Maria Miller: Death and rape threats, abuse, revenge porn. It’s time for Government to get tough with the social media giants.

28 Feb

Maria Miller is a former Culture Secretary, and is MP for Basingstoke.

I want 2021 to be the year that we finally grasp the nettle of online abuse – to create a safer, more respectful online environment, that will lead to a kinder politics too.

The need has never been greater. Abuse, bullying, and harassment on social media platforms is ruining lives, undermining our democracy, and splintering society.

As an MP, I have had to become accustomed to a regular bombardment of online verbal abuse, rape, and even death threats. In this I am far from alone. Female colleagues across the House are routinely targeted online with abusive, sexist, threatening comments. As Amnesty has shown, black female MPs are most likely to be subjected to unacceptable and even unlawful abuse.

And while women and people from an ethnic minority background are more likely than most to receive abuse online, they are not alone. Hate-filled trolls and disruptive spammers consider anyone with a social media presence to be fair game: one in four people have experienced some kind of abuse online and online bullying and harassment has been linked to increased rates of depression, anxiety, and suicide.

While the personal impact of online abuse is intolerable, we must not underestimate the societal effect it is having. Research by the think-tank Compassion in Politics found that 27 per cent of people are put off posting on social media because of retributive abuse. We cannot have an open, honest, and pluralist political debate online in an atmosphere in which people are scared to speak up.

Which is why I am working cross-party with MPs and Peers to ensure that the upcoming Online Harms Bill is as effective as possible in tackling the scourge of online abuse.

First, the Bill must deal with the problem of anonymous social media accounts. Anonymous accounts generate the majority of the abuse and misinformation spread online and while people should have an option to act incognito on social media, the harm these accounts cause must be addressed.

I support a twin-track system: giving social media users the opportunity to create a “verified” account by supplying a piece of personal identification and the ability to filter out “unverified” accounts. This would give choice to verified users while continuing to offer protection to those, for example whistle blowers, who want to access social media anonymously.

The public back this idea. Polling by Opinium for Compassion in Politics reveals that 81 per cent of social media users would be willing to provide a piece of personal identification (passport, driving license or bank statement most probably) to gain a verified account. Three in four (72 per cent) believe that social media companies need to have a more interventionist role to wipe out the abuse on their platforms.

Of course, this approach would need to be coupled with enforcement ,and I believe that can be achieved by introducing a duty of care on social media companies, along the lines suggested in the Government’s White Paper.

For too long, they have escaped liability for the harm they cause by citing legal loopholes, arguing they are platforms for content not producers or publishers. The legal environment that has facilitated social media companies’ growth is not fit for purpose – it must change to better reflect their previously unimaginable reach and influence. Any company that sells a good to a customer already has to abide by health and safety standards, and there is no reason to exempt social media companies. Any failure by those companies to undertake effective measures to limit the impact of toxic accounts should result in legal sanctions.

Alongside a duty of care, we need more effective laws to give individuals protection, particularly when it comes to posting of images online without consent. Deepfake, revenge pornography and up-skirting are hideous inventions of the online world. I want new laws to make it a crime to post or threaten to post an intimate image without consent, and for victims to be offered the same anonymity as others subjected to a sexual offence, so we stop needing the law to play continuous ‘catch up’ as new forms of online abuse emerge.

Finally, the Government should make good on its promise to invest an independent organisation with the power and resources to regulate social media companies in the UK. All the signs suggest that Ofcom will be asked to undertake that role and I can see no problem with that proposal as long asthe company is given truly wide-ranging and independent powers, and personnel with the knowledge to tackle the social media giants.

In making these recommendations to Government, my intention is not to punish social media companies or to stifle online debate. Far from it. I want a more respectful, representative, and reasonable discourse online. So, let’s work together over the coming 12 months to make this Bill genuinely world-leading in the protection it will create for social media users, in the inclusivity it will foster, and respect it will engender.

Frank Young: Why we need to get rid of the term ‘BAME’

18 Nov

Frank Young is Political Director at the Centre for Social Justice

A generation ago, virtually all ethnic minority groups in the UK were more disadvantaged than the White British population, by almost any measure. Today, disadvantage is no longer black and white.

Too often, we have viewed ethnic minorities through lumping everyone who is non-white into a crude “BAME” category, grouping their experiences as if there are no meaningful differences between them. It is time to get rid of this useless “BAME vs. White” approach and dig a little deeper into the facts.

Outcomes for virtually all ethnic minority groups have been on a positive trajectory over the last few decades. Many ethnic minority groups are now performing better in education and the labour market than the White British group.

Before we tipped our economy upside down, official earnings data showed that young people from Black African and Bangladeshi backgrounds no longer had lower earnings than their White British counterparts. This is most likely because African and Bangladeshi children are outperforming the national average in bagging good GCSE grades.

When it comes to the home life that sets the template for adulthood, there are vast disparities in family structures across ethnic groups. Only 10 per cent of Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi households are headed up by a single parent; for Caribbean households with children the figure is nearly half. We shouldn’t be surprised that children’s outcomes are so varied when the homes they return to each day are so different.

None of this is intended to suggest we take a pollyannaish approach to ethnicity – there are real problems we need to tackle. But if we want to take them on properly we need to dig a little deeper into what is going on between and within ethnic groups with very different backgrounds, cultural expectations and experiences of the world around them.

The gaps are not just between White Brits and ethnic minority groups. There are huge gaps within broad ethnic minority groups too. For instance, Indian people of working age in 2018 succeeded in closing the employment gap between themselves and the White British population, and now earn more than White British workers, on average. Meanwhile, Pakistani and Bangladeshi people have consistently had the highest unemployment rates – more than double that of the Indian population – and have some of the poorest earnings.

The differences between Black Caribbean and Black African individuals are also stark. Black African GCSE students achieve higher than average in school, whilst their Caribbean peers have some of the poorest attainment rates. Disadvantaged African students perform better, not worse, than more advantaged Caribbean students.

Simply reporting “Asian or “Black” outcomes is deeply unhelpful – let alone reporting “BAME” outcomes. You won’t hear that in the news too often, let alone reports from bureaucrats who love to lump people into groups.

It might be tempting to just blame this on “poverty” or some imagined “structural disadvantage” but the fact is some groups seem to beat the odds. Poorer Indian students (those eligible for free school meals) achieve just as highly as relatively wealthier White British students in their GCSEs. Similarly, disadvantaged Black African students achieve better GCSE results than their more advantaged Black Caribbean peers.

At the CSJ, we have always tackled the most difficult social issues head on. All the above statistics come from our newly published report, Facing the facts: ethnicity and disadvantage in Britain. We need to improve the way we understand ethnic differences by binning the nonsense term “BAME” and instead turn our attention to tackling poverty at its root causes, making sure we get those out of work into a job, preventing families from breaking apart and making education an escape route from a poorer future. The Prime Minister is tip-toeing into this area with a new commission but more ambitious action is needed.

There’s a lot to be really proud of in our country and in many ways we are a hugely successful multi-ethnic democracy. We don’t need a crude approach to ethnicity anymore than we need it in tackling poverty. The “Black Lives Matter” movement has been a catalyst for re-examining how ethnicity affects “life chances”, but it is being held back a lack of nuance.

Governments love to say they are led by the evidence, it’s time to look at the evidence on ethnicity in plotting a better future for families growing up in our poorest areas. The first step is get rid of the pointless phrase “BAME” and get a lot more interested in the lives of real people, which will show up in the data when you look carefully.

Chris McGovern: Black History Month must be rescued from patronising tokenism

13 Oct

Chris McGovern is the Chairman of the Campaign for Real Education. He is a retired head teacher and a former advisor to the Policy Unit at 10 Downing Street.

Do we need to call time on Black History Month? Should this October’s be the last? This is not a popular question to pose. We are, after all, in the midst of its celebration. Schools are submerged by it, the media is awash with it, and our political leaders are publicly embracing it.

Labour party leader, Keir Starmer, is particularly enthusiastic:

“Iconic figures like Mary Seacole, whose heroic service as a nurse during the Crimean war inspires us today in the fight against COVID-19.”

Seacole has been voted the Greatest Black Briton. Sanctifying her must seem like a sure-fire political winner for politicians. Undoubtedly she displayed some heroic qualities. In 2016, indeed, these were commemorated by an impressive statue of her that was erected in the grounds of St. Thomas’ Hospital, opposite the Houses of Parliament. Her un-woke views, though, hardly chime with the spirit of our age. Seacole (1805-1881) was, after all, prepared to put her life on the line in defence of a British Empire that is now much maligned. In her autobiography she classified Turks as ‘degenerate Arabs’ and opined that, ‘the fleas are the only industrious creatures in all Turkey.’ She, also, dismissed ‘the cunning-eyed Greeks and ‘the lazy Maltese‘.

Her guide in Constantinople she addressed as ‘Jew Johnny’. Add to this, her deployment of the n-word and her reference to the ‘dirty skin’ of foreigners and we can see that her views on race were not much different from Churchill’s and of most other people at that time.

Too much Black History is tokenism, and this will not suffice. Black History should be taught, where relevant, across twelve months, not one. Norwegian-born anti-racist and Guardian columnist, Afua Hirsch argues my case with persuasive logic:

“Why should the focus on black figures of historical significance be confined to one month of the year? If they are important, they should be entered into the mainstream of the rest of the curriculum and, outside school, into cultural events. If they aren’t significant, then there is no greater justification for focusing on them in October than there is at any other time of the year.”

She is right. The danger is that we end up distorting history by filtering it through a lens of political correctness.  Abundant filters have been applied to the past, of course – Tudor, Whig, Tory, Marxist, Liberal and so on. PC history provides a new distorting mirror. Black History should be integrated into history teaching across the year, where it is relevant. It does not merit special or privileged status. Nor should its subject matter be filtered.

An important lesson from the past that children need to learn is that people have similar characteristics and behaviour patterns, regardless of their racial background.

Slavery, for example, was widespread in Africa and in central America, including the Caribbean area, before the Europeans turned up.  Nor was human sacrifice unusual in those parts of the world. The Aztecs, for example, practised it on a large scale.

In the historical kingdom of Benin, too, part of modern-day Nigeria, human sacrifice was a component of the state religion until stamped out by the British in the late 19th century, just as the Sati or suttee – widow burnings – was suppressed by the British in India.

The presence of Africans in the Roman army that was stationed in Britain is becoming a must-teach topic of Black History, and so it should be. Children are unlikely to be taught, however, that the African legionaries were here in Britain as part of an army of occupation and enslavement. In addition, the African Emperor Septimius Severus, decreed genocide against those living north of Hadrian’s Wall but died in York (Eboracum) before his command could be implemented. This is a nasty but necessary truth of Black History that needs to be taught.

Anther necessary truth is that the African-Caribbean dimension has little part to play on these islands during the thousand or so years of what historians describe as the Middle Ages. It becomes increasingly significant for British history in modern times with the growth of empire and so, of course, needs to be taught. The history of other racial groups and other parts of the world, though, has an equal claim on curriculum time.

