HC Deb 29 October 1984 vol 65 cc1092-8

Question again proposed, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Butterfill

Unfortunately, some people will exploit that decision for narrow and crude political advantage. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) used the Deptford fire in support of her argument which was contrary to what many Conservative Members believe. She said it was an example of how the police do not care and do not wish to intervene.

Ms. Clare Short

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Butterfill

No. The hon. Lady did not give way to me.

The Deptford fire was a good example of how people exploit racial tensions for narrow political advantage. I am sorry that some hon. Members use race relations for narrow political advantage.

With the greatest reluctance, I shall support the Government, holding my nose. I urge my hon. Friends to join me.

Mr. Sydney Bidwell (Ealing, Southall)

The House will recognise that my experience in what I call the struggle for racial harmony in Britain is above the average, although many other right hon. and hon. Members have considerable experience.

In debates on race relations and immigration I have never belittled the front line responsibility of the police force. I have served on the Race Relations and Immigration Sub-Committee for 10 years—longer than any other hon. Member. I have watched the attitudes of both major parties change, and travelled to examine the background of West Indian and Asian people who have settled in Britain. I have also discovered deep prejudice, especially in the British working class. It has been a long struggle to make it understood why people came from those countries. I have always argued that there should be deeper educational activity for the police in London and at Hendon. I have had discussions with police chiefs and Police Federation representatives.

Just as there is in British society as a whole, there will inevitably be in the police force racial prejudice and racist behaviour which will surface during their duties. I can understand why the police chiefs and the Police Federation believe that they are capable of putting their own house in order. I expect that the speeches made on their behalf stem from that belief. However, I suggest that that is not the case. They have too big a task on their hands—the command and the infantry, so to speak—to do that.

I am sure that the House will act sensibly and accept the amendment. It would be a landmark in our development towards and struggle for racial harmony. Throughout the country there are efforts to bring about good ethnic minority-police relations on the streets. I have never lambasted the police, nor minimised their difficulties. I am sympathetic to the police in the duties and tasks which they must perform.

In my constituency and others such as those of my hon. Friends the Members for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) and for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) racial groups have grown up together. However, that is not reflected in the police force because it is not yet multi-racial. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) is rich in experiences of relationships between the police and black and West Indian people. There is a distinction between them and Asian people. My hon. Friend's constituency has a West Indian settlement and my constituency has an Asian settlement.

I would not speak in the debate without paying warm tribute to the chief superintendents with whom I have dealt throughout my long innings. The attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar has affected the people who make up an Asian community such as that in my constituency. I raise my hat to those police commanders who faced that burden squarely, and invited everyone, including me, for discussion. The superintendents informed me how they sought to fight crime in general and robberies in particular. I do not wish anything that I say to belittle those activities.

Over the years the police have done a lot of growing up. The position has now changed. There is mass unemployment and young people are idle and on the streets. That makes the task of upholding law and keeping the Queen's peace more difficult.

Tonight we face not those general matters but the question whether the House will turn its back on the progression of this development. We cannot legislate for people's feelings. I hope that the House will accept the amendment. Perhaps those hon. Members who are wavering will be moved by my speech. If the House accepts the amendment, it will have a profound effect on the police force for the reasons given by the hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg). It will affect the behaviour and language of rank-and-file policemen. The word that people seemed to be struggling for was the commonplace one of "wog". When I hear people use that word I think that they must be extremely ill-educated, but it is commonplace and one hears it in public and in the police force. If the amendment is passed, the police will have the additional responsibility of minding their language, because their language often determines their thoughts, behaviour, and the way in which they go about their business. The police must look for more balanced attitudes towards people in general.

Sometimes the greatest prejudice is found not in multiracial areas but in areas where the police have not yet discovered that black and brown people are the same as us in their emotions and reactions and in the way in which they go about their daily lives. They are industrious people who are a credit to Britain, especially those in my constituency.

