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Thursday, 9 March, 2000, 18:30 GMT
MPs debate racism law

Stephen Lawrence was murdered in 1993
Home Secretary Jack Straw has warned that Britain's record on racism leaves "no grounds for complacency".

MPs were debating government proposals to tighten up anti-racism legislation in the wake of the report by Sir William Macpherson into the murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence.

The report recommended that the existing Race Relations Act be extended to the police, making it unlawful to discriminate on racial grounds

Jack Straw: Personal satisfaction
But Mr Straw told MPs the government was determined to go even further and extend the act to cover other public authorities.

Introducing the Race Relations (Amendment) Bill's second reading, Mr Straw said the bill formed a fundamental part of the government's programme to achieve equality.

He said that he was proud that the three race relations bills of the last 35 years had been introduced by Labour governments.

"But there are no grounds for complacency," he added. "We know very well that real racial equality has not yet been achieved."

"This bill is about ensuring equality for everyone regardless of their skin colour, their surnames or other irrelevant factors."

Mr Straw explained that the bill had three main purposes.

It would extend the race relations act in relation to discrimination by public authorities, make chief officers of police vicariously liable for acts of racial discrimination by police officers and would amend an exemption under the 1976 act for acts done for the purpose of safeguarding national security.

Ann Widdecombe: Supported bill
Mr Straw also said the government would be amending the bill in relation to indirect discrimination and to place a positive duty on public authorities to promote race equality.

He said the bill would make it unlawful for a public authority to discriminate indirectly as well as directly against a person.

The home secretary said of all the bills he was piloting through Parliament in the current session, this one gave him the most personal satisfaction.

Shadow home secretary Ann Widdecombe said Tories supported the aims of the bill but were concerned about the implications of some provisions.

"Everybody in our society has the right to expect equal treatment from every institution and that includes the public services," she said.

But some parts of the legislation could be a "hindrance rather than a help" in the fight against racism.

Woodward attacks Tories

Police morale had suffered in the wake of the Macpherson Report because officers felt they had been subjected to "unwarranted criticism", Miss Widdecombe said.

If the government was not careful, focusing on institutional racism could "hamper the fight against racism on a personal level", she added.

Mr Straw insisted there was nothing in the bill that would lead to a "diminution" in police effectiveness.

Simon Hughes, Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said he was pleased the government had conceded the move from direct discrimination to indirect discrimination.

Some 25% of his constituents were black or Asian.

"Almost every week at my surgery, people come to see me who are being racially harassed simply because of the colour of their skin," said Mr Hughes.

But former Tory frontbencher Shaun Woodward, who defected to Labour last year, criticised the Conservative Party over its attitude to racism, saying some MPs would use "discrimination for short term political gain".

He said: "It should be condemned and not championed by the leader of the opposition.

"The idea of using immigration to hurt, to use discrimination as a weapon to stir up prejudice and thereby secure votes simply beggars belief."

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