London Bombings

– in the House of Commons at 4:29 pm on 26th April 1999.

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Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department 4:29 pm, 26th April 1999

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the bomb attacks at Brixton and Brick lane.

Last week, on Saturday 17 April, the explosion in a busy market street in Brixton, south London, injured 39 members of the public and three police officers. This Saturday, at about the same time, another improvised device exploded at Brick lane in east London, injuring six people. In both cases, no warnings were given.

I know that I speak for the whole House in expressing my deep sympathy to those injured in the blasts and to their families and friends, and our admiration for the very prompt way in which the police, fire and ambulance service responded.

Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, yesterday emphasised that the investigation into those evil acts is the No. 1 priority for the entire Metropolitan police service. The investigation is being led by the anti-terrorist branch, which has a great deal of experience of this kind of outrage, but the perpetrators are likely to be brought to justice only with the help of all sections of the community. I urge anyone who believes he or she has information which might help the police to contact them immediately.

Sir Paul Condon has already stated that he considers that the bombings were racially motivated. Brixton is at the heart of London's African-Caribbean community. Brick lane is at the heart of Britain's Bangladeshi community. I want to make clear that any attack on those communities is an attack on all British people—[Horn. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—and the whole of British society. We will not tolerate racism of any kind, still less this pernicious and abhorrent violence.

Ours is a country that can be proud of its achievements in race relations, which make it a better and stronger society. Of course there is much more to be done to make Britain a truly multiracial and multicultural society, but the overwhelming public support for the recommendations of the Lawrence inquiry shows the strength of our commitment to achieve that aim.

The criminals who committed those attacks will not succeed. As in Brixton last week, the whole community in Tower Hamlets has come together to assist the police in every way possible. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) said, History shows we do not tolerate this type of racism, however violent. If anything, I hope that some good will come out of this because both the black and the white community will strengthen so it will be overcome". While the perpetrators of the violence remain at large, there is plainly a risk that they may strike again. We must meet that threat with vigilance, but without panic. The police are pursuing the investigations of the bombings and the protection of the public with the utmost vigour. I have every confidence in them, and I know that the whole House will share their determination and condemn those mindless crimes.

Photo of Mr Norman Fowler Mr Norman Fowler Shadow Secretary of State

The Opposition join the Home Secretary in utterly condemning this action and the people responsible for it. We also join him in sending our deep sympathy to those injured by the two bombs. I also pay tribute to the emergency services, particularly the police, who demonstrated in a very practical way that they are there to serve all the community.

Let me ask the Home Secretary three short questions. First, is not the most important message that we should send out that such bombings will in no way influence policy or affect our determination to achieve the best possible community and race relations in Britain? A few extremists, however dangerous they may be, will not alter that aim and if the people who planted the bombs think otherwise, they do not understand either the determination or the decency of the British people.

Secondly, will the Home Secretary say something about the potential danger in cities outside London which have significant black and Asian communities? I assume that there is the prospect of the terrorists attacking other cities, so what precautions are being taken?

Finally, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman about policy on the future strength of the police? The police now face demands for more community policing and more policemen and policewomen on the beat, as well as other officers to deal with such outrages. Does the Home Secretary agree that now is an opportunity to assess anew the demands on the police service and to look at future policy on the strength of the service?

Above all, this afternoon we join the Home Secretary in absolutely condemning the bombings and the people responsible for them. We want more than words of condemnation, however: we want the most effective possible action to be taken to bring these terrorists to justice.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's support for what I said, and especially for the support that he has expressed for the efforts of the police and the other emergency services. I am in no doubt of the resolve of Sir Paul Condon, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and of every other officer in the service to ensure that those who perpetrated those terrible deeds are apprehended and brought to justice.

The right hon. Gentleman asked three questions. First, he asked whether I believe that such bombings may influence policy, and the right hon. Gentleman spoke for the whole House when he answered that question himself. Indeed, I believe that such outrages merely strengthen the resolve of every decent person in the country to reject racism in all its forms and to work towards a multiracial and multicultural society.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked about the potential danger in other cities. As I said in my statement, there continues to be a risk while those who perpetrated the bombings remain at large. By definition, we do not know where they may decide to plant bombs next, if they in fact make such a decision. That emphasises the need for vigilance in all communities and especially in those with substantial numbers of black and Asian people. Of course, police across the country are giving guidance to such areas, and especially to those that are considered vulnerable.

