No 10 crackdown on racism as minister warns officials n-word slurs won’t be tolerated

Exclusive: Cabinet Office acts in response to The Independent’s investigation which uncovered n-word in string of official documents

Adam Forrest,Nadine White
Sunday 27 August 2023 18:29 BST
Related: Grenada prime minister calls on Britain to apologise for slavery

A Tory cabinet minister has issued a warning to all Whitehall departments that racism will not be tolerated after The Independent revealed the use of the n-word in a slew of government documents.

The word “n*****d” and other slurs were uncovered in Department for Work and Pension (DWP) guidance, immigration tribunal decisions, and on the Foreign Office and the government’s websites – sparking outrage from MPs and campaigners.

In a direct response to The Independent’s investigation, Cabinet Office minister Jeremy Quin is now writing to the permanent secretaries in all government departments to remind them “we do not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or any similarly unacceptable language”.

The minister is ordering civil service chiefs to remind staff of government guidance when discussing ethnicity – telling them to make sure that it is easily accessible to all staff and associated organisations.

The news of government action came in response to a letter by Labour MP Kim Johnson, who said the use of racist language in official documents was “utterly outrageous” and demanded a review.

Ms Johnson said the warning was “certainly welcome given the revelations of the use of racist language in government documents due to the diligent work done by The Independent’s journalists”.

But the MP also renewed her call for a full investigation. “It would send a far stronger message for the government to launch a review into how this happened in the first place,” she said.

Ms Johnson added: “These papers were not just written by people who thought this terminology was appropriate, but it will have been scrutinised, signed off at multiple levels and then used by professionals in government and beyond.

“It is frankly astounding that this has taken so long to surface. With trust of Black communities in the government at an all-time low, action is needed to establish the full extent of this issue and to stamp it out for good.”

Labour MP Kim Johnson said language in government documents was ‘utterly outrageous’ (UK Parliament)

The Independent first revealed last month that DWP paperwork, first issued in 2010 to help doctors assess disability benefit claims, referred to Black people as being of the “n*****d race”. Anti-racism campaigners said the language was based on “colonial tropes”.

Two immigration tribunal decisions updated in 2013 concerning the cases of asylum seekers were found referring to their ethnicity as “n*****d”.

Rishi Sunak’s official spokesperson said No 10 was “confident” that there was not any other material containing the slur and rejected the need for a government-wide review. But the term was later discovered in the comment sections of the Foreign Office and the government’s official websites.

The “n*****d” term was also uncovered in a 2012 Met Office report about the impact of solar radiation on human health, while the term “n***o” was seen in a 2008 catalogue of jewels published by the Royal Collection Trust (RCT).

All the documents and website references have since been removed.

Rishi Sunak’s spokesperson had said No 10 was ‘confident’ no more slurs would be found (Getty Images)

Ms Johnson had demanded a “full and thorough review” by all departments, telling the Cabinet Office minister she was “not confident” that all slurs have been removed from official papers.

In his reply letter, MP Mr Quin referred to the investigation by The Independent which “highlighted” the racist language in documents and web comments.

The minister told Ms Johnson: “We do not tolerate racist, homophobic, sexist or any similarly unacceptable language in any form, including in government documents or on our web pages.”

He added: “Additionally, I would like to assure you that the Cabinet Office will be writing to permanent secretary colleagues to remind them of this guidance and asking them to ensure that it is easily accessible to all employees within their department and associated organisations.”

Green Party co-leader Adrian Ramsay said The Independent “should be congratulated on forcing the government to take some action” but said more “decisive” action was now needed. “That is why the call for a careful, targeted review of existing material already in the public domain and anything that is being re-published is so important,” he added.

N-word found in DWP and Met Office documents (Met Office/The Independent)

The SNP’s equalities spokesperson, Kirsten Oswald, also said the government “must go further in their condemnation of racism and the racist terms discovered in official government documents by The Independent’s investigation”.

Calling the saga “deeply shameful”, she added: “Strong words and warnings are not enough – the UK government must commit to an urgent review of all documents.”

The Liberal Democrats’ equalities spokesperson, Christine Jardine, added: “Writing to Whitehall departments is a good first step, but ministers should launch a full investigation to ensure it never happens again.”

A chorus of politicians and campaigners have called for an investigation and criticised the use of offensive language in official documents, from Operation Black Vote founder Simon Woolley, Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon to The Runnymede Trust.

Lord Woolley praised The Independent for “highlighting this awful discriminatory labelling by government officials”. He said: “It is not just that it was a racial slur. It is also indicative of how demeaning Black people in this country is seen.”

Ms Johnson added: “From the government-backed Sewell report that denied the existence of structural racism, to the Windrush scandal, racist stop and search policies and the stop the boats frenzy – racism is endemic in this government and must be combatted tirelessly until it is cast out at all levels.”

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