Workplace racism and discrimination are more talked about now than they have ever been in recent memory. There exists a plethora of organisations and institutions whose purpose it is to draw our attention to racism at work, often shining light to reveal discrimination in places we did not expect. One place that we may not expect to find racism is in the civilised chambers of Whitehall.
2019 saw the highest number of Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) MPs elected to parliament. This means that Westminster now has 65 BME MPs. However, despite this historically diverse field many BME MPs and parliamentary workers still feel as though they suffer from racial discrimination.
In an interview for ITV Layla Moran, the Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West, recounted an incident where she was told whilst working in parliament that she should “go home”. In a similar and equally disturbing event, Afzal Khan, the Labour MP for Manchester Gorton, was told to “go back to Pakistan”. In the same ITV interview Tullip Siddiq, the Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, recalled an exchange she had with a colleague in which her fellow member of parliament had implied that Asian families are more likely to kill their female children than families of other ethnicities.
A recent report commissioned by ParliREACH, a workplace equality network that was set up to provide a forum for BME people who work in parliament, found numerous examples of racial discrimination within Westminster’s halls.
Since 2018 ParliREACH has been working to help recruit, retain and develop under-represented groups within Westminster, provide a support network for these under-represented groups, and also host professional networking events for BME individuals working within parliament.
ParliREACH’s report into the treatment of BME workers in Westminster found that BME staff were asked for security passes in parliament more often than their white colleagues and were more likely to be excluded from areas of parliament reserved for peers.
Imran Khan, QC, a lawyer for Stephen Lawrence’s family went as far as to compare the treatment of BME parliamentary workers to apartheid. In response to the report, he told the Guardian that he “had thought such things had happened either in apartheid South Africa or in the deep south in the USA many years ago”.
At an event to launch the report on racism within parliament, titled Stand in My Shoes: Race and Culture in Parliament, ParliREACH suggested that one way of combating the discrimination that BME workers face is by removing many of the hierarchies within parliament. This would mean allowing equal access to all parliamentary workers to restaurants, toilets and other parts of parliaments which have historically been exclusive. Presently, some parts of parliament are only accessible to peers, or continue to bear outdated signage excluding non-peers. ParliREACH’s report stated that these hierarchies “reinforce power relationships and lead to a disproportionate number of BAME staff being questioned when trying to use parliamentary facilities.”
While the effect of being asked for their security passes on BAME workers within parliament is undoubtedly to heighten feelings of surveillance and exclusion, some have pointed out that the underlying reasons for such rules are not in fact racially motivated. For John Benger, clerk of the house, the cause of discrimination is the different positions and job roles that BME workers occupy in comparison to their white peers. The reason that these differences can lead to Westminster workers feeling excluded and discriminated against is that access to exclusive areas of parliament is often tied to grade and seniority. As Benger put this point in his response to the ParliREACH report, “there is a higher representation of BAME staff in lower pay bands, this has meant that BAME employees have been less likely than their white colleagues to have access to certain areas.”
Ed Ollard, the clerk of the parliaments – the most senior official in the House of Lords, conceded in his written evidence to the home office select committee that “At the time the ParliREACH report was written, access to the House of Lords terrace was limited to staff above a certain grade.” However, Lords management have since agreed to remove the restrictions on access to the terrace and other formerly exclusive areas.
The main issue brought to light by the report has been the extent to which the hierarchies that exist within parliament reproduce racial hierarchies outside of parliament. And although no area in parliament excludes anybody on the basis of race or ethnicity the findings of the ParliREACH report clearly show that many MPs and parliamentary workers feel discriminated against.