Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:13 pm on 29th March 1999.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department 5:13 pm, 29th March 1999

Would my hon. Friend allow me to continue? I have already taken getting on for 25 minutes, and hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to take part in this truncated debate.

All that I have outlined represents a significant agenda for change. We must work together to build a Britain of which we can all be proud and in which racial equality is a reality. I do not want this to be a partisan agenda. I am grateful to the right hon. Members for Sutton Coldfield and for Berwick-upon-Tweed for their active support for the agenda set out in the report, to which they assented when I made my initial statement on 24 February.

The publication of the inquiry's report on that date was overshadowed by events to which I will refer briefly. First, there was the leaking of the report the weekend before publication. I have explained to the House my reasons for seeking an injunction to try to preserve the confidentiality of the report before it was presented to the House. I shall in due course publish the conclusions of the leak inquiry to the House.

Secondly, on the evening of publication of the report, the memorial plaque at the place where Stephen Lawrence died was vandalised. That appalling event shows how far we still have to go to tackle racism in our society. I visited the plaque with Mr. and Mrs. Lawrence to lay flowers on the day after the report's publication, and I want to pay tribute to them again for their continued dignity and courage through all these events.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State explained to the House on 26 February the circumstances surrounding the dreadful publication of the unamended—so-called unredacted—version of appendix 11 of the inquiry's report. As I have said, both in and out of the House, I am very sorry indeed that the error occurred. The Metropolitan police have been working hard to make sure that every measure is taken to ensure the safety of the witnesses named. I thank the police officers and civilian staff concerned for the way in which they have responded in this matter.

I visited Eltham with my hon. Friend the Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) on 18 March and spoke to residents about their concerns. I want to record my appreciation and that of the local residents for all the work done by my hon. Friend in the lead-up to the report. He has represented the interests of his constituents, including the Lawrence family, and he has done a huge amount of work subsequently in the light of all the problems that arose following publication of the unredacted version of appendix 11.

The Government are determined—as I hope is the House—that events such as those must not distract us from our determination to take forward the agenda to implement the recommendations of the inquiry. Our vision is of an inclusive society, in which people are treated equally regardless of race, in which equality of opportunity for all is key and in which we, as a society, celebrate diversity in our lives and our communities. Our country—our Britishness—has been shaped by many different peoples over the centuries, broadening our languages and customs.

Britain was the host nation for a new labour force that we desperately needed—we sought it in the Caribbean and in Asia—and welcomed in the 1950s. Some groups came here and prospered, but the welcome was not wholehearted for many of them, despite the fact that we had invited them to emigrate here. While our record of race relations is better than that of many nations, there can be no room for complacency.

The Stephen Lawrence inquiry recommended that the Government should extend the Race Relations Act 1976 to the police. We agree, and as I told the House on 24 February, we will go further. The Act will be extended to cover all public services. It is time for the public service to put its own house in order on race equality. As employers, our track record could be very much better. To pick up a point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), it is not only the police service that has much to do on the recruitment, retention and promotion of ethnic minority staff. That applies across the piece in public services.

I am sorry to say that most public services lag significantly behind the best in the private sector. I am setting targets for all services in my Department for the recruitment and progression of ethnic minority staff. I expect all my ministerial colleagues to do the same for their services. We have to remove all the barriers that prevent our young, and older, ethnic minority people from achieving their full potential.

Eighteen years ago, the House was discussing how to take forward Lord Scarman's recommendations following the Brixton riots. Much was set in hand after that report. Getting on for two decades after Scarman, why are we confronted with the findings of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, so many of which appear to replicate those of Scarman? Part of the problem was that the focus after Scarman was on policing issues alone. I believe that the crucial failing was that the implementation of the Scarman agenda treated race and the whole issue of community relations as a bolt-on extra to the police's work. That is why, in my judgment, the changes required by the Lawrence inquiry will work only if they are systemic—embraced by the culture of the police force as well as in its practice. That must mean that they are implemented in the mainstream of the service at every level and do not become an add-on extra.

Providing a police service in which all sections of our multiracial, multicultural society can have trust and confidence is not peripheral to policing but its core task. I am determined that we will not be distracted from that task as perhaps we were 18 years ago after Scarman. We will take all the recommendations forward as a package. For each area covered by the recommendations, the action plan sets out the main programme of work, who will have lead responsibility for taking it forward, the milestones for progress and how we intend to review and assess its outcomes. My steering group to oversee implementation of the programme as a whole will meet for the first time in early May.

I am determined that the momentum should be kept up. I thank the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) for his suggestion that there should be an annual report on progress and an annual debate in the House. I can announce today that, in the light of his suggestion, we will publish an annual report on progress. I shall discuss an annual debate with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

I have set out the comprehensive programme of action that the Government have set in hand in response to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. It is the first stage in building non-racist public services—the first step towards a fairer, more just and much more equal society. I am determined to build a society where everyone, regardless of colour, race or religion, has an equal opportunity to succeed. I want the public services to lead the way as a diverse work force, and to lead the way in setting the best standards of service to the public. As I have already said, there is much that we can learn about that from the best of business, and we need to work together. Our public services need the most able and enthusiastic recruits from all communities, people who want to make a difference. The difference will be a fairer, stronger society that is better for us all. As I said on 24 February, it is that which will be a true testament to the memory of Stephen Lawrence.