Labour MSP Anas Sarwar has written to Nicola Sturgeon with a number of proposals to tackle racism.
Sarwar is urging the first minister to take steps to increase black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) representation and review the legal framework surrounding racist abuse.
His plan of action includes the introduction of BAME candidate shortlists in the public sector job recruitment process, undertaking regular diversity audits of Scotland’s workforce, conducting a review of social media laws and enabling public sector workers to report abuse anonymously.
The Scottish government said it would consider the proposals.
Sarwar’s letter comes after he said he was subject to racist comments during the Scottish leadership election. The MSP subsequently set out an eight-point plan for Scottish Labour to tackle racism and Islamophobia.
The last two weeks have been among the most challenging in all my time in politics. Speaking out about my own experiences of racism and Islamophobia and the impact on my family, while highlighting my own ‘difference’, is probably one of the hardest things I’ve done. I should stress that I am proud of every part of my identity.
I want to thank you for your kind words in the chamber at First Minister’s Questions on February 1st. They meant a lot to me and countless others who have experienced racism and Islamophobia. You were right: we are political opponents locally and nationally; but issues such as racism and Islamophobia go beyond party politics. I have no doubt that we have a shared ambition to build a society free of hate or prejudice in all its forms.
The messages of support have been heartening, and while the countless stories of other people’s experiences have been hard to hear, it has only strengthened my resolve. But one phrase has stayed with me: “Solidarity is welcome, but it’s action we need.”
I want to therefore thank you for committing yourself and your Government to working with the Cross Party Group (CPG) on Tackling Islamophobia. It was launched at the Scottish Parliament with the support of MSPs from every political party and over 50 organisations, representing people of all faiths and none.
You may have seen that I published a paper titled “Challenging Everyday Racism and Islamophobia – Leading by Example”, setting out what steps I believe the Labour Party can take to set a precedent for other parties and wider society. I am sure there will be elements of that report which are relevant to your own party and other political parties.
More widely, I have been doing a lot of thinking and I am writing to you to present some considered reflections and what I believe are reasonable actions that the Scottish Government should take going forward.
I want to repeat what I have said in every conversation, in every piece of communication, and in every media comment: this isn’t about one individual or one party or organisation. It’s about challenging a culture that impacts on workplaces, colleges, university campuses and playgrounds across the country.
If we accept that everyday sexism, homophobia, racism, Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of prejudice exist, then we must also accept that Scotland is not immune to them.
It is worth pointing out that most incidences of everyday racism and Islamophobia are not criminal in nature – they can’t be reported to the police. But while it may not be criminal, it does impact on life opportunities and experiences.
A number of issues that have been raised with me relate to the public sector. These include matters relating to the police, education, employment and more.
What I have set out in this letter are steps that I believe the Scottish Government should take to challenge the consequences of everyday racism and Islamophobia. This would demonstrate to the public how seriously we – as a Parliament and a country – take this issue and help us to tackle this culture head-on. It would also demonstrate that the public sector is leading by example in delivering change and act as an encouragement for the private and third sectors.
A number of issues have been raised about inconsistencies in the current legal framework, whether that be real or a perception. I understand that the Right Honourable Lord Bracadale is currently leading an independent review, commissioned by the Scottish Government, into the existing suite of laws covering hate crimes. I would appreciate if he was able to speak to the Cross Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia before publishing his findings. If his report is imminent and therefore logistically this would not be possible, could you please request that he makes himself available to present his findings to the CPG at the earliest opportunity.
One specific concern seems to be that Islamophobia is not currently covered in the Race Relations Act. It seems that is because Islam is not regarded as a race, given the multi-national make-up of it. Surely that should not mean that it is disadvantaged compared to other faiths as a result. While the Race Relations Act is a reserved piece of legislation, can you please confirm if this discrepancy is being addressed by Lord Bracadale and if not, whether he would consider doing so.
A number of other issues I am raising in this letter are likely to go beyond existing hate crime legislation. Nevertheless, engagement with this review process would be very welcome.
Police Scotland/Crown Office
I want to put on record my thanks to the officers of Police Scotland who often risk their own lives to protect others. The proposals in this letter are not a criticism of them or indeed the wider organisation, but purely an attempt to build greater understanding and create positive change for the future.
One of the concerns raised with me is the failure to establish a formal relationship between Police Scotland and the organisation Tell MAMA, despite repeated attempts.
