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7.35 pm

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West): The last words in Doreen Lawrence's statement about Stephen were:

We should approach the debate with humility, because many of us were Members of Parliament, councillors or in other positions of authority when things were going wrong.

I should like to acknowledge at least one mistake. Had I known about the attack on Stacey Benefield before the attack on Stephen Lawrence, I would have been able to go to the police within hours of hearing of the attack, which might have led to the police going for the forensic evidence, because some of those involved in the attack on Stacey Benefield were able to destroy the evidence--if they had it.

Many of us know many things about our constituency and our constituents, but there are times when rather greater knowledge would be desirable. The police failed to act on the information that came forward early. The Lawrences were told that people were erecting a wall of silence. That was not true. Many people came forward with information, but when the police began observation they suffered from what might be called a series of bad luck, but could probably be called incompetence. People were allowed to get away and destroy any evidence that they may have had in a bin bag.

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There are other occasions on which I suspect that I could have gone further. I went with the Minister--as he is now--to the Attorney-General and the Crown Prosecution Service after its decision that the first case had to be dropped. I am not a lawyer. The Minister can say more about that if he wants. I am not competent to speak about the levels of evidence needed or the tests that the CPS has to make.

When the private prosecution came along, it was clear that the jury did not want to accept the judge's instruction to acquit. One should not start saying that judges should not have the power to give directions to juries, but if the judge was ambivalent about whether to give the instruction, perhaps a greater public row might have allowed the issue to have been tested more. I suspect that there is an asymmetry. Juries can acquit when legally they might have convicted, but they should not necessarily be given the chance to find people guilty when legally they ought to acquit. There is injustice and a lack of symmetry that is difficult to accept and understand.

I went to see the Commissioner when there was information about a problem of communication with the family. He told me how the issue was seen by the police and I told him how it was firmly seen by the Lawrence family, Ros Howells, Imran Khan and some of the other responsible people who acted with them. Maybe I did not push hard enough. Maybe I did not know enough to push hard enough.

This is not an easy speech to make. I was with the Lawrences and saw how they controlled what developed. The movement from their home in Llanover road to the Methodist church where Stephen had been part of the youth club was one of the most impressive things with which I have been associated. There were no police in evidence, no protesters and no fear of any street disturbance. I was also impressed by the service and some of the other services that have been held in that church, including that for the Stephen Lawrence memorial window.

There is a simple trust in the Lawrence family. It is a trust with which Stephen grew up. As the hon. Member for Eltham (Mr. Efford) said--I agreed with every word of his speech--when Stephen was confronted in Eltham that night, he did not run. That was an important part of the way in which the Lawrences brought up their family.

People should read the appendices to the report, which recount the stories of the Lawrence family and Duwayne Brooks, the forgotten victim of the crime that night. If more young people were brought up by people like the Lawrences and fewer were brought up by people like the parents of those who have been called the suspects, this country would be transformed. Street behaviour, family behaviour and school achievements would be very different.

Anyone who thinks that we have learned the lessons of the past has not read an article in today's edition of G2, the tabloid section of The Guardian. It describes the work of the Stephen Lawrence memorial trust, which tries to help young black architects to continue their training and to get work. It says that there are 70 black architects in this country, and it describes how difficult it is for them to become known and, if they are qualified, to get employment. I suspect that the same is true in the legal profession and, as has been pointed out, it is difficult for young black people to get elected to the House.

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There is no room for complacency. We should approach this debate from the point of view of the Lawrence family. That came across remarkably well in the Tricycle production of "The Colour of Justice". If anyone has not had a chance to see that production, I commend it. There is not a word in it that was not said at the inquiry.

I should like to pay tribute to the inquiry and the inquiry staff. What Sir William Macpherson, the staff of the inquiry and those who were sitting with them had to go through was as intense as what the rest of us feel when we watch what is happening in Kosovo. We begin to see an awfulness, and we begin to see why things are happening but we do not know how to stop them and we cannot turn the reel backwards.

The issue could be approached from the point of view of the police, which has been highlighted in one speech--I am sure that others will follow. I do not disagree completely with the hon. Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) about the parliamentary briefing from the Police Federation, and perhaps not everything it says is right, but it was well written--I may be looking at a separate blue sheet--and the police are beginning to learn and to be more open about what is going on.

