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Boris Johnson has ‘zero plans’ to tackle impacts of racism, warns ousted government adviser

Exclusive: Lord Woolley accuses prime minister of not wanting meaningful change – and fears new aides do not even acknowledge racial inequalities 

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 10 October 2020 13:23 BST
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Lord Woolley said the PM appeared to believe people from ethnic minorities should ‘stop wallowing in victimhood'
Lord Woolley said the PM appeared to believe people from ethnic minorities should ‘stop wallowing in victimhood' (UK Parliament)

An ousted government race adviser says Boris Johnson has “no initiatives” to tackle the deep inequalities black people face and questioned whether his new aides even believe they exist.

In a stinging attack, Lord Woolley – who headed Theresa May’s advisory board – accuses the prime minister of wanting to “change the race narrative”, rather than achieve actual change.

Mr Johnson appeared to believe people from ethnic minorities should “stop wallowing in victimhood”, he suggests – revealing he was forced out because the prime minister only wants staff who are “demonstrably his”.

Lord Woolley pointed to three policy initiatives that are “gathering dust”: tackling low ethnic minority pay and achievement in higher education, and recruiting 30,000 more black teachers.

And he raised the alarm over the new Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, which replaced his board and which is headed by Tony Sewell, who has dismissed evidence of institutional racism as “flimsy”.

“I informed the group that you change the narrative by transforming the systems of inequality, not the other way around,” Lord Woolley told The Independent.

Critically, he warned: “At the moment, there are no race equality initiatives for the immediate crisis we face, which is disproportionate unemployment in black communities, the higher risk to health from coronavirus and an education gap that will widen further – there are zero plans.

“Many duly worry whether or not the commission believes the depth and breadth of racial inequality in the UK exists? If they don’t really believe in it, who is going to drive through the needed changes?”

The commission was hastily set up in the summer, when Mr Johnson was under pressure to respond to the Black Lives Matter demonstrations sweeping the country.

It meant his predecessor’s advisory group was wound up, one of what Lord Woolley called a “dozen or so race equality reviews” that have made recommendations that were never enacted.

They include the inquiry into the Windrush scandal, which demanded an urgent evaluation of “hostile environment” policies. Yet Priti Patel has said the policies will remain in place until at least 2022.

Lord Woolley was asked by Ms May to drive through policy changes after her 2017 Race Disparity Audit found stark gaps in educational attainment, health, employment and treatment by police and courts.

But Lord Woolley, the founder of Operation Black Vote, has now left his post – even as the Covid-19 second wave threatens to widen those inequalities even further.

He revealed hope drained away even before Mrs May left No 10, saying: “Our influence didn’t last long. As power ebbed away on a daily basis from the PM, the back stabbing never ceased – ministers no longer felt the need to dutifully obey the PM.

“The Ethnic Minority Pay reporting was ‘done and dusted’ and ready to go, but minsters dragged their feet and the policy document sits gathering dust in BEIS [the business department], with, apparently, little or no interest from No 10.”

But Lord Woolley’s fiercest criticism is reserved for Mr Johnson and the refusal to have truly independent advisers, “which I read as ‘absolutely not you’”.

On the new commission, he warned: “When the prime minister announced the body, he stated, in regards to race equality, we must ‘change the race narrative’ and the notion of ‘victimhood’ must change.

“If I was in any doubt about this potentially dramatic shift, during that handover session with the new commission, its chair told me ‘we really have a problem with the prevailing narrative’.”

The other flashing red light was that the commission is not expected to report back until the new year – despite the evidence that coronavirus is hitting ethnic minorities harder, including higher death rates.

“Needless lives could be lost, poverty levels could sky rocket, and a generation of young pupils’ futures is in serious danger,” Lord Woolley said, adding: “The government must have a policy plan now – not December or January, now.”

A No 10 spokesperson said: “The prime minister launched the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities to examine where inequality exists across the whole of society.

“The independent, evidence-led commission has been undertaking research and inviting submissions from various sectors – with the aim of delivering a positive agenda for change across government, public bodies and the private sector.”

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