Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Before I call the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield, (Sir N. Fowler), I remind the House of Madam Speaker's decision that there will be a 15-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches.

5.49 pm

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield): In view of the time constraints, I will seek to be short.

Beyond any doubt, the Macpherson report is important and should not be allowed to gather dust. There are parts with which I disagree, and I have other criticisms of the way in which it has been handled. However, I make it clear at the outset that I in no way challenge the central messages of the report.

The death of Stephen Lawrence was a cruel and unnecessary tragedy. It was a racist murder, and there is no question but that the investigation that followed was deeply flawed. It is an affront to our sense of justice that the murderers of Stephen Lawrence remain at liberty. I am also in no doubt that the murder and the events surrounding it symbolise the challenge that we face in this country. That challenge is not remotely confined to the police: it is a challenge to us all. Our common aim must be to prevent racial discrimination in this country, and I reassert our total opposition to racially prejudiced behaviour of whatever kind. That entails not just uttering the right words but acting in the right way to prevent such discrimination.

I also recognise that the police must do more to win greater trust among ethnic minority communities. The Macpherson report levels criticism in that area, but it is important to emphasise that it does not seek to paint policemen and women serving today--often under difficult conditions--as racist. The report does not justify launching a general attack on the police. Police feel a vast amount of good will for the cause of improving relations. We should recognise that fact and not allow under any circumstances the present difficulties to be exploited by those who are antagonistic towards the police service.

I do not wish to avoid the challenge of the Macpherson report; nor do I wish to hide behind the currently fashionable criticism that it is badly written. It may be, but, if we are to ignore reports on those grounds, all kinds of official documents will bite the dust. The Home Secretary might even be able to make another tasteless joke about my books rather than being guided by my message. I believe that the Macpherson report sets down a fundamental challenge--and doing nothing is not an option.

I shall deal chronologically with the events surrounding the publication of the report. It is a great pity--the Home Secretary touched on this point towards the end of his speech--that the handling of the report has not matched the importance of its message. The House can judge such matters. The House can judge whether action could and

29 Mar 1999 : Column 771

should have been taken earlier to prevent witnesses from being put in danger. I think that that was possible and that such action should have been taken.

The House can also judge whether the Home Secretary was correct in seeking an injunction against the whole of the British media because The Sunday Telegraph quoted in advance three or four paragraphs of a report that was to be published in a few days' time in any event. Personally--the House knows my interest as a journalist and as chairman of a newspaper company--I believe that that was both wrong and an overreaction. Even more crucially, the distinguished legal commentator David Pannick said that, according to legal principles, the injunction

For the purposes of this debate, the central issue of pre-publication is as follows. We know that the Macpherson report was leaked deliberately and we know also--or at least strongly suspect--that the aim was to influence opinion in advance of publication. That is important for this reason: the purpose of the leak appeared to be to implant a message that was very hostile to the police and to the Commissioner. I have a copy of the first edition of The Sunday Telegraph, which was later withdrawn. I was given it in a BBC studio during an interview about the incident. The article has "Censored by the State" written on it. More seriously, the report states that the position of the Commissioner was highly vulnerable, and continues:

    "Home Office officials have told the Sunday Telegraph that his position will be untenable if he does not accept the stinging personal criticism levelled at him by the report and that ministers would have no option but to demand his resignation."

Someone among the small group of people who had access to the report deliberately leaked its contents in order to send a particular message. I believe the public have a right to know what happened and who was trying to exert that influence. For the purposes of this debate, I give notice to the Government that we do not intend to allow the matter to drop. An injunction against the media is, by any standards, an important step, and an injunction that follows a leak from the Home Office or the inquiry team raises some very important questions.

I have no intention of moving through all70 recommendations in the Macpherson report. I will concentrate instead on what I regard as the most important. It seems to me that the first and most fundamental recommendation is that a ministerial priority should be established for the police

That proposal is fundamental, but contains nothing new in principle. Since the formation of police forces in Britain, the police have had to win the public's trust. It has never been enough for the police in this country to say, "My uniform is my authority." From the start, the service has had to win respect from a public sceptical about the idea of an organised police force. As it happens, I believe the police have been astoundingly successful in that regard. However, no one doubts that much more must be done to improve relations with and trust within ethnic communities.

