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2.57 pm

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney): Nobody should doubt the Bill's importance, although the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), said that she is convinced of its importance and then proceeded to make a speech in which it was not clear whether or not the Conservative party supports the Bill at all, in so far as it refers to indirect discrimination. I can only suggest to the right hon. Lady that a little time spent quietly with the right hon. Member for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), whose enthusiasm for and commitment to this cause we all appreciate, might be very useful before the Bill goes into Committee.

Nobody should doubt, either, the significance of the Bill being introduced by a Labour Government who are going further than the recommendations of the Macpherson report. The Bill extends the Race Relations Act 1976 not only to the police but to the functions of all public authorities. The Government are right to have signalled their intention to extend the Bill to encompass indirect discrimination.

The Bill is not only needed by those who will be, because of the colour of their skin, protected by it, but it will be good for everyone who lives in Britain, whether black or white. For anyone who does not feel compelled by the Bill's purpose of furthering the cause of equal rights and opportunities, I quote what President Kennedy said in 1963:

Civil rights should be at the heart of any responsible Government. Discrimination, wherever it is found, is a curse. Hon. Members will know from my past in the House that I have always taken the view that wherever we find discrimination, we should root it out, because discrimination in whatever form it takes is abhorrent and repugnant. It is a weapon that enforces division, and there should be no compromise of basic principles.

I regret the fact that the shadow Home Secretary did not take the opportunity this afternoon to state her commitment to ensuring that discrimination will be rooted

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out not only as it relates to ethnic minorities, but in other facets of our society, such as in matters of gender or sexuality. That should mean that ours is a society in which there is no second-class citizenship for any British man or woman anywhere.

Although we can look back on the strides that we have made towards creating an equal and more just society, no hon. Member should fail to observe how much further we still have to go. There is a choice about the kind of nation we want to be and the direction in which we want to move. We can move in the direction of division, and we can tolerate that division. It is my view that we have tolerated division for far too long. We can also move in a direction which removes division--the direction of one nation.

The division with which we live--the division between white and black, whatever the degree of tolerance that some people would proffer--makes us, in truth, an intolerant society. That intolerance will be fed by fear and hatred, and hatred will breed violence and lawlessness.

The other choice, which is a harder route to pursue, is to live together as one nation--not a nation that subjugates the identity of a minority to that of a majority, but a nation that celebrates its diversity, in which men and women respect one another for their character, not for the colour of their skin. For that, we will need understanding, compassion, wisdom, justice and a sense of doing what is right.

There are still too many in this country and, regrettably, in the House whom we must seek to persuade if we are to change. Our culture must change. Although I shall not focus my remarks today on the issue of immigration, we should not let this moment pass without commenting on the shadow Home Secretary's proposal to bring back the primary purpose rule, which the Government rightly abolished.

It is a dreadful contradiction of the essential decency of this nation that a political party would consider introducing legislation which even the Conservative candidate for London mayor has described as "disgusting and immoral". That pernicious, divisive rule discriminated particularly against people trying to move to Britain from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. Does the shadow Home Secretary believe that Britain is a better country for such racist discrimination?

Perhaps the House should not be surprised by the way in which some Tories will use discrimination for short-term political gain. The shadow Cabinet Office Minister recently said that immigration was

Such a view should be repugnant to any decent person. It should be condemned, not championed, by the Leader of the Opposition. It beggars belief that anyone could contemplate using the topic of immigration to hurt, or discrimination as a weapon to stir up prejudice and thereby secure votes; yet such prejudices lie deep within some in the Conservative party. That was one of the reasons why I left that party.

The Conservative party will whip its Members to keep discrimination in place on section 28, yet on a day like today it will signal to its Members that the debate is of so little importance that they can attend other business

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elsewhere. In other words, when discrimination can be used against people, there is a three-line Whip, but when it cannot, Conservatives Members can take the day off.

Dr. Julian Lewis: Does not the hon. Gentleman recognise that that is an unfair point, given that we are not opposing the Second Reading of the Bill?