I want to raise an issue with the Home Office which I do not expect to be addressed today, but I would appreciate the opportunity to meet a Minister to discuss it. I have the agreement of the local Member of Parliament to raise it. In the past few months, there are have been three articles in Private Eye about Sergeant Virdi, who took part in the arrest of two people involved in a racial attack. When he asked whether it had been recorded as a racial attack, he was suspended and faced a year of uncertainty about whether the Crown Prosecution Service intended to prefer a charge against him. He is still suspended a year after the original attack and does not know whether there will be disciplinary proceedings against him.

I tabled a rather delphic question about it to the Home Office, and from the answer that I received it seemed as though it had not heard of the matter. I tabled other questions. I asked how many times the police had argued at the employment tribunal for a postponement of the hearing, and when that series of incidents had come to the attention of the Home Office, which is the police authority for London. The answer from the Under-Secretary, the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), suggested that the relevant information had come from the police relatively recently.

I suggest that Home Office Ministers, as the police authority for London, ask for a detailed explanation of the chronology of events. If they are prepared to see Sergeant Virdi's MP or me, or both of us together, it would be interesting to hear their views.

Mr. McDonnell: Mr. Virdi came to see me on Friday at my advice session--it is the neighbouring constituency to his Member's. I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter in the debate: I was hoping to raise it later. This case is creating a sense of grievance in the Asian community in west London--I think it will soon

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spread across the country--that we have never seen before. That community has been one of the strongest supporters of the police service in London.

Mr. Bottomley: It would be appropriate for me to say no more about the matter now. I suggest that Ministers read the articles in Private Eye and seek an explanation of the chronology of events. They may then be able to make a statement. We would be willing to table a question so that we can find out what the Home Office, the acting police authority, thinks is going on.

The problems are not only in London. I am currently the Member for Worthing, West, in Sussex. The police wanted to search the home of one of my constituents, who admits that he has not led a perfect life. They were following up a proven case of driving while disqualified. He said that the home they wanted to visit was not the home that he had been living in for the past year or two. He told them where he was living, and during their attendance at his home, in his absence, they usedlanguage to his partner that was unjustifiable--that is acknowledged. She made a complaint, but the officers in charge of the investigation of the man's criminal offence were those against whom her complaint had been made.

I am not suggesting that every criminal can get away with it by saying that the police have made racial remarks, but some sensitivity should be used as a result of the Macpherson inquiry. If it turns out that the police have been holding a person's property month after month without any connection to the offence for which the man was arrested, people at a senior level should be asking themselves, "Have we got this right?" It is asking those questions that matters most.

Lastly, I want to refer to expectations, which is slightly beyond the Macpherson inquiry. I first became interested in the idea of professional public service through politics because of my experience as a governor of a school in Vauxhall, which is now closed. It had 1,200 girls, and, in the fifth form, not one of them was allowed to take what were then O-levels, because the English department decided that that would divide people into those who could take O-levels and those who took CSEs. If people were seriously interested in getting O and A-levels and going on to higher education, they could stay on in the lower sixth. It was not until I helped to get two West Indian mothers on to the governing body that that policy changed. Within three years, the first black girl from the school went on to medical school.

We lived in the area, and I talked to Afro-Caribbeans, the Portuguese and everyone else who had come to England and to London in the past two or three generations--we are all migrants, because the population of London 20,000 years ago was nil, so we must all have come here at some stage, but some came more recently. They asked why it was that the schools in that part of London were much worse than the schools in Jamaica or wherever they had come from. It was not becauseour teachers were not interested, but because their expectations were low. It required pushy parents like me and others, whatever the colour of their skin or their creed or wherever their grandparents had come from, and that took a lot of effort.

I am glad that the present Government are backing up the calls that people like me have been making. All families deserve the right to bring up their children to trust

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other people. All parents should be able to bring up their children so they can trust the schools to which they go. Their children should be able to trust a police officer in the street, as half the family of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) advised her.

That is when the colour of people's skin becomes as important as the colour of their eyes or the colour of their hair. We may notice it, but it does not tell us any more about them.

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