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Zero Tory MPs show up for 'vital' debate on racism – 'What message does this send?'

James Morris
·Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK

Watch: 'What message does this send?': Zero Tory MPs show up for 'vital' debate on racism

Conservative MPs have been criticised after not turning up for a debate about racism towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage during the coronavirus pandemic.

Labour MP Sarah Owen, who led the debate, said: “It sends a really, really damning message.”

Kelly Tolhurst was the only Conservative to attend the debate – but this was in her capacity as a communities minister. “You’re here because you had to be,” she was told.

Speaking at the end of the debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, Luton North MP Owen – one of two people of east or south-east Asian heritage to have been elected to the House of Commons – pointed to the empty seats next to Tolhurst where Conservative MPs could have sat.

Labour MP Sarah Owen said Conservative MPs sent a 'really damning message' in not attending a debate about racism towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage. (Parliamentlive.tv)
Labour MP Sarah Owen said Conservative MPs sent a 'really damning message' in not attending a debate about racism towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage. (Parliamentlive.tv)

Owen said: “The minister started by saying this is a vital debate. It is a vital debate. I am really grateful there are honourable friends that have come here to represent their communities but also to support.”

Owen was referring to Labour MPs when she said “honourable friends”.

She continued: “But you’re here, minister, because you had to be. Where are your colleagues?

“There are six seats empty there, not a single Conservative. Not a single one of your government has decided to turn up.

Read more: 'It's vicious': What it's like living through the UK’s coronavirus racism

“What message does that send to our communities? It sends a really, really damning message.”

Five Labour MPs – including Owen – and one SNP MP attended.

Tolhurst, speaking for the government before Owen criticised the lack of Conservative MPs in attendance, said it has a “zero tolerance approach to those who commit these [hate] acts”.

She said a “number of people” have been prosecuted for crimes “involving racist abuse on the basis of perceived Chinese ethnicity” during the pandemic.

Kelly Tolhurst was the only Conservative to attend the debate – but this was in her capacity as a communities minister. (Parliamentlive.tv)
Kelly Tolhurst was the only Conservative to attend the debate – but this was in her capacity as a communities minister. (Parliamentlive.tv)

“We will continue to stand shoulder to shoulder with people of Chinese and east-Asian heritage.”

It was Parliament’s first ever debate about racism experienced by east and south-east Asians in the UK, and focused on people’s experiences during the pandemic.

In July, Yahoo News UK reported about the extent to which racist attacks towards people of east and south-east Asian heritage in the UK have increased since COVID-19 was identified in Wuhan, China, in December last year.

Attacks during the outbreak have included a Singaporean student being beaten up in London; a Chinese takeaway owner in Hitchin, Hertfordshire, being spat at after he was asked if he had the virus; and vandals scrawling “f*** off home China scum” on the shop front of a takeaway in Dudley, West Midlands.

Lu Gram, a member of the End the Virus of Racism group who is Chinese, also told this website someone shoved a newspaper in his face and accused him of “making us sick”.

“I’m surprised at how vicious it’s been,” he said.

Owen, meanwhile, told this website of the racist abuse she has been subjected to.

“Mostly on Twitter,” she said. “The usual abuse: we all eat live animals, it’s your fault for eating dogs, it’s your fault for eating bats…”

In May, a House of Commons committee heard hate crime against south and east Asian communities has increased by 21% during the coronavirus crisis.

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