• Jennifer Galbraith

Time for Scottish Government to ‘walk the walk’ on Covid-19 and Ethnicity

Ahead of the forthcoming Scottish Parliament debate on Motion S5M-22770: Advancing Equality and Human Rights for Minority Ethnic People and Communities, CRER’s Policy/Research Officer, Jenny Galbraith, looks at an important new set of recommendations that could bring about the change needed to meet the motion’s goals.

Shirley-Anne Somerville MSP’s motion on Advancing Equality and Human Rights for Minority Ethnic People and Communities comes at a time when the trajectory of racial inequality in Scotland hangs in the balance.

The motion, which focuses particularly on the impact of Covid-19, reads:

“That the Parliament believes that promoting equality and human rights for minority ethnic communities should be a priority; reiterates the deep belief that there is a responsibility on everyone in society to tackle racism, prejudice and discrimination and take specific action to remove the barriers and injustices still faced by minority ethnic communities; acknowledges the work and advice of the independent Expert Reference Group on COVID-19 and Ethnicity; believes that its recommendations will be invaluable in responding to the inequalities that have been further exposed by COVID-19, and notes that the Scottish Government will present to Parliament the actions it plans to take as soon as practicably possible on the high incidence of COVID-19 among the BAME population and will continue to advance race equality across all spheres of society.”

Even although COVID-19 is a new challenge, it’s become clear in recent months that it has exacerbated the issues that Black and minority ethnic (BME) people already experience in Scottish society. I explored this on the CRER blog back in April, finding a range of evidence of inequality in health, social and financial outcomes.

In late May, our Executive Director, Jatin Haria, was asked by the Scottish Government to contribute to an Expert Reference Group on COVID-19 and Ethnicity (ERG). The ERG’s remit was to provide advice and guidance on ways we can change systemic issues, improve data on ethnicity and reduce COVID-19 risks. The decision to set up the ERG was a welcome one – CRER had previously written to key experts and agencies setting out our concerns about the lack of robust data, as set out in a previous blog post.

Since then, more Scottish-level data has gradually been produced by the National Records of Scotland and Public Health Scotland, but there are still limitations in both publications.

In this environment of limited data, providing advice and guidance on how to address the health inequalities and systemic issues that BME people face, and which COVID-19 exposed, was no small task for the ERG. The work also had to be completed in a challenging timescale, reporting back to Scottish Government in August 2020. The range of issues to be explored was vast. In response, the ERG split into two subgroups and produced two reports. One focused on systemic issues that exacerbate COVID-19 and the other focused on improving health data and evidence.

The report focusing on systemic issues had 17 recommendations, each spanning various aspects of policy. For example, encouraging diversity in employment, tackling poor quality housing and overcrowding, creating inclusive public health messaging, modifying the Curriculum for Excellence, including ethnicity more in the National Performance Framework progress reporting, and funding a scoping study to establish a national museum on empire, colonialism, slavery and migration.

The report focusing on improving health data and evidence had 14 recommendations. These included linking data to the census, documenting ethnicity in CHI records, monitoring workforce data in the NHS and social care sectors, and reporting data by ethnicity when ethnicity data is available.

The work of the ERG provides both impetus and opportunity for Scottish Government to deliver real change on racial inequality in Scottish society. Yet, the key to this lies in the word “delivers”. Many of the ERG’s recommendations are not new, and some have appeared in various guises in various reports time and time again.

As far back as 2009, NHS Health Scotland recommended that the Scottish Government should require ethnicity to be recorded in CHI records for all people registered with the NHS by 2015. This is reflected in Recommendation 3 of the ERG’s health data report. The same report also recommended further use of data linkage with the Census – again, this is akin to Recommendation 2.

The report of the Independent Adviser on Race Equality, Kaliani Lyle, contained an entire section on housing with detailed recommendations. This outlined the same issues of poor quality housing and overcrowding reflected in Recommendation 13 of the ERG’s report on systemic issues. The Government’s response to Kaliani Lyle’s recommendations formed the Race Equality Action Plan 2017-21 (REAP), which again has a section on housing.

However, comparing the recommendations to the actions, it’s clear that only a selection have been adopted. Almost all of the actions within REAP on housing relate to scoping, assessing or investigating, rather than acting. For example, Kaliani Lyle recommended that Scottish Government should make the provision of housing advice to BME communities a conditional requirement for all housing agencies or organisations it funds. On the face of it, there is no reason why this couldn’t have simply been implemented.

Instead, Scottish Government’s action was to “Assess the case for an additional specific requirement on the recording and provision of advice provided to minority ethnic communities on the conclusion of the current pilot of the Scottish Standards for information and advice providers.” This action is missing from both the Year 1 and Year 2 progress updates, and not featured in the priority actions for Year 3 set out in the Year 2 report, so it’s unclear whether this will actually be taken forward.

These examples relate to just two policy areas, but similar patterns of dilution or inaction would be apparent across the work of Scottish Government.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, CRER called on the Scottish Government to take five immediate actions on racial inequality in Scotland. These all related to known barriers to change, and were set out in simple, practical, achievable terms. We were pleased that other members of the ERG shared our view on these issues, and several of the recommendations made by the ERG echo these five asks.

Frustratingly though, the initial response to our five asks, whilst positive in its tone, didn’t fully agree to any of the specific actions set out. This raises concerns that the ERG’s recommendations might suffer the same fate, and may not be implemented in a way that tackles the key barriers to change.

Too many previous Government responses to recommendations have been full of positive intentions but lacking in positive action. This time we need Scottish Government to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.

We hope that the weight of the current situation, and the expertise of the ERG members selected by Scottish Government to address it, will encourage a rethink on the long-standing issues its two reports set out. We would urge Parliamentarians to take the opportunity of today’s debate on Advancing Equality and Human Rights for Minority Ethnic People and Communities to press for full acceptance of the ERG’s recommendations.

The alternative is to find ourselves in ten years’ time having the same discussions, and making the same recommendations. The challenges of Covid-19 are far from over. If we want to avoid an active widening of racial inequalities, with potentially catastrophic implications for BME communities, there is no other option but to act now.