The Lawrence Report: And on the next day, it was the same old story: racism, bungling, incompetence

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BRAVE new dawn for British race relations was just a few hours old yesterday when an extraordinary series of blunders heralded a fresh storm of bigotry, fear and accusation.

In Eltham, south-east London, racist vandals had daubed white paint in an overnight attack on the memorial plaque for the murdered black teenager Stephen Lawrence. The affront was exacerbated by the fact that the police security camera installed to deter such attacks was a dummy.

Then it emerged that in a major error of judgement, the names and addresses of 40 informants and witnesses who gave confidential evidence to police investigating Stephen's death had been published in an appendix to Wednesday's inquiry report.

Even the Government's plans to legislate for improved racial harmony were thrown off course as it was revealed that any new race relations Bill could be delayed until after the general election.

Yesterday, police officers visited the homes of the identified informants and witnesses to offer them protection and reassurance. Hundreds of copies of the Lawrence report have been circulated to representatives of the five suspects, the media, police, race groups and members of the public.

The publication of the informants' identities will come as a great embarrassment to Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, who received the inquiry report nine days ahead of its publication. At least 10 advance copies were presented to Home Office officials, who failed to spot the mistake. Speaking near the vandalised memorial yesterday, Mr Straw said: "It's an independent judicial inquiry and therefore it would be wholly wrong for myself, in the Home Office, to go through this report, checking. The error was drawn to my attention this morning."

Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's inquiry team yesterday accepted the blame for the error. "It's a mistake and it's our responsibility. We very much regret what happened," said a spokeswoman.

Some of the named informants, many of whom live in neighbouring streets to the murder suspects, were clearly worried about possible consequences. One woman said: "I'm appalled. I thought this information was going to be given to the police in confidence."

A mother, also named, said: "If people think their names are going to be made public and put in the papers, there is no way they will help the police again."

Jenny Watson, of the Victim Support counselling group, said: "I would have thought the potential for intimidation in this case is horrifying. Given that they are still trying to bring a case to court for this murder, to then list the names and addresses of people who have come forward hardly gives people the confidence to offer information. It is incomprehensible how this happened."

In a neighbourhood where residents have spoken of a climate of fear, other identified informants were anxious to play down the amount of help they had given. "I didn't give the police anything specific," said one woman. The report identified her as having named the Acourt brothers.

Another woman said: "It's disgusting. It makes it sound as if I phoned up the police."

Over five pages, the inquiry team reproduced a calendar of evidence received by the police in the first 15 days of the murder inquiry. The calendar, which was compiled by Kent police during their review of the Metropolitan Police murder investigation, gives the names and addresses of informants, with the information they gave. It also identifies private homes that were used for police surveillance of the suspects.

The comments of a neighbour of one of the prime suspects are published. Several other possible suspects are publicly named, some on the word of anonymous informants.

Opposition MPs used the blunder to undermine the credibility of the entire inquiry. The Tory MP David Maclean, a former Home Office minister, said: "Its incompetence over these appendices must cast some doubt on their competence to make other judgements."

Clive Efford, the Labour MP for Eltham, described the inclusion of informants' names as a "catastrophic error".

Chief Superintendent David Clapperton of Kent police, who compiled the document, said he was "horrified" the details had been published and complained his force had not been given an advance copy.

The Home Office tried to limit the damage by preventing any further circulation of the appendices and withdrawing them from a government website.

On his visit to the desecrated memorial in Eltham, Mr Straw was joined by Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville. A member of the Lawrence party said: "They are both pleased that they took his body back to Jamaica. God knows what these racists would have done to his grave."

The Independent has also learnt that the race relations legislation promised by the Home Secretary in his statement on Wednesday might not be fully implemented until after the general election. Any such delay will prompt fears that the Lawrence report could go the way of the Scarman inquiry, promising much, but failing to deliver fundamental change.