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Black History Month

Volume 738: debated on Thursday 19 October 2023

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

I begin by saying that I find myself in an unusual situation today, as I have participated in a number of debates—this is my third—and it has been great getting to know the Minister a bit better. I thank Mr Speaker for selecting this important Adjournment debate and ensuring that we can once again debate Black History Month during the month of October.

Black History Month is an extremely important annual event, but I strongly believe we should be talking about black history week in, week out, and not just once a year. The theme of this year’s Black History Month is “Saluting our sisters”. I begin my speech, as I have done in previous years, by highlighting and celebrating a number of black Britons who have been under-appreciated and under-recognised in our national discourse. These black Britons are great Britons, and we should celebrate them as such. Again, I pay tribute to Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, co-ordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council, who organised the first recognition of this month in 1987.

With this year’s theme, I would like to highlight the crucial role that black women have played in shaping history, inspiring change and building communities. I have previously mentioned Mary Prince, who was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to Parliament and the first black woman to write and publish an autobiography. A petition was proposed to place a statue of her outside the Museum of London Docklands. To this day, there has been no statue.

I also pay tribute to some of Health Service Journal’s top 50 black figures who are leading the way in English NHS and health policy. Karen Bonner, one of a handful of acute trust chief nurses in the NHS, has been described as getting a great deal of attention for her “tremendous leadership” and “inspirational talks”. She has worked with Prostate Cancer UK to raise awareness of the disease in the black community. One in four black men will get prostate cancer in their lifetime. Black men are more likely to get prostate cancer than any other men, who have a one-in-eight-chance. We do not know why black men are more likely to get prostate cancer, but it is one of the easiest cancers to treat if detected early. It is good practice to have early testing and screening.

Dr Jacqui Dyer is a director of Global Black Thrive and one of the key voices calling for the mental health system to recognise the different experiences of black, Asian and minority people. Yvonne Coghill assists organisations in working towards workforce race equality and is a special adviser to and board member of the NHS race and health observatory.

Marie Gabriel is one of the most experienced black NHS non-executives in the country. Dr Lade Smith, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, is the first black woman to hold the role in the college’s 182-year history and only the fifth woman. I cannot mention all 50, but they are all inspiring. I suggest that everyone checks them out.

As well as paying tribute to under-acknowledged black Britons, I want to use the debate to highlight some of the inequalities that continue to affect black people in this country, which the Government must do more to address. First, there is black maternal health. I pay tribute to Five X More and the Motherhood Group for their outstanding campaigning on that. I am sure the Minister agrees that they have done so much to bring it up the political agenda. Their work has highlighted the stark disparities in outcomes that black women face when giving birth in this country. Black women in the UK are four times more likely to die while pregnant, while giving birth or as new mothers than white women. I commend Sandra, the founder of the Motherhood Group, for hosting the first ever black maternal health conference in the UK with the aim of rebuilding trust between the community and service providers and exploring the role of racism, human rights and structural change and how to engage effectively with black mothers.

I also commend the founders of Five X More, Clo and Tinuke, who held a women’s health summit to drive change. I am sure that the Minister saw the publication last week of the MBRRACE mortality and morbidity confidential inquiries report, which shows that there has been no change in the shocking statistics. Labour is committed to tackling that by training more midwives and health visitors, incentivising continuity of care and improving course content on the presentation of illness and pain among different groups. We will ensure that the NHS is squarely focused on tackling this shocking disparity. Put simply, giving birth as a black woman is considerably riskier than for women of other ethnicities. The Government know that that inequality exists, and now is the time for action.

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

While that story is shocking, sadly, it is not uncommon. Too many black women do not get the support they need because the police are not trained to spot and deal appropriately with domestic violence in black communities. That includes things such as missing signs of domestic violence on black skin, and the lack of cultural knowledge about how threats can be communicated. We need mandatory specialist training for the police and others on all that and more. I hope the Government will seriously consider that as part of a renewed focus on violence against women and girls, given recent events. I have raised this issue a number of times in Parliament, and was successful in getting a former Minister to agree to a meeting, following a debate on support for black victims of domestic abuse on 28 March 2022. That meeting took place, and a number of agreed actions followed. I met the representatives of the petition recently, who sadly informed me that nothing has followed since. I would be grateful if the Minister committed today that she or one of her colleagues will take up this matter as soon as possible.

The hon. Lady raises some incredibly important points. I have a large number of black constituents. What national efforts need to be made to achieve the things that she is setting out so clearly?

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and for the water. The Government can do a number of things, which I will come to.

