– in the House of Commons at 1:12 pm on 20th October 2020.
[Relevant documents: e-petition 324092, entitled Teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum; e-petition 323808, entitled Add education on diversity and racism to all school curriculums; and e-petition 323961, entitled Making the UK education curriculum more inclusive of BAME history.]
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered Black History Month.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important issue today, and I thank Members on both sides of the House for their support in securing the debate. Specifically, I would like to thank Theresa Villiers, the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) and for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), my hon. Friend Dawn Butler and my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott. I also thank the shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, my hon. Friend Marsha De Cordova, for her commitment to addressing this issue. I am pleased that there was cross-party support for this debate to take place during Black History Month.
My sincere thanks go to Akyaaba Addai-Sebo, a co-ordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council in 1987, who organised the first recognition of this month. It must have taken extraordinary courage to speak out against racism and discrimination in order to pave the way for me and others.
Black History Month is about celebrating and highlighting black heroes, such as Petronella Breinburg, one of the first black female authors in Britain to write a children’s book with a black protagonist; Dr Harold Moody, a Jamaican-born physician who emigrated to the United Kingdom, where he campaigned against racial prejudice and established the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931; Mary Prince, a British abolitionist, who was the first black woman to write an autobiography and present an anti-slavery petition; Asquith Camile Xavier, a West Indian-born Briton who ended the colour bar at British Rail in London by fighting to become the first non-white train guard at Euston station in 1966; David Pitt, the second peer of African descent to sit in the House of Lords; Dr Erinma Bell, a community peace activist, and Yomi Mambu, the first black person to hold the title of Lord Mayor in England.
But I must also mention the trailblazers who came before us in this place: Lord Boateng, Bernie Grant, Baroness Amos and, of course, my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott. Their legacy in the House can be seen throughout the Chamber today.
We celebrate all those trailblazers not just because they are black individuals, but because they are great Britons, and not just because they are great black Britons but because they are great Britons in Black History Month. We truly celebrate them, because everyone benefits from recognising the important contributions they make in laying pathways for others who look like them and follow in their footsteps. This is what this debate is about, and this is why I came into this place: to speak for those who barely get a voice in this society.
When we look at many aspects of society, including the jewel in our national crown, the NHS, we see that we are overly represented in the workforce, although, sadly, not at the top. Black, Asian and minority ethnic people are far more likely to work in key worker roles, and those workers are more likely to be pressured to work in dangerous circumstances. In the NHS, 63% of BAME doctors reported that they had been pressured to work in wards with covid patients, compared with 32% of their white counterparts.
These examples of institutional discrimination have destroyed the lives of black people across the UK. I know of one nurse in my constituency who unfortunately lost her life to covid-19, leaving behind a heartbroken family. After hearing claims of racial discrimination in the workplace and seeing research pointing to long-term structural racism as a factor in the disproportionate covid deaths, I have to question how many lives might have been needlessly lost due to the lack of action on tackling racism over the past decade. Today, when we talk about Black History Month as a celebration, we should also reflect on the persistent racial inequalities that this Government must address as a matter of immediate concern. This is an opportunity to speak on behalf of all those voices in society that we celebrate this month.
Black people have faced discrimination in the UK for as long as history can remember, but racism is not a thing of the past. I am sad to have to stand here and describe how discrimination has continued into the present. Its impact is still felt on so many lives: black women are five times more likely to die in pregnancy; black Caribbean children are three times more likely to be excluded from school; black workers with degrees earn almost a quarter less than their counterparts; black people make up just 3% of the UK population but 12% of those in prison. Why is it that year on year these statistics are read out in a debate or in news and no action is taken? That it is still necessary in 2020 for young people to take to the streets to remind us that black lives matter should bring shame on us all. Black lives matter; we are in this House and we must recognise that.
I have two asks of the Government and I want them to give me a direct answer today. The first is to implement a race equality strategy and action plan that will cover areas such as education, health and employment, something that Operation Black Vote has called for. The second is to set up a taskforce that will look to diversify the curriculum—to really diversify the curriculum. We want all our kids—all our children, black and white, in every single corner of this country—to better understand our history, so that our children have a true sense of belonging within British culture and British history, because at the moment it does not reflect that.
Teach First reported that the biggest exam board does not include a single book by a black author in English literature specifications, and 75% of English teachers have concerns about the lack of ethnic diversity in the curriculum. Let me break that down: that means pupils can complete their GCSEs and leave secondary school without having studied a single literary work by a non-white author. If we have a better understanding of our history, everyone is better off. It also means that we will not make the same mistakes as we did with the Windrush scandal. It will help us better to know ourselves and how this country got to this place, and what work still needs to be done.
That is why I am saying to the Government now that we need a race equality strategy because, as furlough ends, the redundancies will be coming hard and fast. If we do nothing again, once again, black communities will suffer. In education, we cannot leave a generation behind with this digital divide, and in health, as the pandemic wreaks havoc, we are dying in great numbers. An educational taskforce will look at our curriculum honestly, ensuring that the books our children read, learn from and develop from have a clearer analysis of our history—the good, the bad and the ugly—and the values they can take to become future leaders. It is this grounding that will ensure that all our children, black and white, will have the opportunity to fulfil their full potential. We need to get the curriculum right, so that we have more black teachers and so that more people from diverse backgrounds will get to the top, which will mean a fairer playing field—not one that locks the privileged in and the disadvantaged out.
The past year has been deeply traumatic for black people, who have failed to be supported by the Government. I have called on the House today to do more to tackle racism, but we can all do more to be active in the future, so I say to my fellow black brothers and sisters: if you are watching today, if you do one thing, make sure you register to vote so that in the local elections, mayoral elections and the general election, you can have your say and make your voice heard.
As hon. Members can see, the call list is quite extensive but I do not intend to put a time limit on initially. However, if Members go on way beyond five or six minutes, they will either be knocking people off at the other end or reducing the time that they have, so please be mindful of other Members who will want to make contributions later.
I am delighted to be speaking in this debate during Black History Month, as the first black Conservative MP on these Benches in 2005. It is great to look around the Chamber today, on both sides, because the complexion is new. Certainly on the Government Benches, every one of us is here based on hard work, merit and, yes, of course, a little bit of luck from time to time.
When I was growing up in a single-parent household in south-east London, racism was pretty crude. It was in your face. It was insults, casual violence, and it was very direct and very physical, including being spat at on buses and all sorts of things. I never dreamt, back in those days, that there would be any opportunity to get to the law-making apparatus of our entire nation. What an amazing thing to achieve—I am sure that everyone here of any background and persuasion feels exactly the same, especially if they came from a challenging background.
The beauty of this Chamber and the strength of our United Kingdom is its rich diversity. Our country and our Parliament have demonstrated the ability to evolve, adapt and integrate good people who share our values and aspirations. It also demonstrates that we reject beliefs and practices that run counter to our values and those that seek to undermine democracy, freedom of speech and the rule of law. But British history is long and diverse, and it is undeniable—Magna Carta, democracy, the agrarian and industrial revolutions, the uniting of our kingdom, free trade, the abolition of slavery, emancipation, the defeat of Hitler and fascism, freedom of speech and plurality of media, and, in recent days, thank goodness, race relations and equal opportunities.
The constitution of our country consists of waves of people coming and going over millennia—Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, Normans, Flemings, Huguenots, Indians, Kenyans, Russians, and, in more recent times, Americans, Australians and—soon—Hong Kong Chinese. Let us face it: at some point in the past 12,000 years, every one of our ancestors was an immigrant to these islands. If anyone is daring enough to take a DNA test, they might make some interesting discoveries. They might discover that, actually, we are all related. If we go back 70,000 years, we discover that modern human beings are all from the same stock. Black history is as rich and varied a part of our history as Asian, Jewish, Chinese and Mediterranean history, and the history of sex, gender, sexual preference, disability and class. I am delighted to see that the contribution of non-white Brits is increasingly recognised across society, and Black History Month is a good opportunity to make those recognitions.
We cannot erase uncomfortable parts of our history, but we can learn from them. As a former governor of the Museum of London, I am deeply conscious of the many and varied histories that run through the streets of London and flow through the veins of our nation, and it is important that these contributions and historical interactions between people across the globe are acknowledged in the teaching of history and culture. As every teacher will know, timetables are tight, so this is a good time to reflect on whether we have the right balance of lessons in the context of our history and of the composition of present day Britain. History should not be whitewashed, but it should also not be blackwashed. Acknowledging black histories in schools should not crowd out other histories but highlight the rich diversity of all the histories that we share.
So I add a little note of caution: it is all too easy to say that a single characteristic, such as skin colour, eclipses and overshadows everything else. It is all too easy to fall for the dangerous identity politics, where individuals are kettled into stereotypical communities, often for the benefit of self-appointed spokesmen and leaders. It is all too easy to focus on difference to generate a sense of grievance for political gain—I think we all recognise that—but I believe that what unites us as British citizens is far greater than what divides. So for me, Black History Month is a good time for reflection. I want us to live in a country where a person
“will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”, and that goal is very much more within our reach than it was when I was a child in the ’60s and ’70s. For me, black history is not about segregating communities or about the racist, dehumanising, infantilising politics of identity; it is about recognising different histories and embracing our common humanity as equal citizens today. With a solid adherence to our values, our culture will continue its subtle evolution. Consensual integration will arise on the gentle currents of myriad individual free choices.
So let us celebrate the rich and evolving nature of our great nation. Let us celebrate those people of various heritages who have made it in mainstream life in Britain—including many of us in this Chamber today. Let us not forget where we were before the ’70s and Bernie Grant. Before we made our changes here, this Chamber had a very different complexion. We have made huge advances. We have non-white people at the top of science, at the top of the media and at the top of scientific academies; we have the editor of Vogue. There are so many good examples—[Hon. Members: “The Minister!”] And the Minister—forgive me! We have so many examples of how far we have come, but I acknowledge that there is still further to go. Let us celebrate the rich and evolving nature of our great nation: one nation awash with difference but united on the foundations of democracy, free speech and equality under the law.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this debate today, and it is a pleasure to follow Adam Afriyie. He said that if we were to take a DNA test, we might find that we were related. Well, I can tell him that all of us in the world share 99.9% of our DNA.
I would like to start with a quote: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good people to do nothing.” Every year, I set a theme for my Black History Month, and this year my theme is allies. I thank all the allies around the world and the country who have joined Black Lives Matter marches, who have decided that they will be anti-racist, not just not racist, and who have made a consistent effort to fight the good fight, whether they are black, white or brown. What we have in common is that we are fighting for justice.
The pandemic has shone a light on many injustices that exist in the world. I hope that the Government will ensure that they follow the data when they allocate investment and funds. Too often, in areas such as Brent, a disproportionate amount of cuts leads to bad housing, fewer services and more deaths when it comes to covid-19.
I am passionate about history and how history is taught in our country. At the moment, history is taught to make one group of people feel inferior and another group of people feel superior, which has to stop. We need to look at history and improve it. Labour’s Emancipation Educational Trust is vital and a long overdue investment. Part of the solution is recognising the role that each of us plays in each other’s life and understanding that progress should mean not the destruction or dehumanisation of another person, but an understanding of each other.
Could the hon. Lady expand on which parts of the curriculum she believes make black children feel inferior?
History needs to be decolonised. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead has already discussed how people can go through the whole of their GCSE and not hear reference to any black authors. They can go through history thinking that the people who were enslaved were not part of the uprising, without understanding the richness of Africa and the Caribbean, and without understanding all the leaders in the black community. I am surprised that the Minister has asked me that because it is so well documented that history needs to be decolonised. If we look at organisations such as the Runnymede Trust, it is absolutely amazing.
I will address the issues around decolonising the curriculum at the end of my speech, but the hon. Lady will acknowledge that, even though there may not be enough black authors, there are other racial groups, such as Chinese, Asian and so on, who we do not believe are inferior. So if it is just the number of people who look like you who have written books that is making you inferior, why are black children different from all those other racial groups?
There is no other group where people have been systematically stripped of their humanity throughout history, where colonisation has meant that people have gone to their country, captured them and taken them by force to another country, where they have been raped and thrown overboard in the sea. There is no other group that that has happened to. I am going to explain in my speech why it is so important that history is taught in its fullness. If the Minister takes the time to listen, I think I might just teach her a little something.
The hon. Lady mentioned that no other group in history has been singled out and dehumanised in the way that she has outlined. Without question, such activities are repugnant to all of us. However, we should not exceptionalise Africans or people of African descent. Sadly, slavery has been endemic in virtually all societies. As recently as the 19th century, Barbary pirates from north Africa enslaved more than 1,300 Cornishmen and women and subjugated them to slavery. We find it in China, the Indian subcontinent and the Americas, such as in south America with the Aztecs, Incas and so on. It is a beastly ghastly thing that we must categorically condemn for all people. Does she agree that there is no exclusive nature, as she was suggesting?
I pause, Mr Deputy Speaker, because whenever there is a discussion about black history and an enslavement that lasted for decades and was built on the economy, which is very different from any other type of enslavement, people always try to compare one form of slavery with another. Sometimes, especially during Black History Month, it would be progress if one could just acknowledge the inhumanity that happened and the systemic racism that not only existed then but has a lasting legacy now in our structures, which it does not for any other group.
This is a dark time for our history and if we do not stand up to racists now, it will get worse. We need only open the paper and look on social media to see the racist abuse. We know that my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott gets more racist abuse than all the MPs in this place put together. People, including myself, are subjected to vile threats every day; somebody who threatened to kill me was jailed. People are being attacked in the streets, and hate crime is rising. People have been raped and beaten up just because they have a different point of view, skin colour or religion, or even just because of who they love.
This is why the teaching of history is so important—in its complete form, not with these rose-tinted glasses that say that white is supreme to any other group. When the plot to murder Labour MP Rosie Cooper was foiled, the judge said—and this is important—that the criminal had a
“perverted view of history and current politics”.
The Crown Prosecution Service said that he was
“prepared to act on his white supremacist world view and plotted to kill a Member of Parliament”.
This person also said horrendous things about Jewish people. This neo-Nazi has been sentenced to life imprisonment. We stand here with Jo Cox’s plaque on the wall, and her murderer had far-right extremist views. He also thought that Jo was just too kind a person—he was probably right there; she was. He was also sentenced to life imprisonment. The person who tried to kill the Mayor of London and my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn had a perverted view of history and white supremacy. This is why it is important that history is taught in a balanced way and you do not ignore the reality of what is happening just to make a political point. This is why the teaching of a decolonised history and the inclusion of black history is so important.
I have often delivered learning and development courses, where I have accumulated three top responses when people have been told that they are racist. If someone has been accused of racism or they have been racist, that does not mean they have to stay a racist for their entire life—they can change and educate themselves. These are the top three reactions, besides some of the stuff we have heard today, when people compare, contrast or try to explain it all away. This is how people respond: first, “I don’t see colour.” The goal is not for people not to see colour; we do not want people to be colour blind. If people do not see colour, the likelihood is that they will not see the discrimination that comes off the back of it. We need the acknowledgement, and we need people to be non-judgmental when they see colour, not to prejudge someone because of the colour of their skin. We need people not to be colour blind.
The second is, “I haven’t got a racist bone in my body.” Technically, that is probably correct because racism does not exist in the bones—it is in the mind. Racism is taught. Race is a social construct. It was created so that a group of people can be dehumanised because of the colour of their skin. Racism, however, is very real and very dangerous. The third, which I have heard time and time again, is, “I have a black friend.”
Having a black friend does not excuse racism. In fact, this is not Monopoly. Having a black friend is not a “get out of racist jail free” card. Having a black friend and being a racist just means that you need to do better.
As I have said, my theme this year is thanking our allies. There are so many people who have stood up to racism—whether they be black, white, or brown. They have stood up to racists in their families and among their friends, and that takes real courage. They have stood up to racists in this place, and that takes real courage. Sometimes we might be in a room where everybody is thinking the same and acting the same and we might have to speak out and be uncomfortable. That takes courage and those are the people whom I thank—not the people who tried to explain it away. I want to thank those people who have gone before me on whose shoulders I stand.
I end with the words of the first black man to ever vote in Britain: Ignatius Sancho. He said:
“as you are not to be a boy all your life, and I trust would not be reckoned a fool, use your every endeavour to be a good man.”
I thank the hon. Members who have secured this important debate at a time when the discussion of British history and its connection to race has been more prominent than I can remember in my lifetime.
History is itself imperfect because it belongs to those who hold the pen. We can see that in the rewriting of history by Roman emperors to eradicate their rivals, and, in truth, in the lack of representation of minorities at some of the key moments in British history such as the empire, the Victorian era and the world wars. I wholeheartedly agree that we should include the stories of black, Asian and other minorities who were there at these critical points in our shared nation’s past. That is already outlined in the history curriculum, and it is right that teachers are empowered to choose on which sections they focus.
Although we should seek to present a balanced view of our history, including all of those representations, at the same time we should unashamedly teach our children about British progress, and we should be proud of the country that we are today. Yes, we should teach the horrors of slavery, but we should also teach people about William Wilberforce’s work in this place over 30 years to pass the first abolition of slavery Act. That was no small feat. We should teach the constraints on women in history and the courage of the suffragettes. We should teach children about the brave participation of the Indians, Africans and people across the Caribbean in the world wars, when Britain and the Commonwealth did so much to protect the freedoms of the people of Europe. We should teach about the heroes, the pioneers, the inventors—the public servants so aptly described by Abena Oppong-Asare.
That balance should follow through when we talk about racism in schools. To understate racism is to do a great wrong, because we do not confront that prejudice, we do not give comfort and hope to people that their adversity has been heard. However, to overstate racism is also a problem, because it teaches people that the deck is stacked against them when it might not be. It also damages individual aspiration and trust in institutions, and both of those are key to a person’s success.
When it comes to tackling racial disadvantage, we should be able to hold the nuance and detail at the forefront of our mind. Some voices in the current debate across society want us to say that the country is structurally racist, and I see people who say that there is absolutely nothing wrong and that we do not need to talk about race. I do not agree with either.
The three best performing races at GCSE level are ethnic minorities, and black African children outperform the average. We should be proud of that. We are one of only three countries in Europe—along with Ireland and Finland—that are obliged to collect racial and ethnic data. We should be proud of that. We have made great strides in diversity in Parliament and in the Conservative party. I see the Minister, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, on the Front Bench. I am sure that during my time in Parliament she will be in the Cabinet, and that will be through her own sheer talent and the opportunity that this country has afforded us, which is why both of our families decided to move here and make this country their home.
However, the worst performing group at GCSE is black Caribbean children. When we look at race across society, we can see there is much more that we need to do in building stronger families, in education, in employment, in the criminal justice system, in health and, in particular, in career progression. I am really glad that the Minister is working on the race and ethnic disparity commission, because she will be looking at the details, and at the pockets and places where we need to do more. I am sure that she will help to continue the progress that this country is making. If someone is bright, no matter what their background, their race or which part of the country they come from, they should be able to succeed. We are making great strides in that regard, but, as ever, we need to keep our heads in the detail to continue making progress.
Before I begin my speech, I want to thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this important debate, and my hon. Friend Marsha De Cordova for constantly championing women and equalities across the Chamber whenever she gets a chance.
Mr Deputy Speaker, today you will probably hear lots of personal stories from MPs, especially MPs of colour. I want briefly to outline what happened to me when I decided to stand in Hampstead and Kilburn—the area where my parents got married in the 1970s, when I went to school and where I have had my two children. I was constantly warned that someone called Tulip Siddiq, with a Muslim last name, would not get elected in Hampstead and Kilburn because we have a significant Jewish community. I was told over and over again to take my husband’s last name; but, honestly, who wants to be Mrs Percy? I was told that I would bring the Labour party into shame, and that even Glenda Jackson had almost lost the seat before I took it on. But the truth is that people underestimated the population in Hampstead and Kilburn, and the many communities that we have there. I now have a 14,000 majority and got elected with my Muslim last name—and I may not have two Oscars, but I am working on it. But the comments that I had to put up with were nothing compared with another BME politician who stood for election in my constituency.
Many people will not know this story, but when the general election of 1959 was held, Dr David Pitt made history by being the first person of African descent to stand for Parliament in the constituency of Hampstead, which is now part of my constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn. Perhaps it was always meant to be that he would stand for election in Hampstead since he came from Hampstead, Grenada. Pitt arrived in Britain from the Caribbean before the Empire Windrush. He won a scholarship to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh, and, during the years of the great depression in the 1930s, his contemporaries said that he saw with his own eyes the links between poverty and ill health, which is when he first became involved in politics.
In 1957, Dr Pitt was selected as the Labour party candidate in the then Conservative seat of Hampstead—let me just emphasise, the then Conservative seat. Even before he won the nomination, it was reported that he had been threatened three times by the British Ku Klux Klan. He had to put up with racist slurs at a hustings, where White Defence League members kept shouting “Keep Britain white” and there was fighting throughout. It was reported that Dr Pitt remained calm and smiling throughout the fighting. The Broadhurst Gardens committee rooms, which I sometimes use, were plastered with posters saying—it shook me when I read this—“Don’t vote for any supporters of coloured immigration”.
Dr Pitt received racist death threats and was told over and over again not to stand for election, but he refused to stand down as a Labour candidate. He tried again to be an MP in 1970, when he stood for Labour in Clapham, but was defeated by a Conservative. During the campaign, an anonymous leaflet was circulated featuring the slogan, “If you desire a coloured for your neighbour vote Labour. If you are already burdened with one vote Tory.”
Dr Pitt did not end up becoming an MP, but he went on to have an illustrious career, including as the head of the British Medical Association, and ultimately ended up becoming a Lord. He was the second person of African descent to become a Lord, and played a leading role in campaigning for the Race Relations Act 1976.
There are times when I feel very frustrated by the lack of diversity in politics. Even in my own party, there are times when I feel worn down by the constant Islamophobia, and the constant online bullying, trolling and racist comments that we endure on a daily basis. I get sick of being asked, “But, no, where are you really from?” and responding, “Frognal Gardens, NW3, Hampstead, if you want to go and check”, or “Why don’t you go back to your own country?” and replying, “It’s 20 minutes on the Jubilee line.” I get sick of all that, but then I remember that I stand on the shoulders of giants such as Dr David Pitt. He had to put up with so much more than I have had to put up with. I hope that, wherever he is now, he is looking at the Chamber and at the first person of colour representing the constituency that he sought to serve. I hope he is proud of the country to which he gave so much of himself.
Black History Month is a significant opportunity to celebrate the efforts of Britons from diverse backgrounds who helped to build our great nation, shine a spotlight on their stories, and demonstrate our country’s tolerance and diversity. We are raised to celebrate pluralism, opportunity and aspiration, and we should all be exceptionally proud of our history—I know I am.
Since the Romans, people of colour have represented many of the gold and silver threads that run through our nation’s rich and glorious national tapestry. Over the past 200 years or so, Britain’s history has been marked by the emancipation of people from poverty and tyranny. In 1808, the Royal Navy established the West Africa Squadron, with the objective of tackling the Atlantic slave trade through patrolling the waters off west Africa. Between 1808 and 1860, the West Africa Squadron freed in excess of 150,000 Africans. More recently, in the second world war, Britain stood with her imperial family and allies against the tyranny of Nazism and totalitarianism, and led the fight to emancipate Europe from Hitler’s grasp and Asia from the Japanese empire.
Under this Conservative Government, and frankly for as long as I can remember, those from ethnic minorities have been doing better. We are doing better at school and are entering universities in ever higher numbers. More people from BAME backgrounds are entering apprenticeships, which equip them with the vital skills they need to secure employment. At the same time, the number of black people being stopped and searched has dropped from 117 incidents per 1,000 black people in 2009-10 to 38 in 2018-19.
The Conservatives focus on the individual, regardless of their ethnicity, religious beliefs or sexual orientation. Let us not forget that the first black, mixed-race Member of Parliament was John Stewart, a Conservative, who was elected after the Great Reform Act 1832. Mancherjee Bhownaggree from the Indian subcontinent was the first British Indian Conservative MP, elected in 1895—a third of a century before Labour’s first Indian-origin Member of Parliament.
Although the Labour party has not yet managed to have a female Prime Minister and was the third or fourth party to have a non-white Member of Parliament, it has one record, which is that Bill Morris was the first major black trade union leader. He got that position by doing his job well. People on both sides of the House are trying to put forward that merit issue.
I always feel an immense privilege when the Father of the House intercedes; it is a great honour to raise his interest in anything I have to say.
Despite such delightful interjections and the Conservatives’ long history of advancing pluralism and diversity, there is still a long road to travel and a great journey ahead of us to achieve an ever more equal society. I believe that that can be achieved, and that journey can be made, only through the power of the individual, individual liberties and free markets, and by celebrating and learning about our history. Those are the ways to arrive at the destination. For reasons way beyond my limited understanding, Labour believes that it has some form of ownership over immigrant populations and the descendants of those immigrant populations, such as myself. It thinks it can permanently rely on our vote. Yet it is the Conservatives who today champion and have always championed aspiration and opportunity, regardless of one’s background or any other characteristics. It is for that exact reason that my late father, who travelled from the North-West Frontier of what was then British India, now Pakistan, and served in the NHS, was a lifelong Conservative supporter.
During the recent Black Lives Matter protests, I was disheartened to read banners stating, “Capitalism demands inequality”. They were clear for the world to see. I have rarely seen such a poor understanding of capitalism or inequality. Let us not forget—it behoves Opposition Members to listen to this point—that the key principle of capitalism is the voluntary exchange of goods and services between parties. There is no obligation, no coercion—only consent. Attacking the economic system that has unequivocally improved the lives of billions across the world will only lead to us all being far worse off. There has been a great misapprehension among many people confusing capitalism with mercantilism. For that, I would suggest a little bit of economic history would be helpful.
For those who wish to have state controls and impositions on free trade globally, let us also not forget that it is free trade more than any Government policy, ever, of any country in the world, that has lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty throughout the third world, throughout Africa, throughout the sub-continent of India and elsewhere. It is through the power of fair trade that, while in 1950, 1.8 billion people of the entire global population of only 2.52 billion lived in extreme poverty, by 2015, 0.7 billion people of a population of 7.35 billion lived in extreme poverty. That is a very strong argument for free market economics, the power of free trade and Conservative values. If we are to achieve a society where everyone, regardless of any physical trait, thrives and succeeds, the only route is through Conservative values of enhancing individual liberty and championing free market economics.
I will be brief, because I have not got much choice. Following that last speech, I would just point out that the early MPs whom Imran Ahmad Khan mentioned served in here decades before the Labour party even existed. It would have been a bit tricky for us to get any MPs elected, white or non-white, before we even existed. The Labour party was created in its present structure in 1918 and it was only four years later that the first Labour Indian MP was elected, Shapurji Saklatvala, who was the MP for Battersea.
