HC Deb 11 March 1994 vol 239 cc586-9

Order for Second Reading read.

2.8 pm

Mr. Hartley Booth (Finchley)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

A cement holds this nation together. Although we have in the Chamber representative division in the nation, nevertheless three ingredients in the nation hold our people together: first, the spirit and fairness of our people; secondly, the rule of law; and, thirdly, the liberties and freedoms that have come out of the Chamber and the House. All three are challenged by racial dispute, hatred and violence. That is what the Bill seeks to address.

There are serious problems in our nation, the first of which is the lack of awareness of the problem. Some 140,000 complaints of racial abuse were lodged last year and a similar number has been lodged each year for some years, yet the legislation in place has yielded only five prosecutions over the past few years. We cannot say that the law is adequate; we must look at it again.

Mr. John Marshall (Hendon, South)

I thank my hon. Friend and close political neighbour for giving way. Is he willing to join me in condemning some of the vicious, nasty, hateful anti-semitic literature that is circulated in north London, much of which is never prosecuted?

Mr. Booth

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. He is well versed in many racial issues, particularly anti-semitism. I have evidence of the rise of anti-semitic literature. Reports to the Board of Deputies of British Jews have risen by 120 per cent. over 10 years. That worrying element of abuse can be set alongside the 14 racist murders in the past two years and the fact that an act of racist violence is reported every 28 minutes.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mr. Deva), who had difficulty getting into the previous debate, told me earlier this week that a constituent came up to him recently and rudely said that he should go back to the jungle. My hon. Friend illustrated the fundamental point when he told the constituent that 700,000 Indians gave their lives in the past two world wars, including two of his great-uncles, so that that constituent could stand there and say that.

People are not aware of the depth of the problem, which has even reached hon. Members. We need to act.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his initiative, which is fully supported by the Opposition. Is it not terrifying that on an estate in east London, just a few miles from here, racial terror is the order of the day? It is promoted by all the racist, fascist gangs like the British National party. Is it not essential that the Government give positive support to the hon. Gentleman's Bill?

Mr. Booth

Yes, of course. Among Conservative Members there is a well of support to fight racism in all its ghastly guises. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) says that the Opposition support the Bill. I am grateful for that and for the Liberal Democrats' support. I am also grateful for the support given by the chairman of the Bar Council, the president of the Law Society, the Churches Commission for Racial Justice, the Society of Black Lawyers, the Board of Deputies of British Jews and groups throughout the nation. The Bill has had almost unprecedented support. I anticipate some form of welcome from the Government, but I know that they have difficulties with the report of a Select Committee and various other problems.

The Conservative party has a long tradition of standing for the whole nation, which is why we are repelled by racism.

Mr. Nirj Joseph Deva (Brentford and Isleworth)

As a co-sponsor of the Bill, may I say that the Bill is needed because of the growing tide of fascism in Europe and the world. It is time that we identified some of the problems that we wish to avoid in this country.

Mr. Booth

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention. As time is limited, I shall concentrate on the five main provisions in the 14-clause Bill. I cite them in chronological order: the first deals with arrest; the second is intended to improve the case for the prosecution and make the hurdles easier to jump; the third covers sentencing and appeal; the fourth introduces a new civil offence; and the fifth will establish a much-needed register of what has been done about the 140,000 racial incidents reported each year.

The first provision covering arrest has been requested by the police themselves. At present, there is no power to arrest publishers and distributors of the ghastly literature that comes through letter boxes, including mine and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon, South (Mr. Marshall). We also need a power of arrest for racial harassment. The Bill attempts to rectify the extraordinary situation in which a vile but ordinary crime—ordinary in the sense that it is so common, ghastly though it is—is dealt with by the Attorney-General. How can he deal with 140,000 cases a year? It is beyond his Department to do so, and the cases should be dealt with by the Crown Prosecution Service, as suggested in the Bill.

The Bill also changes a definition which has hitherto hindered the prosecution. The prosecution has to prove hatred, which in many cases is far too high a hurdle for prosecutors to jump. Unlike other aspects of criminal law, the prosecution in this case has to prove that not only an individual but a group of people has been hurt. Is the prosecution to bring hundreds of people to court? Of course not. The same rules should apply in this respect as in others. I believe that only one witness who has been hurt by a racist attack should be enough to spark the prosecution into action.

Many of my Conservative colleagues have made the case for the charge of racial violence. We considered the issue with colleagues from the Opposition parties and decided that there was a battery of offences of violence already on the statute book. We concluded that the power of the judge should be restricted and that he should be constrained always to consider the evidence of racism when he or she passed sentence so that the element of race was an aggravating factor.

