HC Deb 21 May 1993 vol 225 cc541-52

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

2.9 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

In speaking about racial violence, I shall deal with the issues arising from the recent brutal killing of the black schoolboy Stephen Lawrence in south-east London.

The black men and women who came to this country in the 1950s and 1960s went through difficult times and had to work hard to keep themselves and their families together. They always believed and kept themselves going with the notion that, for their children, times would be better. Classically, the hope of the immigrants, whether black, Jewish, Somali or Turkish, down the ages has been invested in their children.

Therefore, the recent spate of killings of black school children in south-east London and the killing of Stephen Lawrence in particular is distinctly cruel. Black school children are being slaughtered in a way that makes it look as if society is throwing a community's hopes back in its face.

I shall not speak in detail about the Stephen Lawrence case because it is sub judice, but I stress that his killing was not the result of gang warfare or of some long-running feud between rival adolescents. He was an innocent schoolboy waiting at a bus stop when he was stabbed to death by a gang of six white youths. He was the type of young man that we all want our children to be. He was ambitious and studying at schools for seven GSCEs and wished to become an architect. He was from an exemplary, hard-working and dignified black family.

Since the killing, there has been much talk about how political activists have exploited the case. Before the community became involved and people started to organise and march, it seems that the killing was being ignored, especially by the media. I extend to Stephen Lawrence's family my commiserations and I thank Nelson Mandela, the head of the African National Congress in South Africa, for taking the trouble when visiting England a few weeks ago to visit the Lawrence family. From speaking to that family, I know that they found that visit highly inspirational.

The killing of Stephen Lawrence would be bad enough if it were an isolated incident, but it came on top of a spate of killings of young black men in that area. In February 1991, 15-year-old Rolan Adams was stabbed. In May 1991, 25-year-old Orville Blair was stabbed, and in July 1992, 16-year-old Rohit Duggal was stabbed just 200 yards from where Stephen Lawrence was to be stabbed a few months later.

Those killings are just part of a national pattern of racial harassment and violence. In Hackney in my constituency, not a week goes by without people coming to see me about the racial harassment and violence that they are suffering. All the time, I see people who are frightened to leave their homes. Many of them are women and children, and they are being spat on and abused and their flats and houses are being covered with graffiti. Excreta is pushed through their letter boxes.

I know families who take their children to school every morning in a cab, not because the school is a long way off or because they can afford to take their children to school in a cab, but because they are frightened of the violence and harassment that they encounter when they are just walking in the street.

The issue does not affect only the black and Asian community in Hackney, which has traditionally been an area of Jewish settlement. The Jewish community, particularly the Hasidic community, is also suffering increasing harassment and violence. That growing problem exists not just in London but throughout the country.

The black community in Britain wants an end to this harassment and to the violence and killing. It wants action. Local councils must act, and far more quickly and effectively, against council tenants who harass other council tenants. Bexley council must act to close the British National party headquarters, which is in its borough. It is not coincidence that all the killings that I listed have taken place within three or four miles of that building.

I am sorry to say that the black community in south-east London feels, perhaps incorrectly, that Bexley is so insensitive to the fears of black ethnic minorities and Jewish people about the fascists' headquarters in the middle of the borough because it is Tory controlled. Bexley claims that it does not have the power to close down the headquarters, but I believe that even under the planning laws it can do so. How many more black school children have to be killed before Bexley makes a move to close that fascist headquarters?

This is a matter not for councils alone but for the Government, and I call on them to act. They need to look at the law. The law must be changed to make it easier to close fascist organisations and headquarters such as the BNP one in Bexley. The law needs to be strengthened on incitement to racial hatred. The Commission for Racial Equality has recently made welcome proposals to that end, and the Government should take them far more seriously than they have so far. Above all, the law needs to be changed to make racial harassment a legal offence.

The Government tell us that law and order is the number one political issue. Black people want law and order, too. If the Home Secretary can rush through a Bill to change the system of unit fines in this Session, I see no reason why he cannot rush through a Bill on racist violence and killing as well. Those fines may be upsetting people, but violence and killing are frightening the black community and are a far more appropriate subject for rushed legislation. I do not see any practical reason why the Government cannot bring forward such a Bill.

