To coincide with Black History Month, PLP’s Mustaqim Iqbal examines the Government’s approach to systemic racism and why it must do more to enact meaningful change

Almost a year has passed since Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights (JCHR) published a report entitled ‘Black people, racism, and human rights’, which shed light on the ways that our multi-layered system of domestic human rights protection is failing Black people. It was published at the end of a momentous year, where attempts from some to cast systemic racism against Black people as a distinctly American problem were met with firm resistance and a clear message, printed on placards across the country: ‘The UK is not innocent’.

Alongside concerns with the public enforcement of the rights of Black individuals, the JCHR report covered issues including the perception of human rights in Black communities, and statistics exposing the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 and childbirth death on Black people.

The government response to the report, published in February of this year, was disappointing.

It continues a trend identified by the JCHR, of inaction following investigation. The response postponed action until the release of the findings of the government’s Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (CRED), which had not yet been released at the time of response. Since then, the CRED findings have been almost universally criticised, including by the UN Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, for downplaying institutional racism in the UK.

The 2021 Civil Society Report on Race & Racism in England, compiled by the Runnymede Trust for the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (UN CERD), is right to label the approach taken by CRED as “very worrying”, given that it was just in 2016 when the government acknowledged the existence of institutional racism in its own report to the UN CERD. The government’s own periodic report to the UN CERD is now 18 months overdue.

Inquiry after inquiry, report after report

These findings are the latest in a long line of reports into structural racism in the UK; at the time of the JCHR report, it was able to list a total of 14 since 1999. The most high-profile amongst the list are the Lammy Review, considering the treatment of BAME individuals in the criminal justice system of England and Wales, and the Windrush Review into the events leading up to the Windrush scandal.

However, time and again, recommendations made in these reports are left ignored, unimplemented, or implemented poorly. Strikingly, this practice is not confined to a specific party or Government but can be seen across various successive administrations.

Ultimately, by commissioning reports and conducting inquiries but failing to act on the findings, governments exacerbate the distrust inherent in those very findings. By failing to take meaningful and robust action, the Government is a bystander – or worse, complicit – in the systemic injustice it aims to address.

The role of the EHRC

The JCHR report makes it clear that while the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) does some excellent work, that work is often “insufficiently visible to the Black community”; the report expressly mentions one individual who highlights the need for a “… commissioner who can step in and demand that institutions such as the police investigate injustices and punish people who do wrong”. It is worth noting that at the time of the report, there was no Black commissioner on the EHRC Board, leaving Black communities without a clear visible champion for their rights. Since the report, Lord Ribeiro has been appointed, but he remains the single Black commissioner.

The JCHR also recognised issues with the EHRC’s powers and budget. The EHRC, by its own admission, is limited by a lack of investigative power to tackle suspected breaches of human rights; for example, it is unable to provide legal assistance to individuals in human rights cases unless the claimant is also complaining specifically of a breach of the Equality Act 2010. On the issue of budget, the report noted that the EHRC currently has an annual budget of £17.1 million to do work across all protected characteristics. For comparison, the previous Commission for Racial Equality had a budget of £90 million for just race issues in 2006.

However, in its response, the government maintained that the Commission’s budget is “at adequate levels”. 

The Equality Act 2010

The public sector equality duty (PSED) in section 149 of the Equality Act 2010 has the potential, according to the JCHR, to bring genuine progress by requiring public bodies to actively promote the equality and human rights of Black people. Nevertheless, the JCHR is right to point out that the duty is not always taken seriously. This is problematic given that, as there are no public statutory enforcement measures for the PSED, it then invariably falls to marginalised individuals to bring challenges against discrimination, which often comes at significant emotional and financial cost. And why should it be that those who are subject to racial discrimination have to shoulder the responsibility for challenging its injustice? Systemic discrimination is a collective problem that calls for a collective response.

Moving forward

Ultimately, the JCHR report makes clear what PLP has always known – that public law is an effective tool to alleviate and address inequality, and racial inequality is no exception. The recommendations made deserve rigorous consideration – and crucially, action – to strengthen public law’s ability to defend the rights of Black people.