A review carried out by the cross-party Local Government Association has concluded that there is a “disturbing” culture in the London Borough of Havering in which sexist and racist behaviour have become “normalised”.
Made available to the public last week, the report conducted independently of the Conservative-run local authority found that there “appears to be no consistent approach” to dealing with “widespread” allegations of racism and sexism.
It reported that there are “a lot of demoralised Black, Asian and minority ethnic staff at the London Borough of Havering” partly caused by a lack of support for staff who experience abuse from other council workers or service users.
The investigation, produced by four representatives of other councils and two LGA staff, heard reports of incidents of assault or abuse that had taken place but the police had not been called and the perpetrator not challenged appropriately.
The review heard evidence of racist, sexist and homophobic incidents, and discrimination towards disabled people and council employee focus groups reported “widespread negative views” of the council’s record on equality.
It also stated: “Councillors are aware that they have community leadership roles, but it appears that few understand their legal responsibilities with respect to equality. Middle managers also appear to be unaware of their responsibilities, or how to address particular issues that come up in their teams.”
Councillor Keith Darvill told LabourList that opposition members had drawn attention to problems in the local authority more than two years ago, but said the leadership of the council “took a blinkered view that all was well”.
“The review makes clear that it is not only racism and sexism that needs to be eliminated. I have major concerns, in addition, to the treatment of residents with disabilities and the elderly vulnerable,” the Labour group leader said.
“Separately, the Labour group has submitted a detailed statement following meetings with a whistleblower who has left the council’s employment, which highlights ten different cases of concern. There are follow-up meetings with the chief executive of the council to go through the cases to ensure that the issues arising from them are addressed.”
Allegations that residents were denied access to services based on their race are being investigated after a dossier was handed to the chief executive detailing instances in which the council has been accused of acting inappropriately.
Darvill added: “We hope that the recommendations of the [race equality, accessibility, diversity and inclusion review] review are addressed and we intend to hold the Conservative administration to account to ensure that see progress on all the equality and diversity issues and that decency is restored to the borough.”
Darvill described a “poor culture” in the authority, highlighting an incident in which a Labour colleague, Tele Lawal, had been “handled in an aggressive way by another member of the council” but the complaint was “brushed under the carpet”.
Lawal, the first Black woman to be elected as a councillor in Havering, had been campaigning for action on racism in the borough. She explained to LabourList last year how she had been attacked by a fellow councillor.
Appointed as champion for equality and diversity, Lawal had submitted a report in 2019 on racial issues but she was removed from the post and the recommendations, including a call for an independent review, were not implemented.
The Labour councillor went on to launch the ‘Havering Racism’ campaign, which made ten demands including reiterating the call for the council leader and chief executive to hold an independent review into racial equality in the borough.
Replying to an open letter from Lawal to the Conservative council leader Damian White and chief executive Andrew Blake-Herbert calling for an inquiry, the pair wrote: “It is of course essential that we all do more to increase cohesion within our communities generally and specifically to confront and eliminate racism. But that should not undermine the work underway in Havering.”
Following pressure from the Labour group and the public in Havering, White subsequently U-turned and announced at the annual general meeting of the local authority that an independent review would take place.
“[White] never wanted to do it. It was recommended way back in 2019 so, yeah, this was not off the council’s back – it was from the pressure that we were applying,” Lawal told LabourList.
She described the findings of the investigation as “embarrassing” for the council and said the review is the “public accountability that we’ve always needed and we’ve never had, because all the reviews we’ve done have been internal”.
The councillor stressed the importance of the review having been carried out independently of the borough, by figures not representing the council and LGA staff.
Lawal highlighted the “strong observations” made in the report, which the Labour councillor said have shocked a lot of people in the borough and argued that they will “definitely make the local authority get into gear”.
“We are in a lot better position than we have been in a while in Havering. Before in Havering, you wouldn’t even get people to talk about race – you’d talk about race, you would hear groans,” she told LabourList.
“So to be having these conversations so publicly is a big move for an area that is traditionally – and I’m not just talking about its politics – is very conservative.”
Commenting on the review, a council spokesperson said: “The council is absolutely committed to an anti-discrimination workplace. All staff should feel safe and comfortable to be themselves and enjoy a fulfilling and rewarding career with us.
“We are very concerned about the issues raised and will be carrying out investigations in line with our HR policies. Given the serious nature of the allegations it would be inappropriate to comment further at this time.
“The council always takes reports of this nature extremely seriously and will not tolerate any type of discrimination within the organisation or the wider borough.”
Council leader Damien White has been contacted for comment.