I’ve struggled to find the words to express my horror at the killing of George Floyd, and the actions of law enforcement and the President in the days that have followed.
It is heartbreaking to see fathers, brothers, sons, grandsons, mothers, daughters, sisters, torn away from their families, murdered because of the colour of their skin.
The rate at which black Americans are killed by the police is more than twice as high as the rate for white Americans. In July 2014, Eric Garner died as police officers in New York sat on his head and pinned him to the ground. He spoke the same words that were spoken by George Floyd on 25th May 2020.
“I can’t breathe”.
George Floyd died at the hands of police who are put into our communities to keep us and our families safe. But, if you’re black, an encounter with the police could mean life or death. A white man who has been given a position of power, has killed a black man who is not in a position of power. Simply, this is unacceptable.
As a white male, I will never fully understand the pain and suffering that the black community has suffered and continues to suffer. I do not have to fear being murdered by police while breaking up a fight (Eric Garner), walking in my local area (Ezell Ford), being in a park (Tamir Rice), driving home from dinner with my partner (Philando Castile), or sleeping in my bed (Dominique Clayton, Breonna Taylor).
What I do understand is that, as a person in a position of privilege, both as a white male and a Member of Parliament, I have the opportunity to take the right action.
It is a responsibility that I have thought long, hard and very seriously about over the past week. Politicians have been promising change for so long, but the problem persists. I want to make sure that my actions and words are heard, and that they are properly informed. I also want your words to be heard.
In recent days, I have reflected before responding in full. I have done a lot of reading, keeping up to date with news, listening to the lived experiences through protestors telling their own stories, and trying to assess work and reports on institutional racism.
I want to be clear on the actions I have taken and will continue to take. The victims of racism and those who have lost their lives as a result deserve it.
Suspension of sales of riot control equipment to US
Many have asked about the suspension of sales of teargas, riot shields and rubber bullets to the US. I support this from both a moral perspective but also because it is against the strict consolidated criteria which is used as the rules on which all exports must be assessed. It is a dereliction of duty to use such excessive force during protests. The UK Government must suspend all existing licences and must not grant any new licences for the export of riot control equipment to the US until the Government can be certain that they are under no circumstances used against protestors who are rightly calling for the basic human rights of black people to be respected. The Shadow Secretary of State for International Trade, Emily Thornberry MP has written a letter to the Secretary of State demanding an urgent response to this matter and as a member of the Shadow Frontbench I have given her my wholehearted support. You can read her letter here.
I condemn Donald Trump’s use of force
Further, I publicly condemn Donald Trump’s use of force against US citizens and his clear disregard for human rights. I wrote about this in the Edinburgh Evening News today. I agree that Donald Trump has reacted appallingly. He has shown no empathy, and made no attempt to even acknowledge the anger that has been felt and spread from the US, around the world.
The Prime Minister has been complicit through his silence. I am appalled by the response of President Trump, but also by the failure of our own government to condemn his actions in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. The Leader of the Opposition, Keir Starmer MP pressed the Prime Minister to send a clear message to Donald Trump during PMQs this week, you can watch this here. I have also written to the Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab asking him to make clear that the UK stands firm against racism and is outraged at Donald Trump’s response. A copy of my letter is below as well Keir Starmer’s letter to the Prime Minister.
In the UK, we are not exempt from the problem of racism. It would be irresponsible to condemn the behaviour of Donald Trump without also addressing the fact that black people in the UK experience racism every day as well as at the hands of the police. The UK has its own battle to fight against anti-black racism.
Black people in Britain are still being dehumanised, disproportionately imprisoned and now also dying disproportionately of Covid-19.
BAME Covid-19 report
After pressure, the UK Government has now released its delayed report on how BAME communities are more severely impacted by Covid-19. You can see the full report here. My colleague Marsha De Cordova MP, Labour’s Shadow Secretary for Women and Equalities has worked extremely hard to hold the Government to account. She pressed them to release the report immediately so that BAME communities across the country can be reassured that this issue is being taken seriously. The review, and action taken as a result could save lives.