If children are allowed to scratch the surface of Black History, they will find that what racial groups have in common, outweighs their differences.

In October 2018, the Royal Historical Society published a report entitled: ‘Race, Ethnicity & Equality in UK History’. It was supportive of calls for greater diversity in the curriculum. It noted, however, that what amounts to a non-stop force-feeding of slavery and deprivation was putting black children off history. The “seemingly relentless focus” on the exploitation and abolition of slavery can be “intellectually limiting and, at times, alienating” for black pupils, it concluded.

Black History month needs to concern itself with more than the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its abolition. Here are a few other Black History topics that children need to learn about; some already do:

  1. The defeat of Hitler’s German/Aryan master-race theory by Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
  2. The reasons why, in addition to the fact that,  so many Blacks volunteered to fight in two World Wars for the British Empire.
  3. Nelson Mandela’s donning of the South African Springbok rugby shirt – the symbol of white supremacy and apartheid – at the 1995 Rugby World Cup Final in Johannesburg.
  4. Why almost every former territory of the British Empire has chosen to be part of the Commonwealth of Nations.
  5. The Rwanda genocide.
  6. The image of Patrick Hutchinson, a black man, carrying a white man to safety during the first Black Lives Matter protest in London in June 2020.

My choice of topics is there to be argued over. That is, after all, what history should be about.

Black History Month, sadly, can too easily descends into patronising tokenism built solely on the concept of an exclusive victimhood. This is dishonest. The ghosts of a million or so UK citizens who died of starvation across a few years in 1840s, for example, might feel they are missing out.

The lesson of history is that there is no colour-bar on human wickedness and suffering, just as there is no colour-bar on human achievement. Black History and non-Black history should be taught across every month of the year – warts and all, good and bad, wicked and wonderful!  Most certainly it should not be regarded as yet another opportunity for virtue signalling by manipulative politicians of whatever political persuasion.

David Skelton and Sam Bowman: Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth should be replaced with a Commonwealth hero

6 Aug

David Skelton is author of ‘Little Platoons: How a revived One Nation can empower England’s forgotten towns and redraw the political map’. Sam Bowman is Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute.

The latest piece of modern art hosted on Trafalgar Square’s fourth plinth left many people bewildered when it was unveiled last week.

Called ‘The End’, it is a large plastic sculpture of whipped cream with a cherry, a fly and a drone on it. Whatever it is supposed to mean, it is vapid and ugly. Given this is one of Britain’s most important public spaces, we can do better.

One way might be to install a permanent statue of one of the many black, Asian, and minority ethnic people who have made contributions to Britain throughout her history. In particular, the contribution of Empire and Commonwealth soldiers to the British war effort in the First and Second World Wars was immense, and has only recently begun to get the attention it deserves, such as with the Commonwealth Memorial Gates at Hyde Park Corner, put up in 2002.

At a time when existing statues have led to debate and division about the representation of ethnic minorities in public monuments, a statue of a Commonwealth war hero on the fourth plinth could be a fitting tribute to the millions of people who helped Britain to triumph in those struggles and a sign to all that they will never be forgotten.

One such hero is Khudadad Khan, the first Indian soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross. Khan, born in the late 19th Century, in what is now Pakistan, served as a machine-gunner during the First World War in the 129th Baluchis.

He was at the front-line as allied forces were desperately trying to protect the ports of Boulogne and Nieuwpoort from the advancing German forces. Both ports were crucial to the Allied war effort. At various points, the German advance looked relentless, with many of the defensive forces being pushed back and the Baluchis being outnumbered five to one. Khan’s machine gun team, though, along with one other, was able to continue the fight until eventually even they were overrun, with all the members of Khan’s team being killed.

Khan was able to play dead until the Germans had gone, when he made his way, badly wounded, back to the regiment. The heroism of Khan and his fellow Baluchis meant that the Germans were held off long enough for Allied reinforcements to arrive, and the ports were kept out of German hands.

His story is a remarkable one, but not as isolated one. In the First World War, some three million soldiers from across the Empire and Commonwealth became involved in the war effort, including 1.5 million from India, 600,000 Canadians, 400,000 Australians, 180,000 from East and West Africa, 100,000 Kiwis and 15,000 from the West Indies. Over five million Commonwealth troops were involved in the struggle against Nazism during World War Two. These were invaluable contributions in these conflicts.

A permanent commemoration of the valour and bravery of Commonwealth troops over the centuries would be a fitting use for the fourth plinth. This could be unifying, reminding people that those who want Nelson’s column to fall are a tiny minority, and that most Britons are proud of the contributions their ancestors have made to the country’s history. It would recognise the contributions of people who have hitherto been given less credit than they deserved.

All of this would be far more meaningful and inspiring than the art that has occupied the fourth plinth since the late 1990s (it had been empty until then). Recent occupants have included a large blue cockerel (“a feminist sculpture”, according to its creator) and ‘Really Good’, a giant bronze thumbs up, which the Guardian described as “a sly parody of the emptiness of public art”. The problem with art like this is that the rest of us have to look at it.

Trafalgar Square should be about commemorating the valour and bravery of British and Commonwealth troops and their contribution to great military victories, not ugly, shallow gimmicks. You might call this campaign “Whipped Cream Must Fall”, although the current occupant should still see out its normal term on the plinth…

But once that’s over, we could take that moment to recognise the sacrifices made by Commonwealth soldiers throughout Britain’s history, saying to them that they deserve pride of place in Britain’s most important celebration of its military past.

A statue of Khudadad Khan, or another hero like him, on the fourth plinth would be the perfect reminder of the sacrifices that so many troops from around the Commonwealth made for our freedom, and a chance to put up a new statue instead of tearing one down.

