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Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. May I appeal for forbearance among hon. Members? More wish to speak than will be able to if everyone takes up their full time allotment.

8.19 pm

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford): I first had the privilege of meeting and working with Doreen and Neville Lawrence when I was a member of Labour's home affairs team. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (Mr. Austin) approached me at the start of his campaign in support of their request for a new

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inquiry into Stephen's murder. Like so many others, I have followed their progress, their heartache, the setbacks and the triumphs, which culminate in this historic debate. It is no exaggeration to say that Stephen's death, his parents' pursuit of justice and the response of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary offer us our best ever hope of recognising and defeating institutional racism.

Both personally, and as a Member of Parliament with a constituency population that is one third black, I want to identify myself with what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in opening the debate. The action that he has set out is crucial for justice and race relations. I want to demonstrate how vital those measures are by referring to events that took place in my constituency in 1981, and which remain unresolved. I know that Doreen and Neville Lawrence will understand my reasons for doing so.

Three years ago, I was approached by one of Deptford's remarkable black community leaders, Sybil Phoenix. She asked for my support for raising a permanent memorial to the 14 young black people who died as a result of the New Cross fire of 1981. What was remarkable was not her request but the fact that no memorial had been mounted in the preceding 15 years. I began to take an interest in those tragic events, read the newspaper coverage and heard the testimonies of many involved. If it were not for the deaths of Stephen Lawrence and Michael Menson, I would have said that what happened then could not happen today.

Nineteen years ago, a woman who shares my surname, Mrs. Gee Ruddock, was asked by her daughter Yvonne if she could have a party for her 16th birthday the following January. At first, Mrs. Ruddock did not concede, but she eventually decided that it was right to have a party for her daughter. On that fateful Saturday night, the house filled with young elated people.

In the early hours of Sunday 18 January 1981, Mrs. Ruddock ran from her burning house to see her daughter jump to her death from an upstairs window and her son carried out fatally burned. Eleven other young people died. The speed and force of the inferno caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house.

In the short time available, I cannot recount the reported details of the inquiry or the theories of what did or did not happen. Suffice it to say that the forensic evidence presented to the inquest suggested that the fire started in the house and that an inflammable liquid had been spilled on the carpet. Long before the inquest was concluded many events occurred that underlined the institutional racism that we recognise today, not only in the police but throughout our institutions.

It was a tragedy of huge proportions: 13 young people dead at a birthday party. However, there was no message from the Prime Minister to the family and no mention of the incident in Parliament. Ugly rumours with racist overtones spread rapidly and were rehearsed in newspaper coverage. It was the time of Scarman and the Brixton riots. In the black community, there was immense grief, shock and anger and, undoubtedly, a feeling that the majority white population did not identify with its loss. Only six weeks after the fire the National Front announced that it would march past Mrs. Ruddock's house in a demonstration with the theme, "Don't blame the whites for the New Cross fire". The march was banned, but its message was heard.

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The black community's anger at apparent white indifference to the New Cross deaths was greatly exacerbated by the reactions to a subsequent tragedy in the Republic of Ireland, when 48 people young people were killed in a discotheque fire. Immediate condolences were sent to the bereaved by the Prime Minister and the Queen. On Monday 2 March 1981, the New Cross Massacre Action Committee led a march in central London to draw attention to the deaths and the failure of the police to find the cause. I am told that television coverage attempted to explain the reasons for the march, but the newspapers were hostile. "Rampage of a Mob", said the Daily Express.

said The Sun.

    "17 Cops Hurt as Thugs Turn Blaze Protest into a Terror Riot",

said The Daily Star.

An inquest was being held against that background. It was a total disaster. No one was satisfied with its proceedings or the outcome of an open verdict.

After the event, Parliament took note. In an Adjournment debate, David Mellor remarked:

My predecessor, John Silkin, said:

    "The inquiry should have been held in a court . . . the coroner in this case was out of his league."--[Official Report, 21 May 1981; Vol. 5, c. 457-467.]

Christopher Price, another Lewisham MP, said:

    "The inquest did enormous damage to the processes of justice and to race relations."

That sense of injustice remains raw in our black communities. Much has changed. Great efforts have been made by individuals, community leaders, Lewisham council, Lewisham Commission for Racial Equality and police officers locally, but it is not enough. That is why when Lewisham council erected the memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997, George Francis, on behalf of the bereaved families, asked me for assistance in getting the 1981 inquest reopened. It was a daunting request, and we have not yet reached its conclusion.

