HC Deb 16 April 1981 vol 3 cc472-8 1.30 pm
Mr. Thomas Cox (Tooting)

I asked for this debate because a certain Richard Campbell, who was in Ashford remand centre a year ago, was a Rastafarian—a movement with which few people are familiar. Had someone in the prison authorities been aware of the attitude of Rastafarians and the language that they speak, Richard Campbell might have had a greater understanding of the problems that he faced while in custody. Regrettably, that did not happen. However, in view of the events that have taken place in Brixton during the past week, I believe that there are even stronger reasons for having this debate today.

Many people will ask: what are Rastafarians? When I say that they are youngsters who wear their hair in plaits or ringlets, often wear hats in the national colours of Ethiopia, and speak a language that many of us find hard to understand, people frequently reply "Yes, I have seen those people around". That, I am afraid, is often the extent of the knowledge or understanding about Rastafarians. Few people understand that that is part of the belief, indeed the religion, of these youngsters, who overwhelmingly are black.

The need for understanding within our community has never been more important. The authorities that represent law and order in this country—the police and the prison services—are those that come into contact with the Rastafarian. We need to know the official policy towards Rastafarians. Obviously, the police come into contact with them every day in the places where they live and work. I hope that the Minister will tell us what advice the Home Office gives to local police commanders about the involvement of the police officer on the beat with these people and the attitude that he should take.

It may be said that it is not the role of the police to single out groups within the community. During the past few days there have been numerous complaints saying "The police do not understand us or co-operate with us". Whatever the findings of the Scarman inquiry, at present it is not Home Office policy to recognise these people, who have a strongly held belief in what is, to them, their religion. Unless something is done, the misunderstandings that have already cost us dear will continue.

It is not our role as parliamentarians to decide whether we like people or their beliefs. Our role should be to encourage those who make up our community to become part of it. I hope therefore that the Minister will clearly state the Department's views on police attitudes to Rastafarians. I have tried to say why recognition is so important. Although I do not know the attitude of the police, I know that the attitude taken by the prison authorities is negative. Moreover, in many ways the attitude taken by prison authorities is the more important. After all, outside prison one is free. Great bitterness is caused by the feeling that there is an added punishment—indeed, an insult to what to a Rastafarian is his belief. We should be foolish to deny that that happens.

Document 60/1976 is headed: Circular instructions to all prison department establishments". It says: This instruction gives guidance for dealing with inmates who claim to be Rastafarians and who may also claim to be members of the Ethiopian orthodox church. It has been decided that Rastafarianism does not qualify as a religious denomination for the purpose of section 10(5) of the Prison Act 1952 which requires the Governor to record on reception the religious denomination to which a prisoner declares himself to belong. Accordingly, if an inmate on reception wishes to record Rastafarianism as his religion, he should be informed that this cannot be accepted for registration for the purposes of section 10(5) of the Prison Act 1952 and rule 10 of the Prison Rules 1964. I have already indicated that this instruction was sent out in 1976. To my knowledge, there has been no updating. If that is true, I suggest to the Minister that it shows that the Home Office is unaware of the growth and attitudes that exist within youngsters who are Rastafarians.

One other comment in the instruction is: In support of a request to be allowed to wear hair long, an inmate may claim he belongs to the Ethiopian orthodox church. It has been confirmed with the resident priest of that church that long hair is not a requirement and governors may therefore require hair to be cut. I do not know whether that takes place. Governors are men of ability and common sense, and I am sure that in such instances they will use their judgment. But if a man's hair is clean and tidy, why should he not be allowed to grow it long if he wishes? If he is forced to have his hair cut, he will regard it as a further indication of the denial of his rights.

Can the Minister say what guidance on this movement has been given to the prison department by the Home Office race relations adviser? Can he also say when this information was last given to the Home Office? Is the Minister aware that in many aspects of day-to-day life attitudes change and the growth of this movement among young people clearly shows that to be so at present?

As I have already pointed out, the instruction to which I have referred is five years out of date. Therefore, can the Minister say whether we have yet reconsidered whether the prison authorities regard Rastafarianism as a religion to which someone sent to prison can claim to belong? Do we allow books on this movement to be kept in prison? Do we allow Rastafarians to become prison visitors? Do we allow Rastafarians special diets in prison if they request such diets?

I have tried to outline the comments which are often made to me by young Rastafarians in the part of London that I represent. They say "This is something that we really believe the authorities should look at." I have tried in no way to criticise either the police or the prison service. They have a job to do, often in difficult conditions. I wish to find out the attitude of the Home Office on this subject and what guidelines are given both to the police and to the prison service.

There should be more understanding. As I pointed out at the commencement of my speech, more understanding in the case of Richard Campbell could have been of great benefit not only to him but to the prison authorities. I suggest that it will help in trying to show young people who do not relate easily to authoriy that a real attempt is being made to understand them and what they believe are their religious beliefs. Such an approach would be good at any time, but especially so at present.

