Rt Hon Baroness Scotland QC – Speech to the Black Solicitors Network
The Rt Hon the Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC
SPEECH TO BLACK SOLICITORS’ NETWORK DINNER
Firstly can I say what a great privilege it is for me to be here tonight. The association has been in existence since 2003. It is a wonderful thing to see all of you – and to see such a packed room!
We have had the most amazing year, looking back; no one could have believed that a part Kenyan, Muslim, Christian lawyer would be waiting to become the next President of the United States of America.
The fact that Barack Obama, former civil rights attorney and lecturer in constitutional law, is due to take up the burdens of office in the United States is surely an event of the first magnitude in black history.
For all of us who are inspired and indeed humbled by his example, President-elect Obama’s message is simple and clear. It has captured the imagination of the world and can be reduced to just three words.
“Yes we can.”
These words tell us that it is all somehow possible, that you, me we – all of us – can and will get there in the end.
As Nelson Mandela once said that our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
President Kennedy believed that forty years ago, the United States would have a black man as president. Barak Obama has brought people hope – this isn’t fiction, he has proved that individuals can overcome.
When it came to politics, young people were told that politics were dead outside the political arena. What was fantastic about the US elections was that all people voted in their millions democrats and republicans, and this was an incredible moment for all people who believe in change.
(People think that lawyers are slimy, money hungry individuals, in fact they are attractive, clever, and good hearted with supreme integrity.
The real opposition for us is to do incredible things- there is a huge value in law and those who make a difference.)
Overnight I have become an international personality. Earlier today I was interviewed by a Spanish magazine, who commented that we do things very quickly in this country – first female attorney general in seven hundred years! They informed me that I am in fact the British Barak Obama, the latter day British Oprah Winfrey!
It is very interesting they had picked this up- how likely in 2007 that as attorney general I did not have a private education, go to Oxford or practice in any private chambers.
I came from a really small family of twelve children, if my brothers were here today they would have said that the brains started to run out when they came to me!
It’s been quite a journey for me, if I can end up as HM attorney general, what’s your excuse?
On the 5th of November I attended a police dependent’s trust reception in the House of Lords, where I spoke to three elderly widows who said they were happy to be in the House of Commons. They pointed out to me: “isn’t this a lovely day?” And I replied “why?” They responded by saying “because Mr Obama grandmother was part Irish, southern of course”!
They went on to indicate that if Obama can breakthrough barriers there is hope for them, and for peace in Northern Ireland.
The fact that there is still room for proper debate on these matters, though, should not obscure for one moment the fact that black people are clearly ready to accept the challenge of leadership on a very broad front.
This Government is committed to equality. It is not an ‘extra’, or something to make you feel good about your principles. The greater participation of all ethnic minorities in society is a social and economic imperative, just as it is an imperative inherent in the concept of justice itself.
At the launch of the special Speaker’s Conference just over a week ago, my ministerial colleague Harriet Harman, outlined various steps this Government is taking. In particular, in the Equality Bill, we will change the law to enable political parties, as part of their process of selecting candidates, to take positive measures to bring on candidates from under-represented groups, including black and Asian people.
The House agreed (with all party support) to set up a committee to be known as the Speaker’s Conference, to consist of the Speaker, as Chairman, and up to 17 other Members. It will amongst other things consider and make recommendations for rectifying the disparity between the representation of women, ethnic minorities and disabled people in the House of Commons and their representation in the UK population at large.
This shows that Westminster is now facing up to the challenge of democracy, and this very welcome development should gain from the inspirational wind that is blowing here from across the Atlantic.
For if anything, the American experience shows that you can inspire people by placing before them candidates they can truly relate to and commit themselves to, and in doing so, you can renew, reinvigorate democracy. There can have been little more humbling than the television coverage of all those voters who turned out early to ensure they had their say in the outcome of the US election. The cynicism that so often infects perceptions of the political process withered in the face of the sheer power of hope.
This Government is committed as part of its Comprehensive Spending Review to address under representation of women and ethnic minorities in public life, and we have announced an intention to set gender, race and disability targets in terms of public appointments.
The Government has, as you will know, already put in place the most comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Europe, with duties on all public bodies to promote and address race equality. The Equality and Human Rights Commission under Trevor Phillips has been set up to enforce this.
The Government is in fact legislating in the Equality Bill to simplify the existing, complex equality legislation to impose a new single equality duty on public bodies, bringing together disparate duties in respect of gender, race and disability, and extending the duty to cover gender reassignment, age, sexual orientation and faith.
Individual Government departments have also put in place targeted programmes to address race equality issues. The Department for Children, Schools and Families is seeking to raise educational attainment through schemes such as the Ethnic Minority Achievement Grant and Black Pupils’ Achievement Programme.
The Department of Work and Pensions has set up a taskforce to oversee a coordinated strategy to break down barriers faced by ethnic minorities in the workplace.
The Office for Criminal Justice Reform has a programme of work to identify and address the disproportionate representation of some ethnic minorities in the Criminal Justice System.
Amongst other initiatives, and one dear to my heart, the Ministry of Justice, working in partnership with others including the Judicial Appointments Commission, is seeking to improve diversity in the magistracy and judiciary
For all of us here, success in education was the first step. That is why this sort of trend is particularly encouraging for me.
However, it is in relation to certain aspects of our justice system that there are particular concerns. Many of you here this evening will be aware of the ongoing debate about addressing the disproportionality issues in the judiciary, particularly when one comes to the profile of the senior judiciary.
I want to start by saying that a great deal of thought and effort is going into addressing under-representation of certain groups, including BME groups, in the judiciary. The JAC under Baroness Prashar is publicly committed to increasing the diversity of candidates putting themselves forward for judicial office, and is undertaking a range of activities to achieve that.
My Office is in fact working with the JAC and other bodies, including representatives from the senior judiciary, the Bar Council and the Law Society, towards this objective, though a special Diversity Forum.
I am acutely aware myself that the allocation of Government litigation work, for which I have a heavy responsibility, is particularly important for the careers of the individuals concerned. The individuals who do such work have an opportunity to progress in seniority, and are likely to provide the face of the judiciary in future years.
That is why in July this year I launched the Law Officers’ strategy for ensuring diversity in the appointment of counsel to do such work, and an accompanying expectations statement setting out what is required of chambers. The statement includes requirements that chambers will have a written policy statement of their commitments to equality and diversity, that they will have an action plan to implement this policy, that they will implement the policy and that they will report back to us to show just how the policy has been implemented.
It is a system which I consider will provide for both transparency and accountability.
I hope that everyone will become a beacon of hope in this room. Each person is a role model for somebody, I want us all to be the present day Obama and that we can achieve anything we want.
I thank you for allowing me to speak to you all tonight, and wish all of you – those of you who receive Awards tonight, and those of you who are just here to have some fun – the very greatest success in the future, thank you all very much
SPEECH TO BLACK SOLICITORS’ NETWORK DINNER
At Carlton Tower Hotel
21 November 2008
Provided by and reproduced with the kind permission of the Attorney General’s Office. 20 Victoria Street, London SW1H 0NF