I would like to bring the House’s attention to the largest ever survey undertaken for black Britons, carried out recently by The Voice newspaper and Cambridge University. I hosted the publication of the “Black British Voices” report in Parliament. The data I saw was shocking but not surprising. It showed that people had serious concerns about racism across education and the workplace. The report revealed that 41% of more than 10,000 black Britons surveyed identified racism as the biggest barrier to young black people’s education attainment. Of those surveyed, 95% believed that the national curriculum neglects black lives and experience. I am sure that Members agree that those statistics are alarming. Furthermore, fewer than 2% believed that educational institutions take racism seriously. In the light of the data, more work needs to be done to address those issues. I am worried about young black people growing up feeling that the system does not really work for them, particularly when looking at opportunities that may arise.

I want to talk about the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival in Britain, when half a million people came to the UK after the second world war. It is important to reflect on the shameful Windrush scandal and assess what progress the Government have made to right the wrongs they have perpetuated. I am proud to represent a diverse constituency and to champion the contributions of the Caribbean community, but the Government’s treatment of the Windrush generation is one of the most shameful episodes in our post-war history. The Windrush generation were victimised under the hostile environment policy. People have been let down by the compensation scheme that was not fit for purpose and betrayed by the Government not implementing all the recommendations of the Wendy Williams lessons learned report. I have raised that with the Government a number of times and I am disappointed that there has not been a huge amount of progress in addressing it. I am proud that Labour will help to deliver justice for the Windrush generation by looking to overhaul the Windrush scheme and putting it outside Home Office control, and enacting all the recommendations of the Wendy Williams review.

I want to return to the asks that I made of the Government during the Black History Month debate last year. The first was for action to diversify the curriculum. As I have said previously, I want our children, whether they are black or white, in every corner of the country, to better understand our national history and culture. That includes talking about the good and the bad—the range of experiences that people have had. I am pleased by the progress being made by the Welsh Government; Wales has become the first UK nation to make the teaching of black, Asian and minority ethnic histories and experiences mandatory in the school curriculum. I believe that black history is British history and needs to be taught all year round.

My second ask was for the implementation of a race equality strategy and action plan. There has been much discussion about the inequality and structural racism in our country. The Government have done some work, particularly in relation to the Sewell report, which was seen as controversial, but they have not always been seen to go far enough in terms of concrete action. A race equality strategy and action plan, which is desperately needed, would cover areas such as education, health and employment, and should include specific proposals to address well-known inequalities such as the ethnicity pay gap, unequal access to justice and the impacts of the pandemic on black people. I support the Labour party’s policy on that.

In the current climate, as we come to a general election, I do not want any political party to see certain ethnic minority groups as a tool in culture wars. We need to make sure in the run-up to the election that everyone plays a role and that no one feels that they are being targeted because of their ethnicity. I am grateful, once again, for the opportunity to speak in this debate.

I am grateful to be able to contribute to this Adjournment debate to mark Black History Month. I congratulate the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Abena Oppong-Asare) on what has been a marathon afternoon for us both. It is lovely to finish the afternoon by responding to such an important debate.

As Minister for Women, I was pleased to see that one of this year’s themes for Black History Month is “celebrating sisters”. That gives us a chance to recognise the important contribution that black British women have made in the story of this nation. From individuals such as Mary Seacole, a trailblazing nurse who served during the Crimean war, to women from the Windrush generation who helped rebuild this country after the second world war, these pioneering women fought for civil rights and equality, playing an essential role in shaping the diverse and inclusive nation we are today.

As a Government, we are committed to ensuring that Black History Month is, as the hon. Lady said, not a once-a-year event and that schools are equipped to teach black history all year round. How our past is taught is crucial to ensuring that every pupil, regardless of their background, feels a sense of belonging to this country. We also want to celebrate the fact that our country is more diverse than ever before. According to the 2021 census, 18% of people in England and Wales are now from an ethnic minority group, compared with just 14% in 2011. Integration is also increasing, with the mixed- ethnicity population in England increasing by 40% in 10 years; 2.4 million households are now multi-ethnic.

According to some of the latest data, contained in a report produced recently by the newspaper the Voice in conjunction with Cambridge University, although we are seeing more diversity, especially in communities, there are concerns about the way people feel. May I urge the Minister to look at the report and think about what action can be taken in that regard?

I have not seen the report, but I shall be happy to look at it, because the question of how people feel is important, in terms of both their experience and how it shapes their future.

