A new commission on racial inequality guarantees months of inaction

The government has a new excuse to prevaricate over an issue that has already been the subject of seven recent reports.

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Boris Johnson has announced a cross-government commission to look into inequality in the UK, after the Black Lives Matter protests of recent weeks.

The Prime Minister's announcement is buried in a Daily Telegraph op-ed column published this morning, in which he also commits to defending the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square “with every breath in my body”. He used the column to attack “the growing campaign to edit or photoshop the entire cultural landscape” and emphasised the need to tackle “the substance of the problem, not the symbols”.

The commission is to be called the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, and will look at “all aspects of inequality – in employment, in health outcomes, in academic and all other walks of life”. 

At face value, the idea is beyond reproach: a closer look at the very systemic inequalities that the Black Lives Matter protests have sought to highlight.

But if history is anything to go by, it may be that a look is as far as it goes. There are at least seven recent commissions and reports into aspects of racial inequality in the UK whose recommendations have yet to be implemented, including the (David) Lammy Review into racial bias within the criminal justice system and the Windrush Review. What exactly does Boris Johnson's new commission expect to uncover that Theresa May's Race Disparity Audit, published in October 2017, did not?

This lack of action had been the focus of Labour's response to the government on this issue even before the new commission was announced. As early as last week's PMQs, Keir Starmer was urging the Prime Minister to “implement the findings and recommendations of the reports we've already got”, instead of announcing yet another review. On the Today programme this morning, David Lammy, who is now shadow justice secretary, was rightly furious that this is exactly what has happened, as he listed the recommendations that recent reviews have made to government, only to be ignored. 

Yet the failure to implement one particular set of recommendations makes the Prime Minister's announcement particularly hollow. The first Public Health England report into disproportionate numbers of BAME deaths from Covid-19 allegedly omitted recommendations on how better to protect these communities; a second PHE report, leaked to the BBC, found that “historic racism and poorer experiences of healthcare or at work are contributing factors to these disproportionate deaths”. 

This unpublished report contains clear recommendations (such as mandatory health risk assessments for BAME workers) to address the increased risk to people from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities from Covid-19. Following an outcry in the medical profession, it is due to be published this week, but the government's reluctance to publish its recommendations suggests it could be equally slow to implement them.

The new commission gives the government an easy response when asked how it is addressing the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter protests, and creates the illusion of action. But because commissions take time to collect their own findings and prepare their own reports, the immediate effect of this announcement is the suspension of action for at least six months.

Meanwhile, BAME people continue to die in disproportionate numbers from Covid-19, and the Prime Minister is leaving "oven-ready" and potentially life-saving recommendations on the shelf.

Ailbhe Rea is political correspondent at the New Statesman

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