Tell MAMA is an independent, non-governmental organisation that works on tackling anti-Muslim hatred. It works with police authorities across the UK on reporting, recording and analysing Islamophobic crimes to ensure data is accurate and reliable and that victims and witnesses affected receive support. This work also helps to better inform decision-makers and policy makers. I think this relationship should be built and formalised without delay.
It is worth noting that a Tell MAMA report found that Police Scotland recorded the fourth highest number of Islamophobic hate crimes of all police authorities across the UK in the calendar year of 2016.
One of the ways of influencing decision-making and therefore more effectively challenging Islamophobia is the gathering of accurate and reliable data. Can I therefore ask that the following is reviewed, collated and published at regular intervals, at least annually:
The current mechanisms for recording if a reported crime is Islamophobic in nature.The number of Islamophobic crimes recorded each year, broken down by nature of crime, location, gender, race and local authority.The proportion of these reported crimes that then lead to charges being made.The proportion of those charged that then lead to successful prosecutions.The most common reason why a charge does not end up in court or leads to an unsuccessful prosecution.The typical sentencing for the varied degrees of the Islamophobic crime.
I will be meeting with representatives of Police Scotland in the coming days to discuss these suggestions and the wider problem of racism and Islamophobia. A meeting with representatives of the Procurator Fiscal and the Crown Office would be extremely welcome.
When speaking to young people about racism and Islamophobia, the most common response given when asked why they believe Islamophobia is on the rise is ‘the media’. This is followed in close second place by ‘politicians’. For the avoidance of doubt, I completely support a free Press and in no way am I suggesting that this should change. It is a fundamental pillar of our democracy and our free society.
The CPG will be looking to provide a forum for a dialogue between stakeholders on this issue and the editors of print and broadcast media. I believe this will be a valuable exercise for all concerned, so as to avoid the publication of any articles or broadcast packages that could fuel racism and Islamophobia.
The issue that has been raised, however, is actually not to do with broadcast or print media – but an apparently unrestricted social media. This is usually the platform used to spread and amplify hateful views and – on occasion – glorify hate speech or violent hate incidents. This particular area is in need of review to ensure that the correct legal framework exists for the police to take action and that the appropriate legal framework is then enforced appropriately and correctly.
It must be said that these individual social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube have a responsibility too about what they are allowing to appear on their sites. This is an ongoing debate and one we will be pursuing further through the CPG.
Anonymous reporting of abuse or discrimination
I have been struck by the number of people who have been in touch with me over the last two weeks to share their own experiences of everyday racism and Islamophobia. I should stress that these are individuals in the main sharing their experiences outside of politics. An overwhelming feeling from them when discussing what actions should/shouldn’t be taken, was that the biggest barrier to reporting was an inability or a fear to speak out – that they wouldn’t be listened to, that they wouldn’t be believed, that they wouldn’t be taken seriously or – worse still – that they may face consequences.
That is why I believe the Scottish Government should be leading by example and setting up a system within the public sector where if someone doesn’t wish to make a formal complaint then a process exists to report any incidences anonymously and independently.
I understand the need to follow due process, and for the accused to be able to make a defence when a formal complaint is made. But the ability to report anonymously and independently creates a safe space for an alleged victim to voice their concerns and to seek support. It also allows the institution – be it a local council, health board or other body – to identify any patterns of behaviour that may exist with any individuals, which may then lead to subsequent action.
A similar process should be created where individuals can record incidences relating to their employment opportunities, which I will outline in more detail later.
Equality and diversity training
The Scottish Government should immediately embark on a programme of providing equality and diversity training to all Ministers, special advisors, chief executives, departmental directors, elected members and senior managers in the public sector. This training should include all forms of discrimination and prejudice. I appreciate this is a large undertaking, and some individuals will already have completed a training course, but I believe it is necessary if we are to change attitudes. A programme should be developed to roll this out more widely across the public sector and to create a system for encouraging this in the private and third sectors too.
This is a particular concern in schools where teachers have reported feeling unprepared in dealing with these incidents or – worse still – where BAME teachers feel they are the victims of racism or Islamophobia, be it from pupils or other teachers, and have limited places to turn to.
A statistic that one of the teachers involved with the BAME Educators Group shared with me was that only 1.3 per cent of teachers come from a BAME background. Of these, 60 per cent wish to leave the profession. This is an extremely worrying and upsetting statistic. I will be doing some more detailed work with this group through the CPG.