It would of course be naive to say that tolerance and inclusion are the universal experiences of everyone who lives here, which is why, in July 2020, the then Prime Minister established the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities. We published our response to the Commission, “Inclusive Britain”, in March last year. That response sets out a groundbreaking action plan to level up the country, with three clear aims: to build a stronger sense of trust and fairness in our institutions—the hon. Lady touched on that, in relation to maternal health in particular —to promote equality of opportunity, encouraging aspiration and empowering individuals to reach their full potential; and to encourage and instil a sense of belonging to a multi-ethnic United Kingdom that celebrates its differences while embracing the values that unite us all.

The landmark “Inclusive Britain” strategy sets out 74 actions to tackle entrenched ethnic disparities in health, education, employment, policing and criminal justice. The strategy aims to increase trust and fairness, promote equality of opportunity, nurture agency, and foster a greater sense of belonging and inclusion. In April we published an update for Parliament, setting out the excellent progress we had made in delivering our ambitious strategy. This is a cross-Government approach, and we have delivered a number of changes already. There is new guidance from employers on how to use positive action in the workplace. We have published our ambitious schools White Paper, and provided targeted support for pupils who need it the most. We have established an Inclusion at Work panel to promote fairness in the workplace, and we are improving the stop and search process through new training for police officers. All of that will make a difference to the lives of black communities. Eighteen months on, we have already completed more than half those 74 actions, and we are proud to be delivering on our promises to all our citizens.

I appreciate that the Government are taking steps to try to address this issue, but given that this is the 75th year of the Windrush generation, I should like to hear more about what they are going to do for, in particular, those who have contributed so much to the NHS, have worked in Transport for London, and have helped our public sectors in general. They are being massively left behind, and the compensation scheme has not moved forward at all.

The hon. Lady raised that point in her speech. We want to make sure that this is a fair scheme. The Home Office has reduced the time taken to allocate a claim for a substantive casework consideration from 18 months to less than five months. However, I fully understand the points that the hon. Lady has made, and I am happy to raise them with Home Office colleagues, because we fully understand the frustration and the upset that has been caused.

It is great that the case workload has been reduced, although it needs to be speeded up. However, I want to ask about the Wendy Williams review, which has been in place for some time. Is the Minister able to give us any firm commitments on its full implementation and any timescales applying to that?

I am not able to give a firm commitment from the Dispatch Box this afternoon, but I can update the hon. Lady, and I shall be happy to write to her with some firm timelines after the debate.

I understand that Windrush is a particularly sensitive area, but I reassure the hon. Lady that we are making progress across the board, particularly on the school curriculum. Our model history curriculum will help pupils to understand the complex nature of British history and their place within it.

The hon. Lady touched on maternal health, and the evidence and statistics show that women from black, Asian and working-class backgrounds have poorer maternity outcomes, which is why I am so pleased that we set up the maternity disparities taskforce. My co-chair Wendy Olayiwola is a trailblazing black woman, and she follows the fantastic Professor Jacqueline Dunkley-Bent, who transformed how maternity services respond to black women in particular.

We established the taskforce in February 2022 to tackle disparities for mothers and babies, and our work is currently focused on pre-conception health and wellbeing because our understanding is that disparities are often bedded in by the time a woman is pregnant. The way to reduce those disparities is to ensure that women have help and support before getting pregnant, as that is the best way to ensure a safe outcome during pregnancy and birth.

The taskforce met in September, just a few weeks ago, and we are bringing together experts from across the health system, including some of the charities that the hon. Lady talked about, to explore and consider interventions. We are looking at setting up a pre-conception toolkit, and those charities, including Five X More, are feeding in what they think will make the greatest difference for women across the board. We know from their testimony that previous poor experience of healthcare services often prevents black women from engaging with healthcare services in future. It is important that we break down those barriers and change black women’s experience of NHS services.

Our Online Safety Bill will soon become law, allowing us to hold social media companies to account in clamping down on online racist abuse. This is just a taste of the work we have done and will continue to do to make sure the inclusive Britain commitments are implemented.

The hon. Lady touched on a meeting back in 2022. I was not the Minister at the time, but I am happy to follow up and let her know the outcomes. If it has not been actioned since that meeting, I will follow it up.

I am grateful for the points raised by the hon. Lady throughout this debate. I share some of her concerns, particularly on maternity services, and we are committed to trying to transform the statistics to make sure that black and Asian women in particular, have better maternity outcomes.

Across the board, the Government are committed to continuing to work towards a society in which every individual, regardless of their background, has the opportunity to succeed. We are not there yet, as the hon. Lady so eloquently pointed out, but I have every confidence that the decisive action we are taking as part of our inclusive Britain strategy will help us to achieve that goal.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.