Above all, what the black community wants, what Stephen Lawrence's family wants, is for his killers to be brought to justice. A number of witnesses have said that they saw a gang of six white youths stab Stephen Lawrence to death, but so far only one person has been charged. The black community wants all six killers to be brought to justice. Nobody should be roaming the streets boasting of how he was able to stab to death a black youngster at a bus stop.

have tried to outline the problems arising from racial harassment and violence. I have tried to convey the fear in which some people are living. However, the most notable and remarkable factor is that, in spite of the dire predictions of Enoch Powell over a quarter of a century ago, black and white people live happily together side by side. The extent to which, in 1993, we are a genuinely multiracial, multicultural society is remarkable. Black and white people do not live side by side in the same way in cities such as Washington and New York in the United States. The extent to which black and white people live side by side is a tribute to the decency and kindliness of ordinary British people, black and white.

But racial harassment and violence exist and the recession, the pressure on working-class people and the level of unemployment are causing enormous tensions and making life difficult for many people. The message must go out from the House this afternoon that for racist murderers and bullies there is no place to run and nowhere to hide.

The most disturbing and hurtful aspect of the killing of Stephen Lawrence for the black community was the way in which initially it was almost entirely ignored by the mainstream media and the Government. The weekend after he was killed, only one national newspaper carried the story.

The black community has lived in Britain for centuries, but there has been a big black presence since the last war. Black people came to this country not to rely on charity and good will but to work. Indeed, to a great extent the progress made by this country since the war—in terms of its institutions, health service and public. services—has been aided by black people, as citizens and workers. They have done much to build up the nation and its institutions.

Black people are not willing to stand by and see racial violence reach epidemic proportions. They want to be assured that when there are killings and racist murders in the community, their feelings will be respected and that the killing of black school children will be taken as seriously as the killing of white school children.

It is easy for politicians on both sides and Ministers to pay lip service to the issue of racial tolerance. But all concerned want, first and foremost, respect to be paid to the black community and the Lawrence family in their grief, and they want action from the Government. We do not want in Britain the sort of situation that exists in France, Italy and Germany, where, week after week, we hear about racist murders and the hostels and homes of black people and refugees being set alight. We do not want the tide of racism and nazism which is engulfing some European countries to engulf Britain.

I call on the Government to take the issue seriously, to pay respect to the Lawrence family and, above all, to take the firm action that is necessary to show the racists in our midst that their brutality and violence will not be tolerated, that there is not one law for black people and another for white people and that the lives of all British citizens are equally precious in the eyes of the Government.

2.22 pm
Mr. John Austin-Walker (Woolwich)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott) and to the Minister for enabling me to take part in the debate.

I have lived for many years in my constituency of Woolwich, in the borough of Greenwich. I live a few hundred yards from the spot where Rolan Adams was murdered and a few hundred yards from where Orville Blair met his death. Prior to living at my present address, I lived in Woolwich only a few hundred yards from the spot where Stephen Lawrence's family live. So I know the area well, and it gives me no pleasure to come to the House today to speak in this debate.

My hon. Friend painted a clear picture of the daily experience of many black families in our community. After the Rolan Adams murder, a television company came to the area in which I live to make a programme. They interviewed some young black people and those black youths explained on television what life was like living there.

Colleagues of mine in the community and on the council complained about the distorted picture of their community that was being painted by the television company. They said, "This is not the area in which we live. That is not the community we recognise," and I had to admit that it was not the community that I recognised, either. I had to point out to some of my colleagues that if one were black, one's perception of the community and one's daily life experiences might be somewhat different.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington made a number of points that need to be considered. The main issues are incitement and harassment. There is no doubt that the presence of the British National party just over the border in Welling contributes in no small measure to the increase in racial violence in the area, and I believe that it is not only the responsibility of Bexley council, where the headquarters are, but a matter of serious concern to all of us and on which the Government need to act.