Finally, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the resources available to the Metropolitan police service were increased by 2.7 per cent. this year. As part of that, I increased by £25 million the special payment to the Metropolitan police service in respect of its national police functions, and it now has the resources to fight this kind of outrage.

Photo of Ms Oona King Ms Oona King Labour, Bethnal Green and Bow

The House has just heard about the Government's welcome and proactive role in combating ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government will be equally proactive in tackling ethnic cleansing in our country, whose most recent manifestation occurred in my constituency? I hope that my right hon. Friend will forgive my presumption that his answer to my question will be yes. Will he therefore consider making extra, emergency resources available to the communities that are being hit? That would allow the Brick lane police station to remain open, for a limited time, for 24 hours a day.

Also, will my right hon. Friend visit my constituency, so that he can hear the concerns of local residents? If so, will it be possible to make that visit within the next 24 hours, perhaps? Finally, when will he bring forward a new race relations Act to ensure that the only thing that is nailed—in my constituency or anywhere else—are the profoundly undemocratic and unpatriotic forces of racism?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

On my hon. Friend's first point, at least the injuries suffered at Brick lane and Brixton are not on the scale of those incurred in Kosovo, but she is of course right to point out the link between the two sources of violence. That link is racism: people who hold such evil views decide that whole groups should be considered to be without human rights simply because of their skin colour or religion.

I shall of course raise with the Commissioner the question of resources for the Brick lane and Brixton areas, but so far he has not requested additional resources. My hon. Friend asked also about the Brick lane police station. In many parts of London, divisional police stations are open for 24 hours a day, while sector bases such as Brick lane police station are open for a limited number of hours each day. Up to now, that police station has been open for eight hours a day, and those hours have been publicised in the local community. However, I now understand that the base will be open for a minimum of 12 hours a day for the foreseeable future. I shall be happy to discuss the possibility of longer opening hours with the Commissioner.

My hon. Friend asked whether I would visit her constituency, and I plan to do so tomorrow. There are always questions about whether Ministers should visit the scenes of such crimes immediately. I discussed the matter with the Commissioner last Saturday following the first bomb outrage, and we jointly decided that it would inevitably detract from police efforts if I visited Brixton then. In my judgment, the fine balance to be struck was better struck when the local Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey)—who happens also to be a Home Office Minister—visited the area to discuss the problems that had arisen following the outrage. It is similarly right that my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) should take the lead following the outrage in her constituency.

My hon. Friend asked about a new race relations Act. She will know from my statement on the Lawrence report in February that we aim to legislate as quickly as possible, and I hope that that will happen next year.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Is the Home Secretary aware that there is revulsion throughout the country at the way in which these crimes have visited injury on ordinary families going about their Saturday activities? Does he recognise that minority communities—racial and religious—will want to see evidence of extra security and support around commercial centres, community buildings and places of worship during the coming days? Is he satisfied that the existing law on incitement to racial hatred is being used actively enough to deal with some of the literature that circulates and that may act as a kind of recruitment for people to help those who committed those terrible crimes?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I join the right hon. Gentleman in his condemnation of the bombings. Considerable efforts are being made to give advice, support and guidance and to try to reduce risks in areas deemed vulnerable. However, as long as the people who committed these evil acts and others like them are at large, we cannot eliminate risk. We must be on our guard and we must be vigilant, but, at the same time, we must not panic and allow those people to achieve their aim of the disruption and dislocation of the communities in which they are carrying out their evil deeds.

As to the existing law on incitement, under the Public Order Act 1986, prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred require the agreement of the Attorney-General. My recollection is that about 45 prosecutions were authorised in the last period for which statistics are available. I have seen no evidence that there is a particular problem with the law on incitement, but there may be difficulties in the way in which the law is framed when it comes to evidence.

Certainly, there is a problem with incitement on the internet as its authors may come from outside our jurisdiction. We have actively considered that point, not least in the context of the G7-G8 agenda on the fight against organised and international crime.

