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29 Mar 1999 : Column 760

Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Kevin Hughes.]

5.13 pm

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): When I published the report of the inquiry into the tragic death of Stephen Lawrence on 24 February, I spelt out the Government's determination to take action. Last week, I published, as promised, a detailed action plan to set out our response to the report's 70 recommendations.

The action plan provides a framework for a major programme to deliver significant improvements in all key services. Much of that programme of work has already started; most of the inquiry's recommendations should be implemented by the end of this year, and the rest should be in place within three years.

I am taking personal responsibility for the delivery of the programme set out in the Macpherson report. I shall chair a steering group to oversee and monitor progress. The group will include members from the Race Relations Forum,the Commission for Racial Equality, the Black Police Association, the Association of Police Authorities,the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation, the Police Superintendents Association, Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the Metropolitan police and the Crown Prosecution Service.

I know that my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland are considering carefully the report's implications for the criminal justice system and for policing in those parts of the United Kingdom.

As most hon. Members--particularly those participating in the debate--will, I hope, have had the opportunity of reading the action plan, I shall not go through it line by line. I should like, however, to say something about the plan's main elements.

Restoring confidence in the police among all sections of the community and increasing the openness and accountability of the police service are crucial. Only through mutual trust will our police service be able to work effectively for all sections of the community. We have to remember that, as the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) said in his response to the Lawrence report, although it contains serious criticisms and a clear agenda for improvement of the police service--about which no one is being complacent--our police service is different from, and I suggest is significantly better than, the police services of most countries of the world, as it is founded on the essential element of trust and confidence between the community and the police service.

The new ministerial priority to improve trust and confidence in policing among ethnic minority communities will ensure that issues of central concern to those communities are given proper attention. Police performance in that sphere must improve and will systematically be assessed, as it will be in other spheres. Progress of police activities will also be assessed.

As recommended by the Macpherson report, Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary will be conducting a full inspection of the Metropolitan police

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service to review its community and race relations strategy. The inspection will also involve a focused examination of unsolved murder investigations. No inspection of that size and complexity has been undertaken before. Nevertheless, I am able to tell the House that the preparatory work for that inspection is well under way, and that, next month, inspection teams will begin their work.

New police discipline arrangements--another issue raised in the Macpherson report--take effect from Thursday, 1 April 1999. Key changes include introducing the civil standard of proof, a fast-track procedure to deal swiftly with officers caught committing various criminal offences and, for the first time, separate formal procedures for dealing with unsatisfactory performance.

One of the inquiry's recommendations was that I should consider the establishment of a fully independent complaints system.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): I know that the Home Secretary will agree that, while we in no way wish to condemn the entire police force for the ineffective or recalcitrant conduct of a part of it, it is crucial that police conduct should not only be fair but be seen to be fair.In considering the proposal on a fully independent complaints procedure, will he accept that many people feel that it is fundamentally unjust that complaints against the police should continue to be investigated by current and former police officers?

Mr. Straw: I accept the hon. Gentleman's comment. Moreover, when he says that many people believe that that practice is unjust, these days, that also includes police officers. It is a matter of record that the Police Federation and, I believe, the Police Superintendents Association and the Association of Chief Police Officers accept the need for there to be an independent investigation of serious complaints, but not for less serious ones.

Currently, serious complaints are investigated by police services other than the one to which the relevant officers belong. In my experience, those investigations are extremely thorough and independent. None the less, the fact remains that they may not have the appearance of independence, which is why I am pleased that there is such widespread support for some changes.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My right hon. Friend will know that, some months ago, one of my constituents, Janet Alder, saw him about her brother, who died, almost a year ago, in police custody in Hull. Does my right hon. Friend accept that one of the problems in that type of case is that delays on the part of the Police Complaints Authority and the Crown Prosecution Service in making decisions cause considerable anxieties and concerns--that young lad is still not buried--and that we really must expedite decisions in such cases?

Mr. Straw: I am sure that my hon. Friend does not expect me to go into detail on that case, but I accept that the time that some investigations take--particularly investigations into the circumstances of a death--can cause great anxiety to relatives, although it is difficult to see how they would be conducted any quicker under an independent system.

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In its report last year on police complaints and discipline, the Select Committee on Home Affairs also made recommendations for the establishment of a fully independent complaints system. Work is already under way on that proposal. A detailed feasibility study is being carried out and will be completed by April next year. I shall inform the House of the conclusions of that study.

The Macpherson inquiry raised concerns about the accountability of the Metropolitan police in comparison with other police forces. The establishment of the Metropolitan Police Authority will profoundly change the accountability of the Metropolitan police service to the communities that it serves. The Greater London Authority Bill, which is due to finish its Committee stage tomorrow, will establish an authority with virtually the same structure, functions and powers as police authorities outside London. The differences are explained entirely by the fact that the Met will continue to have national and international functions. It is important that the Home Secretary continues to play a role in the running of the service in respect of those functions.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Does the Home Secretary recognise that the national and international functions have diminished somewhat with the creation of the National Crime Squad and the National Criminal Intelligence Service? The Home Secretary's insistence on taking such an active part in the selection of the Commissioner and the Deputy Commissioner is at variance with the Macpherson report's recommendations.

Mr. Straw: I accept that the establishment of NCIS and the National Crime Squad has changed the circumstances a little, but the Metropolitan police service still has major national and international functions relating to national security. It has functions relating to the capital that transcend the interests of some of the local communities in London and it has important international functions, as well as functions such as the protection of royalty. It is important that the Home Secretary should take an interest.

With the establishment of the proposed Metropolitan Police Authority, I do not believe that there will be any significant difference between the Home Secretary's involvement in the appointment of the Commissioner--taking account of the national and international functions--and his involvement with police services outside London. The Home Secretary has a veto over who may be included in the short list for every police force, in London or outside. That is when the crucial input into determinations is made. That point may have been missed in the debate. The Commissioner will be a Crown appointment. The other difference is that one member of the 23 on the Metropolitan Police Authority will be nominated by the Home Secretary in respect of the national and international functions of that police service. I do not believe that that is unreasonable.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): On the subject of police forces outside London, does my right hon. Friend have any comment on the report in Tribune this week that, according to Home Office figures, one third of the small ethnic community in Norfolk have been arrested by the police?

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