Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:30 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of John Greenway John Greenway Conservative, Ryedale 9:30 pm, 29th March 1999

My hon. Friend makes his own point extremely well. There was a thorough Kent inquiry, although some of its conclusions were not shared by Sir William Macpherson.

We should avoid the mistake of thinking that nothing has been done before to tackle the problems. Macpherson may well be a defining moment in police and community relations in our country, but the report and its recommendations are not revolutionary in all respects. Indeed, the report is at its best when building on and developing reforms and processes already under way.

I was a member of the Home Affairs Committee when, in 1994—after Stephen's murder, to which we referred in the very first paragraph of our report—we wrestled with many of the issues tackled in the Macpherson report. Too often, Select Committee reports are prepared, published and then forgotten. They seem to have a very short shelf life.

Many of the issues that Macpherson considered—definition of a racist incident; the scale of racial harassment in our country; the need to reform the law on incitement to racial hatred, to which the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) referred; the recruitment, retention and advancement of ethnic minority officers; and police training in racial awareness—were central to the Select Committee report. Work has been on-going since those recommendations were made. That was very much the agenda that we have been debating today.

The Opposition will take a constructive approach to Macpherson, with the aim of ensuring that we reach the right conclusions about what went wrong and why; that our analysis is accurate and clear; and that the changes the Government seek to make, with Parliament's approval, will properly address the problems and issues while also securing the right balance of interests, effects and causes.

I shall summarise some of the more important points about which we have genuine concerns. In the main, they relate to the police service. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said, it is crucial that the police's determination to meet the challenge of the Macpherson report is not undermined by low morale arising from falling manpower or over-fussy bureaucracy. While the definition of institutional racism, which gave rise to such controversy and has been mentioned during the debate, is important, it is also important that we again place on record the fact that Sir William himself confirmed that accepting the definition of institutional racism does not entail accepting that all police officers in London are racist, nor that the policies of the Metropolitan police are racist. Once that judgment has been accepted, it is time to move the debate forward and to concentrate on implementing those measures that tackle head on the racist behaviour of the swaggering bigots mentioned by the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford).

Given the need to challenge the behaviour of individual police officers, we feel that disciplinary procedural changes are generally to be welcomed. Indeed, Metropolitan police initiatives in that area are already well advanced. However, we share the concerns of the police about the implication of the recommendation that calls for disciplinary action for up to five years after retirement. Discipline in the police service is surely about determining fitness to hold the office of constable or higher rank in the police service. It never was about seeking redress or apportioning blame. If that is what is now required, a different approach may be necessary. We do not believe that an extension of pension forfeiture, about which my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield spoke in some detail, would be a just option.

Disciplinary action, more often than not, arises as a result of internal investigations, but complaints from the public and other bodies are also significant. There would probably be an increase in such complaints if the police service were brought within the terms of the Race Relations Act 1976. We accept the principle, for the reasons my right hon. Friend outlined, but before the primary legislation needed to achieve that is introduced, we need to consider carefully the implications. For example, would complaints under the Act be permissible if they were based not on racial motivation, but on outcome? If so, there would be serious implications for the potential cost of meeting compensation claims. It is unlikely that there would be a ceiling on such claims. Our support for the Race Relations Act extension is also dependent on ensuring that the ability of the police to fight crime effectively and to uphold the rule of law is not undermined.

We welcome the fact that Sir William supports the retention of stop-and-search procedures, but we agree that research needs to be done to establish the extent to which discrimination affects the use of those powers, a point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) and by the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead.

The new disciplinary code restates the tradition of policing with fairness and impartiality, and the police service must be free to meet that requirement without fear or favour. Whether or not, and to what extent, the provisions of the Race Relations Act 1976 are eventually applied to the police, the most practical solution for improving racial awareness lies in improved training.

There have been many new developments in that area, and the police are ready to take them further in the light of the report. Too often in the past, important training initiatives—in racial awareness, but in many other areas too—have been undermined by demands for greater cost-effectiveness. We look forward to seeing the current report into that matter of the Select Committee on Home Affairs.

We accept the fresh definition of racist incidents. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) said, it is likely to lead to a significant increase in recorded figures for racist incidents. We need to be careful in dealing with that.

I have strong views about the need for a significant increase in recruitment and retention of police officers from ethnic backgrounds. Anyone who has experienced policing in some of the major cities of the United States of America cannot escape the contrast between a multiracial, multicultural police force policing a multiracial, multicultural community and what still happens in the United Kingdom. There has been progress, but we need to do more. The biggest increase in ethnic recruitment occurred when recruitment of additional officers was at its height, not in the 1990s, as the Home Secretary said, but in the 1980s.

There is a huge contradiction in Government policy in this area. It is absurd for the Home Secretary to set targets for ethnic recruitment, but to disclaim any possible influence or responsibility on recruitment levels or on the ability of police forces to maintain adequate numbers of officers.

I should refer briefly to the handling of the report, which has also been referred to by the hon. Member for Eltham and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). The hon. Member for Eltham spoke forcefully about the strong sense of outrage and incredulity felt by his constituents, many of them young people, when their names and addresses were published. What adds insult to injury is the clear knowledge that, just when Ministers and officials should have been taking greater care to prevent that grave error, they were busying themselves in blocking publication of what appeared to everyone to be a deliberate leak of the report. Will the Minister of State tell us when he expects the leak inquiry to be published?