Finally, the Bill introduces the offence of group defamation. If I or any of my hon. Friends are accused of theft, we can sue for libel or defamation, but if a group of Asians, Africans or any other racial minority were accused of being thieves they would feel offended, hurt and wounded, but they would have no redress in law. The proposal for group defamation would deal with that hurt. It must be regarded as a crime; one would not expect a group of individuals to bring a case if it were not.

I deal now with appeals. At the moment, we have the extraordinary situation where, if a person publishing obscene racist material is found guilty in a lower court, that material can still be published pending his appeal. That must be wrong and the Bill puts it right.

In the limited time available, may I quickly paraphrase what I would otherwise have said about the other areas of the Bill? The Bill contains a new proposition that we should have a civil remedy for racial abuse or harassment. Since the domestic violence civil provisions were introduced in 1976, it has been obvious that it has been of vast use to married couples who have had disputes. The ability to apply for a civil injunction has been very useful. We need that in cases of racism, too.

There is also a proposal for a register and alongside it is the requirement that everyone who makes an entry should record what is done about each allegation.

Ms Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford)

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Front Bench. I simply wish to put it on the record that Labour Front-Bench Members support every measure—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

And the Back Benchers.

Ms Ruddock

Indeed, together with my Back-Bench colleagues, we support everything that the hon. Gentleman has outlined to the House and we are delighted that he has introduced the Bill. However, we fear that he is running out of time.

Mr. Booth

I am most grateful for that. I have been mauled before by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), but I do not mind at this stage because his hon. Friends have supported what I have been saying.

In the light of the unprecedented support, of the compelling arguments which all of us know are right and because of the overwhelming need that we all know is there, I urge the Government to back the proposals either today, or in the near future if they find it administratively difficult at the moment with Select Committees and other areas of business. I press the case for all our people and commend the Bill to the House.

2.27 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

First, may I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth) on the trouble that he has taken to put together his comprehensive Bill and on his tenacity in securing the debate, albeit a short one. Since the Bill was No. 14 in the draw, it is a considerable achievement.

As we do not have very long, I shall make a few brief remarks. I would have liked to say what I think of each part of the Bill, but there will not be time for that. However, if I had, it would have shown why the Government feel that it would not be right for that Bill to go forward at this time. [Interruption.] However, I am certain that hon. Members on both sides of the House share my hon. Friend's abhorrence of racial prejudice, especially when it is manifested in racist propaganda, discrimination, violence and harassment. I have a great—

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West)


Mr. Lloyd

No, I will not give way to the hon. and learned Gentleman.

There are a great many things that I would like to say about the Bill. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend's purpose in many respects, especially his assertion that we need to consider the part of the Public Order Act 1986 which deals with harassment. However, I do not believe that he has chosen the right route, or that his section 10 would do much to help racial minorities or to promote good race relations by making some forms or harassment unlawful when racially motivated. If a nuisance can be committed by ill-disposed people on a family of the same colour—[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister is entitled to be heard. When I am unable to hear because of sedentary interventions,. I take strong objection to it.

Mr. Lloyd

I regret that I am unable to deploy a proper case in the couple of minutes that I have left. However, I am quite certain that it would be a mistake to try to legislate before the House and the country at large have had the benefit of the serious and thorough investigations of the Select Committee, of the racial attacks group, which consists of the police, the Commission for Racial Equality and the relevant Government Departments, and of the special investigation into the workings of the Public Order Act that we have set in motion.

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of those matters. They involve the safety of a minority of our fellow citizens, the peace of mind and confidence of many more and the quality of community relations for virtually everyone.

I am glad that, with the Bill, my hon. Friend has sounded a note of urgency; I feel that note of urgency myself. However, I hope that he will forgive me if I say that a close reading of the Bill also underlines how complex an area this is and how difficult it is to devise amendments to the law which are clear and effective in dealing with the practices that we all deplore. Having read the Bill carefully, I do not think that it fits that requirement.

2.29 pm
Lady Olga Maitland (Sutton and Cheam)


Hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. It is a cardinal principle of the House that an hon. Member be heard.

Lady Olga Maitland

May I give a warm welcome to the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Finchley (Mr. Booth)—[Interruption.] It is appalling that Labour Members should be shouting when we are debating the important issue of racial harassment, which is a subject that we all take very—

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed on Friday 6 May.