Racism and Anti-semitism

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 1:48 pm on 31st March 1994.

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Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

When I applied for this debate I expected it to be the hors d'oeuvres before the debate on racial harassment during the debates on the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill in April. Fate has now decreed that it be sandwiched between our debate last Monday and the debates that we shall have on our return.

The United Kingdom has a long history of tolerance. We welcomed the Huguenot refugees when they were the victims of religious persecution centuries ago. We welcomed the victims of pogroms at the turn of the century. In the 1930s, children came here on the Kindertransport from Germany to secure asylum. More recently, the Ugandan Asians, victims of Idi Amin, came here in the 1970s. That tolerance has been doubly blessed: it blessed those who received it and it blessed the United Kingdom, because those who came here made a major contribution to the life of our country.

That fine history is now threatened by a small minority. I am sure that everyone in the House was appalled by the election victory of the British National party in Millwall, but it was part of a wider worrying picture. In the past two years or so, there have been 14 racial murders, and there were about 9,000 reported racial attacks last year.

Anti-semitism is on the increase; there has been hate mail and anti-semitic leafleting in the universities. Our universities should be centres of tolerance and liberalism, but they are being used by a small group of Muslim fundamentalists who are waging a vicious campaign of anti-semitism. The HUT—no connection with UHT—has been condemned by most British Muslims and banned in many Arab countries, yet it is active on 50 campuses in this country.

The Hizb-ut-Tahir is an extremist organisation which has described Yasser Arafat as "filth". It has produced a leaflet, circulating in London university, which contains the following sentence: The last hour will not come until Muslims fight Jews and kill them … Peace with Israel, India and Serbia is a crime. University College London cancelled a meeting due to be addressed by the HUT.

Those who perpetrate such offensive filth should be prosecuted. The Crown Prosecution Service, however, said about the leaflet: The Crown Prosecution Service have carefully considered the contents of this leaflet but have concluded it is not of such a nature that a prosecution for an offence contrary to part III of the Public Order Act 1986 could be brought in relation to its distribution. In the circumstances, the CPS have not passed the material on to the police. If a leaflet calling for the murder of a religious group is not the sort of literature that the CPS believes should lead to a prosecution, one wonders how offensive a leaflet has to be—how nasty and filthy—before it warrants prosecution by the CPS.

We are faced with a small minority of mindless, militant Muslims who threaten violence on campuses; they are homophobic, anti-semitic and anti-Hindu. They claim the right to free speech, but they misuse that right to preach a doctrine of hate and violence. Surely those who persecute others should themselves be prosecuted by the forces of law and order. The HUT is a manifestation of poison and evil. It speaks for very few, but the doctrines it puts forward carry a threat which may incite others to violence.

Equally menacing is the flood of hate mail in north London. Many of my constituents, as I have reminded the House, were refugees from the Nazis. They fought for Britain in the last war and now, in the evening of their lives, they are experiencing a chilling echo of the 1930s. Why should they be disturbed by this evil hatred today?

We see cemeteries daubed with anti-semitic slogans and Nazi emblems. Surely the dead should have the right to rest in peace. Schools and synagogues need security staff to ensure that they will not be the victims of anti-semitic thugs. It is surely obscene that, in the last few years of the 20th century, places of worship should need to be protected and people should feel at risk when they are worshipping in a religious house.

Those attacks come from deranged, evil individuals who should be prosecuted. There are many who receive this hate mail and most of them will dismiss it as the product of a bitter, twisted mind. Others will obviously and rightly be concerned and ask themselves what will happen next. There is a danger that such anti-semitic literature will encourage others to commit acts of violence. That is why the Board of Deputies of British Jews is rightly concerned, and the Tabachnik report addresses the problem.

I hope that when my right hon. Friend replies to the debate he will be able to give the House some positive news about the Government's intentions on this matter. It is true that when we had the debate on Monday we still did not have the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the Chairman of that Committee, is here this afternoon and I hope that he will say a few words and tell the House when he expects to produce that report. I also hope that, when the House returns on 12 April, my right hon. Friend will tell the House that the Government will consider moving amendments on this issue either before the Bill leaves the House or when it reaches another place.

Racism and anti-semitism are like cancer; they have to be eradicated at their source or they multiply their malignant growth. The first issue we have to examine is how we can more adequately enforce the law. I believe that we need to give the police additional powers. As I said on Monday night, if someone makes a racist speech at Hyde Park corner on a Sunday, he can be arrested but those delivering leaflets cannot be arrested. The police would welcome additional powers to prohibit or impose conditions on meetings and processions on the ground that racial hatred may be incited.