A diverse workforce is a strength. But the sad reality is that there will be incidences when one person works just as hard as another person, gains the same qualifications and has the same ambitions and aspirations, but will experience a worse outcome solely on the grounds of their ethnicity or religion. That must be challenged.
A few weeks back, I was speaking in a parliamentary debate in response to a Scottish Government report titled “Addressing Race Inequality in Scotland: The Way Forward”. A document I support, it contains words and aims that are noble, but unless we address the underlying culture they will make little difference.
In preparation for the debate I asked my researchers to look into the answers to the following: How many BAME individuals in Scotland are chief executive officers of listed companies, chairs of public sector bodies, chief executives of councils or government departments, council departmental directors, special advisers, staff who run political parties, university or college principals, school headteachers or editors or producers of newspapers, radio stations or TV stations?
The answer to each and every single one of those questions is either none or next to none. The follow-up question has to be why? It can’t be that there simply isn’t anybody with the experience or the talent. I’m confident we all agree that this is unacceptable.
It is correct that the Government publishes data on the wider public sector workforce, but there needs to be a full audit of senior, managerial or leadership roles across the public sector and beyond.
The UK Government recently conducted a Race Disparity Audit which the Scottish Government did not participate in. A full audit should take place on this section of the workforce covering all equality and diversity issues including race and religion. This should be conducted across the public sector and published every two years with a clear progress report.
There should be programmes put in place to develop diverse candidates for senior roles in the future as part of wider succession planning. There should also be full transparency and disclosure mechanism on recruitment that can be shared with and monitored by the Government.
An additional idea that has been suggested to me is introducing name-blind recruitment practices. This would reduce name-based discrimination. I must admit having looked at the different research on this I am sceptical as many of the challenges are at the interview stage rather than the application stage, but I think this is something that is worthy of exploration at least.
Shortlisting of BAME candidates
A specific mechanism that employers can put in place to help address the workforce gap is to include a requirement for at least one BAME candidate, where at least one has applied, to be shortlisted for an interview for a vacancy.
Public sector bodies should also provide details of the recruitment process to the Scottish Government, including the number of BAME applicants and the number of BAME candidates interviewed.
This is an extension of the Rooney Rule (not Wayne, but Dan), which was introduced in America by the National Football League to encourage more diverse coaches. This approach has recently also been adopted by the Football Association in England.
I believe this should go beyond just sport and apply across the public, private and third sector. I recognise that we have limited powers to implement this change in the private sector, but we can lead by example in Scotland through the public sector.
This will not automatically mean that more BAME people will be appointed, but it will at least increase the likelihood of it happening. It will also assist in gaining experience and knowledge for future opportunities even if unsuccessful.
As I have mentioned previously in this letter, adequate and reliable data is invaluable. This leads to a more informed debate and also helps to identify priorities and shape policy-making. I am pleased that Professor Peter Hopkins of Newcastle University has agreed to provide the secretariat for the CPG. He has been involved in studies looking at Islamophobia in Scotland for a number of years.
Through him we are currently putting together a much deeper and more comprehensive research project into everyday racism and Islamophobia, both from the perspective of Muslims and non-Muslims so that we can test perceptions. This will help us better understand the scale of the challenges and inform our work on the CPG as well as assist in further developing our asks of Government.
We would welcome the opportunity to discuss this work with the government’s equalities team in more detail, as working in collaboration with them could be of mutual benefit.
In our entire history in Scotland we have only ever elected 3 BAME MPs and 4 BAME MSPs. Two are the same person and two are from the same family. This is a woefully low figure. While some progress has been made at a local government level, this still remains a small number.
The political parties should work together to build a political mentoring scheme that would give young BAME people access to – and experience of – all levels of democratic structures, including political parties, local government, Holyrood, Westminster, as well as the civil service and special advisor roles.
This initiative can perhaps be led by the Scottish Parliament or the Presiding Officer’s office. I will be writing to the Presiding Officer to engage him further in this issue.
Thank you for taking the time to read this letter, and I apologise for the length of it. I want to re-iterate my thanks again for your commitment to positively engage with this work. As I said from the outset, this is not about party politics. This is something that I hope we can work constructively together on.
It is in the interest of all our citizens to defeat prejudice in all its forms, no matter gender, sexuality, religion or colour. I look forward to your considered response. Given the importance of this issue, I am making this letter public.
Anas Sarwar MSP
Scottish Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Secretary for Health
Member of the Scottish Parliament for Glasgow (Labour)