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Sir Ivan Lawrence: I thank the Government for their response to the Select Committee's report and its recommendations on racial harassment. I want to flag my concern on behalf of the Committee about the one element that the Government have not seen fit to support: what we said about intent. Through amendment No. 132, the Government have, as we asked, taken into account the seriousness of many of the actions that make up racial harassment. They have not called it racial harassment, but it comes under the same heading--the daubing on the wall, the swastika and other such appalling behaviour.
The Government have also created an arrestable offence, which is what the Committee recommended and they have increased the maximum penalty from a fine to imprisonment, again as we recommended. I am grateful for that.
But we also said that police officers at Plumstead considered that the requirement of an intent, which is present in Lords amendment No. 132, made it difficult for them to bring effective charges--few criminal charges for harassment of any sort have ever been brought or, if brought, have succeeded. That issue is relevant to the contribution of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). The police told us that they considered it a drawback as it was so easy for an accused person to say, "I had no idea that my words were likely to or may have caused that offence." Such a line meant that magistrates often gave those accused of the offence the benefit of the doubt. More importantly, the Crown Prosecution Service would often think that there was not sufficient evidence to bring a prosecution.
We therefore suggested that it was not necessary to have a subjective test and that it was preferable to have an objective test as to whether a reasonable man would have considered his actions likely to have that effect. The police in Plumstead said that that would help them considerably. I understand that the Government have not been keen to adopt such a policy.
I have not had an opportunity to discuss the subject with the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey, but I understand that "recklessness" would provide a halfway house between dropping the necessity for intent, and intent. If I am right on that, I must say on behalf of the Select Committee on Home Affairs that I have some sympathy with the submission made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey.
One issue that I am sure about--as was the Select Committee on Home Affairs --is that the legislation on the subject needed to be toughened up. There will
Column 493inevitably come a time when the pressures of immigration and asylum on these shores will be even greater because of what is happening in the rest of Europe. In those circumstances, from time to time, the reaction of the indigenous community will, alas, be to revert more frequently to racial hatred and the sort of response that follows. Now is the time to dig in our defences and prepare ourselves so that the law is adequate to the task of protecting people, whether black or white, against the sort of sickening harassment that now occurs in our society less frequently that it may do in future.
I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for the action that he has taken to support the recommendations of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. But I ask him to take seriously the important need to strengthen this aspect of the law--if not now, in the future--so that it provides adequate protection for those whom it is our task and duty to protect.
Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): We have some sympathy with the words and the amendments of the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), and look forward to hearing the Minister's response. We have not been completely satisfied in any way and cannot echo the sentiments of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) who believed that we had been given an adequate response to the case involving the problems of racial violence made in the House and in the Select Committee.
In response to Opposition and all-party amendments, Government spokespeople, both in Parliament and outside, have repeatedly expressed concern about racially motivated crime. But the undertaking given in the House and acted on in another place has produced nothing more than a tougher version of the existing public order offence in section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986. Standing alone, that is totally inadequate to the task of dealing with the huge and rising tide of racial violence.
I cannot remind the House too often that there were an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 racial incidents in England and Wales last year. Those incidents range from daubing, spitting and graffiti to the most severe violence and, indeed, murder. Yet, by the Government's own admission, only one in 20 such incidents are reported to the police. Those that are reported must be recorded as racial incidents, but there is no requirement to record the clear-up rates, which makes it difficult to judge the effectiveness of existing law.
The one sector for which we have figures for prosecutions and convictions under public order legislation involves cases of incitement to racial hatred, where the figures are not impressive. In 1990, there were 45 prosecutions for incitement to racial hatred and only four convictions. In 1991, there were 65 prosecutions and only three convictions. Against that backdrop of inaction, the Minister will not be surprised to learn that the Lords amendment hardly inspires confidence.
The Government's failure to specify racial harassment and racial violence in any of their Lords amendments sends a more powerful signal to our ethnic minority communities than any crocodile tears of sympathy for victims.
Column 494racial motivation is proved, under existing law the court has the right to treat that as an aggravating factor and impose a more severe penalty than it would otherwise?
Ms Ruddock: The hon. Gentleman makes a good point, but I think that he will know that amendments were tabled in the House that would have made it mandatory to seek out any racial motivation and bring it to the courts. The problem is that often such motivation is not properly examined or researched, and the evidence is not brought to the courts. The procedure suggested by the hon. Gentleman can often not be applied in practice. Many examples of that have been cited in previous debates.
