'Disturbing': Report finds culture of 'normalised' racism and sexism at council

Race relations report into Havering Council

The Local Government Association has published a report on race relations at Havering Council. - Credit: Charles Thomson

Racism and sexism have become "normalised” at Havering Council, a report has found.

Investigators said they uncovered a “disturbing” culture after spending the equivalent of seven weeks scrutinising the authority.

But they praised senior leaders for their willingness to fix the problems.

They found “pockets of good practice”, but said it was “not consistent across the organisation”.

Havering Council has since promised to address "many of the issues raised in the report," and take action with managers, trade unions and staff forums to "build a modern, inclusive workforce".

Opposition councillors described the report as “damning”.

Gillian Ford, chairman of Havering’s Residents’ Associations, said: “There are fundamental issues. We need a comprehensive review of how we undertake training for councillors and employees, and it should start with the leadership team.”

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Findings included:

  • The council identified evidence of “discrimination, poor behaviours and structural barriers”.
  • Investigators heard anecdotal evidence of racist, sexist and homophobic incidents, and discrimination towards disabled people.
  • Staff focus groups found “widespread negative views” about the council’s record on equality.
  • Staff said there was “a culture of no consequences” and “a lack of support" for victims.
  • Councillors and middle managers “appear to be unaware” of their legal responsibilities.
LGA race relations report on Havering Council

The LGA report found 'casual' racism and sexism appeared to have become 'somewhat normalised' at Havering Council. - Credit: Charles Thomson

The report was commissioned by council leader Damian White after the murder of George Floyd in America revived conversations about institutional racism.

In 2020, Labour councillor Tele Lawal accused the council of “lagging behind” on workforce diversity.

The report, sent to councillors on Tuesday (September 7), was produced by four representatives of other councils and two Local Government Association (LGA) employees.

They held over 20 meetings with more than 150 employees, councillors and stakeholders.

“The review team heard the terms ‘casual racism’ and ‘casual sexism’ frequently," they wrote. "...These terms belittle the seriousness of racism and sexism and implies that the behaviour has been somewhat normalised."

They added: “The much-repeated allegations of ‘casual racism’ and ‘casual sexism’ being widespread were disturbing, as were the examples of racism, sexism and discriminatory behaviour towards disabled people shared with the review team."

LGA race relations report on Havering Council

The LGA said the repeated allegations or racism, sexism and disability discrimination at Havering Council were 'disturbing'. - Credit: Charles Thomson

The report alleges the council appeared to have "no consistent approach to dealing with this".

“The leader, chief executive and senior officers are committed to changing the reputation of the borough and working towards being an anti-racist borough," the report said.

“Senior officers recognise that there is significant work to be done to achieve this aim, as demonstrated in the council’s self-assessment.”

The report urged leaders to “address the organisational culture as quickly as possible”.

Recommendations included urgent, mandatory training for all councillors, as when questioned about equality and diversity laws, the report alleges politicians thought because they are not officers, they think "it doesn’t apply to us”.

Labour leader Keith Darvill called the report’s findings “indefensible”, adding: “This is a failure of the current leadership of the council.

“If I was leading a council and had a report like that, I would be looking at my position.”

Havering Council leader Damian White

Council leader Damian White said the council had been open and transparent by commissioning the investigation. - Credit: Havering Council

Conservative council leader Damian White replied: “The first thing I did when I became leader of the council was sign up to the diversity charter and provide a budget for a diversity inclusion officer.

“It was at my insistence that we appointed an external organisation to conduct this review. We are being open and transparent by commissioning the LGA to do this report.

“I think it’s shameful that someone would wish to politicise what should be a focus on improving the council.”

A Havering Council spokesperson said: “Carrying out an independent review is something many employers shy away from. We did this because we chose to.

"We have already made promises to our workforce addressing many of the issues raised in the report."

They said all officers and councillors would undergo mandatory training, and the council had set out "accessible and easy-to-understand reporting routes when colleagues experience or witness discrimination".

“We have a long way to go but this report, and the work we are doing with managers, trade unions and active and supported staff forums, will help us to build a modern, inclusive workforce in an anti-discrimination organisation," they added.