Labour Conference: Straw pledges stiffer sentences for racial crimes

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The Independent Online
Jack Straw yesterday promised to fulfil Labour's election pledge to stamp out racial harassment. Colin Brown, Chief Political Correspondent, says the Home Secretary went further than expected.

The Government's war on racial harassment was stepped up with the announcement that the courts will be forced to impose tougher sentences where any crimes have a racial element.

The Crime and Disorder Bill to be introduced at the end of the year will include a provision requiring courts to regard evidence of racial hostility in any crime as an aggravating factor when sentencing. This goes further than the manifesto pledge to introduce new offences of racial harassment and racially-motivated violence which will be included in the Bill.

The Lord Chief Justice issued guidance to courts in 1995 to increase sentences where crimes included a proven racial element, after he increased unduly lenient sentences against three offenders. A survey last week by the Crown Prosecution Service showed that the advice was being followed in only one in five cases.

Mr Straw published a tariff of higher sentences requiring courts to impose prison sentences of up to two years longer for crimes where there is evidence of racial harassment or violence. It means the penalty for malicious wounding, which would normally have a maximum sentence of five years imprisonment, could rise to seven years if there was proof of racial harassment or violence.

He also raised possibility that the list of offences which will attract a higher sentences could include racial criminal damage. So offenders could face higher penalties for breaking windows in a racial attack than they would in cases of vandalism.

The law and order Bill will be wide ranging, and Mr Straw promised crime victims the chance to confront the young thugs who offend against them.

The Association of Chief Constables (Acpo) gave the proposals a cautious welcome. Nottinghamshire's Chief Constable Colin Bailey, who chairs Acpo's race and community relations sub-committee, said: "It will be important to ensure that any new legislation does not create a counter-productive bureaucratic burden, and that standards of proof are not set at an unrealistically high level that would make the task of police and prosecutor even harder. It is reassuring to see that the consultation paper recognises these potential dangers and in particular provides for alternative verdicts should it not be possible to prove a racist element."

The Government's action on racial violence was warmly welcomed at the conference. Bill Morris, leader of the Transport & General Union yesterday called on Tony Blair to do more for racial equality by following the example of President Bill Clinton and putting more blacks in his government.