Lambeth Council: Amplifying the truth

Lambeth Council has been in the news recently for all the wrong reasons. A recent Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) forum saw some tensions come to a head.

Attendance at Lambeth Council’s Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) Forum on Tuesday 9 October exceeded expectations, with many staff turning up in order to question the Chief Executive about his recent, controversial, email to all staff.

The Chief Executive had sent his email in response to a report published by the Guardian concerning institutional racism in the Council. The Chief Executive had said; “I do not accept the claim of institutional racism at Lambeth council” as, he felt it “is so far from the truth, and essentially so insulting to staff, that I feel that these comments should not go unchallenged.” (Albeit he also said that his “initial reaction was not to write about this article for fear of amplifying the message”.)

Hundreds of staff were in attendance at the BAME Forum with standing room only in the Assembly Hall (which has a seating capacity of 300) and the Chief Executive, Andrew Travers, who was scheduled to speak for half an hour, was subject to intensive questioning and stayed for an hour and twenty minutes, answering questions and responding to comments. Leading Councillors were also present to hear what the Chief Executive – and staff – had to say.

It would be fair to say that the Chief Executive’s email had disturbed and angered many staff – as they explained to him. Among the comments made at the meeting were the following;

  • “When you said you were “afraid to amplify the message”, why were you afraid to amplify a message which was true?”
  • A young member of staff, who described herself as the future of Lambeth, shared with colleagues that the Chief Executive’s email had all but reduced her to tears;
  • Another member of staff said that the email had angered and infuriated her;
  • “If this isn’t institutional racism, what is it?”
  • “As a white man, how can you tell me what my experience is?”
  • A number of staff demanded that the Chief Executive retract his email because of the offence it had caused.
  • Several people pointed out that, if the Chief Executive did not retract his email, the white staff who are perpetrators of racism will feel that the email sanctions their conduct.

When the Chief Executive was asked, having heard so many comments, “what are you going to do?”, he responded that the Council would be appointing an external adviser to look into racism in the workplace (a commitment first made to the trade unions by former Chief Executive Sean Harriss more than a year ago, but not yet implemented by senior officers). One well-received suggestion from the floor of the meeting was that Lambeth should appoint a Race Relations Adviser as in the past.

UNISON member, Henry Roberts, who had announced that he would seek election to be Chair of the BAME Forum (in elections which had been cancelled at short notice the day before) said; “I know that although Lambeth’s BME staff are dynamic, hardworking and resourceful, we do not get the respect and reward we deserve.”

UNISON expects the Council to establish the BAME Forum on a transparent and democratic basis – and to work with the Forum and the trade unions to tackle the institutional racism which even the Chief Executive must now acknowledge.

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