 22. I think we would all agree that their lives had not even begun. It is also 40 years on from the uprisings across the country, including in Brixton, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, in response to the devastating reality of many black people in the UK: mass unemployment, poor housing conditions, police brutality and racism. My right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) alluded to the Scarman report, which was commissioned as a result of many of those uprisings in the 1980s.
We should therefore ask the question: how far have we come in our fight for racial justice? Last summer, we were all captured by the Euros, when our brave England team proudly took the knee in solidarity and a call for an end to racism and injustice. Sadly, though, rather than supporting them, their Government chose to sow division and hatred, which led to the ugliest and most awful racial abuse of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka at the European cup final. My heart went out to them. As the older sister of a professional footballer, I could only imagine how their families must have felt.
Those young men and the rest of the England team united our nation, in all its diversity and difference, and showed the best of modern Britain. However, sadly, we still face deep-rooted inequalities in health, education, employment, immigration and our criminal justice system. In maternal health, we know that black women are four times more likely to die during pregnancy or childbirth. In the labour market, unemployment rates are up to four times higher for black people. School exclusion rates are five times higher for black Caribbean pupils in some parts of the country. We must be honest about that reality, and the Government must be bold in their response. Unfortunately, to date they have not been.
My hon. Friend has mentioned some important, though depressing, statistics about the reality of things in the country today. To add to that, there are fewer than 200 black university professors among 23,000 in the UK. Does she agree that that is a shameful figure, and one that needs bold action from this Government?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We must address the issue of representation in education, right the way from school through to colleges, universities and at professor level. Perhaps the Minister, in his response, can address the point on those disparities in the education system.
The Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report, catalysed by the brutal murder of George Floyd and by the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, was an opportunity for this Government to tackle structural racism. Instead, they produced a divisive and now discredited report seeking to deny the extent of structural racism.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for putting forward this debate, and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for the important points she has raised. Does she agree that the murder of George Floyd resulted in an increasing number of organisations and businesses across the country having uncomfortable conversations with employees about how they could do things differently and on understanding the experiences of individuals? Does she also agree that the Government need to take that a step further and implement a race equality strategy, while also looking at diversifying the curriculum? The only way we can move forward is if we learn from our past to build a better future.
My hon. Friend must have read my speech, because those are exactly the points I was going to raise. She is spot on. In my former role as shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, Labour rightly rejected the report. Within days, it had been discredited by a long list of experts, including the British Medical Association, trade unions, and many human rights experts at the UN.
No. Eight months on, the Government still have not published their response to the report. I hope that the Minister will today give us a timeline, as that was promised to be published in the summer. We are now leaving autumn and going into winter. Their apathy towards meaningfully addressing structural inequalities is shameful, and an insult to those of us with that lived experience.
Today, I call on the Minister to urgently look at implementing a race equality strategy to fundamentally change those systems and institutions in which structural racial inequalities exist. That includes reforming the national curriculum, as my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) has already mentioned. The Government must commit to addressing those shocking disparities in black maternal health, which leave black women at a greater risk of death during childbirth, and include the recording of accurate and robust data. They must also commit to upholding their obligations under the Equality Act 2010 in carrying out and publishing equality impact assessments. I was pleased to see that yesterday’s Budget included one, but that has not been the case with many of the Government’s policies and even legislation.
We all know that the Government should by now have responded to the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities report. The Minister may wish to say that the Government have conceded that the report does not even warrant a response. Perhaps the Government will just crack on and get on with implementing the recommendations from so many of those other reports alluded to by my Friend the Member for Streatham in her excellent opening remarks.
I will finish by quoting the abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who said:
“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
That is so important. We are all here because we care about black history. We must demand action—from ourselves, but also from the Government.
I thank the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for securing this debate, which I am deeply honoured to support.
I would like to take the opportunity to put on the record a precious piece of history from my constituency, in the sincere hope that it will add to our appreciation of the value of Black History Month to a wide range of people in Wales and beyond. During last Thursday’s business statement, I was proud to mention the launch of the John Ystumllyn rose. The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) said that it would have been nice to have more Conservatives attend the debate, but I must give credit to the Leader of the House, who welcomed the initiative with great enthusiasm.
John Ystumllyn is the first—there will be a number of firsts in my speech—definitively recorded black person in north Wales, and he worked as a gardener near Criccieth in Dwyfor in the 18th century. The John Ystumllyn rose is therefore a particularly poignant way to remember his life and times, but it is also a powerful symbol in and of itself. It has been created by Harkness Roses of Hitchin, which has worked with Zehra Zaidi’s We Too Built Britain campaign to make available what is believed to be the first ever rose named after a minority ethnic person in the United Kingdom.
Who was John Ystumllyn? Not surprisingly, there is quite a lot of uncertainty, and there also late records, which have their own pattern of recording. We believe he was born in west Africa around 1740. He was abducted by slavers as a young boy, with a late 19th-century account by Alltud Eifion, who was from Porthmadog in north Wales, saying that John’s last memory of his mother was how she protested as he was taken away. We do not know the name by which his family knew him, but we do know that he never saw them again.
