Covid-19: BAME Communities

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:28 pm on 18th June 2020.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) 3:28 pm, 18th June 2020

I congratulate my hon. Friend Dawn Butler on securing this important—indeed, essential—debate. Her opening speech was incredibly powerful. She set out eloquently the relationship between the Black Lives Matter movement and black key workers dying. She showed the connection between George Floyd’s long, slow death and his dying words, and Belly Mujinga dying of covid-19 here.

My hon. Friend said that being black is a pre-existing condition. It is a condition that I celebrate—I am proud to be a black, Geordie, Nigerian, Irish Brit—but it should not be a co-morbidity. My right hon. and hon. Friends have said so much that is so true, so eloquently—one of the joys of being a Labour MP is the support of my brothers and sisters—that I shall focus my remarks on three things: what covid-19 tells us about the reality of racism today; what it tells us about the failure of this Government on racism today; and what it tells us what about what the Government should do.

First, let me address the realities of structural racism today. Like the Home Secretary, I experienced significant racism as a child, including name calling and worse, although I was supported by a strong community, family and school. Over the last few years, name calling, physical abuse and hate crimes have unfortunately risen, but when the name calling stops, that does not mean that racism has gone away. It is instead in the structures and systems that define how we live. That is what we mean by structural racism: crowding BAME people into worse housing; putting up barriers to BAME people going into higher-paid professions; making it more likely for BAME people to live in deprived areas and have to take up precarious jobs; and putting BAME workers in the lower-paid roles in the NHS, while the higher-paid upper echelons remain snowy white. Some 14% of the UK population are black, but 34% of those who work in intensive care are BAME.

The statistics that demonstrate the levels of inequality that still exist in our society are one of the reasons why the Black Lives Matter movement has such resonance here. Some 25% of BAME nursing staff have no confidence that their employer is doing enough to protect them from covid-19. BAME staff networks in the north-east have called for the risk assessments to which they are entitled to ensure they are protected.

That is the reality of racism today, and covid illustrates the Government’s response to it. Whether it is a Foreign Secretary who thinks that taking the knee is from fantasy fiction or a Prime Minister who speaks of “smiling piccaninnies”, the Government have demonstrated a lack of interest in the racism that we face. We do not need another report; we do not need another investigation. We have enough recommendations. This Government need to take action. Covid-19 has shone a light on the discrimination that so many black and minority ethnic people suffer in this country. The Government need to act to change that and ensure that it does not continue, as it has for so many years. We do not need another review.

I am proud that, in Newcastle, our community stands strong together in its different identities and works together. I was deeply saddened by the violence in our city this weekend. Valuing black lives is not about devaluing white lives; it is about asking why black lives are more likely to be lost. The Government have waited far too long to look for an answer to that question. They must now take action to ensure that we are not in the same situation in a year, five years or 10 years.