The Bill will affect police education programmes and the way in which recruits to the police force are questioned. However, we must ask whether the step is too drastic. I believe that it is not. If we defeated the Lords amendment, how would other countries regard Britain? It would look as though we did not know that there was prejudice or widespread discrimination in the British police force. We cannot determine the extent of the discrimination, but we know that it exists. The House would be extremely foolish not to take the step which the Home Secretary has advocated. I am sorry that I did not hear his speech, although I am told that it was not full-blooded advocacy. The House and the other place tend to take an objective attitude in the struggle for racial harmony. This proposal is a step forward in that struggle which can only be for the general good, so let us take it.

Mr. Geoff Lawler (Bradford, North)

In speaking in favour of the amendment, may I say that I resent any insinuation that I am casting a slur on the police. Far from it. I do not wish to cast aspersions, and I see nothing offensive to the police in the inclusion of this amendment. Indeed, the rejection of the amendment would generate suspicion and anxiety in our coloured communities. That anxiety would be borne out of what they will perceive as the failure of hon. Members to understand their views of the police force.

The views of a white Member of Parliament on the police are very different from those of a black unemployed youth in Brixton. My view is based not only on talking to black people, but on statistics. The recent comprehensive study on young people's attitudes showed that, although 15 per cent. of white people believed that the police were picking on them, 54 per cent. of West Indians believed that the police had that attitude towards them. The PSI survey showed that 64 per cent. of people believed that the police treated West Indians worse than they treated whites. The House must address itself to that reality.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am not sure where my hon. Friend gets his percentages from, but how does he square those with the fact that in virtually every public opinion poll—whoever conducts it—the one group which seems to stand higher than almost any other in the general estimation of the public, and in particular of young people, is not Members of Parliament, social workers or probation officers, but the police?

10.15 pm
Mr. Lawler

I do not doubt for a moment that it is not Members of Parliament for whom people have the highest respect, but the feeling among West Indians is that the police seem to pick on them, and it seems that the attitude of the police towards white people is more favourable.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

That is nonsense.

Mr. Lawler

No hon. Member should have illusions about the police force. I would be the first to cast aspersions, but I do not go along with many of the remarks of some Labour Members. The vast majority of people are law abiding and conduct their affairs diligently. They have nothing to fear. The amendment is aimed at the minority. If it prevents the small number of racial incidents, it will have achieved its object.

Mr. Winterton

It will increase them.

Mr. Lawler

By accepting the amendment we shall leave the coloured community in no doubt about the determination of the police to prevent abuses.

Mr. Winterton

Positive discrimination.

Mr. Lawler

Above all, the police must be free of suspicion of discrimination. They must be above, and be seen to be above, reproach if they are to have the confidence of the coloured community. Acceptance of the amendment will be a valuable supplement to the sort of work which the police are doing to improve community relations.

I pay tribute to the police in Bradford, who go to great lengths to improve community relations. The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) referred to the fact that the Bradford community relations council has broken off relations with the Bradford police force. From my fairly extensive experience of dealing with the ethnic minorities in Bradford, I know that, although the CRC may have broken off relations, members of the ethnic minorities and ethnic minority organisations have not done so. Most importantly, the police force has not broken off its contacts with the ethnic minorities. That was evidenced only last night when one of the distinguished guests at the Diwali celebrations, which I had the honour to attend, was the community inspector. Later, at the Pakistani restaurant that I had the honour to be invited to open, there was the superintendent from the west Yorkshire police.

Contrary to what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) said, to vote against the amendment would in no way lead to an increase in racial discrimination, but it would send a signal to the coloured community, which is not familiar with the police code, that Parliament is blind and insensitive to its anxieties. Unfortunately, there is a sector of the community which is distrustful of the police. That is intolerable. If the amendment changes that situation in any small way, it will be an extremely positive and worthwhile measure.