By whatever route he arrived, we know that the boy was sent to live with the landowning Wynn family, who owned, and whose descendants still own, extensive estates in north Wales and north-west England. He learned Welsh and English, and he was baptised as John Ystumllyn. He became a well-known and talented gardener who was especially known for his skills in growing flowers. It is recorded that he was a handsome young man and much admired by the young women of the neighbourhood, and we are fortunate to have a portrait of him from 1754. He eloped with a maid who worked at Ystumllyn, Margaret Gruffydd of Hendre Mur, Trawsfynydd, and the pair were married at Dolgellau in 1768. Because they eloped from their jobs, they both lost their jobs, but John shortly found new employment in the area and was then offered his former post again. He must have been a good gardener—too good to lose.
The couple had seven children and many descendants, some of whom are believed to still be in the area. John died in 1786 and his grave can still be seen at Ynyscynhaearn churchyard, although it does give an incorrect date of death. His story conveys romance and a strong sense of how our roots are all intertwined. I have deliberately included some of the relevant place names because they resonate strongly not only with historians, but with people whose history and sense of belonging is closely tied to a sense of place. We cherish the memory of John Ystumllyn locally and it is very important to us, as he is so associated with those place names, which resonate with the history of north-west Wales.
We should also remember that while John was growing up and settling in Ystumllyn, the ships being built at Pwllheli, 10 miles away, included vessels that were designed to service the slave trade. A traveller’s diary from 1801 describes a ship—probably the Mary—as a “large Guineaman”, which is a byword for a ship involved in human trafficking from the Guinea coast of west Africa. It was fitted for 600 slaves. In Wales, there is a long history of the profits of slavery contributing to local economies—from the well-known triangular trade of copper, slaves and sugar, to what was known as Welsh plains: coarse wool made by small-scale weavers in Maldwyn and Meirionnydd, whose goods were sold to plantation owners to clothe slaves in the 18th century.
These stories all need to be told, and I am proud that the Welsh school curriculum—there has been some talk about school curriculums—will now include guidance on the history of black, Asian and ethnic minority people that is to be taught to all children who attend state schools in Wales. I mentioned earlier the delight locally—schoolchildren learn about John Ystumllyn, and that is a great source of pleasure and making connections.
I am also very proud that the first statue of a named, non-fictional woman in an outdoor public space in Wales was unveiled a month ago in Cardiff to celebrate the life and work of Betty Campbell. Betty Campbell was a first. She was the first black woman to be appointed as a headteacher in Wales, at Mount Stuart Primary, Butetown. I mentioned the proximity between Criccieth and John Ystumllyn and Pwllheli and the slave galleys. Butetown is very close to Her Majesty’s prison Cardiff. While we celebrate these histories, we have to remember the proportion of black people imprisoned in Wales. In 2017 this stood at 72 people per 10,000, while the proportion of white people is 15 per 10,000. The proportion in all the prisons in England and Wales is desperately high and wrong, but in Wales it is staggeringly wrong.
While we celebrate these firsts and successes, we must remember this great and most shocking indication of inequality. There are many, I freely grant, but in the 21st century disproportionality in imprisonment is something that we must seek to use as a marker of what we do not tolerate. It is evident that history can be both fragrant and thorny. Perhaps it is best to close with the rose of John Ystumllyn and remember that gardens have always been places that bring people together. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) on obtaining this important debate.
We have heard a lot of important points about black history, but I want to talk about more recent black history. I want to answer the question of why four black MPs were elected for the first time in 1987. It is tempting to think that it was because of our great merit or the benevolence of our political parties, but I would argue, having been one of the Members elected in 1987, that the fact that we could get selected and elected owed a lot to events in the 1980s. It is my view that the black Members of Parliament that were elected in 1987 and, with respect, black Members who are here today, stand on the shoulders of people in the community who were willing to stand up and in some cases actually cause urban disorder. Without those people at the grassroots, none of us would be here.
Colleagues have touched on these events, but let me remind Members of them. First there were the April 1981 Brixton riots. It is hard to recollect what an impact those riots had. Scenes like that had never been seen on the British mainland. I remember going to Brixton the day after those riots, seeing the devastation and realising that something really impactful had happened to the British political narrative. The reason that the Scarman report, which I mentioned earlier, made such an impact was that it was an elderly white judge saying quite shocking things about institutional racism in British society. He could not be dismissed.
Sadly, many of the things he said were not acted on, but the Scarman inquiry was extremely important. In January 1981 there was the New Cross house fire. As hon. Members have said, the slogan at the time was “13 dead, nothing said”. A black people’s day of action was organised and 20,000 people marched. I was one of those people, and the extraordinary thing about that march was that there were so many people on it who were not regular black, left activists. They were ordinary people who were shocked that 13 young people could die in this way and nothing really was being done or said about it.
Then there were the 1985 Brixton riots, which were triggered by the death of Cherry Groce. Then there was the 1985 Broadwater Farm uprising, which was triggered by a police raid that ended in the death of Cynthia Jarrett.
