David Cameron and Nick Clegg pen joint reply to mother of murdered black teenager in bid to head off embarrassing row
David Cameron and his deputy Nick Clegg have moved to head off an embarrassing row with race equality campaigners after the Guardian highlighted an uncompromising attack on the coalition by the mother of the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence.
It has emerged that 24 hours after Doreen Lawrence castigated ministers, accusing them of backtracking on the government’s commitment to equalities, the prime minister and deputy prime minister penned a joint reply from Downing Street aiming to reassure her and to bolster the government’s credentials.
The timing of the letter is significant, as Lawrence and Richard Stone, an adviser to the Macpherson inquiry, had written to both Cameron and Clegg – and Ed Miliband – a month earlier outlining concerns about government equality policies. Lawrence told the Guardian her letter had been ignored, adding that improvements in equalities prompted by the Macpherson inquiry were being imperilled and that race no longer appeared to be “on the agenda”. The campaigner raised specific concerns about the government’s review of the public sector equality duty, a measure that obliges authorities to assess the potential impact on equalities of their plans and actions. Announcing the review, home secretary Theresa May suggested that the duty – introduced last year – is responsible for too much additional bureaucracy and red tape.
In their reply to Lawrence, Cameron and Clegg write: “We recognise how important it is to ensure that the legacy of Stephen’s murder and Lord Macpherson’s report will never be lost. That legacy was to change fundamentally and forever the way that we think about race in this country. We know that you have worked tirelessly to drive these improvements and are extremely grateful to you for your work. We also want to reiterate the government’s commitment to equal treatment and equal opportunity. We care a great deal about making sure our policies never marginalise or discriminate.”
For all that, the coalition leaders maintain that the controversial review will go ahead. “We think it is a good time to make sure the PSED [public sector equality duty] is working as intended.” It will be undertaken, they say, by an “independent high-level steering group” – senior figures with experience of policing, education, health, national and local government. They also promise Lawrence that there will be intensive consultation, inside and outside parliament. “We can assure you that we will involve a wide range of organisations.”
The two leaders tell Lawrence they hope their letter, written on No 10 headed notepaper and signed by both, “reassures you around the importance and the utmost seriousness with which the coalition engages with this agenda.”
Lawrence was not available for comment, but co-signatory to her letter Richard Stone said he had hoped for a more positive response. “We sent our letter a month ago. It is good to have a reply from the prime minister and deputy prime minister. But it is written very carefully. There is nothing concrete here.”
He added: “If they were really taking this seriously, they would have said something to show they really understand the importance of this issue and the risks of allowing society to go backwards. They say, for example, that there will be no extra money to fund the review. If they were genuinely committed to making this work they would have found the extra money to do it. The prime minister and deputy prime minister must take ownership of this issue. It is important to everyone that equalities are properly measured.”
Rob Berkeley, director of the Runnymede Trust – additional co-signatories to the Lawrence letter – said they require action to match words from Downing Street. “Until we see falling unemployment among young black men and an acknowledgement of the gap in the employment of black women; improvements in the disparities of stop and search and an improvement as regards school exclusions, these will just seem to be warm words. We need them to set out a meaningful strategy to address racial inequality.”
The government is both sensitive and susceptible to claims that it is careless of equalities. In recent months ministers have been criticised for austerity cuts that seem likely to hit lower paid minority workers hard. There has also been controversy about plans to scale down the Equalities and Human Rights Commission, with the regulator’s budget slashed and a policy shift to appoint commissioners who show particular expertise in business and audit.