Should the UK Government be labelled as “institutionally discriminatory towards children and young people”?

The UK Government: A history of failing children and young people. Left to right: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Save the Children's campaign to tackle poverty among the UK's children.

The UK Government: A history of failing children and young people. Left to right: Tony Blair, David Cameron, Michael Gove, Save the Children’s campaign to tackle poverty among the UK’s children.

In 1999, the United Kingdom’s Metropolitan Police Service was labelled as “institutionally racist” by Sir William Macpherson in his report into the murder of teenager Stephen Lawrence. Was this controversial action by Macpherson effective and, if so, could this ‘organisational tagging’ be applied elsewhere? For example, should the UK Government be labelled as “institutionally discriminatory towards children and young people”?

Defining the term "institutionally racist". Left to right: Charles V. Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael (AKA Kwame Ture), Sir William Macpherson

Defining the term “institutionally racist”. Left to right: Charles V. Hamilton, Stokely Carmichael (AKA Kwame Ture), Sir William Macpherson

Macpherson defined “institutional racism” as “the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin”. Macpherson’s definition is very similar to that used by black American activists Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton in the 1960s to describe the racism that they saw permeating American society and its public bodies.

Ten years after Macpherson’s report the UK Home Affairs Committee were convinced that labelling the Metropolitan Police Service this way had been key to the improvements made to the force’s policing. They wrote, “The use of the term ‘institutional racism’ …was absolutely critical in shaking police forces up and down the country out of their complacency. The consequence of that has been that police forces have paid a lot of attention; they have put a lot of resources in.”

Branding an organisation as Macpherson did creates a deep sense of humility. A further set of official debates have to take place before the label can be removed. In 2013, the Metropolitan Police Service still carries this label because it has not been officially removed – there is still no consensus that they are not institutionally racist. This method prevents the oft-heard organisational response to inquiries findings of “mistakes were made…lessons will be learned”. Just one example of this would be in February 2013 when the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) condemned the Metropolitan Police Service’s Southwark Sapphire (sex crime) Unit for its “wholly inappropriate” and “deeply disturbing” approach of pressurising victims to drop rape allegations so its own performance figures would look better. In the Metropolitan Police Service’s press statement they said, “We are not complacent and know there is always more that can be done…” Some of the senior offices involved were promoted.

There were a number of grounds upon which the Metropolitan Police Service was branded as institutionally racist by Macpherson in 1999 and in the Runnymede Trust’s 2009 follow-up report that can be adapted to assess whether the UK Government is institutionally discriminatory towards children and young people:

  1. Lack of representation of black people within the police.
  2. Black people being particularly targeted or disadvantaged by policy.
  3. Poor internal disciplinary processes for misconduct of a racist nature.

A small collection of evidence:

 1. Lack of representation of *children and young people* within the UK Government.

With the legal voting age in the UK being 18 this is the simplest point to prove. Successive governments have voted against lowering the voting age to 16 despite reports such as the POWER inquiry of 2004 calling for the age to be lowered. None of the 200,000 children and young people predicted to be pushed in to poverty will have redress through the ballot box.

Three days after it was revealed that Education Secretary, Michael Gove, had not visited any youth projects in the two and half years since he took charge of the Department for Education, the UK public learnt that its Government was “expanding a controversial scheme which pairs dozens of multinational companies with a ministerial ‘buddy’, giving them privileged access to the heart of government”.

2. *Children and young people* being particularly targeted or disadvantaged by policy.

On 21st January 2013, the Children’s Rights Alliance England published a report assessing how well the UK Government is protecting children’s rights. It revealed a catalogue of violations, and reported that the promise the UK Government made in 2010 to, “give due consideration to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child Articles when making new policy and legislation” had been broken. Only 1 of the 17 UK Government departments assessed – the Department for Education – provided evidence that it had assessed it’s policies for impact upon children. However, the analysis indicated that the Government had tended to focus on evidence which supported its preferred policy positions.

And the impact of this failure to assess the impact of policy on children and young people? The list is huge; here are a few examples: “Austerity measures are creating swaths of citizens who can no longer feed themselves or their families adequately”,  “Government admits placing young offenders in adult jails”, “Number of children’s centres falls by more than 400”, “Child poverty map reveals extent of deprivation across UK”, “European Commission advises investment to combat child poverty”, “Children plunged into ‘severe poverty’ by asylum benefit system”, “TUC says majority of children face ‘unacceptable’ living standards”.

In September 2012, international aid charity Save the Children launched their first campaign to help tackle poverty within the UK. This was driven in part by Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) figures estimating that there are 3.5 million children living in poverty in the UK with a steep rise expected in the next few years. The campaign, tagged “It shouldn’t happen here”, raises funds to give cookers, beds and other essential household items to families affected by poverty, and to help low-income parents provide educational support to their children.

It’s important to remember that it is not just the current Government who are at fault. In 2007, after a decade of Tony Blair’s Labour Government, UNICEF reported* that Britain was at the bottom of the league of 21 wealthiest countries in the world for the wellbeing of children. (*statistic quoted from Camila Batmanghelidjh’s ‘Mind the Child’).

In his report, Macpherson said it was, “vital to stress that neither academic debate nor the evidence presented to us leads us to… conclude that… the policies of the Metropolitan Police Service are racist… Indeed the contrary is true. It is in the implementation of policies and in the words and actions of officers acting together that racism may become apparent.” But in the case of the UK Government it is both the policies which they develop and the implementation of those policies which target or discriminate against children and young people.

3. Poor internal disciplinary processes for misconduct *related to offences against children and young people*.

Paedophile cover-ups: Cyril Smith (left) & Sir Peter Hayman (right)

Paedophile cover-ups: Cyril Smith (left) & Sir Peter Hayman (right)

There is a growing body of evidence surfacing to show how Parliament and its political parties have acted to cover-up the sexual abuse of children and young people by its members. Examples include senior Liberals knowing that Cyril Smith was abusing young boys but doing nothing, and the Government preventing the prosecution of Sir Peter Hayman and attempting to protect his identify. Instead of encouraging MPs to speak up so that allegations can be investigated, they are threatened, from Geoffrey Dickens MP in the 1970’s and 80’s through to Tom Watson MP in 2012.

Geoffrey Dickens MP -  presented a 50-page dossier to the Home Office containing information about a suspected VIP paedophile ring that went to the heart of Government.

Geoffrey Dickens MP – missing dossier.

It recently emerged that Geoffrey Dickens MP presented a 50-page dossier containing information about a suspected VIP paedophile ring that went to the heart of Government. The MP met with the then-Home Secretary Leon Brittan and reported that he had been assured his allegations of a UK-wide paedophile ring would be fully investigated. But there is no evidence Mr Dickens’ findings were ever followed up and the Home Office admits it has no idea where the file is now. These revelations form part of the ongoing Operation Fernbridge investigation.

Jon Snow - "25 years of cover-up".

Jon Snow – “25 years of cover-up”.

Channel Four’s Jon Snow wrote, “From East Belfast’s Kincora Boys’ home, via Leicestershire, Staffordshire and London, to the children’s homes of Clwyd, we have witnessed 25 years of cover-up [of child abuse]. Cover-up, not to protect the innocent but to protect the regularly named elements of the British establishment who surface whenever widespread evidence of child abuse is exposed.”

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As with Macpherson and the Metropolitan Police Service, the intention is not to brand every individual Member of Parliament as discriminatory. Some MPs do significant things to support children and young people both within their constituencies and nationally. But the evidence overwhelming supports the labelling of the UK Government as institutionally discriminatory towards children and young people.

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