TORIES in Kirklees have refused to back a report on tackling inequalities highlighted by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
In a group assault on the content of the report, which was brought to Full Council (Oct 21) for approval, they variously described the authority as “structurally disablist”, said it preferred “virtue-signalling banners” such as BAME, which were “divisive, prejudiced and racist”and that it was adopting an “Orwellian strategy” around notions such as “unconscious bias training”.
One councillor went as far as damning the report as “overtly racist” as it failed to focus on white working class youths, a grouping that he said was “recognised nationally as the one which experiences the most education related inequalities”.
The 12-page report, headlined Tackling Inequalities, puts forward proposals for a member-led Inequalities Commission in Kirklees that will work closely with partners and communities “to direct and instigate action, focus on better understanding of the issues faced, and take forward clear actions to advance equality in Kirklees”.
In presenting the report Council Leader Clr Shabir Pandor said it was “more important than ever” to support people “on the margins” of society.
But during a lengthy and occasionally scornful debate Conservatives tore into the content.
Clr Bill Armer (Kirkburton) accused the council of paying lip service to disability and described the authority as “structurally disablist”.
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He added: “In the report … the word ‘disability’ appears once. There is no further discussion of the topic that I can see, yet I am willing to bet that everyone here has a family member, friend or neighbour who is disabled.
“Disability is something which can affect anyone regardless of age, ethnicity, culture or social class. It is colour blind and cares not for gender or sexual orientation.”
His colleague Clr John Taylor (Kirkburton) said if the council failed to “tackle inequalities equally” it would create space for groups on the far right and far left “to divide us and push their fascist agendas”.
Referring to Dr Martin Luther King’s 1963 ‘I have a dream’ speech he said it was incumbent on the council not to exclude white working class males from its work on inequality.
He said: “[White working class males] have the worst educational outcomes and if we are tackling inequalities this group should be amongst those that we
focus on and help.
“Yet this report brings forward a proposal which will specifically exclude them
from the support they need, purely on the basis of the colour of their skin.”
He said initiating an Inequality Commission but excluding white working class youths from its remit was “overtly racist”.
Clr Mark Thompson (Birstall and Birkenshaw) criticised the report’s use of acronyms such as BAME – black and minority ethnic – as “virtue-signalling banners” and “labels”, which, he contended, were in themselves divisive, prejudiced and racist.
And he said offering training to tackle “unconscious bias” was an “Orwellian strategy”.
Conservative group leader Clr David Hall (Liversedge and Gomersal) said the report was “reactionary” rather than “measured”, which was “the wrong approach to the subject”.
He added: “I fear we are proposing solutions to problems before we have ascertained the facts.
“We have grave concerns about the direction of approach in this particular report, and it means we can’t support it. Nevertheless we will continue to support the establishment of the commission and to support its broad aims.”
There was a punchy response from members of the ruling Labour group.
Clr Darren O’Donovan (Dewsbury West) said he would not be “lectured” by Conservative politicians “who represent the bedroom tax, Universal Credit, divisive PIP assessments on disabled people and, just this evening, a Conservative government that just voted against providing free school meals for children over the holidays”.
He added: “I find it quite a contradiction from Clr Taylor to, quite rightly on one hand, quote Martin Luther King and his ‘I have a dream’ speech about children being treated the same whatever the colour of their skin is.
“Yet [he] fails to see the message within this report, which seeks to do exactly that.”
Clr Amanda Pinnock (Ashbrow), the first – and so far only – black councillor to be elected in Kirklees, said although overt discrimination was more prevalent in the United States “hidden covert practices” exist in the UK.
She pointed out that the black community was disproportionately affected by poverty, deprivation and inadequate housing, limited education attainment and high exclusion rates, and employment opportunities and advancement as well as deaths as a result of Covid-19.
She said the formation of the Inequality Commission represented “a fantastic start” in levelling-up the playing field.
“Saying black lives matter does not mean by default other lives do not matter.
“How can we say ‘all lives matter’ if we are as councillors do not use our power and influence to improve the lives of others? These initiatives are music to my ears.”
Lib Dem group leader Clr John Lawson (Cleckheaton) drew a direct connection between the debate and MPs who voted to not extend free school meals over the holidays.
Three of the borough’s MPs – Barry Sheerman, Tracy Brabin and Jason McCartney voted in favour of Labour’s motion to provide 1.4million children with free school meal vouchers until Easter 2021.
Mark Eastwood was among 318 Conservative MPs who voted against the extension.
Clr Lawson said: “I suggest [Conservative members] should go back to their MPs and they have a long, hard reflection on what they mean by inequality after the way that their MPs have voted in Parliament tonight.
“Depriving children who are going to suffer from hot meals during the school holidays – during this period especially – is outrageous. There’s no other word for it.”
Prior to a vote on the report Clr Pandor (Batley West) made a last-minute plea for Conservative members to come on board and back it.
The vote was carried with Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and Independents voting in favour. The Conservative group abstained en-masse.