Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:45 pm on 29th March 1999.

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Photo of Mr Paul Boateng Mr Paul Boateng Minister of State, Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) 9:45 pm, 29th March 1999

Our race, our culture, our history, in all the richness and diversity now happily represented in this House and reflected in this debate, are very important to each and every one of us in our different ways. However, they do not, and must not, on their own define us, because we are all, each and every one of us, much more than that. Whether in Peckham or in Penrith, we share a common humanity that we must recognise and upon which we must build. In this country, we share something else: a common home and a history of empire and Commonwealth. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) should recognise that, because his past constituents had a role in ensuring that. We must now build on that shared history and humanity.

The great evil, and it was an evil, of what happened to Stephen Lawrence is that all his murderers saw was another black boy. All they saw was another nigger, and they were going to get him. All too many, but not all, the police officers only saw another black boy suspected of being a street fighter, and they treated him as such. They only saw yet another black family with a sense of unjustified grievance, and they treated them as such. That should be a matter of shame to each and every one of us.

What I sensed on both sides of the House today was exemplified by the speeches of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler), the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and, particularly, the right hon. Member for South-West Surrey (Mrs. Bottomley) and my hon. Friends. They recognised that, whatever happens, whatever we have said, we all, in our different ways and from our different perspectives, believe that what happened to the Lawrence family must never happen again. No family, no matter what their colour, should have to go through again what the Lawrences have suffered over the past six years. That unites us all, and thank God that it does.

Reference was made in the debate—sometimes, from various perspectives, critical—to the definitions of institutional racism and racist incident suggested by Sir William Macpherson and his team. The Government accept both the report's definitions because we see them as working definitions that have a practical purpose. I am sure that we could all find something in them, or underpinning or underlying them, with which we might take issue to a greater or lesser extent, but I think that the overwhelming majority of hon. Members recognise their value because they enable us to move forward. Institutional racism is defined in such a way as to enable us to identify better and to come together to address a problem that we know exists.

I must stress to right hon. and hon. Members that no black person in this country needed Sir William Macpherson to tell us about the nature of racism. No black person in this country needed to be told about institutional racism in the Metropolitan police or any other police force or in the wider institutions of our society. We recognise that it is there, as do many white people, and we are only too cognisant of the fact, as are many white people, that something must be done about it. We must address that problem if we are to move forward. All of us surely require not breast-beating, semantics, self-flagellation, the donning of sackcloth and ashes, or diversionary quibbling, but change in order to address better the reality and perception of unfairness and injustice. We seek equal not preferential treatment, not for one race but for all. No one is asking for—or wants—any favours. We seek fairness and equal treatment under the law because it is the law that is important. That must be at the forefront of our consciousness when we consider these matters.

I well understand—what lawyer would not?—the concern about the definition of a racial incident. The hon. Member for Woking (Mr. Malins) referred to stop and search from his perspective as a lawyer. All lawyers have a thing about definitions, and the definition of a racial incident might give the lawyers among us pause for thought. It is essentially an entirely subjective definition, and that always starts alarm bells ringing in any lawyer' s ears.

However, the definition has a practical purpose: as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, it is a tool that enables us to record better an event that the victim clearly feels displays racial motivation. The Crown Prosecution Service must determine whether the evidence justifies a matter coming before the court. Sir William Macpherson's definition does not require the matter of racist motivation to be accepted by the CPS or to be brought before the court. It is for the court to determine in the ordinary way whether such a motivation is made. No one of our fellow citizens should be left feeling that his or her concern about a racial motive was not at least recorded. It is not unreasonable to ask that of those whose duty it is to record such matters.

We now need not rhetoric or sentiment but practical measures to ensure that this tragedy does not happen again. The action plan seeks to introduce practical measures: it is a task for everyone with benefits for everyone. The action plan must not be viewed as being only for black people. Every victim of a crime and every member of the public, whatever his or her colour, will benefit from the improvements that it sets out. They will benefit in terms of the competencies that are necessary in a murder investigation, because the events that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the Stephen Lawrence murder should never have happened. Those benefits will accrue to everyone in terms of the way in which bereaved families or the families of victims will be treated by the police.

There are resource implications, but, as my right hon. Friend has said, in this instance fairness and justice have no price; we recognise that. Benefits will accrue to everyone from the fact that basic first-aid skills will be improved. Confidence in the police is vital for all black and all white people—whether in Handsworth or Hemsworth—and it must be strengthened and kept in good repair, because the police have special responsibilities. We put particular burdens on the police. That is why, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) said, we must not forget the community dimension. He has shown the way ahead for recruitment and retention through the cohort project in Tottenham, which sought to bring people into the police from a diverse range of backgrounds.

There is a community responsibility and there will have to be a community involvement. All of us must be committed to working together to build strong, civic communities in which every member feels that he or she has an equal part to play. My hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) rightly reminded us of the significance of young people in all that work. We must bring them on board because they must be part of the solution, rather than remaining part of the problem.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) is correct to point out the work done by the Select Committees. The police have been moving to embrace the diversity agenda, but other public services and institutions must do the same. That is why it is important to extend the Race Relations Act 1976 across the public services. We must all recognise our responsibility in these matters.

It is true that there have been many causes for concern in the past. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) mentioned the victims of the New Cross fire. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Southall (Mr. Khabra) referred to the case of Blair Peach. Those campaigns have helped to bring us to the point that we have reached today, but they are part of the past and we must now move forward. We need to move forward on the basis of a greater degree of accountability, and in that context the proposals made in relation to the new Metropolitan Police Authority are most important.

We must also acknowledge the important role that we shall play in this House. The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) correctly reminded us of the importance of evaluating what we do, of pushing projects forward and reporting back to the House. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that we shall do just that. We must build on the consensus that exists in this House; a consensus acknowledged in the contributions made by the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), by the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) and by my hon. Friends the Members for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) and for Eltham (Mr. Efford). My hon. Friend the Member for Eltham has had to deal with these matters day in and day out and rightly makes the point that no community deserves to be castigated or written off as racist.

Good people, black and white, are working together to build practical strategies for change. Those strategies need to be taken forward. Yes, existing injustices are a cause for concern. Some of my hon. Friends have asked us for replies on specific matters and the ministerial team will be only too happy to meet them to discuss those matters.

Today, this House is challenged to make a new beginning in which we are united in this country—our country, our home—to build a society that is inclusive and in which people are judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. That is a fitting memorial to Stephen Lawrence. That will make a reality of all that his parents have striven for: not rhetoric, not sentiment, but a positive strategy for change; a strategy for change that will deliver us the sort of society in which we can take genuine pride and that represents the best that this House can stand for. We have seen that reflected here today. Yes, there will be differences, but at least now we can talk about them openly and move forward. That is progress.