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Black Lives Matter: Protests

Volume 803: debated on Monday 15 June 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of ongoing protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement, and the consequent removal of statues and monuments.

My Lords, I understand the strength of feeling around the death of George Floyd and peaceful protest remains a vital part of a democratic society. However, coronavirus remains a real and present threat to all of us and mass gatherings for whatever reason risk spreading the disease. I condemn all forms of illegal activity. Changes to the urban architecture should be affected through democratic processes and not by criminal damage.

I thank the Minister for her response. Racism is deeply embedded, and it affects every part of society, including the Church. We all have much to do to confront it. Indeed, it is possible to remove statues from public places without dealing with the fundamental nature of the problem. Will another commission be any more successful in stopping the demolition of statues than the Lammy review, the Angiolini review, the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and the review from the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith? Would it not be cheaper and quicker for Her Majesty’s Government to implement the recommendations of those reviews, committing proper resources and leadership to drive through the change we so desperately need?

The right reverend Prelate mentioned a number of reviews. I know that the Government are working through the Angiolini review’s recommendations. The review by my noble friend Lady McGregor-Smith also awaits comment. He is right that the Government are considering a number of recommendations. Overall, the strategic response to everything we have seen over the past couple of weeks is that we have to work together, not only in government but in society, locally and nationally, to effect the societal change that is so desperately needed.

My Lords, whatever one thinks of the merits or demerits of individual statues or the events of last weekend, those events highlight the living reality of racism in our country. Following on from her most recent answer, can the Minister assure us that the announcement of the Prime Minister’s commission into these matters will not delay the Home Office’s implementation of the reports on deaths in custody, the criminal justice system and Windrush, which are currently on her desk and which she has explained so well to us in the past? Can we have a categorical assurance that those will be implemented and not delayed pending publication of the Prime Minister’s cross-departmental report?

I thank the noble Lord for making that point. The Wendy Williams review has to be answered in a timely fashion and my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has committed to doing so. Wendy Williams was very clear in her recommendation that she did not want the Government or the Home Secretary to rush to respond but to reflect on the very good points she had made in her review. The Prime Minister’s commission will not in any way undermine the work that the Home Office is doing. The noble Lord talked about the review being on my desk. It is not on my desk, but we all share responsibility for it.

My Lords, monuments are intended to commemorate important and significant events in our history. Black history needs to be addressed. I am proud to chair the Windrush Commemoration Committee, which, under the auspices of the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, will unveil in 2022 a Windrush monument at Waterloo station, where thousands of Caribbeans arrived. There will also be an IT educational element to it, celebrating major contributions that Caribbeans have made to Britain. This must not be a one-off, so will the Government consider commissioning more such monuments, such as a national slavery monument, to document our history and demonstrate that black lives really do matter?

I commend the noble Baroness on all that she has done in securing a Windrush Day and on the work she has done on the Windrush monument at Waterloo to commemorate those people who arrived here to rebuild this country after the war. On a national slavery monument, I do not know whether the noble Baroness knows the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool—I bet she does. I am racking my brains to remember whether there is actually a statue outside it, but positioned as it is, in the very heart of a city built in many ways on slavery, it is a reminder to us all of why black lives matter.

My Lords, do not take down statues; take down racism. These were the words of Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor and currently emeritus professor of life sciences at Heriot-Watt University. I agree with these sentiments and believe that the statues should remain, but they should have a clear description attached detailing the contributions made by the subjects and how they achieved their wealth and status. When I worked as a young surgeon in Ghana in the 1970s, I was struck by a bust of Queen Victoria on a pedestal in Victoria Park in Cape Coast—the very place where slaves left to go to America. Ghanaians may have many reasons for wanting to remove the bust of Queen Victoria—a queen who represented Britain at the height of its imperial power. That statue remains because it is part of Ghana’s history. We should leave the statues where they are but explain why they are there. Will my noble friend undertake to do this?

I wholeheartedly agree with my noble friend. To take things down is to erase history, and erasing history is absolutely not what we should be about in educating our children about the misdemeanours of the past, as well as the great things of the past—the people who built our country. He is absolutely right: we should take down racism but not legacies of our history, which seek to educate us all. I pass many statues in and around Westminster. Some of them are offensive to me. I understand why others are there and they are a learning point for history.