I would like to talk today about a very specific area of Black History Month and that is the black curriculum, with specific reference to the Caribbean and the struggle for independence. On the 60th anniversary of Jamaican independence—eight years ago—I attended a ceremony in Waltham Forest town hall marking that anniversary. Even then, eight years ago, the generation who fought for independence and to throw off the shackles of colonialism was slipping from memory, into history, and that period of the late 1950s and early 1960s is now slipping from memory into history even more. That is a dangerous situation, where we might lose that collective memory.
I would like to pay tribute to my friend Bernie Grant, who, as has been mentioned, came in here in 1987. Unusually among British politicians, Bernie moved to Britain as an adult. He grew up in Guyana and came here when he was 19 years old, in 1963. He took part in the struggle for independence and he continued to do that, as a trade unionist and a councillor, when he came here. He came here just after Jamaican independence and just before his own country, Guyana, gained independence in the mid-1960s.
The loss of the generation who were instrumental in gaining independence and self-government was further brought home to me in the summer with the death of Everton Weekes, the great West Indian cricketer. He was one of the few remaining links between our era and the post-war era in the Caribbean, where such strides were made politically and in sport. The Caribbean became the dominant force in the world in cricket, which has been the one force that has driven unity in the Caribbean. There was a dream—Michael Manley’s dream—that the Caribbean would have some sort of unity. The Federation of the West Indies was created around 1960 but, partly because of the opportunism of rivals, it lasted only four years and then collapsed.
Sporting endeavour has been a unifying link between the islands of the West Indies. In the West Indies, sport and politics are more closely linked than they are probably anywhere else on the planet, and I suspect that Jamaica is the only country that could produce a Prime Minister such as Michael Manley. Not only was he a great leader and a great advocate of emancipation, but he wrote the magisterial volume “A History of West Indies Cricket”. It is a great big doorstop of a book, but it is a real page-turner and a superb history book. He was a scholar and a giant among mid-20th century politicians around the world.
It seems extraordinary now, but it is well within living memory that there was a great controversy in the West Indies over the appointment of the first black player as the captain of its cricket team—an appointment that was made only after a long campaign led by C.L.R James, the great writer, historian and journalist. It was a big deal in the Caribbean at the time, and it was seen as one of the great stepping stones to throwing off the shackles of colonialism and imperialism. The beneficiary of that appointment was the great Frank Worrell; whenever I mention him, I want to call him the immortal Frank Worrell, but if he had been immortal, I suppose he would not have gone and died. He can lay claim to being one of the greatest leaders that any sport has produced, and he is a great example for future generations.
C.L.R James, who lived in Brixton in his later years, began the campaign for independence in the Caribbean in the 1920s and 1930s, when it was hardly talked about in this country. He came to Britain in 1932 with Learie Constantine, who was a great cricketer, a politician and a barrister. A few years before David Pitt—he was mentioned by my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq—went to the House of Lords, Learie Constantine became the first non-white peer.
My central point is this: all the people I have talked about—C.L.R. James, Frank Worrell, Bernie Grant and the great Jamaican writer and journalist Una Marson—have gone. They are no longer with us, so the links with the struggles of the 1950s and 1960s, which saw emancipation and independence in the Caribbean, are withering. I would hate to see a generation come up—particularly the children and grandchildren of migrants—who do not have that collective memory to inherit, and who do not know about the struggles for independence. The best way of honouring those who led the struggle for independence is by incorporating that history into the curriculum today.
A few people have come in since I gave the advice as to why there is no time limit. The call list is quite extensive, so please exercise a little bit of self-discipline—everybody has been very good during this debate—to ensure that you do not go on too long, otherwise you will reduce the time that is available for other people later on.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate and to follow many other hon. Members. We have talked a little bit about black history—that is appropriate, as it is, indeed, Black History Month—and I would like to echo some of the things that have been said so far. We have already talked about how black history is British history, and British history is black history; these things are synonymous. I want to say right at the beginning that, whatever our different political views—this got a little bit tetchy for a while, but I hope it has calmed down—the one thing on which we can all agree is that black history is British history. That shared bond that people in these wonderful four nations all share together—whether they be white, black, Asian or whatever ethnicity—is critically important. Indeed, it is one of the reasons why I think the Union we have is so precious.
In that spirit of camaraderie and friendship, I would like very gently to take on some of the points that we have heard from certain Labour Members—very gently. I have heard very moving speeches from Labour Members, including Dawn Butler, who is always very passionate about this issue. She knows a lot about it and campaigns a lot about it, and I think everybody in this House respects her for that. However, as somebody who loves history—I studied it as a boy and at Oxford University—I think it is fair to say that, when I entered Oxford University in 2004, this issue, if I were to paraphrase it, of decolonising the curriculum, which has been mentioned, was not a common issue and was not talked about very much. I studied history at that university and enjoyed it very much, and my studies included this issue and a range of different things in all different continents and different countries. I also studied a lot of British history, and I can tell hon. Members that, throughout my whole life, the study of this country’s history has not made me feel inferior. It has not made me feel that I do not belong here. It has not made me feel that somehow my unique part in the story of this country—indeed, the unique part that all of us of every ethnicity has in this country—is not recognised.
My hon. Friend is making a very important point about who we identify with. Given what Dawn Butler feels about children who read books by authors of a different colour to them, would he agree with me that most children do not actually know the colour of the skin of the author of a book they are reading, and in fact we do not need to have people who share the same skin colour as us to identify with them?
I thank the Minister for her intervention. It is interesting because I have three boys—they are mixed race boys—and my wife told me something recently. I do not know whether I am meant to announce this in the Chamber, but why not? [Interruption.] Yes, I should be careful. She remarked to me recently that when she was trying to identify the black individual in an illustrated book with people of different colours—dark, mixed race, white, Asian: it was a complete mosaic—my son did not know what she was talking about. He could not conceive—[Interruption.] No. He did not understand how we would think about one individual as different from another simply on the basis of the colour of their skin. It is worth saying that he is very young, but my broader point is—
No, no. My broader point is that it is very important that we do not allow the teaching and interpretation of our necessarily complex and diverse, yet brilliant and great British history to become very ideologically divisive. I would therefore reject comments from those who say that somehow we need comprehensively to reframe the entire nature of our history to address what they suggest. I believe that what we need to do—
I will continue. What we actually need to do is to look forward, understand our past, understand where we have failed and understand that we have made progress, but accept that there is much further to go.
I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie, who was the first black Conservative MP in the modern era; I do not want to get involved in the historical debate about when the first non-white MP was elected, because we will get ourselves tied up. He has done credit to himself and his family through his service in this House, his record as a successful businessman before coming to the House and the kind advice, wisdom and guidance that he gives to all Members as a senior Member. I remember watching him on “Question Time”—I think it was even before he had been elected, such was the reliability of the voters in Windsor that people were sufficiently confident he would win as a Conservative. I remember watching him and thinking, “Maybe I can become a black Conservative MP as well.” I pay tribute to him.
I was trying to be so nice to the hon. Lady. I do not know why she is carping from a sedentary position, but I will continue. Two words have come up quite a lot in the debate. I would like to address them, and I address them as a Conservative.
Okay; let’s address this. The hon. Lady shouts from a sedentary position, “That’s what they teach at Eton.” First, I am not sure that they did, but regardless of that point, yes, I went to Eton College. It is a good school. I am proud of being able to go to that school. I am proud of the fact that people of all backgrounds and all races are able to go to that school. I reject the idea that if someone is black or non-white, there are certain places that they are not able to go.
I will say this gently, because I like the hon. Member. I have a lot of time for him, and he has been making a gentle argument. Is there not a difference between young Asian girls and young black boys who have our backgrounds and our parental role models—I say “our” because I had a middle-class, privileged background as well—and the young black men and young Asian women growing up in the council estate in Kilburn in my constituency, who are constantly stopped and searched? Is racism not about intersectionality? We came from different backgrounds and had different advantages, and it is just not the same for everyone.
I am very open about the privilege and opportunities that I had growing up, which is why I want to make life better for those who have not had those opportunities. There is a big difference between being a middle-class Asian woman and being working-class, growing up in poverty and facing double discrimination. Intersectionality is what I am trying to bring to the argument, because I feel like the hon. Member is completely missing the point. My point about Eton is—
Order. Interventions should be short. I did remind the House about the length of speeches, and we are in danger of a time limit being imposed if we are not careful.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I like the hon. Lady as well. What she says has a huge amount of truth. Of course there is a difference between people of different backgrounds, and it is in that diversity that we find strength as a country. I accept that I have had advantages that certain white working-class boys or girls may not have had, and I have had advantages that certain black people from working-class backgrounds may also not have had. Of course that is true, but at the same time—and I think this view is shared on both sides of the House; it is not partisan—we need to make sure that everybody can aspire to everything and there are no no-go areas, whatever someone’s race or background. That message of aspiration is one of the key reasons why I became a Conservative.
We have made progress. I do not want to repeat what others have said about where we have fallen short and need to make progress. I look at what my friend the noble Lady Morrissey, has done over the last few years with the 30% Club to get more women into senior positions in big public companies. We should look at that sort of approach and think about how we can increase the number of black people and other minorities in leadership positions.
I will continue, because time is short.
That sort of aspiration is important, but the question is often how we get there. As I have said, we need to seek out and identify talent wherever it appears, support people who do not necessarily have the advantages that others have—that is people from all types of background and of all races—and accept the diversity and intersectionality that the Member for Hampstead and Kilburn described. At the same time, we must reject the fundamental principle of identity politics, that we are mostly black, Asian, white—one of those characteristics. We must allow individuality to be the primary focus of how we think about diversity, opportunity, support and aspiration. I reject the idea, for example, that we should have quotas. I believe in targets and help in identifying where people need support.
I see that Wera Hobhouse is on the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. She has not made a speech yet, so I will not criticise her, and I am sure that she will address the point that I am about to make. Liberal Democrats say—and many people in Labour have suggested this in the past—that we should have all-black shortlists, but I reject that approach. Quotas are a bad idea, because that means that everyone else will look at the Minister, or at me, or at my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and say, “They are only there because of their race.” That is a dangerous thing. We need to recognise the past, welcome our progress and look forward to the future with confidence as a United Kingdom.
Like others, I will to be brief, so that everyone who has applied to speak in the debate is called. It is brilliant that the debate is oversubscribed, because that shows how the debate has developed around the country, as well as the pressure on MPs.
We are in this debate at a time when the Black Lives Matter movement has become big and strong in the United States and around the world. After George Floyd was killed, demonstrations took place, as we know, across the USA and, indeed, across the world. Many people—indigenous people in different parts of the world and minorities all over the world—saw themselves in the treatment of George Floyd at the hands of American police. We would do well to remember that this movement is not going to disappear—it empowers and unites people around the world.
We should approach the debate with a sense of reality. The House of Commons Library has produced an excellent briefing paper, as all its briefing papers are, entitled “Race and Ethnic Disparities”. I urge Members to read it carefully, because it shows the situation in health, education, housing, stop and search, poverty, the criminal justice system and so much else in our society. If someone is young and black, they are more likely to be poor, to be stopped and searched and to underachieve in school; less likely to go to college and even less likely to go to university; and more likely to have a lower life expectancy and lower income in future.
Those are devastating statistics—here, in 2020, all those years after we introduced the first race relations legislation under a Labour Government in the 1960s. We should not be complacent, and this debate—I hope that it will become an annual event—should provide a review of the progress, or not, that has been made in these matters. I urge Members to look carefully at that document.
I have heard the speeches from Government Members, who talk quite reasonably about the huge achievements of individuals who have broken out of the cycle of poverty. For Opposition Members, it is not individuals we want to break out; we want a collective response to develop a system that provides decent education, housing and health opportunities for all, recognising that we have to provide services that deal with the inequalities that people face.
As a councillor in Haringey in the 1970s, it was my honour to chair the community development committee. The successor chair of that committee was my great friend Bernie Grant. We saw in that the way in which we could put public resources into the most disadvantaged communities to empower and strengthen them and help their young people get the same chances as others all across the borough. Our approach on the Labour Benches is essentially a collective one. That is why we founded the national health service. That is why we developed council housing. That is why we developed so many other of our collective services in this country.
This debate takes place not that long after the scandal of the Windrush business hit the headlines and hit this House. It was a deliberately created hostile environment that led to the injustice of the Windrush generation—a generation that came to this country and gave so much in health, in education, in engineering and in so much other work, and helped to improve the living standards of all of us. Ministers should not be unaware of the hurt that is felt among that generation about the way they were treated by that hostile environment.
We should look at the way in which we treat migrants to our society. Why do we have so many people in immigration detention with no charge against them, held effectively in prison with an indeterminate sentence until the Home Office gets round to dealing with their case? We should not be so proud or so complacent about what we do. When we have a Home Secretary who talks about using the Navy to repel desperate asylum seekers and refugees who have risked all to cross the world’s busiest shipping lanes to try to get to a place of safety, can we replace that rhetoric with the principle of humanity and an open heart to people all around this world?
In my constituency, like many others, I do not have to walk very far from my house to find asylum seekers whose process is endlessly lost somewhere in the miasma of the Home Office filing system, with no recourse to public funds, sleeping on the streets, begging and looking for a meal from a church, a synagogue or a mosque in order just to get by. Let us have a sense of reality about what modern Britain is like, and the degree of racism that is still there, sadly, in our society—and the way in which the far right is organising to try to make the situation worse.
We should be full of admiration for those in the black community who have organised themselves, and those in the former colonies who organised to defeat the occupations by Britain, France, Italy, Spain and so many other European colonial powers, and bring about independence. I would like our children in our schools to understand, and see as a central part of the curriculum, the significance of the Pan-African Congress held in 1945 at Chorlton-cum-Hardy town hall in Manchester. It was largely ignored at the time, but the future leaders of many African countries were there at that conference. Indeed, less than 12 years later, Ghana achieved its independence as the first African colony to do so. The generation that came and organised the black community in Britain in the 1950s and ’60s included John La Rose and other great poets from the Caribbean who founded New Beacon Books in my area of London. They did so much to empower and used the work of Claudia Jones and many others in order to give cultural strength and cultural value, through carnival and so much else, to what the Caribbean community were achieving here.
The black self-organisation that was opposed, and then eventually accepted, in the Labour party meant that we had black sections and that my right hon. Friend—my great friend—Ms Abbott was elected to Parliament in 1987, along with Keith Vaz, Paul Boateng and of course Bernie Grant, so sadly no longer with us. Those people did so much. Others paved the way by going into Parliament, including Dadabhai Naoroji in Finsbury at the turn of the century and, of course, the great Saklatvala in Battersea later on.
We should look at the history that our children learn, and not just in one month of the year. I beg to differ with some of the Members who have spoken already: I do want to see the decolonisation of our history. I want our children to understand how black communities came together—how people stood up against the abuse that colonialism was and is against their lives and brought about independence.
On that very point, we have talked before about how in so many communities in this country there are statues, streets and so on that are named after slave owners and colonialists. People like me who come from Glasgow are immensely proud that Nelson Mandela Place is named after Nelson Mandela, but we are completely unaware of the history of the names of the other streets around it. That is the sort of thing we need to attack when we look at education and black history.
Indeed, I love Nelson Mandela Place in Glasgow—it is fantastic. If I may, I would like to convey through the hon. Member my congratulations to the University of Glasgow for recognising that it should repay the compensation money that it was given at the end of the slave trade. The issue of colonial brutality should be taught to our children, as should the way in which the slave trade enriched the already rich in Britain and how some of our biggest companies relied on the slave trade to provide profits from banking and sugar.
Does the right hon. Gentleman not feel that turning the curriculum into a list of all the things that Britain has done wrong to people of a certain race would distort the history of our nation and not give a true picture of the activities not only of this country but of people who share my skin colour, which were not always as wholesome as people on his side want to make out?
It is not about distorting history; it is about the reality of history that should be taught. That means understanding what the slave trade was about, what the brutality of colonialism is and the way in which people were treated.
There are many in this House who say that William Wilberforce was wonderful in his presentation of the abolition legislation in this very Chamber—excellent—and that Thomas Clarkson risked all to tour the whole country explaining to people just how evil the slave trade was, showing them the accoutrements of torture that he took with him throughout the country, but the reality is that the slave trade was abolished and slavery was abolished by the selfless bravery of slaves who rejected it in the plantations in the Caribbean, the Americas and elsewhere. I want children in our schools to understand what those people—such as Paul Bogle, who led the Morant Bay uprising and, of course, Sam Sharpe, who led the rebellion in western Jamaica in 1832, as brilliantly chronicled by my late, great friend Richard Hart in his book “Slaves Who Abolished Slavery”—went through.
When Sam Sharpe was taken to the gallows, before he was executed he said that he accepted the laws under which he was going to be executed and went on to say:
“I depend for salvation upon the Redeemer, who shed his blood upon Calvary for sinners.”
He was then executed because of his part in leading the rebellion against the slave owners and the sugar plantations of western Jamaica. But at that point the sugar industry was in dire straits: people were losing money in London because the sugar was not coming because of the uprising. That speeded up the process of abolition. To its eternal shame, this House then voted to pay what would now be billions in compensation to slave owners, but not to the slaves themselves.
There are many other books that I want our children to read. My great friend Remi Kapo wrote the “Reap the Forgotten Harvest” trilogy of novels about the slave trade. These are the books that I want our children to learn.
In conclusion, history is divisive at one level. It is endlessly controversial and, to me, endlessly fascinating. History educates, history empowers, but history also forms attitudes and opinions, so our children should be brought up understanding that maths and science comes, yes, from Europe, but also from Africa and from the civilisations of what is now called Latin America, and that it comes from China and it comes from so many parts of the world. Our standard of living comes from those people who used their brains to invent so much all over the world, but too often it is taught in the process of some kind of European supremacy over the rest of the world. It does not have to be taught that way; it should be taught in the way of the thirst for knowledge that empowers us all.
We should also teach and recognise that the great writers and poets who have come from the Caribbean and south Asia have enriched our lives massively. I love the work of Andrea Levy. She lived in my constituency before she died. We unveiled a plaque in her memory and her family all came to a little reception we held afterwards, where I met one of her nieces who did not realise quite how famous she was. She was in school and the teacher read out a part of one of Andrea Levy’s books to the class and said, “What do you think of that?” There were a load of blank faces, and the teacher said, “That was written by Andrea Levy.” This girl’s hand went up and she said, “Yeah, that was my auntie.” She did not realise she had been the great writer at that time. We need to popularise the literature by so many writers who have come to this country. My hon. Friend John Cryer mentioned CLR James, and I would mention also Derek Walcott and the great Asian poets such as Tagore and so many others.
Let us give our children the space and the opportunity to learn the history of this country, and to learn the popular history of this country—of ordinary people’s demands to get fair legislation such as trade union rights, factory Acts and so on—but also to understand what colonialism did and what colonialism did to its victims. That way they will have a better understanding of why the world is as it is at the present time.
That, to me, is what Black History Month should be about, but I would like us not to have Black History Month but to have black history as a central part of our history curriculum all year round for all our children.
Order. To protect those further down the call list I am introducing a time limit of six minutes, although I suspect it may be further reduced to ensure that more people get in.
I add my congratulations to Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate this afternoon.
I was pleased to attend earlier in the month, albeit virtually, the launch of Black History Month in Southampton. Our city has a proud tradition of celebrating the month, usually with a range of fantastic events in real life, but this year of course it is all virtual. I am reminded that back in 2018 I went, as immigration Minister then, to St Mary’s fire station, where there is a beautiful mural to celebrate the arrival of the Empire Windrush. I gently point out to Jeremy Corbyn that almost half of those of the Windrush generation who were wronged had either a deportation or a detention prior to 2010 under a Labour Government, albeit perhaps not a Labour Government particularly to his liking, and that it was, of course, Liam Byrne who coined the phrase “a really hostile environment”. But I do not want this debate to degenerate into party politics; we have already heard, as my hon. Friend Bim Afolami said, too much tetchiness this afternoon and this should be a celebration of Black History Month.
I would particularly like to pay tribute to those people like Lou Taylor from Southampton, and Don John and Stevina Southwell, all of whom have reached out to me over the past few years to make sure that I am better educated about the black history of my city, and I will now follow John Cryer, who spoke about cricket, in talking about football, and particularly about a constituent of mine, Paul Williams, who was a professional footballer for Southampton. He had a great career: he moved around the country, but he chose to finish his playing days in Southampton and retired to the city. He can tell horrendous stories of racism in football. I pay tribute to the Premier League and the Football Association for their campaigns to Show Racism the Red Card and Kick It Out, but the reality is that these were not racist events that happened many decades ago; it was less than 20 years ago. It is really shocking to see a man of my age reduced to tears from the experiences he had on the pitch. I heard of his determination to ensure that future generations do not suffer the same. His real passion nowadays is not football, but education, and I met him at one of my local secondary schools to talk about how they could do better to ensure that young people understand the history of our country in the most holistic and rounded way.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Islington North because he said this, too, but we should not be celebrating Black History Month. Perhaps we should not be focusing on history—perhaps it should be about culture, art, music, science and all those fantastic role models across the curriculum. We should not be doing it in a month, because we should be embedding it across the year. As Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I am proud to be working hand in hand with the Petitions Committee to talk about how we can improve the black history curriculum and make sure that it is properly embedded.
I speak as the representative of a small town called Romsey, the birthplace of a fantastic woman called Florence Nightingale. Every time there is any discussion about removing Nightingale from the history curriculum, there is absolute uproar. The Nightingale Society comes and speaks to me and says, “You have to do everything you can. Of the great Victorians, Nightingale is right up there.” I often say, because sometimes I like to be a little provocative, “How about Mary Seacole?” We have the Seacole wing at the Royal South Hants Hospital, and we have the Nightingale ward in Romsey Hospital. I always say, “Can we not have both? Can we not ensure that the history of our country is properly represented, including all people, all faiths, all colours and all backgrounds?” It is crucial that we work very hard to do just that.
She is no longer in her place, which is disappointing, but I was delighted to hear Dawn Butler talk about allyship, and that is such an important phrase. When I took over as Chair of the Women and Equalities Committee, I came under fire from SOAS because I was not diverse enough. It appeared utterly ignorant of the process, which is now an election—it is hardly my fault that it was an uncontested election—and I said to it then as I say to it now, “You have got me wrong if you think I cannot be an ally of black communities, of Asian communities and of minority ethnic communities. You have got me absolutely wrong if you think that my Committee will not go after compulsory reporting of the ethnicity pay gap every bit as much as we care about the compulsory reporting of the gender pay gap.” I say to the Minister, gently, please can we have that reporting back? She should expect over the course of the coming months that my pleas will not be so gentle.
It is imperative that wherever we are from and from whatever background, we are determined, willing and happy to stand up and be counted. As the hon. Member for Brent Central said, we must be prepared to speak up and not just stand silent. By standing silent, we are not doing our part.
The hon. Lady is making a very good and passionate speech. She just mentioned that we now have a mandatory obligation to report on the gender pay gap, but not on the ethnicity pay gap. For that reason exactly, I introduced my private Member’s Bill about all ethnic minority shortlists, because local parties have the opportunity under the Equalities Act 2010 to have all women shortlists. Does she not agree that there is a gap in the Equalities Act in that sense?
The hon. Lady makes an important point, but it is not just about shortlists. I am a big supporter of the work done under section 106 of the 2010 Act to make sure that we are identifying not just those who make it as candidates, but those who do not, because it is imperative that every party across the board looks carefully at how they are encouraging people to come forward and stand for election. They need to make sure that the barriers that do exist—they exist for women, for disabled people and for BAME people—are beaten down at every level, whether that be local councils or this place.
I always say that when I arrived here in 2010, there were massive celebrations on this side of the House, because finally we had more than 17 women elected to the Conservative Benches. We are now more than 80, and I always argue that that progress is too slow. While the Chamber looks very different from how it looked just 10 years ago, there remains a huge amount to do. I have absolutely no doubt that my hon. Friend the Minister will soon be in the Cabinet, but that is not enough. We need there to be more women. We need there to be more people from BAME backgrounds. We need there to be more people with disability. We need more LGBTQ people, and the list goes on.
I finish—almost promptly, but I was allowed an intervention—by saying that my Committee will undoubtedly look at the new commission that has been set up to look at racial disparities, but my message to the Government is that the time for reviews is done. We have done many reviews over the past two decades. What we need is action.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate, and I echo the words of my hon. Friend Dawn Butler: it is not enough for someone not to be racist, they have to be an anti-racist, because if they are not part of the solution, they are just another part of the problem.
I have been pleased to listen to the contributions today, or at least most of them, because every time I hear about black history, I learn more and more. Like most people in this House, I never learnt black history at school. The majority of my learning came from my love of reading and my frequent visits to the Brixton library. I love learning about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, and those international perspectives are so important, but the UK has its own rich civil rights struggle, and I want British children also to learn about that. I want them to learn about the Bristol bus boycotts, Mary Seacole, Claudia Jones, Olive Morris, CLR James, the first black Members to enter this House and much more.
Those who do not think it necessary to learn black history in schools, or that it should be confined to certain lessons, have to acknowledge how damaging it is not to see yourself reflected in your history. Black history is British history, and how can we possibly learn about this country in its fullness and how it came to be if we do not learn about slavery and colonialism, and the impacts they have directly had on how our country is today?
This debate is extremely timely because, as Members will have just heard, we found recently that no subject has received more signatories for parliamentary petitions than getting black history taught as part of our national curriculum, yet the Government have refused requests from campaigning organisations such as the Black Curriculum to change our curriculum. Given that this is coupled with the new guidance about anti-capitalist texts in schools, I am a bit suspicious, because I also did not learn about the miners’ strikes, the poll tax riots or the achievements of trade unions at school.
Decolonising our education is every bit as much about class as it is about race. Heaven forbid that working-class kids are taught about movements for change—they might start to get ideas that they have power as citizens, that when they see injustice they should challenge it and that if they persevere they might just win.
I remember that the first thing I wrote in my year 7 history book, in Mr Smart’s class, was, “We study the past to live the present with an eye on the future.” I believe we need to address our shameful past and shameful present and look to a future of racial equality. We have to be willing to do that to inform and inspire the next generation, because nobody is born racist. Racism is ignorance, and what is education if not the absence of ignorance?
This history is not something that we need just to be added on at the end of a lesson, one day a week, one day of the year, in one single section of our curriculum or even in this one month. Too often, the burden is left to our teachers to move things around and find time. Recently, I was proud to go to Streatham Wells Primary School and find nine and 10-year-olds learning about unconscious bias. I applaud our teachers who make this special effort and ask the Government to follow their lead.