In 1992, the Commission for Racial Equality published its review of the Race Relations Act 1976. It recommended to the Government that an independent review of the working of the law on incitement to racial hatred should be conducted and that the Attorney-General's involvement should end. I will not go into the detail of the recommendations, but I understand that the Commmission for Racial Equality is still awaiting a response from the Home Secretary. It seems that the process by which a prosecution can be brought is extremely cumbersome, and perhaps that is why so few prosecutions have been brought.

The Commission for Racial Equality urged the Home Secretary to make racial harassment a specific criminal offence, to make racial harassment a ground for eviction, to place public authorities under a statutory duty to monitor complaints of racial harassment, to establish a separate tort of racial harassment and specifically to consider criminalising racial violence.

The Minister will know from when I visited him earlier this year with representatives of the anti-racist alliance and the Society of Black Lawyers that some draft legislation had been submitted to the Home Secretary for his consideration. I hope that serious consideration will be given to that matter.

My hon. Friend referred to the speed with which amendments to laws can be made. I understand that it is the Home Secretary's intention to introduce a Bill to amend the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I hope that at that time the Government will be prepared to consider the inclusion of specific offences' of racial harassment, and I hope that we can have a debate on that.

The time to act is now. I do not want to come to the House again and have to speak in a debate following the murder of another Rolan Adams, Rohit Duggal or Stephen Lawrence. I hope that the Government will take seriously the recommendations that have been made.

2.27 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) on her heartfelt speech and on securing her Adjournment debate on a day when the previous business finished early, allowing her more time than usual to deploy her case. The extra time allowed the hon. Member for Woolwich (Mr. Austin-Walker) to intervene and I listened carefully to what he said, as I know that many such incidents as we are debating have occurred in his constituency.

The hon. Member for Woolwich intervened to extend and to reinforce the points that the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington had made. The fact that they are both here at this time on a Friday emphasises the concern that they feel about racial attacks and the harm that such assaults do to innocent people and the corroding fear that they generate among ethnic minority communities across the country.

The hon. Lady mentioned the murder of Stephen Lawrence in Greenwich on 22 April. It was an appalling crime and the more shocking because Stephen, as the hon. Lady explained, was studying for his A-levels and was clearly an able, peaceable, decent young man. He was planning to be an architect and obviously would have had much to contribute to society, both black and white, when he qualified.

I met his family—father, mother, brother and sister —when I visited Greenwich earlier in the week. No words that I can say can bring effective comfort to the shattering loss that they have suffered and which will be with them throughout the rest of the lives, but I am sure that the House will want to record the sympathy that the hon. Lady eloquently expressed and which I repeat on behalf of myself and my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary.

I also visited the police when I was in Greenwich and was convinced that they are totally committed to bringing those involved in Stephen's death to justice—and they have now charged a 17-year-old with Stephen's murder. The police are acutely aware, as is the community—both black and white—that there have been three other murders of members of the black community in the area in the recent past.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Arbuthnot.]

Mr. Lloyd

Two of those three murders were clearly racial, as was that of Stephen, but in all three the murderer was caught and sentenced to life imprisonment—an indication of police determination to act effectively. But murder is not, thank God, the usual outcome of racially motivated crime. The police to whom I spoke in Greenwich understand that assaults and harassment are the day-to-day experience of racial crime and that they cause hurt and distress across the community—poisoning lives and relationships. that is why the police in the area have established a special racial attacks division in Plumstead, to encourage people to report racial attacks and to ensure that those reports are effectively followed up. Last year, the unit had a clear-up rate of 43 per cent., which is considerably higher than that for crime generally across London.

Across the country, as the hon. Lady said, there are attacks of varying nature and of varying seriousness and cumulatively they have an enormous impact. Last year, the number of recorded racial attacks continued to increase, with nearly 8,000 being reported. At least some of that increase stems from the police being required to collect statistics much more systematically in recent years, as a measure of the concern that they and the Government feel. In fact, in 1991 the definition of racial incident was broadened to include any incident where the victim had reason to believe that the incident was racial—if it could not be proved to be so.