Photo of Mr Hartley Booth Mr Hartley Booth , Finchley

Is my hon. Friend giving support and credence to the proposals in my Racial Hatred and Violence Bill?

Photo of Mr John Marshall Mr John Marshall , Hendon South

Yes. I am giving support to part of my hon. Friend's Bill.

Under sections 12, 13 and 14 of the Public Order Act 1986, the police can impose conditions on, or prohibit, a march if it will cause serious public disorder or disruption to the life of the community and the Home Secretary can prohibit the march if the conditions are not an effective weapon. The police would like those conditions widened to include racial hatred. That would get rid of some of the unfortunate marches in London, which cause disruption, fear and anger to many people.

Additional resources are also required. Disorder in society is mushrooming and the police should be told that combating it has high priority and that additional resources will be devoted to that purpose. It would be helpful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would clarify the role of the Attorney-General in bringing prosecutions. How many land on his desk and how many are determined at a lower level in the prosecution system?

In defining new offences such as those outlined in the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), the test must be whether it will be easier or more difficult to bring successful prosecutions. If we raise the hurdles before the prosecuting authorities, that would not be helpful.

I shall conclude, so that my two learned colleagues can contribute, by emphasising the need for speed. In the words of Lady Macbeth:— If it were done when 'tis done, then twere well—It were done quickly". My right hon. Friend the Minister may be tempted to say, "Let's wait until the next Criminal Justice Bill." We want quicker progress. Amendments should be made to the present Bill in the House or in the other place. The need is pressing and there must be immediate action.

Photo of Mr Greville Janner Mr Greville Janner , Leicester West 2:11 pm, 31st March 1994

I thank the hon. Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) for initiating this debate and for sparing me a little of his time. Above all, I thank him for being a champion of human rights causes—especially those affecting the Jewish community. We are all most grateful to him.

All six Conservative Members in the Chamber—most of whom are good personal friends of mine—are involved in the same fight against racism of all kinds and share extreme distaste for anti-semitism in all its aspects. The House is a very decent place. We have great disagreements, but on human rights issues we work together. As a Jewish leader, I thank those Conservative Members for all their work in that cause.

I greatly appreciated the remarks of the hon. Member for Hendon, South about the Tabachnik report. I do not know whether the particular suggestions made by Eldred Tabachnik are acceptable, but I would like the Minister to say whether he shares the view that change is essential.

We only have to look at the Italian elections to see what happens when people are not sufficiently aware of the past—the heirs to Mussolini's fascism start moving towards power; at events in what was the Soviet Union to smell the stench of anti-semitism in our nostrils; at what is happening in parts of Germany and the way in which the German Government and people are trying, often without success, to contest it, to know that the dangers of racism are not past.

I trust that the Minister will give us hope that in this country the dangers that confront not only Jewish people but all minority races are recognised by the Government, and that they will undertake to change the law on anti-racism to ensure that it will be enforceable and enforced.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton 2:13 pm, 31st March 1994

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) on being a great champion, as a Christian, of Jewish causes and a great source of pride and admiration for his many thousands of constituents—not only for those who are Jewish but for adherents to all kinds of other religions, who believe that this country is a haven of tolerance, decency and religious understanding.

There can be no doubt that racism, and the fear of racism, is growing in our society. Whether it is a result of the concentration in urban centres of ethnic minority groups or whether it is because the spread of fascism in Europe will inevitably have some effects here in Britain—there are already signs that that is happening—I do not know, but racism, unlike other kinds of "ism", is a cancer eating away at the fabric of free and decent societies. We realise how far that cancer can grow when we watch a film such as "Schindler's List" and witness how deep it went in a society which at the time was considered to be one of the most tolerant and reasonable in the world.

The Home Affairs Select Committee has tabled some amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill. It has suggested that we should have an offence of racial attack, that there should be some strengthening of the Public Order Act 1986 to take account of racial harassment, and that more can be done to strengthen the courts' powers in connection with hate mail.

It is time for the defences against racism to be strengthened and it is time for a positive effort to be made by the House to lessen the fear of racism among ethnic minorities of whatever colour or creed.