Without activity at grassroots level, without anger and the expression of anger—sometimes by marching, sometimes through what was written and what was said—we would not have had the tide of events that resulted in the election of four black MPs in 1987. I will touch on who they were, as I am the only one left in Parliament.
There was Keith Vaz, who read law at Cambridge and became a practising solicitor. There was Paul Boateng, who was born in Hackney—Members do not need me to remind them what a great borough that is—and made his name working at Brent law centre. He also represented Cherry Groce in the aftermath of the Brixton riots. He had a very distinguished ministerial career and ended his career as high commissioner to South Africa, a position that was particularly appropriate because the struggle against apartheid was always one of Paul’s signature issues. Then, of course, we had the legendary Bernie Grant, one of the first black leaders of a local authority as leader of Haringey Council.
There are so many issues that were first raised in the ’80s and before, whether that is black children in education or in the criminal justice system, black people in business and the lack of access that they sometimes have to finance and support, or black people in employment, be that public sector or private sector, where black people often find themselves hitting a glass ceiling in terms of promotion. Then there is the issue of black maternal health, which other hon. Members have raised.
I am glad that the right hon. Lady has reminded us about the death of Cynthia Jarrett. As she reflects historically, she reminds us all of the appalling experiences that people have been through. She did not mention the murder of Keith Blakelock. I remember that happening when I was young. Surely she is not advocating for civil disorder today in response to the problems that we undoubtedly face—surely not.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that important intervention. Of course I am not advocating civil disorder. As someone who lived through that era, I am saying that without people marching and taking to the streets, I am confident that there would not have been the impetus, the concern and the focus that enabled me and my three colleagues to be elected in 1987. He must give me some credit for having lived through that era and having been active in the community at that time. Neither I nor anyone on these Benches would advocate civil disorder, but it happened; we cannot pretend it did not and we cannot pretend it did not have an impact, as Lord Scarman himself said.
My right hon. Friend is making an absolutely fantastic speech and giving everybody a well-needed lesson in our history. Does she agree that this is why it is important that our history is told properly? We have to see the good, the bad, the everything in all that we do, so that we all know, and so we can stop the cycle of injustice.
Yes, we have to stop this cycle. I have lived through too many decades of it: of civil disorder, which hon. Members opposite deprecate, of anger, anguish and concern, of reports such as the Scarman report, of “13 dead and nothing said”, of reports being written and nothing changes. I have to tell hon. Members that the community—not just the ethnic minority community but the community as a whole—is weary of reports being written and injustice being pointed out and nothing happening.
Black people make our own history. We continue to contend against the forces of institutional racism, whether that is people engaging with civil disorder, which of course I entirely deprecate, or whether it is those of us in Parliament today in 2021. We make our history. Our history is British history. We will continue to fight on. I would like to think that, on some of the issues that have been raised in the past 40 years, we will see real action, a real strategy for action and real change in the coming years.
It is a pleasure to see you in the chair for this important debate, Sir Graham. Like everyone else, I start by thanking the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for securing this debate and all right hon. and hon. Members who have taken part and contributed thus far.
This is a hugely important topic, and today’s debate gives us the opportunity not only to celebrate the lives of so many black people, but to recognise the invaluable contribution they have made to society. It gives us a chance to acknowledge and reflect on those who, often at great personal cost, as we have heard, have put themselves in danger to expose and seek to end racial injustice and to make society better for themselves and for every single one of us. It is absolutely right that we should celebrate those people, because through their sacrifice they have laid a pathway for others to follow.
As the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and the right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) have said, many of those figures are well known to us, whether they be politicians, actors, sports figures, or academics such as Betty Campbell and her marvellous statue, but behind them are millions of people who, unrecognised and without fanfare, have devoted their lives to the betterment of their community. I believe today should be as much a celebration of their contribution as anyone else’s.
I sincerely thank the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) for her superb analysis of contemporary history, which showed clearly that Black History Month is not the celebration of the end of a journey—far from it. Black History Month exists to reflect on how far we have come, but also to shine a light on how far we as a society have still to go. Depressingly, as we have heard from the hon. Member for Battersea, the vile racist abuse that those three young England footballers had to suffer following the penalty shoot-out at Wembley shows just how far that is.
I am reluctant to inject a note of discord into the debate, but I must take issue with the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who quoted his friend the hon. Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson). The great Arthur Wharton was the first English black professional footballer, but the first pioneer on that front was Andrew Watson, a Scots Guyanese footballer who played for the phenomenally successful Queen’s Park football club, captaining Scotland to success over England and Wales on several occasions. I know so much about Andrew Watson because, in a previous life, I made a documentary on his outstanding success. I believe it is still available on YouTube, should anyone care to view it; I would appreciate it if the hon. Member for Wycombe could recommend it to his colleague the hon. Member for Darlington.
Where we can all agree, I am certain, is that racism is an evil that none in our societies can claim to be immune to. We have a huge amount of work to do if we are to advance racial equality across these islands. Let me be absolutely clear: racism, however it manifests, has no place in modern Scotland, but it is not enough simply not to be racist. Particularly in the positions we hold in this place, we must be actively anti-racist, be seen to actively support minority ethnic communities and be first in line to call out and condemn racism wherever it rears its ugly head.