In another place Lord Ferrers sought to justify the omission of the issue of race. He said:
"Proving motivation . . . is particularly difficult."--[ Official Report, House of Lords , 16 June 1994; Vol. 555, c. 1864.] As the hon. and learned Member for Burton has said, the amendment requires proof of intent. Does the Minister honestly believe that intent is less difficult to prove than racial motivation? Will he put his explanation on the record tonight, as it will be important to those who try to bring cases under the new legislation?
Lord Ferrers also sought to justify the exclusion of race on the ground that the same punishment should be available for behaviour causing the same distress. He illustrated his point by citing offensive behaviour directed at people in wheelchairs. In doing so, he was not comparing one individual with another individual, but citing a class of people. He implied that the legislation must apply equally where the victim is harassed because he or she belongs to a definable group. Will the Minister confirm that, by virtue of not containing the term "racial", the amendment applies equally to sexual harassment, harassment on the grounds of sexuality or disability, as well as to race? It is important that we have an explanation. Those organisations that represent the large numbers of victims of those various forms of harassment will take a keen interest in the Minister's response.
Finally, I should like further clarification of the Government's intentions. I recently received a report from the Lewisham racial equality council, which stated that in just eight months it had found 175 cases of racial harassment on local housing estates in that borough alone. The report cites examples that I shall read to the House. It states that one family received a total of 10 threatening notes, one of which included the words:
"How many times do we have to say it. Leave as quick as you came, niggers are not welcome, especially when they drive fancy cars". 7.30 pm
The report continues:
"Two maisonettes were daubed with racist graffiti; two eight year olds were chased by a boy with a knife; one youth estimated he was harassed every single week for 2 years; people were called "nigger", "black bitch" as a matter of routine; people had stones and eggs thrown at them; one woman had a lighted match thrown in her face, families had their windows were smashed; dog excrement was smeared over doors and cars."
Will the Minister reassure those victims that the amendment provides the means of ending their misery? Will he explain to us how we will know whether it has? He knows that although there are tens of thousands of incidents recorded under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, there is no record or analysis of those that are deemed to be racially motivated offences. Therefore, I
Column 495submit that the amendment, which takes the form of a new clause, has the great weakness that it is a "catch-all clause", although that might be regarded as a strength. The fact remains that the Government came to the House proposing to deal with racially motivated offences and offering us the amendment. How will we know how effective it is if, as at present, there is no mechanism for describing the different types of offences that occur under section 5? If there is to be no monitoring of the racially motivated nature of some offences, no one will be able to judge whether the Government's stated intentions have been realised. Will the Minister clarify that point?
The Government have chosen to ignore all the proposals to deal with racial harassment and racial violence made by the Opposition, most of those made by the Select Committee on Home Affairs and those from numerous expert organisations, including the Commission for Racial Equality, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Anti-Racist Alliance and other interested community groups.
We appreciate the fact that something has been done. We shall not oppose the amendment. The stronger powers of arrest and greater penalties are much to be welcomed, but experience leads us to doubt the Government's commitment and intention to deal with racism. Many hon. Members and many more people outside will not rest until the scourge of racism has been removed from our society. Legislation has a part to play, but much more needs to be done. However, legislation can send a powerful signal to victims and potential victims, to perpetrators and potential perpetrators. I have no doubt that the amendment will prove inadequate to the task. I have no doubt that we shall make further attempts to amend the law to make it more powerful in dealing with racial harassment and violence, but the Minister now has the opportunity to tell us how he believes that the amendment will deal with the misery, violence and cruelty inflicted on people of different colour and different race.
Mr. Corbyn: It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) who has spoken on this matter many times and who will no doubt continue to do so until we manage to change the law.
I find the amendment rather strange. It contains some truisms about harassment--no one is ever in favour of harassment--but it is weak in dealing with the crucial factor.
Like my hon. Friend the Member for Deptford and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes), I represent a multi-racial, inner- city community where, tragically, although racial violence and harassment is not rife it does exist. Much of it goes unreported because, as in some areas outside London, there is either a lack of confidence that the police will investigate or a belief that nothing can be done.