I hope that the Government will view those amendments, which have been tabled by a majority of the Home Affairs Select Committee, with understanding and support. If they do, and if they show that they are able to take the challenge of the increase in racism and the fear of racism and strengthen our defences, I have no doubt that the ethnic minorities will take continued heart that multiracial Britain is, indeed, a haven of tolerance, understanding and decency. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South for giving me the opportunity to say those few words.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham 2:16 pm, 31st March 1994

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall) for raising this subject. These important issues need extensive and thorough debate—rather more time, alas, than the 14 minutes that remain to me. At least the House has spent some time in recent weeks discussing new or amended legislation to tackle racial violence or harassment, and will do so again when we return after Easter.

Legislation is a very important tool, but it is not the only one, and it is vital that we do not lose sight of the wider picture of which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South reminded us on a number of occasions, as did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence). Racism, discrimination and anti-semitism go much further than mere questions of legislation; legislation is crucial but legislation alone cannot provide the full solution to the problems of discrimination and prejudice. That is why the Government's policies seek to tackle the fundamental problems that lead to discrimination and disadvantage.

The Government's condemnation of all types of racial violence, harassment and discrimination is unequivocal. Such action harms not only individuals but the wider community. The trust and understanding built up over years between communities can so rapidly be eroded by the climate of fear and anxiety that follows racial attacks or the distribution of nasty racist literature.The Government are firmly committed to the elimination of all types of discrimination and to the promotion of equality of opportunity.

Our commitment to eliminating the barriers to full participation is expressed in two ways. First, it is expressed in legislation. Britain has the most stringent and comprehensive anti-discrimination legislation in Europe. Those laws make racial discrimination in employment and in the provision of goods and services unlawful. The statutory organisation, the Commission for Racial Equality, promotes the law and offers advice and guidance on the way to avoid discrimination. The second leg of our policy manifests itself in the many programmes and initiatives that have been introduced to regenerate the economy, especially in the inner cities, the benefit of which is especially felt by ethnic minority communities.

Action to tackle disadvantage and to encourage economic recovery are only two elements of our policies that are actively helping to promote good race relations. We recognise the need to work together to build a truly open society in which all individuals, whatever their race, can feel safe, secure and able to contribute as well as to enjoy that society's benefits.

In stressing safety and security, I must deal with an issue which I know deeply concerns the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South, as it does the ethnic minority communities. There is not a decent person in the country who does not share with me and the House horror and outrage that young men like Quaddus Ali and Mukhtar Ahmed can be set upon by thugs and left critically ill. I take this opportunity to offer my sympathy to the victims and their families; I am sure that I speak for the whole House in doing so.

Investigation of racial crimes is a priority for the police and, where there are convictions, the sentences imposed by the courts can be and are exemplary. The appalling cases of the murders of Saddik Dada and Mohammed Sarwar and the taxi driver, Fiaz Mirza, show that to be so.

There has rightly been a great deal of discussion in recent months about how the law can contribute towards tackling racism and anti-semitism. The inquiry of the Select Committee on Home Affairs is close to reporting on this matter and it will be interesting to see its arguments and thoughts as well as some of its amendments, without any of the arguments and thoughts, down on the Order Paper.

We have been investigating the working of the Public Order Act 1986 in relation to racially motivated crimes. I have listened closely to the points my hon Friend the Member for Hendon, South has made today about the law as well as those he made on Monday. As he knows, there are a number of new clauses—rather more than there were last night—to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill currently before the House. That debate is not yet concluded, and will resume after Easter. These are important matters and they deserve a full response from the Government, which I will give when the House returns. I hope that my hon. Friend will understand, therefore, if I do not reply in detail to the points made today about those new clauses, instead confining myself to some general remarks.

When we have the arguments and views of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, as well as our own, I believe that its investigations will be seen to have underscored the complexities involved in considering changes to the law in this area. We need to be satisfied that any change would make the law more effective, promote good race relations and not have undesirable implications for the wider application of the criminal law. With those considerations in mind, I do not believe that it would be sensible to embark on legislative reform on the scale proposed recently by my hon Friend, the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth), at least certainly not before the outcome of the investigations has been fully exposed to public view. I want to assure my hon Friend that we will look sympathetically at any changes, in law or practice, that can give us more effective ways of dealing with racially motivated crimes.

One point that I want to make clear is that the Government do not believe that a specific offence, whether it be of racial harassment or racial violence, would be the right way forward. The need to prove racial motivation would make it much harder to achieve convictions and would undermine the declaratory or deterrent purpose behind such legislation. Although it would be temporarily encouraging to the ethnic minority communities, I believe that in the longer run it would undermine good race relations generally.

