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Boris Johnson must demonstrate how he believes Black lives matter by standing up to Donald Trump, and through measures to protect BAME communities from Covid-19, a former Tory minister has said.
Caroline Nokes, who chairs the Commons’ powerful women and equalities committee, said the prime minister must be “bold enough to speak truth to power” when it came to the US president.
It comes as fresh divisions open in the US over race, with Trump threatening to quell protests with military force following widespread outrage over the Minnesota killing of 49-year-old Black man George Floyd at the hands of a police officer.
Meanwhile in the UK, where there have also been demonstrations over Floyd and racism, a Public Health England study laid bare the extent to which BAME people are disproportionately affected by coronavirus.
Hitting out at the government’s lack of action since the report, Nokes said of BAME people watching Johnson: “You would be perfectly entitled to ask: ’Well, if Black lives matter, show me how they matter – show me how you have taken an action that demonstrates that our lives matter.”
In a wide-ranging interview with HuffPost UK, the former immigration minister says:
- The Equality and Human Rights Commission, which on Friday launched an inquiry into how BAME communities are affected by Covid-19, must be “more determined” in taking on the government and be “beating the drum louder” over the unequal impact of coronavirus
- Johnson should make an “incredible appointment” and promote his predecessor Theresa May to the cabinet to help handle the crisis, saying “you don’t waste ability like that”
- Rishi Sunak’s emergency budget must swerve a looming crisis of childcare for working mothers, as she has “horrible visions” the pandemic will put female employment prospects back 20 years.
- The women and equalities committee will launch an investigation into the impact of coronavirus on minority groups, with three strands: disability, BAME people, and women.
Johnson has refused to directly criticise the president, saying only that he is “appalled and sickened” at Floyd’s death and that “racism and racist attacks have no place” in society.
But Nokes said “it is the prime minister’s role” to voice the UK’s strength of feeling and “have the courage” to use the special relationship to lobby for change.
“Every other US president has sought to unite the country, to heal divisions and make it a better place for all Americans and at the moment we see horrendous division in the US,” she said.
“I think that some of the president’s comments have been really regrettable and inflammatory – and sometimes we have to be bold enough to speak truth to power.
“You do have to be brave enough, when one of your friends is doing something wrong, to tell them.
“We should be firmer. We should be more direct with what we are saying to the US.”
Nokes also has concerns that, closer to home, power-holders are failing BAME communities, saying the PHE report failed set out how government could better protect people from coronavirus risks.
“It was missing recommendations – that’s what struck me instantly,” she said.
We must give the government something to do,” she added. “Reviews are important and I’m really interested in the how and the why BAME communities are more impacted by Covid, but I’m more interested in what the hell we are going to do about that.
“Because we can see [BAME people were hit harder] – and we saw it so early on, with the deaths of healthcare workers. When you would look at a page of photographs in the national media, anyone with an ounce of awareness, you thought: ‘Oh, my god.’”
Nokes praised the Somerset Foundation Trust, which in April took BAME staff off the frontline and made them a priority for personal protective equipment (PPE), and said the lack of focus from government was glaring.
“I get the realities of that – that’s Somerset, where you don’t have a hugely diverse community in the first place,” Nokes said.
“But at the very least you need to be able to point to direct actions that you can take to safeguard BAME people from the worst ravages of this disease.”
Nokes’ committee will launch an investigation into the impact of coronavirus on minority groups. It will have three strands: disability, BAME people, and women – and there will be numerous recommendations to ministers.
“You have to look at how you tackle a pandemic to make sure you don’t make those existing inequalities worse,” she said.
The Windrush scandal will also form part of the committee’s future work, Nokes stressed, following news that just 60 victims have been given compensation in the last year.
The MP for Romsey and Southampton North also said the equalities watchdog – the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – should be more strident in taking on the government.
“If I were to be candid, I would want them to have a bit more ‘oomph’,” she said.
“I would like to see them being more effective, more determined and to have a bit of passion.
I would like to see them being more effective, more determined and to have a bit of passion.Caroline Nokes on the equalities watchdog the EHRC's approach to government
“That is one of the things that strikes me is that, in order to get anywhere, you have to be absolutely determined and you have to be ruthless.
