Will Mr Straw let this report quietly gather dust on the shelf?

The main point is whether the Home Secretary is a `frightened politician' when dealing with the police
Click to follow
THERE IS a moment in the the Macpherson report, by no means the most horrifying, in which it describes the behaviour of Inspector Stephen Groves, the first police officer of any seniority to arrive at the scene of Stephen Lawrence's murder. Mr Groves is not a detective and he is not one of the five officers whom the enquiry identified as bearing the heaviest responsibility for the catastrophic investigation which followed the murder. Mr Groves acts in a way which the report fairly describes as "extraordinary".

He does not bother to find out from Stephen Lawrence's distraught friend Duwayne Brooks what, let alone whom, he has seen, and after a perfunctory examination of the scene goes off to a nearby pub with a police constable to find out if anyone knows anything about what he unquestioningly assumes has been a fight. No one does. If he had even bothered to ask his fellow police officers at the scene, let alone Mr Brooks, they could have told him that several white youths had been seen running away from that same pub.

According to the report: "It is apparent to all of us that the direction and control exercised by Mr Groves was almost non-existent. Nobody gave proper instructions to the officers in the earliest stages of the investigation, and no plan was made which might have led to the discovery and arrest of the suspects who had run down Dickson Road."

The point of this is not to make a "scapegoat" - to use today's vogue word - of Mr Groves. It is simply to draw attention to the fact the Metropolitan Police saw nothing wrong in all this. In a masterpiece of understatement, the report comments that it was "most disappointing to members of the Inquiry that those involved should, even now, believe they acted with efficiency and skill and that they should have no regret as to the inadequate nature of the... initial response". There are few limits, in other words, to the police's blindness to its own failings.

This is one of several reasons for the lively fears that the Macpherson report will go the way of the Scarman report in 1982 - into the long grass reserved for seemingly momentous enquiries, which provoke a huge national emotional spasm at the time, and are then quietly forgotten. Another is the doubt, obliquely voiced at yesterday's meeting of the Cabinet, that at least some of the recommendations, not least the regulation of racist remarks in private, raise the spectre of Eighties Labour political correctness, and need to be approached with great caution. Yet another is the fact that the head of Sir Paul Condon has not rolled.

There are also those who will claim that yesterday's row over the appendices shows the report is jinxed. That witnesses brave enough to voice to the police their suspicions about who was responsible for the murder, then find that the culprits go free, and then have their own names made public, can only result from a truly first-class blunder.

But grave as it is, the row should not be allowed to obstruct the central message of the report. For there are grounds for thinking that Macpherson may, in the end, be a more culture-changing event than was Scarman. First of all, the climate in which Scarman reported was rather different. The findings were followed by the Falklands war, a jingoistic election, and most importantly of all, a miners' strike in which pro-active policing was perceived by the prime minister as having prevented the country sliding into anarchy and after which the boys in blue could do no wrong.

Politicians are anyway usually frightened of the police. They fear the power of their votes, and they fear even more the prospect that punch- ups with their trade unions - now among the most powerful in the country - will lead to doubts about ministers' commitment to law and order. For a long time it was thought best to leave them well alone.

Indeed, the politics of policing over the last 18 years are instructive. This is primarily a story about racism; but it is also a story about what level of breathtaking negligence, and resistance to the changing social climate, the police service above all others can get away with. What on earth has this got to do with Stephen Lawrence? Well, if you believe that the better Chief Officers - and there isn't any doubt, from his record in improving the Met that Sir Paul is one of those - don't want forces which treat black people in the way the Lawrence family were treated, then it follows that this is at least partly a problem of management.

One of the side effects of the Macpherson report is to show just how incompetent, as well as racist, many senior police officers are as managers. Clinical efficiency, or at least the observance of elementary procedures, might not have prevented Neville and Doreen Lawrence from being patronised and humiliated. But it might have gone some way to bringing their son's murderers to court.

But that's not the main point. The real one is whether Jack Straw falls into the "frightened politician" category in his dealings with the police. All the evidence so far suggests that he does not. It is not simply that he has forced them to accept efficiency savings in return for the pounds 1.24bn new money they will get in the next three years, or that he has actually imposed on the police disciplinary procedures which bear some relation to the real world. He also believes in that old left-wing goal - now happily fashionable again - of "accountability" and of which the new London police authority can - and should - be the outstanding example. (It was, after all, Straw who, as a radical backbencher in 1980, promoted a Private Member's Bill to introduce all-elected police authorities, and he has never lost his interest in making police authorities more effective.) When, as it will next week, the police inspectorate produces a report showing that some police authorities have even worse records than the Met in failing to appoint and promote black police officers, it will be as a result of his active encouragement.

Macpherson aptly quotes Sir John Woodcock, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, as saying that despite the myth of Dixon of Dock Green, the "police were never really the police of the whole people" but were "set up to protect the affluent from what the Victorians described as the dangerous classes" - in other words social control - and there now needs to be a contract between police and a "new generation of the public".

We shouldn't be complacent. But we shouldn't be over-pessimistic either. Labour wouldn't be in the position to give the police the kicking they deserve unless Tony Blair had made it reliable on law and order. But it now is in such a position. The Macpherson report will not itself solve the problems of police racism. But it does provide a text for the contract proposed by Woodcock. It means a huge, gut-wrenching change for the police - but a fine objective for a left-of-centre government. As Straw surely recognises.