My hon. Friend specifically mentioned anti-semitism, as did my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton and the hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West (Mr. Janner). That is only one facet of a more widespread racism, but the Jewish community does have specific concerns. Like the Jewish community, I am concerned about the continuing publication and distribution of racist and, in particular, anti-semitic literature, and I do not underestimate the hurt and apprehension felt by the Jewish community.

It has long been the position in this country that people have the right to express whatever views they may have, no matter how repugnant they may be, provided that they do so within the law. If it can be shown that racist literature is intended or likely to stir up racial hatred, the authors can be prosecuted under the Public Order Act and face a maximum penalty of two years' imprisonment. The Malicious Communications Act 1988 can also catch anti-semitic literature if it is sent to someone whom the author expected and intended to be distressed by receiving such material. It seems to me that most of the literature—if that is the right word for it—that I have seen complained of falls foul of the law as it is. I am interested in the particular example cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South, which had been produced by an extremist Muslim organisation and which was circulating in universities.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

I would rather not because I have only six minutes left. However, my hon. and learned Friend presses me, so I shall give way if he will be brief.

Photo of Mr Ivan Lawrence Mr Ivan Lawrence , Burton

If most of the literature falls foul of the law, why are there not more prosecutions?

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

I wish I had not given way to my hon. and learned Friend because I would have come to that point.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

It is a good question and one that requires close attention. The obvious problem is finding who has produced the literature and having sufficient evidence to prove it so that those responsible can be convicted. As I said, the law covers broadly the type of literature—if that is the right word for it—that is complained of but the problem is identifying the culprits.

The hon. and learned Member for Leicester, West, who has taken a long and determined interest in these issues, intervened earlier to urge specifically the adoption of the recommendations of the Tabachnik report. Again, I hope that he will understand that I cannot go fully into those issues now. I will, however, make several remarks germane to the report.

We always need to strike a balance between freedom of speech, which includes the right to promulgate views and arguments that are silly and unpleasant, and the duty of the state to protect its citizens from abuse and publications that are conducive to strife and disorder. I am not yet convinced that the Public Order Act has that balance wrong, but I am acutely aware of the concern about the number of prosecutions since the Public Order Act came into force in 1987—a point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton—and of the suspicion that there is a lack of interest in pursuing such offences. I can assure the House that the police and the prosecuting authorities take these matters very seriously.

We are examining the current law—to see whether it is not working as intended—as part of a wider study of the effectiveness of the law relating to racially motivated crimes. The police encounter great difficulty in identifying those responsible for producing and distributing the dreadful material that we all, unfortunately, see from time to time. We are paying particular attention to whether the police have the powers that they need to investigate effectively the sources of such material. The main issue is not the nature of the material itself and whether the existing law covers it; the major problem lies in identifying the offender so that a successful prosecution can be brought.

Of course, it is for the Attorney-General to decide whether to consent to prosecutions for Public Order Act offences involving material designed to incite racial strife. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend gives very careful consideration to all these cases referred to him by the Crown Prosecution Service. I believe that 19 cases have been referred to him, and I know that my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton is worried that it is such a small number. Of those 19 cases, 14 have gone ahead with the Attorney-General's approval and five have not, the main reason being the unsatisfactory nature or inadequacy of the evidence. These are matters for the Attorney-General rather than me but I know that he is deeply concerned about them.

I regret that I do not have time to deal with all the matters raised, especially the organisations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South referred. However, I stress that what we have achieved over the past 30 years or so is a tribute to the basic values of decency and tolerance to be found in the great majority of our people, whatever their background. We want to build on that foundation. Good race relations are about legislation but not only about legislation to penalise those who transgress; they are also about promotion, advice, information, health and education. Measures that build confidence and trust and create mutual understanding are needed to go alongside the law—to underpin it and improve relation-ships that have gone wrong before the law needs to be called in because an offence has been committed.

I am greatly encouraged by the discussions that I have had with many representatives of ethnic minority organisations. There are real problems, but there is also a great deal of good will in those communities upon which to build.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South on bringing the arguments before us. They are essential. I hope that I have given him some encouragement, and I believe that we shall find that changes in the law can be useful. However, my hon. Friend is shrewd and practical, and has said that there is no benefit to the Jewish community or to any other ethnic minority in our simply rewriting the law in a way that extends neither its scope nor its effectiveness. I am determined to avoid doing that.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.