The racism issue at Lambeth Council is not going away…

Lambeth CEO Andrew Travers has responded to allegations in the Guardian concerning structural racism at Lambeth Council. His reply left a lot to be desired…

Andrew Travers, the new Chief Executive of Lambeth Council has responded to media reports by sending an email to all staff saying that; “I do not accept the claim of institutional racism at Lambeth council.”

This contradicts what former Chief Executive, Faith Boardman, said on 2 April 2003, when she said that; “institutional racism, and I mean that within the terms of the Macpherson Report, does apply within the Council, in common with many other organisations.”

This statement is recorded in a footnote to the report of the LCAS Inquiry, commissioned by and published for the Council in 2003, the authors of which pointed out that “Lambeth Council admitted that the Council was indeed institutionally racist”. (see paragraph 16 of section 4 of the report THE CYCLONIC ORGANISATION: Authority, Culture & Racism: Report of the Public Inquiry into the Lambeth Community Alarms Service (LCAS full report [2003] and Race Scrutiny report 2003)

The former Chief Executive made her statement at a public meeting hosted by the team carrying out the inquiry, and was speaking officially on behalf of the Council. The LCAS inquiry was established by the Council in 2002 to look into circumstances in the Lambeth Community Alarms Service in the period leading up to its closure in 2001.

The Council appointed a panel with appropriate expertise who understood (in their words) that “not only does racism form part of an historical, post-colonial legacy” but that “it also forms an uncomfortable and dehumanising part of the daily life of black and minority ethnic people”. (paragraph 67, part 1). The report made a series of recommendations, including proposals for the “de-institutionalising” of racism.

The LCAS Inquiry report was published in July 2003, and in November 2003 the Council published the report of its own Race Scrutiny Commission, which repeated many of the recommendations of the LCAS report. In the Chair’s introduction to the Scrutiny Commission report, he acknowledged that “for such a racially diverse borough we are still surprisingly backward in how we deal with black ethnic minority issues” (paragraph 1.6)

Although these reports are now fifteen years old, much of what they report on is sadly all too familiar – the under representation of Black and minority ethnic employees at senior levels, a lack of consistent management practices giving rise to widespread perceptions of unfairness and evidence of formal action taken disproportionately against Black employees.

Similar concerns were raised in 2013 after a housing restructure that many staff felt had been institutionally discriminatory towards Black staff. The ensuing report pointed to all kinds of ‘procedural irregularities’ and an undermining of equalities when the Divisional Director ignored statistical data about the impact on Black staff. You can read the final report into the housing restructure [August 2013] and see UNISON’s response by click on the links.

The persistence of evidence of institutional racism, over years which have seen significant political and legislative change (including the passing of the Equality Act 2010) demonstrate the deep-rooted nature of racism in our society, and therefore in the institutions of that society (such as Lambeth Council).

UNISON does not single Lambeth Council out for criticism, but nor do we make the implausible claim that it is a little “racism-free” island in a wider racist society. The findings of our own survey of Black Members last year (https://lambeth-unison.org/2017/04/18/racism-at-lambeth-council-survey-results/) reflect the findings of a much larger national survey undertaken by the TUC (https://www.tuc.org.uk/sites/default/files/Is%20Racism%20Real.pdf).

What is particularly disappointing is that, not only has the Council failed to make significant progress in “de-institutionalising” racism as recommended by the LCAS Inquiry, but that the senior management of the Council have taken a large step backward from understanding the presence of institutional racism in the organisation, back to the previous approach of denial (and misunderstanding).

Since the Council did accept – in 2003 – the reality of institutional racism in the organisation, if the Chief Executive asks us now to believe that institutional racism is absent, this does rather beg the question of how the Council managed to eradicate institutional racism, and when it achieved this objective.

UNISON is ready to work constructively with the Council to tackle the problem of racism in the workplace, but this will be made more difficult if the Chief Executive refuses to accept – as his predecessors did – the reality of the problem of institutional racism.

If you knew your history, then you would know where you’re coming from…

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