|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Lloyd : There are plenty of them, alas. If the hon. Gentleman has not met them, he has led an extraordinarily sheltered life. A number of them voted for the British National party in Tower Hamlets at the previous local election.
Sir Ivan Lawrence : Of course my right hon. Friend has a point and it is one which should be heard, but is it not also a reason for dismantling all our race relations legislation, whether civil or criminal, because the effect of that is presumably to create exactly the same reactions as he says are so abhorrent to us now ?
Mr. Lloyd : That is of course one of the downsides, but, as my hon. and learned Friend will know, without such laws against discrimination, discrimination would not be unlawful. However, harassment and violence are unlawful, so he is not comparing like with like.
While I am waxing so critical of the content of the new clauses, I shall mention briefly what is not in them and, despite what the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) said in her intervention, something that is certainly not there but which would genuinely benefit ethnic minorities and others if it were. The Government believe that the one aspect that the law does not sufficiently cover is low-level, repetitive abuse, name-calling or nuisance which as a one-off might be no more than a minor legal breach and on which no court is likely to come down with great severity, but which cumulatively is deeply hurtful, building fear, anxiety and distress, blighting the lives of individuals and families and poisoning relationships between different sections of the community.
It is in dealing with such persistent harassment, which can cause such misery, that I believe the law needs to be extended with appropriately severe penalties. I have said so many times in recent months, including at the Dispatch Box, but it is not easy to formulate an amendment that we can be sure would focus effectively on the offence without unwelcome side effects. I am, however, confident that we can produce such an amendment and the Government would have liked to do so on Report, but the complexities have proved too great.
Column 55Mrs. Roche rose
"threatening, abusive or insulting words or behaviour . . . or . . . any writing, sign or other visible representation"
that is abusive or insulting, which is exactly the type of behaviour to which I referred in my intervention. We are talking about the swastika daubed on a wall, threatening behaviour against a black family or a car aerial being vandalised. New clause 13 seeks to deal with such harassment.
Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Lady was not listening when I said that the words that she has just cited admiringly are already law--they have been lifted wholly from section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. I am trying to tell the hon Lady that those words are insufficient to deal with cumulative low-level harassment which causes so much harm and has such a corrosive effect.
Mrs. Roche : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way a second time. I listened very carefully to what he was saying. New clause 13 would tighten existing legislation and enable it to deal with exactly the sort of incident to which I referred. There has been a failure on the part of the Home Office to listen properly to what is being said not only by Opposition Members but by some of the Minister's right hon. and hon. Friends.
I must stress that the improved law would not be confined to racial harassment but would extend to other forms of harassment, although ethnic minorities may be the chief beneficiaries. I should be happy if that were so as I am quite sure that they are the chief sufferers. The important point would be that the same protection would exist for any repeatedly harassed individual or family, whatever the motive for the harassment.
Mr. Marshall rose
I share with all hon. Members who have spoken their patent desire to make the law work more effectively. The chief impediment to prosecution is lack of evidence which will stand up in court, a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, South. That must be a matter for the police and local agencies working effectively together, and it is why earlier this year I was happy to speak in support of the CRE campaign urging victims to report incidents and, just as important, witnesses to come forward.
However, it is clear that the Public Order Act is used to very much greater effect in some spheres than in others. That is why the racial attacks group is also looking to see what can be learnt from those areas about the way in which good practice could be applied generally. It is not spectacular work, but it will prove far more helpful to
Column 56minority communities than any of the new clauses before us today, however impressive they may sound when dolled up in a superficial and self-indulgent press release.
As I said earlier, making the distribution of material that is likely to stir up racial hatred an arrestable offence will help the police to get to the source of the material and I hope that the House will support amendment No. 125. It follows that I have immediate sympathy for those sections of new clause 13 and new clause 100, which would provide the police with an immediate power of arrest for harassment. However, on reflection, I am afraid that I am not yet convinced that it would on balance help to do so.
