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Last Updated: Tuesday, 27 April, 2004, 12:36 GMT 13:36 UK
Q&A: The Scarman Report
Railton Road, Brixton after the riot
Lord Scarman identified racial disadvantage and inner-city decline
On the weekend of the 10-12 April 1981 hundreds of mostly black youths rioted in Brixton, South London.

Police were attacked with stones, bricks, iron bars and petrol bombs - this was the first time petrol bombs had been used in mainland Britain.

The worst incidences occurred in the evening of Saturday 11 April when 279 policemen and at least 45 members of the public were injured.

Widespread looting took place, 28 buildings were damaged or destroyed by fire as well as police cars and other vehicles.

In 1981 Brixton was in economic and social decline. It had a housing shortage despite a falling population, many low income households, one-parent families and high incidences of disability and mental illness.

At a time of national recession, unemployment in Brixton stood at 13% and 25.4% for ethnic minorities. Unemployment among black youths was estimated at 55%.

Brixton was not alone and street riots occurred in other impoverished inner-city areas of Britain that summer such as Toxteth in Liverpool and Moss Side in Manchester.

What were the terms of reference?

Lord Scarman was appointed by then Home Secretary William Whitelaw to hold a 'local inquiry' on 14 April.

Its terms of reference were "to inquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10-12 April 1981 and to report, with the power to make recommendations".

Inquiry staff

  • Lord Scarman;
  • Philip Mawer, Secretary and Nicholas Montgomery Pott, Assistant Secretary;
  • Ted McCormick and Melissa Grant of the Home Office;
  • Counsel for the Inquiry: Mr R Auld QC, Mr JGM Laws and Mr L Crawford.

Who gave evidence?

  • Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis (Counsel - Mr J Hazan QC and Mr L Marshall Concern;
  • Council for Community Relations of Lambeth ;
  • London Borough of Lambeth
  • Brixton local community groups and clubs;
  • Brixton Legal Defence Group;
  • Commission for Racial Equality

What did the report say?

Lord Scarman said "complex political, social and economic factors" created a "disposition towards violent protest".

He found the disorders were not planned but a spontaneous outburst of built-up resentment sparked by particular incidents.

He found loss of confidence and mistrust in the police and their methods of policing. Liason arrangements between police, community and local authority had already collapsed before the disturbances.

He recommended concerted efforts to recruit more ethnic minorities into the police force, and changes in training and law enforcement.

Home Secretary William Whitelaw visits Brixton after the riots
William Whitelaw visited Brixton before appointing Lord Scarman
The problems of racial disadvantage and inner-city decline were highlighted and a more concerted and co-ordinated approach to tackling them was seen as essential.

"Institutional racism" did not exist, he said, pointing instead to "racial disadvantage" and "racial discrimination".

His warning was stark: "Urgent action" was needed to prevent racial disadvantage becoming an "endemic, ineradicable disease threatening the very survival of our society".

Positive discrimination to tackle racial disadvantage was "a price worth paying".

What was the reaction?

Some of Lord Scarman's reforms were implemented. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 set out the way police officers were to carry out their duties. It stated specific codes of practices for police procedures and established the rights of people detained by the police for a suspected crime or offence.

But the Commission for Racial Equality says his wider social and economic reforms were "seriously out of key" with the political tempo of the times.

Lord Scarman later acknowledged he could have been "more outspoken about the necessity of affirmative action to overcome racial disadvantage".

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