Racism at Lambeth Council – an exchange of letters

An anonymous letter submitted to Lambeth Council about institutional racism is causing quite a stir

A group calling itself ‘Lambeth Black Workers’ has sent an anonymous letter to Lambeth Councillors outlining serious allegations around the way that some black staff are being treated.

The letter and response from Councillors Jennifer Brathwaite and Jack Hopkins (and another response from the Lambeth Black Workers) is copied in below. It is worth reading in full. 

The letter refers to an increasingly “hostile working environment” and a real concern from some black staff that they are not being listened to. 

UNISON has raised its own concerns over race relations at the council recently. Last April we did our own survey of black staff.  As we reported at the time:

“almost half of respondents (49.5%) had witnessed or experienced racism from managers in the past two years, and more than a third (35.3%) had witnessed or experienced racism from colleagues.”

UNISON is very keen to work with senior management and the councillors to address these issues, but we fear that the problems might run deep. Since the late 1970s the Council has repeatedly visited the issue of racism, with various working groups, monitoring committees, policy reviews, independent advisors and all manner of attempts to address structural inequality. Sometimes headway is made, other times we seem to lose ground and have to revisit the old debates, the old arguments, the same old problems. Those of us with long memories will remember in 2003 when an internal report concluded that management culture was “abrasive to the point of being authoritarian, exhibiting a high degree of racial favouritism and a propensity towards the employment of a divide and rule tactic among the staff”. (link)

This is of course a reflection of racism across society which goes back hundreds of years, but Lambeth Council has a particular role to play in trying to lead by example and show best practice on this issue. 

What is clear is that many black staff are very frustrated and the Council needs to strain every sinew to get this right. 

An Open letter to Councillors from Lambeth’s Black staff

20 July 2018

Dear Councillors,

We make no apology for the frustration, anger and sadness within this letter. We write to you to impart the reality of daily working life for the Black staff who work for this borough. This letter will tell the story of our despair, humiliation, disappointments, rejection and loss of staff unity that are direct consequences of racism at work. The alarming increase of bigotry and intolerance in the world outside is also devastating our working lives.

Racism has always been a factor in the working lives of Lambeth’s Black staff. However over the past ten years, since the financial crash in 2008 and the harsh reality of austerity, some in our society have chosen to blame immigrants and the children of immigrants. This is also being reflected in our working environment. Increasingly Lambeth’s Black staff have experienced the rising tide of hatred in numerous ways and at every level in the Council.

Segregation, racist comments and slurs, inequality of access to jobs, inequality of access to flexible working, unequal pay, misuse of policies to target us are commonplace in our working lives.

In the past when we have tried to raise this with senior white Officers we were told that they are quite sure that this is not happening. We assured them that it was happening and demonstrated this with facts and asked that something be done before things became much worse – our facts were rejected and our pleas denied. Time after time grievances against racist conduct have not been upheld despite overwhelming evidence. We now know that we cannot rely on policies or procedures to work equitably for us.

We remember when Lambeth had many senior Black managers who reflected us and gave us hope that we too would have opportunities. Yet in every restructure we have seen nearly every senior Black manager made redundant and far too many Black colleagues leave. We watch as they are replaced in newly created jobs filled by incoming white staff. Our workplace is definitely a lot whiter. We have recognised that we are not valued by our employer.

We listen in shock and dismay at the boldness of white staff who confidently tell us ‘you don’t really fit in here’, and that the reason we do not have equal access to flexible working is because we ‘do not have white privilege’. When we tell senior white managers how we are being treated and ask for their support to challenge this rising tide of hate the only response we get is that the Council is actively encouraging the development of BAME staff. By this we observe that the abuse we face is sanctioned by the employer.

Eventually in early 2017 Senior white Officers and Councillors promised to engage an external third party to look into ‘institutional racism’. However senior white managers have since rejected that that this was related to ‘institutional racism’, and have purposively delayed engaging the named third party. To date this has not happened. This demonstrates to us that our hostile working environment does not matter to the employer.

In the meantime, in the lead up to the move into the Civic Centre and Town Hall we were told that there will be five desks to ten staff which will mean that staff must work flexibly. Two former Chief Executives have told staff that ‘flexible working will be the default position’. We watch as teams that are primarily white are permitted flexible working while teams that are primarily Black have little or no access to flexible working. We have raised this with white senior managers at every possible forum, continually for over two years. We have been given every conceivable reason why we cannot have equal access to flexible working. We know we are not permitted to work flexibly because we are not trusted as our white colleagues are. The employer has sanctioned our micro management. We go into work knowing that our situation is not a far cry away from that of our ancestors who were considered lazy and untrustworthy. We go into work with the knowledge that our mortgages and rents are the shackles that now bind us to the ill treatment and inequality we face.

