I don’t like the acronym BAME, it sounds a bit condescending to me but I
expect everyone knows what it means so I will make use of it here. Bexley
Council has had a Task Group for the past six months looking into inequalities
that affect BAME people and their report makes uncomfortable reading.
Due to Covid the evidence collected has in part been anecdotal from residents but there has been input from schools, public heath sources and churches as well as from within the Council.
Chairman Alan Downing was not very keen on debating the report at the Communities Scrutiny meeting. He wanted the police, probation service and everyone referenced in it brought together. “I am putting this over to a further meeting” he said. His only concern was that the BAME community appeared not to be taking up the offer of Covid vaccinations. (From what I have read it is a national issue.)
Councillor Howard Jackson (Conservative, Barnehurst and one of four report authors) objected and tried to pull the debate on to the subject in hand but was rather rudely slapped down by the Chairman who continued with his Covid theme.
Councillor Caroline Newton (who co-authored the report) said there needed to be at least a preliminary discussion now. The Chairman reiterated that there needs to be “an in depth discussion. Without the other agencies being here the conversation will be one-sided.”
Councillor Howard Jackson thought that Councillor Newton had been a bit too easy going, he personally was “flabbergasted” at the Chairman’s response. We should not be watering down the findings with Covid. Covid is a separate issue to racism in the borough. “The conversation should be right now. I don’t understand why it is being pulled. Covid is not connected.”
Despite that the Chairman continued with Covid while admitting he had not had enough time to thoroughly read the equalities report. Despite that he added, “it is not a complete report”. (Not read it but it’s not complete.)
Another of the report authors, Labour Councillor Mabel Ogundayo (Thamesmead East) said that Councillor Jackson had hit the nail on the head. “Racism is a huge issue” and the report lists a number of disturbing examples. Incidents in the Broadway, racist comments in borough consultations and a perception that authorities will not take the problem seriously. Housing and Health are also affected to some extent and it was reported earlier in the same meeting how young black men are particularly affected by Mental Health issues.
Perhaps most worrying of all the points brought up in the report is that the three borough Police Commander refused requests (too busy?) to meet on the issue although a meeting with lower ranks brought up the usual question marks around Stop and Search figures.
Vice-Chairman Richard Diment (Conservative, Sidcup) bravely disagreed with his Chairman. He referred to the section of the report that mentioned racism among Council staff. Promotions and discipline etc. The matter is “so urgent” he said but “Covid reluctance must be a separate piece of work”.
Finally Councillor Sue Gower MBE (Conservative, Bexleyheath) chipped in with the same message.
Faced with the best brains on Bexley Council the Chairman’s backtracking was worthy of a job at the EU Commission.
Councillor Jackson was allowed to say he had interviewed many people. He accepted that the information was anecdotal and not scientific but the racism is “daily and quite appalling. It was harrowing, horrible and insidious. People do not trust Councillors or Police Officers. It was hard to listen to and upsetting”.
The Chairman reverted to his Covid vaccination theme.
Councillor Ogundayo who was instrumental in getting the report underway made similar comments and added schools to the conversation. She didn’t want to see the report shelved and it should be elevated to Sub-Group status. The Chairman “felt it was right to have one big meeting as a Sub-Group gets bigger and bigger and bigger and we do not achieve anything.”
Councillor Newton said that one big meeting would require an awful lot of work and she would want guidance from the Chairman. He said “we must aim for the end here and not miss something”. The Chairman favoured taking the subject away for discussion with the Cabinet Member. Councillor Newton said she was disappointed not to hear more Councillors comment and so the meeting showed every sign of fizzling towards an unsatisfactory end.
Fortunately Cabinet Member Alex Sawyer was listening and said he would welcome a Sub-Group to take the issue forward but he “found some things in this report regrettable. The criticism of the police is not particularly acceptable, putting it into a public document is not helpful for relations with the police between both the Council and local residents. The criticism was deeply regrettable, I very much regret that particular aspect.”
And there you have it in a nutshell. Councillor Jackson says that the BAME community does not trust Councillors or the Police - I would go further - and the Home Secretary’s husband objects to the local population not being shielded from unpalatable facts.
Councillor Ogundayo reminded Cabinet Member Sawyer that he has listened to complaints about racism in the borough made at Scrutiny meetings where both she and him were present over the past seven years with no progress being made. Councillor Ogundayo was accused of being disingenuous
In case it is not obvious there is to be a Sub-Committee.