Race in the Workplace: The McGregor-Smith Review - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:12 pm on 24th April 2017.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 5:12 pm, 24th April 2017

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to add my own support for and congratulations to those who have brought these issues before us today and that we have been able to squeeze this bit of business in before we all go our separate ways shortly. I therefore thank the noble Baroness for bringing the report here. Business-driven it may be, but I hope that my more humble contribution from my entire professional life, which has been lived in neighbourhoods, on streets and visiting people in their homes, and the rest of it, will add some light and give a wider context to the points being made.

Certainly, in the 40 years that I have been trying to be active in the field of better relations in communities, there has undoubtedly been progress, some of which has been enshrined in or has been stimulated by legislation brought through this Parliament. Things are not as they were. For all that, it is too early for us to congratulate ourselves. We have terrific panache in this country for being rather more subtle in the racism we deploy. I remember that at the beginning of my own career in the Church, we set up what were called racism awareness courses. All potential ministers were obliged to attend them. I was rather reluctant to do so as I thought myself a jolly good chap—the sort of person everybody would like to know. Through a systematic, well-organised and structured course, I was able to recognise just how subtly racism was embedded culturally in jolly good chaps like me—and it did not do me any harm to be made aware of that. At the end of the day, you can, from above, impose through targets, quotas or whatever as much of a desirable picture as you wish—but, until hearts and minds are changed and until people feel involved in a process, you have not really got to the nub of the problem.

Therefore, I was particularly interested in the sections of the report that dealt with culture and language. In the 40 years that I have been actively committed to these matters, I have never felt that there was a more urgent time for us to revisit them than now, when the question of immigration has been raised. Let it be said that it is a proper question, and that we must look at it as a society. It raises questions and, whatever side of the political divide we are on, we have to give it our very closest attention. However, the fact that it is one of the leading subjects of the day in our political discourse has unleashed some of the very racial attitudes that I have been describing. Linked to the question of immigration and the way we conduct the debate is an awful lot of terrifically dangerous and, I believe, unfortunate material. So it is time that we looked at this again: we must never be complacent in this area of our national life.

I happen to be the minister of a church that has people drawn from 55 national backgrounds. Over 20 languages other than English are spoken by the members of our congregation. Historically, Methodism is a white church, and here am I, a white man, as its minister. However, in our liturgical and other activities, in our social outreach and in our attempt to be useful in the community that we serve, we have to recognise that we must be very careful to develop, systematically, a team of leaders who reflect back to those in the congregation their own diversity. Having people in key positions from the range of ethnic backgrounds that constitutes our church is an important part of that. There is no point in me, as a white man, standing up there, cracking a whip and making things happen—even if it is for a cause which I passionately believe in and which can be shown to be just. We have to find colleagueship with people and establish a team that can take forward these matters and ideals.

In the work that I do locally in the field of education, we have all kinds of experiences, and I will share just one or two of them in the time left to me. In a moment I shall adduce the cases that I want to use for illustrative purposes, but I will preface those examples by saying what astonishingly brilliant young people there are from black and other ethnic minorities. They are people I have had the privilege of working with, and I have seen them develop, blossom and flourish. They are to be found, but I just wish that there was more of a flood of them.

Against that background, I want to talk about one or two things. For example, we have been able to establish a scholarship that gets seven children into a leading public school. A philanthropist has made the money available for that. He did not want people from the inner city to go in ones and twos, to be picked off in a rather self-satisfied environment. Therefore, seven go at any one time and some of them have done extraordinarily well. However, I have to say that on balance I am disappointed that they do not seem to end up in Russell group universities. I could discuss over a cup of coffee all sorts of reasons why that might be the case, but aspiration and the culture from which they come are as much a part of what eventuates as the experience of the education that we find it possible to offer them.

I have some responsibility for a secondary school for girls in east London, where 85% are from a Muslim background, mainly Bangladeshi, and wear the hijab to school. Only one girl from the whole of the sixth form ended up in a university that was not in London. Of course, they want to be at home in London and they will do brilliantly in those universities—nobody has anything against that—but somehow the limitation does not seem right: the community we are talking is itself setting these targets and narrowing its vision, resulting in only one girl from the sixth form applying to a university outside London.

I will take as another example a young man with good A-levels who decided not to go to university. I took him out for a drink and asked him to tell me why. He said, “You will tell me that I could become a journalist or a lawyer or a teacher, that I could build my career and go places and be anybody I wish. I know that discourse—I have heard it. But where I come from there are quicker ways to make money”. He is a rather interesting young man who lives on the streets and he was absolutely serious; he was talking about drugs, crime, football, fame and music. I was totally astonished. I promise your Lordships that although that may be an aberrant example, and perhaps you might think I could have chosen a better one, it is nearer the bone that you would dare think.

Aspiration and culture among those who are waiting to be born in the way that is described in the report and in the remarks of the noble Baroness are part of what we must concentrate on and somehow get stuck into. We must give people the self-confidence to see themselves moving forward in the ways that I have described. I recognise that all that I have said is drawn anecdotally out of my experience, but it is experience that stretches back over 40 years and that has been lived out in our communities. I hope, therefore, that it will prove acceptable, for what it is worth.