When we learn about black history, it has to be done properly. Yes, we must learn about our allies, such as William Wilberforce, and what they did to help the struggle, but, as my right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn pointed out, slavery ended because of the slave revolts. It ended because of those people who were willing to risk their lives. Colonialism ended because people were no longer willing to have this country rule over them.
We need to applaud those sheroes and heroes in history. We need to look at people such as Toussaint Louverture, Nanny of the Maroons and Yaa Asantewaa, who shares the same heritage as me and my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead. We need to look this again as a form of reparations. In my maiden speech, I spoke about reparations, how they do not have to be about just giving large sums away and how instead they are about looking about how we address things such as giving certain artefacts back and offering an apology. I would add educational reparations to that: decolonising our education.
Too often, when we challenge racism in this House, we are told that we do not recognise progress and that we do not like our country. I would like to say: we are the progress. When we look at the Benches on both sides of the House, we are shown the progress that we have made. But I came to this House to change things, not just to clap my hands for the mediocre things that have gone in the past. To quote a modern-day philosopher—naturally, a Streatham native—the rapper Santan Dave:
“least racist is still racist”.
We have a long way to go. So when I challenge in racism in my country, I do not want anyone to tell me that I do not love my country and I should go back to somewhere else, because what more love could you have for your country than to make it the very best place in the world for all people to live, no matter the colour of their skin?
I thank hon. Members for securing this debate. Every Member of this House was rightly appalled at the footage of George Floyd’s death and the subsequent examples of racial injustice in the United States that reignited the debate about race relations in America and, indeed, in the United Kingdom. I am glad that we are engaging in that conversation in the round, but I am wary of the growing trend of adopting a whole ideology of a country that has a different history of race and race relations from our own.
The role of Britain and the Royal Navy in abolishing the slave trade is—I thought until I arrived in this debate—incontrovertible and clear. Britain has welcomed people of all ethnicities from around the world and has a history of tolerance and accepting other cultures, much more so than many other countries. That is not to say that atrocities and injustices have not been committed. It is right to acknowledge the past wrongs that ethnic minorities have faced in our history much more than those imported from the USA. However, that is a history, and throughout any history, it is possible to identify abhorrent views and actions.
As I give this speech, my hon. Friend the Minister is sitting at the Dispatch Box. She is an accomplished lawyer, Minister and the daughter of Nigerian immigrants. We have one of the most diverse Governments in memory and, indeed, in the world. My concern is that we will turn into a country of identity politics based on race and colour rather than merit and character. We have seen that shift in the United States, and I strongly believe that it should not be encouraged in the United Kingdom.
An example of that shift can be seen in the teaching of critical race theory in the United States, and now even in some schools in the UK. That is a dangerous and divisive ideology that should not be adopted in educational theory. It creates a system where people are identified solely by their race and starts from a premise of identifying them as victims of oppression. I encourage all hon. Members to read black professor Thomas Sowell’s work on the subject.
Similarly, unconscious bias, and especially the so-called training about it, is not at all uncontroversial and often rests on pseudo-scientific assertions, much as phrenology and eugenics did in their time. It is time for that and the potential for damage to race relations that arises from it to be challenged.
My hon. Friend Neil O’Brien suggested that if we celebrate Black History Month, we focus hard on black British history, but also go beyond that to greater diversity. In that spirit, I am pleased to turn to a patriotic black role model connected to my constituency. On the centenary of the first world war, I wrote a piece for local Northampton magazine about Walter Tull, a famous black footballer who played for Northampton Town and Tottenham Hotspur and served as an officer in the footballers’ battalions on the fronts in Italy and France.
Walter Tull was the first player to enlist from Northampton Town. He fought in the battle of the Somme, and he was one of the first mixed heritage officers in the regular British Army. His fellow officers spoke about his leadership and bravery under fire and recommended him for a Military Cross. He died in action in 1918. Even today, he is well known around Northampton and celebrated as a local hero.
Walter Tull is one of many examples of black British men and women who have contributed so much to our country’s history. They should rightly be recognised in our national consciousness and history, but not just because of the colour of their skin. They should be celebrated because of their actions, their strength of character and their contribution to our nation’s identity and history.
Many of the references to the United States are of great concern. We must not simply be led by what goes on in the United States, but look to our own history. Nevertheless, there are huge and wonderful examples to be taken, and no greater than that of Martin Luther King. I am pleased to say that he was offered, accepted and came in person to receive an honorary doctorate from Newcastle University, my old university, in 1967. His chief of staff, Dr Wyatt Tee Walker, was one of the most ardent critics of critical race theory. No one did more for race relations than him, yet no one was more strident in their opposition to critical race theory and its child, unconscious bias training.
George Floyd is murdered agonisingly over nine long minutes in Minneapolis, and in Newcastle 5,000 people of all ages, races and backgrounds join an online protest seeking real change. Racism is global, and our response must be.
Let me start by saying why Black History Month matters so much to me personally. I grew up in Newcastle in the ’70s. I went to fantastic local schools, where I learned the history of our great region, and I was inspired by local heroes such as Stephenson and Parsons to become an engineer, but I learned nothing of black history. I would have been hard put to name a dozen famous black people outside music or sports. My knowledge of black achievement was limited to those two sectors and a few walk-on parts in the great histories of nations, generally as hapless victims or stereotypical villains.
I remember as a child being inspired by the words of Martin Luther King, but I did not know that he had come to Newcastle University, that it was the only non-American university to honour him in his lifetime and that he made an amazing speech accepting that honour—a call to arms and international solidarity in the fight against racism. That speech is online and remains relevant today. I did not know that Frederick Douglass, the American campaigner and abolitionist and the most famous black person of his time, lived and lectured in Newcastle in the 1840s. Indeed, it is sad to think that, given the lack of diversity in academia now, Newcastle may have had a higher proportion of BAME lecturers then than it does today. I never learned that African soldiers were garrisoned on Hadrian’s wall. I want in particular to thank historian and fellow Geordie David Olusoga for celebrating the long history of black Britain, often in the face of virulent racism.
That is why Black History Month matters. Yes, there is justice in telling the stories of those whom history has overlooked; there is also power in sharing the diversity of achievement that is our history. My own achievement of being Newcastle’s first black MP is put into context; I am not an outlier, but I stand on the shoulders of the many who go before me in our shared past. So yes, I want black history taught in our schools. I want young girls and boys of each and every ethnicity to learn British history, and I want them to know that Geordie Africanus has a long and exciting history and future in our region.
The stories of black lives now need to be celebrated. Let me give just one example. My constituent Miriam Mafemba came to England 21 years ago from Zimbabwe, where she faced harassment because of her trade union activism. Here, she studied nursing and now works on the frontline against covid. As an active Unison member, she fights for better conditions for all, seeking to address the snowy white peaks that unfortunately remain in our beloved NHS. Miriam, and all those fighting to improve working lives, represents the future of Newcastle.
I praise the work of trade unions such as Unison and all who seek to improve the working conditions of their black members. When Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was in Memphis supporting American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union sanitation workers in their struggle to be recognised as key workers. Their sign was “I am a man” because they were always called “boy”. We may not be called “boy” now, but racism in the workplace remains a barrier to the success of so many. Explicit racial discrimination may be illegal, but implicit stereotyping, exclusion and the burden of being the only black person in the room forms the ceiling of achievement for so many.
The impact of workplace discrimination has been highlighted by the pandemic. Covid feeds on inequality, but I am angry that six months into this pandemic, all we seem to know is that black and minority ethnic people are two to three times more likely to die, not why, where or when. Does the Government Equalities Office have no data analysts?
It is interesting that the hon. Lady raises that point. She may not be aware that I have been looking at that issue since June, and I will give an oral statement on Thursday that will answer many of those questions.
I look forward greatly to that statement. Perhaps then the Minister will tell me whether it is true, as I have been told, that the number of BAME women with covid in Newcastle hospitals is eight times that of white women with covid.
I praise the impact of Black History Month and what it does in telling our shared history, but it needs to do more. How do we eradicate racism? I was set that challenge by young people during a Black History Month event recently, and I was flummoxed. I realised that I do not spend enough time imagining the end of racism, but we should. Yes, it will take a race equality strategy, and real action and legislation, but there is more that we can all do as individuals. As someone who was on the national executive of the anti-apartheid movement for many years, I often think about why that international movement was so successful. Certainly, we protested in huge numbers all over the world—and certainly we had the best music—but we also made organisations, companies, politicians and countries change. We boycotted, we voted, we made apartheid South Africa a pariah state. We have to do the same thing for racism. We have to make it unacceptable. Do not buy its products, do not vote for its advocates, do not fund its perpetrators and do not click on its content—and, yes, I mean Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and all the social media platforms whose business model is predicated on promoting the extremes.
I look forward to a day when parents will explain racism to their children in the same way that they now explain hanging, drawing and quartering: as a barbaric practice of our past. Black voices will be celebrated in the story of the ending of racism. For too long, history has been written by the victors. We want a world in which success is open to all, and Black History Month can help to achieve that by remembering all our history in colour and making racism history.
I thank Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this important debate. I want to speak today not on behalf of myself but on behalf of a dear friend, a young woman I have mentored since the age of 10. Her name is Chanay Ismael. During the protests this summer, I asked her for her thoughts on how we could improve the issues that were raised during the riots and protests. One of the things she said was that she would like to see black history taught in schools in an integrated curriculum. She said that, as a young black woman, she found it hard to envision being a leader in politics and in society when she did not see those examples being taught in real life. I am here today to speak not on behalf of myself but on behalf of Chanay, to raise the issues that she feels so passionately about, so that people like Ms Abbott, the first black female British MP, can be recognised and taught in the integrated curriculum in school.
This is not about a cancelling culture; it is about expanding our culture to celebrate all our diversity and what we bring to the table as a wonderful, incredible country and society. Chanay also mentioned that she would like to be able to celebrate and learn about not just political leaders but social leaders, alongside all the other history that she is learning now. She just wants to see that side of history also being taught, and I think that that is a fair argument to raise. I want to represent her today and to ensure that her name is written in the Hansard for this debate. I pay tribute to the things that she has taught me about our society.
Mary Seacole has already been mentioned, and I hope that we will be able to incorporate her into our main curriculum when we are teaching about medical history and nursing. When my daughter had to choose a “hero of history”, she chose Mary Seacole, and I hope that, in the future, children across the country will be able to choose her as someone who is celebrated as a hero of history, and that anyone, from whatever background, will be able to look at her and say, “This was a hero of our past and we want to celebrate her.” I will be brief today. I want to thank and pay tribute to Opposition Members for securing this debate, and I hope that this will allow for a positive way forward in discussing this subject.
Following on from Joy Morrissey, who mentioned Mary Seacole, this is something that is close to my heart. It is important that we celebrate some of the great people who have contributed to our country. Some of that work has been led by a number of people campaigning for many years. The Mary Seacole statue at St Thomas’s Hospital in my constituency came about not just because people wanted it, but through 12 years of hard work by the Mary Seacole Trust. Private contributions of more than half a million pounds were secured to put it up. To give the former Chancellor, George Osborne, credit, the Treasury also contributed £250,000 towards it. I want to pay tribute to some of the people who were at the unveiling of the statute in 2016, including the great Baroness Floella Benjamin and the great Dame Elizabeth Anionwu. It is important that we ensure that Mary Seacole’s history and contributions are recognised in our history books.
Both of my children were born at St Thomas’s. My daughter was born in 2015 and my son in 2017—a year after the statue was erected. It gave me immense pride, as I was pacing up and down waiting for that child to come out, to see it in the garden of St Thomas’s. On it is inscribed the words of The Times’ Crimean war correspondent, Sir William Howard Russell:
“I trust that England will not forget the one who nursed her sick and who sought out her wounded to aid and succour them and who performed the last office for some of her illustrious dead”.
We have seen that in this pandemic: some of our nurses working around the clock caring for people who have tragically died, and some of our care workers working around the clock on some of the lowest pay caring for our elderly relatives. It is important that we do not forget their contributions. That is why Black History Month is so important. That fight for racial justice must always show the appreciation of that collective history. If not, why are we celebrating it?
A number of people have asked me, “Why do you always talk about race?” Until we have full racial equality, I will not stop talking about race. Unfortunately, we still do not have it in 2020. I am proud to have been the first black woman to be elected to represent my constituency of Lambeth and Southwark in the London Assembly, and to be the first black woman to represent my constituency of Vauxhall, but I do not want to be the first. I want other people to come after me; it is no good just being the first. We have to look at how we are bringing up the next generation to get involved in all spheres of life, not just politics.
As the Minister knows, as she comes from a Nigerian background, our parents tell us when we are younger, “You are going to be a doctor, a nurse or a lawyer,” but how do we make sure that more of our young children have an advantage in all different aspects, that they can see themselves in all different professions, in boardrooms and running their own businesses? That will happen only if there is equality of opportunity from the start for all our young people.
My journey into politics was not easy. People said to me, “Why do you want to do that? Why do you want to go there? Are you sure this is what you want to do?” Even in the last 10 months, I have witnessed and been subject to racism, but that is not going to stop me; it is going to push me even more to make sure we call out some of those ill things. Caroline Nokes said that she has been an ally. That is fantastic. We need more people across all sections being allies to black people, calling out some of the things they have seen and calling out the racial injustices, whether in the workplace, at home or in their business. That is what true allyship means.
I went to visit a secondary school in my constituency last week to speak to the year 11s about Black History Month and they gave me a small goody bag. One of the badges in the goody bag said “Black 365 Days”. I am not black only in the month of October; I am black every day. It is important that we celebrate the contribution of our black people throughout the year. That is something that we all agree with, and to get to that we need to look more strongly at the issue of black education in our curriculum.
My hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy mentioned Olive Morris. For years as a councillor, I used to go into that building, not knowing the great work that she pioneered, and it is important that that is celebrated and documented. We are not talking about whitewashing and erasing our history. That was in the past—yes, there is an uncomfortable past in some of the things that this country did, but it is about celebrating and recognising the contributions of great black Britons, so going forward, I hope that we can see more debate and more contributions.
This October, it would be remiss of me not to mention Nigeria. We celebrated 60 years of independence on
I start by paying tribute to some really fantastic speeches we have heard in this debate, including an absolutely inspirational speech from my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie and a brilliant speech from my hon. Friend Bim Afolami, who really brought home the point that advantages and disadvantages are characteristics of individuals, not the colour of their skin. There were some brilliant speeches—I do not always agree with Chi Onwurah, but I always think she speaks very well.
It is very important that people understand our history and how Britain over the decades came to be a multiracial society, as it is now. It is very important that people understand that history goes back further than we might think. I was in a pub just north of Corby the other day, which turned out to have had Britain’s first black pub landlord back in the 17th century. The history of ethnic minorities in the UK goes back a long way. It has many distinguished people in it and great contributions. From Olaudah Equiano in the 18th century, the great abolitionist, to Johnson Beharry, VC, today, people from ethnic minorities have served this country in important ways.
In my constituency, 68% of secondary school pupils are white, 23% are Asian and 3% are black, and this month, they will all be studying black history. I would like to see Black History Month evolve into something new—to become mainstreamed, not to be held off on the end of a pair of tweezers anymore, but to be forged into part of our common national story. It seems odd and alienating to me to try to single out one group at a time, because fundamentally, there is no black history. There is no white history. There is just British history.
Do not get me wrong; the story of the American civil rights movement was referred to by my hon. Friend Andrew Lewer, and the story of the black civil rights struggle in America is inspirational—it has absolutely incredible figures in it and everyone should learn about it—but it is different from our story. It is important that we do not constantly import wholesale these ideas from America, like we are the 51st state of America. Our story is quite different. Black people who came to this country came not as slaves. They came here of their own choice and to work—and to work hard—often in quite difficult working-class jobs. Black people in this country do not have one story. They have many different backstories and they come from all over the world and many different cultures.
I put down that marker because sometimes I listen to this debate, and something about it just makes me wonder. I hear people talking about decolonising the curriculum, as if the curriculum of Britain’s state schools is colonialist or imperialist today. This may be a generational thing, but it certainly was not when I was at a comprehensive in 1980s Huddersfield. There was a conversation about many of the bad things as well as our country’s more positive history. I worry that it is part of an agenda that is part of identity politics, increasingly not seeing us as a single society—a single people—but trying to treat people primarily as members of groups. I worry about that.
There was a headteacher in Sheffield who wrote to all his parents to say that Britain is a society founded on white supremacy and white privilege. That is just not true. Apartheid South Africa was a society founded on white supremacy. The confederacy in the US was a society like that. Britain is not that society. It is incredibly damaging to young people, whether they are Asian or black, to tell them that it is, because it is a lie. I worried about that again when I was walking down Whitehall, with all the graffiti after the BLM protests, and I saw the statue of Churchill, and someone had written “was a racist” on it. Let us be clear: if it was not for that man, there would be an enormous great swastika flying from this building. I worry about the poison that the young man who wrote that had been fed, and I worry that we cannot allow Black History Month to be sucked into that. We do not want this country to be polarised into Balkanised, small groups. That would be a future very different from the one that I grew up expecting and hoping for from this country—one where we would increasingly not see each other as members of groups, where we would increasingly be colour blind and where everyone would fit into our common culture. But I worry that the new woke agenda and identity politics are telling people that they must be on their guard at all times because Britain is a horrendously racist society, and that people cannot assimilate into society because it is completely different from—or incompatible with—them. I worry that that agenda does more to divide people than to unite them.
Britain is a country where there are still problems. There is still real racism; people suffer from real racism every day in this country. But it is also a country in which we have made huge progress. Over the last 20 years, for example, the employment rate for black men and women has not just grown, but has grown faster than the employment rate for white men and women. The gap has been closed. Median earnings in this country are highest for people of Indian backgrounds, lowest for people of Pakistani and Bangladeshi backgrounds, and black and white people are in the middle. Indian pupils who are on free school meals are as likely to pass their English and maths GCSEs as black pupils who are not. That is a troubling statistic, but, then again, the situation is more nuanced. For example, poor black and Asian girls who are eligible for free school meals are more likely to go to university than white and black boys who are not. There is nuance; it is literally not a story about black and white. There are important things that we have to understand in this story.
I pay tribute to the people, and I understand the great motivations behind Black History Month, and the importance of making everybody feel that they can achieve and are part of this country’s story. I went to an averagely performing comprehensive in an averagely performing area. I saw how people’s culture can sometimes keep them down—that people do not believe that they can do certain things. When my careers teacher asked me how many GCSEs I would pass, I said, “All of them”, and he laughed. All I can say is, I hope you’re watching this now! I worry that the same is even more true for young black people. It is very important that they have role models, can see the wonderful people in this House and can achieve anything they want to, but I also want this to be a unifying agenda. In the end, as I said before, there is no black history and no white history; there is just British history.
I have listened to many interesting and good contributions, but also some that I have found slightly disappointing. I sometimes wonder whether people have quite got it yet. It is important that we have many more debates like this one, until every last person really gets it. I am not black so I do not pretend to understand what it is like to have grown up as a black person. It is therefore very important for me to hear many, many stories of people who have a different skin colour from my own, rather than having a ready opinion of what I think those people should feel like. But there we go; we need to discuss this further.
Earlier this year, the death of George Floyd and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement pushed the issue of racial injustice to the forefront of our attention. Discrimination and social injustice go hand in hand. Our society is full of discrimination, be it on sex and gender, physical or mental disability, age, religion or income, but discrimination based on race and ethnicity continues to be the most stubborn and most politically abused. The new and growing culture war, the toxic debates about immigration over the last 10 years and the associated increase in racial hate crimes have all added to the horrible sense that we have recently gone backwards, rather than forwards.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer were remarkable in their global response. Painful as it was, this created a huge learning opportunity for many of us, including me. I believe in respectful dialogue between real people. I have been listening to and speaking with members of the black community in my constituency of Bath. I have heard eye-opening and moving stories from residents who have faced systemic racism for their entire lives in our city. Yes, of course there are individual exceptions, but let us listen to the majority experience of people who grow up in black communities.
The city of Bath prides itself on being open and welcoming, so I have to admit that I was shocked, surprised and ashamed by a small but vociferous minority leading an ugly backlash against a necessary and positive wake-up call. We must face up to the continuing structural racial inequalities in Britain today. We need to reject and dismantle the culture war that is being actively promoted in our society. It robs our country of humanity and compassion, and will be the death of a tolerant and liberal society, and we need actively to call it out and fight against it.
Many people remain extremely defensive about racism. It can be difficult and painful, but we must try to look at it from the perspective of others—of those who have been touched by it. The only people who can speak credibly about racism are those who have experienced it at first hand. Their lived experience is real; no one can take that away from them. Not everyone in our black community supports the idea of Black History Month. It can run the risk of becoming a superficial tick-box exercise without any tangible outcomes. We cannot condone a selective view and teaching of our nation’s history—one that leaves some people out and negates and invalidates their experience. Including more rather than less in our history books can only be enriching. It means not that we eradicate history, but that we add to it to get a fuller picture of what life is and has been for more than just the white majority.
For as long as it takes our country to confront the totality of our history, including the parts that we are disturbed and ashamed about, such as slavery, Black History Month has a place in our calendars and in our consciousness. It serves as a prompt and as a reminder to focus our attention, to listen, to discuss, to learn, to reflect, to change and to measure whether we actually make any progress in eradicating racial discrimination. As I have said, I was slightly disturbed by some of the exchanges about who has done better or who has done worst, rather than recognising that we all can and must do better. There is no place for complacency here. Behind every statistic of racial injustice is a human life—a real person.
Last week, I visited Fairfield House in Bath: a place of local, national and global significance. It was the residence of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie while he was in exile for five years before and during the second world war. The house serves as a focal point for the local black community. Elders gather every Friday for lunch. It represents a fascinating chapter of black history and should be a source of great pride for all of us in our city, and yet it is actually quite hidden.
Our country is on a journey towards racial equality. I hope that this year will be a milestone in our shared commitment to going forward and to making genuine progress.
I am very pleased that we are marking Black History Month, as it is an opportunity to bring to the fore the many untold stories of black Britons of African and Caribbean descent, who, for many generations, have made significant contributions to our society, but who deserve much greater recognition.
I studied history at university and published a book of social and architectural history last year, which, during the process of research, led me to conclude that there is much more to be done in exploring and paying tribute to the enormous contribution that black British people have made and continue to make in shaping our history.
Given the covid-19 pandemic, I am also very pleased that, during this Black History Month, we have been celebrating the lives of black public servants who have done so much to support and improve our country. Later this afternoon, I will be attending a meeting of the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, of which I am a member, and we will be discussing a series of activities and initiatives to focus on improving diversity of representation and inclusivity in relation to the parliamentary art collection, as summarised in the Committee’s press release of
The national curriculum, as it stands, is inclusive and flexible, allowing teachers to teach about black, Asian and minority ethnic history. Nothing in the history curriculum is compulsory, so mandating the teaching of particular areas of history would lead to the charge that we are excluding others. Instead, teachers have the freedom and flexibility as to the focus that they want their pupils to have.
I hope that the recently announced Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities will make a major contribution to this debate, given that education is one of the key areas on which it will focus.
I applaud Abena Oppong-Asare for bringing us this debate, and the hon. Members of all parties who sponsored it. I am very pleased to see it return after a five-year gap and I hope it will not be another five years before we hold another. It makes a major contribution to marking Black History Month and deepens our understanding of how the study of history should address the past and should be taught across the UK. Above all, it reminds us and emphasises that people of all races in this country have a shared history and a shared future together.
I thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this vitally important debate. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to people and movements that have inspired me and many others in Wales and beyond in the fight against racism.
Paul Robeson, the son of an escaped slave in America, was world renowned as an actor and singer, but above all he was a fearless political activist and campaigner for human and civil rights and equality. He developed a deep bond with the south Wales mining communities, speaking and performing in my own constituency in the 1930s. Despite being banned from leaving America during the 1950s, in the McCarthy period, he was still able to sing at the miners’ eisteddfod in Porthcawl in 1957, via a transatlantic telephone link. A recording of that event, which was recently presented to me by a former National Union of Mineworkers official, sits in my constituency office. The Welsh people also added their voice to the international petition that forced the US Supreme Court to reinstate Robeson’s passport in 1958.
Nelson Mandela, too, has a very special place in the heart of Welsh people. The Wales Anti-Apartheid Movement, led by the wonderful Hanef Bhamjee, campaigned vigorously for an end to racism, colonialism and apartheid. On his release from prison, Nelson Mandela visited Cardiff to receive the freedom of the city. He thanked the people of Wales for their action, saying:
“When the call for the international isolation of apartheid went out to the world, the people of Wales responded magnificently.”
Mandela demonstrated the power of people and movements to bring about positive change.
We know that systemic racism persists today—the covid pandemic has exposed that. The Welsh Government’s own research reveals how covid-19 has had a disproportionate impact on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, who also suffer higher levels of deprivation. An ethnicity pay gap persists in Wales, standing at 7.5%, and the persistence of racism has recently been laid bare in Wales by the inhumane treatment of asylum seekers placed by the UK Home Office in what has been described as a facility resembling a prison camp in west Wales. In my own constituency of Cynon Valley, the tragic death of young Christopher Kapessa has led to concerns about the treatment of black people.
The message I want to get out there and share from Wales is one of hope. The Welsh Government are committed to declaring Wales a nation of sanctuary for all. The First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, accepts that entrenched inequalities exist and is committed to developing a race equality action plan by the end of the Senedd term. The Education Secretary in Wales, Kirsty Williams, has established a working group to improve the teaching of black history in our schools. In place of Black History Month in Wales, we have Black History Cymru 365, to teach and celebrate the contributions made by black people to Welsh life, history and culture throughout the year.
A great deal of positive work is taking place in my constituency of Cynon Valley. Following the horrific murder of George Floyd, Martha Thickett, a young Cynon schoolgirl, organised a Black Lives Matter “Take the Knee” protest. More than 150 people attended, which was unprecedented in my predominantly white constituency. We have now set up an anti-racist steering group in Cynon Valley and our own constituency treasurer, Mustapha Maohoub, who holds a Bernie Grant leadership award, is helping to drive that forward.
As Members can see, I am so proud of our strong anti-racist tradition in Wales, but the fight goes on. I have hope for the future, borne of my experience with Martha and many others of her generation who have put themselves forward to continue the fight for what is right. But as well as a local grassroots response, we need leadership, investment and political action from Government to turn the tide of poverty, poor health outcomes and poor employment prospects that so many of our black, Asian and minority ethnic comrades suffer and to change social attitudes, so that we all recognise each other as equal and valued human beings. Diolch yn fawr.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate and to follow my Welsh colleagues, my hon. Friend Simon Baynes and Beth Winter, who spoke so passionately and eloquently. I thank Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this important debate.
