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6.31 pm

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): We regard the report as extremely valuable. If it is implemented, it will enable us to move on from the appalling tragedy of Stephen Lawrence's murder and the failures of policing that the report revealed to an active campaign to rid our society of racism. The hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) has every reason to be as aware as anybody of the magnitude of the task. He spoke effectively and from experience about that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the disclosure of information about witnesses in the publication of the appendix to the report. I shall clear that point out of the way now, lest it obscure the value of the report. I remain amazed that the inquiry team could have included that material in the appendix and that nobody in the Home Office spotted that fact during the nine days in which it had the report because, in every court in the land, every week, decisions are made to ensure that the names of people giving information do not become known, and I serve on a Committee that has to carry out a similar task in its work. An appalling error was made in both organisations. The formal responsibility lies with the inquiry team and has been accepted by Sir William Macpherson, but it is horrifying that the mistake could have occurred in the inquiry offices and the Home Office.

Without the Lawrence family, this report would not have been produced, because they rightly insisted again and again that a report was needed. We welcome the fact that the Home Secretary agreed to set up such an inquiry and has responded fully to it, although I am anxious about a few of his responses.

The initial police response has also been encouraging. When the report was published, the chairman of the

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Police Federation, Fred Broughton, said that it made painful but persuasive reading, but it was an opportunity for the police service to make

    "real and lasting change and put its house in order".

He said also that

    "we must look to the future and address our own agenda, structure and culture if we are to police with everyone's support."

That is a recognition by those whose responsibility it is to represent police officers--including representing them in disciplinary proceedings as well as representing their interests generally--that much work has to be done. That is an encouraging statement.

The investigation and the first inquiry were riddled with instances of amazing incompetence. If one removes the elements of racial stereotyping, it is still difficult to understand why the police behaved so incompetently, and that makes it more likely that racial stereotyping partially explains that incompetence. Frighteningly ignorant racial stereotyping appears to have led police officers to jump to conclusions and dismiss courses of action that they might otherwise have taken. They thought, "If the case involves a black person, he must have been in a fight. A black family would not understand us."

There was, however, real incompetence and a lack of basic attention to duty, to duty of care and to all the considerations that experience has led us to expect from police officers. That made their incompetence genuinely surprising to many people, except, perhaps, those who have found themselves in a situation similar to that of the Lawrence family, in which an unsolved crime has not been subject to the proper professional approach. For each of those people, there are many more who have experienced police officers doing their job properly but, in this instance, there was some of the worst incompetence that it is possible to find in policing.

As well as that lesson about incompetence, the Lawrence inquiry concerns a general policing issue that will be more puzzling to police officers. Any officer in any force reading the report would say, "We would not have done it like that. We would have made a better job of it." However, many police officers would be puzzled by the report's insistence that colour-blind policing is not enough. An understandable and traditional view of police officers is that they treat everybody the same. That is the instinct of fair policing. The police should have no favourites and no friends.

That policy does not work if the police are dealing with substantially disadvantaged and alienated sections of the community whose culture they may not understand and who have already had many adverse experiences of policing and authority. In those circumstances, more subtlety is required. There must be positive appreciation of the problems that a community faces and a positive attempt to overcome one's initial prejudices or instincts. That important point comes out of the report, and it requires an unexpected change of attitude by police officers who probably thought that they were doing right by taking no notice of colour, just as they might try to take no notice of religion or class. Sometimes, one must go beyond that.

The report makes many important detailed recommendations that have been accepted, including the extension of the Race Relations Act 1976 in full to police forces, new rules on the definition and investigation of racist or potentially racist crimes, and improvement of

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family liaison, the treatment of victims and training. All those are valuable. The monitoring of stop and search powers is essential. In 25 years as a Member of Parliament, I have walked through the streets of London a great deal. On the vast majority of occasions on which I have seen a car stopped by police officers, the car's occupants have been black or Asian. That has always amazed me because the vast majority of people occupying the cars that move past me are not black or Asian. We have not attended properly to that problem.

The report contains recruitment and retention targets for police officers from minorities. Those are very important and must be pursued, but we must remember that the Metropolitan police have a serious recruitment problem to start with. They have difficulty recruiting in sufficient numbers. They have always had to recruit from far beyond London. If they are seeking recruits from somewhere like my constituency, as they often do, they have to go a long way to find members of ethnic minorities to recruit. For years, the Met has had to look to Scotland, Wales and the north of England because it cannot find enough recruits in London. That makes the task set out in the report much harder.

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that, in the Metropolitan police service area in particular, there is great difficulty not only in recruiting but in retaining police officers from ethnic minorities, who often want to go to police forces elsewhere in the country?

