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House of Lords Hansard
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08 June 2020
Volume 803

Private Notice Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government what representations they have made to the government of the USA regarding their response to the ongoing protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, following the death of George Floyd, and what are they doing to address racism, discrimination and injustice experienced by those here in the UK.

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My Lords, as one of America’s closest allies, we join the American people in their grief. We condemn George Floyd’s death and trust that justice will be done. The violence we have seen is very alarming; the right to peaceful protest is an essential part of any free society. The protests are a reminder that, despite decades of progress, we must listen and learn from communities that face discrimination and work together to put an end to such injustices.

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I thank the Minister and agree with her that, irrespective of the actions of a small minority, we must defend the fundamental democratic right of peaceful protest. George Floyd’s murder has rightly triggered international condemnation. The voices we have seen on the streets in the US, here and globally need to be not only heard but acted upon. For too many people, racism and discrimination are an everyday experience in work, health and public life. What is the United Kingdom doing to ensure that the call of the United Nations Human Rights Council on systematic racism is acted upon not only by the US but by all nations, including us?

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My Lords, I agree that there is injustice that needs to be tackled. We are tolerant and open, but more can always be done to help people realise their potential. There is a lot to what the marchers are saying; action is needed across the board as part of the levelling-up agenda. That starts with education and job opportunities, but there are also health disparities that need to be addressed, as Covid has shown.

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My Lords, the appalling death of George Floyd in Minneapolis, at the hands of a policeman who has now been charged with murder, cannot be used as an excuse for illegal and violent behaviour here in the UK. Nor can understandable strong feelings about racism and discrimination in America—or indeed in Asia, Africa, Europe and the UK—be any excuse. Will my noble friend the Minister ensure that the small number of anarchists and irresponsible yobs who attacked and injured brave and blameless police officers doing their duty in London, painted graffiti on Churchill’s statue and others or committed other illegal acts in Bristol or elsewhere are identified and prosecuted?

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My Lords, the Government fully support peaceful protest. As I said, it is a vital part of our democratic society, but violence and criminal behaviour are never acceptable—particularly against the police, who are working in very difficult circumstances. I recognise the strength of feeling, but protests should be peaceful so as not to undermine the cause the protesters are marching for. It is absolutely essential that those who perpetrate criminal acts face justice.

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My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Collins for bringing this important PNQ. No one needs to tell me that black lives matter. This is an everyday occurrence and part of our lives. What will Her Majesty’s Government do to make sure that “black lives matter” is in policies in the UK?

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My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her question and pay tribute to her work. She has been a passionate and effective campaigner for a fairer society for all. The work of the Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust has benefited many young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I agree with her that across all our policy we must make sure we reflect that black lives matter. We are absolutely committed to tackling racism and levelling up. That means unleashing potential and creating opportunity for all. We have set up the Government’s Race Disparity Unit, a world first, for publishing data on ethnicity. It is working across Whitehall and with local authorities to ensure that all our interventions are properly considered and that “black lives matter” is in everything we do.

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My Lords, 50 years ago I was stopped in my car and aggressively questioned by the police. My three brothers have all been stopped and searched aggressively. Twenty years ago my 16 year-old nephew was stopped and brutally beaten up in the back of a police van, then falsely charged. Shockingly, in 2020 during lockdown we saw excessive force used when a black man was tasered in front of his toddler. Today’s protests have shown that we are at a tipping point. What action do the Government plan, especially through education, to reassure the black community, including children, that their lives matter?

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I thank the noble Baroness for her question and pay tribute to all the work she has done on supporting the Windrush generation. The Government are clear that no one should be stopped and searched based on their race or ethnicity. We are working with the College of Policing to update guidance on community engagement and scrutiny over the use of stop and search powers and are ensuring that the law requires detailed records and scrutiny.

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My Lords, people like me like to comfort themselves that we are doing a great deal better than we used to and that we do not see much discrimination now. When we took the trouble to ask the staff in this House whether they were suffering harassment or bullying, we were all shocked to find out what was really going on. Might we not do the same thing with people at large and take advantage of the 2021 census to gather some information on what people experience in this country, and perhaps shock ourselves into taking proper action?

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I thank my noble friend for that question. I agree with him; he is absolutely right that we need to understand what these issues are, so that we are able to act on them accordingly. I will take back his suggestion on the census to the relevant department.

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My Lords, systemic racism is a fact of life in the US, the UK and the world over. Combating it requires not just words but concrete actions. In seeking re-election to the UN Human Rights Council this year, will the UK support an investigation by the special rapporteur into systemic racism and deaths in police custody, with recommendations for action and the promotion of best practice? If not, why not?