Section 5 of the Public Order Act, to which the new clause relates, is used in a variety of circumstances for dealing with a broad spectrum of abusive and threatening behaviour in public places, not only racial harassment. It could, for example, be employed by the police when they have been abused and harassed by demonstrators. At present, the police must give the demonstrator a warning. I am not sure that the Opposition would want to do away with the necessity for that warning and perhaps find that many of those arrested turned out to be black or white protestors who were perhaps protesting over the BNP book shop in Welling. I am not convinced that the requirement for an opportunity to cool off is not useful all round, but I do not rule out the new clause. It needs further and wider discussion, which it will receive when the Select Committee is able to publish its report.
Again, I understand why new clause No. 89, spoken to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), queries the role of the Attorney- General, whose approval is necessary before a prosecution can be brought under part III of the Public Order Act for stirring up racial hatred. As some hon. Members have observed, he has given his go-ahead to only 14 prosecutions, implying that, somehow, he has been preventing many more from being brought.
That is certainly not so. Only 19 cases have been referred to him and the ones with which he did not proceed were disallowed on the same grounds by which other prosecutions are denied--two because of insufficient evidence and three on public interest grounds. At least two of those cases were dismissed because of the age of the person who was alleged to have committed the offence. Again, I am quite sure that the lack of evidence on the identity of the authors of the racial material which would stand up in court is responsible for the small number of prosecutions in that area, perhaps because so much comes anonymously through the post or is imported.
There are other broader issues relating to the scope of part III of the Act which were raised by some Asian groups, by the Tabachnik report and most recently by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley in his Bill. They involve important questions about where the balance should be struck between free speech, public order and group sensibilities. They are beyond the scope of the new clauses and thus the debate, but they are an area to which we must and will return when the Select Committee unveils its remedies.
Finally, in new clause 98, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton and some colleagues on the Select Committee seek to strengthen section 12 of the Public Order Act which deals with processions. At present, a police officer may place conditions on a march if he believes that it may cause serious disorder, damage or disruption. I cannot see that it helps to add the ability to put conditions on a march on racial, religious or ethnic
Column 57grounds, as subsection (1) of my hon. and learned Friend's new clause would. It gives the police no new power or new guidance. Subsection (2) of the new clause, however, would insert the stirring up of racial hatred as an additional criterion for imposing conditions on a demonstration. Again, it would add little more to the way in which the present law is being used. The police already use their powers to impose conditions on marches for example, to re-route them where necessary away from areas where large Asian populations live--not on the grounds of stirring up racial hatred, but for straightforward public order grounds.
It could be difficult to argue--perhaps it has occurred to my hon. and learned Friend--that a march of Nazi skinheads down Brick lane would stir the local population to racial hatred, but it may well cause them fear and distress and provoke angry and violent reactions. That is why the 1986 Act, with the effects of some demonstrations on ethnic minorities clearly in mind, introduced criteria to ensure that individuals can go about their business free from intimidation. It seems that the police have the professional expertise and the powers under the current law to make the operational decisions needed. To ask them to assess the likelihood of racial hatred being stirred up would be much more difficult and subjective and would not, for the reasons that I have given, be of much help. Of course, where those taking part in a demonstration incite racial hatred, the police may take action under part III of the Act. On that matter, in due course, I would again like to see the considered opinion of the Select Committee on how marches may be better managed as part of the wider questions of group defamation and the stirring up of racial hatred in a society which values freedom of expression and the right to demonstrate.
I do not believe that new clause 98 would alter that balance as it would not give the police any useful additional powers. If it did anything, it would confuse the basis on which they are properly required to make an operational judgment as to the impact of a march on public order.
Sir Ivan Lawrence rose
Sir Ivan Lawrence : We were asked to add those conditions by the police. If they do not understand the present law, what on earth is the likelihood of the ethnic minority communities in Britain understanding it ?
Mr. Lloyd : I am certain that my hon. and learned Friend has spoken to some policemen. I would like to see the informed, complete, official response to the suggestions of the police and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Of course, we shall get that with the Select Committee report.
