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International Year for People of African Descent

Volume 730: debated on Thursday 13 October 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to mark the International Year for People of African Descent.

My Lords, the Government have no specific plans to mark the United Nations International Year for People of African Descent. However, we strongly support its aims to combat racial discrimination, xenophobia and racial intolerance. The Government remain fully committed to tackling all forms of racism, both domestically and internationally. A recent examination by the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination highlighted the solid progress we continue to make on fighting racism.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Since 1959, the UN has designated 53 international years in order to draw attention to major issues and to encourage international action to address concerns which have global importance and ramifications. Will the Minister say how many of those years have been ignored in the UK?

The UN declaration said that the international year must become a milestone in the ongoing campaign to advance the rights of people of African descent. It deserves to be accompanied by activities that fire the imagination, enhance our understanding of the situation of people of African descent and act as a catalyst for real and positive change in their daily lives. One of the complaints of the disaffected youth in this country is the claim that there is a lack of respect afforded to them. The Government’s desire for community cohesion could have been greatly enhanced if they at least paid some attention to the year. Is this the way in which the ethnic minorities, especially those of African descent, can expect the Government to deal with the years that are dedicated specially to their service?

My Lords, there is a great deal of wisdom in much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Howells, has said. However, it is not right to say that the Government have ignored these matters. On the contrary, there has been massive, continuous and growing commitment to these issues. The only matter here is whether it is a practice in this country to recognise all the various UN days marking many issues over the years. That is not our practice, although we fully recognise all the aims behind these things and work at the United Nations to further the activities of the UN in all these fields. I would not for a moment dispute the analysis or the line of thinking that is in the noble Baroness’s question, but merely not marking these days in this country is not in any way connected to a lack of very strong commitment to all these causes.

My Lords, as your Lordships will know, the NHS benefited enormously from a great number of people of African heritage, particularly in the early days. Would it not be a good idea to use this occasion to celebrate this in some way and partly thereby contribute to improving the morale in the NHS?

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right about the contribution and the value. He urges celebration, which should be in all our words, aims and activities, but whether a specific day is necessary as well I am not so sure. However, I make absolutely clear that we recognise everything that he said as being extremely valid.

My Lords, October is black history month, which reminds us of the many Afro-Caribbean war veterans who fought for king and country and happily stayed on to help rebuild Britain after the war. British adverts in the Caribbean, which implied that the streets here were paved with gold, encouraged people to come and do the same. Faced with terrible racism and rejection, those people established the Notting Hill carnival to celebrate their culture. It is now the largest carnival in Europe and brings in vast tourism revenue, but I believe that the carnival is now endangered. Can the Government assure the House that they will support and encourage, and try to find ways to celebrate, the contribution of Afro-Caribbean people to this country, giving hope to black youngsters who often feel excluded from our history?

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, my noble friend is right that the past has not been perfect. We should constantly see ways of re-emphasising out gratitude and the value that the various communities contribute. As to the Notting Hill carnival, I must confess that I had a lot of things covered in my brief today, but the Notting Hill carnival was not one of them. Personally, I have always thought that it was a terrific show. The carnival went wrong once or twice, but over the years there has been considerable improvement in the way that it is managed and organised. Frankly, my personal view is: long may it last, continue and flourish.

My Lords, given our colonial history and the distinct contribution that people of African descent have made to our country, is this not an opportunity in educational terms to develop the policy that you have articulated to enable role models to be clearly exemplified, perhaps in the production of DVDs or literature, to nurture in our schools a respect for those who have come here and are part of our story?

I say to the right reverend Prelate that, yes, that is an utterly admirable aim and one we should certainly strive to fulfil.

My Lords, is it not rather sad that, on the previous occasion when international recognition was given to the situation of people of African descent, it was in connection with the abolition of slavery, where people of African descent appeared to be the passive victims of an historic process? Does not my noble friend’s excellent Question suggest a more positive way of looking at the role of black people in history?

Yes, and I am happy to report that slavery is covered in my brief this morning. To make it absolutely clear, because there should not be any doubt this, we deplore the human suffering caused by slavery and the slave trade and its consequences for many communities around the world. More than deploring it, our focus should be, and is, on working to address the historical legacy of the slave trade and educating future generations on the evils of slavery. I agree with the noble Lord that all opportunities should be taken to bring that message home very strongly indeed.