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My Lords, I apologise but I do not have that information, so I will have to come back to the noble Lord in writing.

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My Lords, the brutal killing of George Floyd resonated with millions in the UK and around the world. Do the Government understand that black, Asian and minority-ethnic people dying disproportionately during the Covid pandemic has laid bare the gross inequalities that exist in this country? Does the Minister agree that we need a clear, strong, consistent message, and leadership from this Government, that recognises that racism exists? It is no use pretending it does not exist—it does. What action will they take to eradicate racism and build a fair, equal, democratic society, where everyone is valued?

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My Lords, we want to build a fully democratic society where everybody is properly valued. The noble Baroness refers to Covid-19, and we fully recognise that some people have been disproportionately impacted by the virus. We have committed Public Health England to examine those disparities and we have appointed our Equalities Minister, Kemi Badenoch, to take forward the findings of the review, so that we can better understand the key drivers and shape our response to the virus.

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My Lords, like thousands of others, this weekend, I joined an online protest organised by Black Lives Matter. I was struck by the youth of the speakers who eloquently articulated very practical demands about our education system, the job market, housing, health, political representation and, above all, the justice system. These young people are yet again having to protest the indignities and injustices suffered by their parents and grandparents that remain unaddressed, which represents an abject failure for the rest of us. What plans do the Government have to engage with BAME leaders and their allies to take action to implement the radical, practical and urgent change that they demand, and, in doing so, put a chasm between the UK response and the wholly divisive response of the US President?

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I agree with the noble Baroness that we must take action across the board: on education, as she mentioned, on employment and work, and in particular on crime and justice. We welcomed David Lammy’s 2017 review, which shone an essential light on the disparity in the treatment of, and outcomes for, ethnic-minority individuals, and that remains a priority. In February 2020, we published an update on our broad programme to address race inequalities. I also agree it is important that we have conversations with those affected. Minister Alex Chalk will meet stakeholders during the next Lammy round table in the coming weeks.

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My Lords, I was going to ask a question about deaths in custody, but as the Minister is from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I shall instead suggest that the UK should immediately suspend exports of riot gear, tear gas, rubber bullets and small arms to the United States. Will the Minister take that suggestion back to her department?

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I thank the noble Baroness for that question. We have a ministerial board on deaths in custody to ensure that we are driving forward the recommendations of Dame Elish Angiolini. On exports to the US, the UK has issued licences that permit the export of crowd control equipment to the US, but we continue to monitor closely developments there, and we consider all export applications within a strict risk assessment framework. We keep all licences under careful and continual review.

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My Lords, the British response following the death of George Floyd in America has rightly been to condemn the excessive use of force which led to his tragic death. In reflecting on this dreadful occurrence, does my noble friend the Minister agree that British policing represents everything that is great about our law enforcement, particularly with regard to policing communities? Does she agree that representations should be made to America that policing by consent is, by far, the preferred method of delivery, as opposed to policing by force?

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I agree with my noble friend. As he says, we police by consent in this country. Our world -class police officers continue to put their own lives on the line to protect the public during the protests, despite coming under attack. We ask our police officers to do the most difficult of jobs, and they are respected around the world for the excellent work they do.

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My Lords, following last week’s PHE report, are the Government now in a position to say how successful NHS trusts have been in risk-assessing and reassigning those staff most at risk, given that, in many hospitals, front-line NHS staff are predominantly black, Asian and minority ethnic? I understand that the noble Baroness is from the Foreign Office, so I will be happy with a written answer.

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My Lords, all NHS organisations will continue to make appropriate arrangements to support their black, Asian and minority-ethnic staff. On 28 May, NHS Employers published guidance for employers on risk assessment, advising them to consider issues such as ethnicity. The PHE Covid-19 report on disparity is the first step—it is certainly not the end; there is lots more work to do.

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My Lords, I accept what the Minister says about the strength of feeling in this country and what the Government are trying to do, but will she accept the premise of the original Question and tell us whether they have made representations to the American Government? Has the US ambassador been called in? Has any member of the Government spoken out clearly, palpably addressing non-white people—BAME people—in this country, to say how we feel their hurt?

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I thank the noble Baroness for that question. At senior levels, our embassy in Washington has raised concerns with the State Department. We have also seen statements from the US ambassador here in the UK. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, both in the other place and via the media, have been very clear in their stance on this issue.

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My Lords, as there are no more supplementary questions, the House will now adjourn until a convenient point after 4 pm, for the Motion in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park.

Sitting suspended.