Black History Month is an important opportunity to celebrate the outstanding contributions made by people of African and Caribbean descent. This time last year, I was teaching maths to disadvantaged adults, and my class was predominantly from the BAME community. I saw at first hand the challenges that the community faces. Moving to the island of Ynys Môn in north Wales, which has a very low proportion of BAME residents, came as quite a shock.
Many on Anglesey are unaware that, in the 1700s, the growth and wealth of the island was made possible through the labour of black slaves. In the late 18th century, Amlwch, in the very north of the island, played host to our equivalent of the gold rush. Copper was discovered in Parys mountain, and an Anglesey man called Thomas Williams grabbed the opportunity. Mr Williams was a nefarious entrepreneur. Realising that copper was prized by African chiefs, he used it to barter for slaves, who he brought back to Anglesey to work in the mines, where they dug out copper. By the end of the 18th century, Wales controlled half the world’s copper. Amlwch harbour grew. Its population rose from 500 to 10,000 people, and Williams became a very wealthy man. It is well worth a visit to the Amlwch Industrial Heritage Trust exhibitions at Copper Kingdom and Parys mountain to understand the huge contribution made by the BAME community to our island’s past.
In recent years, Amlwch has suffered. It has suffered massive under-investment and, although Parys mountain still has mineral deposits, it is not the open cheque book that Williams once knew. The port has been superseded by Liverpool and Holyhead and, like much of Anglesey, it is now dependent on tourism. Amlwch needs solid employment opportunities to bring back the boom times. The wind and waves that once brought ships to Amlwch’s shores have not gone anywhere. By harnessing those renewable resources, we can turn Ynys Môn into the UK’s energy island, with projects such as Morlais marine energy, and become a hub of employment opportunities. This time, we will build back better, not with black slavery, but with opportunities for all, regardless of race, creed or colour.
I thank my good friend Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this really important debate. We have heard many powerful speeches today from Members on both sides of this House about their own proud history of being black but also, sadly, their all too familiar experience of racism.
What is clear is that while we have made strides in recent years to educate, inform and raise awareness of black history—not least since the start of Black History Month more than 30 years ago—it continues to be an ongoing struggle to highlight the oppression, racism, bias and bigotry that black people face on a daily basis in our country. Greater Manchester, where my Stockport constituency is based, has its own rich history of incredible individuals whose sacrifice and struggle led to the incremental steps in the long journey to the UK becoming a more equal society and inspired so many people to lead that same fight for this generation.
Too often, black history is little more than an afterthought in our education system, despite it being an integral part of our country’s legacy. Indeed, just last month, the education charity Teach First found that pupils could complete their GCSEs and leave secondary school without having studied a single word by a non-white author and black history being widely absent from the school curriculum. This Government must act now to right this wrong and ensure that young people learn about black British history and colonialism as well as the uncomfortable lessons of Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Schools should be at the forefront of this learning. Issues such as migration, empire and belonging are relevant not only to young people from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds but to students from all backgrounds, to enable them to gain a full understanding of the varied and wide-ranging cultural inputs that have contributed to the making of Britain.
The campaigns and keystone moments that have been at the forefront of change in our country must also be taught. For example, the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 arose from the refusal of the Bristol Omnibus Company to employ black or Asian bus crews in the city. While this was in common with other cities, as there was widespread racial discrimination in housing and employment at the time, in Bristol the youth worker Paul Stephenson, among many others, alongside the West Indian Development Council, led the boycott of the company’s buses, which lasted for four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. The Bristol bus boycott was considered by some to have been influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965, which made racial discrimination unlawful in public spaces, and the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.
It is vital that we learn from those who have led the struggle before us. For example, Greater Manchester has its own long and proud black history, notably the boxer Len Johnson, who, having been denied the opportunity to fight for championships in Great Britain because of the colour bar that existed in his sport at the time, took on his greatest battle of all—campaigning to lift the colour bar in Manchester. He died in relative anonymity in Britain but was mourned internationally as a pioneer for equality in sports. He is also remembered as a stalwart in the local Labour movement who worked to improve race relations among the city’s working class.
One individual who helped to inspire me and shape my own views was Mrs Jayaben Desai. Of Indian heritage, she famously led the Grunwick dispute of mostly women workers—a landmark strike in the fight for fairness and equality in Britain, including better pay and conditions, and dignity for all workers. Mrs Desai and the Grunwick strikers shattered the stereotype of the subservient south Asian woman and brought thousands of people together to stand up for migrant workers. In a now famous speech, she said:
“We have shown that workers like us, new to these shores, will never accept being treated without dignity or respect.”
Another is the former NBA legend John Amaechi, who has been a Stockport resident and a stalwart in the battle for racial equality, speaking out regularly about the difficult experiences of growing up as a black man. Yet, as he recently pointed out, despite the progress that has been made to date, without meaningful action we are a long way from the equal society we all strive for. He summed up the challenge as follows: “I’m 50 years old. I am going to die with racism rampant. How ludicrous is that?”
Racism is a systemic problem that will require systemic solutions. Education is not enough to address racial inequalities, as we saw as recently as 2016 in a Trades Union Congress report revealing that black workers with degrees earn almost a quarter less than their counterparts. There must be interventions that directly challenge racial inequalities in the workplace. That is why this Government need a race equality strategy that sets out the vision for a thriving multicultural Britain, puts in place the concrete measures to reduce the structural inequalities faced by black people in Britain, and fundamentally changes the system and institutions where racial disparities exist.
That needs to happen urgently, but I am sure that my colleagues on this side of the House will not hold their breath while this Government are led by a Prime Minister who thinks it is perfectly acceptable to label black people “piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” and confesses that they make him “turn a hair”. That is a barrier to any form of progress. It is exactly the sort of racist mindset that must be stamped out if we are to truly progress as a nation, accept all those who live in our country, acknowledge their hard work and sacrifice, which has helped to give our country its prominent standing on the world stage, and stop the cycle of history repeating itself.
I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this debate and welcome the opportunity to speak in it. This is really important subject because the issues affect us all, as individuals and because it is important that we all flourish together as a society. I have a master’s in history, so I feel particularly engaged in the subject as a whole. It does not seem that long ago when there was something of a debate on whether we should even be teaching history at all—whether it was an important subject—so the fact that we are talking about how we should teach it is probably at least some progress.
Black History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate and learn about the history and contribution of minority ethnic groups and individuals. This year I particularly enjoyed the debate on its website about who was the first British black police officer, or even the pre-Peel equivalent—whether it was Thomas Latham in the mid-1700s, John Kent in around 1835, or indeed, other candidates who were not even mentioned by name. Though they were important as individuals, in many ways it does not matter which one was first. The point is that black and minority ethnic people have been making a positive contribution to our society for a very long time and, of course, this should be reflected in our history and in our culture.
The history of this nation is rich and it is diverse. From the Celts to the conquest, from the reformation to the restoration, from the enlightenment to empire, it is a history of conflict and peace, of intolerance and inclusion, and of enrichment and decline, and almost everything else we can think of in-between. In my experience, very few people seriously believe that our history is anything but complex both in its reality and in its legacy. The existing curriculum does empower teachers, giving them the flexibility to teach this history in all its glorious and sometimes inglorious detail and, crucially, to do that in a balanced and impartial way.
History is not a handy instruction manual for the present. It is far too simplistic to imagine that people can take the lives and beliefs of generations long dead and somehow transpose our modern values on to them. When they try, they inevitably end up trying to impose their own views and trying to use history somehow to prove the validity of their own world or their own political view. History can enlighten and educate, inform and inspire, but change happens in the present. Our power lies in the practical things we can do to make sure opportunity is shared by all, like those things this Government are actually doing, such as getting minority students achieving at school and going on to university, getting apprenticeships and having great careers with equal pay. I very much look forward to hearing from the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities established by my hon. Friend the Minister.
When I walk around this Palace and especially when I sit in the Committee Rooms, I see images of men in the corridors and on the walls, but when I look at those statues and paintings, I think that that is how it was, but it is not so much like that now, and I am part of that change, thanks to opportunity and role models. Martin Luther King famously said:
“We are not makers of history;
we are made by history.”
On the basis that Dr King did make history, I respectfully think he was mistaken in that respect, or maybe just too modest. I think both are actually true: we are made by history—history is what brings us all here to this point together—but we can make history. My hon. Friend Adam Afriyie has made history, and Ms Abbott has made history.
I want to conclude with a stark warning from George Orwell. He wrote:
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
Let us not go down that road. Those who seek to destroy rarely create something better in its place. Let us not use history to divide us, but instead honestly and openly embrace our past and celebrate our common future.
It is a pleasure to follow Julie Marson in this important debate.
There are those of us who are saying that black history should be part of our history and, as someone who studied history at university, I want to say something about that debate and about the way we are taught. In history, there is not a definite right and wrong. There are people who write history, and as the hon. Member for Hertford and Stortford said, the tendency has been for more men to be talked about in history than women, more people who were better off and more people who were white rather than black. It is not a right and wrong: it is not a case of “This is British history, and this is what we should be teaching”. It is about making sure that all the voices from our past are heard equally. I do not think that that should be a contentious issue; it should be something we all welcome.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare—she is an incredible Member of Parliament already, even though she has not been here very long—on securing this debate, and on her well thought-through emails instructing us all on what to do. I welcome the fact that she is definitely a completer-finisher, which is not necessarily something that we all share.
As we know, Black History Month is particularly significant this year—a year in which covid has ripped through our communities, exposing and enlarging the inequalities we knew were already there. It has been a year in which we have seen powerful protests, with the Black Lives Matter movement shining a light on those inequalities and bringing people from all backgrounds together to stand against racial injustice and fight for a better future. This month is about celebrating and recognising the contribution that great black Britons have made over many generations, and it is the time to talk about black people whose stories have been left out of the history books.
In the short time that I have, I want to honour some of the great black Britons from my town of Croydon who have made outstanding contributions. I heard a debate on the radio recently about whether we should teach black history in schools. Somebody suggested that we should teach children about the great musician Stormzy, and somebody else said, “No, we should not be talking about Stormzy. We should be looking to our past and celebrating the other great black musicians, such as the composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.” Both are from Croydon, so I think we should celebrate them both equally.
Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was born in 1875, and he was the first black person to be accepted into the Royal College of Music as a violin student at 15 years old. He was also the first black person to be a recipient of the blue plaque, which can still be seen today on his house in South Norwood. He suffered horrific racial abuse—at school, apparently, he even had his hair set on fire—but somehow he remained dignified and committed. He was a household name in the UK and in America, but neither he nor his family got money from his success, because the rights to his most famous composition were sold for a small fee.
The other great musical genius is Stormzy. I was a fan before he was famous, and I even quoted him in my maiden speech in 2017. I still have yet to meet him, and that is very unfortunate—[Interruption.] If he is listening, I am still trying and I will continue to try. As Members will know, Stormzy was the first UK grime artist to headline the pyramid stage at Glastonbury, but he has done so much more than his amazing music. He set up a dedicated scholarship fund to send two black UK students to Cambridge every year, and he has made a lifetime commitment to help black British causes. He announced in June that he would donate £10 million to organisations, charities and movements that are committed to fighting racial injustice and supporting justice reform and black empowerment in the UK. Although we celebrate those influential and outstanding black Britons, it is a bittersweet reminder that Stormzy felt that he had to set up such a system to ensure that others do not face the barriers that he has faced.
Black history is British history and must be included in the school curriculum, as I have mentioned. We must learn the good and the bad about our past and ask questions about those we celebrate. In my constituency, we have a conservation area of streets called the East India conservation area, and since the Black Lives Matter movement we have been asking questions in Croydon about the history of the East India Company and whether it is appropriate for us to have such names. I think we would all accept, however, that change is about more than the name of a street; it is about the systemic nature of racism in our country and what we can do about it.
I wanted to mention a member of my team who has always lived in Croydon. She is very young and only joined me recently. When she was at school, she felt frustrated by what she saw as the whiteness of her school’s curriculum, so she set up her own weekly sessions where all students could go to learn about and debate issues that affected students from African and Caribbean backgrounds. Esther is amazing, and I am lucky to have her in my team. There are many other amazing black Britons I could talk about. Callton Young is a councillor in Croydon. He was the first ever black senior civil servant in the Home Office 20 years ago, and he is still the only black person to have been a senior civil servant in the Home Office.
I will jump to the end and quote Croydon’s first poet laureate, who is a young black woman called Shaniqua Benjamin. She has recently written a poem that says:
“We can’t go back.
Back to a normal that was, a canvas painted over to start afresh spilling love and goodness onto new turf creating a brighter scene where all survive”.
It is a pleasure to follow Sarah Jones and the many excellent speeches in what has been a pretty good-natured debate so far. I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this debate, along with her colleagues.
It is wonderful that time in the main Chamber has been given to debate Black History Month. It is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of black people to our history, with a particular focus this year on public services. I particularly acknowledge the contribution of our BAME community to the national response to covid, especially those who work in our NHS. We are grateful for their service and their sacrifice.
One of the petitions relevant to today’s debate is about teaching Britain’s colonial past in schools. Dawn Butler and others have called for our history to be decolonised. I recognise our difficult colonial past, but there are positives, too. As a proud colonial, I stand here today to highlight my own history, which I would not want to see rewritten or whitewashed. In the 1851 census, my great-great-grandfather, Levi Stanton, is recorded, aged 13, as a chimney sweep in Lincolnshire. In 1883, he boarded the Rangitikei with his family, including my very young great-grandfather, who nearly did not survive the journey. He took an enormous risk to find a better life for his family. That is not a unique story—it is a global story—and it is not limited to race, gender or class. He was part of building his country, New Zealand, by laying drains and being a member of the voluntary fire brigade. What does that mean for me, five generations later? A childhood in a rich, diverse melting pot of culture in economically challenged west Auckland.
Chi Onwurah said that black people have the best music—I agree. My musical heroes of the ’80s and ’90s came from the US and the UK, and many were black. I spent hours in my bedroom as a teenager trying to sound like Whitney Houston or Sade and singing along to Stevie Wonder and Boyz II Men—I am afraid I am probably showing my age. The moment when I really felt like I had made it and felt most included as a teenager was when my Maori and Pacific Island friends let me sing with them. Everyone is looking to feel like they belong, regardless of gender or social class, and enjoying culture and music is a fine way to achieve that inclusion.
I am now a British citizen and a Member of Parliament—a journey from chimney to Chamber—and I am regularly asked by women out there who my female role models are. Without fail, I always mention Rosa Parks, and I am pleased that children in key stage 1 have the opportunity to learn about her. History tells us the impact of her actions on the civil rights movement. I see a woman who, in a moment, exercised great courage and strength of will against a gross injustice. She was a hero.
Today, let us remember our black heroes of history and our current heroes, including right hon. and hon. Members in this place, and let us work together to create equality of opportunity for us all as we continue to build our nation of tolerance and respect for those to come.
I thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this long-overdue debate. It is my honour to speak in this debate as the first black MP for Coventry North West and as the first MP of Nigerian heritage in the west midlands—as my hon. Friend Florence Eshalomi said, I hope not to be the only one.
We should celebrate black history all year round, not just in October. I look forward to many more discussions, debates and celebrations of black history on the Floor of the House. I want to take this moment to celebrate Coventry’s black history. According to the most recent census figures, black people made up 3.4% of the Coventry North West constituency—that is thousands of people making brilliant contributions to our culture, our economy and our thriving communities.
In a nod to black people’s contribution to Coventry’s arts and cultural heritage, I pay tribute to the pioneer Ira Aldridge, who broke racial barriers by being the first black actor to play Othello in Shakespeare’s notable play. Ira contributed immensely to Coventry’s cultural heritage by becoming Britain’s first black theatre manager. Offstage, he was a prominent anti-slavery activist, performing in and directing anti-racism plays and mobilising citizens in Coventry to sign public anti-slavery petitions. He was a world-renowned black actor who found a home in Coventry, and in doing so he secured our reputation for theatrical excellence.
It would be remiss of me not to mention the fact that Coventry is a trailblazer for British music. We are the city that created 2 Tone, an era-defining fusion of Jamaican ska, punk rock and new wave music. Did hon. Members know that Chuck Berry recorded his only No. 1 hit, “My Ding-A-Ling”, live in Coventry? [Interruption.] Perhaps they did, but it does not hurt to remind them once again. I say all that, because I am proud of my constituency’s brilliant contribution to black British history. Today, I want everyone to know about Ira, 2 Tone, and Coventry’s long history of black brilliance. Our status as UK City of Culture 2021 has galvanised us to celebrate black history in Coventry, and I hope that we continue to do so—not just today, not just for this month, but for years to come. I believe that that history should be taught in our schools.
Black history is British history. This year, Black History Month gives us a much-needed moment to reflect. 2020 has been a year of upheavals. Throughout the pandemic, there has been a call to action against racial injustice, and with Black Lives Matter in the UK and abroad, we have been forced to take stock of our failures as a nation. This is a pivotal moment for us to address societal ills against black people, to recognise that black history is British history, and to ensure that that history is woven into our schools curriculum.
The Macpherson report and the Windrush lessons learned review both underline the need for black history to be disseminated across the UK: they urge us to take pride and value black British history, to prevent racism and better to reflect the needs of a diverse society. At a time when polls from HOPE not hate indicate that the British public are ready for a more progressive debate on racism in the UK, now is the time for change. Does the Minister not agree that black people’s refusal to accept injustice and prejudice is awe inspiring? Will she finally agree to get the Government to commit to working with anti-racist organisations and other key stakeholders to conduct a review to diversify the curriculum so that it is fully reflective of modern British history?
As has become traditional in opening, I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare and those who sponsored her application on securing today’s debate. As a member of the Backbench Business Committee, I commend her on the way in which she put her application together and pitched it. It was not hard for us to agree to the debate—we did so unanimously—and to fast-track it so that it could take place in the Chamber in October.
The hon. Lady was entirely right to say that we should commemorate the contributions and achievements of black Britons in our country’s history. Those contributions are many and varied in the arts, entertainment, culture, politics and current affairs. I would like to discuss black British contributions to the world of sport. That is not to trivialise those contributions at all. Sport is often a cultural leader—where sport goes, society often follows. Sport touches a mass audience in a way that other activities cannot match.
I admit that from an early age I have been a sportaholic. Growing up as a child in the late 1970s and 1980s, black British role models were plentiful. Daley Thompson and Tessa Sanderson, for example, were household names for their heroics in the Olympic games in the early 1980s, as was Frank Bruno, for his achievements in and out of the boxing ring. Chris Oti was an electric presence on the wing of the England rugby union team, and Ellery Hanley and Martin Offiah were even more dominant in rugby league. As a fanatical—and somewhat disappointed, these days—Manchester United fan, I idolised the exploits of players such as Viv Anderson, Remi Moses, Paul McGrath and Danny Wallace.
More recently, on
Sport is one field among many in which black Britons have made great contributions to our country. That is why Black History Month is so important, but it is equally important that it is not hijacked by those with a political agenda who wish to sow division. There have recently been disturbing noises in certain quarters from political activists who wish to attack British history, British tradition, British culture and British institutions. For example, recently attempts have been made to sully the reputations of towering figures in British history because the views of their time do not necessarily conform to today’s values.
It is certainly true that history can be debated and can be interpreted in different ways, but it would be wholly wrong to attempt to rewrite our history to indoctrinate children with anti-British propaganda and to impose an ideological world view. These moves are dangerous; they will do nothing for inclusiveness. Instead, they will foster bitterness and resentment on all sides.
We must not go down this route; instead, as my hon. Friend Adam Afriyie said at the beginning of this debate, let us celebrate our commonality. Let us have more Mo Farah moments. Let us use Black History Month to celebrate the achievement of black Britons and bring people together across the country, not force them apart.
While looking into Black History Month within my constituency, I discovered that John Edward Parris was one of the first, if not the first, black footballer for Bradford. More recently, Ces Podd and Joe Cooke can be added to the famous names associated with Bradford and football. I am also pleased to have seen more recently the appointment of our first black female CEO, Therese Patten, to the local NHS district care trust.
However, I was disheartened to learn that we do not have a place locally in which we can find details of the first black nurse, the first black teacher, the first black doctor and so forth. In contributing to today’s debate, for which I thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare, I want to highlight that issue, but also ensure that that will change through intervention.
Many colleagues from across the House have made powerful contributions, and I echo much of what has been said, certainly on this side of the House, especially on the Black Lives Matter movement. However, I want to focus my speech on celebrating the contributions of black people across my constituency, because for black lives to really matter their contributions must be remembered, dignified and celebrated. I would take up all afternoon if I mentioned everybody, but I am going to highlight a few.
I want to say thank you to some who are no longer with us and make sure that this House recognises the people of my constituency. I am talking about the contributions of people such as the following: the late Nathaniel Johnson, otherwise known as Maas Arthur, founder of Bradford’s first organisation of African-Caribbean senior citizens in the early 1980s, which is still going today; Aubury Deen, who set up the first black workers support group in Bradford Council; Bobsie Robinson, who ran culture and arts in Bradford; Joseph Flerin and Max Prosper, who helped set up a Bradford West Indian parents association for Saturday schools and the first ever nursery for black children, and also played a part in setting up the Dominica Association in my constituency, along with Maurice Celaire; Corine Campbell, a legendary name in my constituency in Bradford, who ran the community development unit and was a huge community activist and instrumental in setting up MAPA. While MAPA was not in my constituency, many of my constituents certainly accessed it.
I also want to give a big shout out—this is very personal to me—for the late Mikey Roots for his contribution to the local music scene, running Palm Cove just down the road from me. Mikey was a little guy with a big personality, a big heart and an even bigger presence, much bigger even than his long dreadlocks. The late Paul Joseph was also a key figure in the Bradford entertainment scene.
I would also like to talk about the political history of Bradford. It would be remiss of me not to mention what the Northern Complainants Aid Fund did. It was involved as early as 1978-79 in the case of George Lindo. The campaign started in Bradford. He was a Bradfordian man, and the case impacted on the idea of all-white juries. NCAF, and in particular Courtney Hay and Erskine Grant, also represented Carol Bonehill from Birmingham, a young mother who infamously received a P45 in the card congratulating her on the birth of her daughter. That case was represented in Bradford and it led to the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry launching a national investigation into pregnancy and discrimination. People from my constituency have impacted on laws made in this House for the betterment of society.
I put on record my thanks to a couple of organisations in particular that have done a huge amount of work. More recently, they are the Windrush Generation, which is run by Nigel Guy, the Dominica Association, the Black Health Forum, the Mary Seacole Centre in my constituency and Frontline, which is also in my constituency. I give huge thanks to Delroy Dacres, who still works tirelessly in Manningham Mills, bringing people together through sports. George Deen, who has retired, has fought really hard in Bradford for people with disabilities. Rev. George Williams has invited me to his church of St Peter’s in Allerton this Christmas. Lots of people from local black churches do a huge amount in my community, especially through covid and stressful periods such as this.
On a lighter note, brothers Chris and Floyd Peltier ran the New Edition nightclub, which is infamous and remembered across the country. Floyd still runs the “All Stars of Comedy”, which has a national reach celebrating black comedy. I give a quick shout out to Owen Williams, although he is not in Bradford anymore, and Trish Cooke. They are Bradfordians, and “Made in Bradford” is a badge I would like to honour them with. Owen Williams is a Bradford lad who is now the CEO of the neighbouring Calderdale and Huddersfield NHS Foundation Trust. Trish Cooke is a black woman from Bradford who is now a leading writer of children’s books and TV drama.
In closing, I simply say this: Bradford is a better place because of its diversity, and if we really mean it when we say “Black Lives Matter”, it cannot be without the history of black contribution to places such as Bradford and beyond.
It is an absolute pleasure to follow Naz Shah, particularly because she reeled off so many names of those who have contributed so much to her constituency. I find it interesting listening to her, because I represent a part of the country—the county of East Sussex—where perhaps I would not be able to do that, because of our demographics. None the less, I feel moved to speak, because it is important for all constituents who feel the burning desire of justice to have all their representatives speak up. We should not just have certain voices speaking; we should all speak and speak up for our constituents who are very concerned. They want to celebrate Black History Month and the achievements that the community has made, but they also push us all in this place to do more. Those are really the sentiments that I come here to speak for.
I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this very important debate. Last time, we secured a debate together on aviation. It is a delight to be here to support her again. I apologise for coming here a little late. I was chairing a Select Committee meeting, but I wanted to be here, rather than just say, “I can’t do two things at once”, because it is vital that we use our voices here to show our support.
During the recent controversies that we saw in terms of the Black Lives Matter movement, what moved me were a lot of young people, particularly in my constituency, who wanted change. Perhaps some of them felt that they were not negatively impacted, but they believed in justice for their fellow students and their fellow people around the country, and they expect their representatives to do more for them. After writing to them all, a number were still not satisfied with what I was doing. I talked about what I had done in the past before I became an MP, working with youth groups in inner-city London to try and make things better and working to combat knife crime, but ultimately it was a question of, “What have you really done to celebrate the cause in Parliament?” The answer was, “Well, actually, I haven’t really, because we haven’t really had the opportunities to do so in Parliament.” Nothing was going to stop me being here this afternoon to make my voice heard on behalf of the constituents who expect better when it comes to equality and justice and who would perhaps agree that we have made great strides compared with when I or my parents were younger, but that there is still a long way to go.
Complacency is the root of all evil. If we tell ourselves that everything is fantastic when so many people are subject to prejudice and are being held back, and their talents are not being harnessed, quite frankly, we are not doing our job properly in this place. I want to see everyone do that. I know that the Minister has that passion as well and will do so, and I want my Government to do more.
I want to touch on the controversy of history. I am a firm believer that we learn from history only if we evaluate it and re-evaluate it, but not if we eradicate it. I hope that we will reflect on that. My predecessor from 200 years ago was a somewhat controversial figure. He did some good—he was a sponsor of Michael Faraday, provided money for the Royal Institution and campaigned for the pauper’s badge to be taken down—but he was also a supporter of slavery and made his money from slavery at a time when that had become unacceptable even in this place. He is without doubt a controversial figure who should be looked at in terms of the bad that he did as well.
In my constituency, a number of monuments have been left to my predecessor, and the big debate is whether we should let them crumble. In my view, we should not. We should make sure that they are there so that we can have a good debate and discussion with young people who can come out and see what was done, what was controversial and what was wrong at his time. If we allow them to crumble and fall, we will never, ever be able to shine a light on the bad things that people in this place did and that were done in history. I very much hope that we can perhaps rebrand monuments and statues and look at them differently to explain the bad that came from some of those who went before us, but that we will not eradicate history, because otherwise we will never learn from it.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate. I count myself privileged having grown up in the east end of London and then, like many communities, having moved further out towards the constituency that I now live in and represent.
