This blog was written by Ugbana Oyet, Serjeant at Arms in the House of Commons. Mr Oyet was appointed in October 2019. Prior to this he was Parliament’s Principal Electrical Engineer and Programme Director for the Engineering Infrastructure and Resilience Programme.
The 1st August marks the anniversary of the day that slavery was abolished in the British Empire, it has become known as Emancipation Day. The act that ended slavery, the Slavery Abolition Act is held by the Parliamentary Archives. The Parliamentary Archives and ParliREACH asked people what this Act and Emancipation Day means to them.
I am currently reading the book Tribes by David Lammy. One of the stories that caught my attention is that of Moustapha Kadi, a descendant of the elite rulers of Niger who decided to publicly free his family’s slaves, the impact that had on the community was surprising. As a British man of African descent, I am saddened by the impact slavery has on Africans and Britons. People of African descent have been impacted by slavery from around 1318 BC (4,000 years ago) when the Hebrews were enslaved in Egypt, to the Arab slave trade from around 8th century AD, the European transatlantic slave trade from the 15th century till 19th century AD, to modern day slavery with 100,000 slaves in the UK today. In his book Tribes, David Lammy observes that “the principal difference between indigenous slavery and the chattel slavery that followed it was that it was not until the latter that people became the full legal property of their owners.. It (transatlantic slavery) led to the commodification of humans…”
Until the day when slavery in all it’s forms is ended and every person is judged by the content of their character and not by the colour of their skin, it will remain important to mark Emancipation day and other events that remind us of the progress made in overcoming the injustice of slavery and racism and the unfinished work we still have to do.
I had never considered the colour of my skin as a distinguishing factor about me until I arrived in England and people began commenting on the fact that I was black. This took me by surprise because I did not think there was anything unusual about being black; it would be like pointing to a Christmas tree and fixating on its green leaves. As a person of African heritage we identify ourselves by our family name, ancestry or tribe. Just as most people accept their skin colour as normal, so do we— our skin colour is normal and not a subject for comment.
This year I worked with teams from the UK, Africa, Europe and the USA to organise an event on 19 June 2020 to mark Juneteenth day which celebrates the emancipation of those who had been enslaved in the United States. This event brought together community and faith leaders from around the world to acknowledge and apologise for the roles our communities played in slavery, racism and the resulting bloodshed and injustice. The outcomes included initiating reconciliation, healing and restoration to individuals, communities and nations that had been impacted by slavery and racism.
The impact of covid-19 and the killing of George Floyd in the USA has highlighted the scale of inequality that still needs to be tackled. Across Parliament, senior leaders have responded to the murder of George Floyd by issuing strong statements on tackling racism and ensuring everyone is equally championed. The Prime Minister said “In this country and around the world his dying words – I can’t breathe – have awakened an anger and a widespread and incontrovertible, undeniable feeling of injustice, a feeling that people from black and minority ethnic groups do face discrimination: in education, in employment, in the application of the criminal law.”
In the wake of reports that covid-19 had disproportionate impact on BAME community, the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland said the government would do “whatever it takes” to protect black, asian and minority ethnic NHS staff from the coronavirus. According to reports from the Intensive Care National Audit and Research Centre 34% of virus patients admitted to hospital critical care units are BAME.
As Serjeant At Arms with responsibility for access in the House of Commons estate I have implemented changes to access rules. ParliREACH had made submissions to the report by Dame Laura Cox and argued that the previous arrangement which was based on pay grade meant most BAME colleagues could not have access to parts of the estate as the most junior grades are predominately occupied by BAME colleagues. The access rules are no longer based on pay grade but are based on business need. This change has been well received across the House.
We are exploring what more can be done within our structures, policies, processes and culture as part of the Clerk’s BAME Advisory Group, we will listen, learn and act to ensure everyone in our community is championed equally.
There is also work to be done at national and international levels; I have been impressed by young people who have spoken eloquently against racism, engaged with their elected representatives and taken action to end injustice, discrimination, and racism.
Finally I believe words are powerful, I find some of the words and labels we use when speaking about people of African and Asian heritage to be at times unhelpful. In 2015 the former Chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality Trevor Phillips gave a speech in which he suggested that phrases such as black and minority ethnic (BME) and black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) have become outdated, existing purely “to tidy away the messy jumble of real human beings who share only one characteristic – that they don’t have white skin”. He said the acronyms could be divisive, and actually served to mask the disadvantages suffered by specific ethnic and cultural groups. I agree with him, we need to seek new language that is affirming and empowering. As we mark Emancipation Day I hope we can all use our words and actions to fight the injustice of slavery and racism.