4 min read14 July
Home Office minister Victoria Atkins clashed with Labour MP Zarah Sultana during a Commons debate on racism, telling her to “lower the tone” and “stop shouting’.
The MP for Coventry South, accused members of the government of fanning the flames of racism, referring to the Prime Minister’s 2002 newspaper column describing black people as “picaninnies”, and Home Secretary Priti Patel’s recent remark that called taking the knee “gesture politics”.
Atkins told Sultana to stop shouting at her during the terse exchange and asked her to “lower the tone a little bit”.
Sultana had asked Atkins if it was the case that Johnson and Patel had given the green-light to racism with their past comments.
But Atkins dismissed Sultana’s question, responding: “I had hoped that we were going to be able to conduct this debate in a measured and collective way.
“I don’t genuinely think the honorable lady is accusing either the Prime Minister of this country, or indeed the Home Secretary of racism.
“That would be a truly extraordinary allegation to make. But I hope at some point we will be able to work together to tackle racism.
“I hope we’re able to lower the tone a little bit…. she’s trying to shout at me.”
“I don’t genuinely think [Sultana] is accusing either the PM or the home secretary of racism. That would be a truly extraordinary allegation.”
Minister Victoria Atkins told Labour’s Zarah Sultana to “lower the tone” in a debate on racist abuse
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— PoliticsHome (@politicshome) July 14, 2021
While Sultana struck an impassioned tone, during the debate for which only white MPs were selected to speak until the Speaker intervened, she did not appear to be shouting.
Atkins reiterated her accusation that Sultana has shouted. “In tackling these horrific instances of racism, we need to work collectively together and shouting at me across the dispatch box is not going to help with that,” she said.
Sultana, who is from a Pakistani background and a Muslim, later noted that she had been the only person of colour down to speak in the debate and described Atkins’ remarks to her as “shameless”.
“In Parliament, in a debate about the racist abuse of our England stars, I just challenged Tory minister Victoria Atkins on the Prime Minister & Home Secretary’s encouragement of racism.” she wrote on Twitter after the debate.
“She told me – the only person of colour down to speak – to “lower my tone”. Shameless.”
The row came in a debate during an urgent question tabled by Labour to discuss the prevalence of racism in social media.
Atkins had been standing in for the Home Secretary, who she said was attending an event on domestic violence. The minister said she government condemned racism online and offline and those who commit offences should face the full force of the law.
In Parliament, in a debate about the racist abuse of our England stars, I just challenged Tory minister Victoria Atkins on the Prime Minister & Home Secretary’s encouragement of racism.
She told me – the only person of colour down to speak – to “lower my tone”. Shameless.
— Zarah Sultana MP (@zarahsultana) July 14, 2021
During the debate Atkins set out strongly that social media companies have a far greater role to play in removing racist abuse from online platforms.
She said the government’s online harms bill would make progress in getting companies to act, although Labour said that the bill had first been promised four years ago. Shadow home secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said a major weakness is that it would allow companies to set their own terms and conditions regarding abuse.
Conservative MP Simon Fell said that of the 105 Instagram accounts which had racially abused members of the England team, only six had been taken down so far today.
Yvette Cooper, Labour MP and chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee said keyboard warriors are still being given a “megaphone” online and social media firms are taking days to remove content.
Atkins said that if social media firms do not act, then the government will take action and Patel had been relentless in pursuing companies to improve how they operate.
She said some tech companies seem to believe their own community rules override national laws.
“It is simply not acceptable,” she said.
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