After having exhausted all formal routes we eventually asked the Council to permit an online petition on the Intranet (in line with the Constitution) we were told that this was not permissible until the matter has been resolved using internal forums. Despite providing evidence that this has been raised without resolution for over two years, the petition was not permitted. Our messages to Councillors are ignored. We see that we are not even permitted to protest our inhumane treatment.

As our efforts to use all available means to communicate and reason with Senior Officers and Councillors have been rejected and denied we then sought permission to make Councillors aware of our horrendous working conditions through a deputation to Council. This too has been rejected with the excuse that this is an internal matter. We are told that the Chief Executive and the Labour Party Chief Whip have agreed that we should not be heard. We are aware that in the past we have often taken our concerns to Council meetings without objection. We now believe that the employer is committed to ensuring that Black staff are not given a platform to protest the racism we are experiencing, thus ensuring our continued subjugation to white superiority. Even our requests for a safe space for Black staff to meet and offer each other support have been denied.

Racial tension is escalating within the workforce. We do not want this deteriorate any further. We will need to consider further action if you are unwilling to address this.

We are saddened and horrified that our beloved Lambeth seems lost to the intolerance and bigotry that has infected the world around us. But we remain hopeful that Lambeth will rediscover and reclaim its proud past. Black History Month was created in Lambeth. Lambeth pioneered equality policies at a time when this was not popular. Lambeth had Black Chief Executives when other boroughs were trailing behind us. Have these great achievements and many others been forgotten? Have Black staff not given our lives to this borough? Will Councillors not intervene to stop what is happening to us?

Yours hopefully,

Your Black employees


Reply from Councillors Braithwaite and Hopkins

28 July 2018

Dear all,

We are writing in response to your email to Lambeth councillors on 20th July raising serious concerns about the practices of the council in relation to equality and diversity within the workforce. We take the allegations made within this anonymous letter extremely seriously and it is essential that staff feel valued and respected and are given the opportunity to be heard.

We would urge you to raise these allegations through the proper formal channels. There are numerous ways which are open and available to staff, including union meetings, a whistleblowing process and staff forums. Please find here details of the council’s whistleblowing process, and if any staff member has suffered discrimination we would urge them to consider this course of action.

While Lambeth Council has higher levels of representation for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) staff compared to our residents profile we are conscious that BAME staff are under-represented in senior levels. To address this, the council is taking a series of measures to improve development and progression for BAME staff and starting diversity awareness and unconscious bias training for managers and staff.

As an Administration we are serious about eliminating inequality and ensuring that we have diversity at every level of our workforce. As part of our commitment to equality and diversity, last year we set up an Equality Commission looking into, amongst other things, the lack of diversity at senior management levels within the council. One key piece of strand of work as a result of this is the BAME leadership programme which aims to increase the number of BAME staff in senior leadership positions.

The council has also set up new diversity forums as part of the council’s overall workforce strategy and our strong commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion. The aim of these forums is to promote culture change through positive dialogue and engagement to help identify and address equality, diversity and inclusion matters affecting our staff. Details of this were set out in the Future Lambeth Workforce Strategy, which was approved by Cabinet earlier this week.

The council is obviously undergoing a significant change as an organisation in response to reductions in government funding. We are of course mindful that restructures are very difficult for members of staff and our challenge is to ensure that these are delivered fairly while at the same time meeting our commitments to diversity and equality. We are aware of the concerns around the Neighbourhoods and Growth restructure and have asked the chief executive to provide us with an update on this.

We hope this information addresses many of the concerns you have raised. However we appreciate there are further issues, and would ask that for those to be properly dealt with, that you raise them in the appropriate way, as outlined above. We also hope that this response offers some reassurance, and illustrates our determination to improve equality and diversity of our staff.

To that end we would be happy to come and meet with you, in confidence, along with our Cabinet colleague Cllr Sonia Winifred who leads on equalities issues, to discuss your concerns in detail and agree a way forward. Please do get in touch with us if you wish to meet.

Councillor Jennifer Brathwaite and Councillor Jack Hopkins

Deputy Leaders of the Council


Reply to the Council

 8 August 2018

Subject: Re: Open Letter to All Councillors from Lambeth’s Black Workers

Dear Councillors Brathwaite and Hopkins,

Thank you for your response.

We have shared your response with our trade unions, and UNISON have responded by forwarding us emails sent to Councillor Brathwaite on 1 August, 4 August and 12 October last year, to which they say no responses were received.

We appreciate that you mean well by advising that staff with concerns about racism in the workplace should raise these through the “appropriate formal channels”, however the recent experience of staff is that these channels are blocked.