“I’m not convinced they are throwing enough energy at making their case to government.”
The toll the pandemic is taking on disadvantaged groups is difficult to calculate as lockdown continues.
From blind and partially sighted people with a personal aide being denied access to some supermarkets, to working class youngsters potentially falling behind due to closed schools, Nokes said there are many elements of policy government “haven’t even begun to think about”.
The committee chair fears that women may be bearing the brunt.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies warned last month that women were more likely to have lost their job or have been furloughed.
Domestic abuse hotlines, meanwhile, have seen a huge increase in calls, while the murder rate for domestic killings has doubled.
“We know that the online ‘chat’ services saw big spikes, particularly in people in LGBT relationships,” she added.
“We already know that people in the trans community are disproportionately likely to be in relationships where there is domestic abuse – and it is harder for them to access services, inevitably, because there are fewer services available to them.
“I think we have to be conscious of that.”
While sectors such as construction, which have around an 80% male workforce, have seen less interruption, retail and hair and beauty have remained in strict shutdown due to the difficulties of social distancing.
Nokes said chancellor Rishi Sunak, who with the economic damage of the pandemic expected to be huge is preparing an emergency budget, must make childcare a top priority to limit the risk of widening inequalities.
“Families are making decisions now about who makes the career sacrifice, because of the lack of available childcare,” she said.
“I have horrible visions of women’s employment going backwards, of women losing career opportunities they might otherwise have had.”
Nokes, who fears there are not enough women at Johnson’s top table, went on: “It sounds like there will be quite a big focus on training for young people and on the tech sector – which is not well known for employing women – and my ask of the government is: if you are preparing an emergency budget, please look at the childcare sector.
“If you don’t have that key building block, then it doesn’t matter however many thousands of jobs you create in the tech sector for bright young men – you are going to be missing out on a massive part of the workforce who will simply not be able to go back to work.”
Johnson’s administration, which was geared up for a Brexit agenda, was plunged headlong into Covid crisis management just weeks after the PM reshaped his cabinet in January after December’s general election.
“He has been very careful to have ministers in his top team who are very, very loyal to him,” said Nokes. “There are not many challenging or dissenting voices included.”
Critics have pointed out – and Johnson has himself acknowledged – there are few women in his cabinet, with key strategic decisions left to “the quad” – Sunak, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove, health secretary Matt Hancock and foreign secretary Dominic Raab.
The PM has suggested a reshuffle could be on the cards and Nokes believes the former premier Theresa May, who stood down last year amid deadlock over Brexit, should be on his list.
While not suggesting a particular role – May’s long tenure as home secretary saw the rise of the so-called “hostile environment” for immigrants – Nokes thinks the PM needs experienced heads to tackle the pandemic.
“Theresa May is the most experienced parliamentarian we have in the party still in parliament,” she said.
“She has amazing qualities and is incredibly determined and diligent. She is a woman that does detail and is a voice to be reckoned with.
“I think she would be an incredible appointment but I wouldn’t like to bank on that happening.
“I would love to see her back. I don’t think you waste ability like that.”
Nokes went on: “I’m not particularly stressed about [home secretary] Priti Patel being the sole female minister to chair the daily press conference.
“What I am more concerned about is why are there not more voices of women even in the room.
“It’s absolutely imperative that Boris puts more women around his cabinet table and be prepared to listen to them.”
Nokes also questioned why Therese Coffey, the work and pensions secretary, had been near-invisible, despite the biggest rise in Universal Credit claims ever.
“She clearly has a massive role to play in facilitating the re-entry of people back in the workforce,” said Nokes. “It’s the whole purpose of her department and yet we’ve not seen or heard very much from Therese.”
Liz Truss, the trade secretary heading up deals with the EU and US over the coming months, is also minister for women and equalities, and Nokes believes the job will be too demanding to be “an add on” as the impact of the pandemic comes into sharp focus.
Previously, the role has almost always been held by a female minister alongside a second cabinet job.
“It’s moved around endlessly and is always seen as an ‘add on’ and I don’t think that’s good enough,” said Nokes.
“We need someone focused exclusively on it and who is prepared to champion it.
“Unless you have someone very committed to it then it is very hard to do it alongside another cabinet job.”