I agree with those who say that we should not attempt to erase history, but our public spaces, just like our curriculum, our cultural narratives and our public institutions, reflect only a partial history of Britain. Protestors are not trying to forget that; rather, they are demanding to be remembered. This morning, the PM wrote that he will resist with every breath in his body the editing or photoshopping of history, but perhaps the Minister will acknowledge that the most egregious editing in the last week was not the removal of the statue of a slave trader in Bristol but the Government’s decision to delay publishing the Public Health England recommendations that found that systemic racism and inequalities led to excessive deaths of BAME Britons from Covid-19.

My Lords, I cannot concur with the noble Baroness. This Government have acted on the advice of scientists. Any life that is lost is a life too many, and this is a novel virus that has affected some communities more than others. We are still trying to understand why, but we should not conflate that with addressing where the roots of racism lie in our country, because there is no doubt that the events of the last two weeks have not just happened randomly. There is a deep-rooted feeling of inequality in some communities in this country.

My Lords, can the Minister see that for both sides of the argument on the removal of statues, every day that the statue of Winston Churchill remains boxed up is a day when the banner of anarchy is raised over Parliament Square? Does this direct action on statues not echo horribly the fascist days of Islamic State, when it attacked the city of Palmyra and publicly decapitated the archaeologist in charge? Has the Minister read the compelling speech by the young American black activist Candace Owens, on the appalling murder of George Floyd?

I confess that I have not read it, but my noble friend is right to point out that we can all think of attempts through the ages to erase culture and history for various reasons. The boxed-up Churchill is such a sorry sight. I understand that it was boxed up for its protection against some of the protests at the weekend. The sooner the Churchill statue is freed and he is commemorated once again as one of the greatest people who ever lived, the better.

As the right reverend Prelate said, the Government do not lack information on the reality and impact of the racial discrimination which has driven the recent peaceful protests, as opposed to lacking the determination to act with speed on that information. If the Government reject this view, can the Minister say what specific action to address racial discrimination has been taken as a result of the release of data from the Government’s own racial disparity audits over the last two and three-quarter years, and what has been the impact of that action on reducing racial disparities and discrimination?

My Lords, we certainly do not lack a determination to act. As I said, the Home Secretary is committed to addressing the Wendy Williams report by the appropriate date, having given it full thought and consideration. In terms of disparities, we collect more data than ever before—including search data, the race of the person searched, what was searched for and how often objects were found—in each force. That data is published online, allowing local scrutiny groups, the PCC and others to hold forces to account, and we discuss it with the relevant NPCC leads. In terms of race disparity, the previous Prime Minister was the first to publish the Race Disparity Audit, which has helped immeasurably in the Government committing to looking after their own back yard in improving race disparity across the piece in government.

My Lords, it is ironic that the removal last week of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston has provided more information about Britain’s role in the Atlantic slave trade than any history lesson in our schools. I have not heard any political party asking for the removal of statues. The Prime Minister has said more about Churchill’s statue than he has about the number of BAME people disproportionately dying of Covid-19 and the racism they face, which has already been mentioned by the right reverend Prelate and in all the reviews that have taken place, the recommendations of which the Government have singularly failed to implement. To demonstrate the Government’s said commitment to eradicate racism and address the concerns of Black Lives Matter, will the Minister recognise that the recommendations in the Covid-19/BAME review need to be fully implemented, as does the report by the noble Baroness, Lady McGregor-Smith, on workplace discrimination, which is now three years old? Will the Government also do more to make sure that all schools address the vacuum regarding Britain’s colonial history, which will help to ensure that black and minority ethnic children and young people understand their history and their sense of identity in this country?

My Lords, as far as I am aware, no political parties are asking for statues to be removed, but some of them have talked about a democratic process for removing them. The point is, it is a democratic process. The noble Baroness’s comments go to the heart of the problem, which is that the criminal damage done has completely taken away from what we should be discussing: our history and educating children. This country is one of the best in the world in which to live. But making that understanding should be much more a part of a child’s education.

Sitting suspended.