A top official at Bristol City Council has admitted there is “lots more work to do” to tackle institutional racism at City Hall.
Director of finance Denise Murray concluded in a recent report that the council had finished work it had undertaken to address “a number” of staff complaints about racial discrimination.
When challenged on her official conclusion, however, Murray conceded that “there’s lots more work to do in this area”.
“We continue to make good progress,” she told a member of the council’s audit committee last week.
The report to the committee set out how the council had addressed four significant issues identified in its annual governance statement from 2018/19.
One of these was “a number of complaints of racial discrimination that were raised by the BAME [black and minority ethnic] staff led group”.
The complaints were the subject of a detailed investigation by Bristol Live last year, and followed an independent review into the tragic death of Iranian refugee Bijan Ebrahimi.
Mr Ebrahimi was murdered and set on fire by a racist neighbour in 2013 after years of complaining about being harassed by his neighbours. His body was discovered outside his flat in the Broomhill area of Brislington.
The 2017 review found “evidence of both discriminatory behaviour and institutional racism on the part of Bristol City Council”, prompting a swift promise of change from city mayor Marvin Rees, who took office in 2016.
A year after the review, Bristol Live’s investigation uncovered a host of complaints of racist bullying or discrimination, which victims claimed had not been dealt with effectively by HR processes.
One senior official resigned and the council admitted its historic record on equality and diversity had not been “anywhere near where it should be”.
Murray’s report to the audit committee on May 28 concluded that work to address the complaints about racial discrimination was “status green – completed and evidenced”.
But committee member Clive Stevens challenged the assessment, saying: “This is such a big issue that it can’t be solved just by answering complaints so therefore I query whether it should be green.”
Murray replied saying that all the actions agreed to address the issue had been completed, including resolving all of the individual complaints. She said: “Our HR team have actually followed up on each of those complaints and spoke to the complainant and also involved the staff-led groups, and have confirmed that those are deemed to be resolved.
“I believe that they have sought assurance from the complainant that they believe their complaint is actually resolved.”
She added that the whistleblowing process had also been changed to give “greater assurance and greater confidence”. The changes followed a council finding that fears of reprisals were deterring whistleblowers from reporting wrongdoing by colleagues.
Other actions completed as agreed included appointing a new head of equality and inclusion, establishing an equalities board, revising HR policies, introducing equalities training, monitoring areas needing attention identified in a 2019 staff survey, and adding an extra question about whistleblowing procedures in the 2020 staff survey, according to the report.
Murray said: “Unfortunately, as a result of Covid, we haven’t finally analysed the results from that [2020 survey].
“But I think it’s clear to say that all of the points that we’d agreed that we would take away, the actions that we indicated that we would follow through on, have all been followed through and the results that we’re seeing in the survey are showing an improved trend.
“There’s lots more work to do in this area and we continue to make good progress and follow through on that work.”
Murray said the council would keep the matter under “constant review” to ensure it has “actually built confidence in the organisation and our staff”.
“I would say that we have but the evidence will be the journey and the trend as we continue to monitor the survey results year on year,” she said.
When approached by the Local Democracy Reporting Service for further information, the council would not divulge the exact number of complaints of racial discrimination in 2018/19.
A council spokesperson said there was “no more detail” to add to last year’s coverage by Bristol Live, which reported nearly 70 people had complained to BME group leaders by February 2019.
The council adopted a new equality and inclusion policy and strategy in 2018 when it claimed to have introduced “considerable and lasting changes including new advice, guidance and training for staff about equality, diversity and inclusion”.