Thanks to Commander Griffiths, who agreed to meet me and the families' group at the Francis's home, a new police investigation was opened in May two years ago. It has applied new forensic techniques to the evidence and attempted to re-interview everyone who survived the fire. I believe that the new inquiry has been pursued vigorously and vigilantly by the officers in charge. I hope that they will soon report that everything that could be done 18 years later has been done, and that they will share the information with the families concerned. That will not make up for the years of torment that Mr. and Mrs. Francis have endured: never knowing why their 17-year-old son Gerry died; never quite knowing what to believe; convinced of a cover-up, but whose cover up; no doubt tormented as parents by the thought, "What if?" Mr. Francis has consistently spoken out on behalf of the families' group. He accepts that the evidence so far does not point to an externally racially motivated crime but more likely to a tragic accident.

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The new investigation will not make up for the torment of Wayne Hayes, now 35, who managed to escape the fire. In a recent newspaper article he said:

The search for truth, as the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has revealed, is a tortuous process. It does not progress simply from A to B, and it is fatally handicapped where racial prejudice exists. I cannot know what happened in New Cross in 1981, nor how the police inquiry and the inquest were conducted. Whether or not this was a racially motivated crime--and Mrs. Ruddock has found no reason to change her view that it was--institutional racism stood, and stands, in the way of delivering justice to black people, whether victims or perpetrators.

There is much in the recommendations of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry report which, if implemented, will ensure that tragedies such as the New Cross fire are treated very differently in future. There are very welcome proposals regarding the conduct of the police, inquiry methods, transparency, the building of confidence while conducting investigations and changes in the rules governing inquests. My right hon. Friend knows that I have inquired about whether the New Cross fire can be included in the inspector's review of outstanding deaths and murders. I trust the Minister may be able to tell me something about that today.

Finally, I pay tribute to the police for reopening this investigation and for their willingness to work harder and achieve better liaison with the bereaved families. However, I give notice to my right hon. Friend that, unless the matter is resolved satisfactorily in some other way, I shall press in due course for the inquest to be reopened. Like Stephen Lawrence's parents, the New Cross fire parents seek the truth. Nothing less than the truth can satisfy them and lay to rest the memories of Humphrey Geoffrey Brown, Peter Campbell, Steve Collins, Patrick Cummings, Gerry Paul Francis, Andrew Gooding, Lloyd Hall, Rosaline Henry, Patricia Johnson, Glenton Powell, Yvonne Ruddock, Paul Ruddock and Owen Thompson--all of whom died in the fire--and Anthony Berbeck, who survived but was found dead at the bottom of a tower block 18 months later.

8.31 pm

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley (South-West Surrey): I appreciate this opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), who gave a moving account of the New Cross fire in 1981. I remember those events clearly because, at the time, I was serving as chairman of the juvenile court in Brixton. I heard the Brixton riot cases and experienced at first hand the enormously charged atmosphere generated by furious parents, outraged children, distressed police, agitated lawyers, social workers who did not know where to turn and vicars who were alienated from their local communities. The Metropolitan police and the young black community were talking entirely different and hostile languages.

I believe that the Scarman report did a great deal to ensure that the police were more enlightened and sensitive and showed greater tact and diplomacy in handling all citizens in the community. In some ways, what flowed from the Scarman report and the riots of that time were

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mass movements. The upheaval spread to other cities, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Birmingham and there was great investment in social policy strategies. Some of the inner-city regeneration work initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) was motivated by those tragic events.

The Stephen Lawrence inquiry was about the murder of one boy. The fact that he was a black boy is almost irrelevant to many people because he could be anyone's son. He was a young boy doing his A-levels and hoping to be an architect. The depth of emotion surrounding those events has shown that the community recognises that it is unacceptable for such a case--involving a girl or a boy, black or white--not to be investigated rigorously and properly.

I disagreed with the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) when she said that she was the only young black female Member of Parliament. I found her remarks offensive to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott). I felt for the hon. Lady--who is almost my hon. Friend--and nearly sought to intervene. However the comments of the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow about her treatment as a young girl by the police rang true for all London Members of Parliament and those familiar with life in our inner cities.