Sunder Katwala: Gandhi does not quite fit the bill of recognising ethnic minority Britons on our currency

4 Aug

Sunder Katwala is the Director of British Future.

There is a certain irony in Mahatma Gandhi being the dominant face of India’s currency. There was talk from the moment of independence of Gandhi replacing the image of the king on the money of the new Republic, though it took some decades for that plan to come to fruition.

A special commemorative 100 rupee note was produced as part of the centenary celebrations of Gandhi’s birth in 1969, but it was only during this era of India’s post-liberalisation boom after 1996 that the austere home-spun Mahatma became routinely the image and watermark of modern India’s new high-security banknotes. It is still only Gandhi who appears on Indian banknotes, reflecting both his role as the spiritual father of the nation, and the lack of consensus whenever additional figures have been proposed.

Now Gandhi may be set to achieve an unusual double, following reports that the Royal Mint proposes to feature him on British currency too. Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, is supporting a call to recognise ethnic minority contributions in those celebrated on our currency.

Sunak wrote to the Royal Mint that “Black, Asian and other ethnic minority communities have made a profound contribution to the shared history of the United Kingdom. For generations, ethnic minority groups have fought and died for this country we have built together; taught our children, nursed the sick, cared for the elderly; and through their enterprising spirit have started some of our most exciting and dynamic businesses, creating jobs and driving growth”, in requesting that they bring forward proposals to reflect this on coinage.

The Chancellor’s intervention was a response to the “We Built Britain Too” campaign, coordinated by former Conservative candidate Zehra Zaidi and Windrush campaigner Patrick Vernon, of which I am a supporter. The campaign had hoped to persuade the Bank of England to feature the first ethnic minority Briton on a banknote.

Despite broad cross-partisan political support across right, left and centre, the Bank of England took a perfunctory and dismissive response to the campaign. The Bank’s remit includes “recognising the diversity of British society” in its choices, but it has considered this primarily through the lens of balancing artists and writers with engineers and scientists.

It seems entirely possible that we will have reached the post-cash society before Britain’s ethnic diversity enters onto the Bank of England’s radar. The support of the Chancellor and the Royal Mint will make a crucial difference to this happening on coins first.

It is not quite the case that no ethnic minority face has ever featured on British coinage. For example, the first black British army officer Walter Tull featured on a special £5 coin, part of a limited edition first world war centenary set in sterling silver and 22 carat gold, for the First World War Centenary.

But no ethnic minority Briton has featured on legal tender, or on the notes or coins that any of us might spend at the shops. The campaign is not proposing any specific individual – wanting to see a process of public engagement and debate – but suggestions including Noor Inayat Khan, Mary Seacole and black abolitionists such as Olaudah Equiano and Ignatius Sancho, the first black British voter in the 1774 general election, have been suggested.

Gandhi does not quite fit the bill for the campaign’s aim of recognising ethnic minority Britons. Though he did not live almost of his eight decades of life as among the king’s subjects, though the central mission of his life was that this should cease to be the case. He saw India become independent, and the trauma of Partition, but was assassinated by a fanatical Hindu supporter of the far right RSS within six months.

To the British public, Gandhi is a famous name, one of the great figures who shaped the 20th century and of very few names that would mean at least something to most people. Standing alongside Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher as British leaders are a handful of international figures: Hitler and Stalin as the villains of the last century, while Gandhi and Nelson Mandela are cast as its secular saints. No other figure from the end of Empire – including Nehru in India, or any other figure from Ireland, Asia or Africa – has any similar level of public recognition.

So Gandhi’s iconic image is claimed for many causes. An image of integrity, to contrast with the politicians of our time; an image of simplicity and sustainability, perhaps now to be seized by environmentalists; an image of activism, “to be the change you want to be in the world” used for myriad causes.

A simplistic deification of Gandhi risks losing the complexity of the man and his times. He was a pacifist, who helped Britain to recruit Indians in the First World War as a strategy to earn Dominion status, and whose philosophy could drive the British from India but lacked answers to address the menace of Hitler and the Holocaust in WWII.

His arguments with Nehru over India’s post-Independence path illustrates how part of Gandhi’s appeal as an icon in the West can reflect a problematic romanticisation of Indian poverty. Gandhi was a crusader against caste and for India’s untouchables, and developed his strategies in campaigning for Indian rights in South Africa, but held dismissive prejudices against the black Africans, as his leading biographer Ramachandra Guha has set out. “Gandhi’s blanking of Africans is the black hole at the heart of his saintly mythology”, as Patrick French wrote in his review of Guha’s Gandhi before India.

So Gandhi too has been challenged by anti-racist campaigners. We should recognise that there are no flawless heroes. The school curriculum should interrogate every controversy, so that we understand them, warts and all. Yet we can not set standards for the recognition of past achievements that not even Churchill or Gladstone, Gandhi or Mandela can attain, or we would surely have no statues at all.

That Gandhi’s statue now stands in Parliament Square – joining the statesmen of previous ages, along with the suffragette campaigner Millicent Fawcett – is modern Britain’s way of acknowledging the justice of Gandhi’s and India’s cause. It places his campaign against British rule as part of the story of British democracy, whose traditions and arguments were used by Indian Nationalists to tell the British that it was time to go.

The statue was welcomed across the British party spectrum, though it was David Cameron and Sajid Javid who unveiled it. The proposal to feature Gandhi on coinage may also be considered an important gesture of Global Britain’s commitments to the Commonwealth – and the warmth of its bilateral relationship with a rising India today – but this is a different, parallel proposition to the case to recognise British ethnic minority contributions.