Photo of Diane Abbott Diane Abbott Labour, Hackney North and Stoke Newington

Is the Home Secretary aware of the great fear and concern that the two nail bomb attacks have provoked in black, Asian and Jewish communities? He will know that in addition to having one of the largest black communities in the country, my constituency has one of the largest, and oldest, Jewish communities. Is he aware that people up and down the country, whether in Bradford, Birmingham, Hackney or Willesden—black and Asian people—are wondering whether their community will be next? Is he aware of how much those communities welcome his strong stand on those outrageous attacks?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful for what my hon. Friend has said. I am aware of the great fear in black, Asian and Jewish communities. It is particularly poignant that there have been repeated waves of immigration in the Brick lane area. Indeed, a building there was first a church, was then a synagogue and is now a mosque, illustrating the multiracial, multicultural nature of society in the area. We are doing everything that we can to minimise the risk to communities and to give people advice, support and guidance. However, as I said, we must remain very much on our guard as long as such people remain at large.

Photo of Mr John Wilkinson Mr John Wilkinson Conservative, Ruislip - Northwood

All terrorism is vile. Is it not the case that it needs to be deterred with exemplary non-remissible sentences? Were not the outrages at Brixton and Brick lane particularly despicable not merely because of the terrible injuries that they caused, but because of the deliberate intent to provoke prolonged intra-communal strife in this country? Will the Home Secretary look again at the answer that he gave my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) on police resources, as Conservative Members have long been making representations to the Home Office about the fact that police manpower has gone down in the capital under this Administration and needs to be increased significantly?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I regret the fact that the Opposition have decided to use this occasion to make points about police resources, which I do not believe are justified. Since the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) and the hon. Gentleman have raised the matter, it is a matter of record that the strength of the Metropolitan police declined by 2,000 between 1992 and 1998 in a period for which the Conservative party was responsible. As I have made clear to the House, for this year, in the first period for which this Government have followed their own public spending plans, the Metropolitan police commissioner has told me that he is satisfied that police numbers will remain as they were last year, within the range of plus or minus 75. Resources have been substantially increased to the Metropolitan police service and are, in my judgment, entirely adequate for the task.

On the type of sentences that the perpetrators of this sort of violence may receive from the courts, obviously I cannot anticipate any trial or conviction, but the courts have always regarded such outrageous acts of indiscriminate violence extremely seriously and have ensured sentences that reflect the seriousness of the crime.

On the motives of the bombers, the hon. Gentleman said that there was a deliberate intent to provoke intra-communal violence. I think that he is right about that and I take this opportunity to pay my tribute to some of the community leaders who recognised that from the outset and who have not fallen into that trap. I mention two by name. Mike Franklin and Arlene Mundle, who are respectively the chair and vice-chair of the Lambeth community police consultative group, acted with great restraint, dignity and responsibility when the first outrage took place in Brixton just over a week ago.

Photo of Mr Peter Mandelson Mr Peter Mandelson Labour, Hartlepool

I welcome the Home Secretary's firm statement and would highlight the steady and calm response of the communities in the areas affected by those wicked and cowardly outrages. I mention in particular the great sense of responsibility of the community leadership in Lambeth—the area that I know best—which my right hon. Friend mentioned. He was right to single out the very responsible and dignified response and role played by the Lambeth community police consultative group and, in particular, Mike Franklin and Arlene Mundle. That view and admiration is shared by the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), and my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Hill). Does my right hon. Friend agree that that strength of community leadership is essential in such circumstances? Does he also agree that strengthening the co-operation between the community and the police is equally essential if communities are to get through and to withstand the sort of outrage experienced in Lambeth and Bethnal Green?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his remarks. He knows Lambeth well, not least as a former councillor for the area. As I know, as a resident of Lambeth for 20 years, one thing that has been very much to the good in recent years has been the way in which relations between the police and the community in the area have greatly improved since the terrible period in the early 1980s. The strength and resilience of a relationship are truly tested only when such incidents occur. It is tested not in committee rooms, but in real situations. The police and the community passed that test in an exemplary way, and I commend them all.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

The Home Secretary will know that the whole House condemns these terrible acts. Can he confirm reports that emerged over the weekend that peers of Jewish, black and Asian origin have recently received death threats and racist letters? Does he believe that there is any connection between that and the two recent events in London? To what extent does he think that there might be a conspiracy rather than a small, evil cell operating in London?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I cannot give any information about whether peers have received death threats. None has come to my attention. It is perfectly possible that peers, like Members of this House, have received revolting racist mail. I am afraid that that happens and it is to be deeply condemned when it does. It is impossible to put a precise figure on the number of people involved in extremist violent right-wing organisations, but I emphasise that all the evidence suggests that the numbers are very, very small indeed and diminishing, as they have done over the years. We must be vigilant because such people, however few in number, plainly have a capacity to commit great violence; it was fortuitous and providential that no one was killed in either outrage. We should not dignify their outrages by suggesting that they are anything other than a mindless and tiny band of evil people.

