UK Politics

Coronavirus: Minister Kemi Badenoch rejects 'systemic injustice' claims

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Media captionSNP MP Alison Thewliss' claims that forcing black people to work is a racist policy are rejected by Kemi Badenoch

A minister has hit back at claims "systemic injustice" is the reason ethnic minorities are more likely to die from coronavirus in England.

Kemi Badenoch said work was under way on why risks were higher for some ethnic groups, including factors like jobs and housing.

Opposition MPs attacked the government's record on racial justice.

The equalities minister told them: "This is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person."

In heated Commons exchanges, Labour's Zarah Sultana called for a strategy covering all government departments to tackle underlying inequalities and "systemic injustice", adding that Covid-19 does not discriminate but the "system in which it is spreading does".

"Higher rates of poverty, overcrowded housing, precarious work and jobs on the front line mean that if you're black or Asian you're more likely to catch the virus and to be hit worse if you do," she told MPs.

"Black Lives Matter is not just a slogan and we are owed more than confirmation that our communities are suffering - we're owed justice."

'Proud record'

Ms Badenoch said other groups, including those based on age and gender, have also been disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and must be looked at.

But she added: "I'm not going to take any lessons from the honourable lady on race and what I should be doing on that. I think this government has a record to be proud of."

Labour's Rupa Huq raised the Black Lives Matter protests in Westminster on Wednesday over the death of African-American George Floyd in US police custody, saying: "The placard that sticks in my mind most is one that said 'Being black should not be a death sentence'."

Ms Badenoch insisted the government was examining the reasons for the higher death rate and stressed it would be more than just a "box-ticking exercise".

But she added: "Let us not in this House use statements like 'being black is a death sentence', which young people out there hear, don't understand the context and then continue to believe that they live in a society that is against them when actually this is one of the best countries in the world to be a black person."

A report by Public Health England this week confirmed people from ethnic minorities are at higher risk of dying from coronavirus.

The report showed that age remains the biggest risk factor, while being male is another.

'Whitewash'

The government has faced criticism for not publishing any recommendations to address these disparities.

Labour's shadow equalities minister Marsha De Cordova called for an action plan, adding: "The government must not wait any longer to address underlying racial and socioeconomic injustices, so that no more lives are lost."

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Image caption Black Lives Matter protesters marched on Downing Street

Ms Badenoch also faced claims from Labour and Lib Dem MPs that the government had censored the Public Health England report to leave out comments from organisations and individuals who had contributed to the review.

According to the Health Service Journal, one of the responses, from the Muslim Council of Britain, called on Public Health England to look into "specific measures to tackle the culture of discrimination and racism" in the NHS.

Labour MP Dawn Butler accused the government of engaging in a "whitewash".

Ms Badenoch said it was never the government's plan to publish these responses - and she would be working with the government's Race Disparity Unit to come up with recommendations.

She said the Public Health England report did not cover factors such as housing density, underlying health conditions or the occupations of those who have died, which she said "may well go some way to explain the gaps".

Work is also under way to find out why an initial report by Public Health Scotland, found no racial disparity in coronavirus deaths in Scotland, she told MPs.