One of the union officials we have asked for information in order to reply to you has shared with us the following observations;

“Councillor Brathwaite suggests that staff who have been victims of racism make use of the ‘proper formal channels’. As you have rightly outlined staff have indeed used the grievance procedure to raise their complaints of racism. Unsurprisingly these are rejected after a management investigation. For example, last year two groups of staff (Welfare, Employment and Skills – WES and a group of Black women in Finance), made collective complaints of racism. Both rejected.

Interestingly in the latter case the complaint of sexism was upheld. The staff affected expressed their concern that the Council was willing to accept responsibility for sexism but rejected racism. When this is considered alongside the other issues you have raised in your email – the employer’s refusal to allow BME staff start an online petition, to have a deputation, the outright rejection in N&G that they have a two tier system for permitting flexible working and opportunities to hot desk and so on –  it is true to say that broadly BME staff feel that the employer is at best unwilling to accept their experience of racism, and at worst that it is being condoned.”   

Even if the “appropriate formal channels” worked, and specific instances of overt discrimination could therefore be dealt with fairly, this is only one part of the problem. Institutional racism operates in a much more insidious, and often less immediately obvious, way to perpetuate racial disadvantage in the workplace.

White job applicants are more successful than Black job applicants. White staff tend to progress more readily than Black staff. White staff seem to have fewer problems with discretionary management decisions than Black staff.

A serious attempt to address and uproot institutional racism must start with an acceptance of the reality of the problem and a willingness to confront it. In recent months the Council seems to be moving away from even this starting point.

In April last year the former Director of Human Resources and Transformation (Jonathan Evans) put a paper to the Joint Strategy Forum (the regular meeting between Members and the trade unions which has not met now for several months).

That report acknowledged that the (former) Chief Executive and the Trades Unions had “jointly recognised the issue of under representation of BAME employees in the senior management of the Council” and went on to state that “work has taken place to examine the underlying causes and to begin developing an action plan to remedy this.”

The report also acknowledged that the Trades Unions had “raised wider issues and concerns around racial inequality which also require work to gain a deeper understanding and to develop the actions necessary to manage them” and stated that “This work will be included in the plan.”

The report indicated that management were “proposing to seek a third party expert who will act as a “critical friend” and validator of the work as it goes forward”. (This still doesn’t seem to have happened yet sixteen months later).

This report followed on from a survey which UNISON had undertaken of its Black members, the findings of which had been drawn to the attention of the Leader and the then Chief Executive in March of last year. From what the Council was saying to the trade unions in April last year it at least appeared (from what was being said) that the political and managerial leadership were prepared to take the problem of institutional racism at work seriously.

Black workers who have been in Lambeth for any length of time know that the problem of institutional racism in our Council is hardly new. Twenty years ago the Council commissioned research which found that managers admitted that the ethnicity of an employee was an important factor in deciding whether or not to take formal action against them, and also found that white managers systematically rated white subordinates as better performing than Black and ethnic minority subordinates (providing evidence of how white privilege is created and reproduced by white prejudice).

Fifteen years ago, that research report was cited in the report of the Council’s Race Scrutiny Commission, many of the recommendations of which are still relevant today (and some of which are more advanced than the proposals now being made in terms of understanding and tackling racism in the workplace). The Council’s response to the Race Scrutiny Commission in November 2003 noted that “Lambeth Council has acknowledged that it is institutionally racist”, an observation which remains relevant to this day.

However, this honest acknowledgment of institutional racism fifteen years ago, reflected up to last year in a willingness to (at least seem to) be prepared to consider serious action to tackle institutional racism is now quite absent from the managerial leadership of Lambeth Council.

The concerns of Black workers are being dismissed and disregarded, whether they are raised through the “appropriate formal channels” – or through other channels, such as the recent attempt to initiate a petition to the Council (as permitted by the Constitution) on its own website which was obstructed on the grounds that the unions should still be talking to (predominantly white) senior managers (even though they weren’t listening).

In these circumstances we would be happy to meet with you to discuss our concerns but – because the Council’s Code of Conduct makes it a disciplinary offence for staff to approach Council Members directly – we will have to do this through our trade unions. We will therefore ask our trade unions to reply to you to set up a meeting between Councillors and Black trade union members with whom we hope you will want to work to address the continuing scourge of institutional racism in the Council.

Lambeth Black Workers


2 thoughts on “Racism at Lambeth Council – an exchange of letters

  1. What is the situation regarding access to apprenticeships, whether for new entrants or for those already in the council work force? What is the Unison position on supporting would-be BAME apprentices, including guidance on opportunities? I am now long retired but as an employer I knew that my BAME trainees were likely to be more motivated to succeed than WASP trainees who appeared the same on paper. They declined, however, to join the boss’s union. I remained a member of ASTMS, now part of Unite, as I moved up the management tree because I believed (and believe) strongly in the role of Unions in helping workers advance themselves individually as well as collectively.


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