Select Committee on Home Affairs Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 89)

TUESDAY 7 NOVEMBER 2006

REVEREND NIMS OBUNGE AND REVEREND LES ISAACS

  Q80  Mr Streeter: In the same spirit in which you challenged us earlier, may I challenge you on this issue of black role models out there in society. Has that not changed in recent years? Is the BBC not now being fantastic—and I totally support it—in presenting black faces on the media. In presenting all kinds of programmes for young people, news and whatever, there are lots of black commentators. In Football Focus on Saturday three or four people on the panel were black. Jeremy Guscott, is a regular on the rugby—which is a much superior sport, as we all know! There are lots of black role models on the media. I know that sport is not the only thing, I am just using that as an example. In the news being read, all kinds of programmes. In lots of TV adverts, black faces—the Halifax, all kinds of products. Are you not out of date? Is there not a bit of a victim culture in what you are saying? It has already changed, has it not?

  Reverend Obunge: I attended the meeting of the Windsor Leadership Trust and there were about 400 people there. The Chair of Vodafone was speaking to senior corporate individuals. Of the 400 senior corporate individuals there—and I wondered how I made it there, anyhow—there were four to five black people. Where this country gets changed is not what you have just spoken about. Where it gets changed is where the money is; is where a lot of the corporate decisions are being made. It is not a victim sense. I understand what you just said, but I am looking at corporate Britain, I am looking at here, I am looking at the wider context, and I am trying to say we are under-represented. If there was a black person sitting there, he would say, "Hold on a second, it has nothing to do with feeling that we are just victims; it has to do with we need to do a lot more to reassure our community, to reassure black people in Great Britain that we are doing something for the black community"—and for other communities, dare I say. I would put it to you this way: there is an unfortunate reality that exists in our black community. If that perception exists, that perception is going to throw attitude. If it is a wrong perception, then the Government needs to change that perception by proving that they are wrong. At the moment it is not being able to prove it.

  Mr Streeter: Thank you. My real question is this.

  Chairman: The Committee is being very ill-disciplined.

  Q81  Mr Streeter: I am so sorry—we are prorogation happy! On fatherlessness in the black community, we have had some alarming statistics in our earlier evidence. I have a simple question to both of you: Why is it more prevalent in the black community? It is a problem in every community and all the commentators are now agreeing it is an issue for every child who grows up without an engaged father, whichever community, whichever country. Why is it more prevalent in the black community in this country?

  Reverend Obunge: I do not think you can ignore the history. I did politics and international law for my first degree, before I became a minister. I do not think you can ignore what the slave trade did to the black community. I do not think you can ignore the fact that you took a black man from Nigeria and a black man from Ghana and you placed them on a plantation farm, and you took the wife of the Nigerian and placed her with the Ghanaian woman, and, before they could learn each other's language, you took that woman away and placed another person there, and eventually you destroyed the fibre of the black community in the historical context. We need to understand that this was done historically and there is an impact of what happened several hundred years ago that still has a rippling effect today. Let us understand that. Let us not just push that away. It is so easy to pretend that that does not exist today but the reality is that part of your history makes you who you are. It is not to say that we have not fought it in our values within the black community, that we are not challenging ourselves and that we do not have holistic families still, but I think you also have to look at the historical context. That is a big one. Again, how do you go back to that past? I think it is about acknowledging that past and acknowledging the dysfunction that was placed within black communities by the white community. It was not done by the black people. We did not do it ourselves. It was inflicted upon us. I do not hear enough about that on one tier. Then we have the present day reality. Our present day reality is that there is a dysfunction that exists and we are fighting to deal with that dysfunction. I do not want to blame the Government on that, because I think it is wrong to assume that the Government raises a child or raises a family, but the Government can support black fathers, can support black men to be fathers in the community, provide them with job opportunities, have affirmative action, provide opportunities for the men in our community, for the families in our community, so that a woman does not have to work three jobs and a man does not have to work so many jobs that he is out of the house and eventually goes. I am saying provide opportunities.

