This piece originally appeared on the Evening Standard website.
There’s a cheekiness to Lord Adebowale. When the cross-bench peer sees my spike-toed trainers, he inquires: “Are they for running or for kicking people?” Later, he teases me about my (long lost) sarf London accent. Then, when I ask about his induction to the House of Lords, he turns it on me: “I’m assuming when you started your job, you had an induction?” I shake my head. “No? Just here’s a pen, get on with it? That explains a lot.”
The 53-year-old chief executive of the charity Turning Point really wants to be interviewing you. As chair of the London Fairness Commission, he is asking for Londoners’ views on what kind of city we want, and how we could make it more meritocratic and just.
“It’s not about what I think, it’s about what Londoners think,” is his mantra. “The point of the commission is to open up a debate — one we haven’t had in London for a long time. In fact, the nearest you can get to a debate of this kind was [Charles] Booth in 1897, which produced the notion of the poverty line.”
The inquiry’s scope is broad: wages, housing, mental health and even, Adebowale suggests, air quality (he’s asthmatic). A preliminary poll, released tomorrow, shows 53 per cent of Londoners think the capital is fair. “That’s still a lot of people who don’t think London is fair, or are ambivalent. That creates a challenge: cities and countries where there’s gross unfairness tend not to be very successful economically.”
Is London becoming more or less meritocratic? “There are indications that it’s less meritocratic. We should be concerned that if you’re a kid born intelligent and poor versus a kid who’s rich and not so intelligent, you lose out.”
According to the poll, three major issues for Londoners are wages, the cost of living and the lack of affordable housing. “People perceive that what they get paid doesn’t necessarily reflect the effort that goes into getting that money. That’s something we need to explore, because — especially for young people — [seeing] your effort rewarded is at the basis of a productive economy.”
On housing, Adebowale notes that the survey showed it wasn’t just a worry for the young but for the over-55s too. “They see young people coming up and [think]: ‘How are you going to get to the position I’m in?’, which is maybe owning or being able to rent a property. Property is an investable commodity: Londoners are telling us we need to think about that.”
One of Turning Point’s focuses is mental health, and in 2013 Adebowale led a Met investigation on how it handled these issues. “The police have taken quite a few steps but it’s also the NHS. If I’m mentally ill and have committed no crime, I’m more likely to be picked up by the police than an ambulance.” Does he mean as a black man, or is this true of everyone? “Any individual but particularly if you look like me.”
He believes mental health is an important issue for the commission. “The answer isn’t just more services for those who become ill, it’s about how we can influence employers in their management of employees, about designing [better] housing.”
Housing and income are big stresses in people’s life, he explains. “Instability causes stress. A bit of stress is [normal] but when it tips over into being ‘actually, I don’t know how I’m going to eat or keep a roof over my head’, you are presenting people with conditions that force them to be less than human.”
Before joining Turning Point, Adebowale used to run youth homelessness charity Centrepoint. It was set up in response to people sleeping on the streets while the building — Centre Point, by Tottenham Court Road Tube — stood empty (now, equally tellingly, it’s being converted into luxury flats). “We often had people going to Centre Point, instead of coming to our offices.”
Interestingly, Adebowale says most of the people involved in setting up Centrepoint ended up in the City: “They’re bankers — and they still feel as strongly about it now as they did then.”
Likewise, the commission isn’t just aimed at those struggling. “Fairness is everyone’s business. Those we’ve talked to who earn huge amounts of money are as concerned about issues of fairness as the poor. And Londoners aren’t just saying ‘soak the rich’, they’re saying ‘I want to be valued, and see that I am valued on some sort of scale, where I can see why someone is valued more’. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable suggestion.”
One positive from the study is that young people appreciate London’s multicultural nature. Adebowale feels a major shift has occurred. “I’m old enough to remember the issues around race that blighted London. I would be naive to think they’ve gone away entirely but it’s fantastic that the young appreciate multiculturalism. I know there are many critics but it’s a bit like mixing coffee: once you put the milk in, you can’t take it out.”
He adds that we should be “proud as a city” about our attitude to migration. “London is reliant on migration — in fact, the country is.” He thinks we could treat it more as an opportunity than a problem, London’s multiculturalism being a draw for international businesses, while the number of children learning English as a second language could make us leaders in teaching.
Adebowale, whose parents were Nigerian, is “Yorkshire born and bred” but calls himself a Londoner. “I’ve lived here longer than you’ve been alive,” he says (I’m 30). “I work here. My kids [he has a 20-year-old son and a nine-year-old daughter] were born here.”
Adebowale still has a Yorkshire accent but it’s softened enough that I foolishly place his childhood further south — and get a ribbing for it. He’s had elocution lessons but sometimes the “Australian question intonation” seeps in, where the pitch rises at the end of sentences.
In 2001 he applied to enter the House of Lords. “Don’t call me a People’s Peer — I hate it. It’s a New Labour label which I’ve long regretted. It’s nonsense. I’m just a crossbench peer — don’t hold it against me.”
What’s the point in cross-bench peers? “There’s a need for people who aren’t members of a political party. The purpose of the crossbenches is to have a bunch of people who aren’t whipped.” In both senses of that word? “I’m saying nothing.” There’s a broad smile, and then he can’t resist the Francis Urquhart motto from House of Cards: “You might think that. I couldn’t possibly comment.”
He doesn’t mind the customs of the Lords (“I don’t have a problem with tradition: I have a problem with ignorance and poverty”) and calls it a “privilege” to be there. “I don’t take it lightly and I use the privilege sparingly. It’s not a joke —some people think it is — but it’s not.”
Thanks to the Lord Sewel saga the Lords is under renewed scrutiny. “I’ve got no problem with that. It’s the duty of every citizen to be sceptical — not cynical, there’s a difference.”
He bats away the question of how the Lords can repair its image almost in the way a true politician would, though. “Like all democratic processes, it should be open to scrutiny.”
Would he like to see it reformed? “It is what it is… The House of Commons represents the election and has more power — and that’s right. The House of Lords represents the process of debate. It’s not a perfect representation of the democratic process but it’s a pretty good imperfect one.” Isn’t it a problem that it’s full of old, white men, though? “It’s an issue not just for the Lords but for society,” he replies. “Democracy should be representative of the people who pay for it.”
Adebowale lives in east London with his wife Tracey Adebowale-Jones, who is a chair of governors at Aldersbrook Primary School. “She’s helped turn it around from a school that was failing to an outstanding school.” His great love beyond family and work is music: he plays the ukulele and the saxophone. “There are some things I do on the basis that if they’re worth doing, they’re worth doing badly.” Recently, he’s ticked off a “bucket list” ambition to DJ too.
He was on Desert Island Discs in 2011, and I suggest the phone call must have been a dream for any music-lover. “I thought they were joking, to be honest.” Did he put a lot of time into making his choices? “It took me three years,” he jokes. “No, I had no idea how big a thing it was. I didn’t spend weeks thinking about it.” He laughs. “I’m too busy.”