Mr. Beith: There is evidence of such police officers moving to other forces. There may be factors in the Met that need to be addressed to prevent that, as well as the positive incentives that need to be given to try to retain ethnic minority officers. Targets are clearly important.

Mr. Simon Hughes: As I hope my right hon. Friend accepts, and as hon. Members from other parties know, the Met tells us that it is having difficulty in recruiting high-quality officers--not only, but in particular, black and Asian officers--from London who understand the society that they are meant to police. I hope that my right hon. Friend will further accept that one of the best responses to the report would be positively to recruit to the police service good, competent, graduate officers, who will view policing as a worthwhile career. If we did that, there might not be the incompetence that the inquiry revealed.

Mr. Beith: I agree very much with my hon. Friend on that point.

I want to mention a couple more policing matters. The first is the issue of discipline, and especially the application of discipline to officers who have retired. I was surprised to hear the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) so readily dismiss the great public concern about the fact that it is possible for officers to retire from the police force, sometimes on the ground of ill-health because of the stress of an inquiry, and escape all disciplinary proceedings as a result. The research of the Select Committee on Home Affairs referred to that. The answer may not lie in tinkering with police pensions, but an answer must be found. We emphasised that issue to the Home Secretary in the aftermath of the Hillsborough disaster and we do so again in this instance. It is an

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important issue, about which the public feel deeply. We hope for rapid progress on the independent investigation of complaints when the current discussions are complete.

Perhaps the most general comment that one can make about policing in the light of the Lawrence report is about the need for partnership and consent. Our view as a party about policing is that those approaches are fundamental to the success and acceptability of policing. They are also part of the best tradition of the British police force. The aim is to achieve policing by consent and in partnership with the local community. There has been a manifest failure to achieve that, difficult as it was to do with ethnic minority communities in London and some other parts of the country.

The primary aim is the restoration of partnership policing and policing by consent--in some instances, that will mean the introduction of something that has not been achieved at all. Having enough police officers in the community and the community feeling that it has some input into what the police do and what their priorities are, are all part of policing by consent.

That brings me to a recommendation on which I still maintain that the Government's response is less clear, and that is the role of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Its role will be slightly confused in any event because of the existence of the authority and of the elected mayor, who will have certain defined responsibilities. Some of those responsibilities appear in the Greater London Authority Bill in the section on policing. There are problems in other areas of government in London in determining who is responsible--the elected mayor or the authority--that might be reflected in policing. However, the report clearly recommends that the Metropolitan Police Authority should have powers of appointment and accountability for chief officers on the same basis as other forces. The Government's response is that the

in the appointment of the commissioner and deputy commissioner than applies in other forces.

The Home Secretary played down the difference and said that the situation would not be unlike that in other forces where, effectively, the Home Office has a veto on the shortlist. The position is slightly more complicated than that, but that is a reasonable summary. There is a considerable difference between a veto on the short list and "a more active role", which sounds very much like the Home Secretary putting up the name and telling the police authority that that is the name that it will have, or perhaps choosing from a couple of names that it is suggesting. The wording of the Government's response does not fit with the Home Secretary's indication that the recommendation is accepted and that the outcome will be pretty similar to the situation in other areas.

I take the view that national responsibilities that are still exercised by the Metropolitan police are not the real reason for the Home Secretary's desire to have a more active role. We are talking of a high-profile post and, if things go wrong, the result will be serious. The Home Secretary may feel that he or his successors might take some of the flak. The remaining national responsibilities of the Metropolitan police, important though they are, are not an argument for the rather curious and confused pattern that is summed up in the phrase "a more active role". That seems to be a recipe for not having sufficient accountability.

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Freedom of information is another area where there is some difference between what the report says and what the Government are saying. The report states that"all areas of policing" should be included

It is said also that there are no grounds for a class exemption for the police in any area. The Home Secretary immediately comes out with two class exemptions, one for material relating to informers and the other for that to investigations and prosecutions. It would seem that both would be covered in any event by the "substantial harm" test. That is a pretty obvious lesson from what happened over the report itself. If information leaks about informers, substantial harm is done to those people and to the prospect of gaining information in future. However, the report was explicit that a class exemption would not be required for that purpose.

When it comes to the test, the Home Secretary said in his response that there would be an "appropriate harm" test. There is a subtle shift of phrase from the "substantial harm" test. On this point, we shall carefully examine the draft Bill when it emerges.

One of the wider issues that the report raises is that of racist language in private places. It seems that there is a general feeling throughout the House, which is shared by most commentators outside it, that the proposal is not really feasible and is likely to lead to incursions into the general notion that we do not intrude into private property unless there are good grounds to believe that, for example, a serious crime is being planned.

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