Brexit confusion sparks race debate at NHDC

Chairman of the district council John Bishop, superintendent Julie Wheatley and leader of the counci

Chairman of the district council John Bishop, superintendent Julie Wheatley and leader of the council Lynda Needham. Picture: North Herts District Council - Credit: Archant

North Herts District Council has issued a correction after the leader of the council only referred to ‘white-other’ staff as potential EU nationals when questioned about the implications of Brexit.

At a full council meeting last month, Letchworth Grange councillor Paul Marment - who defected to the Liberal Democrats from the Conservatives in August last year - asked what contingency plans the Conservative-run council has in place to deal with the implications should Brexit go ahead on March 29 this year.

Responding, council leader Lynda Needham said: "We are keeping an impact blog for all the Brexit implications and this blog has already been prepared.

"HR have confirmed that there are 26 direct staff that are white-other background, but we are unable to state how many of these are actually of European descent.

"There's an ongoing discussion taking place at the policy and partnership meetings. County are collating what each district has done to assess the implications of Brexit and will share the findings so we all see what all the others are doing."

She was asked to clarify what she meant after referring to 26 council staff as 'white-other'.

Letchworth Grange Labour councillor Helen Oliver asked the council leader for clarification: "When you spoke about members of staff at NHDC, I'm thinking perhaps you didn't mean 'descent' of those people, I was wondering if you could clarify?

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"You said 'white-other' descent - who they've descended from is highly unlikely to be critical to what their nationality is or whether or not they're entitled to stay in the UK.

"Also, you said that you'd looked at 'white other'? Obviously, people from other EU states can be of other ethnicities, they don't have to be white."

In response to Mrs Oliver's question during the meeting, Mrs Needham said: "The information supplied to me by the HR department covers all our staff. What I have been given is the 26 where we have no background knowledge, all our other staff have filled the forms in such a way that it is easy to identify whether they are European or from the Commonwealth or UK."

However, some were not satisfied with this response.

Lib Dem councillor Ruth Brown, who represents Royston Heath, took to Twitter to voice her concerns. She wrote: "Absolutely shocked by this response. A complete failure to understand that nationality is not the same as ethnicity."

Fellow Lib Dem councillor Sam Collins, for Hitchin Highbury, told this newspaper: "It was a shocking thing for a council leader to say, as it very much sounded to me like Councillor Needham was suggesting that EU citizens could only be white, which would be a fundamentally incorrect statement and quite frankly downright racist. Unfortunately attempts to clarify this point were rejected."

In the wake of the meeting, this newspaper contacted Mrs Needham and the council for comment.

Mrs Needham said: "What I quoted was what the HR records show. The HR records show that all of our 300 plus staff, irrespective of their ethnicity or background, commented on the forms what they feel.

"There are 26 of our staff, who just happen to be white, who have not commented further. That is their prerogative.

"I made absolutely clear what the council records show.

"Whatever their ethnicity or background, we've 26 of them that have taken that option. It is the prerogative of the staff.

"These people who have not declared what nation they come from or what their origin is, I think that covers their nationality."

A council spokeswoman said: "Like most organisations we ask all new employees provide us with information regarding their ethnic background, although they are under no obligation to do so and this information alone cannot tell us which of our employees are EU citizens.

"Our new starter form uses the Office of National Statistics recommended categories for collecting ethnicity data in England. As a responsible employer we also carry out background verification on new employees' eligibility to work in the UK."

Having seen the starter forms, we asked for further clarification regarding how they can give an accurate representation of how many council employees are EU nationals.

In response, a council spokeswoman said: "In a wide-ranging and detailed response to a question about the potential impacts of Brexit there was an anomaly in the information supplied to the leader of the council in relation to potential staffing issues and nationality.

"The 26 members of staff referred to in the answer given have declared an ethnicity which is other than "white British".

"The data the council holds does not identify how many of those 26 are EU nationals. A correction will be provided to councillors."