This timely change would be one simple response to the growing appetite to deepen the public understanding of the history of race in Britain, and how that has shaped the country that we are today. Most people don’t want that to turn into a culture war over the history of our country. If the focus is almost entirely on who might be removed, we risk neglecting to ask contributions we want to recognise better.

This constructive campaign to reflect significant ethnic minority contributions to British history on national symbols, like coins, symbolises how our generation can contribute to broadening Britain’s national story in an inclusive way. Zaidi says her hope is that “it helps build cohesion, inspires young people and unites us as a nation that we all have an equal stake and contribution in society.

Having as open as possible a process of public debate about the potential candidates would maximise the educational value of this positive, symbolic change.

Chandra Kanneganti: The Coronavirus challenges I’ve seen as a doctor and a councillor

31 Jul

Dr Chandra Kanneganti is the Chair of North Staffordshire’s GP Federation, and is a Stoke-on-Trent City Councillor.

It’s been almost six months since we have been dealing with Covid-19 pandemic. With the benefit of hindsight, it can be said that we could have handled the health crisis better.

We should have imposed the lockdown much earlier, and made sure we had enough PPE to support and protect our health care workers. We could have communicated better the precautionary measures that should be taken. As we move forward, it is critical that we evaluate our Covid-19 response. However, such assessments should be defined by empathy and humility.

I am a GP of 14 years’ experience. As medical professionals, we were never trained to handle a health crisis of this magnitude. Like military exercises during peacetime, the healthcare professionals never conducted nation-wide pandemic-response exercises during normal times. Much less, many health care professionals never even attended a single workshop on pandemic response during their careers.

This is not surprising, since we have never seen something like this in our country or for that matter, no country has ever anticipated a crisis of this magnitude. Our health care infrastructure was tested and stretched by this once in a generation health crisis. Our people and the health care professional community have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the combat against the deadly pandemic.

Over the past few months, my colleagues and I worked every weekday and many weekends in GP practices, in Covid Hot clinics and extended access clinics. Many of us had at least 40-50 contacts of patients every day as a GP. During the breaks, which were always few, we would ruminate on the experiences narrated by the pandemic infected patients, and we would think of the safety of our loved ones at home.

But there was always extraordinarily little time to pause, and we had to get back to patients to work with clinical precision. In the midst of all this, I had to respond as Chair of British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and have led campaigns to scrap the NHS Immigration Health Surcharge for NHS workforce and for research with actions into disproportionate BAME Covid deaths and infections.

As a Conservative councillor, being there with the residents in my ward provided me with the opportunity of experiencing the remarkable ‘British resilience’ up and close. I had the privilege of working with the local church to start a voluntary group that helped in distributing medicines as well as food and shielding patients. It was heartwarming to see people supporting each other in the communities. A resident in my ward collected food and kept it outside every week for anyone to come and collect it.

I am sure there are many such good Samaritans in all communities. The lockdown also provided us with an opportunity to get potholes fixed in my ward by the council. Keeping up the local business in lockdown was also an important priority. I worked with the local authorities to deliver grants to businesses quickly and offered help to vulnerable people.

While there were PPE problems in some parts of the country, Stoke On Trent and North Staffordshire never faced such issues. This was largely due to innovative solutions created by people working collaboratively to supply PPE to general practices and care homes. Indeed, one of our administrators made visors for doctors working in Covid hot clinics. Further, these clinics to see Covid-suspected patients were opened in record time. We must note with some pride that Stoke had one such clinic, which was first of its kind in the entire country.

It is essential to recognise the achievements in our pandemic response, as it will help us to build a more robust health care infrastructure. Based on my work as a medical professional and as a councillor, let me share with you four important accomplishments.

First, in terms of infrastructure, hospitals have come up with Covid wards in record time with well-trained staff ready to serve. Our health care staff was trained quickly to shield vulnerable people and protect them. Today, there are thousands of intensive care beds, ventilators ready to be used along with Nightingale Hospitals across the country. There was no problem in accessing an intensive care bed and ventilators during the pandemic in our country. Thankfully, we will be spared the experience of Italy, where doctors, unfortunately, had to choose patient’s for ventilation and treat the patients in corridors.

Second, with regards to processes, general practices have been trying to digitalize for ages. Within one week of Covid pandemic, GPs across the country shifted to remote consultations, using various digital tools and continued to be there every day for their patients. Whenever there was a perception that the decision-making process was erring in its policies, there were quick corrective measures. For instance, all doctors’ associations have united in one voice to support BAME NHS Staff who are disproportionately affected. Eight GP colleagues and a Practice Manager in Greater Manchester prepared a risk assessment tool called SAAD tool in memory of a GP colleague who unfortunately died of Covid.

Our democratic political process and the elected, as well as accountable leadership, are important assets that we have. We are one of those few countries in the world that reported Covid deaths with complete openness and transparency.

In fact, the fatality rate may have been over-reported. I have seen a number of reports of deaths, particularly in care homes that were reported as Covid deaths, based on care staff and paramedics observations without any valid medical test results. Our democratic ethos and administrative frameworks do not permit us to push inconvenient numbers under the carpet.

Third, the response of our political leadership has been brilliant throughout the pandemic. Boris Johnson has been in ICU with high flow oxygen and has recovered. The Prime Minister gave us hope and showed considerable fortitude in crisis. Rishi Sunak was fantastic, and all my constituents have nothing but praise for him. Matt Hancock’s knowledge of the issues and his engagement with scientific and medical advisors showed a mature health secretary with a reassuring presence in the hour of crisis.