Macpherson sets out a range of proposals for achieving that objective. I suppose the most attention has centred on the proposal to make the police subject to race relations

29 Mar 1999 : Column 772

legislation generally. Subject to one proviso--which I shall come to later--I do not dispute that principle. It would be strange if the private sector were subject to race relations legislation but not the public sector, including the health service, the civil service and the police.

However, I have a different point about improving relations. I suspect that the proposals in Macpherson that will make the difference are not those that hit the headlines but the less dramatic recommendations, such as better training and the introduction of family liaison officers. For example, the report suggests that training courses designed to establish that good community relations are essential to good policing can achieve a great deal.

I think that that kind of approach will work because every opinion poll conducted in this country shows that the police service generally is one of the most respected services in this country. It remains a generally unarmed service. Relations between the community and the police are better in the United Kingdom than in any overseas country. Most people still regard the police as friends and believe that they can turn to the police service for help. The foundation of general public support exists already and can be built on and extended.

The general complaint about the police in Britain is not that they act officiously or are insensitive or inefficient but that there are not enough of them to meet the demands that the public legitimately place on them. The people want--this is also the message of the Macpherson report--an extension of community policing to every area. We should recognise that good community policing cannot be achieved by a police force that simply responds to emergencies, waits for 999 calls or patrols predominantly in cars. That is not what the public want.

Macpherson does not touch upon the strength of the police, but that fundamental requirement flows from the report's argument: we cannot achieve all that the report seeks to achieve if police forces are declining in strength. In international terms, the British police service is already small. In New York, there are 40,000 police. In London--which has the same population--there are 26,000 police, and that number is decreasing. If we are to be serious about joined-up Government policies, the issue of police strength must be tackled.

I strongly endorse one proposal in that area--there is nothing between me and the report on this point. It would benefit everyone if more policemen and women from ethnic minority backgrounds not only served in the police force but were retained by that force. I agree with the point made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott); it is not enough merely to recruit. It is also necessary to ensure that there is progress so that every recruit is given the opportunity to rise to the highest ranks in the police service. That must be the aim of any recruitment and retention policy.

What is my proviso about the proposals for the police? My concern is not that each of the different recommendations cannot be justified, but that, when all the recommendations are taken together, they might appear to add up to an onerous set of new obligations for serving policemen and women. We need to be careful about that. In their anxiety to do good and to change attitudes, the Government must guard against being too officious by introducing too many rules and giving the police the impression that they are constantly under

29 Mar 1999 : Column 773

investigation--under race relations legislation, by the inspectors of constabulary armed with new powers, by organisations such as the Audit Commission and, of course, under the complaints procedure.

A range of changes are in prospect for the complaints procedure and the disciplinary code--a new code with a new burden of proof. As the Home Secretary mentioned, there is the prospect of a new body to carry out investigations. As a result of the Macpherson report, there is now the prospect that a disciplinary offence--not a criminal offence--can hang over a policeman for up to five years after he has left the service. I have serious doubts about that, and even more serious doubts about another issue that the Home Secretary has added to that list: that he intends to consider whether legislation should be introduced to enable police pensions to be forfeited for serious disciplinary offences.

When my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and I raised that matter at Home Office questions on 15 February, we were told by the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Vauxhall(Kate Hoey) that we had been badly briefed and that powers already existed. It is now clear that the hon. Lady was badly briefed and that, as my hon. Friend and I suggested, powers for disciplinary offences do not exist--and, in my view, nor should they. A pension cannot simply be confiscated; both the Labour Government and the previous Conservative Government have said that a pension belongs to the individual. I fear that the proposal will take us back to the days of grace-and-favour pensions and will be regarded as offensive in the police service.

Next Section

IndexHome Page