Critics call for equalities watchdog to launch its own investigation
A report into Islamophobia in the Conservative Party has been branded a “whitewash” after it rejected claims of institutional racism and declined to pass judgement on whether Boris Johnson breached a code of conduct by comparing Muslim women in burqas to “letterboxes”.
Tory co-chair Amanda Milling issued an apology after the long-awaited probe branded the party’s complaint handling unfit for purpose and warned “anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem”.
Ms Milling accepted all the report’s recommendations and promised an action plan in six weeks’ time, admitting: “It is clear that there have been failings in our complaints process.”
She apologised to “anyone who has been hurt by discriminatory behaviour of others or failed by our system”.
But Professor Swaran Singh’s report failed to satisfy critics, some of whom called for the Equality and Human Rights Commission to launch its own investigation.
They seized on the decision not to focus on Islamophobia alone, but instead to look more broadly at “alleged discrimination citing protected characteristics”.
And they were critical of findings on Boris Johnson’s notorious remark about women wearing the burqa, which was said to merely “give the impression” of being “insensitive”.
Sayeeda Warsi, a former Conservative chair, said the Singh report had exposed “a system that failed to protect victims of racism”, who were “painted as troublemakers for speaking out”.
Warning of unfinished business, she told The Independent: “The findings of the report do not support its conclusion that the party does not have an ‘institutional issue’.”
Zara Mohammed, secretary general of the Muslim Council of Britain, warned: “It doesn’t go far enough to really address the institutional nature of Islamophobia.
“It cited so many cases, but that reality of the deep and entrenched and embedded Islamophobia within the party still remains to be addressed and to really be actioned by the Conservative Party themselves.”
And the grassroots Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend) group announced it was writing to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), to urge it to step in.
The watchdog has long warned it will intervene if it believes the Tories are failing to take proper action and reacted to the Singh report by saying it would “evaluate his team’s findings carefully”.
Mend said: “The report fails to adequately tackle clear examples of Islamophobic and inflammatory comments at senior levels of the party, such as Boris Johnson’s comments on Muslim women in burqas.”
The language used about the prime minister’s remark “trivialises legitimate concerns and obscures the responsibility of party leadership”, it protested.
Sajjad Karim, a former Tory MEP, said: “The manner in which this inquiry has been conducted means it is nothing but an attempt to whitewash deep-rooted issues out of sight.”
Former chancellor Sajid Javid, who secured the promise of an inquiry from Mr Johnson during the 2019 Tory leadership contest, said: “Although the investigation didn’t find any evidence of institutional or systemic anti-Muslim prejudice, it did find distressing examples of anti-Muslim sentiment at local association and individual levels, as well as serious shortcomings in the party’s complaints process.
“Stamping out discrimination, whether against Muslims or any other minority group, is an issue where our country’s political parties have a responsibility to demonstrate leadership.”
The Singh report found that:
* The Conservatives recorded 1,418 complaints concerning 727 incidents of alleged discrimination, between 2015 and 2020 – with two-thirds concerning anti-Muslim discrimination;
* The people interviewed by the investigation who experienced discrimination did so “at the level of a local party association”;
* Local anti-Muslim sentiment was “demonstrated by a number of social media complaints against party members which were upheld”; and
* Many of those interviewed believed Islamist extremism was being conflated with Islam.
Mr Johnson sparked fury in 2018 with a newspaper column in which he said that Muslim women in burqas looked like bank robbers or letterboxes, and that it was “weird and bullying” for anyone to expect them to cover their faces in this way.
Several witnesses told Prof Singh’s investigation that they found Mr Johnson’s language “discriminatory and unacceptable”, the report said.
And one told the inquiry that the comments led to “a large increase in anti-Muslim events” reported to the Tell Mama project, which records incidents of Islamophobia hate.
A Tell Mama report in 2019 found that Islamophobic incidents rose by 375 per cent the week after Mr Johnson’s article, with 42 per cent of reported racist abuse in the streets of the UK directly referencing his language.
Today’s report said the PM’s article gave the impression that the Tories were “insensitive to Muslim communities”.
And it pointedly added: “The leadership of the Conservative Party ought to set a good example for appropriate behaviours and language as a guide for the rest of the party to follow.”
But Mr Johnson refused to apologise for his comments, telling the inquiry only that he was “sorry for any offence taken” and adding that he would not use the same language as prime minister.
He acknowledged that the struggle to eliminate discrimination from the Conservative Party was “not yet over”, but insisted that the party had changed over the past 20 years and was open to “opportunity and talent”.
“If you are a young Muslim child and you want to grow up and be prime minister, you should join the Conservative Party,” Mr Johnson said. “If we have an image problem, it is because the wider public is not aware yet of how much the party has changed in recent years.”
Marsha de Cordova MP, the shadow women and equalities secretary, said: “This report is a damning indictment of the discrimination rife in the Conservative Party, and it goes all the way up to the prime minister.”