Photo of Gerry Sutcliffe Gerry Sutcliffe Labour, Bradford South

These bombings are extreme acts of cowardice perpetrated by a minority. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for mentioning other communities in fear, such as mine in Bradford. Fear will not win. The communities will be united in opposing all forms of racism, as we have done in Bradford over many years. Will he consider the activities of groups such as Combat 18? West Yorkshire police have been informed about many of the activities of this minority, but will he ensure that such information is acted on as quickly possible?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I agree with my hon. Friend, particularly in respect of the community in Bradford. Wherever groups such as Combat 18 come to the notice of the authorities, they are the subject of study. That gives me an opportunity to repeat that while the anti-terrorist branch is bringing its extensive professional skills to bear on the Brick lane and Brixton investigations, the perpetrators are much more likely to be apprehended if information about those who are likely to have committed these acts is provided by members of the public. I repeat my appeal, as the Commissioner has done, that any people with any information about neighbours, people at work, or people they know who appear likely to be involved in such organisations should tell the police. If they do not wish to give their identities to the police, they should phone the Crimestoppers number, which is 0800 555 111.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield

I join the Home Secretary in condemning these appalling crimes and, as a former vice-chairman of the Lambeth police community consultative group, in his praise of that group and the remarkable change that it has brought about in intercommunity relations in Lambeth in the 10 years since I was involved in it. Does he agree that it is important in dealing with such problems to isolate those who perpetrate such crimes? The best way to do that is to create a climate in which even people of the community involved who might sometimes be tempted towards the perpetrators' views, in their awareness of the hideous consequences, help to isolate them and provide the information that may lead to their arrest. It is important to categorise their activities as the criminal acts that they are and not to draw wider conclusions, which is often tempting and thereby starts to create the intra-communal tensions that 1 am certain are exactly what these people seek.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

As a former vice-chairman of the Lambeth police community consultative group, the hon. Gentleman brings to bear in his remarks considerable experience of policing in the inner city. I am pleased that he endorses what I have said, and what others have said, about the great change—a most optimistic change—that has occurred in police-community relations in Brixton during the past decade. He is right to say that people who perpetrate these crimes need to be isolated; they should not be dignified with any ideological or political label. They are criminals and terrorists first and last.

Photo of Clive Efford Clive Efford Labour, Eltham

Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns about the ease with which publicity is gained by certain right-wing groups on the back of the events that have occurred during the past two weeks? Is he concerned that the media are too willing to name groups with no evidence that they are involved in such crimes? I am not suggesting that there should be any form of censorship, but does my right hon. Friend think that there should be some voluntary restraint on the part of the media? Does he share my concern that the ease with which such groups have obtained publicity could encourage a deranged individual or group to commit further crimes and seek similar notoriety because they are members of an organisation, rather than merely violent criminals?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes. However, there is a fine balance to be struck and a fine line to be drawn—both for the media and for Ministers—between not giving those individuals the oxygen of publicity, while recognising that they have committed outrages and inflicted considerable violence. The public have a right to know about that and to understand the concern that, for example, the Government and Members of Parliament have about such matters.

I have no complaint about the way in which the media have handled these matters. In relation to the balance to which I referred, one of the reasons that the police held back before they concluded that the bombings were racist crimes was precisely that they did not wish to give unjustified publicity to the right-wing extremist groups which—it now appears—committed those crimes. Happily, I do not think that anyone has criticised the police for holding back their judgment until they were reasonably certain that the crimes were racist. For similar reasons, when the Brixton outrage took place, after discussions with the Commissioner, I decided that it would not be appropriate for me to visit the area—as I pointed out to the House earlier. That was not because I was not concerned—indeed, I was extremely concerned—but to ensure that we calibrated the response to meet the public's concerns, and not the perpetrators' appetite for gratuitous publicity.

