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7.15 pm

I appreciate that the Government are not closing the door on this matter for the future, but we are concerned about the state of law now. To pass the Bill, even amended, would risk creating anomalies and injustices. In addition, the courts might be left with many practical difficulties. It is not satisfactory for the Government to proceed in this way and to create new categories of racially aggravated offences, while leaving out the question of religion. We would prefer that the two issues be dealt with together. The law would be in a better state if they were.

I listened carefully to the Home Secretary's remarks on this important subject, which is of interest to many people. We appreciate his efforts, and the care and sensitivity that he has brought to the issue, but we have to say that the amendment he describes will not remedy the problems that we identified in Committee. The amendment does not take matters a great deal, if any, further, and the Bill is not satisfactory as it stands. Because we do not want to pass a potentially bad law that could be the source of anomalies and grievance, we shall seek to press this matter to a vote.

Fiona Mactaggart (Slough): I rise to speak on a matter that is of real concern in my constituency. On the streets of Slough, young Asians attack and maim each other; the excuse for that street-gang violence is that one side is Sikh and the other is Muslim.

I am deeply concerned about an unintended consequence of the Bill. I have entered into extensive correspondence with the Home Office and with my local police force on the effect of the Mandla v. Dowell Lee judgment, which suggests that one side in that street warfare could be classified as a racial group, whereas the other might not. In the words of my local police superintendent when writing to me:

I was pleased when my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary tabled the amendment, which will deal with part of the problem. I was glad to hear him declare tonight that he has an open mind on the future. However, I should be more reassured if he could give me three assurances.

First, it is clear that it is not intended that the Bill should bear more on one side of the street violence than on the other, so would my right hon. Friend agree to monitor charges and sentences in such cases in communities such as Slough? There are, thankfully, few areas where such incidents occur, but in places such as Slough, Hounslow and Southall, where such cases have occurred, sentences and charges should be monitored.

Secondly, if the result of that monitoring suggests that the impact is bearing unfairly on the Muslim community--I am reassured at present because the police are blamed by both the Sikh and the Muslim communities for being unfair, which suggests that the police may have got it right--or on one community more than the other, I hope that the open mind that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary declared at the beginning of his speech

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will swiftly be brought to bear on the issue. Such an outcome is clearly not what is intended as a result of legislation, and I hope that my right hon. Friend will consider legislation to protect religious groups in the same way as racial groups are protected by the Bill.

Thirdly, could the guidance to which my right hon. Friend has referred include advice to the Crown Prosecution Service about how to treat cases such as the ones that arise in my community?

I believe that if I had the three assurances for which I ask I could say to both of the street gangs, which try to make their violence respectable, that the Bill will not make things uneven but will help us, as indeed the whole Bill does, in preventing youth violence on our streets.

Mr. Straw: By way of an intervention, I give my hon. Friend the explicit assurances that she seeks in respect of each of the three points that she raised.

Fiona Mactaggart: I have finished.

Mr. Allan: We welcome the new offences that are set out in the Bill, and for which we have called for a long time. We particularly welcome the fact that the Government were open to extending the offences to those of criminal damage. The issue was raised by my noble Friend Lord Dholakia in another place. The Government have been open to the issues raised and expressions of genuine concern. We welcome also the amendments that have been tabled in response to various matters that have been put to the Government by various groups and by hon. Members.

We share the concern of the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) that the Bill as it stands still does not go far enough. The hon. Gentleman referred to specific instances such as the white woman who has a badge of Muslim identity on her and is attacked. I could refer to other instances of conflict between religious groups where the members of each are clearly of thesame ethnicity. The hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart) mentioned groups of Sikhs and Muslims fighting one another. People in Scotland have experience of instances of violence between Catholics and Protestants, which can destroy communities in the same way as inter-racial violence, but which I believe would not be covered by the Bill.