Asian families are afraid to walk the streets at night; black people are afraid to go down certain streets or into certain areas; Indian families have excreta pushed through their letter boxes; people are sent firebombs and phone threats, abuse and hate mail but feel wholly unable to do anything about it. They feel constantly harassed throughout their lives and believe that there is no redress or support.
Column 496My hon. Friend the Member for Deptford said that there were more than 100,000 reported cases of racial harassment in Britain last year. I suspect that the figure is very much higher for cases that could be reported or in which action could be taken if there were a specific offence of racial violence rather than, as the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) said in an intervention, courts being able merely to consider race as an exacerbating factor once the case had gone to court. My point is that it is extremely difficult to get such cases to court in the first place.
Racial harassment is a Europe-wide phenomenon. It is increasing not only in this country but especially in France, Germany and Scandinavia. The introduction of a proper law to deal with racial violence would have two effects. The first is that all police stations would be forced to take racial cases seriously rather than simply recording them if that is the wish of those "either side of the counter", so to speak. Secondly, such a law would perhaps mean that a prosecution could be brought more quickly. At present, it is often difficult to acquire proof in, for example, cases of harassment of neighbours. I hope that the Minister will tell us exactly how the Government plan to deal with racism and racial violence.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey also mentioned problems between neighbours. There are many problems facing people who live in high- density, urban areas housing. They include harassment caused by noise, disturbance, differing life styles or--dare I say it--even by building design. Many flats and houses are ludicrously designed. Housing in my area is largely late Victorian and was built cheaply in the first place; often, conversions are done cheaply and, for that reason, there is no soundproofing or sound insulation. It means that what one family consider normal behaviour can be terrorism for the family above or below, even though such behaviour can simply be the problem of five or six-year-old children running around a flat.
People who live in detached or semi-detached houses might find it difficult to understand what it is like for people who live in the kind of environment that I have described. I have no truck whatsoever with people who play loud music out of their windows, who threaten violence or harassment or who attack their neighbours to such an extent that they are frightened to go near the police, Members of Parliament, councillors or clergymen, but we should also consider what causes the problems in the first place.
This particularly awful legislation could have provided us with an opportunity to do some good for one group of especially victimised people in our society--those who are racially attacked or harassed--but the opportunity appears to have been completely lost. However, people outside the House have noticed that fact and realised that something must be done. We cannot go on watching the daily toll of racial violence and harassment while nothing is done by those in positions of power. We cannot allow that to continue. It is wrong that anyone should feel fear when walking the streets of his or her own community, or should feel afraid of going out in the morning. It is wrong that children should feel afraid at school. That situation can turn into copycat racial violence.
Column 497The opportunity has been missed in the Bill, but I hope that we shall be able to return to it in the new Session. Opposition Members will keep returning to it until we can remove the scourge of racism and racial violence from our society.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Nicholas Baker): We have had a good debate, and I must say at once that the Government share the concern about racial harassment and the other forms of harassment mentioned in the debate. As the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) said, the clause is tough, and that toughness may have been underestimated in the debate. It closes a gap in the law and creates an offence of intentional harassment, which will enable the courts and the police to deal more effectively with serious forms of deliberate racial harassment. The new offence provides the police with an immediate power of arrest, thereby enabling them to take swift action against the perpetrators of those odious crimes. A maximum penalty of six months' imprisonment and/or a fine of £5,000 is also provided for. In order to justify those increased powers and penalties, it will be necessary to prove that the action of the defendant was intentional and that someone was actually harassed. Although the offence is clearly aimed at combating racial harassment, race is not mentioned in the clause. The explicit inclusion of race would require that the racial motivation of the defendant be proved. In saying that, I believe that I am responding to two of the main concerns expressed in the debate.
Motivation is extremely difficult to prove. It is a subjective matter, far more difficult than intent. To prove racial motivation is difficult, too, and it is right that other forms of harassment are also covered by the clause--the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) mentioned that. For example, disabled people and homosexuals should be covered by the offence, and they are.
We examined the Select Committee's report carefully, and have accepted a good number of its recommendations, including the further action needed to alert the Crown Prosecution Service and other arms of the legal weaponry of the judiciary, so that they are aware of, and on the lookout for, racial harassment. We share the determination to do everything that we can to stop it.