We have a limited time for the debate. I hope that I have managed to persuade the proposers of the new clauses that it would be better not to press them to a vote. If I have not, I must ask my hon. Friends to vote against them, except, of course, new clause 125, which I trust that the whole House will accept with acclamation.
Column 585.45 pm
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) : I rise to support new clause 13. The Minister asked why we should single out racial attacks for special legislative treatment--treatment that is not applied to attacks on disabled or elderly people. We should do so because nobody ever builds a mass political movement out of smashing those groups' windows--or out of spitting on them, assaulting them or killing them in their millions. In the lifetime of some hon. Members present in the Chamber, mass political movements in Europe have been built with the building blocks of individual acts of racial violence.
A responsible Government who were aware of the patterns of rising racial and fascist violence in Europe would see the need to send a message from Parliament to individual racists and fascists and to those terrorising black and Asian people saying that racism is a phenomenon--a social and political manifestation--that our society will not tolerate. Racial attacks ought to be singled out in the way set out in the new clause because of what they represent politically--a threat to the stability of society that no amount of individual attacks on elderly, poor or disabled people could ever represent. I am surprised that the Minister, who is normally a man of some sensitivity and insight, cannot see that simple point.
Britain's black and Asian communities wish that even at this late stage the Government will change their mind on the issue of racial harassment. They want to see the law changed first and foremost because no amount of legal quibbling and juggling with figures can bring home to people who do not experience racial attacks the fear and terror that individual acts of racial violence and low-level harassment can cause.
The Minister said that few acts of racial harassment are acts of violence. Tell that to Asian women who are trapped in their flats week in, week out because they are frightened to leave--because they are spat on, because they are shouted at and because they have graffiti on their doors. It is all very well to produce figures that say that those are not acts of violence, but for a woman who speaks little English and is frightened to leave her house for weeks, for months, for years, the situation is just as threatening as any individual act of violence.
Black and Asian people want new clause 13 to be accepted because we believe that many people underestimate the effect on individual communities of the fear of racial harassment and attacks. We want new clause 13 to be accepted because one of the problems with racial harassment is getting different communities in different places to report it. In my local Jewish community in Stamford Hill there is great fear and reluctance to report acts of racial violence to the authorities--and that goes for many different types of community in many different areas.
If Parliament made new clause 13 law, that would give the different ethnic minorities increased confidence to come forward and report acts of violence.
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) : Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is that while there is a sort of permissive element in whether the police report or treat an incident as a racially motivated crime, many people are afraid to report such incidents to the police ? Does not too much depend on the discretion of individual police officers on desk duty at a particular time ? The advantage
Column 59of our new clause is that it would force all police officers to take the issue of racial violence seriously, and thus give communities greater confidence in reporting the sort of horrors that my hon. Friend has rightly described.
Britain's black and Asian communities want not crocodile tears from the Minister about how terrible such attacks are, but a recognition of the plight of tens of thousands of people, whether as communities or as individuals. Individuals can be trapped on estates, with one person being the only member of a particular minority. Those people want recognition of their plight. They want legislative action. They want an acknowledgement from the Government that individual acts are not merely random acts of violence, however reprehensible those may be, but represent the building blocks of a political tide. Unless the politicians of this country stand up against that tide it could bring to this country the sort of political movements and the sort of violence that we are now seeing in the rest of Europe.
When I opened the debate on the Opposition's new clause 13, on 28 March, I was mindful of two things. The first was the fact that the overwhelming weight of the evidence on racial attacks and harassment given to the Select Committee on Home Affairs was supportive of Labour's proposals in the new clause. The second was that every ministerial statement on the subject of racially motivated crime had displayed an extreme reluctance to legislate effectively on the issue.
My expectations both of the Minister and of the position of the Select Committee have been met in full today. It is clear that in tabling their new clauses members of the Select Committee have responded to community concerns and to expert opinion such as that of the Commission for Racial Equality and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which agreed with us that a range of new measures was required and should be tabled for Report.