Ms Keeble: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that while this is an extremely difficult issue and that it is often difficult to determine between religious and racial groupings and identities, we quite often find--I speak from experience in having dealt with such matters--that women who take on the clothing, or other things that are associated with a particular ethnic group, might be attacked on a racial basis in a vile way? They are seen to be the partners, or whatever, of men from a different ethnic group. It is a particularly obnoxious and vile form of attack which quite a number of women experience.

Mr. Allan: I agree with the hon. Lady that it is an obnoxious form of attack. I am reassured to an extent that, in some cases, it will be covered by legislation. Our concern is about the cleverness of defence lawyers--after

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all, they are paid to be clever. Our concern is that a lawyer could take a defence case into court, a white woman is put up in the witness stand, and the defence lawyer could say, "Look, that individual is white, how can there be any form of racially aggravated assault?" The court and the jury are likely to concur with that. That is our concern. Where these instances occur, defence lawyers will use, as they are paid to do, every tool at their disposal. We are keen to ensure that those tools are not available and that in instances of religiously motivated offences, where there is no obvious racial element for the court to perceive, we are able similarly to take severe action to limit damaging assaults, which are often caused by some of the most reprehensible people in society.

We are grateful to the work of organisations such as the Muslim Council of Britain for bringing these matters to our attention, and to other groups such as the Sikhs and the Jews, which have supported the Muslims, even though technically they are covered at present. There has been a broad-based alliance in pushing these matters forward.

We believe that the Crown Prosecution Service represents the acid test. The staff of the CPS will have to operate the new laws once they are introduced. The current distinctions do not give them the necessary tools to operate in every circumstance, although they will have the tools to operate in the large majority of cases.

I take issue with the Home Secretary's contention that there is an objective test of race. All definitions of race are vague at best and are quite clumsy tools. In a multicultural society where we have gradations of race and gradations of cultural difference as people properly mix, integrate and take on different cultural norms, traditional notions of race are highly inadequate.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Hertsmere, to which we put our names, includes the idea of religion within a definition of race and is in itself a clumsy tool. However, we believe that it is as good an approximation as any in terms of giving the CPS the tools that it needs, which is the focus that we have all the time. It should have the ability to take the bigots who cause offensive acts of violence and other damage on individuals to court and to make the charges stick. The inclusion of religion will give the CPS the tool that it needs to cover all instances of racially or religiously motivated violence, rather than the 90 or 95 per cent. that I think the Home Secretary might assure us are covered by the Government amendments. We want 100 per cent.

We believe that amendments Nos. 10 and 11 would take us to a position where every instance of racially or religiously motivated assaults, in whatever form and in whatever division between the race element and the religious element, would successfully be prosecuted by the CPS. The House will then have sent the bigots the message, a message which they will have plenty of time to think on as they serve the sentences that they will rightly be handed down.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am glad to be able to speak briefly in the debate. I welcome the clauses that create the new offence of racial aggravation. I have a specific constituency reason for wanting to do so.

On Second Reading, I brought to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the case of a Cambridge United supporter who was caught chanting racial abuse. Unfortunately, the Crown Prosecution

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Service was not able to bring a case against him on a criminal charge under the Football (Offences) Act 1991 because he was chanting abuse by himself and not with others. In the end, a case was brought against him under the Public Order Act 1986, which resulted in his being banned from football matches for two years. Although that is a serious punishment for him, it is not the punishment which I think he deserves.

Cambridge United has always taken racism seriously and has done everything to educate youngsters as well as taking tough action when it finds racism occurring. It has been involved in campaigns such as "kick racism out of football" and "give racism the red card". When it receives complaints from members of the public about foul language and racial abuse, it takes action. On the occasion to which I have referred an undercover operation was mounted during a game at which Cambridge United was at home playing Scarborough and fielding four black players. The spectators observed the hurling of threatening and abusive language at both players and spectators.

I believe--I hope that my right hon. Friend will put me right if I am wrong--that clauses 31 and 32 would enable a spectator behaving in that way to be charged under the Public Order Act 1986 for the new offence of racial aggravation. I think that all my constituents would welcome that. It would certainly be welcomed by Cambridge United.

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