Boris Johnson’s niqab comments were ‘insensitive to Muslims’

Inquiry finds UK prime minister did not set a good example with face veil remarks

FILE PHOTO: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson walks outside Downing Street, amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, in London, Britain, April 14, 2021. REUTERS/John Sibley//File Photo
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UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's remarks about women wearing the niqab gave the impression the Conservative Party was "insensitive to Muslim communities", an independent inquiry has found.

The inquiry, set up in 2020 to examine allegations of Islamophobia, cleared the party of institutional discrimination against Muslims but discrimination was identified at a local association and in individual cases.

In a message to the prime minister, the inquiry said the leadership of the Conservative Party “ought to set a good example for appropriate behaviours and language”.

The report findings were accepted in full by Conservative chairwoman Amanda Milling. In a statement she said the party accepted the report’s findings and apologised “to anyone who has been hurt by discriminatory behaviour of others or failed by our system.”

“The Conservative Party will continue to take a zero-tolerance approach to discrimination of any kind and take immediate action to improve our handling of complaints,” she said. "Any incident of discrimination is wrong, and we must work harder to stamp out discrimination of all kinds. We held this investigation because we are determined to right these wrongs."

Mr Johnson, who was an MP at the time, said in a 2018 Daily Telegraph column that women who wore the face veil looked like "letterboxes" and "bank robbers".

The majority of an independent panel concluded that he did not break the party’s code of conduct, but there was a minority view that the language used was “offensive”.

Mr Johnson told the investigation that he was “sorry for any offence taken” and he would not repeat the remarks as prime minister.

“I do know that offence has been taken at things I’ve said, that people expect a person in my position to get things right, but in journalism you need to use language freely,” he said.

“Would I use some of the offending language from my past writings today? Now that I am prime minister, I would not.

“I am obviously sorry for any offence taken.”

In response to Mr Johnson’s assertion he would not make such remarks now, the inquiry said: “While this could be considered leading by example, the investigation would like to emphasise that using measured and appropriate language should not be a requirement solely for senior people, but ought to be expected throughout the Conservative Party."

The investigation also looked into remarks made by Zac Goldsmith, who ran for mayor of London in 2016, against his Muslim Labour rival Sadiq Khan.

Mr Goldsmith, now a UK environment minister, accused Mr Khan of associating with extremists.

The report said Lord Goldsmith “accepts poor judgement in the way his campaign was conducted but forcefully denies harbouring anti-Muslim sentiments or using such sentiments for political advantage”.

Bob Blackburn, MP for Harrow East, was similarly criticised for hosting an event with Tapan Ghosh, a Hindu nationalist speaker alleged to have made anti-Muslim remarks in India.

The inquiry accepted Mr Blackman's assurances that he made a mistake.

“Mr Blackman acknowledges that hosting Mr Ghosh to Parliament without due diligence and knowledge of his social media posts were errors of judgment on his part, which he deeply regrets," it said.

The investigation found that between 2015 and 2020 the party's central database recorded 1,418 complaints, relating to 727 incidents of alleged discrimination.

More than two-thirds of the incidents - 496 - related to Islam and 74 per cent of all the cases involved social media activity.

About a third of cases - 231 - led to a sanction, with 50 per cent resulting in a suspension and 29 per cent an expulsion from the party.

No action was taken in hundreds of other incidents, for reasons including the complaint being in relation to someone who was not a party member, insufficient evidence or a prior investigation.

The inquiry recommended that the party's complaints handling process should be overhauled, with new guidelines on the sanctions handed out to individuals who breach the code of conduct and a determination on whether complaints are handled by the party's headquarters or local associations.

Other recommendations included the provision of training for members to respond to equality issues.

Prof Singh said racism should be taken seriously, given that it could have a "long-lasting and pernicious effect" on people.

"Our report should make for uncomfortable reading for the party and, more importantly, spur it into action," she said.

"I hope the party will fully accept our recommendations and implement the changes needed in a transparent and timely matter."

A Downing Street spokesman said: "The party is considering the recommendations set out by the report. We will respond later today."