The pandemic and the lockdown have continued to disrupt the livelihoods of so many people in our community. To that end, I have been writing to ministers across a range of issues, including the provision free-school meals, a Financial Childcare Support package, protecting Maintained Nursery Schools, providing support for the theatre and performing arts industry and guaranteeing personal protective equipment to children’s hospices. I have also been pushing the government to support asylum seekers during the crisis, developing countries saddled with debt, breweries, young women in work and rough sleepers.
There are so many issues that are in danger of being brushed under the carpet during the coronavirus crisis. These issues range from domestic abuse, Israel’s annexation plans, global human rights abuses, the immigration bill, the trade bill and the Environment Bill. On this last issue, there is no climate justice without racial justice. Hurricanes, pandemics and floods aren’t racist. But deep racial inequality means communities of colour are far less likely to survive.
Black Lives Matter
This brings me to the movement that has defined the political agenda for the past three months: Black Lives Matter. What George Floyd’s death represents is just how frightening it can be to be a black man in the modern world. Ultimately, George Floyd could have been me. I’ve spoken before about when I was aggressively patted down by a police officer as a boy in Tottenham. I was absolutely petrified. His last words, “I can’t breathe,” remain etched into our minds. We can’t breathe when we are living in a permanent state of fear. We can’t breathe when we’re waiting for the next news bulletin telling us another black man has been killed.
I’ve lived through countless episodes of racial injustice and social unrest. Yet now, more than ever, I get the feeling right now that the black community are unbelievably tired. Tired of being racially profiled in the street. Tired of waiting for progress. Tired of the never-ending struggle. At the same time, they know that injustice never sleeps, so they cannot afford to be weary.
There is a worry, however that the size of the demonstrations has less to do with a seismic political shift, and more to do with circumstance. The combination of a viral injustice and international lockdown measures has transformed the death of George Floyd into a truly global moment. When people are sitting at home watching the news and scrolling through social media, it’s easy for black lives to hit a fashionable nerve. This worry was augmented when Boris Johnson announced he was commissioning another review. I’ve been clear that we do not need any more reviews. We need action. For starters, the government needs to implement the recommendations of my 2017 review into the criminal justice system immediately.
Ultimately, we have to find a way to sustain the impetus for systemic change, without relying on the same black voices to keep the momentum going. And we have to find a way to convert a trending spectacle into a radically reformed criminal justice system, which faces up to its undeniable racial prejudice. What's inspiring about this moment is that it’s not just black people who are angry. It’s white people too. They’re angry that pervasive racism exists. They’re angry that governments keep promising things will change and they rarely do. It’s overwhelming to see so many young people take a stand, show solidarity with their brothers and sisters and fight for their future. That’s what gives me hope that, maybe this time, we are witnessing history being made.
It has been an extraordinary time to come into the role of shadow justice secretary. The challenges the Ministry of Justice is facing on prisons, courts and in supporting the legal professions as a result of the pandemic are unprecedented. At a time like this, people in Tottenham and across the country desperately need a functioning and fair justice system, whether to ensure victims see justice for offenders, to allow employees to assert their employment rights, or to promote the wellbeing of children in family courts.
The justice system was already vulnerable before the Covid-19 pandemic, having been undermined by the Conservative’s programme of cuts since 2010. Covid-19 has further revealed the challenges that the justice system if facing but it is not the root cause of them.
The backlog of cases was in the tens of thousands before Covid-19, due to a decade of court closures and cuts. Now the virus has accelerated delays, the government must take urgent action.
Prisons were understaffed and overcrowded before the crisis began. Cutting thousands of prison officers since 2010 has contributed to record levels of prison violence. An endless cycle of re-offence is the result. It has made the country less safe and led to more victims of crime up and down the country.
Meanwhile Chris Grayling’s botched experiment with probation was the deepest privatisation the criminal justice system has ever experienced. These were, in essence, cost-cutting measures. But as we have seen with so many of this government’s attempts to cut corners through under-investment, ultimately, they have cost so much more in the long run. I welcomed the Ministry of Justice’s recent U-turn to move the final part of the probation service that was privatised back into public hands. We will scrutinise the government’s changes and encourage them to work with unions, NGOs and experts to make the probation service better than it ever was before.
It is within the power of the Government to deal with many of the challenges that the justice system without rolling back fundamental rights. Labour has been telling the government for months that it should be co-opting empty public buildings to act as temporary courts during the pandemic. Justice delayed becomes justice denied.
In addition to responding to covid-19 pandemic, I have also been pushing on several other areas of reform. One of these is disproportionality in the justice system, which I explored in my 2017 cross party Review. I have been pressuring the government to continue implement my recommendations in full. The black lives matter movement means this time must become a turning point for real change.