The First Minister of Scotland has made it abundantly clear that she will not tolerate racism in Scotland, whether it is the recent disgraceful anti-Irish racism on the streets of Glasgow, or the discrimination against any of our ethnic minority communities. She has made it clear that her Government are determined to play their part in eradicating racism, inequality and injustice and in building a better, fairer Scotland for every single one of us. I am pleased, therefore, that the Scottish Government have opened a new fund accessible to all organisations with a focus on tackling inequality and prejudice, which is in line with the goals and outcomes of Black History Month.
We have heard from many speakers this afternoon that one of the best ways to tackle racism is through education. Only through education can young people in particular gain an understanding of their history. In the Scottish National party’s May manifesto, we committed to funding an online programme on Scotland’s colonial history and encourage local authorities to adopt that programme in all Scottish schools.
I understand that in last year’s debate, the Equalities Minister, the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch), expressed the opinion that the education curriculum was not in need of decolonisation because, in her view, there was no colonialism present in the curriculum. She could not be more wrong. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North East (Anne McLaughlin) was right when she said during last year’s debate that
“racism is rooted in untruthful or selective teaching about our past. People are not born racist. They learn it.”—[Official Report, 20 October 2020; Vol. 682, c. 1006.]
We need to recognise that there is a desperate need for the UK—I include Scotland in that—to face up to our colonial history and the role that we played in colonising great swathes of the planet, and how we as a society became phenomenally wealthy in no small part because of the enslavement of black African people.
I am from a generation of Scots children, particularly Glaswegians, who were educated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From primary school age, we were taught about the Glasgow tobacco lords, that group of Scottish merchants who in the 18th century made huge fortunes trading tobacco from the Americas. They became so unimaginably wealthy that they redrew the city itself: vast sums were spent on houses and new roads, which they named after themselves. Indeed, to this day, there is an area of the city—one of its most beautiful—known as the Merchant City. We were taught that these guys were something to admire: that we should have an enormous sense of civic pride in what they did and how their wealth allowed the city of Glasgow to become that much-heralded second city of the empire.
The fact that those tobacco barons were slave traders who made their fortunes from that triangular trade between Glasgow, west Africa and the Americas was an inconvenient truth that was rarely, if ever, mentioned. The fact that they grew fabulously wealthy, and that Glasgow was transformed into a large and prosperous city, because of the slave trade and the enforced labour of the tobacco plantations of Virginia and sugar plantations of Jamaica was airbrushed from the narrative.
As children, we were told that the entrepreneurship of those men was to be admired and celebrated, and to this day, they are immortalised in the street names and place names of Glasgow, a city they effectively built. Any walking tour around Glasgow will include Glassford Street, Oswald Street, Buchanan Street, Cochrane Street, Dunlop Street, Ingram Street, Gordon Street and Robertson Street—all named after the Glasgow merchants whose fortunes were directly linked to the slave trade. If one did not recognise those family names, then Virginia Street, Tobago Street, Jamaica Street and even the Kingston Bridge would provide a clue as to where our city’s money came from. Unknowingly, the good people of Glasgow—like probably many of our constituents—literally walk in the shadows of slavery every single day.
While accepting that we cannot change our past, we should at least know what that past is, and understand the role that the enslavement of other human beings played in our success. We have to accept, because it is an undeniable fact, that our stories are told from one perspective: the perspective of the coloniser. However, there is another, equally important story that deserves to be heard and must be heard, which is the story of the colonised. Without that missing perspective—without being able to hear the stories of those victims—we will only ever have half of the story. For many years growing up, I was failing to completely understand what had been done, why it had been done and the consequences of it, because I only ever had half of the story.
Scotland’s links to the transatlantic slave trade are deep and complex, but they are also undeniable. I am therefore delighted that future generations of Scottish children will have a far more rounded and inclusive education—one that focuses on race equality. The Scottish Government recently announced their curriculum for excellence, which will provide opportunities for young people to learn about current and past attitudes, values and historical events, and their impact on our society. That can include learning about Scotland’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Scotland’s role in that trade will now be an option in both our national 5 and our higher history qualifications, and Education Scotland will be publishing resources for teachers on slavery and human trafficking, including resources to support teaching and learning about the slave trade and Scotland’s role in it. The Scottish Government will fund the development of an online programme for teachers and encourage all local authorities to take it up. That is very welcome, and a far cry from how my generation was taught Scottish history. The sooner we get to an acceptance that black history is an integral and fundamental part of our history, the better for us all.
Again, I thank the hon. Member for Streatham for securing the debate. I share her belief that it should be an annual event marking Black History Month until such time as it is deemed no longer necessary, which unfortunately seems a long way off.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) for securing such an important debate. I know how hard she worked to give us all the opportunity to discuss and celebrate Black History Month. I also thank all Members who have spoken for their powerful contributions.
Black History Month is about celebrating and highlighting black heroes. For me, the first person who comes to mind is Ira Aldridge, a Shakespearean actor who came to Britain from the United States in the 1830s. He was a fierce abolitionist who spoke before Parliament about ending slavery the world over. He went on to settle in my own city of Coventry, where he managed the Theatre Royal, becoming the first black theatre manager in Britain. Ira Aldridge stands firm in our history among other black trailblazers.
The hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) referenced George Alexander Gratton from his constituency, and my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) mentioned the first black London mayor, John Archer, from her constituency. Two other black trailblazers come to my mind. Mary Prince—my hon. Friend also mentioned her—was a black abolitionist, and the first black woman to write an autobiography and present an anti-slavery petition to this House. The second person who springs to my mind is Annie Brewster, one of the first Afro-Caribbean nurses to work in Britain —a pioneer for supporting elderly patients losing their sight.
I must also mention the trailblazers who came before us in this place. I echo the sentiments of my colleagues in celebrating incredible black parliamentarians. I am thinking of Lord Boateng, Bernie Grant, Baroness Amos and of course my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). Their legacies and continued work in Parliament can be seen throughout. We need to ensure that the legacy of those trailblazers is known to all in Britain.
Recognising and celebrating black Britain should be as ubiquitous in our culture as it is in our history. We should not relegate that celebration to a few debates once a year—I add that today’s debate was not brought forward by the Government—because celebrating such trailblazers from our history, and our world, inspires the next generation of black Britons to pursue and achieve their dreams. Hearing the accomplishments of my predecessors in this House partly inspired me to stand for Parliament, and helped me to become Coventry’s first black parliamentarian.
My hon. Friend has spoken, quite correctly, about heroes, but does she agree that it is not just about heroic figures? It is also about ordinary black men and women—the ordinary nurse, the ordinary factory worker and the ordinary bus driver—who were willing to do what it took to take black politics and black dignity forward.
Absolutely. As my right hon. Friend said, ordinary black people who worked hard to support this country and contributed significantly to our culture should be celebrated for their contribution to the advancement of this country. When we recognise and celebrate the accomplishments of black people in this country we empower the next generation of young black Britons.
Although this month is dedicated to the celebration of black history, it is crucial that we reflect on the historical barriers that black people in this country continue to face. When we look across all parts of our society, including our NHS, we see that we are well represented in the workforce, although sadly often not in positions of power. As an NHS worker myself, it pains me to see that black people are far less likely to rise to the top of the medical profession.
My hon. Friends the Members for Streatham, for Battersea and for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington have spoken passionately about the results of the recent reviews by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy) and Baroness Lawrence. Baroness Lawrence’s review shone a light on the inequality that black healthcare workers face, putting facts to feelings that many of us present already had. The review exposed how black, Asian and minority ethnic NHS workers have suffered disproportionately from the Government’s failure to keep them safe during the pandemic.
I bring this worrying state of affairs to the attention of the House because just as important as celebrating the achievements of black people in Britain is recognising those ongoing obstacles that black Britons face and the continuing fight to eliminate them. There are a couple of worrying examples that I will touch on. First, as my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea said, we must take concrete steps to eliminate the ethnicity pay gap in this country, which stands at 24% in the major cities. That is disgraceful, and fixing it is long overdue. As with the gender pay gap, that injustice entrenches inequality and disempowers millions.
Secondly—an issue also raised by my hon. Friend—exclusion rates for black students in English schools are up to six times higher than those for their white peers in some local authorities. The reason why that is so important is that we know about the damage that exclusion can do to a student: it can derail their life chances for good. Excluded students are far less likely to get good GCSE or A-level results and, sadly, they have much lower job prospects post education. That is an incredible injustice for many black students and we need to root it out. Excessive use of exclusion risks wrecking the life chances of young black Britons and it must be curbed.
Another point made today—by my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham and others—was about the black British curriculum. My hon. Friend made the important point that schools in Britain need more black representation. I pay tribute to the Black Curriculum, an organisation to which many Members have paid tribute today. When the Minister responds, I hope that he will provide answers on whether the Government have any plans to follow the Labour-led Welsh Government in implementing a black British curriculum.
Having a black British curriculum would not only provide young black people with an understanding of their heritage, but play a significant role in tackling racism through better education about colonial history. It would empower young black British students to learn about the trailblazers who have gone before them, and inspire more young black children to aspire to become teachers. Given the lack of black representation in the education system, that would go a long way towards making up the difference. I hope that the Minister will tell us what steps the Government are taking to address the lack of black representation in school leadership.
My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea also spoke about black maternal health and how black women are four times more likely to die while giving birth. I hope that the Minister will explain what steps are being taken to address that and to ensure that data will be collected.
To wrap up, as the shadow Minister for Women and Equalities, I celebrate the many achievements of black Britons. I will use my role to combat the inequalities that I have outlined today.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) on securing this important debate. She spoke passionately—as so many other Members have—about the importance of Black History Month. I welcome the contributions that we have heard. I also congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on granting the debate.
Black history is extremely important to the Government. It has resonance across many different areas of policy.