  Reverend Isaacs: I led a discussion with about 80 senior citizens, mums and dads, grandmas and grandfathers in a church in Brixton some years ago and we were talking about how did we arrive at this point in our history. Many of them were very angry with the Government in the 60s and 70s. Many of them were frustrated because they felt and they said that in the 60s and 70s in England they were undermined. Some of the discussions we are having about cultures and other communities we did not have, as the black people arriving here in the 50s and 60s. We did not have: "How do we amalgamate?" "What are their cultures?" There was a culture clash in those days, which we are still bearing the fruits of when the grandmas and grandfathers are saying "Our children don't respect us any more." I could not address someone two years older than me by their first name. In our culture, we could not do that. I still, at the age of 49, have to call my uncle "Uncle". Someone who is not my mother, I still call her "Mother", and I still call him "Father." That is my generation. They have lost that and they felt that back in the 60s and the 70s that was undermined by the Government. There is a combination of things that has contributed to the problems and challenges which we face today. I think what Reverend Obunge was saying was quite right. I think the issue of slavery, again, we have not addressed. I go to Africa a lot. When I go to Africa and meet with my counterpart and we exchange ideas, I go to a village where there are elders. One of my friends is a merchant banker and he says, "When I go back to the village, I have to prostrate before my elders, some of whom are illiterate. But, you see, I honour them because there is where I come from." There has been this tension in this culture clash, this culture confusion. Many things have happened which have caused confusion. The last thing I would like to say is this. A couple of months ago I was speaking to another West Indian woman in Brixton and a young black boy passed us—in fact he walked through us. I stopped him and I said, "Come here." I said, "You are out of order." He said, "What?" I said, "In our culture, when you see two adults speaking, you say `Good morning' and you walk round them, not through them." He said, "I'm British." I said, "No, you're black as well." He apologised for his lack of respect and he went on his way. When I met him again, I was the first to say to him, "Good morning." I think those kinds of things we have discarded and thrown away which have been very much part of the fabric of the African and Caribbean community. If we bring those things back and understand those things, then I think over some years, 10-15 years, we can see some great reduction in terms of crime.

  Chairman: Thank you.

  Q82  Mrs Cryer: I wonder if both of you could comment on whether the sort of programmes to engage young black people should be either culturally specific or just mainstream, which would apply to any part of the community.

  Reverend Isaacs: I think we have to have a twin-track approach. My approach would specifically be particular young black boys. We do need to develop a stronger mentoring programme. We talk about role models on TV but the biggest problem with role models on TV is that they are not at the grass roots, in the community. It is no use me appearing on TV but nobody can find me during the week. There has to be accessibility. I really believe that we need strong models of men and women who live and work and go to school within the community who are accessible to these young boys. Out of that, I think we could have some stability and normality. My work is not just in Brixton or Moss Side, but is in Wrexham, North Wales, Leeds, Leicester, Southend, and the practices we have, whether they are young black or white, are on being with people We did a survey among young people, saying, "What is your number one need? What is the number one thing you feel would help you to be happy and to be content?" Do you know what they said? "Having access to the adults—access being available for us, to listen to us." That is why we in the church are saying to the church, "For goodness sake, get off your posterior, get out there and be where people are and listen to them and have the time for them." If we can do those two things, whether we are in Brixton, Canterbury or wherever we are, we will find that it will engage young people and help them immensely.

  Reverend Obunge: I think it is great to have Black History Month but I think we need to look at the National curriculum around black history itself. I have studied here in the UK and I have studied in many European countries, Sweden, Dublin, et cetera, but I have also studied in Nigeria. My education in the black community was really not here in England or in Sweden or in Dublin, but it was back in Nigeria. I have pride about being a black man. I take pride in my blackness. There was a man who got involved in armed robbery and shot a police officer in the face. He told me how he started his criminal experience. It started with his history class. As a young man, he listened to the history lessons and found out—this is his story, just what he said—there was nothing there about his culture. He suddenly was disillusioned—disillusioned about himself, disillusioned about what they had to say—and for him it had a negative impact. I am not saying that is the truth for everybody else but it impacted that particular individual. I think we need to look at the history. If Great Britain is ready to be multicultural, then it has to be multicultural in its National Curriculum.

  Q83  Mrs Cryer: So it goes back to the schools.

  Reverend Obunge: Yes, we have got work to do in the schools. I think that also means supporting supplementary schools and more sustainable support for supplementary schools, faith-based schools, et cetera.

  Q84  Mrs Cryer: My next question is about black churches and what role they can play. Are you perhaps saying that black churches should do similar to what the mosques do and have supplementary schools to provide information on the culture?

  Reverend Isaacs: They do have it. They have been running supplementary education for the last 30 years or so. They are finding a lack of support from local government/from the Government to do the job that they are doing. The vast majority of black people who are conscious about education would send their children to some sort of supplementary school, particularly if they feel that the school is not giving them enough. We are looking at: Is local government/is central Government really supporting them in doing what they are doing?