The report shows that people from ethnic minorities are at a higher risk of dying from coronavirus. Those in the poorest households and people of colour are disproportionately impacted.
Further, almost three quarters of health and social care staff who have died as a result of Covid-19 are BAME. The Review fails to mention the occupational discrimination faced by BAME healthcare staff, which has been highlighted by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nurses.
It is extremely disappointing therefore that the report provides no recommendations on how we reduce these disparities.
We must not miss this opportunity to take action so that our key workers who are from ethnic minorities are properly protected. There are clear underlying racial and socioeconomic injustices that are putting people’s lives at risk. Given that BAME communities are overrepresented in the most deprived areas of the UK, the government must take immediate action to address these social and economic inequalities.
Therefore, I am joining calls for the Government’s Race Disparity Unit to immediately publish recommendations, along with a detailed action plan on how they will be implemented.
There was an Urgent Question in the House of Commons which forced the Minister for Women and Equalities to make a statement on the Public Health England review of disparities in risks and outcomes related to the COVID-19 outbreak. You can watch the UQ here.
The terms of reference of Public Health England’s Review, published on 4th May, sets out that it will make “suggest recommendations for further action that should be taken to reduce disparities”. But the Review failed to make a single recommendation based on its findings. This is unacceptable and we will be pressing the Government to answer as to why this is the case.
Further the government must explain why out of more than 1000 contributors supplying evidence to the review, many suggested that discrimination and racism increased the risk of Covid-19 for BAME communities, yet the views were not included.
I have asked for the Scottish Government to produce a similar analysis in Scotland. We need to know the impact of Covid-19 on the BAME community in Scotland.
Death of Belly Mujinga
Many have asked about the death of Belly Mujinga, who fell ill after a man who said he had Covid-19 spat and coughed at her and a colleague when she was working at Victoria station. It is a devastating reminder of the urgency of this. Despite having underlying health conditions, she was made to work without the correct PPE. It is despicable that her and her colleague were attacked this way while they were doing their job assisting the public. British Transport police decided not to refer the matter to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution—not even for common assault. I supported the efforts of my colleague Bambos Charalambous MP in Parliament, in his request that the Attorney General demand the investigation be reopened and demand swift action, so that there can be justice for Belly Mujinga’s family. If you can be fined for a minor breach of the lockdown regulations then surely there has to be justice here.
I am glad that after pressure from the Labour Party the CPS will now review evidence into Belly’s death.
Teaching of black history in the curriculum
Further, I agree that the school curriculum needs to be amended. We must improve the teaching of Black British history and the history of the British Empire, colonialism and slavery, to help ensure their legacy is more widely understood across the country. I know I had some of these issues taught when I was at school but it wasn’t part of the curriculum.
Drawing on recent injustices such as the Windrush scandal, it is vital that our curriculum is reformed so that future generations understand the role that Black Britons have played in our country’s history and the struggle for racial equality.
I believe the national curriculum should be reviewed to ensure it teaches children about racism and black history, as well as a review of the under-representation of BAME teachers in schools. I join with my colleagues in England and Wales in calling for this.
As education is devolved to the Scottish Government, you might like to write to your MSP to express this too (I know many constituents have already). I have also made sure to communicate my views on this to our local MSPs so that it can be raised in the Scottish Parliament in terms of the curriculum being inclusive of such education in Scotland.
I know my colleague Daniel Johnson MSP has already written to the Education Secretary, John Swinney about this. You can view his letter here.
Further, we should look to add statues and street names of figures (especially women and PoC) who are more representative of today’s values. I am also supportive of plaques on statues which outline people’s involvement in the slave trade. The balance has got to right between remembering our past and glorifying values we as a society no longer hold, if that involves removing statues altogether or renaming street names that is a debate I am more than willing to engage in.
