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Anger as Boris Johnson’s Tory racism inquiry yet to start eight months after he launched it

Exclusive: No call for evidence issued – three months after it was promised – risking action by equalities watchdog which has threatened its own probe

Rob Merrick
Deputy Political Editor
Saturday 08 August 2020 15:55 BST
Boris Johnson apologises for 'hurt and offence' caused by Islamophobia in Tory Party

An inquiry into racism in the Conservative Party has yet to begin eight months after it was launched by Boris Johnson, prompting protests that it has been “kicked into the long grass”.

The investigation has still not issued a call for evidence – three months after that was promised – amid criticism of the academic chosen to lead it and doubts over the resources made available.

A dispute over the strict terms of reference, which critics say will prevent a full probe into discrimination in the party, is also holding it up, The Independent understands.

The delay is a fresh embarrassment to the prime minister, days after he was strongly criticised for refusing to act against a Tory MP who blamed ethnic minorities for a rise in Covid-19 infections.

And it risks an intervention by the equalities watchdog, which has threatened its own inquiry if it is not “satisfied with progress or how the investigation is conducted”.

A former Tory MEP said his party appeared to hope the issue “will simply go away” – while a former head of the Conservative Muslim Forum said he was “not surprised”, given his long experience of failures to tackle Islamophobia.

One insider described the inquiry as “a balls up” and deliberately constructed to prevent it getting to the heart of why many Muslims feel unwelcome in the party. The inquiry had yet to start in practical terms, the source said.

The inquiry has been dogged by controversy from the moment Mr Johnson was bounced into agreeing to it, in a live TV Tory leadership debate, by his rival Sajid Javid, in June 2019.

It came as the racist comments of Tory councillors were said to have had exposed anti-Muslim prejudice “at every level” of the party – and as Mr Johnson’s own past remarks came back to haunt him.

But the new prime minister then immediately downgraded the inquiry into a probe into “all types of discrimination”, also restricting it to simply looking into the handling of complaints.

The choice of chair then provoked an outcry, because of his article for an online publication whose editor had dismissed Islamophobia as a term to shut down criticism of Islam.

Swaran Singh, a professor of social and community psychiatry and a Sikh of Indian heritage, had also attacked the “easy interpretation of the Kashmir problem” as India “persecuting a Muslim minority state”.

He was appointed in December and, in May, the Conservatives said he would “shortly be launching a call for evidence to provide information to the investigation”.

However, The Independent understands there is still no date for that to happen. It is also unclear what, if any, support the professor has been given to sift through the evidence he will receive.

Sajjad Karim, a former Conservative MEP – who has highlighted his own experience of Islamophobia from senior members of the party, including a minister – condemned the hold-up.

“We are now eight months down the line and let’s bear in mind all that has happened in the meantime with the Black Lives Matter movement,” he told The Independent.

“The fact that we have had absolutely no progress makes it seem that this was nothing other than the party’s attempt to kick this whole issue off into the long grass and hope it would simply go away – but of course it won’t.”

Mohammed Amin, who quit as chairman of the Conservative Muslim Forum in protest at Mr Johnson’s victory, and is now a Liberal Democrat, said: “I’m not surprised.

“It was evident to me from my interactions with then-party chairman Brandon Lewis, and from Boris Johnson’s public comments, that the party’s leadership has not wanted to engage with the issue at all.

“The fundamental question is what is it about the Conservative Party that attracts anti-Muslim bigots – because the findings on that are horrific – but that is the question they want to ignore.”

Some believe the inquiry’s failure to get off the ground is partly explained by Prof Singh pushing for permission to explore the wider issue of the Tory party’s attitude to race – rather than simply complaint-handling.

As it gathers dust, the prime minister has also been criticised for shelving action on tackling racism in society, after setting up another commission following this summer’s protests.

The Equalities and Human Rights Commission – which is about to publish a report into Labour's antisemitism scandal – stopped short of an inquiry into Tory Islamophobia, after the party said it would act.

But a spokesperson told The Independent: “We are monitoring the review and have required the party to provide regular updates on progress.

“If we are not satisfied with progress or how the investigation is conducted, we will review our decision and do not rule out the use of our legal powers.”

The Conservative Party declined to discuss why the inquiry had yet to get underway, but issued a statement from a spokesperson for the investigation describing it as “ongoing”.

“The chair of the investigation is consulting the EHRC on the call for evidence, which we understand will be issued in due course,” the statement said.

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