My upbringing was shaped by diversity. I was lucky to go to school with pupils from a wide range of backgrounds, but predominantly white working-class or Bangladeshi communities. I was lucky to go to an inner-city state school here in London, just up the road, where children were drawn from a wide range of ethnic backgrounds, but particularly black African and Caribbean communities. That made me not only entirely comfortable with the diversity of our country, but actively welcome it. I really feel that I benefited from an education that exposed me to people from a wide range of backgrounds, faiths and cultures. We cannot understand what it is to be human unless we understand the diversity of humanity and different human experiences; that is the whole purpose of education.
If I may say so, some of the debate around black history, whether in this Chamber or out in the country, only serves to underline the shortcomings of our history curriculum. From some contributions, it might be thought that people had never read English or British history, that black history is something else, or that, even more bizarrely, talking about Britain’s imperial, colonial past is somehow rewriting history.
Having been educated in some great state schools in this city and in diverse communities, I do not recall even being told about that history, yet it is a central part of our island story, of explaining the diversity of the country that we are today, and of understanding the strength of our international, bilateral and multilateral relationships. We should be more confident about the country that we are today so that we can confront some of the darknesses of our own past.
Why are we as a country so insecure about ourselves and our identity that we feel we lose something by telling an accurate story about our country’s island past? We do not lose anything from that. I do not feel that I lose anything, as a white working-class British kid, English kid, Londoner, from hearing the stories of other people’s journeys to this country. When we look at the story of disadvantage in our country today, particularly educational disadvantage, and at the over-representation of minority communities, particularly black communities, in our criminal justice system or in low pay or underemployment, we find that these are entirely entrenched with existing baked-in inequalities in our country, which we understand from a deeper understanding of our past. We cannot correct these injustices and put our country on a path to a better future unless we fully understand how we got to where we are today.
There are plenty of inspirational stories to tell, but if we are serious about educating out prejudice and about raising ambitions and aspirations, it is important that we tell the whole story. It is important that people see role models from backgrounds such as theirs. That is one reason I was proud to be working, before being elected to this House, for one of the country’s leading LGBT rights organisations, Stonewall, on exactly this issue, so that children growing up can understand the diversity of the country and world they are living in and might see role models of the kind of people they want to grow up to be, whether business leaders, politicians—God forbid—creatives or entrepreneurs. This is also true for black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities, who too often go through our education system without seeing themselves and their own family stories reflected in the curriculum they are taught. How can that be right?
The hon. Gentleman refers to what he was taught when he was young, but is he aware of what is taught in the curriculum today? It seems as though he is talking about a completely different curriculum from that which children today are being taught. Does he not know of any of the modules that cover these issues?
I am so grateful to the Minister for that question, because, after my slight rant, it brings me back to the issue I wanted to talk about, which is schools. In 2008, the last Labour Government said that black history should be made compulsory within the curriculum, but let us look at what we see today. Of the 59 GCSE history modules available from the three biggest exam boards, Edexcel, AQA and OCR, just 12 explicitly mention black history—only five mention the history of black people in Britain, and the rest are about black people in the US, other countries or the transatlantic slave trade. Only up to 11% of GCSE students in 2019 were studying modules that made any reference to the contribution of black people in British history. No modules in the GCSE syllabus for the most popular exam board, Edexcel, mentioned black people in Britain. A survey of more than 55,000 people conducted by Impact of Omission found that 86.2% learned about the Tudors, 72.1% learned about the battle of Hastings and 72.6% learned about the great fire of London, whereas barely a third, 36.6%, learned about the transatlantic slave trade, 9.9% learned about the role of slavery in the British industrial revolution and 7.6% learned about the British colonisation of Africa. I just do not think that that is an accurate reflection or a proper telling of our history.
Of course history is contested and education is a battle of ideas, but why are we so afraid of just telling the story, letting history be what it is and giving young people the critical capacity to draw their own conclusions? That is where we have to get to, and it is a matter of great regret that in 2020 the Department for Education said that teachers
“can include black voices and history as a natural part of lessons in all subjects”.
It was not “must” but “can”—“should” would be nice. Just saying that they should do so would be an improvement, but I would prefer it to be “must”.
Finally, I wish to single out one of my heroes, as I do not think she has been mentioned. I refer to Baroness Valerie Amos, who was the first black woman in government; the first black woman in the Cabinet; the first black woman to be the Leader of either of the Houses of Parliament; the first black Lord President of the Council; the first black woman vice-chancellor—of SOAS, the School of African and Oriental Studies—in 2015; and the first black person to be master of an Oxford college, in 2020. What I find so remarkable about Valerie’s experiences is not that she is the first or that she is a trailblazer, because that should come as no surprise to any of us; what does surprise me is that it took a black woman in this country so long to get to where so many other black woman doubtless should have been. That is the story of the country we are today. Let us be proud of our history, but let us tell it properly, educate future generations and learn from the worst of our history to shape the best British future.
It is a pleasure to follow my friend Wes Streeting. I feel like I have stepped back in time. I have known him for about 15 years. Thirteen years ago, he was the National Union of Students president, and his passion certainly has not been reduced in any way. He practises what he preaches, and it was a pleasure to hear his “rant”, to use his own word.
I want to mention my hon. Friend Huw Merriman, who spoke about the importance of standing up and contributing to this conversation. I am someone who is passionate about tackling injustices and prejudices wherever we find them, and it is vital that everyone is involved in this conversation.
Of course, I must come to Abena Oppong-Asare, who gave an incredibly impressive and strong opening speech, in which she listed many outstanding people of colour whom we are celebrating. She did miss one—and I am a little disappointed that my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon got in there first on the sporting references. The hon. Lady missed Ian Wright, who was my absolute hero as a young child growing up in Doncaster. I was obsessed by him. I remember getting his biography as a kid and reading everything about him and understanding everything that he overcame—all the difficulties, injustices and racism that he faced. He remains a hero to this day, although I think he owes me an awful lot of money for making me a lifelong Arsenal fan; I have suffered because of that.
The hon. Lady also spoke of those who “barely get a voice” in Parliament. I wanted to come back to that point, because it really resonated with me. There is a broader point to be made about that subject, and I think that it actually transcends race and speaks a lot more to class, occupation and educational standards. As Members of Parliament, we have to have empathy with many different situations and backgrounds. Any hard-working MP who deals regularly with casework will know that in this job we are given responsibility and many different requests, but unfortunately, we are not always given the magic wands to make all those problems go away.
I am proud to be a member of a new intake that better represents the constituencies that I am familiar with in the north of the country, but I am also incredibly proud to be a Member of a House of Commons that is continually becoming more diverse and representing the country that we all recognise and I believe we all love. There is certainly more that we can do, but we must not lose sight of how far we have come and how many brilliant people there are on all the Benches in this Chamber who represent many different walks of life.
Today’s debate is about changing the curriculum. Every time I come into the Chamber, there seems to be a request that something should or should not be taught. We place tremendous strain on our education system with our requests, and I worry that sometimes we do not take a more holistic view of the impact that that can have on teachers.
There is a wider conversation to be had about education—about where the arms of the state end and parental responsibilities begin and about the importance of ensuring that our history is not locked away or torn down. I believe that flies in the face of the petitions that we are debating, which call for us to learn more and to educate ourselves, but we cannot always rely on the classroom to solve every issue.
Indeed, I would argue that the most important role that the classroom can play is to equip the next generation of children, from whatever background, to be prepared for the workforce and to ensure that, as always, education is the great equaliser. I believe that it is working. We have record numbers of black students attending university and record grades for black students at schools across the country. We are discussing our history today, but we must not lose sight of our present and our future.
One of the petitions that we are debating states:
“Now, more than ever, we must turn to education and history to guide us.”
Britain has a long and complicated history. The values that our country proudly promotes today, of tolerance, equality of opportunity and a multicultural and multiracial society living cheek by jowl, are the result of centuries of wrongs being righted—of enlightenment and better thinking being victorious over prejudices and ill-informed decisions. We have progressed as a society because we have learned from our mistakes.
No person, country or institution is perfect; we have made and will continue to make mistakes. To be proud of our history is not to support racism, and to love our country is not to say that it has always been right. Equally, to focus on the mistakes of our history and not highlight the progress that has been made is to give only one side of the discussion.
I have just realised that I am running out of time, so I will edit out a paragraph in real time. We are, I believe, a tolerant nation. I join colleagues from across the House in highlighting the amazing contributions that black men and women have made to our armed forces, our NHS, our businesses, our politics and our culture. I hope that young men or women watching this debate know that we are better than previous generations, but we still have more to learn.
First, I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate. It is an honour to speak in it at a time when Black History Month is more important than ever. Across the world, racism and the far right are on the rise, yet we have also seen the largest mobilisation of peaceful global anti-racist protests in decades in the form of the inspiring Black Lives Matter movement. At this crucial juncture, it has never been more important for us to learn from the history of racial oppression and end the injustices that exist to this day. The scourge of institutional racism continues to affect us in all walks of life, from the police’s use of force to the disproportionate number of black children sadly going to bed hungry.
The Windrush scandal was an unacceptable travesty in which black British residents were denied their basic legal rights. Yet, to our shame, it has been revealed that in the 18-month Windrush compensation scheme, the Home Office paid out just £1.3 million across 168 cases, which accounts for just 11% of claims lodged since April 2019. The official inquiry into the scandal concluded that it was caused by institutional failures to understand race and racism. If recent events are anything to go by, the Government still have not learned any lessons from the scandal. During the Black Lives Matter movement, we have rightly seen renewed calls for our schools to teach the true brutal history of the British empire and the legacy of imperialism, colonialism, slavery and racism, which continue to have a generational impact today.
As we reflect in the wake of the brutal police killings of George Floyd and many others, it is crucial to recognise that the United Kingdom has been central to the historical subjugation of African Americans. It is estimated that Britain transported 3.1 million Africans—about 25% of slaves—to its colonies. When slavery was abolished—so-called—in 1807, Britain provided 46,000 slave owners with today’s equivalent of £17 billion in reparations. The British Government paid off their obligations to former slave-owning families and organisations only in 2015. Therefore, until then, black British taxpayers were paying to compensate those who imprisoned our ancestors.
The brutality of modern racism cannot be separated from that history. Yet still I stand here today, and there will be many watching, through my eyes, my treatment as a black woman. Despite the inequalities and blatant racism we continue to face to this day, it is crucial for black young people in particular to be proud and to celebrate our history and our unique contribution to civilisation, as well as the many discoveries and inventions made by black people. To know one’s identity and from where one comes is such an important legacy. For black children and young people, it would mean so much more, for they are being denied a proud and true legacy.
There is much we can be proud of. Many crucial inventions and discoveries were made by black people in the earliest civilisations. From the Kingdom of Kush to ancient Egypt, black people played a pivotal role in advancing human civilisation. We come from a people who built the pyramids so precisely, and to this day, with all the modern technology at our disposal, no one can replicate that. We should be proud of Charles Drew, who invented the blood bank, and of Dr Daniel Hale Williams, who performed the first open heart surgery. The first home security system was co-invented by Marie van Brittan Brown, and the first traffic light was invented by Garrett Morgan. The most used microphone was co-invented by James E. West, and the carbon lightbulb filament was invented by Lewis Latimer.
We should know that Britain is our country. We were here from the beginning. We can trace ourselves back 10,000 years or more to the first inhabitants of the British Isles. Our role is not to look in the mirror and simply replicate what we see. We are not here to bequeath a future worse than that which was bequeathed to us. Our role is to look in the mirror and correct what we see. Black history reminds us of who we are and from where we came, but our role is to make history. Let us resolve for our proud history to be taught all year round, and let us fight for a fairer future in which this important month will no longer be necessary. Let us transform Black Lives Matter into an everyday reality.
Black History Month was first celebrated in October 1987. It was organised initially through the outstanding leadership of the Ghanaian analyst Akyaaba Addai-Sebo. He was the co-ordinator of special projects for the Greater London Council, and he has left a powerful legacy today. For the avoidance of doubt, it is right that we should celebrate black history as we should celebrate our history in all its forms. The need for brevity prevents me from even scratching the surface of the many brilliant contributions made by members of the BME community, so I would like, if I may, to focus on a number of key areas.
As of March 2020, 8.2% of all police officers in the UK are BME. One year ago, that figure was 7.8%, so there has been an increase. In the Metropolitan police, 16% of officers identify today as BME, with 17% of those classified as black or black British. In the City of London police, 22% of its joiners are classified as BME this year. That is excellent, as the police forces that we entrust to keep us safe are increasingly reflective of the communities they represent, and increasingly reliant on policing by consent. Long may this continue and contribute to our history.
Having spent many years in uniform, perhaps nobody is better placed than I to understand fully the fine contribution that BME communities have made to our armed forces. Some 11.7% of those who entered UK regular and reserve forces in the 12 months to
Perhaps one of the most famous of all BME officers was Walter Tull. Not only was he among the first Afro-Caribbean infantry officers in the British Army; he was also the first in his professional football club, Northampton Town, to enlist at the outbreak of world war one. He rose to lance sergeant and fought at the Somme before being commissioned as a second lieutenant. It is alleged, too, that he was put forward for a Military Cross after leading a night-raiding party that crossed fast-flowing rapids on the Italian front. Tragically, he was killed in action in the first battle of Bapaume on
In the short time I have left, I would like to exercise a note of caution. Inasmuch as we are here, rightly, to celebrate Black History Month, it is also incumbent on us in this place to ensure that our national curriculum does not become hostage to those who simply want to airbrush our history from our consciousness. The secret to success with our all-important diversity and inclusion agenda lies in good education, dialogue, mutual respect, wider acceptance of our past failings and tolerance, not in imposing views that may not be reflective of the majority in the UK.
Now is not the time for apologists, anti-colonialists or emerging wokeness to attack a curriculum that is already fit for purpose. Yes, it is right that we should teach our colonial past at school, but making this compulsory may be one step too far, as it is from our history that we voluntarily learn. By the same token, tearing down statues is unlikely to generate wider support. Yes, some of our national figures may have done or said things that we now find deeply offensive, but they do play a key role in teaching us about our past—with all its faults—and in fostering a dialogue that demands nuance and balance, rather than hate.
In the same way, it is clear that our so-called contested heritage at all National Trust, Heritage England and other historical sites has a role in both educating and guiding the future. The same is true of other national institutions—such as the last night of the proms—which should be respected for what they are, not for what they are not. Seeking to reinforce this vague notion of white privilege in our society, or whitewashing those from our history who might not be to our taste today, is no way to manage our curriculum; I urge the House to be cautious. Let us celebrate Black History Month as we absolutely should.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. [Interruption.] Ah, Abena Oppong-Asare has returned to the Chamber; I congratulate her on securing this vital debate. It was a genuine pleasure to hear the passion and pride with which she spoke as she opened the debate earlier. I thank her for ensuring that we have had this debate. I think it is the first time that we have debated Black History Month in this place for five years.
Madam Deputy Speaker, do you know that really frustrating feeling when you want to find a book, but cannot remember the title or the author? That is where I have been today: racking my brain and googling furiously to find the name of a book that I borrowed from Inverurie public library when I was about nine years old. If anyone remembers the name of this book, let me know—write in! It was about a boy who somehow manages to go back in time to early 18th-century Britain and who falls in with a young African kid—a slave who has been transported from his home to the United Kingdom. This book—I really wish I could remember its name—stuck with me because it was the first time I had ever come across the idea that someone could be thought of as lesser than or enslaved to somebody else simply by virtue of their skin colour or place of origin. As a nine-year-old, I simply could not understand it. It really affected me and sticks with me today.
I grew up in 1990s and early noughties semi-rural north-east Scotland, about as far removed from the upbringing of Wes Streeting as it is possible to get. I grew up in Inverurie, a town of about 10,000 people, and we had one BME child in my primary school of about 250 pupils. I remember the excitement when a young girl from Thailand joined our class in primary 7 and the incredibly ignorant but entirely understandable questions asked about her home by kids brought up in what I admit was a very sheltered and comfortable environment—Ome, if you are watching this, please forgive us.
I was lucky. I had brilliant teachers and parents who encouraged me to read and ask questions. In secondary school, Inverurie Academy, my history teacher, Mr Anderson—that teacher that everybody has; the legend—taught with an enthusiasm and dry wit that was infectious, using his broken golf putter to point to places on his already very out-of-date map. It was in Mr Anderson’s history class, and because of his teaching, that I began to have a real understanding and appreciation of the fight for civil rights in the deep south of the United States of America, of Rosa Parks, John Lewis and Martin Luther King, and of the fight for equal citizenship. I remember being so inspired by the “I have a dream” speech that I managed to get a CD of great speeches of American leaders, and I listened to it so often on my portable CD player that I wore it down.
I remember being sickened at the images of lynchings in Mississippi, Tennessee and Georgia and how people in my parents’ lifetime—people who looked and lived like me—could treat other people differently simply because of the colour of their skin. I remember asking, as someone who loved and still loves the United States, how a great country founded on the principle that all men are created equal could send young black men to fight and die for freedom in Europe but not allow them freedom and equality at home.
We are not America. We have a very different history in this country, which others have touched on, but my point is that education—teaching—is so important. It challenges, it forces us to question, it takes us out of our comfort zone, and it informs. That is why Black History Month is very important, and it is a shame that this is the first time we have debated it in five years.
It is very good that the Government have an inclusive and flexible curriculum, teaching kids more about Britain’s role in the slave trade, for example, but also about its role—the role of people in this place and of the Royal Navy—in the eventual abolition. Britain was the first and only imperial power to vote money, men and resources to ending the barbaric and inhuman trade in life that cities such as Glasgow and Bristol grew rich on the back of. I am glad that, because of the flexible curriculum, black, Asian and minority ethnic history can be taught across many of the themes of the history curriculum by reflecting the contribution of black, Asian and minority ethnic people across the ages in the UK and more widely.
One of the petitions relevant to the debate is e-petition 324092, entitled “Teach Britain’s colonial past as part of the UK’s compulsory curriculum”. I do not have a problem with that. In fact, I would encourage it—especially in Scotland, where time and again we pass over our colonial history. I have heard in this place that Scotland will somehow become the 60-somethingth country to wrest itself from imperial Britain’s evil clutches, as if we had nothing to do with colonialism and the empire and Scots were not themselves colonialists, traders, governors, plantation owners, soldiers, sailors and missionaries.
Does the hon. Member accept that there are many people involved in the independence movement who make documentaries and are banging the drum to say that Scotland’s role in the slave trade has been overlooked? We want people in Scotland to be aware of it.
Absolutely. There are people in the independence movement and the Unionist movement who would say exactly the same thing: we need to have an honest and robust debate about our history, good and ill. I agree with the hon. Member.
We should teach about our colonial past in schools. We should examine our past critically. We should examine why empire existed in the first place, how it came to pass that a quarter of the globe was under British rule, why European powers vied with one another in the race for Africa, why family of mine and so many other normal Scots found themselves working for a colonial administration in the Indian subcontinent—so much so that at one point, seven out of 10 colonial administrators in India were Scottish—and why Glasgow was the second city of empire.
As Anne McLaughlin said, in Scotland we should front up and accept the fact that we were very much at the forefront of exploration, expansion, invention and, at times, exploitation. We must do that in a rational, sensible and mature fashion. We do not learn by cancelling history, renaming tower blocks, removing statues and covering up museum displays. In short, we should not hide our history away, for that is what it is—history. It is incredibly complicated because it is written by us—human beings—and human beings are incredibly complicated. Very few people were all good or all bad. Rather, individuals in history, just like us, were human and shaped by their understanding of the world as they found it, their lived experiences and their education.
While acknowledging the wrongs of the past, we should seek to explain, understand and explore and build a better, more understanding future—one built not on guilt, but on a mutual understanding that history means different things to different people. Just like that book I still cannot remember the name of taught me when I was nine years old, and just as Mr Anderson did teaching about the fight for civil rights in 1960s America, we do not increase understanding by telling people that they should be ashamed of their past or their country. Rather, we do so by exploring and explaining what has gone before and putting it in context, thereby working to make our future better than our past. That could and should be the great achievement of Black History Month.
It is a real pleasure to follow Andrew Bowie. He gave an excellent speech, particularly about the role of Scotland and Scotland’s history in the empire. Certainly, as a Welsh Member of Parliament, I agree that it was not a uniquely English enterprise at all.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this incredibly important debate and on reminding us of the fact that it is absolutely crucial that this House recognises Black History Month and the contribution that black people have made, and continue to make, to our country, both nationally and locally.
I also pay tribute to a gentleman called Leonard Lawrence, who was one of the Windrush generation who left Jamaica and settled in Port Talbot, the largest town in my Aberavon constituency. Lenny the Lion, as he was known, helped to build Port Talbot town centre and Tawe Bridge and even prevented Swansea from flooding after seawater began coming through a hole in one of the lock gates at the dock. He worked on building the steelworks in Newport and on numerous construction projects around Port Talbot. He also worked in the Port Talbot steelworks.
Britain has a strong tradition of welcoming people from all around the world who decide to make their homes here, but like so many of the Windrush generation, Lenny experienced hostility, racism and inequality. I pay tribute to the fact that he was one of the founding members of the Swansea Bay association that allowed members of the Windrush generation to make their voices heard and to tell their stories.
It hurts me to say it, but while Britain, Wales and Aberavon have become more tolerant and welcoming places, a level of hostility and inequality has clearly continued into the 21st century. I refer particularly to the shameful hostile environment culture at the heart of the UK Conservative Government. This caused many of the Windrush generation to have their right to remain questioned, to be prevented from working or accessing NHS care, and even to be threatened with deportation. What a disgrace. The Home Secretary apologised, rightly so, and has committed to implementing all 30 recommendations from the lessons learned review, but just last week, Wendy Williams, who chaired the review, criticised the Home Office for failing to make adequate progress in changing the culture at that Government Department. This is no way to treat people who were integral to rebuilding our country after the second world war. They deserve better from our Government.
Events this year have shone a light on structural racism and inequality. The shocking and appalling killing of George Floyd was one such incident, but it is also extremely concerning that covid-19 has disproportionately impacted on black, Asian and minority ethnic communities. No community is immune from racism or inequality, and in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death I received correspondence from constituents who told me of their experiences of racism and hostility.
Aberavon is a warm and welcoming place, so to hear about these stories was deeply saddening. Behaviour such as that should not go unchallenged, so it was heartening that, in a show of solidarity, around 500 of my constituents gathered for a peaceful sit-down demonstration on the seafront in Aberavon as part of the Black Lives Matter campaign. That really helped our community to raise awareness of the issues, to increase education about the damage that racism causes, and to stand firmly against injustice and inequality.
One of the most valuable tools that we have in tackling racial injustice is education. Learning more about the contribution black people have made to our society is absolutely crucial, but confining black history to one month alone is not enough. So I welcome that Wales’s First Minister and Race Council Cymru have launched Black History Cymru 365 to ensure that black history is celebrated all year round. The Welsh Government have also established a new working group to advise on how to improve the teaching of themes relating to ethnic minority communities across all parts of the curriculum.
I want to close with two quotes that mean a lot to me. One is from the Durham miners:
“The past we inherit, the future we build”.
That goes to the heart of what we are discussing today. We cannot change our past but we must learn from it and build a better future for our future generations.
The second quote is from Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of this country, who said,
“it’s the people not like us that make us grow.”
That is so important. We learn so much more about ourselves by learning about the experience of others. It is those deeper insights, that more nuanced understanding and that honest and robust debate about our past and about the lived experience of others that will build a better society, better communities and a stronger and more cohesive United Kingdom.
It is always a pleasure to follow Stephen Kinnock, whose constituency is very close to my heart. My father-in-law, Huw Thomas, was at the steel mills at Port Talbot. It is a place I care passionately about. I thank the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the steel mills.
We are here to talk about history. I would like to declare an interest: I studied history at university. I am passionate about history—all history, but especially the history of this country and this great nation. School teacher Robin Nonhebel is one of the reasons I am here in this place and studied history at university. I just wish everyone had been taught by him. He opened up history to generations. I wish he had taught more pupils at the school—he was well-known and well-loved. For instance, he taught me that the first King of all England was King Athelstan in 927 AD. It is important that we all know our history.
That love of history is incredibly important. Only by knowing our past—our complete past—can we know the future. There is no problem that we face or are going to face that has not already been faced in the past and been answered. Whether that is racism, as has been talked about already, or other issues, all those issues have been addressed in the past. Only by knowing our past can we know our future.
Black History Month is a very important issue, but I say black history is British history. We have one shared history, black and white. Black people have been present throughout the history of this great nation—at our highs and at our lows, when we have done well and when we have done badly. It is a shared collective history and that needs to continue to be taught. I do not believe that we should separate black history from white history. We should have one history, because we have one history.
When I think about that point, I think of some great British moments. I encourage everyone next time they are walking up to Trafalgar Square to look at Nelson’s Column—not just to look at Nelson, but at the relief along the bottom of the column. One of the key pictures on the relief shows a black African who was there at the battle of Trafalgar. According to the records, there were 18 people born in Africa fighting with the British Navy on that day in 1805 when we defeated the perfidious French and Spanish and saved our country from invasion. There were black people standing shoulder to shoulder with British people, fighting at one of the most pivotal moments in our history, when we could have been invaded.
There are more records in the other place. The picture “The Death of Nelson” shows when Nelson has been shot by a sniper and there is a sailor pointing out the sniper. That sailor is black and is pointing out the person who shot one of our great national heroes, Nelson. That is just one example of where black people, British people and white people—we are one British people—are working together.
It goes on. In 1857, a black British sailor, Able Seaman William Hall, won the Victoria Cross. In 1855, in the Crimean War, Mary Seacole was a great nurse, standing with us in some of our darkest hours. The list goes on. Ignatius Sancho was the first black person to vote in a general election—not a general election in this century, or even in the last century. The first general election he voted in was in 1774, before the vast majority of people in this country got a vote. Black people were having a positive impact on our democracy even back then. I also read that he was an ardent monarchist and that he was against the Americans and their call to revolution, so we like him even more for that.
We must mention the darker days. I look back to Henry VIII—as we all know, the dissolution of the monasteries was one of the greatest travesties of our history. However, apparently, his musician, a trumpeter, was John Blanke, who again was black. Throughout our British history, we have so many integral black people taking part and involved. Our schools should be teaching about this history, but they should not be teaching about black history in isolation. They should teach about British history and make sure that black people’s roles are justifiably encountered in it, for good and for bad.