1.40 pm.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Patrick Mayhew)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Tooting (Mr. Cox), who has long taken an interest in this subject, for raising it upon the Adjournment and giving us the opportunity to set out the approach of both the prison service and the police service to those who describe themselves as Rastafarians. It is a sensitive and difficult subject.

The circular instruction issued by the prison department in 1976 demonstrates that the Home Office and the prison department have taken a sensitive and concerned approach. Anyone who reads it can hardly fail to note the intention that is implicit in it of understanding this unusual body of people and trying to ensure that their treatment in prison, when unfortunately Rastafarians end up in prison, is humane and understanding of their beliefs and way of life.

The way in which we deal with Rastafarians is one aspect of our attitude to race relations generally. I make clear the Government's commitment to promoting a society in which all individuals, whatever their race, colour or creed, have equal rights, equal responsibilities and equal opportunities. Members of ethnic minority communities are as much our citizens as members of the indigenous majority. I know that the police and the prison authorities share a firmly held commitment to maintaining the best possible relations with the ethnic minorities.

A positive approach to maintaining good race relations has been adopted in the prison service. First, some care is taken by liaison with the leaders of the ethnic minority religions to ensure that on matters of dress, diet, religious services and exemption from work on days of religious festivals their requirements are met.

Secondly, ministers of minority religions are appointed to prisons to visit prisoners of their denomination, to conduct religious services and to extend to them their pastoral care. I am glad to report that the leaders of minority religions are most helpful in this respect. The prison service relies on them greatly for advice on religious observance and the requirements of their religions generally. For example, there is an arrangement that we have been able to approve with the Islamic cultural centre for special food to be sent in to Muslim prisoners in the London prisons at the end of Ramadan.

Special care is taken to meet dietary requirements. Guidance is issued to prison establishments on such requirements. The guidance has been agreed with the minority religious leaders as being compatible with the practical limitations imposed by imprisonment. For example, it provides for Muslims to have a pork-free diet by offering either an alternative dish when pork is on the menu or a vegetarian diet. Prisoners may always ask for a vegetarian diet.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether religious books on Rastafarianism were allowed in prisons. They are. He asked whether Rastafarians were allowed to become prison visitors. Nothing prevents them becoming prison visitors.

One cannot deny that the presence of members of the ethnic minorities in our prisons occasionally poses problems. Staff must develop an understanding with all prisoners, not only as an aid to keeping control, but also as a means of exercising positive influence upon them.

In dealing with prisoners whose origins are in the West Indies or Asia, it is important for staff to have background knowledge about their culture, religion and other needs. That has added a new dimension to the professionalism required of and found in the prison service. Race relations have therefore been included in the training of staff at all levels of the service. Staff also participate in external training on the subject. The prison department, for example, co-operates with the police, probation and social services in the organisation of seminars for senior staff. The most recent was a seminar held last week on "Youth and authority in a multi-racial society" organised by the university of Manchester in conjunction with the Home Office.

In prison, Rastafarianism is mainly manifested in young blacks with West Indian origin. Most Rastafarians are to be found in our young offender establishments. In the mid-1970s the prison department was asked to consider whether Rastafarianism should be treated as a religion and undertook extensive consultation, including with the High Commission for Jamaica, before concluding that it could not be treated as a religion for the purposes of the Prison Act, that is to say, in relation to the statutory provision for the appointment of ministers and the recording of a prisoner's religion.

One of the fundamental difficulties is that there is no church or central organising authority to which one could turn for information about beliefs or dress. That is different from some of the other examples which I have given. One of the most curious things about the Rastafarians is that there is no central organisation or religious authority. Some Rastafarians belong to the Ethiopian orthodox church and where that is so provision is made, as was outlined in the circular instruction to which the hon. Gentleman referred. In any prison members of that church are entitled to the facilities accorded to that religion.

Additional problems are that the movement has no recognisable leaders and there is no one authentic style for dress or hair. Long hair or "dreadlocks", as they were originally called when they were introduced in that sect of the Rastafarians who made their headquarters at the pinnacle in Jamaica in the 1930s, are not required as a mark of religious observance by the Ethiopian orthodox church. Therefore, great difficulties led to the decision being taken that Rastafarianism could not be recognised as a religion under the Prison Act.

Nevertheless, Rastafarians have been coming into prisons for several years, and staff, particularly in remand centres and borstals, have become experienced in dealing with them. Guidance to staff about the curious and interesting origins of the movement and some of their beliefs was issued to prisons in the circular instruction, a copy of which is in the Library of the House.

Although prison rules require convicted prisoners to have their hair cut for neatness and hygiene, governors take a tolerant approach to long hair, including Rastafarian styles, as most visitors to our prisons will realise. It is not for the Home Office to give special guidance to governors about how long hair should be and what approach they should make to prisoners of this or that denomination or sect. We must leave those matters to the discretion of the governors. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the tribute that he paid to their good sense. That is the right and sensible way to deal with those matters. I assure him that there is no "short back and sides" policy which is consistently applied to all and sundry in the prisons.

