Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:48 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of Mr Bernie Grant Mr Bernie Grant Labour, Tottenham 7:48 pm, 29th March 1999

I welcome the debate. Surprisingly, I agreed with many hon. Members who have spoken. The speech of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) was full of bonhomie, and his tones were so dulcet that I was lulled into a false sense of security, until I remembered that he was a member of a Government who refused to have an inquiry into the Lawrence case. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) criticised the Macpherson report, but he was a Home Office Minister in the Government who refused an inquiry into the Lawrence case. It is useful for us to remember that.

I am deeply indebted to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his fortitude in getting the inquiry and the debate under way, and for all the steps that he has taken so far. I am also grateful to the inquiry team for its steadfastness in sticking to the issues.

I have some criticisms of the Macpherson report. For instance, it does not place any onus or responsibility on the community, unlike the Scarman report, which set up police committees and talked about the need to get the communities involved. The Macpherson report talks about institutions, which is all well and good, but people work and live in communities. We need to get the black and ethnic minority community behind us.

I find it quite astonishing that the inquiry could not find any individual racism in the Metropolitan police. Anyone who saw the drama-documentaries on television will have seen the individual racism, arrogance and lack of accountability displayed by the officers who were questioned.

My biggest problem is with the new definition of institutional racism. I am especially concerned with the use of the word "unwittingly", because it lets people off the hook. If we say that an institution discriminates, but that the people involved do not know that they are discriminating, we are letting them off the hook. When St. George's medical school was found by the Commission for Racial Equality to be institutionally discriminating against black and ethnic minority applicants, it was found that someone had programmed the computer to reject people with foreign-sounding names. That was not unwitting: it was done deliberately.

I do not want Sir William Macpherson to try to tell me that institutionalised racism is unwitting. It is not. When the Ford motor company changed the faces of people in its advertisement—they changed a Sikh and a black man into white men—before it sent it to eastern Europe, that was not unwitting. Someone took the decision.

When, two years ago, Sir Paul Condon talked about 80 per cent. of young black people being guilty of mugging, so whenever police officers saw a black youth in the street, they automatically assumed that he was a mugger, that was institutionalised racism. It was not unwitting. I thoroughly disagree with that definition in the report.

The investigation of Stephen Lawrence's death has some similarities with a case in my constituency. A few weeks ago, a young man, Roger Sylvester, died in police custody. The Essex police are investigating the case, and we await their findings, so we are not exactly clear about the circumstances, but we know that he was about 30 years old and was taken naked from outside his house in Tottenham. Again, we have a black victim who has been set up by the police.

The police went on a rampage of misinformation. They said that Roger Sylvester was big, black and violent, and that is totally untrue. I have had letters from white pensioners saying that he was a kind man who went shopping for them and took them across the street, but the police, to cover themselves, said that he was a big, black, violent man who had something to do with drugs, so immediately this person, who was a victim, becomes a problem in the minds of the general public. When the police started to investigate the murder of Stephen Lawrence, they tried to make out that he was involved with a gang, which again shows the ability of the police to give misinformation and try to cloud the issue.

There are other similarities in the way in which the families have been dealt with. There was liaison between the police and the family of Roger Sylvester, and they had several meetings, but the police decided to set up their own consultative group, without any agreement with the family. They pulled in a few worthy community leaders and used that forum as the method of consulting the family.

Family liaison is extremely important, and I am very pleased that my right hon. Friend is paying particular attention to it. I do not care how much it costs to set up the systems. It is definitely worth it, because it is about bringing trust back into the community and establishing a relationship with the police.

Nothing was done when Sir Paul Condon talked about black youths and mugging. He is the head of the Metropolitan police, who were severely criticised in the Macpherson report, yet no one in official circles is calling for his resignation. I have called for him to go because the black community feels that he should.

Let me draw an analogy. When it was found that there was corruption, everyone, including my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, said that Jacques Santer, the head of the European Commission, had to accept responsibility, even though he protested his innocence and said that he was whiter than white. Sir Paul Condon is the head of the Metropolitan police, who have been condemned by the report, yet people are saying that he has to stay. I find that extraordinary. It is about time that people who are responsible for the officers under their command accepted responsibility for those officers' actions.

Eight police officers from Tottenham police station were involved in the Roger Sylvester case, but the chief superintendent is swanning around and taking no responsibility. He could not care less, presumably, because he is not being held to account. The case of Sir Paul Condon is similar. There have been many deaths in custody and other racist murders that have not been properly investigated.

Rolan Adams, Wayne Douglas and others in London have died at the hands of the police or in police custody, yet no senior police officer has been held responsible. It is the only profession or job that I know of in which someone can be in charge of something that is not correct and take no responsibility whatever. That has to change.