It is right, then, that all Departments should be responsible and accountable in debates such as these, which is why I am appearing today as the Minister for School Standards. I shall respond predominantly on matters regarding black history in education, as I am sure the hon. Lady will understand. As many hon. Members––including my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) in his thoughtful speech––pointed out, there is a huge range of topics to cover, so where issues such as maternal health have been raised, I will write to colleagues in relevant Departments to ask for a response. In the case of the ethnicity pay gap, that will be the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Scully). I will ensure that the relevant Ministers send responses on the broader issues.
As we have heard, October is Black History Month in the UK, a time to celebrate the contribution of black communities and individuals over the centuries in shaping the dynamic and diverse country that we have today. Like the hon. Member for Streatham, I want black children in our schools to be proud to be black and proud to be British. Like the hon. Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), I want to ensure that we inspire the next generation to achieve their dreams.
I take a personal interest in debates of this nature. One of my predecessors as Member for Worcester, who also happened to be my late father, campaigned alongside Jack Kennedy and Adlai Stevenson for civil rights in the United States and came to this House fresh from those campaigns at a time of critical change in the recognition of civil rights in that country. He continued to champion this important issue during his time as an MP and after. When I became Member of Parliament for Worcester in 2010 and met members of Worcester’s Afro-Caribbean community, I was deeply touched to hear how much they valued some of his work in the constituency on their behalf.
It was one of my greatest honours, for too short a time, to represent Basil D’Oliveira and his family. I was very glad that the city I represent marked his life not only with a magnificent civic service in 2012 but also posthumously by granting him the freedom of the city in 2018. Basil was a softly spoken, deeply unpolitical gentleman who became an unlikely hero in the struggle against apartheid, his role showing the cricketing world the true nature of South Africa’s colour bar and helping to strengthen the sporting embargo. His example drew global attention to the fundamental unreasonableness of racist policy. In the words of Nelson Mandela when he met him, he did his bit.
My younger constituents have also been an inspiration to me. Darian Murray-Griffiths, who until recently was one of my constituents, is one such person. I first met him as an 11-year-old boy after his proud parents reached out to me to encourage his interest in Parliament and history. I have since followed his progress closely and, as a student at Worcester sixth-form college, he made an eloquent and thoughtful speech at a Black Lives Matter event in the city. Such was the impact of his speech that he was invited to No. 10 to discuss it. I have no doubt that young people like him will further bring together diverse communities in modern Britain and make their own contribution to history.
I want to acknowledge the strong engagement of parliamentarians, children and young people, black community groups and the public on black history in the curriculum. The Department has been clear that the national curriculum for history enabled black voices and experiences to be taught, whether it is events such as the Bristol bus boycott that had a national impact or the global impact of those soldiers across the former empire and Commonwealth who fought in both world wars. The recent anniversaries of the first and second world wars showed the greater awareness of black and minority ethnic contributions to both. For the first world war, that was aided by Government projects such as The Unremembered and No Barriers, alongside the promotion of figures such as Lieutenant Walter Tull.
Is the Minister prepared to share his plans to do something about the wholly disproportionate level of black exclusions from our schools, which often leads to a school-to-prison pipeline? It has been said that the day you exclude a child from school, you might as well give them the date and time to turn up at prison. Will he share with the House his proposals to recruit more black teachers and make it possible to rise up the ladder to be headteacher?
The right hon. Lady makes some important points and I want to respond on both. I shall return to the issue of teachers later in my speech. On exclusions, we have heard a number of different figures for the proportions in that respect. It is important that we work to reduce exclusions in general. As a Department, we are looking at our behaviour policies to make sure we can support schools to keep more people in school. I would caution that many of those figures are also related to geography and where people happen to be in the country. It is difficult to realise one overall set of figures but I am told that, once other figures are controlled for, black Caribbean children are about 1.7 times more likely than white children to be permanently excluded.
We should not shy away from the fact that some groups of children are more likely to be excluded than others. That is why we are updating our guidance to ensure that schools and governing bodies understand their responsibility to spot trends in the data and accordingly put support in place for certain groups of pupils faster or provide early intervention. We are clear in existing guidance that schools should consider what extra support might be needed to identify and address the needs of children from groups most likely to be excluded to reduce the likelihood of a situation arising where an exclusion is warranted. Ofsted’s assessment of behaviour in schools also includes specific consideration of whether any groups of pupils are being disproportionately excluded, which is absolutely something we should continue to look at.
Our reforms to alternative provision will also look to improve behaviour, attendance and long-term pupil outcomes, including better transition to post-16. That will ensure that all children and young people, including pupils from ethnic minority backgrounds, get back on track and get the right support at the right time. I will come back further on the point made by the right hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) about teacher recruitment and the pipeline.
The Minister talks about the data he is using. The evidence is very clear. It was actually the Government’s own Race Disparity Unit that highlighted a lot of the data, which clearly shows that black Caribbean children are disproportionately likely to be excluded from school, controlling for all other factors. The facts are clear. It is an issue that needs addressing, and I would be grateful if the Minister kindly addressed that disproportionality and that disparity for our young black children.
I would say to the hon. Lady that that is just what I tried to set out. We think that, where there is any disparity, it needs to be addressed. That is one of the things that Ofsted is already encouraged to look into. It is also one of the reasons that we are looking at our behaviour and exclusions guidance to see how we can address the issue more generally.