I shall now deal with some specific points that were raised. I do not quite share the concern of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), the Chairman of the Select Committee, about intent being all that difficult to prove. Indeed, the police say to us that they do not regard it as such. Where conduct is deliberate, malicious and targeted, such as regular abuse, it displays clear intent, and should not be difficult to punish by using the new tough weapon provided by the clause.
Sir Ivan Lawrence: Before my hon. Friend goes on to answer the hon. Gentleman's question, may I ask one? It is obvious that some police officers--those whom the Select Committee saw--thought that intent was an obstacle to prosecution and conviction. Other police
Column 498officers--those who have advised my hon. Friend and the other Ministers--think the contrary. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating. Will my hon. Friend assure us that, should the number of prosecutions and convictions under the harassment provisions added to the Bill not be substantially larger than the number taking place now, the Government will undertake to reconsider the matter with a view to toughening the provision, perhaps by removing the requirement of intent? If my hon. Friend agreed to that, it would give some comfort to those of us who are slightly dissatisfied with the Government's response.
Mr. Baker: I understand my hon. and learned Friend's concern, and although I cannot give an undertaking on future action, I can assure him that we shall keep the matter under close review, and will watch to see precisely what the new offence achieves. That undertaking also meets one of the concerns of the hon. Member for Deptford.
Ms Ruddock: May I clarify that point? The purpose of the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) would be served if statistics were produced, and we could make a comparison between what is happening now and what happens in future. My argument adds to that the need to distinguish between different kinds of offence within the group. It is important to us to know whether it is racial incidents or other kinds of incident that are dealt with in that way.
Mr. Baker: I hope that, in examining how the offence works in practice, we shall consider all kinds of harassment. I cannot say how those will be categorised, but I hear the hon. Lady's request, and of course we shall consider the matter closely, because it is important.
Several hon. Members said that the offence should mention racial harassment in particular. I must tell the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and others that we believe that avoiding a specific reference to racial harassment will make it easier to secure prosecutions. As I have said, it would be very hard to prove racial motivation. I should not like, and I am sure the hon. Gentleman would not like, to see prosecutions fail for that reason.
Mr. Corbyn: Unfortunately, many attempts at prosecution and eviction by local authorities for racial violence and racial harassment have failed precisely because there is no specific law dealing with that. There is nothing on earth to stop a subsection saying, "and a motive based on racial hatred or incitement to racial hatred" being added to the clause. That would be an addition to the armoury of the law against such people. I fail to understand what point the Minister is making. Again, he seems to be trying to avoid the basic issue that we need a law that outlaws racial harassment and racial violence, and makes them a criminal offence, as they should be.
Mr. Baker: The clause covers that kind of harassment, as it does others. If one tries to prove racial motivation one makes it harder to get a prosecution, and that is not what the hon. Gentleman would want. I believe it right that there should be similar penalties for other forms of harassment, and I believe that the hon. Member for Deptford is with me on that.
Column 499My hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) made a sensible point when he said, rightly, that in other crimes racial motivation is well recognised as an aggravating factor that the courts should take into account. That point has got rather left behind.
Now I shall speak briefly about the amendments, and the reason why I cannot accept them. Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 132 would weaken the test of intent by including within the offence behaviour that was reckless, but not actually intended to cause harassment. The test of intent was included in the new offence in order to distinguish it from the existing offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act 1986, and to justify a custodial sentence. Not just from having spent a great deal of my life in Peckham, but from living in London generally and having heard many examples of neighbourhood noise, I do not regard a custodial sentence as the right remedy for such neighbour problems. Indeed, there are remedies under the Public Order Act 1986.
Mr. Simon Hughes: I put it to the Minister that resisting the addition of the word "recklessly" does not meet the concern. The Minister knows my borough. In the past few weeks, I have had at my surgery a black family, a gay couple and some disabled people who have all been badly harassed. Let us imagine that somebody had attacked the homes of those people when they were not in them, careless as to whether they were in them or not and believing that that is where they might have been. Such attackers should be convicted if they were careless or reckless about whether someone was there or not. One could not convict them if one had to prove that they intended that the person who lived there should be the victim. That is the present weakness.
The hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence), supporting the argument, has sought to persuade the Minister--I still seek to persuade him --that such an action is deserving of custody, whether of a short or long period. A person deserves custody if he or she is not bothered about whether somebody is being harassed by his or her actions. That seems to be a perfectly reasonable consequence.