Police efforts in many parts of the country to create confidence and to encourage victims to report incidents have also contributed to the increase in the numbers recorded—although I accept that, as for all crime, only a proportion of racial offending is reported. The police inspectorate has a special duty imposed on it in every inquiry into the arrangements that each force has to follow up reports of racial attacks.

On the many visits that I have made over the past year to ethnic minority meetings, cultural and other activities throughout the country, I have been impressed to find how often there are good personal relationships between the police and the organisers. I do not believe that such relationships could suddenly be constructed for my visit. They represent months and years of patient work on both sides. I am sure that that is happening increasingly—and where it does I suspect that, ironically, it helps to increase, in the short run, the number of racial incidents that are reported.

I am aware that there are many areas where relationships have a long way to go. If they are to be effective, they must include a number of agencies adopting a common approach. On my visit to Greenwich, I was glad to meet representatives of the council and some local community groups under the chairmanship of Mr. Dhillan, chairman of the Greenwich Council for Racial Equality. They emphasised their determination to work together in co-operation with the police to improve race relations generally and to combat racial attacks and harassment in particular.

Ms Abbott

The Minister said—I do not argue with this —that part of the reason for the rise in reported racial attacks is that people are more willing to come forward to report them because of better relationships between the police and community leaders. Does the Minister accept that, at a time of recession and severe unemployment, as well as there being an increased willingness by people to report them, racial attacks are on the rise? It is inevitable that if there are gangs of youths with nothing to do, there will he violence and harassment. Does he accept that although there may be greater willingness by people to report the attacks, there is also an increasing trend of racial attacks?

Mr. Lloyd

I am not sure that I gathered the last line of the hon. Lady's intervention. Did she say, "increasing trend"?

Ms Abbott

I said that racial attacks themselves were on the rise.

Mr. Lloyd

It is difficult to tell from the figures whether racial attacks have gone up because there is an increasing number, or because there is an increasing readiness to report them. I said that I was sure that part of the increase had occurred because of the greater determination of the police to record racial attacks and because of a wider definition of racial attacks. However, I do not exclude the possibility that there has been a general increase. It would be impossible for me to do so because I do not know. What I do know is that there are far too many attacks; one attack is one too many. A great deal of harassment and hurt, which is less serious individually, but which is cumulatively important, does not get reported. I accept that point.

I also accept that the total conditions in an area—the social relationships—contribute to particular problems. I do not single out any particular item as being the key or as being specifically responsible, not least because many of the identified perpetrators of attacks are not unemployed. Unemployment does not help, but I should not put it down as one of the causes although I can see that it might be a contributory factor in individual cases. Areas of multiple social deprivation are the areas that are most likely to breed the tensions that lead to attacks. The parts of Greenwich and the parts of London where there have been many attacks are in many ways attractive areas in which to be and in which to live.

The dynamics of the situation are complicated. It is impossible to pick out one cause and to say that if one eliminated that, the problem would go away. It is basically to do with relationships, with the way in which people regard themselves and with the way in which people regard those who belong to other communities or who are of other colours.

I return to the role of agencies, which is crucial in combating racial crime. including assaults and harassment. Since the Home Affairs Select Committee report of 1986 and the establishment of the interdepartmental racial attacks group, chaired by the Home Office, there has been an increasing emphasis on such an approach. The group's first report was published in 1989 and made a series of detailed recommendations for the police service, housing authorities and other organisations on combatting racial violence and harassment. Its key recommendation was that multi-agency groups should be established to deal with such crimes in the areas in which they occurred.

A follow-up report published last year surveyed progress so far, noted good practice and gave advice on the formation and strengthening of local agencies. The two reports have been important in promoting the multi-agency approach and in offering practical assistance on how agencies might co-operate effectively to address this difficult issue. In practice, this approach draws together a number of groups, including the police, the housing authorities, local education authorities and schools, the social services, local community groups and race equality councils, and sometimes others, such as the Crown Prosecution Service. These various groups pool information and work together to provide protection for those vulnerable to attacks and to help victims—for example, through joint visits. Incidents reported to one agency can be referred to other agencies in order to build up a complete picture of the racial harassment in the area. This can be particularly helpful where victims are unwilling to report attacks to the police. The joint approach also allows evidence gathered by the police to be used by other statutory agencies for their action.

