Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:56 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of Gerald Howarth Gerald Howarth Conservative, Aldershot 8:56 pm, 29th March 1999

I am sure that the entire House deplores the sort of comments that the hon. Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) has received, no doubt anonymously. If it is any consolation to him, I have been the subject of hate mail. It is not very pleasant for oneself or for one's family. However, I am sure that the House is pleased to hear that the hon. Gentleman has a good working relationship with his local police. That is extremely good news, even if it perhaps that somewhat contradicts some of his more generalised points.

I begin by striking a note of agreement, as I am not sure that the House will agree with everything that I have to say. I share the universal sense of outrage at the killing of Stephen Lawrence. I appreciate—even if I do not understand, having not experienced it myself—the grief that his parents have suffered. I also readily appreciate their deep frustration that no one has been successfully brought to book for the murder of their son. Anyone who has read the appalling appendix to the report setting out the conversations that went on inside a flat cannot help but believe that that sort of behaviour and language is completely unacceptable in our country.

First, nothing that I might say is intended to diminish my appreciation or respect for the Lawrences. I hope that my parliamentary pension will not be imperilled. Secondly, I acknowledge the complexity of the task that was faced by the inquiry. I can agree with some of the recommendations, such as the proposal that police procedures at the scene of incidents be reviewed or, as other hon. Members have suggested, that improved services for victims and their families should be provided by the police.

I listened to my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley), who unfortunately is no longer in his place. I am sure that we were all moved by his experience. He knows much more about this issue than the rest of us and has had a close relationship with the inquiry. The rest of us have to fathom what we can from the report.

Having started on a note of agreement, I conclude that the report is fundamentally flawed. In the interest of arriving at fair and sensible conclusions, the House must address these issues fearlessly. In my view, the report is driven by a desire to be seen to be politically correct. It is inconsistent and contradictory. In some places it contains fatuous and even dangerous nonsense. At its heart is the contention that not only the police service but all British institutions are endemically infested with racism, which throughout is described as a disease. I regret that in the language of Macpherson, there is only one kind of racism, only one kind of insensitivity—that is, white against black. The report therefore stands accused of being partial.

Furthermore, every allowance is shown towards the Lawrences—quite understandable in the circumstances—but little latitude is afforded to the police, who are subject throughout to the precision weapon of 20:20 hindsight. That is rich, coming from a committee of inquiry that was so incompetent that it overlooked the publication of the names and addresses of vulnerable witnesses. How can members of the committee of inquiry criticise police officers working under pressure, when they themselves were guilty of such an elementary mistake, for which they have not yet apologised?

However tragic the death of Stephen Lawrence—and it was tragic—the greater tragedy is that his death is but one of many senseless killings. What about Keith Blakelock, the police constable hacked to pieces in October 1985 by a gang of black murderers at Broadwater Farm in Tottenham? What about young Richard Everitt, an English schoolboy brutally killed by a gang of Asian youths just days before Stephen Lawrence's murder? Neither of the killers of those two has been found. It is not just Stephen Lawrence and his parents who have suffered; many other people have suffered as well, and we should be concerned for them all.

It is the out-and-out contradictions that render the report so flawed. For example, at paragraph 5.13 the report states that as regards Stephen Lawrence's friend Duwayne Brooks, no police officer, at any time, treated him properly as a victim. Yet in the next paragraph, the report states: DC Cooper and other police officers treated Mr Brooks at the Police Station appropriately and professionally. However, at paragraph 5.31 we are told: He simply was not treated professionally and appropriately and according to his needs. What on earth are we to make of such inconsistencies?

I remind the House, uncomfortable though it may be, that Mr. Brooks' response to the police woman who arrived at the murder scene was to ask—in deference to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall not use the exact language— Who called you f…ing c…s anyway, pigs. I only called the f…ing ambulance". I quote from the report. It must require discipline to work calmly against such abuse. We should also remember that, as paragraph 5.25 states, the lawyer, Mr. Khan, never complained to the police on Mr Brooks' behalf about lack of liaison or lack of care or support being given to Mr Brooks.

More generally, the inquiry refused to consider that incompetence alone could account for the failure to catch Stephen's killers—I refer to paragraph 6.44. It exonerates individual police officers of racism, such as Detective Superintendent Crampton, who was undoubtedly not influenced in our opinion by the fact that the victim was black". I quote from paragraph 13.74. The same was said of Detective Superintendent Weeden, who took over from Mr. Crampton. Paragraph 14.34 states that there is no ground for alleging that these failures"— it is acknowledged that there were failures— occurred because the victim of this murder was black or because Mr Weeden was in some way involved in collusion or corruption…We see no basis upon which it can properly be alleged that Mr Weeden acted improperly in his investigative duties because of racist attitudes.

Having failed to make charges of racism stick, the inquiry accuses the police of the evil of unwitting racism", which can arise, for example, because of well intentioned but patronising words or actions. We are offered what I regard as an appalling example at paragraph 15.4, where Detective Inspector Bullock is hauled over the coals and accused of "casually and insensitively" referring to Stephen Lawrence and Duwayne Brooks as 'the two young coloured lads'. He was oblivious to his own insensitivity in this regard. I regard that as utterly fatuous nonsense. I do not understand how such allegations can be made against a police officer for using that sort of mild language. There was nothing intentionally racist in it, nothing thought to be offensive. Indeed, I imagine that the language was thought to be caring and concerned, yet it has been twisted round and held against the detective. I find it extraordinary that his words should be invested with racism.

There is worse to come. Poor acting Inspector Little was unwittingly infected with racism because he committed the crime of treating the murder of Stephen Lawrence as he would any other murder, of which, I remind the House, there were three outstanding in the area at that time. He had failed to catch up with the times. In the old days, officers had to be colour blind and had to treat everyone the same, otherwise they were prejudiced. The report states: A colour blind approach fails to take account of the nature and needs of the person or the people involved". We cannot go around society working on the fine-tuning of people's sensitivity. We cannot expect police officers, in the execution of their duty, to understand all those changes of nuance in that fashion. It is thoroughly unrealistic that they should be expected to do so.

The examples that I have quoted are not only fatuous, they are dangerous, for they introduce the concept that the police will be chastised if they treat everyone equally before the law. British citizens expect their police service to treat everybody equally before the law, but even my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) suggests that we are all out of touch and must abandon that approach, and must take myriad considerations into account.[Interruption.] The Minister of State shakes his head, but I have quoted from the report; to be colour blind—to treat everybody equally—is not acceptable, apparently. Police officers will, at best, be confused.