Independent review criticises Boris Johnson over burkha comments

The Tory party is NOT institutionally racist but Boris’s comments about burkhas making women look like ‘letterboxes’ were ‘insensitive’ to Muslims, independent review by ex-equalities chief finds

  • An independent investigation into Islamaphobia in Tory party has concluded
  • The review found no institutional racism but warned on sentiment at local levels
  • Suggested PM’s 2018 comments on Burkhas fuelled concerns among muslims 

There is no evidence that the Tory party is ‘institutionally racist’, but Boris Johnson’s comments about burkhas making women look like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ have given an impression it is ‘insensitive to Muslim communities’, an independent review found today.

The inquiry into alleged Islamophobia and discrimination in the Conservative Party concluded that anti-Muslim sentiment was seen at local association and individual levels.

However, it said that claims of ‘institutional’ issues were not borne out by the way complaints were handled.

In a pointed message to Mr Johnson, the review led by Professor Swaran Singh said the leadership of the Conservative Party ‘ought to set a good example for appropriate behaviours and language’.

The Prime Minister was cleared by a majority on an independent panel over a complaint he broke the party’s code of conduct following a Daily Telegraph column in 2018 which described Muslim women who wear the burkha as looking like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’.

Mr Johnson said he was ‘sorry for any offence taken’ over his journalism and told Prof Singh’s investigation: ‘Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am Prime Minister, I would not.’ 

A Conservative spokeswoman said the party will be responding formally later.  

Boris Johnson comments about burkhas making women look like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ have given an impression that the Tories are ‘insensitive to Muslim communities’, an independent review found today

The inquiry carried out by Prof Singh, a former commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was established by the party following a series of allegations about Islamophobic behaviour in the party and was widened to consider all forms of discrimination

– Incidents including Lord Goldsmith’s London mayoral campaign and Boris Johnson’s comments about Muslim women before he became Prime Minister ‘give an impression to some of a party and leadership insensitive to Muslim communities’.

– From 2015 to 2020 the party’s central database recorded 1,418 complaints concerning 727 incidents of alleged discrimination.

– Two-thirds of all incidents reported related to allegations of anti-Muslim discrimination.

– Three-quarters of the incidents involved social media activity.

– Judging by the extent of complaints and findings of misconduct, ‘anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem’ within the Conservative Party.

– An ‘overwhelming majority’ of valid complaints lodged with the Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) team were upheld and resulted in a sanction.

– The complaints system is in need of an overhaul, with an under-resourced and inadequately trained team, a weak data collection system and poor communication with complainants and respondents.

– There is no clear decision-making process as to how complaints should progress and no specified time frames for resolution.

– But there is no evidence that complaints related to Islam are treated differently from those related to other forms of discrimination.

– Claims of ‘institutional racism’ were not borne out by the way complaints were handled.

The Singh Investigation report said several interviewees who spoke to the inquiry considered Mr Johnson’s language ‘discriminatory and unacceptable’.

In response to Mr Johnson’s assertion he would not make such remarks now, the report said: ‘While this could be considered leading by example, the investigation would like to emphasise that using measured and appropriate language should not be a requirement solely for senior people, but ought to be expected throughout the Conservative Party.’

The investigation also examined the controversial and unsuccessful mayoral campaign Zac Goldsmith – now Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park – ran in London against Sadiq Khan in 2016, during which he accused his Muslim Labour rival of associating with extremists.

The report said Lord Goldsmith ‘accepts poor judgement in the way his campaign was conducted but forcefully denies harbouring anti-Muslim sentiments or using such sentiments for political advantage’.

The report said high-profile cases like Mr Johnson’s and Lord Goldsmith’s ‘give the impression to many that the Party and its leadership are insensitive to Muslim communities’.

Prof Singh said: ‘I’m not saying that the party leadership is insensitive to Muslim communities. I’m saying that the perception is very strong.’

The inquiry carried out by Prof Singh, a former commissioner at the Equality and Human Rights Commission, was established by the party following a series of allegations about Islamophobic behaviour in the party and was widened to consider all forms of discrimination.

From 2015-2020 the party’s central database recorded 1,418 complaints relating to 727 incidents of alleged discrimination – an average of 237 complaints about 122 incidents a year in a party of 200,000 members.

More than two-thirds of the incidents – 496 cases – related to Islam and 74% of all the cases involved social media activity.

Around a third of cases – 231 – resulted in a sanction, with 50 per cent resulting in a suspension and 29 per cent an expulsion from the party.

No action was taken in 418 incidents for reasons including the complaint being in relation to someone who was not a party member, insufficient evidence or a prior investigation.

There was no evidence that complaints related to Islam are treated differently from those related to other forms of discrimination, nor did the panel find evidence of attempts to pressure or interfere with the handling of individual complaints.

But Prof Singh said the complaints process was ‘clunky, cumbersome and slow, and not transparent’.

Former Tory chairwoman Baroness Warsi has accused the party of ‘institutional racism’ and submitted a dossier of 30 cases to the inquiry.

The report said it carried out ‘in-depth scrutiny’ of the cases provided by Lady Warsi but ‘we concluded that her allegation of ‘institutional racism’ against the party was not borne out by evidence available to the investigation as regards the way the party handled the complaints process’.

But the report acknowledged that ‘anti-Muslim sentiment remains a problem’ within the Conservative Party.

Tory chair Amanda Milling said the party will formally respond to the report later today

‘While the party leadership claims a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to all forms of discrimination, our findings show that discriminatory behaviours occur, especially in relation to people of Islamic faith.’

But the investigation did not find evidence of a party which ‘systematically discriminated against any particular group’.

The review process has been regarded with scepticism by some critics, with the Muslim Council of Britain warning it would be a whitewash.

But Prof Singh said: ‘I hope fair minded people who read the report will see that we haven’t shied away from criticising the party.

‘In fact, this is going to be very uncomfortable for the party, I hope it makes them uncomfortable, I hope it makes the rank and file uncomfortable and it also spurs them into action.’

In a message to Mr Johnson, Prof Singh said: ‘As the leader of the Conservative Party, I would say lead by example and accept our recommendations unequivocally. Accept them unconditionally. Implement them and get someone to monitor the implementation.’

The report called on the Tories to introduce sweeping changes to the complaints process, publishing an action plan within six weeks to set out how it will respond, followed by a six-month progress report and a one-year review carried out by an appropriate body.

Within six weeks, the party should review its social media rules and within six months develop training on ‘acceptable’ behaviour online.

Within a year, the report said the party should produce and implement a single, mandatory code of conduct across the entire membership in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

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