Conservative MP Philip Davies complained to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) that the Jhalak Prize unlawfully discriminated against white people, it has emerged. However the Commission told him it “supports and recommends” the prize.
The £1,000 literary award was founded last year by author Sunny Singh and Nikesh Shukla to “celebrate the achievements of British writers of colour" after two reports showed the publishing industry was at risk of becoming irrelevant unless its commitment to diversity improved.
It has emerged that Davies made a complaint to the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) earlier this year, saying the prize “unlawfully discriminated against white writers”. The Shipley MP has form for controversy, recently attempting to derail legislation to protect victims of domestic violence, going on record with his beliefs that employers should be able to pay disabled people less and remarking that “feminist zealots really do want to have their cake and eat it”. The latter remark resulted last week in Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker pledging to challenge Davies in his seat in Shipley, Bradford in the 8th June election.
Writing on the Media Diversified website, Singh said the Jhalak Prize organisers were given eight working days to provide the EHRC with evidence highlighting the disadvantage they were seeking to address, whether they had considered alternative ways of addressing the under-representation, and whether they had considered “alternative measures which were less likely to disadvantage other protected groups”. The EHRC would then use the response to “evaluate whether the promotion” of the prize was permitted under the Equality Act 2010, the prize organisers were told.
After pooling a legal team to respond to the Human Rights body, organisers gave their evidence to the EHRC, which decided that the prize did not fall foul of the law but that in fact the Commission “supports and recommends” the prize.
A commission spokesperson said: “As the UK’s independent equality regulator, the Commission has a duty to consider complaints by individuals about potential breaches of the Equality Act 2010. Following a complaint from Philip Davies MP about the Jhalak Prize being open only to writers of colour, we wrote a letter to establish the purpose and proportionality of the Jhalak Prize.
“The letter did not suggest that any unlawful act had occurred and the response provided the clarification we needed that the prize constitutes lawful positive action. Furthermore, this award is the type of action which the Commission supports and recommends.”
Singh said she was glad the EHRC had been supportive but added that she been left disappointed that both the Equalities Act 2010 and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission “have been deployed against two citizens and taxpayers as active means of intimidation.”
“An MP – a Freedom of Information request identified him as Philip Davies – chooses to spend taxpayer funds… to shut down initiatives intended to address inequality and injustice,” she said. “Moreover, he uses an arm of the state – the Equalities and Human Rights Commission – in a manner that I found to be intimidating.”
She added: “What does need emphasising is the role of a statutory public body committed to people’s right to ‘fairness, dignity and respect’ acting in ways that actively subvert its stated intention as well as the purpose of the laws it purports to protect and safeguard. The implications for wider society – groups, organisations, individuals attempting to work towards fairness and equality – are also chilling. If widely publicised, well-evidenced public research is cannot protect communities and individuals from additional burdens of having to prove and demonstrate their marginalisation and oppression, few will be able and willing to take on the challenges of creating change.”
Davies told The Bookseller: "I appreciate that the politically correct brigade, which includes the EHRC, believe in so called positive discrimination. I don't believe in any discrimination and don't believe that we should have prizes and competitions which discriminate on the basis of race.
"If someone set up a literary prize for white people only there would rightly be outrage from the same people who are defending this competition. As far as I am concerned there is no difference between a prize for white people only and a prize for ethnic minorities only. Both discriminate on the grounds of race and both should be rejected. I believe in true equality."
Despite the episode, Singh and Shukla have vowed to continue running the prize because "it's needed".
The prize was established following a 2015 report by an Arts Council-funded report called Spread the Word, which found the publishing industry’s poor commitment to diversity was putting it at risk of becoming culturally irrelevant, and following The Bookseller’s own investigations which found of the thousands of titles published in 2016 in the UK, only a small minority—fewer than 100—were by British authors of a non-white background.
On 17th March Jacob Ross was crowned inaugural winner of the Jhalak Prize for Book of the Year by a Writer of Colour for his The Bone Readers (Peepal Tree), set on the small Caribbean island of Camaho.
Shukla told The Bookseller: “We're excited about running the prize again this year as, for me, finding The Bone Readers, a book I hadn't come across on release, was a revelation, and the prize will run for as long as it's needed. And currently, it's needed.”