The range of measures tabled by those holding the majority view on the Select Committee, and the range of measures that we and other Opposition Members have tabled provide for enhanced penalties to be applied on proof of racial motivation in the commission of violent offences, and for the creation of new harassment and incitement offences.
I agree with the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) that if the racial motivation test is
Column 60applied, that motive will be sought by the police and by the courts, and it will be found where it exists. That is what is so essential about the test of racial motivation. That is why it should be mandatory.
The hon. and learned Member for Burton believes, as we do, that racial incidents have increased. The Minister did much to try to rubbish that notion, and to try to talk down the extent of the problem and the pain that it causes. He cited in evidence the British crime survey, but that deals with two racial groups in particular, and does not even consider racial motivation in offences committed against members of the Jewish community. There is no doubt in the minds of the experts dealing with the issue that such attacks and incidents are on the increase, and are very serious.
I further remind the Minister that other surveys have suggested that only one in 20 racial incidents is reported. I remind him that there are believed to have been 14 racially motivated murders in this country over the past two years. Yet when I asked a parliamentary question about homicide one of his ministerial colleagues told me that the police are
"not specifically requested to note whether they consider racial motivation to be a factor".--[ Official Report , 7 February 1994 ; Vol. 237, c. 24 .]
That is a disgrace. If the Minister feels that the huge number of racial incidents cannot be tested for the purposes of record surely at least the most serious violent offences should be categorised as to whether ethnic and racial motivations were a factor.
I remind the Minister that we do not know what the clear-up rates for racial incidents are. We do not know how effective the present law is, although most of us believe that it is entirely deficient. In another parliamentary answer I was told that there were
"no plans to require the police to publish clear-up rates for racial incidents".--[ Official Report , 11 March 1994 ; Vol. 239, c. 414. ]
The Minister's speech was a disgrace. There is a wide consensus on the range of new measures needed to deal with the rising incidence of racial attacks and harassment, yet the Minister gave us the most minimal of responses. Of course we shall support new clause 125, but he spoke about a new offence of persistent racial harassment. That is a totally inadequate response to all the evidence that has come before both the Select Committee and his own committee, and the evidence that has emerged in the Standing Committee and during the earlier debates on Report.
We may ask why the Government are bothering to do anything at all, as they deny all the evidence and expertise brought before them. I can tell the House why, because I have here a letter sent by the Home Secretary to the Lord Privy Seal, which says that there has been "intense public and Parliamentary pressure . . . for changes in the law"
on racially motivated crimes.
The letter mentions the pressure that the Government are under not only from the official Opposition but from their own Back Benchers, and describes the Home Secretary's concern
"that . . . the Government's position is likely to become untenable and at the very least open us to enormous criticism, especially once the urgent measures relating to stop and search powers I intend to introduce in the Bill become public. The proposed new powers are already being described in the minority press as recreating the discredited "sus" law and there are serious implications for both community relations and to public order if we are unable to present any positive counter-balance. It is
Column 61therefore important that the Government take the initiative on racial crimes if it is to counteract the belief amongst ethnic minority communities that we do not take their concerns equally seriously."
That is why the Government have proposed that most minimal of responses-- because they are concerned about mounting pressures, and are deeply embarrassed because they have not been able to satisfy their own Back Benchers. More importantly, I believe that they understand that concern will be caused by the proposed new stop and search powers--concern that could properly be met by accepting the proposals of the official Opposition. Cynically, the Government seek to counteract the concerns of the ethnic minority communities, of which they are aware, by making the minimal proposal of a persistent harassment offence. That is a cynical move by the Government. It is totally unacceptable and it flies in the face of all the evidence that has been brought before them.
The letter does not try to persuade the Cabinet and the Prime Minister that racially motivated crime is on the increase, that it is serious and pernicious and that it needs to be dealt with effectively. It is a defensive, purely party political document and one that the Government, and the Home Secretary in particular, will regret writing.