We are at the forefront of vaccine development with contracts of millions of vaccines in place, which is marked contrast to some of the developed economies which are yet to sign a contract with vaccine producers.

Fourth, there was a robust societal response. The British public has demonstrated remarkable generosity with the wonderful campaign of Sir Tom Moore. His campaign collected £32.79 million. I had the first-hand experience of the British kindness, as I was able to collect 17,000 in a short time through British International Doctors Association (BIDA), and distributed this to number of stranded doctors for their living expenses. Through various symbolic measures, such as clapping, our society has shown immense appreciation to all the key workers for the work that they are doing.

Despite these achievements, we must never forget the fatalities that we registered due to the pandemic. Death is not a statistical data point, and the loss of life of a mother, a father, a child, and a key worker can never be filled. There are concerns that there may be a second wave of coronavirus in the winter. There is no time to rest. We must continue to help each other and support the government. We are in this together – and will come out of this much stronger as a country.

Salim Chowdhury: Integration not division offers the best future for British Bangladeshis

29 Jul

Salim Chowdhury is the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association. He is a former Police officer and a former Conservative Councillor.

Public Health England’s  COVID-19 report showed that Bangladeshi’s had the highest risk of death, a risk twice as high as those from White backgrounds. The challenged plight of the community was echoed in the Race Disparity Audit too, which has British Bangladeshis at the low end of almost all measures of performance in society – from the lowest average wage to the lowest school grades.

Bengalis came to the UK as early as the 17th Century as lascar seamen. But it wasn’t until the 1970s that the bulk of the community arrived. I was one of these people, coming from Syhlet like most of the diaspora. This economic migration saw all Bengalis get to work, or at least try to. Many initially found progress in the restaurant industry, creating a British staple in communities in the curry house.

Integration was everything. It was what led me to join the police and serve as a councillor, despite almost nobody from my background following these paths at the time. It is one of the reasons why any Minister engaging with the diaspora goes viral in Bangladesh – because the nation is impressed that its sons and daughters have made the journey to the UK, and in effect, made it. So for all the difficult readings of the RDA, there is actually a huge amount of pride in the community – and we need to tap into that in this recovery.

As the Founder and President of the British Bangladeshi Caterers Association representing thousands of members across the country, I requested that all members running restaurants prioritised free meals for the elderly, vulnerable, NHS staff and care workers. This started on March 18th with the Food for the Most Vulnerable campaign. This has involved all restaurants providing over 9,000 free meals to these groups including special delivery options. Meals were provided to NHS staff across four different hospitals. This included Northwick Park Hospital which was one of the first to be hit hard and is home to a disproportionately high number of ethnic minority patients and staff in servicing Brent and Harrow.

We have seen Britons from all backgrounds come together. We have learned from each other. Tom Moore was the reason for Bangladeshi, Dabirul Choudhury, to also walk for charity – receiving huge coverage across major broadcasters in the UK and Bangladesh. Charity has reflected the best of us. The British Asian Trust’s ‘Big Curry Night In’ was an idea which worked and helped me to sign up 101 restaurants to raise money for those most in need of food and essentials throughout the crisis – and now there are British Bangladeshis participating in and with charities that they might not have done otherwise.

For all the pain caused by the crisis, British Bangladeshis are emerging with pride intact and with immense hope for the future of this country, our home. We are British first. It is up to all of us to deliver a social and economic recovery so that no ethnicity must look at statistics and see large gaps between them and another group, in turn confirming their notion of difference. All lives lost are tragic and won’t be forgotten, but we must look at all the positives, or else we’ll never have a chance to come out of the dangers to public health and the economy.

Our communities are one more than ever. It is an economic recovery, from levelling up to industries like my own in curry houses, that will deliver for our families and in turn provide them with conditions and choice which will not make them so vulnerable to other winds and storms in their lives. We must remember who and what we have got as well as who and what we have lost. My ancestors once navigated rough seas in a more challenging age. If they could, we can.

Neil O’Brien: Why closing the marriage gap between rich and poor is a vital mission for social justice

27 Jul

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Our daughter just had her last day at nursery. In the autumn she’s off to school. We’re sponging second-hand uniform from friends. It feels like just the other day I was driving home after her birth, flakes of snow streaking through the headlights.

Our baby son can suddenly crawl fast. He wants to climb the stairs, and chew any bits of cardboard he finds lying around.

My sister has unearthed a trove of old black and white family photos. There’s lots of things that catch the eye: Glasgow’s housing estates looking shiny and newly-built; the funny looking cars; the endless cigarettes. The bigger families too: my gran with her two children from before the war, and two after.

It set me thinking about family. Ten years ago we talked about it a lot. David Cameron’s criticism of “Broken Britain” highlighted work by the Centre for Social Justice on family breakdown and poverty. The most eye-catching pledge during his leadership campaign was a marriage tax break.

Over the last five years there’s been a lot of other things doing on, to say the least.  But as the new government starts to set out its domestic agenda, family should be part of it.

Politicians are nervous talking about family. It’s not just bad memories of the 1990s, when we screwed up and sounded like moralising hypocrites against a backdrop of sleaze.

It’s a deeper fear of sounding critical of friends and relations. We all have close friends who have been through everything: raising kids alone, divorce, abortion, bereavement and so on. I think of a friend who has raised two wonderful kids alone. Another single friend helped look after a young person when no-one else would. I don’t know how anyone manages to do it single-handed: they’re amazing people.

Some worry family policy will be about condemning them, or that politicians want to try and trap unhappy couples together. It mustn’t be about either. Instead, it has to be about two different things.

First, helping people with children financially, and with practical help, particularly during the difficult years with small children. Having no money on top of no sleep and endlessly crying babies makes it harder to sustain relationships.

