There has been great work done on racial disparities in health outcomes for patients, notably that FiveXMore have done around the disproportionate rates of Black maternal mortality. There is also a widespread awareness that those of us from minority ethnic groups were at greater risk of adverse outcomes from Covid-19. However, this same attention hasn’t been paid to the treatment of BME staff within the NHS.
Get the latest news and insight into how the Big Issue magazine is made by signing up for the Inside Big Issue newsletter
Perhaps this neglect is because BME staff are disproportionately represented in the NHS compared to the wider population, making up 22.4 per cent of the workforce, despite being underrepresented at senior levels. Indeed, it is impossible to tell the history of the NHS without mentioning the contribution of Black and minority ethnic staff, just as it is impossible to tell the story of Black and minority ethnic people in Britain without mentioning the NHS. While this is a history that deserves telling, we should not seek to sugarcoat it. As we know, those from the Windrush generation were often subject to horrific discrimination from patients and other staff. Discrimination which has still not been eradicated.
The BME Leadership Network for the NHS Confederation produced a report earlier this year titled Shattered Hopes, detailing the experiences of staff. The report found that more than half of BME leaders within the NHS had considered leaving in the past three years because of their experience of racist treatment, and that colleagues and managers were more common sources of this treatment than members of the public.
There was also a lack of confidence from BME staff that the NHS is meeting its commitments to diversity and equality, with just 10 per cent confident that it is meeting commitments to tackle institutional racism. This means that when staff are themselves subject to discrimination, they do not feel sufficiently supported by the organisation to actively challenge racism or seek redress for particular incidents.
This is having a huge knock-on effect, creating barriers to staff feeling comfortable in their jobs, maximising their potential and being successful in applying for higher level positions. Not to mention that the experiences some staff will have working within the health service will force them to quit altogether, or potentially dissuade others from joining in the first place. This is only further contributing to the staffing shortage.
Sadly, the common sense within the current Conservative Party, as expressed by last year’s Sewell Report on Race and Ethnic Disparities, is that we need to stop talking so much about race. Those of us who understand the continued prevalence of discrimination are deemed to be on the wrong side of the ‘War on Woke’.
Truly tackling this issue will require serious action. The NHS must have a real commitment to becoming an anti-racist organisation. This will involve empowering existing BME leaders and staff networks to be able to seriously challenge racism, provide support and mentor colleagues, as well as implementing a more inclusive recruitment approach for senior roles.
While an ambitious approach from NHS management can make a difference, ultimately this will also take the willpower from political leadership in Westminster to drive the radical change needed.
Kate Osamor is Labour MP for Edmonton. @KateOsamor
The Big Issue’s #BigFutures campaign is calling for investment in decent and affordable housing, ending the low wage economy, and millions of green jobs. The last 10 years of austerity and cuts to public services have failed to deliver better living standards for people in this country. Sign the open letter and demand a better future.