Racism in the UK
Further, findings in David Lammy MP’s review into treatment of BAME people in Britain’s criminal justice system (although published a few years ago) are also shocking. Ethnic groups making up 14% of the population make up 25% of prisoners and 20% of youngsters in the youth justice system, a staggering 41% in youth custody.
According to government data on stop and search in England and Wales, there were only 4 stop and searches for every 1,000 white people in 2019. For black people, this figure dramatically increases to 38 per 1,000.
David Lammy’s review states that it’s not just down to the police and courts system but the way we distribute support, jobs, and community investment and how there is underrepresentation of BAME communities in positions of power, especially in the justice system.
Fight for justice for Sheku Bayoh
A large number of you have raised the case of Sheku Bayoh, who died in police custody in 2015 after being restrained by nine officers in Kirkcaldy. Claire Baker is the local MSP and has closely supported the family in their fight for answers and justice since 2015 when Mr Bayoh died.
There are serious questions about the response of the officers involved and the family believe that race played a factor. The Crown Office took the decision not to bring a criminal case. And there were various failings in how the following investigations into the death were handled – it is my understanding that there was minimal or no disciplinary action taken against the officers.
Claire called for a public inquiry into the handling of the case. And, as the family did, we welcomed the announcement in November last year that an inquiry would take place. Importantly, the Terms of Reference for the inquiry confirm that it will examine what role race played in the handling of the case and subsequent investigations – this is welcome and it is essential that race is given due consideration in the case.
The inquiry is important first and foremost for ensuring that the family gets justice for what happened to Mr Bayoh. But it should also be an opportunity for wider conversation about racism in Scotland because we cannot be complacent and consider that institutional racism only happens elsewhere.
As justice is devolved in Scotland, I have spoken with our MSP’s on the many aspects of institutional racism that have been highlighted in the criminal justice system so that these can be put to the Scottish Government and Scottish Justice Secretary. If we are serious about eradicating racism from our society then we need leadership from the top on these issues. Again, I would encourage you to also raise this with your local MSP.
I will campaign for a policing culture that commands the confidence of BAME communities. We must rebuild community-police relations so that they feel respected, protected, and not victimised by authorities responsible for their safety.
I have always attended the counter anti-racism marches organised by United Against Fascism in Edinburgh and voiced my unconditional support in the fight against racism and discrimination. I’m also an active supporter of Show Racism the Red Card. The work they do to educate through football has been transformational despite recent setbacks. These are ways to express our voices, but cultural change must start at the top.
Lastly, there are many planned demonstrations and public gatherings to show solidarity. These are rightfully taking place all over the world and here in Edinburgh. Please show your support but continue to obey social distancing and other Covid-19 measures.
I’m proud to sit on the green benches of parliament with many black colleagues who bring their experiences and voices to parliament. Their advice and knowledge help us all to understand. We stand alongside all those in the US and across the world who are horrified by the way George Floyd lost his life. We must stand in solidarity against racism in all its forms. Yes, those responsible need to be held accountable and justice must be done, but, much more than that, the issue of racism in society must be confronted.
We must all act collectively to eradicate racism from our institutions and wider society. I stand with black communities in the US, the UK and across the world in the fight against racism. This means seriously tackling the racial injustices that scar it and addressing structural inequalities wherever they are found. That is the proper lasting legacy for George Floyd and all the others who have lost their lives unnecessarily.
The 2012 shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida and the decision to acquit his killer led to the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement. The movement is pleading for protestors not to rise to the provocation from the President of the US and others, but to express their anger through the ballot box.
Many have asked what they can do as an individual. I would also encourage you to make sure that you are registered to vote, and that your friends and family are registered to vote. You can do so here https://www.gov.uk/register-to-vote
Thank you again for taking the time to raise this matter with me. I can assure you of my continued commitment in the fight against racism.