Second, it should be about support and building up the social capital that many middle class people in politics take for granted. Indeed, it’s about healing a split in our society.

Let me explain.

Politicians who are serious about reducing poverty and spreading opportunity can’t avoid thinking about families and households.  Last year 23 per cent of children in couple households were below the fixed poverty line, after housing costs, compared to 38 per cent of children in lone parent households.

Controlling for other factors, A CSJ report found those who experience family breakdown when aged 18 or younger are twice as likely be in trouble with the police or spend time in prison, and almost twice as likely to underachieve educationally. They’re more likely to suffer mental health issues.

One part of family policy should be direct help families with children. I’d love to see us recognise children in the tax system, as we did until the 1970s: our tax system is unusually family-unfriendly. We should help working families with children on Universal Credit keep more what they earn before it gets tapered away. The CSJ has called for higher child benefit for parents of young children.

But we need to go deeper, and recognise that the links between family breakdown and low income run in both directions. Over recent decades a quiet revolution has taken place, and richer and poorer people now live in very different family structures.

Between 1979 and 2000, the proportion of households with dependent children which were lone parent households grew from 11 per cent to 25 per cent, then remained at that level, dipping a bit in recent years to 22 per cent in 2019. Since 1979, the proportion which are married couples fell from 89 per cent to 61 per cent.

There are few countries in Europe where children are less likely to live with both parents than Britain. It’s more likely that a teenager sitting their GCSEs will own a smartphone (about 95 per cent) than live with both parents (58 per cent).

But these headline stats conceal a massive social split, which starts at the point of birth and widens out.

For those in the top socioeconomic group, 75 per cent of children are born to parents who are married; another 22 per cent are jointly registered to parents cohabiting; 2 per cent are jointly registered to parents living apart, and just 1 per cent registered by one parent only.

At the bottom end of the scale, 35 per cent are born to married parents, 38 per cent to cohabiting parents, 21 per cent jointly to parents living apart and 6 per cent registered by just one parent.

These huge differences weren’t always there. For people at the top, family life looks similar to their parents’ generation. For people on lower incomes, society looks utterly different. A marriage gap has opened up, and society has been splitting apart into different family structures for rich and poor.

In the 1970s, mothers of pre-school children were equally likely to be married whether they had a degree or not, and 90 per cent plus were. By 2006 for mothers with a degree that was down to 86 per cent, but for non-graduate mothers it fell to 52 per cent.

Between 1988 and 2018 the proportion of jointly registered births which were to married parents fell from 90 per cent to about 77 per cent for the top socio-economic group. At the other end of the scale it fell from 70 per cent to 37 per cent.

Equally, it’s impossible to understand modern Britain without appreciating the different families people from different ethnic groups live in.

In 2011, among households with dependent children, for white households 53 per cent were married couples, 16 per cent cohabiting couples, 25 per cent lone parents, and 7 per cent other household types (mainly multigenerational households).

Among Indian households with dependent children, far more were married couples or multigenerational households.  68 per cent were married couples, 2 per cent cohabiting couples, 9 per cent lone parents and 21 per cent in multigenerational households.

Among black Caribbean households 28 per cent were married couples, 11 per cent cohabiting couples, 47 per cent were lone parents and 14 per cent in multigenerational households.

People of different ethnicities live in very different families, which influences everything else.

Most voters favour government taking action to support family life. But in Whitehall there’s scepticism: can the state do anything about these trends?

The truth is we don’t really know. As it happens, at the point when government stopped publishing its measure of family stability in 2016, the trend seemed to be moving back a little towards more children living with both parents.

Whitehall can be too pessimistic. Until Michael Howard, the consensus was that nothing could be done about rising crime. He proved the consensus wrong. Likewise, in the 1990s Whitehall had given up on helping lone parents into work. But successive reforms (under governments of all parties) doubled their rate of employment.

It’s not like there’s no ideas about how to help.  There’s masses and masses of recommendations gathering dust on think tank shelves, covering everything: tax, benefits, family hubs, relationship education in schools, birth registration, pre-and postnatal support…

My modest proposal is this: let’s do a major programme of controlled trials to test these ideas, and see what, if anything, makes a difference. Happily for the Treasury, experiments are cheaper than rolling things out nationally.

But we have to try. The costs are too high not to. They say the best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago, but the second best time is today. Let’s plant some seeds.

Neil O’Brien: The New Puritans want to tear down our liberal settlement. Here’s who they are, what they think – and why they must be resisted.

29 Jun

Neil O’Brien is MP for Harborough.

Consider recent news.

JK Rowling criticised the expression “people who menstruate,” leading to accusations of “transphobia”, numerous authors quitting her literary agency, and staff at her publisher refusing to work on her new book.

Various controversies have followed the Black Lives Matter protests. Liverpool University will rename a building named after Gladstone.  UKTV deleted an episode of Fawlty Towers making fun of a racist character. The RFU is reviewing the singing of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”.

These stories illuminate a new division in our politics. It’s not left vs. right, but is uniting conservatives and liberals against something new, which we need to give a name to.

“Woke” is the most common term, and laughing at its excesses is part of the cure. But we also need to take it seriously. Paul Staines calls it “Neo-puritanism”, which captures the absolutist, quasi-religious nature of it – the urge to “police” others behaviour.

Like puritanism, it’s strongest in America, but powerful here.

So what is Neo-puritanism?

First, Neo-puritans want to change the balance between free speech and censoring offensive speech.

The embodiment of liberalism is the slogan: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Neo-puritans feel a duty to “call people out”, often pressing for people to be sacked or shunned.

