Government under fire over choice of racial disparity commission chair

Demonstators during a Black Lives Matter protest at Marble Arch, central London, sparked by the deat

Demonstators during a Black Lives Matter protest at Marble Arch, central London, sparked by the death of George Floyd, who was killed on May 25 while in police custody in the US city of Minneapolis - Credit: PA

A race equality think tank has questioned the suitability of Tony Sewell as chairman of the racial disparity commission after the academic previously claimed that evidence of the existence of institutional racism was “flimsy”.

Dr Sewell, chairman of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities, said there was evidence of overt racism in Britain but denied it was structural, ahead of the full publication the commission’s long-awaited report on race.

Boris Johnson announced the establishment of the commission after a series of anti-racism protests on British streets triggered by the death in the US of George Floyd while in police custody.

Downing Street defended the choice of Dr Sewell to lead the work when he was appointed last July, after campaigners pointed to his previous comments on institutional racism.

Dr Sewell previously worked with the prime minister in 2013 when he led the then London mayor’s education inquiry into the capital’s schools, which resulted in the creation of the London Schools Excellence Fund.

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Writing in Prospect magazine in 2010, Dr Sewell, an international education consultant, said: “Much of the supposed evidence of institutional racism is flimsy.”

The former teacher suggested in an interview 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.

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“People often say I’m brave to say that. It’s so patronising,” he told the Times newspaper.

The early stages of setting up the commission drew controversy after Johnson gave Munira Mirza, head of the Number 10 policy unit, a major role in its creation.

Mirza had previously questioned the existence of institutional racism and hit out at a “culture of grievance” among anti-racism campaigners.

Ahead of the report’s publication, Dr Halima Begum, chief executive of the Runnymede Trust, questioned the suitability of Sewell and Mirza’s involvement in the commission.

She said: “If both these individuals are from the outset denying the existence of institutional racism, then what hope did we have that they were going to look into this in an objective manner, if not follow whatever the government mantra is?”

The report was published in full on Wednesday morning, after the government Equalities Office revealed selective highlights to journalists with the terms of a “no approach” embargo.

This prevents reporters from collecting reaction to the report before the embargo lifts, which in this case was midnight on Wednesday.

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