The hon. Lady mentioned in particular the activities of the British National party, and in particular the fact that for some years it has had in Welling, not far from Greenwich, a headquarters and bookshop, although when I saw it the other day it was boarded up and clearly not a bookshop open to the general public. I know, however, that there is a very widespread and deeply held belief in Greenwich and the surrounding areas that its presence is responsible for many of the racial incidents in that part of London and must be implicated in the murders that have taken place.

The BNP holds repugnant views which are disliked and condemned by the vast majority of people in all parts of the community, and I can understand how particularly offensive their visible presence must be to those in the ethnic minorities. Last year, the police raided the premises and seized material with a view to bringing a prosecution on the grounds of incitement to racial hatred, but the CPS decided that the material provided insufficient evidence to secure a conviction.

In the absence of any change in the type of material being distributed, any further action by the police would certainly lead to claims by the BNP that it was being victimised—giving it the kind of publicity that it would find helpful in recruiting sympathisers.

It has also been suggested, and the hon. Lady mentioned it, that the British National party offices should be closed on the grounds of an abuse of planning permission. This is a matter for Bexley council, but I understand that legal advice from the council's solicitors is that such closure could be successfully contested by BNP in the courts. If that happened, it would produce publicity that was not to the disadvantage of the British National party.

The police also tell me that last year they found links to the BNP in only two of the many incidents that they investigated. I believe that there are no powers under the existing legislation to proscribe organisations other than terrorist organisations, such as the IRA—although not Sinn Fein, which sympathises with and supports it. The only legislation that enables Ministers to ban terrorist organisations is the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984. That Act enables the Home Secretary to proscribe any organisation that appears to him to be concerned with terrorism.

I am afraid, therefore, that today at this Dispatch Box I cannot give the hon. Lady any undertaking or any encouragement to believe that the BNP's official presence can be removed under our present law. If its official presence could be removed, its unofficial presence, and its supporters and sympathisers, would remain and would just as conveniently meet in private houses and store their propaganda there. Nor can I indicate to the hon. Lady that the law could be changed to make such closure possible without creating powers for authorities to close down a range of fringe political groups in different parts of the political spectrum. I do not believe that that would be acceptable to the House or to the country at large.

Ms Abbott


Mr. Lloyd

Before I leave that point and allow the hon. Lady to intervene, let me stress, as I did earlier, that I appreciate the strength of feeling that there is on this subject, not merely among the ethnic minorities, but across the community generally. I am bearing that point very much in mind as we complete our review of the Commission for Racial Equality recommendations on how the Race Relations Act 1976 can be updated.

I want to put on record for the hon. Lady, as she specifically raised the point, my doubts about whether the present law can be used in the way that she wants, and also my doubts about whether it would be right, helpful or acceptable to the House to devise a law to shut down this establishment which might lead to side-effects that neither she nor the rest of the House would wish. This is a difficult subject and it is not my final word upon it. Nevertheless, I place on record those important reservations so that she and the House know about them,

Ms Abbott

Does the Minister accept that for black and Jewish people, the BNP and other fascist organisations are terrorist organisations, both in name and in fact? Does he further accept that for local people, both black and white, Bexley council's reluctance to use the powers available to it is utterly shameful? How many more young black people have to die before the council acts? It would be preferable for the council to incur some inconvenience in the courts than for other young people to lose their lives because of the activities of fascists in south-east London.

Mr. Lloyd

I accept that the hon. Lady speaks sincerely and on behalf of many people, especially those in the ethnic minorities—although her views stretch across all the communities. However, I cannot accept that Bexley council believes that it has powers, but is unwilling to use them. I believe that the council sincerely believes that, in this case, it does not have the powers to enable it effectively to shut the offices. If the matter were taken to court and lost, the result would be helpful to the BNP, but no one else.