Don’t debate JK Rowling – “cancel” her. They see debate not as a chance to test and exchange ideas, but as unwelcome, wearying, maybe impossible.

Neo-puritanism has tightened the boundaries of free speech. Like Amber Rudd being “no platformed” by Oxford students. The NUS trying to block Peter Tatchell from speaking. A school dropping plans to name a house after JK Rowling. A DJ sacked (now reinstated) for denying he has “white privilege.” An Oxford professor given security guards after threats from transgender activists. Sheffield University paying students to police “micro-aggressions”. Hundreds of Guardian employees attacking Suzanne Moore’s “transphobia” for writing: “Female is a biological classification.”

Second, Neo-puritans believe in “hard” quotas and targets.

Conservatives and liberals often support increasing numbers of women or ethnic minorities in certain roles. They favour outreach programmes, mentoring, open days, etc.

Neo-puritans want quotas and sex/racially defined scholarships which other groups can’t enter. For example, Reni Eddo-Lodge argues that “when there are no hard targets for programmes of positive discrimination, they will always run the risk of looking like they’re doing something without achieving much at all.”

Examples include Cambridge University’s scholarship scheme (worth £18,000 a year) solely for black British students and Oxford’s  Arlan Hamilton scholarships for Black undergraduates. UCL has scholarships for BME postgraduate students. The Bank of England has scholarships for African Caribbean students.

Third, Neo-puritans (i) think people are defined by their group, (ii) say people have “false consciousness” about our society and (iii) attack the liberal idea that people can be neutral.

A wave of bestselling books by Neo-puritan authors ramp up the importance of group differences Whether we’re talking about “White supremacy”, “White privilege”, or “White Fragility”, it’s not that some people are racist, but society.

For Neo-puritans, not only are people defined by their race, but race is defined by behaviour in an almost mystical way. The founder of “decolonise the curriculum,” Pran Patel, said: “Priti Patel is the perfect example of whiteness inhabiting a different coloured vessel”.

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a Cambridge academic, tweeted: “White lives don’t matter. As white lives” and “Abolish whiteness.” This isn’t just divisive and unhelpful. The concept of “whiteness” – that there are certain ways of behaving that are “white” – is intrinsically racist.

This explains why Neo-puritans think it’s OK to attack Conservative MPs from ethnic minorities as “coconuts” or “bounty bars” Robin DiAngelo argues there is deep false consciousness in our society: “Our racial socializatition sets us up to repeat racist behaviour regardless of our intentions.”

Neo-puritans see the “colour-blind” ideals of liberals as part of this false consciousness.

Reni Eddo-Lodge argues: “Colour-blindness is used to silence talk about structural racism while we continue to fool ourselves with the lie of meritocracy.”

A headteacher in Sheffield agrees, writing to parents: “Our society is built upon white supremacy… the world’s systems and structures are built on this bias, and this therefore creates White Privilege.”

Finally, Neo-puritans have a particular take on history, with the emphasis on criticism.

The self-styled “leader” of the BLM protests says Churchill’s statue is offensive and should be taken down.  A university lecturer argues: “Churchill must fall”, because he was an “imperialist racist,” “hated” by the working class. Maya Goodfellow argues: “The way Churchill is remembered in the UK has always been tied up with ideas of white superiority.”

Nor is it just Churchill.

Take the student union leader who vowed to paint over a First World War memorial: “Mark my words – we’re taking down the mural of white men in the uni Senate room, even if I have to paint over it myself.”

Or the Oxford lecturer who hopes Oxford researchers don’t invent a coronavirus vaccine first because: “it will be used as it has been in the past, to fulfil its political, patriotic function as proof of British excellence.”

So what’s the problem with Neo-puritanism?

First, I worry hard quotas lead to resentment; undermine those who succeed (am I only here because of my race or gender?); and lead to unfair, arbitrary decisions: can a scholarship for black students be awarded to a mixed-race person?

Second, there’s an abuse of language here. Apartheid South Africa and the Confederacy were states with an ideology of “White Supremacy”. Britain isn’t.

Third, relentless emphasis on group membership plus tighter boundaries on speech will lead to a society not at ease with itself. Instead of the colour-blind world liberals hope for, we’ll end up in a world walking on eggshells, where more and more we’ll see each other primarily as members of groups.

Fourth, I worry about the counter-productive effects of this conversation. If the “core function” of the police is racism, why should anyone non-white join up?

A 13 year old boy recently pleaded guilty to kicking a police officer on the head as he lay on the ground because of protests he’d seen on TV. Ideas have consequences.

If you claim our society is built on “white supremacy”, this will be heard by some people with fragile mental health. I know of a case of a young person who feels oppressed by all around her, seeing offers of friendship and help from white people as disguised attempts to hurt her.

Compared to a world in which you tell kids – ‘you’re all just the same, you just have different coloured skin’ it makes it more difficult to have natural relationships, and friendships without hangups.

Overemphasis of group differences is disempowering. Katharine Birbalsingh, head of one of the country’s top performing state schools says it: “undermines much of the work we do at school in trying to empower our children to take personal responsibility and grab life by the horns.”

Finally, healthy countries need a balance of self-criticism and self-confidence. Self-loathing is unattractive, but might also have bad practical consequences. People are often called on to do things for the greater good of the nation, from paying tax to fighting for their country.  If Britain is basically shameful, why bother?

Neo-puritans sometimes highlight important problems. But though there is more to do, the big picture is one of progress. Sexism is down, racist attitudes are declining and ethnic minorities are steadily getting better off. Neo-puritanism won’t accelerate that, but instead risk a whole set of new divisions.