Mr. Baker: The word "recklessly" applies to a far lighter kind of behaviour than does the word "intent". Yet if conduct were deliberate, as I have said, malicious and targeted, which could certainly cover the type of conduct that the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey has described, it would, no doubt rightly, be caught by the new clause proposed in Lords amendment No. 132.
Amendment (b) would make the offence inconsistent with other public order offences by extending its scope to include private acts committed when the defendant and victim were in different dwellings. That is why we have to be careful before invading neighbourhood disputes with a new clause as heavyweight as this. If we accepted the amendments, the result would be legislation that was neither clearly designed to tackle a specific type of crime nor consistent with public order provisions. I am afraid that I cannot, therefore, recommend to the House that we
Column 500should accept the amendments. I urge the House to reject both amendments and to agree with the Lords amendment, which would add the new clause.
Mr. Stephen: On the point of conduct in one dwelling affecting people in another dwelling, I have in my constituency many elderly people who live in flats or in semi-detached houses whose lives are made a misery by behaviour in the next-door flat or house. The behaviour may be shouting or screaming, playing loud music or banging on the wall. Those people are affected by the behaviour in the adjoining dwelling. I ask my hon. Friend the Minister and the Government to keep the matter under review because it causes serious distress to many people, particularly elderly people.
Mr. Simon Hughes: The Minister has not dealt with many of the matters that have been brought to him. To start with the least important first, he has not said when the Government intend to do anything else about the general issue of nuisance, neighbours, noise and so on. I gave him the peg to hang that on because I put to him the fact that there was a consultation paper. We have not been told that there is a deadline or an end in sight.
Secondly, the one undertaking that the Minister has given is the mildest undertaking that Ministers can give--to keep things under review. There has not even been an undertaking--the debate in the House of Lords was clear about the need for it--that the Government will look at the issue, at what the Select Committee has proposed and at what all the organisations to which the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Ms Ruddock) referred have proposed, and that they will have the issue specifically on their agenda in the near future. Thirdly, there have clearly been two concerns in the debate. One has been that under the general law--the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) made the point that we can all make perfectly properly, and in which we support him--many of our constituents, particularly the vulnerable, often elderly single people, are effectively powerless. They find themselves at a huge disadvantage relative to the person next door, the person across the road or the person above or below. They need much more support.
Sometimes, the only way in which the neighbours understand the position is if they are threatened with losing their liberty. Custody need not be for six months; it could be for six days or for one night. Just as on the football field a player is told that he will not play in the next match, the courts could say, "You will be locked up for the weekend." The Dutch do that regularly. Their gaols are not nearly as full as ours because they send loads of people away for short periods. They give people a short, sharp shock. That is one point that we should have heard from the Minister.
Fourthly, there is a huge concern that the law will not be tough enough in dealing with harassment against minority communities in our society. I have learnt a lesson in this place--[ Laughter ]. This is an important point. The only people who can judge--
Column 501The only way in which one can judge whether people feel that they are harassed or that the law is not tough enough is to ask them. White people, for example, cannot speak for the feelings of the black community or of Asian people. If such people say to us that the law is not tough enough, we must accept that. That was the lesson that some of us learnt, and which others did not learn, from the debate over the age of consent. If people say, "We feel discriminated against," it is not for the rest of us to say, "Oh no you don't." We are not the 16, 17 or 18-year- olds protesting outside the House of Commons. We are talking about people saying to the House, "The law needs to be toughened."
The Government are moving the goalposts. We concede that the Government have come up with some legislation that is better. However, we are saying-- the House of Lords debate was clear--that this legislation will not ensure that we clobber people as we should. I am strongly of the view that the matter should be left for the House to decide. Therefore, I will not seek to withdraw the amendment. Question put, That the amendment to the Lords amendment be made:--
The House divided: Ayes 55, Noes 183.
Division No. 312] [7.58 pm
Column 501Austin-Walker, John
Beith, Rt Hon A. J.
Bennett, Andrew F.
Brown, N. (N'c'tle upon Tyne E)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Foster, Don (Bath)
Godman, Dr Norman A.
Hill, Keith (Streatham)
Home Robertson, John
Howarth, George (Knowsley N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Jones, Lynne (B'ham S O)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd, SW)
Lawrence, Sir Ivan