Tuesday 25 August 2009

Council says sorry for racist term in official document

Considering I don't even buy the Guardian, I seem to keep ending up on its pages.

On Saturday it was for quotes lifted from an earlier blog post in this ridiculous but classic piece of Guardian fluff about the 'less confrontational' leadership styles of women police officers (thanks to Simon at work for the hat-tip on this one) and now it's a (somewhat truncated) quote in the following article about racist language and Redbridge Council:

A London council has described children of Pakistani origin who attend the borough's schools as "Pakis". The term appears in an official council document that provides a breakdown of the ethnic background of pupils at the borough's schools.

Conservative-controlled Redbridge Council in east London, which has one BNP councillor, initially defended the appearance of the term, explaining it away as a computer error. However, officials later issued a revised statement condemning the use of the word.

The printout of the school spreadsheet was passed to the Guardian by sources within the council concerned about the use of such racist terminology.

The list states areas, wards and postcodes of primary and secondary schools in the borough and then provides an ethnic breakdown of the pupils in each school. The majority of pupils in the borough are white British but there are also children from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. Pupils of Pakistani origin are referred to variously as Pakistani, Pankistani, Pak and on three occasions Pakis.

Initially, Redbridge officials said: "The council is aware that a document produced by an early years development worker does contain abbreviations of various ethnic minority groups, however this was due to a computer error. The full titles were inputted correctly into the database but had been reduced due to the size of the cells. This was automatically done by the computer and was not displayed on the screen but was apparent when printed.

"The error was identified and a meeting was called with the worker to clarify what had happened. The worker had no knowledge of the error and was extremely apologetic that this had occurred. Action was taken to ensure that the computer error did not occur in future."

However, the word "Pakis" does not appear at the edge of the spreadsheet where half of "Pakistani" might have been chopped off but on lines with plenty of space or where other words follow it.

Later, the council said human error was involved and the manager of the council's Sure Start programme had investigated.

"Redbridge council fully accepts the use of this abbreviated term is wholly unacceptable and inappropriate and would never condone the use of such language. Having looked at the spreadsheet, in addition to the unacceptable term 'Paki' the document also contains a variety of abbreviations and spelling mistakes and was circulated in error. When this was realised at an away day, those present were asked to hand in the document so they could be destroyed. The author of the spreadsheet apologised."

The Equality and Human Rights Commission said that the document had been passed to its legal enforcement team.

Kevin Blowe, of the anti-racist organisation Newham Monitoring Project, said: "Anyone with even limited IT skills would instantly recognise that the explanation of a computer error provided by Redbridge council is unsustainable.

"The council must know that a generation of Asians in east London grew up in the 1970s with the threat of violence from 'Paki-bashing' and with its association with skinhead gang culture.

"Indeed, it was one such horrifying racist incident, the brutal murder of teenager Akhtar Ali Baig in East Ham by skinheads, that led to the creation of Newham Monitoring Project in 1980. It is almost impossible to believe that, nearly 30 years on, anyone would fail to understand how racially charged the word Paki is, or that it would ever be appropriate to use in council records, internal or not."

Keith Vaz, who chairs the Commons home affairs select committee, said: "It is important that councils are careful to avoid the use of offensive terms in both internal and external communications. I welcome the action the council has taken."

My comments relate to the first explanation offered by Redbridge Council, which implied that the information on the ethnic breakdown of children was held in a database that was sophisticated enough to automatically truncate categories. But I've seen the printout that had been leaked and it's just a very basic Excel spreadsheet with personal annotations complete with spelling mistakes. No wonder the council had to quickly issue another excuse once they knew Diane Taylor from the Guardian had the evidence in front of her.

What is a surprise is that a London council would even consider trying to spin their way out of something like this. Rumours of this document's existence had been popping up at meetings around east London for a couple of weeks, to general incredulity that such comments could possible used nowadays. And there were other rumours too, as yet unsubstantiated - about a cavalier indifference to racist attitudes in certain departments.

The part of the comment I gave that never made it into the article was this:
"Even if this is, at best, an incredibly stupid mistake, choosing to hide behind excuses instead of offering a simple apology is a very strange reaction for a local authority to make."
I think there is rather more to come with this story.

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