We can tackle racism now it's out in the open, says CPS chief

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The Independent Online

"Don't leave your bag there, or it might get nicked," warns the Director of Public Prosecutions as he leads the way into his office at the central London headquarters of the Crown Prosecution Service.

It is, perhaps, a testament to David Calvert-Smith's resilience that he still has a sense of humour at a time when his organisation is battered as never before by accusations of racism and bias.

Critics of the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) suggest that findings of institutional racism, by two recent independent inquiries, represent the service's lowest point since its foundation in 1986, when the CPS took over responsibility from the police for bringing prosecutions in England and Wales.

But Mr Calvert-Smith is determined to move on and regards such damning assessments of the CPS as an opportunity for reform of the organisation over which he presides. He recalls a remark by one of the many journalists he spoke to on the afternoon of the publication of the report, by Sylvia Denman, into race discrimination at the CPS, that it must be a "very bad day" for the service.

"My reaction was then, and is now, actually no, it's a rather good day," he says. Tapping the 113-page Denman report by the black barrister, which sits on his desk, he adds: "It's all here, all out in the open, we all know and cannot hide from the facts ­ and we take comfort from the fact that there was no overt racist behaviour discovered."

The DPP is even prepared to venture: "I think we are in a much better position in 2001 than we have been for many, many years."

His own upbeat assessment of the prosecution service in England and Wales, half-way through his five-year term of office, is borne out, he believes, by some conclusions in the Denman report. Parts of Ms Denman's 18-month inquiry, says Mr Calvert-Smith, are even "complimentary" about progress that has been made since her preliminary report last year.

But the huge majority of the findings, and those that followed a separate inquiry by the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) into employment practices in the CPS office in Croydon, are highly critical.

Ms Denman has detected, since the start of her inquiry, a "backlash" from white members of staff who have accused ethnic minority prosecutors of "playing the race card". One has even suggested it was white lawyers who were being discriminated against in the service.

The CRE report, published on the same day as Ms Denman's, found that black officers and white officers were segregated in one south London CPS office, leading to what one Asian prosecutor described yesterday as "apartheid" working conditions.

The study concluded that under new laws the CPS could have faced prosecution for allowing one floor in the Croydon branch office to be occupied by ethnic minority staff only, while the one below was dominated by white workers.

Mr Calvert-Smith is the first to admit that one of his biggest battles will be against complacency. On the day of the publication of the two reports, the DPP was ready to accept that, under Sir William Macpherson of Cluny's definition, the CPS was indeed institutionally racist. But he says this is true of many other organisations and that what Ms Denman found was something far removed from the "canteen culture" of racism that has characterised other public services, such as the police.

While Ms Denman, an academic barrister, found that institutional racism "has been and continues to be at work in the CPS", she also stressed that this did not mean that "all, or indeed any" of the CPS staff were racist "in the everyday sense of the word".

He says this is not a distinction that the media has always appreciated. "Of course there are days when, frankly, the headlines are more lurid than the reality."

But Mr Calvert-Smith also accepts that he and his staff "have to take this on the chin". By the time his successor has been appointed he hopes, he says, to have turned these headlines around. He hopes then the CPS will be able to claim to be a "paragon in terms of fairness and equality ... and can defend itself against any charge of institutional bias in its prosecution".

Did he realise just what a demanding task lay ahead of him when he accepted the post in 1999? He says: "I had no idea at all ­ you really are an innocent abroad. But I certainly don't regret doing this incredibly exciting and challenging job."