HC Deb 10 February 1994 vol 237 cc438-9
8. Mr. Winnick

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what recent representations he has received over legislation affecting racial violence.

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

We continue to receive representations from a wide range of organisations and from hon. Members. The Commission for Racial Equality made a number of recommendations for changes in the law in its second review of the Race Relations Act 1976, which we are considering. The Select Committee on Home Affairs is also examining the issue, as part of its inquiry into racial attacks and harassment and we await its recommendations with interest.

Mr. Winnick

I deplore all forms of violence, including the horrifying murder of a police sergeant in New Addington, Croydon.

Has not the Minister given evidence to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in which he estimated that racial attacks could be as high as 130,000 a year? In view of continuing racially motivated attacks—in the main carried out by fascist gangs—on totally innocent people because of their origins or the colour of their skin, has not the time come to amend the law and to ensure that such attacks become an offence, in addition to offences under existing criminal legislation?

Mr. Lloyd

I am at one with the hon. Gentleman in deploring all assaults and attacks. I am glad that he has given me the opportunity to correct his misunderstanding of the figure that I gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I referred to 130,000 racial incidents. Only a very small proportion were physical assaults.

The hon. Gentleman is barking up the wrong tree if he thinks that the law needs to be changed to make physical attacks an extra criminal offence; they clearly are a criminal offence at the moment. Whether the victim or the perpetrator is white or black, the sentence for grievous bodily harm can be life imprisonment. The important thing is to get evidence and a conviction.

The hon. Gentleman should be concerned about smaller incidents and harassment. Although each incident is not very significant, with repetition they become corrosive, deeply hurtful and destructive. That is where we should study the law to find out whether changes are needed.

Mr. Dickens

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is one certain way to cut out racial violence, or violence of any description? If someone is put in prison for five years they should serve five years. Let us stop all this nonsense about remission, rehabilitation and parole—let offenders serve five years. If the Prison Officers Association says that prison officers have no control over prisoners, let us make prisoners serve extra years if they misbehave.

Mr. Lloyd

Many people will have a great deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend's remarks. However, fie forgets—but the judiciary does not—that the law enables a prisoner to be released half way through his sentence and so the judiciary imposes sentences with that in mind. Release at half time, which is allowed under the Criminal Justice Act 1991, makes it possible for offenders to be supervised and at risk of being returned to prison. That is a better guarantee of their reintegration into the community and a better sanction for their good behaviour.

Ms Ruddock

The Minister will be well aware of the fact that the Labour party has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that will effectively deal with racial harassment. The amendment is in a form that the hon. Gentleman has suggested may be acceptable to the Government, and we hope that they will accept it. Does the Minister realise how black people in this country feel? Does not he understand that when they are subjected to racial attack they become victims twice over—first, because of the violence itself and, secondly, because they know that they have been picked on as a result of their race. Surely it is time for the Government to take these matters much more seriously and to accept the amendment that we have tabled.

Mr. Lloyd

I am not sure that the hon. Lady is quite clear about her own party's amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill. My understanding is that it deals with racial violence rather than harassment. On the question of harassment, I have nothing to add to the points that I have just made. We are looking at the public order legislation, and we want to see the report of the Select Committee before finally making up our minds about what changes should be made. I believe that the pressure from the hon. Lady's party relates to a separate crime of racial violence, which would do nothing to secure the conviction of those who perpetrate racial violence and would, in the long term, be bad for community relations.

Mr. John Greenway

I promise my hon. Friend that the Select Committee will ensure that Ministers receive its report as quickly as possible. In the meantime, may I ask whether he agrees that what we require is not necessarily more legislation but better police practice? Does he share my admiration for the racial violence unit at Plumstead police station, which, over many years, has painstakingly built up a very good relationship with local ethnic communities? Does my hon. Friend know that much of that good work was undone by the Anti-Nazi League's march through south-east London a few months ago?

Mr. Lloyd

I believe that these marches do nothing but heighten tension. I agree with my hon. Friend that the police have made enormous efforts to establish good relationships with the ethnic minority communities and, thereby, encourage the members of those communities to report any crimes against them. My hon. Friend will know that we have recalled the racial attacks group to consider improvements in the practices in this area and to decide whether these could be improved further.