Bill Morris: The racism that lies at the heart of this Government

'By heralding measures to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to racists'
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Indy Politics

Imagine the scene. The House of Commons full, ready for a statement from the Chancellor. Gordon Brown takes his position at the Despatch Box to announce that the Government had conceded that the Treasury was "economically illiterate". The immediate repercussions would be enormous. Sterling would go into free-fall. The IMF would arrive at 11 Downing Street in hours. Members of the OECD would begin to distance themselves from the UK economy.

Of course, this scenario is unreal. And yet we have seen effectively the same thing happen in the Home Office and barely a hair has turned. Last week Michael O'Brien, the Home Office minister, announced that the Home Office was "institutionally racist". The Home Office is the department of government responsible for immigration, our police and prison service, as well as driving forward constitutional change, and yet the minister says that they are "institutionally racist".

If the Home Office is "institutionally racist" then the decisions and the policies at the heart of Government must be tarred with this brush.

In some respects it's not surprising. How else can you explain their recent decision to charge a £10,000 bond from Indian visitors; or the changes to the criminal justice system that will disproportionately affect the black community; or the utterly insane plan to give asylum-seekers vouchers rather than money?

Our multi-racial community is already under pressure from elements of British society. We know the Metropolitan Police has been branded as institutionally racist. Stories of racial attacks - most recently on our athletes - are never far from the headlines. Bigoted individuals such as David Irving continue to gain huge media interest for their obscene views.

And yet, what do we get from our Government? The very same people who say the Home Office is institutionally racist? We get brickbats and the language of confrontation regarding asylum-seekers. The UN has charged the Tories with whipping up racial intolerance. But the Home Secretary and the Home Office team must accept responsibility for creating the environment where this is acceptable. The mood music is playing a hostile tune for black Britons. But it is the Home Office, and indeed the ministers, who are playing their part in the orchestra. By heralding measure after measure to stop people entering Britain, the Home Office has given life to the racists.

Just over one year ago the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, caught the national mood with his comments welcoming the Macpherson Report. In accepting the damning criticisms of the Metropolitan Police, and paying tribute to the dignity and determination of Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville Lawrence, the Home Secretary gave many people hope that the murder of Stephen Lawrence would be a watershed for race relations in Britain.

After all, surely every decent person would share the goal that the Home Secretary set out that day: "In terms of race equality, let us make Britain a beacon to the world."

The Macpherson Report seems to have been used by the Home Office as an opportunity for positive public relations to the black community, and yet initiative after initiative since then has had a negative, and in some instances discriminatory, effect upon the black community.

We have seen the Home Office press ahead with its plans to restrict the right to trial by jury, knowing that the consequences of this change will fall disproportionately heavily upon black defendants.

We have had the repugnant proposal to charge some visitors from the Indian subcontinent £10,000 as a bond if immigration officials suspect that they intend to remain in the country after their visas run out.

And we have seen the discriminatory policy of giving asylum-seekers vouchers in place of cash to buy food, clothes and other essentials.

Taking the Home Office's immigration policy beyond parody, we now learn that refugees will not even receive change in cash when spending these vouchers. So we now have the extraordinary situation whereby a Labour Government is redistributing wealth from penniless refugees to supermarket giants such as Tesco and Sainsbury's.

But worse even than the content of these proposals has been the climate of fear and loathing that the Home Office has allowed to foster around asylum and immigration issues.

The Conservatives, in conjunction with the right-wing press, have been able to capitalise on the situation by running a host of scare stories bemoaning the flood of asylum-seekers threatening to overrun the UK. Well, that is not a reality that I recognise.

The message to the Home Office is clear. If you want to tackle institutionalised racism then you have to take a stand. There is a time when every nation has to redefine the direction of its future. I hoped that the Macpherson Report would be that turning point for Britain.

There is still time. But, the Home Office must be told. You will never come up with an immigration policy that will be acceptable to Ann Widdecombe and her xenophobic cronies. We should not even try.

It is time to reclaim Labour as the party of civil rights. Every institution should understand the message of the Macpherson Report and act upon it.

If the Home Office is institutionally racist, then it follows that its decisions and culture must also be infected. It is the culture that the minister identifies that is at the heart of policy.

How can black Britain have confidence in policy until we eradicate the racist culture?

Jack Straw has said, "Race is the key thing on which I want to be judged." Up to today many black Britons will want to reserve judgement. But, if there isn't a radical change of direction, then the judgement may well fall on the Government as a whole.