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Threats sent to race equality group after criticism by Tory MPs

When an equality thinktank with just eight full-time staff added its voice to criticism of the government’s recent race report, it probably didn’t expect to become a lightning rod for hate mail and threats, or find itself at the centre of a culture war between rightwing politicians and charities.

In what has been described as a full-scale campaign to “silence criticism and discredit any dissenting voices”, a group of Tory MPs from the Conservative Common Sense Group attacked the Runnymede Trust after it became one of the more vocal critics of the government’s controversial Sewell report.

The trust had delivered an open letter and petition to Downing Street urging Boris Johnson to reject the findings of the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities (Cred) and instead implement recommendations from previous reviews.

This became the cue for some Tory MPs, led by the veteran Conservative minister Sir John Hayes, to write to the Charity Commission demanding an investigation into the race equality thinktank. Hayes and his parliamentary fellows claimed the trust was pursuing a political agenda.

Referring to Runnymede, Hayes also asked the equalities minister, Kemi Badenoch, to make representations across the government to “stop the worthless work of organisations, often publicly funded, promulgating weird, woke ideas and in doing so seeding doubt and fear, and more than that, disharmony and disunity”.

The Charity Commission duly announced that it was considering whether to launch such an investigation and, during a debate in the House of Commons, Badenoch defended the review and instead accused critics of “bad-faith attempts to undermine the credibility” of the report, saying Runnymede was part of a “climate of intimidation” around those involved with it.

Now Sir Clive Jones, a Runnymede trustee, who was awarded a knighthood for services to humanitarian causes in the 2019 Queen’s birthday honours, has revealed that its staff have been subjected to hate mail and threats.

The threatening phone calls and mail began almost immediately after the charity, established in 1968 to improve public education on race, criticised the Sewell report, but now there are fears that the move by the Conservative MPs could “embolden” the perpetrators of this abuse.

The main focus of the hate and threats has been the trust’s chief executive, Halima Begum, but other staff have also been subjected to threats.

“Runnymede … appears to be the only organisation to have been named and attacked in parliament. This is despite the scores of civil society groups and bodies that have expressed their shock and anguish at the findings of the Cred report,” said Jones, formerly a long-serving chief executive at ITV.

“Our staff should not have to conduct their work in fear for their safety. The virulent and highly politicised nature of the conversation around our work only serves to embolden those who would act with extreme prejudice. We do not suggest in any way that this was the intention of any MP, but ill-considered comments can have serious and unintended consequences,” he added.

The charity is not alone in facing criticism from some backbench pressure groups. Last year after the success of the Conservative European Research Group in shaping Brexit policy, a string of new groups were set up with a remit on issues from migration to criticism of “the woke agenda”.

One of the first targets for the Common Sense Group, which launched last summer with about 40 members, was the National Trust, which it accused of being “coloured by cultural Marxist dogma” and in the grip of “elite bourgeois liberals” because of the charity’s report acknowledging links between its properties and slavery. Then there were calls from the same group for a Charity Commission investigation into the Barnardo’s children’s charity after it published an article explaining white privilege.

Members of the group have previously said they were “ready for a culture war”. Those who called for an investigation into Runnymede include Sir Edward Leigh, a vocal critic of immigration who once suggested taking Calais back from France to stop migrants crossing the Channel; Sally-Ann Hart, who was investigated and subsequently cleared by her own party of alleged antisemitism; and Bob Blackman, who has repeatedly been accused of Islamophobia.

But the group’s activities have not gone unnoticed and, after its vocal criticism of Runnymede, some leading charities wrote a letter defending the trust and its right to tackle social justice. The charities, including Shelter, Liberty, Friends of the Earth and the Quakers in Britain, said many organisations existed “because the state has failed, and a clear example of the failure of the state is a failure to dismantle race inequality in Britain”.

“The changes that charities are asking for are not ‘worthless’ or ‘weird’ but focused on solving some of this country’s most enduring challenges,” the letter, organised by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations, added.

Sam Grant, Liberty’s head of policy and campaigns, described the attack on Runnymede as somewhat ironic. “To use your power and privilege to try to undermine the claim that structural racism exists just proves the exact point Runneymede and countless others are making. Structural racism is real, and this government is actively engaging in it,” he said.

He added: “Any government fit for office should welcome scrutiny, listen to experts and communities, and tackle racism and all forms of discrimination. Yet we know this government dodges accountability at every turn. Now, MPs are trying to gag organisations which express dissenting views.”

Meanwhile, Hugh Knowles, the co-executive director of Friends of the Earth, said it was wrong for MPs to seek to “silence” a respected anti-racist charity for speaking out against a highly controversial government report. “This is part of a deeply worrying wider pattern of action, which is closing down the space for people to challenge and hold the government to account. It needs to stop,” he said.

The MPs, named above, who called for the Charity Commission investigation into the trust have been contacted for a comment.