However, this is not just about British history. If we go back further, black people have shaped world history. We have talked about the pharaohs, and the Kush dynasty was mentioned. The 25th pharaonic dynasty was a black dynasty from Nubia. They decided that the Egyptians had become so decadent in their ways that they overthrew the Egyptian pharaohs and replaced them with black pharaohs. When was the last time, when we learnt about the Egyptians, that we talked about the black pharaohs? We should talk about that more in our history. Even if we look at Christianity and the Christian faith, which is imbued throughout our history across Europe, the story—the great message—is that, when the three kings came to Jesus, one of them, by tradition called Balthazar, was from Africa. Even throughout our thousands of years of Christian history, black people have had an integral part in it.
For me, black history is British history. We need to learn all about it because we are one people. We are one British people. We should celebrate what everyone has achieved, black or white, rich or poor. We should not necessarily divide the two, but we should make sure that when we teach our British history, we talk about the integral part that black people have played in our great British history.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this debate. It is vital that we celebrate black history and the struggle for racial justice in the UK. This has been such an important debate at such an important time, and it is certainly of much importance for my constituents and my constituency, because Sheffield was one of the engine rooms of the industrial revolution. Sheffield, Hallam was where many of the business magnates of the age made their homes. They invested in the machinery and the mills that would earn Sheffield its reputation as a steel city, but those factories were not used only to produce steel or Sheffield cutlery, which we celebrate often. They were also used, unfortunately—as in many cities—for a more sinister objective: they made the tools that were used on the plantations by people sold into slavery on the other side of the Atlantic. We can see the design of those tools in Joseph Smith’s book published in 1816, called “Explanation Or Key, to the Various Manufactories of Sheffield”.
We also have our fair share of people who have sought to dismantle that legacy. In 1790, Sheffield hosted the author and anti-slavery activist, Olaudah Equiano. It also has an international connection to the great American abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, through the letters of Mary Anne Rawson, who led the Sheffield Female Anti-Slavery Society, the first society in Britain to argue for an immediate end to slavery. Ever since Equiano, Sheffield has had a tradition of campaigning for racial justice. It has played host to Malcolm X, declared itself a city of sanctuary and united in the face of far-right hatred of the Muslim community.
I know about the city’s role in making plantation tools because of the Sheffield Black Atlantic Project at the University of Sheffield. We need more work such as that at our universities and in our schools and colleges, so we do not have ignorance about our cities’ roles in globalisation and our legacy. We also need to do much more to dismantle institutional racism in our education system. According to recent figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, only 1% of our professors are black. It is not just history written in the past that is over-represented by white academics; it is happening now and we need to challenge that.
Black History Month should be about more than looking to the past; it is about struggling for a better future, too. Today, campaigners in my constituency fight for justice for Simba Mujakachi. Simba’s family moved to Sheffield when he was 14. His father applied for asylum due to persecution in Zimbabwe, but was refused. As a refused asylum seeker, he was denied work and denied access to the NHS. Last year, Simba suffered a stroke, and he now owes £93,000 to the health service, which was established to provide care free at the point of use to all those who need it. I am proud to stand with him as he campaigns for justice for himself and for all those denied medical treatment as a result of the Government’s “hostile environment” policy.
It is the same policy that led to the Windrush scandal and the deportation of black British people, a generation that contributed so much to Sheffield’s history, including our steel industry. Like Simba, those people had spent their entire adult lives in the UK and lacked only the paperwork to prove their nationality. The fact that we live in a society that demands papers from black British people to prove their citizenship or to access public services should shame us all. Black History Month is an opportunity to celebrate the contribution of black communities to our culture, society and politics, but we must also remember that history is a living thing. Just as we recall the injustices of the past and those who have fought against them, we should also stand with those, like Simba, who continue to struggle today.
According to the philosopher Michael Oakeshott, civilisation
“begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries…is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves.”
Conversation, of course, implies a discourse in which no one voice dominates, no one is shouted down and contrasting perspectives are heard and respected, even when agreement is unlikely and compromise unexplored. Yet, we now live in an age where many have no interest in a real conversation and where delight is taken in silencing dissenting voices. We live in an age where some talk of the importance of history, but really mean propaganda—when someone is suggesting, in essence, that people educate themselves, know the doctrine, learn the mantra and toe the line. In our brave new world, activist groups vie for attention by shouting ever louder in what can best be described as a competition of victimhood.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will not at the moment, but I will a little later.
Each group claims a spurious moral authority founded on its own sense of oppressed marginalisation. The historical truth is dismissed, in cultural Marxist terms, as a construct of persecutors: only they really understand the past and the present, and they now assert that others must be forced to be cleansed by acknowledging their guilt and by recognising their unconscious bias. The notion that we are defined by our race or sexuality is now so ubiquitous that we have become numb to just how disturbingly stultifying it really is. To confine and condense the identity of a unique individual made in the image of God to things over which they have no choice—their gender or their race—is sorrowfully lacking in perspective and ambition.
Some of my colleagues may be reluctant to engage in this debate, but that is not true of the Minister for Equalities, any more than it is true of the Home Secretary or the Attorney General. They are in the vanguard of the battle against this kind of dogmatic, doctrinal cultural Marxism, because they know that politics is palpably about values, not just about dull, mechanistic, economic minutiae. We should celebrate the contribution of everyone to our country, whatever their background, their colour or creed, and of course, in that spirit I welcome Black History Month, but history is very rarely a simple case of black and white, literally or metaphorically. A proper appreciation of history is dependent on understanding that the past is as complex as the present, and that humanity is both flawed and capable of greatness. Let us take the British empire, for example. Though of course it is true that empires begin in the interests of their colonial founders, the crass assumption that all that is subsequently done in their imperial names is exclusively wicked is as stupid as it is simplistic. In the words of the former chairman of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Phillips:
“The woke ultras who want to wipe away all symbols of British imperialism don’t speak for families who lived under the Empire”.
I will not go back to what the right hon. Gentleman said earlier because I have forgotten his exact words, but does he not accept that there are different perspectives when it comes to the empire and our role in it? Should those different perspectives be discussed in education and should we be told about them, or should we just have the one perspective that we have now?
Yes, of course I accept that. I am a trained history teacher, so of course I understand that there are differing interpretations of history. The problem I was describing earlier—the hon. Lady clearly bristled when I was doing so—is that there are those who want to sanitise and reinvent history. The truth is that all we are now is a product of all that came before, good, bad and ugly, and we cannot simply wipe away the past. This is not year zero, and to believe otherwise is, frankly, Orwellian.
No, I will not give way because I know that many more contributors want to get in.
In years gone by, children were taught about figures who unite us, regardless of background or circumstances, in a shared love of the country: from Alfred the Great to Florence Nightingale and from Nelson to Winston Churchill and Edith Cavell.
I will give way briefly, because I gave way to Anne McLaughlin.
What does my right hon. Friend think about recent attempts to discredit these national heroes?
My hon. Friend has, among other colleagues, played a noble role in challenging some of the institutions that have bought exactly the cultural Marxist agenda that I describe. I am thinking in particular of the work that he, I and others have done in ensuring that the good names of Sir Winston Churchill and Horatio Nelson are not besmirched. In doing that, we are of course not arguing that all that came before us was good and pure, but to take the view that those individuals should be judged by the standards of today and not seen in the context of their time is ahistorical rather than an interpretation of history, as the hon. Member for Glasgow North East was advocating.
The stories of these figures are not based on the advancement of the interests of a few—of a small subsection of society—but are stories of dedication and duty, service and sacrifice for the common good, for the many. So compelling is their heroism that many migrants to Britain, notably from Africa and the West Indies, chose to name their children Nelson, Winston and Gordon after men who are among the empire’s greatest sons. Yet now culture warriors are determined, by reinventing the past, to dictate the future. Under their heel, history must be rewritten and the very concept of heroism obliterated. It is time for patriots in this country—black and white, regardless of their origins—to fight back and to reclaim heroism, patriotism and history from those who seek to distort and demean all that has gone by in the pursuit of political ideology.
The overwhelming majority of the British public, and in particular the working classes—the class that I come from, in stark contrast to Jeremy Corbyn, who spoke earlier—take a view different from that of the bourgeois metropolitan elite. Most people in this country are deeply proud of their country and its history. Earlier this summer, polling for Policy Exchange’s history project found that 69% of people rightly believed that UK history as a whole was something to be proud of; just 17% thought it was something of which to be ashamed.
While it is right to celebrate the historic contribution of black, white and Asian Britons, let us first and foremost celebrate what we share. Let us celebrate all of our yesterdays, for unless we do, all our tomorrows will be poorer and poisoned. As I said earlier, I want others to contribute, so I shall conclude. As one of the few qualified history teachers in this place, let me offer this lesson: ours is a land of hope and glory—a proud Union with a past to be proud of.
Order. I just want to point out that I am trying to get everybody in and if people who have spoken intervene again, that prevents others from getting in.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this very important debate. I am really pleased to be participating.
October is the time of the year when we recognise the achievements, resilience, history and culture of our black communities, but it is also important that the disadvantage and discrimination experienced is also remembered. No one is born racist, yet here we are in 2020 still debating how we eradicate the rise of racism at home and around the world.
This year, Black History Month is even more important. The global health pandemic, the very public death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement have shone a bright light on the structural racism and inequalities experienced by black people. Racism is a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions. No more reports or recommendations: we need actions, because actions do speak louder than words.
As a black person growing up in Liverpool, I know all about systemic, deeply entrenched racism. We have the longest-established black community in Europe, dating back hundreds of years. We are a city whose wealth was built on the back of the slave trade. I am the first black MP to have been elected in Liverpool—a very sad indictment of the city—but I am also very proud and privileged to represent the constituency of Liverpool, Riverside. In 2008, Liverpool was awarded European capital of culture status, and the strapline was “The World in One City”. While we have long-established diverse communities, these communities remain invisible in the city—under-represented in the retail sector and in our public sector organisations, and with very limited political representation: we have only six black Labour councillors out of 90.
It is really important that we recognise that African history was interrupted by African slavery, when millions of Africans were forcibly removed and sold into slavery. As black people, we still live with the legacy of slavery. Our education system perpetuates the myth of black underachievement, witnessed in the high numbers of black boys excluded from school. Sadly, in Liverpool we have a significant under-representation of teachers in our schools, and only one black headteacher. But in response to the many issues highlighted by the global Black Lives Matter campaign, Liverpool City Council has set up a race task group. The Liverpool Learning Partnership will work with Liverpool schools over the next academic year to develop a curriculum that is far more representative and promote the role of black people across all subject areas and through time.
Learning black history is a vital part of ensuring that young people have a balanced understanding of Britain’s past and how it shapes our society today. It is crucial to ensure that young people have the tools to challenge present-day racism and discrimination, and to understand the key pivotal moments in British history. Winston Churchill is a controversial figure. He is regarded as the greatest Briton ever, but what do we understand of his role in the Bengal famine? The Bristol bus boycott of 1963 is seen as influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965. Mary Seacole is now recognised as the first nurse practitioner. Walter Tull was a professional footballer who debuted for Spurs in 1909. That is to name but a few.
I was very shocked when I arrived here last December and witnessed the stark divisions that replicate our society, with low-paid black people working as cleaners and security and catering staff, the under-representation of young black people working for MPs as staffers and parliamentary assistants, and the lack of black MPs as Chairs of Select Committees. We clearly have a long way to go to be equal in this place.
Black history is all of our history, and it should be taught in the school curriculum all year round. We should not have to wait until October to celebrate the many contributions that black people have made to this country. I just remind people: we only have one race, the human race.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee and Abena Oppong-Asare for securing a debate on this important matter. I was delighted to be a co-sponsor.
As many of us have said, Black History Month is a great opportunity to celebrate the contribution to our society made by black British people over many centuries. While records show people of African heritage living in these islands for nearly two millennia, very few have ever had their stories told. Many of us in this country today are unaware of the long and complex history of black people in Britain. That is why I tabled an Adjournment debate a few weeks ago to ask the Government to ensure that black history plays a prominent part in the history curriculum in our schools. I would like that to include the history of other ethnic minorities in this country too. I want every child, whatever their heritage or ethnicity, to be able to say, “British history is our history. Black history is British history.” I want them to know that people from BAME communities have played a hugely important role in our islands’ story, as has been pointed out articulately and passionately in many of the speeches that we have heard.
History in schools should always be taught in a balanced, objective and impartial way, but an understanding of history can help to inculcate a sense of unity. History teaching should be inclusive, not divisive. We should be honest about, for example, the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade and this country’s 250-year involvement in that appalling crime against humanity, but we should also recognise that our nation has a strong history of standing up for individual freedom, for the rule of law and for justice.
There is validity in the narrative that we are the nation that pioneered parliamentary democracy and championed values now respected across the world at a time when other countries were still labouring under tyranny. We need to learn from our past and recognise its conflicts, complexities and contradictions. Some aspects are noble and heroic, not least when this nation stood alone against the might of the Nazi war machine, but there are other aspects that are darker and crueller, including that long involvement in the horrors of the triangular trade.
The reality is that there was not an inevitable or unstoppable sweep of history towards modern values, equality and respect starting with Magna Carta.The real picture is much more complicated. Progress was slow, with many setbacks, and almost every step forward was hard won and strongly opposed by many at the time. If we study black history, there is no escaping the fact that for many centuries black British people were subject to racism, cruelty and injustice in this country, as were ethnic minorities in other parts of the world.
That legacy has an impact today, but we should take heart from the stories of black people in our history who succeeded in spite of the adversity that they faced. We have heard about many of them this afternoon, but I would like to mention just one—Mary Prince.Born a slave in Bermuda, her autobiographical narrative was published in London in 1831. It was hugely influential and successful, a landmark in the fight to end slavery in the British empire. It formed part of the first ever anti-slavery petition by a black woman to Parliament, illustrating Mary Prince’s determination: while she might have spent much of her life enslaved, her spirit was never broken, and she never stopped resisting the oppression to which she had been subjected. Her struggle has helped to create the better world in which we live today.
I am pleased to follow Theresa Villiers who, like me, represents a constituency in outer London. I would also like to thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare for introducing this debate on Black History Month, and the Backbench Business Committee for allowing the debate to take place.
We have heard excellent contributions from many hon. Members. Many of my constituents feel deeply about black history. I have received over 50 emails asking me to support the campaign to make black and colonial history compulsory in school. Almost 1,000 of my constituents signed the e-petition, which has now secured over 250,000 signatures. On student who wrote to me said that they had never studied any of these topics in any detail other than their being simply mentioned “in passing”. Topics as important as colonialism and slavery, along with the contribution of black people to our country, have shaped our society so much that they should be taught in our schools. My hon. Friend Wes Streeting showed in his contribution that, by not making those topics a compulsory part of the GCSE curriculum, few students are learning those vital parts of our history.
That lack of education trickles up. Both the Macpherson report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence and the Wendy Williams review into the Windrush scandal mentioned that the lack of understanding about cultural diversity and colonial history in the curriculum had influenced the policies and practices that enabled the shameful episodes of Stephen Lawrence’s murder and the Windrush scandal to take place. Those reports were published 20 years apart. Surely that should be a call for action now.
Some schools have been working hard to teach colonial history, which is really important, particularly in a constituency such as mine, one of the most diverse in the country. Last year, we celebrated with the “Our Hounslow” films about four different Hounslow people. Torron was born and brought up locally in Brentford and went to school with my sons. He set up the Alliance Dance Unit, which is keeping young people active, off the streets and out of trouble by being involved in creative dance. Goitom is a retired man who came here from Eritrea. He spent most of his working life as a foster carer and a Home Office interpreter and is now a respected community leader.
Ciya was doing her A-levels. She was a member of the Youth Parliament and spoke in this Chamber. She came here as a very young child and spoke of her hope for the future. Very differently, Richard and Christine, who I would describe as the archetypal English home counties couple, sold their comfortable house in the country and moved to Hounslow, not just to be near their family and growing grandchildren, but to contribute actively to Hounslow town and its diverse community.
In terms of our schools, Sam Jones works at Bolder Academy in Isleworth in my constituency. He told me that with his year 8 students, he focuses almost exclusively on colonial history and what the empire means to different people in different places, and all in the context of the story of migration to Britain from the Roman period to the present day. He is also the chair of Be Bold History, which is a free national network for history teachers that pools resources and improves teaching. He said, “By teaching more diverse histories, we not only better reflect the communities that we teach, we can also reflect core British values: tolerance, shared community and the rule of law.”
Making black and colonial history compulsory in our schools, particularly the GCSE curriculum, is a first step, but clearly a vital one, and it resonates with students in my constituency whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents came from all over the world—as well as down the road. Their history is our borough’s history. Their history is Britain’s history. We should make black history an integral part of the school curriculum to enable all young people to be proud of their heritage here and confident that they have a future in our country and in their community.
Next Tuesday is an important anniversary in black history. It is the 41st birthday of the independent nation of St Vincent and the Grenadines. I am proud that Wycombe is home to the largest population from the islands outside the islands.
One of the most tricky experiences of my 10 years as a politician was in a preceding Black History Month. I remember being with some Caribbean ladies from St Vincent and the Grenadines 2nd Generation, the organisation that celebrates their history. I was asking about why black history is so important and I was told a difficult story. It was one of those moments when the atmosphere cooled and suddenly felt very still—I can see it vividly in my mind’s eye, although I may forget the exact words that were spoken.
A Caribbean lady with a British name said to me, “Every time I write my name, every time I see my name, every time I hear my name, I am reminded that I am descended from slaves.” How can anyone gainsay such a thing? What a thing to say and believe; what an experience to have. I cannot possibly know what that is like. I dare say that other people do not feel the same, but that lady’s story stays with me still. I am very proud that my community has a really vibrant presence from St Vincent and the Grenadines.
One of the people who the community will be celebrating this Black History Month is George Alexander Gratton. I will let the National Portrait Gallery tell his story:
“Born on the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, the son of African slaves. Like other slaves, he was likely to have been named after the sugar plantation's owner or overseer, a common practice at the time that identified slaves as the property of their owners. He suffered with a condition characterised by pigment loss in the skin, resulting in white patches, now known as Vitiligo. His owner, perhaps aware that culturally held superstitions could put the child at risk, saw an opportunity to profit”— of all things—
“from his condition. He was sold for 1000 guineas, shipped to Britain and consigned to the care of John Richardson who exhibited him in a circus for the paying public”.
I will not read how he was marketed. The description continues:
“Contradictory to this callous exploitation, childless Richardson had the boy baptised and treated him like a son. When Gratton died at a young age, Richardson held onto his body whilst a customised brick vault was constructed to bury him at All Saints Cemetery, Marlow. He requested on his deathbed in 1837 that he be buried in the same vault as Gratton.”
That story illustrates some of the extraordinary complexity of black history in the United Kingdom, both shameful and quite moving.
But let us not pretend that all black history lies in the past. After I made some remarks recently on the BBC’s “Politics Live”, I found myself in conversation with a black woman a little younger than me who had grown up and gone to school in my constituency. She told me a story from when she was growing up—they did not spot this at the time—of a teacher putting her and the Asian children in the class in a separate room and not teaching them: flat-out, frank racism, visited upon a British woman a little younger than me in a school in my constituency some years ago. That is a shocking and shameful thing.
When, then, we turn to the recent BLM protests, I have been listening very carefully to my constituents. Notwithstanding the reasonable remarks of my right hon. Friend Sir John Hayes about the ideology that drives some, I think that it is incumbent on all of us really to listen and get alongside our constituents and friends—our fellow citizens—and to try to understand their life and where they are coming from. I can stand here today and say that I believe that we are all morally equal, that we are all equal before the law, that we are all politically equal, and that we must all have equal opportunity. I can say that and I can believe it, but I am sure that there are some people in my constituency who do not believe it and who roll their eyes when they hear it, because it is not their lived experience.
I am very proud to have been asked by Albie Amankona and Siobhan Aarons to be the chair of the advisory board for Conservatives Against Racism for Equality. I am going to work with them to develop a conservative and a liberal language of equality and inclusion, and of justice—a language that supports life in a free society, and does not adopt the ideas of intersectionalism and critical race theory that set us against one another. I want to work with them and with everybody in this House to make real this idea of equality.
Since he said it at a celebration in my constituency—a celebration of our wonderful Vincentian community— I am going to quote His Excellency Cenio Lewis, and I shall send him a record of it in Hansard afterwards. He said something with great humility, passion and force, which encapsulates enormous wisdom and which I hope will stay with us all: “Let’s remember we are no better than anyone else, but no one is any better than us.”
Order. I will now have to reduce the time limit to five minutes. I have been able to warn Tom Hunt.
I join many other Members in thanking Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this vital debate. It gives us an opportunity to talk about the hugely positive contribution that the black community in this country has made and continues to make, but also about some of the existing challenges in tackling racism in our society.
I would like to touch quickly on some of the comments made by Kim Johnson, who has now left her seat. It is deeply unfortunate that that attack on the great Winston Churchill has been made in this debate. My message to sections of the left who are determined to denigrate his legacy is that they will never be successful. That is because the vast majority of people in this country—black, white, whatever—see Winston Churchill as one of the greatest people that have ever, ever lived in this country, and that will never be up for debate as far as I am concerned.
I would also like to touch on the speech a lot earlier by my hon. Friend Gareth Bacon, who spoke about sport and the huge contribution made by black people to sport. As a Newcastle United fan, I remember that when I was growing up Andy Cole was my icon. I had a massive picture of him behind my bed, and I was devastated and went to school crying when Manchester United purchased him. But then we got our next superstar, Les Ferdinand—also a black football player—from Queen’s Park Rangers. That is how I grew up. As the Member of Parliament for Ipswich Town, I must also mention Titus Bramble and Kieron Dyer, two fantastic players who have played for both Newcastle and Ipswich, who are also black.
In Ipswich we have a significant black community. Only a few weeks ago, I engaged with the Caribbean and African health support forum, which does fantastic work in the town, supporting the black community with specific health issues that impact it more than other communities. I am incredibly proud to represent it and work with it closely, and I will continue to do so.
Let me talk briefly about the curriculum. I think that in our history curriculum we should teach a shared history—a history that teaches people that we have got things wrong in the past and we should look at the different ways in which that is the case, but of course never loses sight of the fact that we remain the greatest country on the planet today. I think that there is further we could go in teaching the history of black people in this country and the contributions they have made, but I am very keen that that is done as part of a shared history. I would not support anything that promoted separateness and alternative historical narratives. Ultimately, we have to have white boys and girls, black boys and girls, and other BAME groups all in the same classroom, learning a shared history together. That does include looking at the injustices that have happened in the past, but it also includes the message that there is so much more that binds us together than separates us.
Touching on current issues in the media, like other hon. Members I was appalled by the death of George Floyd. I was absolutely appalled. I think that the vast majority of people who have gone on protests are well meaning, and I agree with my hon. Friend Mr Baker that we should listen to the strength of their feeling. However, I think it is unfortunate that some of the leadership figures in BLM have, at times, strayed beyond what should be a powerful yet simple and unifying message in opposition to the racism that still exists in our society, into cultural Marxism, the abolition of the nuclear family, defunding the police and overthrowing capitalism. In some senses, I find it quite regretful that a message and an agenda that should have been unifying have, at times, been allowed to become very divisive, but ultimately it is our duty to make sure that the right message is learned from that horrific incident. It needs to be one of unity, moderation and looking to improve upon the situation we have today, where we know that racism still exists.
Looking at the petitions, I would also like us to be a little careful about the term “institutional racism”. Yes, we need to be alive to the fact that there will be individuals who harbour racist views in key institutions such as schools and the police, and they need to be rooted out, but to smear an entire organisation as being institutionally racist is, again, incredibly unhelpful and divisive.
I remember hearing the current Minister, my hon. Friend Kemi Badenoch, speak about this topic three or four years ago. At the time, I thought she would be a future Mayor of London, and right now I wish she was. However, we will have an opportunity, perhaps next May, to get the first black Mayor of London, and I hope that the people of London take it.
In opening the debate, my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare, whom I congratulate, called for a review of the national curriculum so that we have a better understanding of the history being taught and the struggles and contributions of black people in it. She is absolutely right, and I am glad that proposition has had widespread support in this debate.
I was pleased to see that in the comprehensive improvement plan for the Home Office, which was published last month in the wake of the response to the Windrush scandal, recommendation 6 is to implement a learning plan on UK history in the Home Office. It is definitely needed in the Home Office, but it is also needed in schools and in wider society. I want to make the case for including in the review important recent contributions in the borough I represent.
I was in the borough in the early 1980s, when the first generation of Asian young people was making its way through the education system. In September 1983, after a series of incidents in and around Little Ilford School—just a few months before I became a governor of that school—racist thugs started to attack young Asian pupils, and the young people started to organise to defend themselves. Eight Asian youngsters, who were essentially the victims of racism, were arrested and charged with conspiracy. They were the Newham Eight. They secured massive community support, not least from other young people, and they were eventually cleared, or given minimal community sentences, because the courts recognised that they were acting in self-defence.
That campaign and many others secured change. Racism was defeated and the culture was changed. I pay tribute to those who, despite being young, took a stand and won. My friend and colleague Unmesh Desai, who is now a member for City and East in the London Assembly, where he serves with Gareth Bacon—indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead was also one of his colleagues—and chairs the Police and Crime Committee, played a key role in the Newham campaign. I pay tribute to him and the Newham Monitoring Project, which started at that time and has planned a teachers’ resource pack on the Newham Eight story for next spring. We need our curriculum to cover important parts of our history such as that. One of the lessons is that the battles, having been won, often have to be fought all over again when the problems recur.
My hon. Friend also called for a race equality audit of Government policy, and I want to focus on one policy in particular: no recourse to public funds. Under that policy, many hard-working, law-abiding black families, during the 10-year period in which they have to pay thousands of pounds in fees to renew their leave to remain every two and a half years, are barred from applying for social security when they lose their employment, as many have done in this pandemic. There are 1.4 million people across the UK who cannot access the benefit system for that reason, including families with 175,000 children. Some 100,000 families have had that condition imposed on them in the past year.
The Unity Project, which does superb work on that issue, recently reported that, out of a group of 140 families with that condition imposed on them that it is working with, 77% are black African and 12% are black Caribbean. Certainly, the overwhelming proportion of those affected are from ethnic minorities. There is a disproportionate impact on black British children. Eighty-five per cent. of the families in the Unity Project research contained at least one child who is a British citizen.
That policy would not survive the race equality audit proposed by my hon. Friend. As the Unity Project puts it:
“NRPF is inherently more likely to affect BME British children than white British children indicating the indirect racially discriminatory impacts of the condition.”