I served as a magistrate when the father of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), as Lord Chancellor, was busy encouraging more black and ethnic minority magistrates. All black or ethnic minority magistrates or their children had been stopped repeatedly by the police. We were all the same when we were in the retiring room and when we ate lunch. However, when we drove home in our cars, the black or ethnic minority magistrates were much more likely to be stopped.

I have no wish to use the Macpherson report to stir up divisiveness, suspicion or hostility. There is a danger of that because some people have reacted with exaggerated language and taken an extreme position. Regrettably, that provokes a backlash. I have received a large document from a constituent--a white woman--complaining about incidents in which she feels that the white side has not been put fairly and properly. The moderation and the constructive approach with which Members on both Front Benches have been handling the report is most important.

I do not intend to go through each of the recommendations. In my view, some of them are over-ambitious, unenforceable or extremely costly: but no doubt the Home Secretary will be able to fund some of the proposed projects without undue difficulty. I shall speak about the work being done to extend the Race Relations Act 1976 to all parts of the public sector.

It is right that the public sector should be a model for the recruitment, retention and progress of people from black and ethnic minorities. Perhaps as a result of my experience as chairman of the court in Brixton, when I was the Secretary of State for Health I convened a group to talk about the recruitment and retention experiences in the national health service of people from black and ethnic minorities. When the hon. Member for Tottenham (Mr. Grant) made allegations in his speech about St. George's medical school, there was reason behind his comments. I used to meet members of the Overseas Doctors Association frequently--I wish it would stop

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calling itself the Overseas Doctors Association because many of its members went to the same school, university and medical school as my daughter and they are no more overseas doctors than she is. At those meetings, I heard tragic and deeply emotional accounts of the experiences of nurses, doctors, managers and others in a service that should have been as good as, or better than, any other in the way that black and ethnic minorities were treated. That was especially important because in our health targets we needed to reach out and improve the health of the whole community: the black, Asian and white communities.

In a subtle way, we have moved on from Scarman. Being colour blind is not really the challenge that we face. People of my generation went through a period of thinking that to be enlightened we must not mention whether people were men or women, black or white and we must not mention their age. That was naive and unhelpful. What is important is how we recognise and celebrate diversity.

In 1993, we published an action plan with eight targets which seem as valid today as they were then. I only wish that they had been acted on with the energy that I intended at the time. Those targets covered such matters as the number of G-grade nurses or the length of time that doctors took to complete their specialist training.

Similarly, there are comments in the Macpherson report about education. I worry about the way in whichthe national curriculum recommendations will be implemented. Before I became a Member of Parliament, I worked in Camberwell, Peckham and Brixton for many years and met many families who had travelled halfway around the world to live in Britain. They were frustrated that there was such a strong focus on ethnic minority education that their children were not learning to read, write, spell and do arithmetic. The last thing that was popular with people in black and ethnic minority communities was the patronising approach that implied that parents in those communities had lower aims and aspirations than those of other parents. My experience was that people who had travelled long distances to be in Britain had aims and aspirations that were often closer to mine than to those of some of the excessively politically correct leaders of the Inner London education authority at that time. That was the concern of the 1985 Swann report, "Education for all", The Swann committee, of which my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham and Mid-Kent (Mr. Rowe) was a member, concluded that, too often, patronising, paternalistic attitudes arising from misguided philanthropy resulted in a failure to bring out the bestin young people. I endorse and applaud the recommendations on education for citizenship contained in the Macpherson report.

The British Council, of which I am vice-chairman along with the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz), is involved in training police around the world, in Zimbabwe, Pakistan, South Africa and Uganda. I met some of the trainers who train police forces to deal with human rights concerns, to work with the community and in methods of combating racism and the tensions that divide communities in almost every country in the world. I do not want the experience of the Macpherson report to be such that we lose confidence that, overall, we have developed an approach of which we should be proud, but there is never room for complacency. The tension that divides communities can be seen in the report and, in its extreme manifestations, results in the horrendous events

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in Kosovo. It is part of the predicament that faces not only modern communities but communities throughout the centuries. The British Council is also involved in magnificent work that celebrates the diversity of Britain today--the best of British, which includes contemporary dance groups, such as Kokuma; some of the best contemporary Afro-Caribbean musicians, such as J. Life, who played at the Labour party conference, but not at the Conservative party conference; and Benjamin Zephaniah.

In the hope of a constructive message emerging from the Macpherson inquiry, we should all reflect that it was in 1958, at the time of the Notting Hill riots, thatLord Justice Salmon said:

I hope that that will be true.

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