The UK government’s race report is so shoddy, it falls to pieces under scrutiny

Aditya Chakrabortty
·6-min read

Plenty has been said about the politics of the government’s latest report on race. Barely any attention has been paid by most of the media to its actual evidence, even from supporters delighted that it has some. “This report DOES have facts,” cooed Rod Liddle in the Sun, with the same sunny pleasure that a toddler might take from a book having words.

Yet the nature of those facts has barely been scrutinised by journalists. Instead, newspapers on the right have complained about “zealots of wokedom” (the Express) and their “baseless abuse” (the Telegraph) of Tony Sewell, the commission’s chief. As Matthew Syed wrote in the Sunday Times, “shouldn’t this be on the evidence rather than the person who assembled it; shouldn’t we play the ball rather than the man?” Fair enough, although he doesn’t bother examining the evidence either. Not so much playing the ball as just being very chuffed there’s something that looks like one.

And so the entire debate has been framed as outrage versus science, fury versus footnotes. You might not like the politics, runs the argument, but you can’t dispute the data.

Except you absolutely can. After reading the report and speaking to a range of experts on the subjects it covers, the most striking thing about that much-vaunted evidence is how shaky it is, littered with mistakes and outright mangling of sources, alongside the kind of selective quoting normally seen on hoardings outside West End shows.

Some indication of its shoddiness comes from the number of experts cited in the report who are now rushing away from it. The “stakeholders” who deny any stake; the providers of supposedly bespoke work who did no such thing; the professors quoted who feel misused, from leading public health expert Michael Marmot to Oxford psychiatry professor Kamaldeep Bhui, who damns the report as “really poor scholarship”. And those commission members who now claim they don’t recognise the report published in their name.

Forget the hostility from critics; I can’t recall any government report flopping so badly among its own contributors. How did it happen? An explanation comes from the commissioner who accused Downing Street of “bending” the report to fit “a more palatable” narrative for the government. This partly explains the report’s incoherence.

Whatever Liddle and the rest of Her Majesty’s Loyal Hot Takers think, the report doesn’t deny institutional racism. It dismisses the term in the foreword, accepts it in the early pages and later on forgets what it means. The report’s argument can be boiled down to two parts. First, that racism is much less of a force in the UK than socio-economic deprivation – even though the two go hand in hand. Second, that the British discourse on race is obsessed with victimhood when it should be celebrating progress. To sustain that argument, a lot of bending takes place.

Here’s one example of quite a haul: the police’s use of stop and search has always been controversial, especially as black boys mainly seem to be the ones on the receiving end. But the Sewell report backs it, and cites a study in the British Journal of Criminology “suggesting that drug crime patterns change when stop and search is taking place in an area”.

Look up the original study and at the very top it says: “[T]he effect of stop [and search on] crime is likely to be marginal, at best. While there is some association between stop and search and crime (particularly drug crime), claims that this is an effective way to control and deter offending seem misplaced.” The source argues the opposite to the report quoting it.

On deaths of ethnic minority men while in police custody, Sewell’s team quotes Dame Elish Angiolini’s report for Theresa May: “Racial stereotyping may or may not be a significant contributory factor in some deaths in custody.” See? No proof of racism.

Except it omitted Angiolini’s very next sentence: “However, unless investigatory bodies operate transparently and are seen to give all due consideration to the possibility that stereotyping may have occurred or that discrimination took place in any given case, families and communities will continue to feel that the system is stacked against them.” In other words: to find proof of racism, you must first look for it. She might as well have been addressing Sewell and his colleagues.

Research is wheeled out to celebrate the progress ethnic minorities have made over decades in the jobs market, yet the actual paper also finds “there is still net ethnic disadvantage”.

And there’s more, much more. Each time, the effect is akin to watching an 18-rated movie edited for an aeroplane’s in-flight service: so much of the action is missing that it’s a different film.

Then there’s sheer sloppiness. At the beginning of the chapter on crime is the statement that “Class B drug offences [cannabis and the like] accounted for nearly half of prosecutions of almost all ethnic groups”: that is, including white people. On first reading, that seemed amazingly high: how can weed account for more court appearances than motoring offences or theft? Sure enough, the spreadsheet pointed to by the report shows that court prosecutions for class B drug possession were just over 1% of the total. When I asked the Cabinet Office, it admitted its mistake – sadly, too late for James Forsyth of the Times, whose column last week featured the assertion that laws on class B drugs “account for almost half of prosecutions of ethnic minorities”, which is a misquoting on top of the original misquoting: a kind of error squared.

Supporters of the report and its politics often quote its points about how much of what is ascribed to racism is instead down to black boys being raised by single mums. There’s a reason for that: the Cabinet Office went hunting for research to establish a link. I have seen an email from last November to two leading social scientists that says the commission is interested in “whether there is any evidence to support perceptions that young people living in single parent households … experience poorer outcomes and in turn a higher propensity to become involved in risky or criminal activity”. In other words, the government went looking for proof to back up a prejudice, long expressed by Sewell, against lone-parent families. The Cabinet Office did not respond to my questions about this correspondence. The academics declined the invitation.

If this report was handed to you by an undergraduate, I asked researchers this week, how would you mark it? “It wouldn’t get to marking,” replied one, a leading criminologist at the University of Kent, Alex Stevens. “We’d be having words about intellectual dishonesty.” So what happens when that same sly dishonesty is practised by people in power using taxpayers’ money to fund government reports that retrofit evidence to suit positions designed to outrage? And when most of the press don’t do the basic interrogation? The obvious answer is: culture wars break out.

“Without objective truth we are sunk,” writes Syed in the Sunday Times. “Without shared empirical standards, we are finished.” Maybe he should tell No 10.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist