HC Deb 25 June 2001 vol 370 cc385-92 3.33 pm
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on what action his Department is going to take following the riots in Burnley over the weekend.

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham)

As the House is aware, outbreaks of disorder took place in Burnley on the evening of Saturday 23 June and, more seriously, yesterday evening, 24 June. I have received an urgent report from Lancashire constabulary, from which at least the outlines of what occurred are clear.

A number of apparently spontaneous incidents occurred in the early morning of Saturday 23 June. They included a fight between two groups of Asian youths outside a local night club, one of which was local to the area and the other from west Yorkshire. Two of the local youths were stabbed, and two people have been arrested.

In the second incident, police were called to the scene of a quarrel between a group of Asian people and a white group, following complaints that the white group was holding a noisy party. In the disturbance that followed, nine vehicles, which belonged to Asian and white families, were damaged by the white youths. At the same time, an off-duty Asian taxi driver was attacked by a group of white men and suffered a fractured cheek bone. Two white males were arrested.

During Saturday evening, residents of the Stoneyholme district reported gatherings of young Asian men near Abel street. Police officers were deployed to the area and began to speak to the youths, but missiles were soon thrown at the police. Damage was caused to the Duke of York public house on Colne road and what are described as minor altercations took place between local Asian and white youths. For the next two hours, there were sporadic incidents of stone throwing at passing vehicles—police cars and private cars—but the police inform me that no large—scale disorder took place. The streets were again quiet by I am.

On the next day, there were a number of minor incidents, to which the police responded, between 5 am and 7 pm. Disorder recurred around 7.30 pm, when, without warning, about 70 white males left a public house and headed for the Stoneyholme area to challenge Asian youths. Serious disorder broke out. Several missiles were thrown at the police and, during the disorder, vehicles were set on fire, together with the public house and shop premises. At the height of the disorder, petrol bombs were thrown at the police. During that period, the police attempted to prevent confrontations between white and Asian youths. Following police intervention, the crowds had dispersed by I am.

I understand from the police that 11 people, eight of whom are white, have so far been arrested for actions arising from the weekend's events. The offences include criminal damage, wounding and public order offences. I am pleased to say that there have been no reports of injuries to the police.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in expressing disgust at the criminal violence that took place on the streets of Burnley over the weekend and at the mindless acts of provocation that preceded it. The police strategy has been to protect all sections of the community, to minimise damage to property and to investigate criminal activity.

I welcome the statement made by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), reported in the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, in which he appealed for calm and urged white and Asian youths to stay off the streets. I also welcome similarly positive statements by the Bishop of Blackburn, the Right Reverend Alan Chesters, and Moulana Ahmed Sidat, chairman of the Lancashire Council of Mosques.

The weekend's events will have been deeply disturbing to everyone living in Burnley. From the information that I have received so far, it appears that a series of apparently unrelated individual incidents sparked the trouble. There can be no excuse for violence or lawbreaking from any section of the community. The whole House will condemn the activities of racist organisations and those who are racially motivated, but my hon. Friend will want to look at how the tensions and problems that were manifest this weekend can be overcome.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), are, of course, seeking advice from our race advisers and the Commission for Racial Equality on any common elements in the disturbances of recent weeks. I shall look in particular at the policing and law and order elements of the events in Burnley.

As at Oldham, the primary job of tackling the underlying problems that give rise to divisions and disturbance must be done at a local level. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary is today in Oldham talking to local people about the way forward there.

I have asked for reports from the police, the Government office for the north west and the local authority on events in Burnley and the issues that might lie behind them. I understand that there is a long tradition of good race relations in Burnley, and I hope that, with the support of my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley, those who want to build on that tradition will identify what needs to be done over the weeks and months ahead.

Mr. Pike

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Will he echo my comments that it is vital that people stay at home tonight and do not go out to create more disturbance? The only way to resolve the problems is to sit around the table and talk. Is not it therefore important that we give our full support to this afternoon's discussions between the police, the council and members of the local community in Burnley, with a view to resolving those problems?

Is not it also important to recognise that, although, regrettably, the racist and extremist British National party received more than 11 per cent, of the vote in Burnley on 7 June, not all those who voted for it are necessarily racist? Many were misled by its comments during the election campaign. Should we not address what is at the core of the disturbances? We should consider the problems of empty houses and poverty in many parts of Burnley, and attack those problems jointly.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the money available to a small district council such as Burnley—it is not a unitary authority—is minimal? Although Burnley has always fully supported the fact that most of the money made available is no longer core funding but is targeted at particular problems, it faces difficulty in moving funding around in order to meet specific problems that are perceived locally as priorities. Having said that, the main thing is that we want an end to the disturbances. I am sure that everybody in the House condemns all the acts of violence and hooliganism over the weekend.

Mr. Denham

I welcome my hon. Friend's comments. He is right to urge everybody to put the events of the weekend behind them and to sit down and talk about the way forward. We of course welcome and fully support the discussions to which he referred.

My hon. Friend mentioned the issues facing district councils. Elected local representatives, including those on the council and, of course, leaders of local community organisations, have an important role to play not only financially but in uniting the community and tackling the problems that obviously exist. Burnley has received significant investment through the regeneration programme in particular, but it is important that local people identify what else needs to be done in order to find a way forward.

With regard to racist organisations, I join my hon. Friend in condemning those who seek to exploit underlying problems with simplistic solutions to complex and real issues that need to be thrashed out by people talking and working together.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury)

I welcome the Minister of State to his new responsibilities. As this occasion illustrates, he is taking on responsibility for some very difficult and complex problems affecting our country. We on the Opposition Benches wish him well in the discharge of those new duties.

I join the Minister of State and the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) in condemning the violence on the streets of Burnley and in their calls for people in the town, from whatever community, to exercise self-discipline and restraint and to seek to tackle the problems through peaceful and democratic discussion rather than street violence.

I appreciate that there might be legal constraints on what the Minister can say, but is he able to tell the House whether there is any evidence of the involvement of members of the British National party or other far-right groups in provoking the incidents in Burnley? Does he agree that we in this country have laws that make incitement to racial hatred a criminal offence and that, if the evidence exists, they should be rigorously enforced and exemplary sentences given?

I agree that the solutions to Burnley's problems and to the underlying tensions to which the hon. Member for Burnley referred have to be found primarily through local action rather than central Government action, but we should reject the idea, advanced in some quarters, that the answer is to accept that there should be no-go areas of the town for either white or Asian people. I hope that all Members of Parliament, whatever their politics, agree that we should strive to ensure that every citizen of Burnley—or of any other town or city in this country—feels that he or she enjoys the rights and responsibilities of being British citizens, and that no one has to feel afraid to walk down any street or through any district in their home town.

Will the Minister consider, as part of his reflections on the events of the weekend, some of the reports that de facto segregation of Asian and white neighbourhoods in Burnley has helped some of the problems to emerge, with people from different communities not mixing because they do not live in the same neighbourhoods?

May I ask the Minister—in what I assure him is a non-partisan spirit—whether the Government will, as part of their response to events in Burnley and elsewhere, reconsider the priority that central Government as a whole give to neighbourhood street policing in our towns and cities? The concept has become somewhat unfashionable in recent years, but I believe that it is when police officers have become familiar faces to the people of the neighbourhoods that they regularly patrol that they win the trust of people from all communities in that neighbourhood and can, as a result, be more effective police officers.

Mr. Denham

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks and welcome his condemnation of this weekend's violence.

The hon. Gentleman asks whether I have any evidence of involvement by particular organised groups and racist groups in the events of the weekend. The honest answer, as I stand here this afternoon, is that I have received no such indication at this stage, but he will understand that these are early days in terms of receiving full reports. I think that the whole House would draw the distinction between involvement of particular groups and actions that occur because particular groups have been involved in exploiting community issues, but the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are strong legal powers to deal with incitement to racial hatred and other race crimes.

I agree that no one in a free society wants to compromise that by saying that there should be places where certain people in that free society cannot go. There cannot be no-go areas as either an outcome or an instrument of policy. If there are issues in Burnley or elsewhere relating to where local communities live, those are precisely the sorts of issues that must be addressed in the short, medium and long term through the discussions that should take place at local level.

We recognise that local policing—neighbourhood policing—has an important role to play in many different ways in tackling the fear of crime and building up understanding with local communities, as do the efforts that we have made and will continue to make to ensure that, in the coming years, we in this country have a police service that is fully representative of all the communities it serves.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I, too, welcome the Minister to his important responsibilities as the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs. I join colleagues on both sides of the House in condemning violence as a solution to any community tension or problem and in thanking both the local authority and police, for their leadership and work, and the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for his community leadership over many years.

In the same vein as the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), may I put three issues to the Minister? First, will he take time to look at the delivery of three services—police services, housing services and the youth service—in Burnley, Oldham and other places where there has been community tension? Wi11 he make sure that those services are sufficient, so that the police respond quickly enough, the housing service has adequate housing and the youth service has adequate resources, and that they are provided in a non-discriminatory way that can be seen objectively to treat equally people from all community groups?

Secondly, although there may not be any immediate evidence of a link between right-wing political activity and the events of this weekend, I have no doubt—from my own constituency experience among others—that the more right-wing activity there is, the more tension rises. I am happy to collaborate on the following matter, and I am sure that my colleagues in other parties are as well: will the Minister investigate whether we are prosecuting adequately the use of language and written literature that appears to incite racial hatred, but which is often not followed up by police or prosecution service activity? We frequently seem to get on to difficult ground when we ban marches, but we do not often take action against individuals, spoken words and printed literature.

