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Passionate debate on a landmark in race relations

Black groups respond with mixed messages, writes Amelia Gentleman

Thursday February 25, 1999
The Guardian

The long-awaited publication of the report provoked impassioned reaction and controversy last night. Most people heralded Sir William Macpherson's findings as a landmark in British race relations, but some pressure groups felt Sir William could have been stronger in his criticism of the police.

There were suggestions that Sir Paul Condon, the Metropolitan police commissioner, should have been forced to resign, debate on Sir William's very broad definition of institutionalised racism and controversy about suggested changes to the law on double jeopardy.

The Commission for Racial Equality responded with unqualified enthusiasm. 'The commitment by the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary to drive home a programme of change represents a historic step forward for all our people,' a spokesman said .'This is a defining moment for race relations in Britain.'

The Institute for Race Relations was also welcoming. 'This is a landmark finding on a par with Lord Justice Salmon's findings after the 1958 Notting Hill riots that 'everyone, irrespective of the colour of their skin, is entitled to walk through the streets... free from fear',' a spokesman said. 'But if the police are to take on ridding the force of institutional racism it needs commitment from the media and vigilence from the public.'

Lord Scarman, author of a report into the 1981 Brixton riots, said he felt vindicated by Sir William's findings. The law lord whose recommendations were largely ignored by Margaret Thatcher's government said British race relations had not dramatically improved since then. 'The whole thing was anticipated in my report on Brixton. I stand by what I said then.'

The Society of Black Lawyers and the Association of Black Probation Officers were among several organisations to warn that more was needed if the affair was to have a positive outcome, and argued that Sir Paul should be forced to resign. 'His position is untenable. This is inevitable given the scale of the criticism of the Metropolitan police,' a spokesman said. 'He no longer carries the trust and confidence of the black community.'

But the British Sikh Federation said it hoped Sir Paul would remain to see through the changes recommended. 'Other police services have admitted institutionalised racial discrimination and it would be pointless and damaging to expect so many chief constables to resign,' the group said in a statement. 'The police officers on duty or at fault should resign or be dismissed instead.'

Ghayasuddin Siddiqui, leader of the Muslim Parliament, said the report was 'a major step towards creating a culture of tolerance'.

The Black Police Association also gave the report its full support, describing institutional racism in the Met as 'an-age old problem'. Spokesman Paul Wilson said a review of every facet of police life was urgently needed if lasting improvements were to be made.

The Archbishop of Canterbury called for the 'deficiencies' of the Meptropolitan police to be 'addressed with urgency, rigour and determination,' and the Bishop of Southwark, the Rt Rev Tom Butler, whose Anglican diocese covers Eltham where Stephen was murdered, added he was not surprised by the assertion that 'pernicious and institutional racism' existed in the Met. 'No institution, including the Church, has done enough to combat racism. This must change.'

The report's call for changes to the rules against double jeopardy to allow a second prosecution proved controversial. A Bar Council spokesman said: 'We must not face a situation where the state can endlessly prosecute unpopular defendants until they get the 'right result'.'

The director of the human rights organisation Liberty, John Wadham, had concerns about civil liberties. 'This will be used more often against black people than white,' he said.

Sir William's definition of the term 'institutionalised racism' caused further debate. Some groups welcomed its breadth; others expressed disappointment at the implication that racist behaviour could be 'unwitting'. Sir Herman Ouseley, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, praised its constructive approach. 'Very often the racism is unwitting,' he said. 'And we should not be seeking to blame people.'

But for the Society of Black Lawyers and the Association of Black Probation Officers the definition was too weak. 'There is overwhelming evidence that there are many serving police officers up and down the country that deliberately and knowingly target and stereotype members of the African, Caribbean and Asian community,' a spokesman said.

'The Macpherson definition of institutionalised racism therefore falls short of the reality experienced by the black community.'




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