Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:50 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow 6:50 pm, 29th March 1999

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak at this stage of the debate, not least because I am the only young black person in the country elected to Parliament. I do not know whether it is true, but someone told me that I am the only young black person—that is, someone under the age of 30 at the election—elected to a Parliament in the whole of Europe. That might suggest an institutional bias that faces young black people. We must deal with the parallel universes that black and white people seem to inhabit. I say that as someone with a black father and a white mother. The existence of those parallel universes was brought home to me by my childhood experience. My white family would always say, "Now, Oona, if you get lost, what you have to do is find a nice policeman, and he will look after you—he will take care of you."

The attitude on my father's side of the family was the exact opposite. Their attitude was, more or less, that if you are black, a white policeman can seriously damage your health. That was not just their own irrational prejudice and bias; it was their own experience. Indeed, my father is still exiled from the country that he came from because of institutional racism there and because he asked to be treated the same as a white man.

I was brought up with those two attitudes, so I understand my white family thinking that the policeman is the best person whom I could go to, but that was not my experience as a child. The very first contact that I ever had with a policeman was in Swiss Cottage. I was sitting on a fence, and a policeman came up to me and said—I hope hon. Members will excuse the unparliamentary language—"Oi, you black bitch, get down off that fence."

Those were the first words that a policeman said to me. I implore Opposition Members and people around the country to accept that that must inevitably diminish my respect for the police force. When the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) says that the police are one of the most respected institutions in the country, I must ask him: respected by whom? It is not the case that the police are respected by the black community. That is a great shame, because it undermines our democracy. That cuts to the core of what it is to be British, and what we hope for in a democratic society.

The parallel universes are further illustrated by a comment made by the editor of a middle England newspaper who wrote after the Lawrence inquiry: The problem the police faced was that the poor parents' grief was unassuageable and so they felt the need to blame someone. I am, frankly, disgusted by those remarks, but disgust, outrage, hyperbole and hysteria do not help us to come to an understanding, so I try to steer clear of that as much as I can.

The problem that the police faced was the fact that they were institutionally racist, institutionally incompetent and institutionally corrupt. Corruption is the twin brother of racism, and it affects us all. That is why the debate and the Lawrence inquiry are so important, for white people as well as for black people.