Thirdly, so that we do not have a summer of events in one city or town followed by statements, questions and so on, may I constructively suggest that the Minister and the Home Secretary convene a group from at least the three parties in England to try to prevent problems before they arise and to learn the wisdom of community management from mixed-race multicultural communities? There are tensions in many places, but there are many places where the best experience can minimise them and take the community forward. It may be better to anticipate future tensions and difficulties, rather than always to react to them.

Mr. Denham

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. He asked about the delivery of key public services in Burnley and elsewhere, and I am sure that he will recognise the significance of the Race Relations (Amendment) Act 2000, which not only outlaws discrimination in all public authority functions not covered by the Race Relations Act 1976 but places a general duty on listed public authorities to promote racial equality, which is an important change of emphasis. The hon. Gentleman is therefore right that the Government as a whole will look at the way in which many different public services will now fulfil their responsibilities under the 2000 Act.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned activity by racist parties. As I acknowledged earlier, there can be a direct relationship between activities in communities that have been targeted by racist organisations and the level of racial violence or disturbance that takes place, and we must aim to counter that. I will look at the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that activity that falls foul of the law is not being prosecuted, and I am happy to receive from him examples of material or events that give rise to concern. We now clearly have powerful laws on the statute book to tackle racist activity, and we expect them to be used effectively and well.

As for avoiding future events, when we look at areas where there have been problems we often conclude, although I do not want to pre-judge anything that may have happened in Burnley this weekend, that there are common underlying factors and issues specific to that locality. Discussions about community building that will now inevitably take place in Burnley, as they have done in Oldham, will also have to take place in many different parts of the country so that people anticipate problems instead of waiting to find out that they have them.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many people are deeply concerned about events first in Oldham and now in Burnley? There is no excuse for violent disorder, and the House supports the police in the action that they have had to take. There are complex underlying issues on which an outsider would not dream of commenting, but clearly race is a factor. We do not want to see what happened in Burnley replicated throughout the summer. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that as well as considering the short-term public order issue, he will take up the point made by the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) from the Opposition Front Bench that we have the necessary law? There is no doubt that the BNP's activity has raised the temperature in certain areas, and that if the law exists it should be used. All the factors should be considered. No community should think that it does not have a voice and that it is not being listened to.

Mr. Denham

I agree very much that no community should feel that it does not have a voice or that it is not listened to. I agree also that the laws that the House has enacted to deal with racist crimes and statements made or activities undertaken by racist organisations should be used. That is why the House passed the measures in the first place. It is true that the issues are complex in particular communities. We must do what we can, but it is important that others consider the problems at local level and try to identify the issues that are specific to local areas.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

May I join in welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to his new position? Does he agree that the events are worrying given, as he rightly said, the generally good state of race relations in Burnley? Does he agree also that the events of last night are therefore untypical?

Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore congratulate the police on the vigorous and robust way in which they rightly stepped in to try to control the situation? Will he ensure that in those areas where he and others remain anxious about tensions, especially in inner cities, his suggestion and that of the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) that people in such areas should be called together before there is any trouble by the police and other community leaders, to try to find a way through and to ensure that a peaceful regime is maintained, is a sensible and proactive way in which to proceed?

Mr. Denham

That was a helpful comment. I understand that the events of the weekend were untypical of the recent history of Burnley. People in other areas will want to ensure that all necessary discussions take place. There must not be a dialogue of the deaf or a failure to talk before problems emerge.

I am happy to repeat my thanks to the police for the way in which they conducted events over the weekend. Effective policing of disturbances such as those that took place over the weekend and good policing all year round are essential. At the end of the day, however, these are not problems that can be resolved by policing. They involve relations between communities and underlying economic and social problems within communities, and they must be tackled at that level. The police will always play their professional role, as they did this weekend in Burnley, but we must tackle the root causes that give rise to disturbances.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

The House will be united in deploring racial violence, but does the Minister agree that there has been a substantial decline in good race relations? We are aware of that in Southend, where I live and where there were outbreaks at the weekend similar to those in Burnley.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that many members of the public think that the decline could be related to what they regard as a lack of effective control and operation of asylum seekers? Does he consider that there could be a substantial improvement in good race relations if the Government would make it a priority to ensure that speedier decisions were taken on asylum applications?

Mr. Denham

That was a very regrettable and unfortunate intervention, and I think that it was wrong. I do not know Burnley well, but I imagine that the majority of those involved in Burnley, from whatever community they came, were born in Burnley and are second or third generation residents in this country. I do not know what connection that would have with the issue of asylum.

Some politicians have sought to exploit the issue of asylum in a way that has had an unfortunate effect on wider race relations. In general, I do not agree that there has been a marked deterioration in race relations. I do not believe that there is evidence of that. There are still major problems and issues to be tackled, but we have made progress over the past 20 years. We have not gone backwards.