The Lawrence Report: A family tragedy, a police force disgraced and a nation shamed

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The Independent Online
AFTER A verbal stumble from Madam Speaker, calling us to listen to a statement from Mr Secretary "Shaw-Straw", the Home Secretary stood up at the appointed time of 3.30pm. Ten minutes before, in the street outside Parliament, several groups of people with flags and banners had been calling for several things - Pinochet to be extradited, deer to be spared hunting, diesel fuel to be spared VAT - and were presumably still calling for them. Inside the House a serious, attentive silence fell. Would this speech be one of those moments, often called defining, which closed one chapter of British history and began another?

Having heard it, I don't know. It is difficult to say. There has been so much leakage of the report into Stephen Lawrence's death, so much written and spoken and debated over what it might say, that the official conclusions of Sir William Macpherson, officially spoken by Jack Straw, seemed almost flat. Mr Straw is not your new-dawn kind of man. Still, he spoke simply and well.

First, he took us back to the night of 22 April 1993, and a then obscure piece of London called Well Hall Road, Eltham, where Stephen Lawrence, an 18-year-old studying hard for his A levels and at that moment waiting for a bus, was set upon in an unprovoked knife attack and killed. "There was only one reason for his murder," Straw said. "He was black."

The House was on its best behaviour and impressive for that. Everybody on the benches beside and above Mr Straw looked grave, as I'm sure they did in the benches below me, where, apart from the Opposition, Mr Neville and Mrs Doreen Lawrence also sat. Mrs Margaret Beckett, sitting next to the Home Secretary, looked up at him like an adoring bride at her bridegroom, only a bridegroom announcing something infinitely sad.

Then Mr Straw turned to Sir William's inquiry into the police investigations following Stephen's death. The inquiry had sat for 69 days, heard 88 witnesses, handled 100,000 pages of evidence. And out of this came Sir William's terrible indictment, parts of which Mr Straw now read to the House. No drama critic, bilious after a bad play, could be fiercer.

"The conclusions are clear... fundamental errors... professional incompetence... institutional racism... failure of leadership... palpably flawed... no excuses." Detective Chief Superintendent John Barker, who led the first investigation, had produced a "flawed and indefensible" report, so riddled with errors that a second and much better investigation, conducted in the next year by Detective Superintendent William Mellish, couldn't manage to correct the crazy course it had set. On the other hand (a small note of cheer, spoken neutrally), Sir William's report found no evidence that collusion or corruption by the police had "infected" their investigation.

Mr Straw said he was sure that the House would share his shame that the criminal justice system and the Metropolitan Police in particular had failed the Lawrence family so badly. Sir Paul Condon had asked him to tell the House that he shared the sense of shame also, and that he, like the Government, fully accepted Sir William's findings. But, said Mr Straw, Sir Paul would continue as the Metropolitan Police Commissioner. He had achieved a great deal.

Then came the troublesome phrase: institutional racism. Who could have imagined that these words, so redolent of what used to be known as "the loony left", Charlie and the Chocolate Factory banned from Islington schools, and so on, would be revived so effectively by a former captain in the Scots Guards and honorary colonel in the SAS, Sir William Macpherson of Cluny (hobbies: golf and fishing, address: Newton Castle, Perthshire)? But they have been. The loony left weren't so loony after all. The Government (and Sir Paul) accepts that the condition exists, within the Met and elsewhere.

Mr Straw quoted the definition, and no MP in any later question disagreed with it. It needs to be quoted again:

"Institutional racism consists of the collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people."

It was 3.43 on the ugly digital clock above Mr Straw's head. Inside 13 minutes, so much had been confessed and conceded. A small but significant part of Britain's world had turned.

But what was to be done? Mr Straw said he welcomed the report's 70 wide- ranging recommendations and named a few of them. A new regime of police discipline, the Law Commission to look at (and, I imagine, reject) the legal principle of "double jeopardy", new targets for recruitment to the police of men and women from ethnic minorities, the Race Relations Act to be extended to cover the police and all other public services. All important, but what about the rest of us? Mr Straw said he wanted this report to be "a catalyst of change", to serve as "a watershed in our attitudes to racism". Compared to many other countries, Britain had done well, but it could do better.

He said: "On race equality, let us make Britain a beacon to the world."

I looked at us as he said this, and thought about the statistics that underlay our appearance.

The Metropolitan Police has about 860 black and Asian police officers, 2.3 per cent of the force.

The House of Commons has nine non-white MPs, 1.3 per cent of the membership.

Out of 50 people in the press gallery, one was black.

The total non-white population of Britain is estimated at 5.6 per cent. Of London, it is 20 per cent.

I looked at the government benches. I could find Keith Vaz, Dianne Abbott, Bernie Grant. By its own standards, the Met had done quite well. In the Commons, in this and every other newspaper, in publishing where I work (a "liberal" industry), whiteness, whiteness everywhere, as far as a blue eye can see.

Mr Straw paid his final respects to the Lawrence family and sat down. The shadow Home Secretary, Norman Fowler, made an agreeable little speech. Backbenchers on both sides made small, undissenting points. Would we ever hear a black voices on this black issue?

Eventually, at 4.14pm, Madam Speaker called Bernie Grant. He wore a black safari or perhaps Nehru suit and fiddled with a black walking stick. He looked like something from a finer age - a prime minister from an old colony rather than the Hon Member for Tottenham. He made the only significant contribution to an otherwise pallid procession of regret and hope. He wanted Sir Paul to go. "The fact is that the black population doesn't trust him." And he wanted to warn us that we had all been here before, that we had just as optimistically talked about watersheds after the Scarman report into the riots of the early 1980s.

This, he said, was "the last chance for British society to tackle racism".

At 4.30pm we moved to a statement on Kosovo from Robin Cook. An hour had passed quickly. Think of this odd combination of forces - the Daily Mail, the 27th hereditary chief of the Macpherson clan, the Lawrences from Jamaica, their murdered boy from Eltham.

Bernie Grant may be right: we have been here before in our making of noises. But this time it is hard to believe that we shall not be changed - in fact, already have been.