It is absolutely unacceptable that the Government will not respond to new clause 13 in a more effective and sympathetic way. It is even more unacceptable that they cannot respond effectively to the new clauses that have been tabled by the Select Committee on Home Affairs on an all-party basis and with our support. The Government will remain deserving of our utmost criticism and condemnation and will continue to be under real pressure to deal with the matter in another place.
As Labour Members and so many of the Minister's colleagues have said, there is a need to do much more, but the Minister has not gone forward in any way to meet that need. He could not have heard the position spelt out more clearly than it was by the hon. and learned Member for Burton, who spoke to no fewer than five amendments dealing with racially motivated crime--or, indeed, by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), who spoke so movingly about the horrific offence of racial violence and racial harassment.
Today, the Minister seemed to suggest that racial harassment would be a crime or would really hurt people only if it was repetitive. I tell him that once is enough : people who have been spat at, or who have had their homes daubed, or who have had violence perpetrated against them because of their colour or creed know that there is a need to strengthen the laws of this country.
The Minister says that the proposed measures would be divisive--that people will simply say that they would have a better deal from the law if they were black. Does he not appreciate the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who aptly described the way in which this is a matter of organised violence against individuals on the basis of colour or creed ? Does he not accept that a person who has been the subject of harassment or violent attack which is motivated on racial grounds is a victim twice over : once of the crime--the violence or whatever--and once of racial motivation ? That is a double burden that must be borne by the victim and it is something for which a double penalty is appropriate.
Column 62We are not satisfied in any way by the Minister's explanation of why the new clauses tabled by the Select Committee should not be accepted. We will press them to a vote. More important, the Minister has not appreciated the strength of feeling and the weight of evidence on the issue. We shall pursue the issue wherever we must if the Minister continues to fail the ethnic minority communities with his attitude today.
Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley) : The way in which the debate has proceeded makes it absolutely clear that all hon. Members are united about one thing : their detestation of racism and any form of anti-semitism. It is also obvious that initially many hon. Members welcomed the clause tabled by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) for the obvious reason that many of us support it and there was unity of feeling about it with regard to my Racial Hatred and Violence Bill a few weeks ago. But life in politics moves on : a week in politics is a long time.
Over the Easter recess, we heard that the Government will go forward, although we have not heard any details of the proposals. I hope that the matter is not regarded as one of petty party political bickering. The issue is too important for party political bickering. Even my hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche) accepted that persistent violence, persistent harassment and persistent incidents created an offence and a situation that needs to be dealt with. Apparently, that is what the Government will deal with--at least according to a leak last week.
Before hon. Members deride what I am saying, they should hear that what the Government intend to do is much more, much deeper and much more effective than new clause 13. Although we heard those good intentions derided a few moments ago, there is no doubt at all that Tory Members are deeply against any form of racism and that the measure brought forward--as we imagine from the leak that we read on the front page of The Daily Telegraph on Friday-- will go much further.
Although initially Tory Members could perhaps be persuaded by new clause 13, on further consideration, and having heard what the Government will do, I feel that the new clause should be abandoned. Hon. Members should abstain from voting on new clause 13 and support what the Government propose.
Mr. Vaz : When the hon. Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) got up to speak, I thought that he would support new clause 13 because it is in keeping with the private Member's Bill that he introduced last year, of which I am a co-sponsor. He recognises, as Labour Members recognise, that it is important for the House to make a decision today that will send out to the black and Asian communities the message that we care about their plight in the current circumstances.
I was not going to speak in the debate until I heard the Minister's speech. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) I have a soft spot for the Minister, having dealt with him for many years when he was the immigration Minister. I say nothing more than "soft spot". Today, Labour Members who know the Minister and who have had dealings with him will be astonished by his extraordinary attack on the black and Asian community in Britain. Here is the Minister responsible for community relations. He is responsible for going to the black and Asian community week after week
Column 63--I have been at many engagements with him-- and telling the community how much the Government support them. Today, he came to the Dispatch Box and put to the House this choice : we either support the white pensioner or the Asian mother. That is exactly what he said today.
