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New deputy mayor makes history

CALL: Debbie Weekes-Bernard hopes that her appointment will inspire other black Londoners (Photo: Thierry Lagrin)

THE FIRST black woman to become a deputy mayor of London has told The Voice she hopes it won’t be long before others follow in her footsteps.

Debbie Weekes-Bernard was appointed by Sadiq khan as deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement replacing the outgoing Matthew Ryder QC.

Speaking to The Voice, Weekes-Bernard said: “I may be the first black female deputy mayor but it would be good if I wasn’t the last.

“I hope that in five years’ time, if I’m not in this role there will be others who have come after me. It would show that me coming into this role could make a difference in real women’s lives and that’s massively important.”

She continued: “As a girl of colour growing up in the UK I often looked to find role models outside of my own family.


“It was very rare that you saw women of colour in positions of power.

“I’m hoping that my being in this role can show that if you see others who look like you doing things that are of interest to you, be it in politics, in business or any field you can see that you can also reach those positions.”

Welcoming her appointment in October, Khan said: “Debbie brings with her a wealth of experience, having spent years working to tackle poverty and inequality. I know she will do a great job in bringing together our diverse communities and ensuring that all Londoners feel a key part of our city.”

Mayor Sadiq Khan has made it a priority to tackle issues such as affordable housing, low pay, social integration and greater social mobility. This year will see Weekes-Bernard, the former policy and research manager at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, head a series of initiatives aimed at addressing these issues.

The recent independent review by Sir John Parker into the ethnic diversity of UK boards and the independent review by Baroness McGregor-Smith highlighted race inequality in the workplace, concerns which Weekes-Bernard, one of nine deputy mayors, has put at the top of her agenda.

She said: “The McGregor-Smith review of race in the workplace did a great job of highlighting the fact that there are far too many people of colour who are concentrated in some of our lowest paying jobs. So it’s important to create those pathways for them to succeed and progress in work, and it’s something that the Mayor cares a great deal about.

“Here at City Hall, one of the things that the Mayor did, which Matthew Ryder supported him on, was to publish ethnicity pay gaps.

“We have moved on a great deal in that we know more about what those gaps are and what’s causing them, and we’re getting better at developing ways to tackle them.

“Where we still need to do more is to ensure that all communities are able to participate effectively, be that in the labour market.”

Weekes-Bernard continued: “We need to build on the momentum of publishing ethnicity pay gaps and talk about these issues so we don’t fall into the trap if thinking that because we’ve published the gaps we’ve achieved the goal of closing them. “You publish gaps in pay to identify where the gaps exist, so you can actively work to ensure you reduce them.

“The fact that there are groups of children and young adults who are experiencing barriers (in education and employment) because of their ethnicity, or because of their gender, does mean that those barriers are structural. If they weren’t structural we would be able to solve the problems much faster.”

VISION: New London deputy mayor for social integration, social mobility and community engagement Debbie Weekes-Bernard talks to The Voice’s Vic Motune (photo: Thierry Lagrin)

Talking about some of the strategies she intends to employ in addressing the problems she said: “Here in London, unemployment for young black men is a huge problem. One of the areas that falls within my remit is a project called the Workforce Integration Network. It’s about working with specific industry sectors trying to create pathways into employment for young black men. And the reason we are working with sectors is that it’s a really good way to focus a group of employers to make sure they improve their practice for a particular group of individuals.

“I think it’s massively important to use the evidence to identify the best places to concentrate your energy. And if the evidence is telling us that, in London our issue is unemployment among young black men, that’s where we need to focus our energy.”

She added: “One of the projects I’m hoping to announce this year is the launch of an Equality and Diversity Inclusion Panel which is made of up of stakeholders who work on specific equalities issues so that they can feed into the work we’re doing at City Hall.

“The panel will help check that the work we’re doing is in line with their specific areas of interest.” Another issue that has seen London hit the headlines over the past year is violent crime. The capital saw 100 homicides this year, its highest level for a decade. It’s an issue that Weekes-Bernard is passionate about.

“It’s something that I care hugely about,” she said. “These things really do matter to me. “But I think it’s too easy to take a quick-fix approach, and I don’t think that’s what we need to be thinking about, because we’d do a disservice to those people and their families.

“We need to make sure that we’re investing in a root and branch approach to what it is that is creating the myriad of different pathways that is leading into risk. “One of the things we fund at City Hall is the Young Londoners Fund. What’s important about it, is that it funds projects that which will enable young people from vulnerable backgrounds to have access to opportunities they wouldn’t normally have access to, diverting them away from activities that could really damage their life chances and enabling them to see that there is a way forward.

“What I would love to see is for that to have had impact in those young people’s lives.”


She added: “We’re also taking a public health approach to tackling those issues, which is important because it’s about tackling the causes of youth crime as well as the symptoms, so we can having a lasting impact on young people’s lives. “It means you’re working with health authorities and schools, police and social services, community based organisations that have great expertise in working with young people in particular.

“It’s only by taking an approach that ensures you get at the causes, which will ensure that 10 years down the line we’re not seeing other young people who are experiencing this.”

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