Before I move on to the specific topic of the debate, I think it is important to acknowledge, as many others have, that we cannot debate this in isolation; we have to see it in the context of Black Lives Matter and the grievances stretching back not just decades but, in many cases, centuries. Bristol was of course very much in the forefront of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations earlier this month with what our Mayor, Marvin Rees, the first democratically elected black Mayor in Europe, described as an act of “historical poetry”—the hugely symbolic removal by protesters of the statue of Edward Colston.
The Observer headline this Sunday was, “The day Bristol dumped its hated slave trader in the docks and a nation began to search its soul” but in fact the reverberations from the removal of Colston were not just national but global. What is interesting is that the statue of Colston was not erected until 1895, more than 170 years after he died. Professor Madge Dresser says that was part of a bid by the city elite to quell increasingly radical stirrings among the lower classes. They were trying to rally people around a civic identity based, supposedly, on our glory days—our heyday, when the city prospered as a result of slavery—rather than have people rallying around class or an organised labour movement. It is fitting, now that Colston has come down, that we do not just talk about statues and monuments and about place names and road names, although all that discussion is happening, but that we shine a light on structural inequalities, class, poverty, deprivation and health inequalities.
Earlier in the covid crisis, Bristol City Council, under the leadership of Mayor Marvin Rees and our Deputy Mayor Councillor Asher Craig, commissioned a rapid research review from University of Bristol academics. The resulting report on the impact of covid-19 on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities was published on
The recommendations in the Bristol report include ensuring adequate income protection for those in low-paid or precarious employment and reducing occupational risk; what other Members said about the increased vulnerability of BAME healthcare staff and other frontline workers, such as Belly Mujinga, is really important. The report also said that we need to improve public health communications and tailor them to culturally specific challenges, such as preventing transmission in overcrowded households or shielding vulnerable people in multi-generational households. It also called for the removal of all NHS charges so that no migrant or individual from a BAME group delays seeking healthcare or risks death through fear of being charged for their NHS care. It was quite shocking, as my right hon. Friend Stephen Timms said, that the Prime Minister did not even seem to know what “no recourse to public funds” meant when he appeared in front of the Liaison Committee. The report also recommended that ethnic groups should be included in health inequalities work, that we should collect more data, and that there should be meaningful engagement and involvement of minority ethnic communities in the services. This is now being taken forward by a BAME working group.
In research published in January 2017 looking at ethnic inequalities in education and employment, the Runnymede Trust judged Bristol to be one of the most unequal cities in the UK and one of the worst places when it came to racial equality. We ranked seventh out of the 348 districts of England and Wales on the index of multiple inequality. We are seemingly prosperous; people think of Bristol as a wealthy, thriving city. We are the only city outside London to make a net contribution to GDP. We are consistently voted as one of the coolest cities and one of the best places to visit. All that gloss masks the underlying inequalities. In the same way that the Colston statue presented a false image of wealth and philanthropy masking the true horrors of how many were enslaved, mistreated and died in the pursuit of that wealth, the gloss is masking the real picture in many of the deprived communities in Bristol. We absolutely know that we have a long way to go in Bristol—that taking down the statue is just one historical marker on a long, sometimes difficult and sometimes daunting journey—but we are absolutely committed to doing this.