Changed forever… the new normal needs a new charter on equality

Tempers frayed and voices were raised in Hastings Borough Council’s (HBC) virtual council chamber last night.

The issue under discussion was a motion from Councillor Judy Rogers, she told the council: “Hastings has a long tradition of welcoming people from a range of diverse backgrounds and celebrating difference, something which we all should be proud of.”

But 2020 and the Covid-19 crisis have, “…changed the recognised norm forever,” she said.

Therefore she told fellow councillors she believed the time was right for HBC to review its Equalities Charter and create a policy that could be the foundation of everything the council does: “…there’s no debate about the fact that we’re all here to do the best for our town,” Ms Rogers said, “what this is not is a tick box exercise, it will not be an easy process and it will have its challenges,” she warned.

The proposal before council was that:

  • The council reaffirms its commitment to combat, racism and prejudice in all its forms. In order to ensure that every individual feels safe, protected and comfortable we will look to work closely with the diverse range of communities in our town.
  • As part of our commitment to the above the council will formally adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA)’s working definition on antisemitism which defines antisemitism thus:
    “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
  • We will continue to work as part of a City of Sanctuary to press local and national leaders to Lift the Ban on refugees being able to work.
  • We will work with the Local Strategic Partnership to bring forward an Equalities Charter that is updated and refreshed to account for the issues raised by COVID and the BLM movement – which will include an associated action plan.
  • The council will produce its initial interim report in this regard no later than February 2021.
  • The council will look to have the renewed charter and any associated policy changes in place by no later than August 2021.
  • The council will ensure that the new charter, once in place, is subject to a review every two years. 

Conservative Karl Beaney said he agreed with much of what the motion said but he tabled an amendment asking that the commitment to continue to work as part of a City of Sanctuary, working towards lifting the ban on asylum seekers being able to find work was removed. He was seconded by fellow Conservative Sorrell Marlow-Eastwood.

Ms Rogers said she could not accept that amendment and from there, as Ms Rogers noted later the whole discussion moved in a direction she had not anticipated.

Labour members lined up to attack the Conservative position: “The proposed amendment is completely unacceptable,” said Councillor Ruby Cox who added that what was being suggested would add to the misery of those seeking asylum. It was important, she said, that equality of opportunity was available in all parts of our lives.

HBC’s deputy leader Colin Fitzgerald said Mr Beaney’s proposed amendment was “one of the most pernicious things, it worries me that he seeks to single out a group of vulnerable people and deny them the right to work. I would have thought allowing people to work is something we should be encouraging,” he told the meeting.

Councillor Warren Davies launched a blistering attack on the Conservatives, raising his voice to express anger, disappointment and frustration with the position they had taken, as Mrs Marlow-Eastwood sought to defend her party’s position saying they wanted to avoid asylum seekers being exploited as she also pointed out that those seeking asylum should claim it in the first safe country that they reach.

Winding up the debate Ms Rogers said she, “felt a bit sad” that the discussion had, “gone down a road it was not meant to take.”

“We need to be looking at our equalities policy and a charter to move ahead. This is just the start,” she said.

The motion was approved as Labour councillors and Independent Dany Louise voting in favour as the Conservative group voted against, “reluctantly” in the words of Councillor Andy Patmore.

While the group accepted the motion had its merits they were unable to vote for it while the City of Sanctuary reference remained.

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