Limiting race legislation
Anti-racist campaigners were shocked to find that the Queen’s speech, heralding the legislation for the next parliament, effectively went back on the government’s promise (in the light of Macpherson) to extend race relations legislation to cover all public bodies, including the police and prison service. For the new bill will only relate to acts of direct discrimination and will not cover ‘indirect discrimination’ or allow the CRE to initiate investigations. This means that there are no powers to tackle exactly the kind of ‘collective failure’ identified in the Macpherson report as the basis of institutionalised racism.
Restricting jury trial
Other proposed pieces of legislation will also serve to entrench, rather than dismantle, racism. The proposal to take the right to choose jury trial from defendants accused of minor thefts, handling, criminal damage and assault and give the decision to magistrates will affect an estimated 18,500 defendants per year, a disproportionate number of them black.
Critics refer to home office research showing that a much higher proportion of black defendants choose jury trial than whites, believing that they have a better chance of acquittal there than in front of the magistrates, who are perceived to be on the side of the police. Research shows they are right, and that magistrates send a higher proportion of black defendants to prison than whites. A two-tier justice system will be created, which will ensure that poor, black defendants have their cases tried by magistrates while middle-class whites can argue that because their reputation is at stake, they should be given jury trial for a minor offence.
There is already much evidence to show that black defendants are being consistently over-charged (by the police). Research shows that, on review, the CPS often reduce or drop charges faced by black defendants. But if cases no longer go to jury trial, the CPS will no longer be performing this review. The small safeguard against wrongful convictions for black defendants contained in committal for trial will be lost.
Extending police powers
There was much disappointment that the Macpherson report, although acknowledging the discriminatory nature of stop-and-search by the police and the way it contributed to black hostility towards the police, did not recommend its abolition. Instead it merely emphasised the need for a written record of each stop, including the reasons for it. Such records are a way of allowing post-hoc justification of wrongdoing, not a way of preventing it. But since then proposals have been announced to allow officers to take fingerprints on the streets and to subject arrested suspects to drugs tests. In both these areas there are fears that black people will be disproportionately targeted.
New terror bill
Sweeping new powers for the police, customs and MI5 to target individuals suspected of terrorism could also have an important impact on black people. For the first time a prevention of terrorism law will apply to domestic groups which threaten violence to advance a political, religious or ideological cause. Presumably members of anti-fascist or black nationalist groups could find themselves caught up under these provisions.
The bill will also affect representatives of foreign-based groups and dissidents campaigning from the UK, which could mean that a whole host of refugees and asylum-seekers could find their assets seized and their mail, faxes, phone-calls and emails intercepted. These provisions will legitimise and extend the scope for raids on community groups like those on Kurdish organisations in 1996.