Mr. Woodward: Some Conservative Members may support the Bill, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, on section 28, for example, his party felt so strongly that it could not allow a vote of conscience. On an issue such as the Bill, it would send a strong signal to the country if the Conservative party had a three-line Whip--if its Members were present and if they were prepared to stand up and say that the Bill mattered. Belonging as they do to a party which for 18 years did nothing to implement the recommendations of the Commission for Racial Equality, perhaps it is not surprising that they are not so prepared.

In March last year, during the debate on the Stephen Lawrence inquiry, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth) told the House:

What a great excuse for indifference.

Regrettably, the hon. Gentleman is not alone in his indifference. During 18 years of Conservative government, very little legislative progress was made towards better race relations. Twice the Commission for Racial Equality submitted reviews arguing that public bodies should be included in the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976, and twice that recommendation was rejected. Indifference reigned.

Tragically, it has taken the death of Stephen Lawrence and the inquiry into the police investigation following his death to achieve those demands, almost a quarter of a century later.

The House knows that the Conservative Government also refused to set up an inquiry into the police investigation after Stephen's death. That was, rightly, one of the first acts of the present Home Secretary in 1997.

The Bill will ensure that public bodies, the police and the Prison Service will fall within the scope of our laws to beat discrimination. The amendments to bring indirect indiscrimination within the compass of the Bill are crucial, as are those to promote racial equality. Fairness and equality before the law are the only decent course that we can follow, because discrimination is indecent, and the pursuit of decency is a moral quest.

Why has it taken Stephen Lawrence's death and so many other deaths, so many cases of discrimination, to achieve the Bill? Dante wrote:

What neutrality and what indifference we have seen--indifference not least from some members of the Opposition.

Only three months ago, on "Newsnight", the then shadow Chancellor, now charged by the Conservative party with responsibility for foreign affairs, said of the Bill:

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    What an appalling statement. What an indictment of the role of leadership. Where is the essential decency in such an admission?

Does the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) think that the majority of decent people in Britain are not troubled by the death of Stephen Lawrence and the failure of the police investigation of that death, or about why and how the family was so badly treated afterwards; or about the family of Michael Menson, a young musician with mental health problems, who was stopped by three men in Edmonton outside a telephone box and turned into a human torch; or about Ricky Reel, who left home one day and did not come back, and whose body was found in a river; or about Errol and Jason McGowan, an uncle and nephew who were both found dead within months in highly suspicious circumstances?

Do those on the Conservative Front Bench think that people do not worry about such things? Do they subscribe to the view of the present shadow Foreign Secretary? What does it say if our most senior Opposition politicians will not take a leading role in raising the issue from neutrality and indifference to one of pressing need?

Would those politicians willingly change the colour of their skin? Would they be happy to settle for the barriers to opportunity that still confront the black man or woman in this country, or the same expectations of poor health? Would they exchange their lives for that of the Bangladeshi? There is a terrible culture of contentment, too easily seen among some people, even in the House.

As the hon. Member for Aldershot told the House last year, he regretted

He told the House of his fears when he described

    the threat of indoctrination in our schools to make children "value cultural diversity".--[Official Report, 29 March 1999; Vol. 328, c. 819.]

His views are not unique; they are shared by noble Lords, such as Lord Tebbit, who fears that multiculturalism will divide our society.

The hon. Member for Aldershot is not alone even in this place. He justifies his views by saying that minorities represent only 6 per cent. of the population. His advice is that they need to be more understanding of us and our centuries-old culture. There we have it: them and us; black versus white; division at the heart of our society and our policy making. That is wrong, wrong, wrong.

How are we to achieve a better society if we accept that corrosive division? How will we improve confidence in our police--or, indeed, life for our police--if we ask them to be the ambassadors of that policy of division? Such divisiveness and the acceptance of the existence of two nations should not be tolerated. I am glad to say that it is not acceptable to the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who is determined to root out such attitudes, not only among the police, but among those who claim to support the police.

Yet some people still tolerate division and a society that is hostile and unequal, separated by a racial chasm. How can it be right for white Britain to continue to ask of its black citizens extra patience and perseverance that white people have never required of themselves?

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