In 1998 the then Government asked Sir William Macpherson to undertake an inquiry into the matters arising from the death of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence on 22 April 1993. The Macpherson report concluded that the investigation into the killing had ‘been marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership’. Sir Macpherson defined institutional racism as:
‘The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be detected in processes, attitudes and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racial stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people’.
One of the outcomes from the Inquiry was the amendment of the Race Relations Act 1976 to give the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000. In 2004 the NHS Chief Executive and Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health, Sir Nigel Crisp (now Lord Crisp), published his Ten Point Race Equality Plan for the NHS. He also asked 500 Chief Executives of hospitals and primary care trusts at the time to mentor BME staff. A particular aim and objective was to address the under-representation of BME staff in leadership positions in the NHS.
It was also around the same time that the Improving Working Lives initiative published guidance on the establishment of local BME Networks to assist NHS organisations to deliver on their statutory obligations concerning race equality.
In 2008 the Chair of the NHS BME Network, Dr Vivienne Lyfar-Cissé (in her capacity as the then Chair of the regional Network the South East Coast BME Network) published her review of the then 27 NHS organisations in the South East Coast concerning the delivery of race equality. Her Report titled The South East BME Network Race Equality Review was covered exclusively by the Health Service Journal and revealed for the first time the widespread disadvantages faced by BME NHS staff with regards to recruitment, promotion, bullying, grievance and disciplinary rates and paybands.
At an inaugural National BME Conference held on 5 June 2009 over 400 BME professionals and senior leaders gave a mandate to the then South East Coast BME Network as the conference host to establish a NHS BME Network based on the tripartite principles of ‘hope, change and bottom up’.
It was agreed that the National Network should be established as an
“Independent and effective voice for BME Staff, BME Patients, BME Service Users and BME Carers to ensure the NHS delivers on its statutory duties regarding race equality”.
The NHS BME Network was launched on 4 June 2010 at the London Hilton Park Lane and was a huge success.
It is a fact that the NHS has been in denial about the institutional racism that exists which has blighted the lives of BME staff for decades and contributed to health inequalities being a fact of life for minority ethnic groups. It is noteworthy that in 2014, a decade after his Ten Point Race Equality Plan was implemented Lord Crisp informed the Nursing Standard that:
‘Potentially this issue seems to be getting worse than before so I want to raise the profile of this problem. If the NHS is going to serve people well we need to make the best of everyone and the talent of all NHS staff and I feel we are not getting the best out of BME staff’.
All the initiatives introduced by the NHS since 2004 have in the main failed to address the structural discrimination that exists. Over the years as an independent voice for BME people the NHS BME Network has challenged the status quo and has organised a number of national conferences in an attempt to expose the racial injustices that exist. This has not been an easy task and the consequences that flowed from the Network’s actions have been responsible for the pause in the Network’s activities between September 2017 to May 2020.
The COVID-19 pandemic has, without question, triggered the worst public health crisis for a generation. In addition, it has also exposed the institutional racism that exists in the NHS. It is following the fallout from COVID-19 that the Executive Committee for the NHS BME Network decided in June 2020 that it was time to revive the Network sooner than planned.
Having reviewed the evidence in the public domain between June and July the NHS BME Network published its National Action Plan on 15 August 2020. The Plan outlines the actions that the NHS BME Network intends to pursue as an independent and effective voice for its members and the wider BME community to continue to challenge the institutional racism that exists in spite of the odds.