Photo of Mr Richard Allan Mr Richard Allan Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Innovation and Skills), Shadow Spokesperson (Education and Employment)

The Home Secretary will be aware of the racist filth that feeds organisations involved in such crimes. I hope that he shares my appreciation for the work of Gerry Gable and Searchlight magazine in bringing to public attention the producers of that material. The right hon. Gentleman has already mentioned taking action against racist material on the internet. As a priority, will he also investigate the producers and distributors of CDs of racist music, and the organisers of racist music concerts? A recent report in Searchlight showed that that music is a key component in the funding of organisations such as Combat 18, so that they can carry out crimes.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I pay my own tribute to Searchlight and its editor for the phenomenal work that they have done over the years in exposing racists and other extremists. As for the producers of racist CDs, they are subject to the law—as are other publishers. If the hon. Gentleman has any evidence about that matter, I should be happy to receive it.

Photo of John Martin McDonnell John Martin McDonnell Labour, Hayes and Harlington

The Home Secretary has visited my constituency on several occasions and is aware that we have one of the largest Sikh communities in the country. Indeed, yesterday at the Royal Albert hall, he was entertained by children from the Guru Nanak Sikh college in my constituency. My right hon. Friend will be aware that the community is anxious about being a soft target. I ask him to consider urgently applications for additional resources for closed circuit television cameras to cover our town centre and other vulnerable areas, so that we can at least increase our vigilance, as he urges us to do.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have indeed visited my hon. Friend's constituency on many occasions; as he says, it contains one of the largest Sikh communities in the country. One event that emphasises the progress that we in this country have made in community and race relations was yesterday's wonderful celebration at the Royal Albert hall, attended by His Royal Highness Prince Charles, when 5,000 Sikhs came together to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the 10th Guru Gobind Singh. It was a wonderful, ecumenical and multi-party celebration that showed the strength, not only of the Sikh community, but of the determination of all our communities to make this country a truly multiracial society.

On the question of soft targets, I understand my hon. Friend's concern. I should have mentioned in my answer to an earlier question that £400 million is now available through crime reduction programmes for measures such as targeted policing; of that sum, £170 million is principally for closed circuit television schemes. I shall certainly ensure that applications from areas that are at risk of racist violence are carefully considered.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The Home Secretary will be aware that hon. Members who represent multicultural communities are detecting enormous concern among ordinary people about the danger and about threats to their way of life, which is what the explosions at Brixton and Brick lane amounted to. Is he satisfied that the police have sufficient knowledge or intelligence about the activities of far-right racist organisations in this country? What connections have the police uncovered between organisations in this country and those in continental Europe, where, tragically, the sort of atrocities seen for the past two weekends in London are more commonplace? The connection is there to be seen; is my right hon. Friend satisfied that the police are able to deal with that?

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

In this as in other respects, I am satisfied as to the professionalism and assiduity of the police and the intelligence agencies. As can be seen from Irish terrorism, when terrorist groups are highly organised, even extensive intelligence coverage of those groups cannot provide a guarantee against the possibility that they will commit terrorist outrages. With the best will in the world, whatever the extent of the coverage by police and intelligence agencies of such extremist right-wing groups, the risk remains that members of those groups will continue to perpetrate violence for as long as they remain at large. That is why the investigation led by the anti-terrorist branch is so important, and why the Commissioner will ensure that nothing is left undone until the perpetrators of the violence are brought to justice.

Photo of Tony McNulty Tony McNulty Labour, Harrow East

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the perpetrators of the bombings are no more and no less than mindless, murderous thugs; and that to attribute some sort of political dimension to their crime, for example, by calling it a backlash to the Lawrence inquiry, is entirely wrong—at best naive and at worst perverse? Can he assure me that communities such as the one represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) and me, which are less well known as significant centres of ethnic communities, are being made as alert and are being as well looked after by the Metropolitan police as more well-known areas such as Brick lane and Brixton? Outer London suburbs must not be forgotten, for they too contain significant ethnic communities.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend is right. There are significant black and Asian communities throughout this country—in inner London, outer London, almost all of our major cities and many of our towns and rural areas—and in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The police in the Metropolitan area and outside are applying themselves with great vigour to giving advice and guidance to communities about how best they can minimise the risk. There is no way in which risk can be entirely avoided as long as there are mindless, murderous thugs who are intent on planting further bombs. That emphasises the need, first, for proper information—the best available—to be given to the police; and, secondly, for continued vigilance to be maintained.