MPs seek extra jail deterrent for race attacks: Concern grows over rise of extremism

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The Independent Online
RACIALLY-motivated attacks should carry an extra jail term of up to five years, the all-party Home Affairs Select Committee proposed yesterday.

The committee has tabled a new offence of racial violence in an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill.

Clause 99 states that a person would be guilty of a racially motivated attack, ranging from common assault to grievous bodily harm, if it was initiated because of colour, race, nationality or ethnic origin. On conviction, the offender would be liable for up to five years' jail on top of the sentence for the assault alone.

There were an estimated 140,000 racially-motivated incidents, including attacks and intimidation, in 1992, although only a tiny proportion are reported. Even so, the number of reported cases has doubled since 1988 to more than 8,700 cases in 1993 - an increase of about 1,000 on 1992.

Despite the support of MPs, chief constables and anti-racist groups for a new offence of racial violence, the Government is likely to oppose the amendment when it is considered in the Commons during the final two days of the Bill's Report Stage next month. Without government support it is unlikely to become law.

The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has acknowledged the need to strengthen the law in the face of a rising number of attacks, but he has argued that existing legislation is sufficient. At present, judges can take racial motivation into account as an aggravating factor when sentencing, but they are not obliged to do so, and they cannot not impose a term above the maximum set down for the original offence. In addition, Mr Howard has argued that a new offence could cause more harm than good by putting an extra burden on police to prove not only that the offence took place, but also that it was racially motivated.

The select committee earlier this year criticised existing public order legislation, arguing it was insufficient to deal with the growing number of racial attacks.

The Tory MP Sir Ivan Lawrence, chairman of the select committee, said he did not believe the Government appreciated the extent to which racism was increasing or the fear it caused.

He said: 'With the rise of extremist organisations in Europe and, inevitably, to some extent in Britain, it is time to build up our defences against the cancer of racism brought home to us so powerfully in the film Schindler's List.

'This new offence is an obvious way in which the law might reasonably and not excessively be strengthened to give more protection and reassurance to ethnic minority communities and hopefully deter would-be extremists.'