Leading Article: The wrong way to attack racist crime

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YESTERDAY'S report from the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee shows that there are no grounds for complacency on Britain's race relations. But the committee's key recommendation - that Parliament should designate an entirely new class of criminal offences to cover attacks with racial motivation - is misguided.

The report starts from the absence of hard evidence on racist behaviour, and the Government's persistent failure to improve the collection of the necessary statistics. With about 140,000 racist attacks estimated in 1992, of which only one in 20 was reported, the image of Britain as largely immune to the epidemics of racial tension in continental Europe is now clearly out of date. The record of the British National Party and the spate of recent attacks reveal that a minority of people are easily led into overtly racist behaviour.

Most of the committee's 38 recommendations are no more than common sense. Better statistics; tougher penalties and prison sentences for racial harassment; better recruitment of ethnic minorities into the police forces where they are most under-represented; cooperation between police, local councils and other bodies to defuse tensions before they flare up - few could argue with these proposals. Particularly noteworthy is the suggestion that the Crown Prosecution Service should do its best to bring evidence of racial motivation to the attention of the courts.

The committee goes further, however. In a high-minded attempt to reassure members of ethnic minorities, it argues for the creation of a separate class of racially motivated offence, which would be brought to court along with existing offences such as assault, grievous bodily harm and attempted murder.

There are risks with such an approach. The racial offence would be harder to prove than the original offence itself, since the prosecution would need to delve deeply into the perpetrator's motivation. Worse, the very separateness of the new offence might make it impractical. Prosecutors would find it too tempting to plea-bargain away the racial count in a prosecution - and the law could swiftly become a dead letter.

In this instance, Parliament should ignore the report's advice. The committee's aims can be as easily achieved by requiring prosecutors to bring forward evidence of racist intent, and judges to consider that intent when sentencing. If society wishes particularly to discourage racially motivated violence, it should punish those responsible for it with higher fines and longer prison terms.