Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:43 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of Piara S Khabra Piara S Khabra Labour, Ealing, Southall 8:43 pm, 29th March 1999

Another letter that was sent to me said: Surely at a time when we're aiming to save green space and reduce traffic, we should not be increasing the population, letting thousands of immigrants through. That is proof that people will even use environmental issues, blaming ethnic minority communities for polluting the environment. Those letters represent the cocktail of abusive racist language to which I am often subjected by people who believe in racial discrimination.

The Macpherson report concluded that "fundamental errors" were made and that the police investigation was marred by a combination of professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership by senior officers. Opposition Members have implied strong criticism; they have asked, "What does institutional racism mean?" I am sure that they know that there is such institutional racism in this case. It was founded during the period when this country was an imperial power. Such practice continues; institutions practice institutional racism. We urgently need the trust between the ethnic minorities and the police to be strengthened.

It is unfair to condemn the entire police force because the whole community recognises the good work that the police carry out on our behalf. However, there is no doubt that an improvement in community relations between the police and general public is needed. I stress that the issue does not concern only the police; there are racist attitudes throughout public life.

The police service has recognised that it needs to recruit more police officers from ethnic minority communities. I know from my own experience that, for various reasons, the police have difficulty in attracting young people from black and Asian communities. One reason is that they believe that the police force is still very much a racist institution, and that deters them from serving in the police.

Under new proposals, each force will set individual targets for recruitment that will reflect the cultural diversity of the community that it serves. Barriers to achieving those targets will be tackled by removing discriminatory practices within the service and pursuing a policy of improved community relations. We should note the new police discipline procedures, including a fast-track procedure, with full rights of appeal, to deal swiftly with officers who are caught committing serious criminal offences. Those are steps in the right direction.

I welcome the Government's moves to introduce targets, not quotas, for the recruitment, retention and promotion of ethnic minority officers in areas other than the police, such as the Home Office and the fire, immigration, prison and probation services.

I also welcome the Macpherson report's recommendation that there should be close co-operation between the police service, local government and other agencies, particularly housing and education departments, to ensure that all information about racist incidents and crimes is shared and is readily available to all agencies. I welcome also the recommendation that Local Education Authorities and School Governors have the duty to create and implement strategies in their schools to prevent and address racism. Both of those approaches are aimed at tackling racism at the most important level, the grass roots.

I welcome the action plan, announced by the Home Secretary on 23 March, to take forward the 70 recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. The fact that the Home Secretary has taken personal responsibility for that signals that there is a political will to bring about changes that have been identified as necessary. The inquiry accepted that institutional racism is present in all our major institutions. The Home Secretary has endorsed that finding and restated his commitment to building an anti-racist society, and the proposals for that are still being developed.

I highlight recommendations 12 to 19, which refer to racist incidents. The Home Secretary has agreed to ensure that the definition of a racist incident as any incident which is perceived to be racist by the victim or any other person is universally adopted by the police, local government and other relevant agencies.

Recommendation 11 of the Lawrence inquiry report calls for the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976 to be extended to the police force. The Home Secretary's unconditional acceptance of that recommendation demonstrates that racial equality is to be taken seriously. The Race Relations Act does not have enough teeth to bite and there is a need to amend and strengthen the law so that racial discrimination can be rooted out from society.

I welcome recommendation 39, that there should be an amendment of the law relating to racist language and behaviour. I welcome also the review of legislation that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary proposes to carry out before the end of the year.

During my time as a Member since 1992 and before, when I was a community leader in my constituency, I have always had a good working relationship with the local police. They have always been prepared to listen to my concerns whenever they have arisen. However, there is still a long way to go, not only in the police force but throughout society at large, before we eradicate racial prejudice.

We must accept that many changes have taken place over the past 10 years in terms of racial prejudice. However, I am convinced that the attitude of racial prejudice still persists among a minority of people. Surprisingly, it is my experience that it exists in the party political system. Individuals, without realising it, still behave in a racially discriminatory way. Racial prejudice takes different forms and it is reflected in their attitudes to Members who come from the ethnic minority communities, who are their own colleagues.

The Lawrence family has shown bravery in the face of adversity. It is now up to everyone, including us, to show the same determination and put an end to prejudice.