Mr. Vaz : Here is the Minister who wriggled throughout his speech. He has already had a Select Committee report that was produced five years ago under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Westminster, North (Sir J. Wheeler). I know about that report because I served on the Home Affairs Committee. Five years ago, the Committee took a great deal of evidence on the issue.
What did the Minister say today ? He criticised the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) because his report is not ready, as though the Minister is waiting for the report before he can decide what to do about the issue. That is a disgrace for a Minister who is supposed to be protecting the people of Great Britain. The right hon. Gentleman knows the statistics. He knows that in the time that it took him to speak today--20 minutes--another black or Asian family has been attacked in Britain in 1994.
We can all condemn racial attacks on fellow citizens, but the important thing is what we propose to do about them. The Minister said that he did not propose to do anything other than reclassify offences and wait for another report. He was waiting for new guidelines from the Association of Chief Police Officers. He would do everything under the sun except take proper action to protect the black and Asian community. That is what the right hon. Gentleman told the House.
Mr. Lloyd : What I said was that the Opposition's new clauses would not protect the black community, that they were ineffectual, pretentious and self-indulgent and would not help to solve a problem which I, like the hon. Gentleman, know is very real. It is a problem that deserves better argument than has been presented by the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Vaz : The hon. Gentleman talked about estimates that were being made and said that criminal damage did not really matter as it was not a serious issue. He will be able to read the report of his words in Hansard . He was concerned only about the most serious attacks. I know about these issues as I was subjected to attacks from the moment of my arrival in this country. As the representative of a constituency that is 70 per cent. non- Asian, I realise that it is very important that legislation on race issues be undertaken very carefully indeed. In this regard, Parliament must bring the nation with it. That is how I conduct my duties as a Member of Parliament. I represent everyone in my constituency.
There comes a time when the hand-wringing must stop--when the Minister must stop blaming the Select
Column 64Committee on Home Affairs and other agencies and start taking effective action. The right hon. Gentleman could have come to the House and made a statement about changing the law of which every hon. Member would have been proud. We live in a multicultural society. We are proud of Britain's achievements and want to make sure that they continue. Race relations legislation is based on the fact that a minority of people are subjected to racial attack. The House of Commons must protect those people and, indeed, white pensioners who are attacked, through effective law and order legislation. But the Government refuse to introduce such legislation. The matter is in the Minister's hands. He must stop wriggling and ensure that effective action is taken.
Finally, I want to tell the House a story about a person in London--not a constituent of mine--who came to see me two weeks ago. This gentleman came to Britain as a first-generation immigrant and established himself here. He now owns five chemist shops in the east end of London. When he was driving in the east end he was dragged out of his car and kicked and otherwise attacked, and he had to go to hospital for treatment. The Crown Prosecution Service refuses to prosecute those responsible on the ground that they are already the subject of a list of offences. It will not take effective action. We must today send out, not just to the black and Asian community but to the country at large, the message that we are not prepared to do nothing. Action must be taken to protect our fellow citizens. 6.15 pm
Mr. Stephen Byers (Wallsend) : In a very short time I shall join my hon. Friends in voting for new clause 13. I speak as one of the majority of members of the Select Committee on Home Affairs who tabled new clause 127, which would create a new specific offence of racially motivated violence. The Chairman of the Select Committee--the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence)--has addressed adequately the substance of the issues and the reasons for tabling the new clause. As the offence that would be created is very specific and very clear I should like, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to notify you formally that a majority of the Select Committee's members and, I believe, a large number of hon. Members in general would like to have a separate Division on new clause 127.
Question put , That the clause be read a Second time :
The divided : Ayes 247, Noes 285.
Division No. 192] [6.15 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Adams, Mrs Irene
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Ms Janet (Ros'dale)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Beckett, Rt Hon Margaret
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Benn, Rt Hon Tony
Bennett, Andrew F.