I am glad to say that there have been few incidents with a racial dimension in our penal establishments, which says a great deal for the professionalism of prison staff, who do a difficult job on behalf of the community. While Rastafarian prisoners occasionally cause problems, they are in general no more troublesome or difficult than other prisoners.

Before parting from the question of prison, I should like to say a word about the case of Richard Campbell, which the hon. Gentleman raised on the Adjournment on 8 August last year. I should not like it to be felt that, had there been a more understanding attitude towards Rastafarians and their problems, that unfortunate young man's life might have been saved. Many difficulties confronted those at the remand centre on his admission, and they were fully dealt with in the speech made by my predecessor, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Cleveland and Whitby (Mr. Brittan).

I turn now to the question of relations between the police and Rastafarians. The police have to deal with persons of all colours and from all walks of life, and they have to cope with the manifestations of a good many religions. They do that as impartially as they can, in accordance with the traditions of which we are proud. A police officer is not interested in whether a person adopts a particular religion or form of dress. He is interested in whether that person is behaving lawfully.

A police officer's job is to enforce the law impartially, without fear or favour, which does not mean that he can afford to dismiss differences between people. Approaching people as individuals does not imply that the same approach must be adopted despite evident differences in background or style of life. As chief officers know, policing any section of the community, but particularly ethnic minority communities, calls for officers to be informed about and sensitive to the background of the people living in the area policed.

That is why training is so important. Police forces throughout the country have done much to make sure that their training is appropriate to the communities that they serve. All police officers now receive training in community relations matters, both as probationers and at later stages of their careers. Particular efforts are made by forces whose areas include substantial ethnic minority communities. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that at no other time has greater understanding of racial differences and the problems that come from multi-racial communities been more important than it is today.

In the Metropolitan area, for example, 10 per cent. of the initial 15-week course for newly joined police officers is devoted to community relations, and other relevant lectures are given throughout the course. The position is similar in respect of training given to probationers in provincial forces. In recent years, community relations have taken an increasingly prominent part in courses for more senior officers. For example, the Police Training Council has recently established two working parties to undertake major revisions in inspectors' training and command training at the police staff college at Bramshill. A review of the social studies content of the probationer training syllabus has also recently been completed. In all the reviews special attention has been given to the race relations aspect.

At the national level the Home Office has for many years sponsored, in conjunction with the department of extra-mural studies at Manchester university, a course in community relations for senior police officers at Holly Royde. That highly respected course, which a large number of officers at very senior levels have attended, puts over a great deal of information about ethnic minorities, including the Rastafarians, and has an important role to play in ensuring that young officers get the informed supervision that they need.

Quite apart from training, in recent years the police have made great efforts to move closer to the communities that they serve. Many forces have established specialist community relations departments and have appointed police community liaison officers, whose tasks specifically include developing formal and informal contacts with leaders and members of the ethnic communities. But, of course, they need help.

It is no good if teachers, for example, refuse to allow police officers to come into the schools to explain what the police are trying to do, because this is not something that the police can do on their own. Already there is an impressive variety of community policing schemes and many forces are now seeking to reintroduce "beat Bobbies". The presence of individual police officers who know and are known by the local community can, I am sure, make a great contribution to harmonious relations between the police and the public. I believe that we should do well to bear that in mind at this time.

It would be idle to pretend that, in spite of these patient efforts and the considerable input of resources, problems do not remain. But I do not believe that Rastafarians should be singled out as a special case. Nor are there grounds for supposing that they are subject to any special attention from the police. I know that in the past there have been allegations in the media that the Rastafarian cult was linked with drug abuse and petty crime. I am quite sure that such allegations are for the most part unjust, or at any rate exaggerated, and that the great majority of Rastafarians are committed to a peaceful and religious way of life.

Difficulties can, however, arise when persons who, to the untrained eye or to those who lack the necessary knowledge, appear indistinguishable from genuine Rastafarians commit criminal acts. Clearly, there is a real danger of stereotyping. That is why measures of the kind that I have described are so important and why they have the full backing of chief officers of police. I think that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there are those who adopt a style of dress and perhaps a hair style similar to that of those who follow the Rastafarian religious beliefs and way of life but who behave in criminal and otherwise undesirable ways. I am confident, however, that the patient efforts to impart knowledge and to bring the police and the community closer together will succeed.

Finally, communication is a two-way process. However hard the police try to understand the problems of particular groups, all of their efforts will be in vain unless all members of the community, including those groups themselves, make an equal effort to understand the problems of the police and indeed the problems of the rest of the community. At the end of the day, the primary duty of the police is to enforce the law. If we do not all assist them in this, we shall pay a heavy price. The maintenance of good race relations, whether in the community generally, in our prisons, or in relations between the police and the public, is clearly of vital concern to us all. That scarcely needs to be said after the events of last weekend in Brixton.

Against that background, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Home Office will closely study and bear in mind all that he has said in this short and valuable debate.