Lord Irvine of Lairg, Labour's shadow Lord Chancellor, has tabled amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill which would create a new offence of racially motivated violence and make it easier to convict on existing incitement and harassment charges.
The new offence would add up to five years to the prison sentence of anyone convicted of a violent racially motivated crime. The changes have the backing of the Commission for Racial Equality and peers from all parties.
The peers' move is prompted by growing alarm at the rise in racially motivated crimes, with British Crime Survey figures suggesting there were 130,000 such incidents in 1993. 'The present law is simply not adequate,' Lord McIntosh, the Labour frontbench home affairs spokesman, said. 'Between 1987 and 1993 there were only 13 prosecutions for incitement and harassment.'
Lord Irvine's bid to tighten the law comes after similar amendments tabled by Sir Ivan Lawrence, Conservative chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, were defeated in the Commons in April. Ministers later promised to introduce their own measure. The CRE fears the Government's plans, which outline a broad and not specifically racial offence of harassment, could become 'a new 'sus' law, used against black and ethnic minority people'.
Campaigners are confident that their amendments will succeed today, but they may have more trouble sustaining them when the bill returns to the Commons.
The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, has acknowledged the need to strengthen the law in the face of rising violence, 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 are not obliged to do so. Mr Howard has also argued that any new offence could do more harm than good by placing an extra burden on police to prove that a crime was racially motivated.
Joan Ruddock, Labour's home affairs spokeswoman, said the Government 'would have a terrific battle on its hands' if it tried to overturn any successful Lords amendments. 'There is tremendous strength of feeling,' she said.Reuse content