We are writing to you at what we believe is a unique point in British history and culture.
The decision by the British people to leave the European Union and the negotiations that follow will be a defining moment for the nations of the UK. While the focus has been on our place as a global economic leader and trading partner to European nations and major world economies, we also believe there is a need for a discussion on what values we hold as a country. As Britain’s national equality body and national human rights institution, we believe it is our place to help facilitate this discussion. This letter goes to all political parties and we would welcome the opportunity to meet you in person, individually or collectively, to discuss how we can work closely with you in the months ahead and help to shape your agenda and policies to make Britain the vibrant and inclusive country we believe it should be.
After the referendum, politicians of all parties spoke about the need to heal the country and bring people together. However, since those early weeks there is growing concern that the divisions on a range of big questions are widening and exacerbating tensions in our society. The murder of Arkadiusz Jozwick, racist, anti-semitic and homophobic attacks on the streets, and reports of hijabs being pulled off are all stains on our society. We at the Commission have met community groups, representatives and diplomats who have expressed their sadness and disappointment at these events and their wish to work with us to heal the divide.
We are concerned that attacks on supporters of both sides of the Brexit debate have polarised many parts of the country. There are those who used, and continue to use, public concern about immigration policy and the economy to legitimise hate. The vast majority of people who voted to leave the European Union did so because they believe it is best for Britain and not because they are intolerant of others.
We welcome the UK government’s hate crime action plan, but believe more concerted action is needed to counter the narrative from a small minority. We therefore suggest the UK government should carry out a full-scale review of the operation and effectiveness of the sentencing for hate crimes in England and Wales, including the ability to increase sentencing for crimes motivated by hate, and provide stronger evidence to prove their hate crime strategies are working.
We were also concerned by the ambivalent reception given to findings of anti-semitism in mainstream political parties. A clear affirmation that such behaviour is unacceptable is necessary to confirm that standards will improve.
Politicians of all sides should be aware of the effect on national mood of their words and policies, even when they are not enacted. Examples include the recent suggestion, later rejected, that companies would be ‘named and shamed’ for employing foreign workers and also the discussion on child migrants, a crisis where our record on human rights will be judged and where dialogue escalated to irrational levels. We have proposed that in the case of uncertainty, a young asylum seeker must simply be treated as such until their age has been assessed by an independent expert.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission has a statutory power to advise government. Where important new protections are advanced in Europe, whether they relate to data protection, children’s rights or the rights of disabled people to travel independently, we will argue strongly that these rights should also be introduced into British law. Once we are outside the European Union, we will be in a position to identify good practice and follow it with strength and conviction. We have a strong human rights and equality framework in UK law but must remain open to initiatives from abroad that further strengthen this.
Your offices bring with them a responsibility to ensure that policy debate is conducted in a way that brings the country together and moves it forward. Robust discussion is a central pillar of our democracy and nothing should be done to undermine freedom of expression. The right to free and fair elections supported by accurate information and respectful debate is also essential to our democratic process. Our elected representatives and the media should reflect and foster the best values in our society and engage people on contentious issues in a responsible and considered way. Working with you we stand ready to play a full part in identifying the right policy solutions for Britain.
We look forward to hearing from you.
David Isaac and Rebecca Hilsenrath
Notes to editors
For further information please contact the media office on 0161 829 8102, out of hours 07767 272 818.