Mr. Budgen

I suppose that the Labour party is particularly fortunate tonight in that it is united. It has always been united on subjects such as this. It has been united in the belief that declaratory legislation of this sort is effective and ought to be pursued in many situations. It is perhaps not so united in its belief in the effectiveness or otherwise of law in labour relations.

The main interest in this debate has been directed towards the Conservative Benches, for we are deeply divided in our various views about the effectiveness of using the law in declaratory legislation such as the Race Relations Acts or this proposal from the other place.

We have had two vigorous speeches, to which I shall point. One was by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) and the other was by my right hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mrs. Oppenheim), and they put opposing arguments.

Sadly, we have had very little help from my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, because he based himself on a very narrow point. He seemed to say about the amendment, coming as it does from the other place, "It is the sort of thing that one might expect from some old buffer in the other place, it is not very harmful, not is it necessary or interesting, and it will not have much effect. Let us avert our eyes from this and let it go through without too much talk."

However, this amendment comes with the authority of Lord Scarman, one of the senior Law Lords who, unusually, has taken part in a highly political debate, put forward a highly political view and surely said, by giving his authority to this amendment, that he believes that it is effective, necessary and has real force, and that therefore it should be properly considered. It is an amendment in which Lord Scarman believes, not as a bit of otiose, bad law-making, but as a measure which will confer a real privilege and advantage on the black minorities and impose a real restraint upon the police, and for that reason the amendment should be seriously considered.

The House should ask itself whether such legislation is effective. We must remember that, when the Race Relations Act was passed in 1968, the House was told that declaratory legislation would change the climate of opinion in this country. We were told that we should soon see a vast reduction in the expression of uncivil racial discrimination and remarks by persons of importance or in authority. The same arguments were put forward about the Race Relations Act 1976.

Mr. Winnick

As someone who took part in those discussions in the 1960s, may I correct the hon. Gentleman? It was not said that such laws, if passed by the House, would change people's attitude. It was said that they would help to eliminate discrimination in employment and housing. Is it not a fact that in many banks, other institutions and stores, whereas previously it was rare to see a non-white face, since the Race Relations Act 1968, and the other Acts that followed were passed, it is commonplace to see black faces in such institutions? To that extent it could be argued that what was said at the time was justified when the Race Relations Act became law.

Mr. Budgen

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that legislation was advocated for a number of different reasons. It is true that the 1968 Act was advocated on the basis that it would make specific improvements in specific sectors, but it was also advocated, as was the 1976 Act, on the basis that it would affect the general climate of public opinion, as would the very generous grants which have been given, as it is put by the Government, for ethnic purposes within urban areas.

All that positive discrimination in favour of the black minority is said to have created a favourable climate of opinion, yet we hear that racial discrimination is said by many to be rife among the police at present. Does that not show that 16 years of social engineering has not been as effective as many of those who welcomed it hoped at the time?

Surely the essential argument between my right hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester and my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham is whether it is wise to introduce another measure of discrimination in favour of the black community. My right hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester said that her experience is that the white community believes that in many instances the black community gets a better deal from the police than does the white community. The amendment is likely to increase that suspicion, because, undoubtedly, whenever a criminal is being investigated by the police, he has a tendency to use whatever weapons may be at his command.

As one who has for several years earned his daily bread by appearing on behalf of those who are in difficulty with the police, I can say that everybody knows that more often than not when a chap has been caught in difficult circumstances and makes a confession to the police, he may allege at some later stage that the confession has been improperly obtained. In just the same way, in future black men are likely to say that when they were investigated by the police the police acted in a way which showed racial discrimination.

Some police officers will not be put off at all. Others, who will not wish to go before a disciplinary tribunal, will feel rather frightened. They will inevitably go easy. To the extent that they go easy and to the extent that that is known to the white community, it will be to the disadvantage of the black community. The black community wants most of all to be treated equally. It does not wish to be singled out. It does not wish it to be said in a grandiloquent way that the Conservative Government have given it special grants under section 11 and protected it by special legislative provisions. It wishes to be dealt with on an equal basis. In that way it will become a welcome and prosperous part of our community.

