Tony Sewell has been confirmed by the government as the chair of the newly-established Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities.
Boris Johnson announced the establishment of the commission after a series of anti-racism protests on British streets triggered by the US police killing of George Floyd while in custody.
Sewell will be joined by nine others in the group, comprised of representatives from the fields of science, education, broadcasting, economics, medicine, policing and community organising. They will look to deliver a report on race disparity within the health, education, criminal justice and employment sectors by the end of this year.
But the new head of the commission has faced criticism for his views in the past, describing any evidence of institutional racism as “flimsy”, and concerns have already been raised regarding his suitability for the role.
Who is Tony Sewell?
A former teacher and international education consultant, Sewell had previously worked with Boris Johnson in 2013 when he led the then-London mayor’s education inquiry into the city’s schools, which resulted in the creation of the London schools excellence fund.
He is currently head of education charity Generating Genius, which works with children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities to prepare them for careers and university study in science and technology. He has also been a board member for both the Science Museum and the Youth Justice Board, a fellow at University College London, and sat on the Windrush working group.
Alongside his work in education, Sewell has worked as a columnist and author.
His writing and speaking engagements have long focused on issues of race and education, with some of his published views attracting controversy.
Why is his appointment controversial?
Writing in Prospect magazine in 2010, Sewell said: “Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.”
In an interview with the Times newspaper last year, the former teacher suggested that the root cause of knife crime and gang culture among Black youths was absent fathers, citing figures showing that about 50% of Black children grow up without a father.
“People often say I’m ‘brave’ to say that. It’s so patronising,” he told the paper.
Concerns have been raised about his views in the wake of the news of his appointment, with Suresh Grover – a campaigner who heads up the Monitoring Group, which helps victims of racial violence – telling The Guardian: “The appointment of Tony Sewell as the chair of the government’s new commission on race disparity confirms a widely held view within the UK’s BAME communities that its establishment is simply paying lip service to [the] deeply entrenched systemic problem of racism that exists within state institutions.
“It can now be regarded as a deeply hurtful and cynical exercise that has buried all hope for any meaningful and positive change for race relations in the UK.”
A spokesperson of the Muslim Council of Britain published a statement after Sewell’s appointment was made public, writing: “The composition of this commission tells us that the government intends to row back work done by previous governments to tackle racial disparities.”
Meanwhile Dr Zubaida Haque, interim director of the Runnymede Trust, tweeted a 2019 clip of Sewell appearing on Channel 5 News, adding: “Some fun facts about Tony Sewell who will be heading the governments race disparity commission: Sewell believes that Black single mothers don’t have the ‘strong arm’ to raise boys; school lessons are too ‘feminised’ for boys and African-Caribbean ‘youth culture’ is ‘anti-intellectual.’”
What has Downing Street said?
Downing Street has defended the appointment, despite Sewell’s previous claim that evidence of the existence of institutional racism was “flimsy”.
A Number 10 spokesperson said: “The PM’s view is that he has asked the commission to examine inequality in the UK across the whole population and he is very pleased to have assembled a group of talented and diverse commissioners who each bring a wealth of experience from across a range of important sectors.
“In terms of Dr Sewell CBE, he has supported many young people from diverse backgrounds into Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers.
“The PM knows very well his work and how it has improved access to education across London.
“The PM is confident that he shares his commitment to maximising opportunity for all.”
Who are the other commissioners?
The other commissioners include space scientist and broadcaster Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock, chair of the Youth Justice Board for England and Wales Keith Fraser, ex-BBC journalist Dr Samir Shah, professor of surgery at University College London Lord Ajay Kakkar, economist Dr Dambisa Moyo, academies trust chief executive Martyn Oliver, co-founder of UKGovChat Naureen Khalid, Muslims for Britain co-founder Aftab Chughtai, and commentator Mercy Muroki.
Two representatives from the Windrush Working Group – director of Voice4Change Kunle Olulode and Blondel Cluff, chief executive of the West India committee – will attend meetings where relevant, Number 10 confirmed.