  Reverend Obunge: This is one of the challenges the church has. You made reference to the mosques: Should they do like the mosques? That is one of the problems we are having within the church community. It seems as if the Government has not realised that the church has been at this for a long time, long before the mosques came in—and we have no problem, because we work with our Islamic brothers and friends—but I think the Government needs to appreciate what has already been in the community. Somebody whispered at the back: "We started this whole thing." We have been always providing this support to our communities, but it has not been acknowledged, it has not been supported. There has been short-term support for initiatives that ooze out of our community. In South London there are some initiatives that started a number of years ago and now only 5% of those initiatives within the black community exist out of 100%. All of a sudden, there is two years funding/three years funding. We do not have ongoing, long-term support, and I think the Government needs to look at supporting, for the long term, initiatives which promote reintegration, education, employment, et cetera. We do not need short-term funding, because you are in for a short season and then you are out of the door.

  Mrs Cryer: Thank you.

  Q85  Mr Browne: Reverend Obunge, I want to ask you about responsibility. You have criticised the Government for not providing sufficient opportunities for black people, and specifically black men, but all people, black, white, whatever, have had 11 years of completely free, state-funded education laid on a plate for them. It does not matter who your parents are, it is all put there for you. Yet Reverend Isaacs is talking about people being unable to get jobs because they cannot write their name properly. Do you not think that may be to do with the curriculum, but it may be to do with the choices those individuals make about whether they choose to attend school; whether they choose to concentrate in the classes; whether they choose to better themselves and to take the opportunities that are presented to them?

  Reverend Obunge: You are very right, sir. Just in that same context is the choice when you are three or four times more likely to be excluded from school as a black person than your white counterparts; when your teachers are afraid of you because you are black; when you are more likely to be discriminated against in your schools. These are realities that these young black people have. My sister schooled here and she was told by her teacher that she would be best as a secretary or a shop assistant. When the schools do not give you the support structures to believe that you are going to be a doctor, you are going to be a lawyer, in those 11 years brainwashing can take place. If we do not have male black teachers in there, if we do not have enough black male teachers, and if we have white teachers who are sometimes undermining—and I am not saying they all do that—

  Q86  Mr Browne: I do not doubt that there are students of all ethnicities who may be insensitive to racial differences and so on and so forth, but, nonetheless, if you are sitting there and a teacher is teaching you how to write your name down, you have the choice of whether you choose to concentrate in that lesson or not. If, in a class with lots of black children, there was one black boy who was being very disruptive and I was a black parent of one of the other children, I may wish that boy to be excluded so that my son could get on with learning how to spell his name.

  Reverend Obunge: A woman in my church had a son who was dyslexic. The school refused to give attention to some of the challenges of that young person until it got very serious. We have some issues around that. If you look at the challenge of mental health in the UK, we are overrepresented. Even though we are only 3% of the nation, I think we represent up to 49%—is it 39% or 49%?—of those caught up in the mental health statistics, who are supported in that context. Essentially, I am trying to say that I agree with what you have said. I am not denying personal responsibility but, whilst we fight that battle to challenge our young black people, to challenge parents, to challenge the broad remit of every body in our black community, I think I would want to state clearly for the benefit of this Committee that there are some other challenges that might exist and might be worth looking into, and that is some of the discrimination that happens, even in the educational system.

  Q87  Mr Browne: I have the same question about families, but I will not ask that because we have covered that. My final question is about knives and the police. I appreciate that knives are different from guns, but I suppose it could equally apply to guns. Specifically on knives, the case is made—and you have made it yourself—that some young black people, more specifically, young black men, carry knives because they lack confidence in the police and feel that they need them to defend themselves because they do not think the police can do that task adequately for them. I would be interested to hear you expand on that point. If I was a black person, I may want protection from people carrying knives in my community because they may use them on me and I may be suspicious that they were carrying knives because they wanted either to frighten me or because they wanted to use them against me. I may want the police to stop them and to take the knives off them. I might not regard it as part of their reaction against the police; I might regard it as a threat to my safety.

  Reverend Obunge: I would do the same thing too. We challenge young people about that. We develop something. There is a whole lot of educational tools in our knife crime manual. One of the things we have done is a three-part comic called What's the Point? which is really about a young person who, having been bullied, decided to carry a knife in order to protect himself. These stories do not exist just in the black community; they exist in the white community too. And because this exists I expect stop and search to exist, but I do not expect it to be disproportionate for the black community, I expect it to be even-handed. Knife crime and gun crime are different. I need to say that very clearly. Even though they may have relationships, they are very, very different.

  Q88  Mr Browne: If only white people carried knives, for the sake of argument, would you still think that stop and search should be proportionate, or do you think it would be more sensible for the police to target white people?

  Reverend Obunge: If only white people carried knives, which is impossible, I would expect the police to target based on intelligence, not stupidity.

  Q89  Chairman: That is a good point at which to end. Thank you very much indeed. May I thank you both for being with us this morning; it has been a very useful session.





 
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