By thinking that by this legislation we can, as some say, change for the better the minds of men, we not only disappoint those who are our natural supporters and who have deeply resented the immigration that has taken place over the past 20 years, but we do a serious injustice to the black minority. Let us not base ourselves on the rather clever view that this is an unimportant amendment put in by some old buffer in another place. It is no such thing. It is a real and important issue that we must decide on its merits.

10.30 pm
Sir Kenneth Lewis

I have listened to almost all the debate except for a short exit to have a snack and some refreshment.

Over the weekend I was disposed not to support the amendment. If I were in that position now, which I am not because I have changed my mind, I would have been in good company, because my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench did not support such an amendment when the Bill was going through the House previously. Furthermore, the peer who spoke in the other place on behalf of the Government did not support Lord Scarman's amendment. I should have preferred the amendment not to be written into the Bill and for the matter to be dealt with under the discreditable conduct offence procedure. However, we have moved beyond that.

I understand the anxiety of the police, and my hon. Friends have been right to emphasise their worries. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made an ill-considered speech in selecting some of the most extreme aspects of the PSI report. She would have done better to follow the line of my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who made a telling case in a moderate way.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary will assure us that if the amendment proves to be difficult for the police, because of misuse of its provisions by the public, he will come back to the House so that we may look at the matter again. That would be helpful.

There are four reasons why we should not reject the amendment. First, it would be wrong to overturn an amendment without being sure that the other place will accept our decision. There is no certainty they would do that. Secondly, we should be rejecting a recommendation made in the Scarman report and proposed as an amendment in the other place by Lord Scarman himself. I remind my hon. Friends that we were pleased to receive the Scarman report when it was published.

Thirdly, my right hon. and learned Friend said that we would seek an acceptable form of words to cover this offence, and I assume that he will be discussing it with the police. Therefore, the police will have a say. They will not like it, but they will come to live with it. As I have said, if it is abused we can review it.

Fourthly, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Carlisle) hinted, if we turn down the amendment, our action would be misconstrued in the country. The ethnic minority would say that the House did not favour doing something that that minority believes would be helpful. Such a view would be mistaken, but it would exist. On balance, therefore, it is important for us to pass an amendment that we might have preferred not to have. Now we have it, we should, even if reluctently accept it.

Mr. Gary Waller (Keighley)

It has emerged from the debate that neither side has a monopoly of argument. I support what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) said, but I was not strongly convinced by her argument. I was more convinced by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg).

Those who oppose the amendment have two distinct grounds. They ask why we should put racial discrimination in a special category. They ask why discrimination against the disabled or on political grounds should not be treated in the same way. There is a distinction. We have legislation dealing with racial discrimination. We do not legislate for discrimination against the disabled or on political grounds. There are strong reasons for that. It would be difficult to legislate to cover those categories, but it has been possible to legislate against racial discrimination and, so far as I know, the Government do not intend to repeal that legislation.

Another strong argument by those who oppose the amendment is that the police should not be put in a special category. They ask why regulations should relate only to the police. The answer is that the police are special. We demand special things of the police.

Those who are active on the picket lines indulge in behaviour in which we do not expect the police to indulge. If the police retaliated in kind, we would require them to be disciplined. If a policeman commits a criminal offence, we expect the penalty to be more severe for him than for an ordinary member of the public, because we expect the police to behave in a way that we do not demand of everybody. We demand excellence of the police and single them out.

There is another important reason for backing the amendment — it has the authority of Lord Scarman behind it. Lord Scarman spoke with the experience of his inquiry. The Government asked him to make recommendations and the amendment comprises one of those recommendations. It would be wrong to throw it out. It would be a bad message to go from the House. That is why I support what my right hon. and learned Friend said and the Lords amendment.