It was good to hear the hon. Lady talking about good teaching of black history at one of her local primary schools. At a recent visit to Burnopfield Primary School in County Durham, I was very pleased to see black history being taught through a rich and broad curriculum. Black Olympians were celebrated in PE and black musicians’ significant contributions were celebrated in a reception class. Inclusivity is an ethos at the school, and Black History Month is celebrated as part of that. That is particularly striking in an area that is almost 100% white English.
Teachers and historians are embedding black history in teaching all year round. In her articles, Hannah Cusworth explains how she teaches her pupils that York was more ethnically diverse in Roman times than it is now; that black people were present at the Tudor courts; and that William Davidson, a black Georgian, was involved in the Cato Street conspiracy. Many history teachers have followed the example of Kerry Apps, who ensures that when pupils study Elizabethan England, they understand the many Elizabethan trading and diplomatic connections with the wider world, such as those that led to the Moroccan delegation to London in 1600. Primary pupils in Haringey Education Partnership study the 5th-century African empire of Axum as an integrated part of their work on early Christian empires.
We have heard some fantastic examples of local history. The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) spoke about the new rose that has been dedicated to John Ystumllyn—she will have to forgive my Welsh pronunciation—which I was fascinated to read about this morning. I congratulate the We Too Built Britain campaign for its work on that.
We have heard about some very important figures who have been commemorated, such as the example originally given by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) of Yvonne Connolly, along with Betty Campbell in Cardiff; Olive Morris in Battersea; Ira Aldridge in Coventry; George Alexander Gratton in Wycombe; Arthur Wharton, the goalkeeper for Darlington; and, of course, Andrew Watson at Queen’s Park F.C.—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara) would not forgive me if I did not mention him. I want schools to look at local figures like those when they teach local history.
We have thought carefully about whether we can do more to support high-quality teaching and to help teachers and schools develop their own school curriculum, fully using the flexibility and freedom of the natural history curriculum and the breadth and depth of content it includes. I acknowledge that some teachers may need more guidance on how to teach a high-quality and diverse history curriculum, and that is why I am pleased to announce that we are taking steps to develop a model history curriculum. We will work with history curriculum experts, historians and school leaders to develop a model history curriculum that will stand as an exemplar of a knowledge-rich, coherent approach to teaching history. The development of model, knowledge-rich curriculums continues along the path of reform that the Government set out in 2010. Our reforms are driven by the ideas of Professor E.D. Hirsch, whose work sets out the importance of the transmission of rich subject knowledge from teachers to pupils. Hirsch came from what might be termed a left-wing background in his views, and he strongly advocated an education that gave all children cultural literacy, in recognition of the fact that knowledge had often been the preserve of the elite.
School education gives the rare opportunity to offer children experiences that go beyond their own circumstances and cultural background. The cultural breadth that schools can teach children offers common cultural touchpoints for all. That is why a knowledge-rich approach embeds diversity in a meaningful, rather than tokenistic, form. A curriculum based narrowly on relevance to pupils is to deny them an introduction to the best that has been thought and said. There is no reason why the work of a dead white man is not appropriate for all children to learn about. Maya Angelou famously said that Shakespeare must be a black girl, as his poetic words expressed so intensely what she, a victim of poverty, racism and childhood sexual abuse, felt inside.
This is why the development of the model history curriculum is so important. We have already published the model music curriculum in March; this is non-statutory music curriculum guidance for key stages 1 to 3, developed by an independent panel of 15 specialists from across the UK. Diversity will be an important aspect of the model history curriculum, as we demonstrate how the content, themes and eras of the national curriculum can be brought to life by teaching them in an interconnected form throughout key stages. A diverse history can be taught because history is diverse. As so many Members have said today: black history is British history.
British history is deeply connected with world history; we do not stand apart. What makes this country “Great” Britain are these historical connections, and how they have shaped our past and present. The model history curriculum will equip teachers and leaders to teach migration, cultural change and the contributions made by different communities to science, art, culture and society. We will announce further details in due course, but I am pleased to show our commitment to high quality teaching in this debate. This country has a lot to be proud of—
I very much welcome what the Minister has said. I say this slightly tongue-in-cheek, but it feels to me that he is bound to be accused of being woke for what he has announced. What will he say to those, possibly even within Government, who accuse him of being woke? Will he explain to them that it is very necessary and right that he carries through this policy?
I would say to my hon. Friend that it is much more important to celebrate what brings us together than allow discussions to set us apart. In that regard, this country has a lot to be proud of. Children should be taught all aspects of our shared history, and as we have heard in this debate, that includes both the good and the bad.
We must teach about the contributions of people of all ethnicities, both men and women, who have made this country what it is today. The shared history of our country is one that is outward looking; a nation that has influenced the world and been influenced in turn by people from all over the world. It is people who have built the culturally rich country that we have today, and we are truly an example of the riches that diverse communities can bring to one another.