Nor can I accept that the role of the BNP, however unpleasant its views and however strident some of its comments, can be compared with a terrorist movement like the IRA. If it could, there would be no problem—it would be proscribed. It is different, even though its role and activities are deeply unpleasant and unattractive. That is why it cannot be proscribed under current law. We are a country of laws, not one in which Ministers, on the basis of their own feelings or on the strength of public opinion, can ban organisations or remove them from an area. Our laws are occasionally a frustration, but they are a protection for all of us, whatever the community to which we belong.

The hon. Member for Woolwich referred specifically to one of the CRE's recommendations for a separate crime of racial assault. To summarise the hon. Gentleman's remarks, he said that implementation of that recommendation would mark out society's particular condemnation of racially motivated violence and reassure the ethnic minority communities. Against that, it must be emphasised that a violent attack is a crime, whoever commits it and against whomever it is committed. It must be seen as such, because that is what it is.

I am not convinced that if the additional requirement of demonstrating that the motive were racial were added to the law, that would be beneficial. It would be that much harder to secure a conviction, because another item would have to be proved. Even if it could be, I am not convinced that, on balance, racial harmony would be helped if white victims of white violence could complain that the criminal would have been given a longer sentence had he, the victim, been black. Nor would it be helpful in cases where the attacker was black and the victim from another racial group, to have the inevitable press inquiry of why the attacker was not charged with a racially motivated crime. I am outlining the reservations to those proposals because I take the proposals seriously, as I do all those made by the CRE. That is why it is taking some time for the Home Secretary and I to make our response.

I know of the feeling in the ethnic minority communities and we should like to devise a law to give those communities the maximum protection, but some of the suggestions would not necessarily work as predicted or lead to greater harmony. There is a law under which it is possible to take into account all the relevant circumstances of a crime, which includes the motivation of the attacker if he was racially motivated. That may be reflected in the sentence—indeed, in sentencing, the courts should take all relevant circumstances into account. I am not sure whether it would be helpful to go beyond that.

The hon. Members for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington and for Woolwich stressed the point, so I am acutely aware of the fact that the day-to-day reality of racial harassment lies in the repeated threats, minor assaults and persecution suffered by members of minority communities. The Metropolitan police records suggest that only a small proportion of incidents reported to them involve serious assault. That is one of the reasons why section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986 created a new low-level offence of offensive conduct, which extended criminal liability to behaviour that had hitherto not been criminal.

The White Paper on the review of public order law specifically identified members of the ethnic minority communities as those who should he protected from such behaviour. Section 5 does not require a complaint from a victim and is especially useful when a victim is not willing to come to the police or when a particular victim is difficult to identify. The law has been extended so that it covers the type of assaults, harassment and persecution to which ethnic minority communities are peculiarly subject. The police are very alive to their use of it, but, as this country is a country of laws, there must be sufficient evidence to prosecute if someone is to be punished by the courts for breaking the rules.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington for raising this issue. It is grave because it deeply affects the lives of many people in the ethnic minorities and, as in the recent case of Stephen Lawrence, can encompass the death of an innocent human being. The Government are considering where the effectiveness of the law could be improved. I believe that its reach is fairly comprehensive and the major difficulty in securing convictions is gathering the evidence. The police are placing an increasingly high priority on that under the supervision of the inspectorate, but they rely on the co-operation of all parts of the community. I am impressed and encouraged by the co-operation that they now receive, but much more remains to be done.

On that note, I am sure that the fact that the hon. Lady has brought this issue before the House so starkly today will give a further stimulus to that co-operation so that the scourge of racial assaults and attacks may diminish and eventually be eliminated. For that to happen, we need not only effective policing and a comprehensive law but good relations between the communities, which are hard to create where they do not already exist. However, as the hon. Lady said, enormous progress has been made in this country. Many predictions were made years ago, but I am happy that we are now discussing the issue without their having come true. However, I echo what the hon. Lady said: for several families in south-east London, most notably that of Stephen Lawrence in the past few weeks, such predictions have regrettably come all too true.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at six minutes to Three o'clock.