Is that the intention of the policy? No, it is not, but it is the impact of it, and we need to address it.
I am proud to represent the constituency of Kensington, which has Notting Hill and North Kensington at its beating heart. I am delighted that, when the Windrush generation came to the UK, many settled in Notting Hill and the Ladbroke Grove area. We saw the birth of one of the most iconic cultural celebrations of black British life: the Notting Hill carnival. Although it was clearly not possible for it to take place physically this year, I am glad to say that it went ahead virtually.
There is so much to celebrate about the black community in Kensington, and I am delighted that my council recognised that this month in awarding Black History Month grants to many local groups and institutions to celebrate the involvement of black British people in our cultural life. One of those was the Harrow Club—an inspirational charity and youth club that I had the pleasure of taking the Home Secretary to see at the beginning of the year.
There is so much talent in the black community, as has been referred to, in the arts, in media, in film and in sport, and we must harness that talent. We must understand that it is present not only in the creative arts, but also in business, which is my background. There are so many talented black people in the corporate world, and so many young, talented black entrepreneurs in my constituency want to go out there, set up businesses, create wealth and create opportunities for the wider community.
We must also recognise the challenges in the black community, a number of which have been referred to. Clearly, the treatment of many in the Windrush generation by successive Governments, Labour and Conservative, was unacceptable. Those injustices cannot be unwound, but I am glad to say that the Home Secretary has accepted the recommendations of the Wendy Williams review. The recent coronavirus crisis has shown up health inequalities, and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister is leading on six new research projects to look at the correspondence between covid and ethnicity.
Average hourly earnings are still less among black people in the 30-plus age group, but, interestingly, they have almost evened up between black people and white people in the 16 to 30-year-old age group. Interestingly, the Chinese community and the Indian community surpass the white community in both those age groups. That is why this Government’s agenda of levelling up is so important—not only levelling up as between the north and the south, but levelling up in our inner cities. I believe passionately in equality of opportunity in education, in the workplace and in healthcare. Let us celebrate the huge contribution that the black community have made to Kensington and to the UK, and let us look forward to even more.
I echo other Members’ congratulations to my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate, which I am sure will be influential in the life of our country.
In the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, more than 500 people in Putney, Roehampton and Southfields contacted me wanting to know what action would be taken. What had happened had struck a chord with their own lives and experience, and it represented the kind of society that we do not want to be. Many of them talked about our education system being at the root of the problems in our society, and a key part of their demand was the call for every schoolchild to be taught honestly and truthfully about Britain’s colonial history. I pay tribute to all those young people who wrote to me and to all the teachers who want to do more in their schools. It is essential that Britain wrestles with, and reckons with, our colonial past, as it is part of our history. As has been said many times, we also need to do all that we can to ensure that we value and celebrate the achievements of black Britons and black people across the world. That is what is so important about Black History Month. It is not just about history, but about our current world and about life at the moment. It is a time to celebrate activism, as it is that activism that has brought us to where we are today, and to understand how far we still have to go.
This subject cannot be a voluntary add-on. In previous debates, Ministers have listed the opportunities to bring black history into the curriculum—at both primary and secondary level. None the less, it is not good enough that it is optional for some teachers in some schools. I welcome the call by my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead for a review of the national curriculum. I add to that the demand of the Black Curriculum campaign that there is a compulsory module for black history in key stage 3.
Developing curriculums takes careful planning and research. If the Government really are ready to take up the call and believe that we can teach the colonial legacy accurately and that every child can learn about black people’s contributions, they need to back it up with resourcing for schools. I pay tribute to UNICEF for its Rights Respecting campaign. Rights Respecting schools—there are three levels of bronze, silver and gold—have the opportunity to look at black history across the curriculum within the context of rights. Many schools in my constituency have used this scheme to great benefit.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady, because what she is showing is that innovations at a local level in teaching history, such as history festivals, can bring about huge differences. We have our own Gloucester History Festival. In fact, today is the last day that anyone in this House and outside can listen to Janina Ramirez’s conversation with David Olusoga on the gloucesterhistoryfestival.co.uk site free of charge. It is a wonderful discussion with one of our leading black history historians. Does the hon. Lady agree that that is the sort of thing that can make a huge difference to young people’s perceptions?
I do agree and what an excellent advertisement for an event. I would add to that the work of Putney High School and of Chestnut Grove Academy. They have taken up the challenge to look at black history and to continue with innovation.
I join the call for the module to be compulsory and taught to every student. That would be a strong first step, and mean that all children will learn about black history—not just those who can go along to a festival or whose teachers have the time and resources to teach it. A compulsory module will require, as I have said, training for teachers and the development of resources. I join the call for the Department for Education to put in place a plan for the proper teaching of black history across our curriculum.
As a society, we must commit to an education system that fights racism, that ensures that every child can see their place in it and realise their full potential, that recognises the true and painful legacy of slavery and colonialism and puts it in the correct context, and that values the achievements of black people. Most of all, it will take us forward to a society that has no racism, that does not need to hold a debate such as this, that is truly equal and that ensures that we can all achieve our potential in society. Black history is British history and should be taught all year round.
It is a privilege to speak in this debate on such important matters, as so many have said before me. I want to start with a really positive message that the UK has traditionally been one of the most open, tolerant, welcoming and diverse countries in the western world, with some of the lowest levels of hate crime in Europe. That is consistently found in a number of recent large-scale studies such as the Eurobarometer poll, the World Value Survey and the European Value Study. We can be clear that there is much more to be done, yes. We can agree that even one example of racial hatred and prejudice is wrong, yes. But we must none the less acknowledge that the vast majority of people in this country are open, tolerant and accepting on diversity issues; I know my constituents certainly are. Where there are threats to tolerance and peaceful co-existence, they come from both sides of society, the left and the right. It is clear that active xenophobia, racism and violence are totally unacceptable in this country, and we should rightly challenge them by responding swiftly with the full force of the law.
Black History Month is a great opportunity for celebration, but on education and the curriculum we should be clear and tackle some other areas, such as the cancel culture, which attempts to close down debate, discussion and learning in our universities and other educational institutions, and seeks to influence society by instilling sometimes political ideologies into what should be a neutral and fact-based educational curriculum. We must not politicise education. Where that happens, it is a feature of some of the most oppressive regimes in the world.
My hon. Friend is making a good case about not allowing cancel culture to infuse our society. Does he agree that the renaming of the David Hume tower in the University of Edinburgh is a good example of what should not happen? We are talking about a great 18th century philosopher and great figure in the Scottish enlightenment, whose name was taken away from the tower because of one footnote in one essay 300 years ago. Does he agree that that is not helpful to the teaching of history or of black history?
My hon. Friend makes a good point, and we know that there are many instances of this happening: what happened at the Proms; episodes of “Fawlty Towers” being taken off air; and politicians not being allowed to speak in university debates because their views perhaps differed from that of the university. I take my hon. Friend’s point entirely that there are many areas here, which is why I bring this issue to the Floor of the House.
As I was saying, some regimes fear free thinking and articulate citizens who may use their learning and fluency of thought to think for themselves in a free, democratic country, but we need have no such fears. We must never permit our educational system to become a vehicle for politics or politicising. Our schools and universities have always been and need to remain places of learning. They are places whose primary duty is to instil a love of learning, thinking and free expression, and to equip young people with the skills to think for themselves. That is why calls to decolonise our curriculum give me a little concern.
Our nation’s history is one of great breadth and depth, but we all know it is nuanced: there are examples of great triumphs and advances that have benefited civilisation in all kinds of ways; equally, there are examples of great failures and aspects of our past that through modern eyes and by today’s standards are shameless. All we need to do is teach—teach that history, warts and all, encourage as wide a range of perspectives as possible and facilitate the conversations that will empower young people to form their own conclusions about the issues that shape the world around them and to be meaningful contributors to the wider conversation. This is what we do every day. It is the cornerstone of our democracy. Our educational institutions should be reflections of the openness with which we debate, disagree, compromise and even find agreement here in Parliament. Robert Maynard Hutchins said:
“The objective of education is to prepare the young to educate themselves throughout their lives.”
However, it was Francis Bacon who put it best:
“Read not to contradict and confute;
nor to believe and take for granted;
nor to find talk and discourse;
but to weigh and consider.”
I congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate and on the passion and eloquence of her opening speech. I echo her call to everyone who wants to make change happen to register to vote in next year’s elections. I am pleased to be speaking in the Black History Month debate today, particularly given the fact that many Luton South constituents have signed the parliamentary petitions on teaching black history as part of a more inclusive curriculum.
I have heard many others speak about their experiences at school, and I want to pay tribute to the fantastic education I got at a diverse, working-class comprehensive and the experiences that have enabled me to stand here in this debate as an ally with my black and brown friends from school. I also want to pay tribute to my former teacher, Mr Taylor, who did his bit for black history education over 30 years ago. But he was not a history teacher; he was our drama teacher. He recognised not only the importance of teaching black history but the fact that education comes in many forms. He recognised the power of drama and creativity to engage young people of all races with knowledge and ideas. This is not politicising education, as Duncan Baker said; it is, importantly, enabling young people to better understand the world around them. That was how a diverse bunch of working-class kids from a comprehensive in Luton in the ’80s learned about the life and actions of Martin Luther King and the wider civil rights movement in America. We did it through creating a play of his life in the form of a Greek tragedy, with the chorus reiterating: “Martin Luther King—he was black”. When we performed it at the end-of-term show, my mum said that you could have heard a pin drop.
I take that with me now, as I speak in this debate, because I have now been given the opportunity to stand up once again for my friends. People have referenced a shared history, and we must all own that shared history, but the racism experienced by my friends at school, and sometimes by me alongside them for being their friend, makes the sharing of that history really painful. We cannot just say, “It’s a shared history. Let’s explore it.” My experience of that history is very different from the experience of my black and brown friends.
I want to reflect on how we recognise and celebrate black history and the important black role models in my home town of Luton, and I shall do that by taking a moment to celebrate Luton’s first black woman mayor, Councillor Desline Stewart. She was mayor in the mid-1990s, and she served our town as a local councillor for over 30 years. I was pleased to serve alongside her as a local councillor for a number of years. Desline was one of the key founders of the Mary Seacole Housing Association in my constituency. In the 1980s, Desline responded to direct pleas from young people who were running away from home. They sought her out, as she had built a reputation for her philanthropic work accommodating people from a wide range of backgrounds. She welcomed everyone into her kitchen if they needed help. Over time, more and more people went to her for help, until it became clear that she would need to increase her outreach. With the support of local politicians, grants from Urban Aid and support from Luton Council and Luton churches, a recommendation to the Housing Corporation resulted in the purchase of the first two houses on Brantwood Road to support her work.
Here is another example of how educating about black history comes in all forms. Desline chose to name the housing trust because she wanted to recognise Mary Seacole, a pioneering British Jamaican nurse and heroine of the Crimean war who overcame racism and injustice to nurse soldiers during that war 200-odd years ago. Desline felt a strong kinship with Mary Seacole and wanted to recognise her humanitarian work and altruism. She believed that there was an affinity between her own rescuing of homeless young people and Seacole’s nursing of wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In celebrating black history, which is British history, we must remember that much of that history is recent and much of that history is local.
After the next Member, I will have to reduce the time limit to four minutes, but on five minutes, I call Paul Bristow.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate. Black History Month is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate the contribution that black people and those with black heritage have made to our country’s history. That is truly a positive thing. There are, naturally, aspects of our past that are negative. A history that involves an empire and Commonwealth is inevitably mixed. The history of specific issues is mixed, as this year has shown. Among them, we cannot forget the stain of slavery, but nor should we forget our country’s role in ending slavery. It is worth recalling that, when America was engulfed in a civil war, with its southern states fighting to literally keep people in chains, our country had peacefully banned the trade for over half a century and the practice for three decades.
Our history is not perfect, but I believe it shows us to be an open and tolerant country. Black History Month is full of examples. I was particularly pleased this year to learn about Allan Glaisyer Minns, who became the Mayor of Thetford and the first black Mayor in the United Kingdom in 1904. As a member of the Select Committee on Health and Social Care, I am pleased to tell the House that he was a local doctor. As a Conservative Member, I am also pleased to say that he was a Conservative. I gather that Thetford is now planning a statue in his honour, and so it should, because black history is British history, and British history belongs to all of us.
Our identity as British is not a matter of race. Instead, when we search ourselves, we find that we are defined by our institutions and, above all, by the Crown, this Parliament and our common law. Our institutions are relevant to all of us, and the history of their hard-won evolution is therefore relevant to all of us. Relevance is not determined by the colour of one’s skin, and nor is belonging. Our country continues to welcome people from across the world, not just to live here but to belong here. Our cultural richness is something to celebrate, and Black History Month is part of that. Unfortunately, some political activism has a counter-narrative that stresses our differences and tries to reduce us to them. It also denies a role to people as individuals, in order to subsume them into a group. That approach is profoundly dangerous. It used to be the racists who opposed or denied the possibility of social integration. It would be tragic if the good intentions of anti-racists resulted in forms of segregation.
My constituency is a standing rebuke to those ideas. Peterborough is highly diverse, but we stand together, and we are stronger together. The covid pandemic has seen us all come together—black, brown, white and all minorities. We fed and housed rough sleepers. We delivered supplies to those who were shielding. We supported charities and voluntary organisations. We did that as Peterbourians—as people from Peterborough—not as individually labelled groups. We are one city. We are proud of our city, proud of our country and proud to mark Black History Month.
I would like to pay tribute to Bernadetta Omondi—or Sherry, as she is often known—who chairs the Peterborough Racial Equality Council and the Black History Month committee. She and her team are a tremendous force for good in my city. While covid has prevented the annual celebration of Black History Month in Cathedral Square, they have delivered food parcels to the needy, supported people with mental health issues and raised money for charity at the Lush shop in Peterborough. I look forward to joining her and her team at a black summit to address a number of issues with the city council and local police. She recognises, as I do, that we will not be able to reach our potential as a country and as a city unless people of colour also reach their potential. No one symbolises my “one city” message more than Sherry and her team, and they make me proud of Peterborough.
Black History Month originated in the United States, where it is also known as African-American History Month, and it was created to remember important people and events in the history of the African diaspora. In the mid-1980s, Ansel Wong led an initiative here, which eventually resulted in Black History Month in the United Kingdom.
It is important not to miss the real point of this debate. I would like to argue what Black History Month should be and maybe what it should not be. This is not about appeasement to ethnic minorities, because it is an important part of British history and an important part of history for all of us in this country. It sits alongside other histories—social histories, military histories, post-war histories, and the histories of peoples as well, such as the modern experience of Sikhs, British Jewry and Muslims in this country. As for the Isle of Wight, our African and black history goes back to the Roman empire. We had people from north Africa and people from Italy on the island because we were an early point of habitation by the Roman empire when it was in this country.
I do feel that Black History Month is getting caught up in other issues and unnecessarily politicised, because it is a fascinating subject in its own right. It is not about silly slogans about decolonisation. It is not about the tedious debate about woke activism or the cancel culture eloquently described by my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). Nor is it solely about the drumbeat of slavery, although that is an important moral, economic and political issue.
On that point, until the UK abolished it, and however depressing it may be, slavery was a consistent norm in human experience. Our state, at the height of its power two centuries ago, used that power for an absolute moral good—manumission and the destruction of the international slave trade off west Africa. The West Africa Squadron, which used a considerable amount of the Royal Navy’s resources at the time, as my hon. Friend Imran Ahmad Khan eloquently pointed out, was a unique vehicle in history. As part of the most powerful military institution of that era, the Royal Navy was used for an absolute moral good: the destruction of slavery.
Yes, our history is complex. At the time of destroying slavery, we were also accumulating an empire, so it is easy to make accusations of hypocrisy, but rather than standing here like some agitprop student politician, I would rather understand the past and the complex worlds that people living before us inhabited, because it can help guide our way, frankly, to a better future.
On that point, my hon. Friend may be interested that we have only one major statue of a slaver in Gloucester. It happens to be the Emperor Nerva of the Roman empire, who did indeed take slaves from the UK back to Italy. We have not done anything to daub him at all.
I wonder whether some constituents from a couple of millennia ago were part of that trade—I hope not.
As a Trinidadian friend tells me, we do not help one group of people by pulling down others. Black history is fundamentally about so much more, whether it is the story of peoples such as the Windrush generation—I pay tribute to the extraordinary courage that people needed to get on that boat to come here from the Caribbean after world war two; it was an extraordinary thing—or individuals such as Mary Seacole, who was turned down by the War Office when she wanted to go and help British soldiers in Crimea. She got funding herself and went. Leading aircraftwoman Lilian Bader was the first black woman to join the armed forces in world war two. She ended up as a corporal. Joan Armatrading was the first ever UK artist to be nominated for a Grammy in the blues category. The first black peer was Lord Constantine. Trevor McDonald is incredibly well known. On the Isle of Wight, our modern cultural history will, I am sure, heavily feature Derek Sandy’s classic reggae “Welcome to the Isle of Wight”.
There is much to debate about genuine Black History Month, as opposed to politicised statements around race. On one side of the Chamber, I think we have had a rather negative view of our history, of humanity and of a world divided into oppressors and victims. On the Conservative Benches, I think we have had a rather more optimistic view of human nature. While humanity is not perfect, there is much to celebrate. I am very proud of this country, and I am proud of our record. Life is not perfect and nor are we, but the way we make that better is to understand the world, and I hope that is what Black History Month will help us do.
I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate.
I was born and brought up in Greenock, the main town of the constituency of Inverclyde. As a child it was just my home town. My main memory of the school trips to the local James Watt Museum was walking a friend, eyes closed, past the snarling stuffed bear, and certainly little of our colonial history. I never thought twice about the names of some of the streets I walked down—Jamaica Street, Antigua Street, Virginia Street—or what some of the merchants who built some of the larger houses in the town might have traded in.
Hidden in plain sight was another history of the place where I was growing up, because Greenock, like other ports, sadly played its part in the Atlantic slave trade. It was a port where traders carrying goods like iron and guns would depart to west Africa. These goods would be traded for enslaved people who were then transported to the Americas and sold in exchange for goods like sugar. As a child, the only sugar I was aware of in relation to Greenock was the Tate & Lyle refinery, and the wreck of the sugar boat MV Captayannis in the Firth of Clyde —the water was supposed to taste sweet round about it. That sugar was transported to the refineries of Greenock, and the warehouse, the Sugar Shed, still stands to this day.
That sugar, and the rum and tobacco, made some incredibly wealthy, but that wealth was not just kept in the pockets of the traders and their families: it is important that we acknowledge that it enriched all Scots and all parts of the UK. This was recently highlighted by the excellent blog and Twitter account, @WeirdScotland. Much of the philanthropy of the 18th and 19th centuries in Scotland, a lot of which admirably focused on promoting access to education, which we have talked about a lot today, was in fact funded by the slave trade. For example, the Royal Academy in Tain, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Jamie Stone, was opened in 1813 by Hugh Rose Ross of Glastullich, a slaver funded by £175,000, in today’s money, from donors in the Caribbean.
It is not just our places or our institutions but our people who have deep-rooted connections to the slave trade. The most famous Greenockian other than Victor Meldrew is James Watt. His father was a slave trader. While Watt did eventually argue for abolition, there is no doubt that he benefited from his father’s wealth, and sold steam engines to plantations in the Caribbean. I highlight Shaun Kavanagh’s excellent piece on Greenock’s role in the slave trade, where he says:
“In Greenock, we live in the shadow of slavery every day.”
How many people walk along the streets of Greenock, Glasgow, Edinburgh and elsewhere and fail to connect the dots—to realise the wealth realised via the slave trade?
Even Scotland’s bard, Robert Burns, in dire financial straits, accepted a job as part of a team of white overseers on a plantation in Jamaica. As Clark McGinn has outlined, being a bookkeeper was as much about managing the assets as the numbers. Burns would have had a daily interface with the truth of slavery, from assisting in purchases through to recording punishments and deaths—and an ambitious young man might seek advancement by volunteering to be more hands on. The publication of Burns’s poems, to instant acclaim, prevented his emigration and that future, but his story demonstrates how slavery permeated every part of Scottish life at that time.
We have to do so much more to educate ourselves about the horrors of the past, not least when, as has been demonstrated during the pandemic, the legacy of the unequal treatment of colour is still very much with us to this day. This year, Black Lives Matter has had a huge impact. In my semi-rural constituency of North East Fife, it has been the issue that my team and I have received the most correspondence about. I received many emails and letters on the murder of George Floyd, on the tragic death of Belly Mujinga and the campaign for justice for her, and on ensuring that black history is taught in our schools.
I have written to the Scottish Government about making sure that our curriculum is inclusive. I am concerned that potentially the diverse approach of the curriculum for excellence means that for some we will not be teaching that curriculum. Like others in this debate, I absolutely support the work of the Black Curriculum campaign and say that we do need a commitment that every child learns at school about Britain’s role in the slave trade.
I add my name to the long list of other Members who have thanked Abena Oppong-Asare for securing this debate. I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. Before entering this place, I worked as a secondary school teacher and taught citizenship, history and religious education.
Black History Month was always celebrated in every single school I worked in. A variety of specific tutor activities, assemblies and lessons across all subjects were undertaken. This created a vibrant and inquisitive environment in which students discussed challenging topics. We also, in every school I worked in, taught about the horrors of the transatlantic slave trade, ensuring that future generations understand that while history can be ugly, it is an opportunity to learn from the past.
I have also taught about apartheid in South Africa and the struggle for freedom and equality led by Nelson Mandela. I still today live with the goosebumps when I think of my visit, as a 17-year-old, to Robben Island, when we were toured around and heard the first-hand experiences of our tour guides, who had been, tragically, prisoners on that island. I even experienced the racism that, sadly, exists in South Africa when one of my teammates was chanted at with monkey noises as we played against one of the schools there, leading us to abandon the game early, and having our school, with our black head rugby coach, being refused entry to the premises to dine with the opposing players. As part of the curriculum, we also looked at Justin Fashanu, the first black footballer to command a transfer fee of £1 million and also the first professional footballer to come out as openly gay.
There is one individual to whom I want to give a special shout out—a former colleague of mine from Blackfen School for Girls in the London borough of Bexley, where I started my career. Lola Blatch is to this day the most gifted and inspirational teacher I have ever worked with. In the politics, philosophy and enterprise faculty that she ran, we delivered a citizenship curriculum that focused on challenging issues from the past to the present. From a scheme of work exploring the use of protest music and having students create their own song on a current political issue to hosting international evenings on which parents and pupils from all different cultural backgrounds would serve food, sing, dance and host a fashion show—celebrating our diversity as a community remains to this day one of the highlights of my career.
What Lola and I also did was to challenge students’ thoughts and ideas. One of the schemes of work was to look at the murder of Stephen Lawrence. This murder took place not far from the school, and we examined the ways in which Stephen’s family was wronged and reminded students what can happen when racism goes unchallenged. The curriculum’s flexibility enabled Lola and I to tackle such wide-ranging and difficult topics. The aim of all our lessons was never to focus solely on the colour of someone’s skin, but to see a person for who they are.
If I may, I will turn briefly to the area that I am proud to serve, which is Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke. In the mother town of Burslem stands Wedgwood House, an adorning reminder of one of our city’s finest, Josiah Wedgwood, who was a prominent slave abolitionist. From 1787 until his death in 1795, Josiah Wedgwood actively participated in the cause of the abolition of slavery. His slave medallion brought public attention to abolition, and was the most famous image of a black person in all 18th-century arts. I know that his work on this matter is taught annually in schools across Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke, and I expect to see it continue for ever more to better inform future generations.
If we are to truly understand the contribution made to our history by people from the BAME community, we need to celebrate and share that history as a positive, rather than looking at what seeks to divide. When I faced down the British National party and the English Defence League in the London borough of Bexley after letters came in having a go at us for what we were teaching, it was about celebrating what was good and what brought us together, rather than about what divided us, and it is such divisions that those on the far right wish to create between us.
I also congratulate my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this very important debate.
I am proud to represent one of the most diverse constituencies in the country. It is a constituency with one of the largest Caribbean and African communities in the UK and has a very direct connection with the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948. In 2018, the same year that we celebrated the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, many of my constituents also found themselves victims of the Windrush scandal and suffered the terrible, deep emotional pain of rejection by the place that they had understood to be their country.
It is that experience that reinforced my belief in the urgent need for reform of the history curriculum. The Windrush scandal was caused by the callous policies of a Tory Government, but addressing it was harder than it should have been because far too many people in government and beyond did not have an accurate understanding of British history or, as a consequence, of Britishness. There was a catastrophic failure to understand that the Windrush generation had come to the UK as British citizens under the British Nationality Act 1948. Addressing the Windrush scandal was not about regularising the status of Commonwealth citizens who had come to the UK in the decades following the second world war, but about recognising their status as British citizens; a status that they had always had.
One of the recommendations made by Wendy Williams in her lessons learned review following the Windrush scandal was that all existing and new staff in the Home Office should learn about the history of the UK and its relationship with the rest of the world, including Britain’s colonial history, the history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons. If such a programme is important for the staff in the Home Office, surely it is important for every child being educated in British schools to understand that we are a nation of migrants, that every community and every family has a migration story, that every historical event can be seen from a range of different perspectives and that telling the story of everyone who was there matters. These things help us to find what we have in common and help to build cohesion. In our divided society, that is more important than ever.
Curriculum reform is not difficult. There are brilliant resources readily available. I mention in particular “Our Migration Story” developed by the Runnymede Trust, the universities of Manchester and Cambridge and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Black Curriculum and existing GCSE modules by Edexcel and AQA, currently taught to less than 10% of students. I want to mention the fantastic work by Lambeth Council to improve the attainment of black students in the borough under the banner “Raising the Game”. This month, it distributed Patrick Vernon’s brilliant new book, “100 Great Black Britons” to every school in the borough. Curriculum reform is simply about taking this good practice and ensuring that every child in the UK is able to benefit from it.
I want to say a word in support of the Black Cultural Archives, based on Windrush Square in Brixton in my constituency. The BCA is the only national organisation dedicated to the collection, preservation and celebration of the history of black people in the UK. It has an incredible resource and a national remit, yet is not currently funded directly by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport or afforded the status of a national archive.
I call on the Government to deliver curriculum reform and to fully fund and resource the Black Cultural Archives in its vital work. Black history is British history and it should be taught and available to everyone all year round.
To be number 60 on the speaking list and to get in is quite an achievement, so thank you for the opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker. I thank Abena Oppong-Asare for setting the scene and I thank hon. Members for some absolutely wonderful contributions, which I have been greatly heartened by.