We believe that schools and teachers should use the flexibility they have in the curriculum to develop a more detailed, knowledge-rich curriculum, and to teach their pupils in an inclusive manner. To support this, the curriculum includes a number of examples that could be covered at different stages, drawn from the history both of this country and the wider world. Examples at key stage 1 include teaching about the lives of key black and minority ethnic figures, such as Mary Seacole and Rosa Parks. It was interesting that the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute referred to his education; I did not learn about Mary Seacole when I was at school, but I did learn about her from a school in my constituency. Other individuals can be taught at this key stage; I know that schools widely teach about Nelson Mandela as an inspiring figure—we mark his great achievements with a memorial statue in Parliament Square, in London.
The key stage 2 curriculum focuses on early civilisations; it also requires the study of a non-European society that provides contrast with British history, with examples including Benin, west Africa, from 900 to 1300. At key stage 3, as part of the statutory teaching of the overarching theme of Britain 1745 to 1901, topics could include Britain’s transatlantic slave trade, its effects, its eventual abolition and the development of the British empire. The latter could include teaching about the successful slave-led rebellions and challenges that led to the abolition of slavery, for example the role played by slaves and former slaves, such as within the Somerset ruling, and the life and work of Olaudah Equiano in the abolition movement. In the theme “Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day”, the end of empire and decolonisation can be taught. This key stage also requires the teaching of at least one study of a significant society or issue in world history and its interconnections with other world developments. Examples include the USA in the 20th century.
For key stage 4, the Department sets out that GCSE history specifications produced by the exam board for pupils should
“develop and extend their knowledge and understanding of specified key events, periods and societies in local, British, and wider world history; and of the wide diversity of human experience.”
We know that exam boards such as OCR, AQA and Pearson often offer options to study migration in Britain. There are a lot of resources available to help teachers teach black history, for example, lesson plays and resources produced by the Windrush Foundation, which support the study of the Empire Windrush and Caribbean migration. Runnymede Trust’s “Our Migration Story” website provides extensive resources telling the story of generations of migrants who came to and shaped the British Isles. Oak National Academy has developed a primary and secondary history curriculum, which is designed to be diverse and representative, including covering black history. Oak’s history curriculum includes medieval Mali, British colonialism in America, the abolition of slavery, the experience of those ruled by empire in Africa and why we celebrate Nelson Mandela Day.
Other subjects such as citizenship, English, PSHE, art, music and geography offer teachers opportunities to further explore black history with pupils, helping to build understanding and tolerance. Diverse texts are offered by exam boards in GCSE English. Pearson and Edexcel include texts such as the play “Refugee Boy” by Benjamin Zephaniah, adapted for the stage by Lemn Sissay, and the novel “Boys Don’t Cry” by Malorie Blackman in their post-1940 section of texts for English literature GCSE.
We know that a diverse teaching and school leadership workforce is important. We want teaching to be an inclusive profession, for schools and their leadership teams to reflect their communities, and for pupils to feel represented and inspired. There is further to go on this. Data show increases over time in the number of black teachers and leaders, but numbers still do not match the proportion of black people in the working population. We make sure that we target diverse audiences in our recruitment campaigns, and I am pleased that the picture is particularly encouraging when it comes to black postgraduate trainees starting their course—around 4% in 2020-21. This is in line with the wider working population.
I note the point that was made about university academics, and I will ensure that I pass on the point to the Minister for Universities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan). It is often said that talent is evenly distributed but opportunity is not. I believe this to be true. That is why we want to remove the barriers holding people back, whatever their background. This means tackling discrimination, but also levelling up opportunity, so that no matter where anyone lives in the UK and no matter what their socioeconomic or ethnic background, they can fulfil their potential. That is why the Prime Minister launched his independent commission on racial disparities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe noted, we will be responding to that commission in detail in due course.
I will conclude, because I want to give the hon. Member for Streatham a chance to respond. Months such as Black History Month can highlight the great black Britons who have helped Britain shine internationally, from artists such as Steve McQueen, writers such as Malorie Blackman and athletes such as Dina Asher-Smith to the everyday contribution to our society of people from the Caribbean and Africa, who helped build and support the NHS. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Streatham for this highly interesting debate and for once again highlighting the importance of Black History Month.
I want to start by thanking all Members who have participated for their well-delivered contributions. I would like to say that the support of the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) for these issues does not go unnoticed. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) took us through the history of great black women and reiterated the shameful lack of quality impact assessments on Government legislation. My hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Limehouse (Apsana Begum) pointed out quite rightly the shameful lack of representation of black teachers in our schools and wider academia.
The right hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts), whose constituency I know I have pronounced wrong, gave an analogy about discussions about race and our history being fragrant and thorny. I really liked that. As the only Welsh Member here, she probably takes full pride in the launching of the teaching of Black History Month in schools in Wales.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) reminded us of the civil rights struggles here in the UK. She took a lot of time to talk about the other black Members of Parliament without mentioning herself. She is a trailblazer. She talked about the others whose shoulders we stand on, but we know fully that we stand on hers. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), our shadow Minister for Equalities, quite rightly reaffirmed her commitment to tackling these issues. The hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Brendan O’Hara)—
Motion lapsed, and sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(14)).