It is 28 years since Stephen Lawrence was murdered in south London in an unprovoked racist knife attack, and 22 years since Sir William Macpherson published his groundbreaking report into the police handling of the case. The report led to significant reforms in the law, in policing, in addressing institutional racism and in the attention given to racist crimes. Since then, the pace of reform has slowed. Habits of unequal enforcement have crept back into police relations with black people and other minority communities, slowing the push towards equal recruitment and widening the gap in public confidence. It is past time to take up the cause of reform again.
In an important review of progress and setbacks since Macpherson, the Commons home affairs committee calls today for a new sense of urgency over these vital issues. It is important to recognise that the committee is composed of MPs from across parliament. Four of the members who adopted the report are Conservatives; four, including the chair, Yvette Cooper, are Labour, and one is a Scottish nationalist. In other words, this is a genuinely all-party report, and the authority of its conclusions is greatly enhanced by it.
The MPs acknowledge that much was done after the Macpherson report in 1999. But the committee’s central conclusion is that neither police forces nor governments have taken race equality seriously enough for far too long. This is a serious warning. Without a renewed drive for real change, it could be at least another 20 years before the Macpherson reforms, some of which had already been foreshadowed in the 1981 Scarman report, can create a more effective and legitimised police service that looks like the communities it serves. Even then, more will be needed. Since 1999, the social media revolution has massively enhanced the threat from online racism, which is now a key arena.
The committee demands fresh plans to win community confidence, better skills training and technology, minimum recruitment targets for black, Asian and minority ethnic officers for all forces, a review of police diversity training, greater attention to the retention of minority officers and the appointment of a statutory race equality commissioner for policing. In the face of enduring official police scepticism, the all-party report stands by the Macpherson conclusion that institutional racism is and can be a lived reality, above all in relation to the disproportionate impact of stop-and-search powers, where it argues that action and reform are especially urgent.
This particular wake-up call could hardly be more timely. This week, Boris Johnson and the home secretary, Priti Patel, announced a “beating crime” plan. One of their boasts is to relax the conditions to be met before a “no suspicion” stop and search under the controversial section 60 of the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act is made. Black people are already 18 times more likely than white people to be searched under this power. Deepening unfairness of this kind is at the heart of many of the police-community problems with which the MPs have grappled. Earlier generations of ministers took these problems seriously. So does the select committee. Mr Johnson and Ms Patel do not seem to care. They prefer provoking culture wars. It must not take another racist murder of another black British teenager before today’s leaders come to their senses. But this is the road down which the prime minister and the home secretary are now speeding.