As an Ulster Scot, I believe I am very much British to the core—as I think Margaret Thatcher said, I am more British than Finchley. I am hoping that that will be the case; we will know within the next few months whether that will be the case or not.
Our history as members of this great diverse UK— England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—is about instilling the belief that, regardless of differences in class, colour or culture, we are unified in our Britishness, which is only enhanced by our differences. I believe we are better together, but it is not just that—it is all the cultures coming together, to make this great nation, which we have the privilege to be part of.
I believe that black history is British history, in the same way that Ulster Scots history is British history. I commend Theresa Villiers. She held an Adjournment debate one night on this very issue, and set the scene and the tone extremely well. There were also some wonderful contributions from other Members to that debate.
Martin Luther King is a hero of mine. He made some wonderful comments. He was a man of God and also a man who had a social conscience—a person who spoke up for other people. That always intrigued me. That is probably the reason why Dr Paisley, who formerly sat in this House, was a person with whom I resonated as a young boy in the late ’60s and early ’70s, as he spoke up for others.
Martin Luther King said that people should
“not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
That is a lesson that I believe every school should teach and that every single adult in this place must put into practice. Those words should be in the hearts of each and every one of us here. I think that is the message we want to send out from this place tonight.
I am very much a part of a shared history. I am very much from a Unionist tradition and an Orange culture. I belong to all of the loyalist organisations—the Orange Institution, the Royal Black Preceptory and the Apprentice Boys, but at school in the late ’60s and early ’70s in my class, one of the teachers said, “Would you like to learn Irish history?” The response from the class was, yes, we would. It did not change me as a Unionist and was never going to, because I am a deep Unionist through and through—it is in the core of my body—but it did give me a perspective on another history. It is important to have that perspective and to know about the Irish part of history that we have in our island. For me, the celebration of
The celebration of Black History Month is the opportunity to be grateful for the tremendous achievements of this section of the British people, including the Windrush generation, who have done so much to bring the UK to where it is—together. That black history is my history, too; I want to put that on record. I see black history as British history, along with my history as an Ulster Scot. I hope this debate will enable us all across this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland to recognise that we are different, but that we are also the same, not just in the way we breathe and the blood in our bodies, but because we are British.
I thank my hon. Friend Abena Oppong-Asare for securing what has been such a rich debate. Celebrating and raising awareness of black history through Black History Month has been shown to be urgently necessary in light of the growing anger of our black community expressed through Black Lives Matter and how the Government are approaching our own history on slavery and reparations.
We need the Government to be an honest broker in our history without an attempt to whitewash history or belittle the oppression of black communities in the Americas or Africa. Unfortunately, we see the opposite in our cultural institutions. The Museum of the Home, formerly the Geffrye Museum, in Hackney, was named after Sir Robert Geffrye, a slave trader. The museum has a statue of Geffrye, and after consultation there was a very strong feeling that it should be removed. The decision should be made entirely by the museum, which has curatorial freedom and a responsibility to listen to the local community. However, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport decided to intervene in the decision by writing to all museums with arm’s length bodies arrangements. The letter seemed particularly aimed at the Museum of the Home and was quite extraordinary in its tone and overreach.
The letter said:
“Statues and other historical objects were created by generations with different perspectives and understandings of right and wrong.”
I am not sure that many see the enslavement of others as a matter of perspective or understanding of right and wrong. The Secretary of State went on to say:
“It is for this reason that the Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.”
Then comes the implied threat to funding:
“As set out in your Management Agreements, I would expect Arm’s Length Bodies’ approach to issues of contested heritage to be consistent with the Government’s position... This is especially important as we enter a challenging Comprehensive Spending Review, in which all government spending will rightly be scrutinised.”
Appearing before the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, the museum director, Sonia Solicari, said that the board had taken the letter “very seriously”, adding that the Department is “a major stakeholder” for the museum so it took that on board in the decision-making process.
Local people in Hackney were appalled. I spoke to Jermain Jackman today, who chairs the Hackney Young Futures Commission, and he told me: “When the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol was pulled down, the Government called the protests out for not allowing the democratic process. However, Hackney allowed and followed a democratic process, consulting the local community, which was overwhelmingly in favour of having it removed. However, the Government put pressure on the board and ignored the will of the people.” Jermain is correct. The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is moving the goalposts, and to whose detriment?
The Museums Association puts it best in its statement:
“The letter is the latest in a series of interventions from the culture secretary that have led to fears the government is undermining the sector’s independence.”
Those are its words, not mine.
I also want to talk about an episode of black history that, sadly, is rarely taught in our academic institutions or schools: the oppression and genocide of the West Papuans under Indonesian occupation. As chair of the all-party group on West Papua, it is incumbent on me to add their struggle to those of so many black and indigenous ones around the world.
This year, following the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the West Papuans found inspiration to link their struggle with those struggles under the slogan “Papuan lives matter.” The campaigners shed light on Indonesia’s institutional racism against West Papuans. For instance, in August 2019 Papuan students were attacked in Indonesia’s second largest city and called monkeys. The police then rounded up the students firing tear gas into their dormitory. In 2006 in Jayapura everyone who had dreadlocks was arrested and their hair was cut. This continued for a fortnight. The Jakarta Post last year discussed Papuans living in Yogyakarta and said that it was not unusual for landlords to express approval of rent applications by phone only to reject them once they find out where they are from. These and many other incidents of racism will chime with many of my colleagues in the Chamber, and they reflect how many black communities in the UK were treated in the past.
West Papuan leaders, including Benny Wenda, chair of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua, have sought political asylum around the world. Benny Wenda is a brilliant exponent for his people and needs to be platformed much more here in the UK where he lives so that light can be shone on what is happening to the West Papuan people.
Finally, I again thank my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead for securing this opportunity that has enabled me to add my voice to those of my many black colleagues in the Chamber whom I am honoured to serve alongside.
I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this debate. I have had a number of messages from my SNP colleagues asking me to pass on their congratulations. The hon. Member said that she came to this place to speak for those who barely get a mention; I want her to know that it has not gone unnoticed, and I know that it will mean so much to the people she was referring to. Sometimes, even if we are not able to change things immediately for people, just knowing that we are fighting their corner makes a difference—although we want to change things, obviously.
I want to say something about the what, the why and the who of Black History Month. What does Black History Month mean to me? To me, much as I love it, I wish that it did not have to happen, and if we incorporated black history into the teaching of our past, not just in schools but generally, and decolonised that teaching, perhaps Black History Month would be redundant, but we have not and until we do, Black History Month is essential. There have been really good speeches from Members on both sides of the House today. I think that Government Members have sometimes been a bit sensitive, but they should not be, because the fault lies with all of us. It is just about being honest in our teaching. Our stories are told from one perspective—the perspective of the colonisers—but how did it look from the perspective of the colonised? The missing perspectives are what decolonising the teaching of history is all about.
In addition to that, what about the black historical figures who get nothing like the attention that the equivalent white figures get? We should not pick and choose like that. One of the best examples I can provide is Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole, who has been mentioned multiple times today, to my delight. Both should have been taught about and I would argue that Scots-Jamaican Mary Seacole has more reason for us to learn about her, because everything that she did, she had to make happen. She had to fundraise, as we heard earlier, to get to the Crimea and to set up her hospital. It cannot have been easy in those days. I am pretty sure that our teachers are expected to teach about leadership, resilience and entrepreneurship, and Mary Seacole did an equivalent thing to Florence Nightingale in a different way and exemplified all the things that I just mentioned. But for hundreds of years, we did not learn about her, did we? It is about choosing not to be selective in whose incredible achievements we recognise, and it is about choosing not to tell our stories from the perspective of the coloniser only.
Why is this so important? Because until we change, the idea that seeps into a child’s subconscious is that the world was built and developed by white people. It seeps in because they are sitting in class, or reading a book, or watching TV, and learning about the wonderful women who nursed those soldiers, and the great inventors, artists, poets, scholars, writers, and philosophers. They see these incredible people and they are all white, but they were not all white. Those children may not be sitting consciously thinking, “Hmm, all the great people are white”, but as I said, it seeps in. For the black child, they are in danger of growing up believing on some level that the white people of the world must be cleverer, more talented and more relevant. For the white child, how can they possibly avoid growing up believing on some level that it must be true, and that white people, having built the world all by themselves, must be somehow superior?
And here is the why: racism is rooted in untruthful or selective teaching about our past. People are not born racist. They learn it. Like Dawn Butler, I often hear people saying, “I don’t see skin colour.” I know what they are trying to say, but yes, they do. Young children, however, do not seem to notice skin colour any more than they see eye colour or hair colour. They learn to be racist. We as a society collectively teach them to be racist, but if black children and white children learn about the world from the perspective of all ethnicities, and they see and hear about the people of all ethnicities who have made their contribution to developing our world, and if what seeps into their psyche is more truthful, we will not stop racism, but I am convinced we will reduce it.
So on to the who—who am I talking about? I do not have time to list everyone I want to, so instead I will table a series of early-day motions till the end of October featuring a different figure in black history each time. I have started already and I invite friends across the House to join me in doing that. However, I do want to talk about one person in particular: Andrew Watson, a Scots-Guyanan, who was the first black professional footballer on these islands. He was also an engineer, so he was a high achiever.
Spoken like a true engineer. His highest achievement, however, was that he played for the Scotland football team on three occasions, captaining the side in his first match. Most importantly, Scotland won each game. [Interruption.] The consensus and smiles may disappear in a moment, when I tell the House that the first of those matches was played at the Oval in Kennington, where he led his team to a 6-1 victory over England. In the next match, we beat Wales 5-1, and in his final international, we beat England again, but sadly, that time it was only 5-1. That is really why he is my hero.
However, I knew nothing about this man until about 10 years ago. There were efforts to get him recognised, and indeed, my hon. Friend Brendan O’Hara once made a documentary about Andrew Watson, in conjunction with celebrated broadcaster and journalist—and my friend and constituent—Stuart Cosgrove, who is also an author. As an aside, his latest book is about Cassius Clay. Andrew Watson is now memorialised in the hall of fame at Scotland’s national stadium in Hampden, but why do special efforts and campaigns have to happen for people to be recognised? As Florence Eshalomi explained, it took 12 years to get the statue of Mary Seacole. Do you know, Madam Deputy Speaker, that 80,000 people lined the banks of the Thames to celebrate Mary Seacole when she returned from the Crimean war? How on earth did we manage to whitewash her out of history until recently? Why did it take a campaign to recognise her?
Most people do not wish to be racist, I believe—most of it is simply down to not knowing or not understanding. Part of our job here is to help them, and I invite Members to join the all-party group on unconscious bias, which I co-chair with my friend Dawn Butler, who gave a brilliant speech and tolerated the nonsense from Government Members extremely well. Our first investigation is on unconscious racial bias, which we will launch shortly—I will send an email about it.
Yes, progress has been made, but it is not enough. I will share a story with Members. My 17-year-old goddaughter Toniann texted me yesterday, saying, “I’m in class and I’m watching Uncle Graham on TV.” Toniann’s mum is white Scottish and her dad is black Jamaican. Uncle Graham is my partner, who was featured in a BBC documentary made by Stewart Kyasimire called “Black and Scottish”. It is on iPlayer, and I urge Members to watch it—it is absolutely brilliant. Here is a child of Scottish Jamaican descent seeing black role models featured in her education, and she was absolutely delighted. The icing on the cake was that she was related to one of them.
Jeremy Corbyn noted the decision by Glasgow University to make reparation for the way in which it benefited from the Caribbean slave trade.
Maybe we will change the inquiry—I need to speak to the hon. Member for Brent North, but perhaps we will change it to the conscious bias of the SNP against the Tories. [Interruption.] Did I hear Conservatives saying, “Hear, hear”? Thank you.
Glasgow University is making reparations for the way in which it benefited from the slave trade. It was the aforementioned Uncle Graham, in his role as chair of Flag Up Scotland Jamaica, of which I am a board member, who approached Glasgow University to suggest that it do that, and it is a lesson in life that if you do not ask, you do not get. The university, to its credit, agreed almost immediately, secured the services of historian Dr Stephen Mullen, did its sums and set about a fantastic reparation programme that is about much, much more than just the money.
I want to end by saying something about tolerance. I have heard too many Members talk about racial tolerance today and how Britain is tolerant. I want to gently but firmly urge them to be careful about their use of that word, or be prepared to explain who exactly we are tolerating and what exactly they do that requires tolerance. Language really matters and we should all, including me, be ready to examine our own.
I am truly honoured to close this debate for the official Opposition. I want to begin by congratulating my friend Abena Oppong-Asare on securing this important debate and thanking the Backbench Business Committee for granting it.
Members have heard that this is the first debate in the House on Black History Month for five years. I hope that we do not have to wait another five years to have another such debate, because the House should always have time to consider and debate issues of great importance. We have heard speeches and contributions from dozens of hon. and right hon. Members across the House which, for the most part, have been good-natured. There were a few parts of the debate that were not so. Many Members have shared stories from their communities, including my hon. Friend Tulip Siddiq, who is not in her place now. She discussed Dr Pitt, who stood for Labour in an election in the 1950s and was the second black person to become a Lord. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead gave a powerful opening speech about the importance of Black History Month and why we need to celebrate it. My hon. Friend Rachel Hopkins shared her experience of growing up in the ’80s and the education she had. She also cited Mary Seacole, as have many other Members in this debate.
Black History Month has been celebrated every year in the UK since 1987. That was also a historic year because it was the year we elected the first three black MPs to this place: the late Bernie Grant, Paul Boateng and my right hon. Friend Ms Abbott. In Black History Month we aim to highlight and celebrate the contributions of black people who may not be part of the black history or our curriculum.
This Black History Month is even more important, as we face the global health pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, which has shone a light on some of the structural racial inequalities experienced by black people here in the UK and around the world. The tragic murder of George Floyd by white police officers in the United States ignited a global show of solidarity through the Black Lives Matter protests. Thousands of people from different backgrounds came together to demand fundamental change and challenge the racial injustices in Britain today. Racism is a systemic problem and requires systemic solutions. As my hon. Friend Bell Ribeiro-Addy said, it is not enough for someone merely to say that they are not racist; they have to be an anti-racist.
It starts with knowing our history, as so many Members across the House have said today. My hon. Friend John Cryer gave us such a great history of Caribbean politics and sport, telling us all about the great Michael Manley, the Jamaican Prime Minister. My right hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn cited the history of the transatlantic slave trade and the fight of those enslaved who fought for freedom. He rightly cited the injustices and disparities that exist.
We should celebrate our history and be proud of our history. As many have said throughout this debate, black history is British history. We should be proud of people like the abolitionist Mary Prince, who was the first black woman to write her own story in her book published in 1831. We should be proud that the first pan-African conference took place just down the road in Westminster town hall in 1900, and was attended by people from Africa, the West Indies and US, including John Archer, who I shall come back to shortly.
I want us all to know about the thousands and thousands of black people who fought for our country in the first world war and succeeding wars, including the men who served in the British West Indies Regiment in 1915. The Windrush generation made such great contributions to our society. Many of them were among the first to work in the NHS, including members of my own family.
In the 1960s, Paul Stephenson, alongside Roy Hackett, Guy Bailey and many others, challenged racism and discrimination and led the Bristol bus boycott, which lasted four months until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar. This is all part of our history—our British history. The boycott helped to influence the passing of the Race Relations Acts of 1965, 1968 and 1976, all of which were passed by Labour Governments, of course.
We will never forget the tragic murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 and the institutional racism that surrounded the investigation and led to the long fight for justice of our friend Baroness Lawrence and her family.
Whether we know it or not, we are all affected by those who have gone before us. I myself am proud to stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before me, including some of the greats who represented Battersea, such as John Archer who, when elected mayor of Battersea in 1913, became London’s first black mayor, and who rightly cited his election as a pivotal moment. One of the first Asian MPs was elected in Battersea in 1922: Shapurji Saklatvala. I do indeed stand on the shoulders of many greats.
We all need to know about, and be able to talk about, Britain’s colonial past and the structural racism that continues to exist. Although we have made progress, we still have some way to go. As has been cited by many this afternoon, black workers with degrees still earn around 23% less than their white counterparts; Caribbean children are still three times more likely to be excluded from school; and black men are more than nine times more likely to be stopped and searched, and a disproportionate number are dying in police custody.
It matters that we understand and acknowledge those things. The Wendy Williams “Windrush Lessons Learned” review made it clear that it was possible for the Windrush scandal to happen in part because of the public’s poor understanding of Britain’s colonial history, our history of inward and outward migration, and the history of black Britons. We need to learn, and we need justice for the thousands of people from the Windrush generation, many of whom lost their homes, their livelihoods and, in some cases, tragically, their lives.
We need justice for the black people whose deaths could have been avoided during this pandemic, and we need action to address the hugely disproportionate impact that coronavirus is still having on our black, Asian and minority ethnic communities right now. This Government have so far failed to implement many of Public Health England’s recommendations. The countless families who have lost loved ones, and their communities, should not have to wait any longer. That is why Labour has set out the need for a race equality strategy that takes lessons from the covid-19 virus pandemic and seeks fundamentally to change the systems and institutions in which these structural racial inequalities exist.
Today, I call on the Minister to say that she will urgently look to implement a race equality strategy, which includes fundamental reform of the national curriculum—as cited by so many hon. Friends, including my hon. Friends the Members for Ilford North (Wes Streeting), for Vauxhall (Florence Eshalomi), for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for Cynon Valley (Beth Winter), for Dulwich and West Norwood (Helen Hayes), for Coventry North West (Taiwo Owatemi), for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) and so many others—so that it includes an honest account of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade.
Will the Minister commit not just to a review of the curriculum, but to a strategy that addresses racial disparities, such as those mentioned by Caroline Nokes? I will hold to account the Women and Equalities Committee, which she chairs, to ensure that we start to see mandatory ethnicity pay gap reporting. Will the Minister commit to a strategy that seeks to implement the many recommendations that have been made concerning racial inequalities, whether in the McGregor-Smith review, the Lammy review, Wendy Williams’s lessons learned review or countless others? Will she commit to a strategy that seeks to recognise all our different ethnicities within black, Asian and minority ethnic communities? There is so much more that this Government can and should do, and now is the time to act.
We continue to celebrate Black History Month, and we will continue to celebrate black history, because, as Marcus Garvey says,
“A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.”
Each of us in this House has a role to play to stand for and demand that change. Black history is British history.
I am pleased to be standing at the Dispatch Box to close this much needed debate on Black History Month. I congratulate Abena Oppong-Asare, who has managed to be both a Front Bencher and a Back Bencher today; that is quite a feat. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate and giving me an opportunity to speak on an issue that is very close to my heart, and I thank all the hon. and right hon. Members who have made thoughtful contributions. I will speak as quickly as I can, and I am afraid I will not be able to reference every speech, but I think that this has been a fantastic debate.
This year, more so than for decades, race has been at the heart of our national conversation. Black History Month remains an opportunity to shine a light on those whose contributions to our national history deserve to be better known. This month, the Government have taken the opportunity to celebrate the contribution of black Britons who enrich our collective national life and form an inseparable part of our national history—women such as Yvonne Conolly, who in 1969 became the UK’s first black female headteacher. Throughout her 40-year career, she has inspired and mentored generations of educators. The work of Ms Conolly and her fellow heads is key to the topic that we are debating. Education is key to our mission as a Government to level up and spread opportunity to everyone, whatever their background.
Many hon. Members have said that they want more black history to be taught, but they do not seem to be aware of what is actually on the curriculum. Our curriculum is not that of 50, 40 or even 20 years ago. Children today can learn about the British empire and colonialism, the transatlantic slave trade and its abolition, and how our history has been shaped by people of all ethnicities. They also have the opportunity to study non-European cultures such as Mughal India and the Benin empire, which is where my ancestors decided to take over the world in their own way. Pupils can currently study migration, empires and the people in the AQA history GCSE, but Wes Streeting is quite wrong to say that that is the only place that it can be learned, as many other exam bodies offer that.
Our curriculum does not need to be decolonised, for the simple reason that it is not colonised. We should not apologise for the fact that British children primarily study the history of these islands. It goes without saying that the recent fad to decolonise maths, decolonise engineering and decolonise the sciences that we have seen across our universities—to make race the defining principle of what is studied—is not just misguided but actively opposed to the fundamental purpose of education. The curriculum, by its very nature, is limited; there are a finite number of hours to teach any subject. What we have not heard in this debate, from hon. Members on both sides of the House who want more added to it, is what must necessarily be taken out. Perhaps we will get to that another day.
Jeremy Corbyn and many others have raised the Black Lives Matter movement. Bell Ribeiro-Addy raised the education guidance and believes that we are trying to stop children becoming activists. Another hon. Member—apologies; I have forgotten who it was—also mentioned that. What we are against is the teaching of contested political ideas as if they are accepted facts. We do not do that with communism, socialism or capitalism.
I want to speak about a dangerous trend in race relations that has come far too close to home in my life, which is the promotion of critical race theory, an ideology that sees my blackness as victimhood and their whiteness as oppression. I want to be absolutely clear that the Government stand unequivocally against critical race theory. Some schools have decided to openly support the anti-capitalist Black Lives Matter group, often fully aware that they have a statutory duty to be politically impartial.
Of course black lives matter, but we know that the Black Lives Matter movement is political. I know that because, at the height of the protests, I have been told of white Black Lives Matter protesters calling a black armed police officer guarding Downing Street—I apologise for saying this word—“a pet nigger”. That is why we do not endorse that movement on this side of the House. It is a political movement. It would be nice if Opposition Members condemned many of the actions of that political movement, instead of pretending that it is a completely wholesome anti-racist organisation.
Lots of pernicious stuff is being pushed, and we stand against that. We do not want teachers to teach their white pupils about white privilege and inherited racial guilt. Let me be clear that any school that teaches those elements of critical race theory as fact, or that promotes partisan political views such as defunding the police without offering a balanced treatment of opposing views, is breaking the law.
Hon. Members have mentioned the police. Our history is our own; it is not America’s. Too often, those who campaign against racial inequality import wholesale a narrative and assumptions that have nothing to do with this country’s history and have no place on these islands. Our police force is not their police force. Since its establishment by Robert Peel, our police force has operated on the principle of policing by consent. It gives me tremendous pride to live, in 2020, in a nation where the vast majority of our police officers are still unarmed.
On the history of black people in Britain, again, our history of race is not America’s. Most black British people who came to our shores were not brought here in chains, but came voluntarily because of their connections to the UK and in search of a better life. I should know: I am one of them. We have our own joys and sorrows to tell. From the Windrush generation to the Somali diaspora, it is a story that is uniquely ours. If we forget that story and replace it with an imported Americanised narrative of slavery, segregation and Jim Crow, we erase the history of not only black Britain, but of every other community that has contributed to society and that has also been a victim of racism or discrimination, from the Pakistani community to the Jewish community.
I have listened to Opposition Members talk about a race equality strategy. They know that the Government have set up a Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, but they have not engaged with it. They do not want a race equality strategy; they want the Government to adopt their race equality strategy, and that is not what we are doing.
I am afraid that I do not have enough time to give way.
We won an election a year ago. If Opposition Members want to implement their race equality strategy, they should go ahead and win an election. If they win the support of the British people, they can have their way, but at the moment this is a Conservative Government and we are going to do this in the way in which we believe the people of this country want.
I am afraid that I am not giving way. I have only three minutes left, and I have more than three minutes of content.
Dawn Butler said that she hoped I would learn something from her. Now it is time for me to give her a couple of lessons too, although I do not believe that she is in her place. She said that we need to look at history and improve it. Lesson No. 1: we cannot improve history; we can only learn from it. What we can improve is the future, and that is what this Government have been doing over the past 10 years. I am not going to reel off statistics, in the interests of time, because other Government Members have already done so.
Lesson No. 2: black history is not the history of institutional racism. Listening to some Members across the House, it is quite clear that they do not know the difference. It is not true, as Kim Johnson said, that African history was interrupted by slavery. It also shows an ignorance of geography, because west African history is different from African history. As probably the only Member of this House who actually grew up and went to school in Africa, I can tell the House that that is not what we are taught. Much more is taught about the history of black slave traders who existed before and after the transatlantic slave trade.
In fact, the most notable statue in the city of Lagos, where I grew up, is that of Madam Tinubu. It is the biggest one in the equivalent of Trafalgar Square. She was a slave trader, but she was also a freedom fighter and a much loved icon. Her slave trading is not celebrated, but her fight against colonisers is. In Nigeria, she is recognised as a complex character, as all historical figures are—and heaven help anyone who would try to pull her statue down. There is much that we can learn from Nigeria about how to handle the issue of statues.
Why does this issue mean so much to me? It is not just because I am a first-generation immigrant. It is because my daughter came home from school this month and said to me, “We’re learning Black History Month because every other month is about white history.” That is wrong and it is not what our children should be picking up. Those are not the values that I have taught her. They are yet another sign of the pernicious identity politics that look at individuals primarily as groups of biological characteristics. People often do not realise when that has taken hold, and I know that many of them are well meaning.
I wanted to finish with the story of Tom Molineaux, a black boxer who freed himself from slavery in the US and moved to England in 1809. I would have said so much more about him, but I am almost out of time.
History tells us that this is a country that welcomes people, and that black people from all over the world have found this to be a great and welcoming country. As a black woman, these are the values that I am teaching my black daughter. We must never take that for granted. In this Black History Month, let us celebrate the black talent that we are blessed with, the progress we have made in accepting one another and the contribution that black people have made in making us who we are as a nation.
I thank the Backbench Business Committee again, and all Members of the House who contributed to this debate. It has been an engaging debate and I hope that it will continue. I also thank members of the public for responding to my call about what I should discuss in the debate—I have met so many engaged people—and for recommending trailblazers for me to mention in the House today. I am sorry if I was not able to mention every one; there are just so many trailblazers out there, and we just need to learn all about them.
Let me emphasise again that we really do need a race equality strategy and an action plan, and to diversify the curriculum. We must listen to the public. So many people have signed the petition asking us to diversify the curriculum. This is not about political point scoring; it is about listening to what the public say their needs are, and looking at the stats that are out there. Loads of research has poured out, with teachers asking for the curriculum to be diversified.
This is not about identity politics; it is about understanding the true history of our nation in the UK, because we can move forward only if we learn the good and the ugly sides of politics. This is not about glossing politics and making it pretty. This is not about attacking white people or anyone else because of their politics. This is about learning our true history, because it is absolutely important that we understand it so that we are able to move forward and progress.
Order. I am going to put the Question, because I think it is right that I should, but technically I should not, because it is 7 pm.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
has considered Black History Month.
In order to allow the safe exit of hon. Members participating in this item of business and the safe arrival of those participating in the next, I am suspending the House for four minutes.