EHRC threatens to intervene over Tory Islamophobia claims

·4-min read
<span>Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Watchdog under pressure to investigate party as Cabinet Office launches inquiry into Nusrat Ghani’s allegations

The UK’s equalities watchdog has said it could use its legal powers to act on allegations of Islamophobia made by the former Tory minister Nusrat Ghani.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is under pressure to launch an investigation into alleged anti-Muslim hatred in the Conservative party after Ghani’s claims.

In an interview published in the Sunday Times, she alleged that her “Muslimness” was raised when she was removed from a ministerial job in 2020 and she was told it was “making colleagues uncomfortable”.

The watchdog said that while it welcomed the announcement that the Cabinet Office was launching an inquiry into Ghani’s allegations, “if we are not satisfied with progress, we will not rule out the use of our legal powers”.

An inquiry by the Conservatives published in May 2021 was condemned as a whitewash by Muslim Tories and anti-racist groups. While many welcomed the conclusion of the review, chaired by Prof Swaran Singh, that anti-Muslim sentiment “remains a problem” in the party, they disagreed with the finding that there was no evidence of institutional racism.

An EHRC spokesperson said: “We have been monitoring the progress of the action plan from Prof Swaran Singh’s independent investigation into alleged discrimination within the Conservative and Unionist party, which was published in May 2021. We have received regular updates from the party and have liaised with them on their progress.”

The Muslim Council of Britain said a “truly independent” inquiry into the “state of institutional Islamophobia in the Conservative party” was needed. A spokesperson for the group called on the EHRC to launch one, saying it should “rise to fulfil [its] obligations” and it was a “litmus test” for the watchdog.

Mohammed Amin, a former chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum, said: “I do believe the EHRC needs to investigate the Conservative party for its handling of discrimination against Muslim members and mostly elected Muslim officials, parliamentarians etc. In the same way that it investigated the Labour party about its handling of antisemitism.”

He said failure to intervene could result in the body losing the confidence of British Muslims. “It’s the duty of the EHRC to investigate the health of our political parties,” he said.

Amina Shareef, an advisory panel member of Muslim Engagement and Development (Mend), said: “With the continued inability of the Conservative party to tackle Islamophobia in its ranks, including at the highest levels, it is high time for the EHRC to heed calls from the Muslim community to finally launch its own investigation.

“The EHRC’s failure to do so is leading to questions around its impartiality among many within the Muslim community.”

Despite Ghani’s demand for a specific terms of reference to be published for the Cabinet Office inquiry that included “all that was said in Downing Street and by the whip” alleged to have made the comments, the Guardian has been told the government is unlikely to do so.

Related: The Guardian view on Tory Islamophobia: the rot starts at the top | Editorial

Cabinet Office sources suggested the matter would be investigated through the standard process used by the propriety and ethics team, though it kept open the possibility that the prime minister’s ethics adviser, Christopher Geidt, could get involved if there was a suggestion the ministerial code had been broken.

Meanwhile, Qari Asim, the deputy chair of the government’s anti-Muslim hate working group and an independent adviser appointed in 2019 to lead government work to define Islamophobia, criticised the government for failing to meaningfully engage.

He said there had not “been any engagement from the government” on coming up with a definition for Islamophobia for several years.

“It is extraordinarily critical that we have a workable definition of Islamophobia as soon as possible,” he said. “It’s important for a number of reasons, but firstly that will identify what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.”

He added: “I’m heartened when senior ministers and the prime minister say that there’s a zero tolerance towards Islamophobia, anti-Muslim hatred, and that’s absolutely great.

“At the same time, I think we need to walk the talk, and we need to take concrete urgent steps to define what the redline boundaries are, which are acceptable to different sections of the society, including the government.”

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “The Cabinet Office will investigate the facts of this case. The Independent Adviser will be available to provide advice as required.”

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