Like everyone in the world I was horrified at the death of George Floyd in the USA, which triggered a strong reaction - especially from those who have faced overt and hidden racism in their lives, whether there, here or in other countries.
Of course Black Lives Matter: and what particularly matters is how today we tackle both the reality and perception of hidden racism in Gloucester, as in all parts of our country.
Over the past 14 years in Gloucester (4 years as a candidate and 10 years as its MP), I’ve found my upbringing in East Africa, and experience of living and working in 8 different countries across the world (mostly in Asia) incredibly helpful to working closely with different ethnic minority communities in our city.
Gloucester is a largely tolerant and open society which respects our multi-cultural community. But in the past, some of our BAME communities may have felt their MP was inaccessible. So I’ve made a point both of having a city centre office which can be easily reached by anyone for physical meetings (when these are possible again), and of joining different BAME community events, often on the weekends. These are fun because I enjoy getting to know constituents and their issues better, but the symbolism of respect is important too: BAME cultures matter too.
That is also why the Gloucester History Festival that I created and chair started its City Voices programme, reaching out to different communities, stories and events. We grow as a city when we understand not just about the Roman walls and layout of our city but also more recent immigrant communities and their experiences.
On a practical level, and I hope all employers do this, I’ve employed constituents of BAME origin in my office and given work experience to many more (almost 25% of all work experience students in the last two years). This then leads to supporting both BAME and non BAME origin constituents with letters of support or references for jobs. I believe helping open a door for someone young, starting out after study, is one of the most rewarding and practical things anyone can do. It’s even more important to help BAME constituents with this because often their families may not have the networks or links into the sector where they would most like to work. Many work in the Health and Care sectors, for example, but fewer in engineering or real estate.
We’ve had one spontaneous and one planned Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests in Gloucester. There was also a giant one in Cheltenham and others elsewhere. I understood why many people wanted to show their feelings and solidarity by participating in them. Equally, at a time when government laws and guidance was so strong about not having mass gatherings, and so many of my constituents were strictly abiding by the guidance, it would have been wrong for me (and I believe for any elected politician) to attend such a protest. I have a particular responsibility to stay within the guidelines of emergency legislation that I had voted for.
Equally it would have been wrong not to have said anything, and risk leaving the impression that this representative of a diverse city had no view, or worse did not even care. So before the protest I had a long conversation with the main organiser of the BLM protest, Megan Wilshaw, and posted a video for FB and my website before the event. Do watch it and give feedback: https://www.facebook.com/510928369043924/videos/2779933825668116
The good news is that our protest was peaceful, had a respectful police presence in case of any incidents, maintained social distancing (in a way that neither Bristol nor London events achieved) and there was no trouble at our nearby War Memorial either.
Positive Steps in Gloucester
I’ve always said there is no place for racism in our City or our country: we have laws to deal with overt racism and I and others must show leadership to deal with hidden racism. I’m impressed, for example, at the way in which our Chief Constable has reached out to BAME communities, increased the numbers of BAME recruits and worked closely and quietly on sensitive issues.
There is always more to do, and so I committed in the video on two practical ways of increasing opportunities for BAME individuals here in Gloucester:
• A roundtable event with members of the BAME community as part of the City Voices programme in the Gloucester History Festival, especially for our elected politicians and senior institutional representatives to understand better any remaining prejudice that young BAME people feel still exists in Gloucester and discuss what we can all do to address it.
• As part of my Bounce Back Gloucester campaign, a jobs and apprenticeship fair with a specific session for BAME origin young to come and to meet employers and discuss opportunities either face to face or in a virtual eg Zoom meeting
I should also add that any constituent who feels that they have been wrongly treated by any organisation, and that whistle blowing or usual HR channels are not working as they should, is always welcome to contact me for help
There will be other opportunities to meet with organisations across Gloucester and take practical steps as a city to go the extra mile on equal opportunities.
We have few statues in Gloucester and the most prominent one is of George Raikes, founder of the Sunday schools, who was completely innocent of any connection to slavery or imperialism. We do have one statue of an obvious slaver and colonialist, but the Roman Emperor Nerva who made Gloucester (Glevum) a ‘colonia’ was taking slaves from her conquered territory Britain. So he is most unlikely to be damaged or daubed by BLM, and can rest safely by the trees in Southgate St. There is a serious debate to be had about statues everywhere: and how we and other nations treat the glorious and inglorious moments of our history: and that will feature in this year’s Tenth Anniversary Gloucester History Festival.
Selling control devices to the USA
Some constituents have contacted me about whether the UK should ban sales of police equipment to the USA in the light of the death of George Floyd (and others). The Government takes its export control responsibilities very seriously, operating a very robust and transparent export control regime. Each export licence application is considered on a case-by-case basis against National Arms Export Licensing Criteria, with a thorough risk assessment framework.
I don’t think we export a great deal of security equipment to the USA, and the very fact the police officer who sat on George Floyd for over 8 minutes was almost immediately arrested and will be charged with murder underlines the importance of exporting to democracies: individual atrocities cannot and will not be hidden.
The national curriculum
I will consider any plans put forward for the national curriculum carefully and note with interest the various ideas that have been sent into me on this. Schools should certainly include all aspects of our city’s history and story in their curricula. They have some discretion about how they do it and the Gloucester History Trust will look at ways of bring all aspects of our city story more alive for schools.
COVID19 Report on BAME disparities
National data suggests UK residents of BAME backgrounds are at greater risk of becoming seriously ill with Covid-19. Analysis is needed of the reasons for this - I suspect part of it may be the relatively high % of workers in our Health and Care Services, for example. The disproportionate impact has been recognised by the government and Public Health England has been commissioned to conduct thorough research. The Equalities Minister made clear that action will be taken by government off the back of this review.
Meanwhile it is important to note that this is not the case in Gloucestershire where infection and death rates for BAME communities are exactly in line with their (low) % of the population.
If any reader believes there are issues of prejudice or racism in Gloucester then please bring the specifics to my attention by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org