Stephen Lawrence: how his murder changed the legal landscape

The Macpherson report made 70 recommendations – 67 led to specific changes in practice or law within two years of publication

The murder of Stephen Lawrence in an unprovoked, racist attack 20 years ago has had a profound and lasting impact on attitudes to race in Britain and triggered change across the public sector.

But the police, whose investigation into Stephen's death was found to have been marred by professional incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership, have struggled to keep up with that pace of change.

It took more than five years of campaigning by Stephen's parents, Doreen and Neville, before the home secretary, Jack Straw, announced in July 1997 a judicial inquiry by Sir William Macpherson into the police investigation into their son's death. When it was finally published nearly two years later, amidst an atmosphere of leaks, high court injunctions and open hostility amongst some sections of the police it was feared that, like the Scarman report into the Brixton riots in the early 1980s, it would be left to gather dust.

But more than a decade later Macpherson can rightly claim to have led to an overhaul of Britain's race relations legislation which created the strongest battery of anti-discrimination powers to be found in western Europe.

Straw, who can rightly claim the credit for the Macpherson inquiry, said at the time he hoped it would prove "a watershed in attitudes towards racism. I want it to act as a catalyst for permanent and irrevocable change, not just across our public services, but across the whole of society...We must make equality a reality."

Straw has recently claimed that the report has played a key part in a "deep-seated cultural change" towards race in Britain: "The pervasive, open racism of the fifties and sixties, the pernicious, sniggering racism of the seventies, eighties and nineties is gone. For that we have to thank Doreen and Neville Lawrence, above all others."

But as Straw himself is also quick to acknowledge there is still a long way to go – with serious allegations of continued racist behaviour by the police a persistent and ugly feature of the criminal justice system.

There are still too few black people in leading roles in Cameron's Britain. Politicians are fond of pointing out that there are now four times as many black and Asian MPs in the Commons now as they were in 1993. But that is still only halfway there at 28 or 4% of the 650 total number of MPs at a time when Britain's minority ethnic groups make up 9% of the population. While one British Asian woman does now sits around the Cabinet table every Tuesday, Parliament remains overwhelmingly the preserve of white, middle-class men.

Gary Dobson and David Norris
Gary Dobson, left, and David Norris, right, were convicted in January 2012 of Stephen Lawrence's murder. Photograph: AFP Photograph: AFP

The political momentum behind the drive for racial equality has been lost. Some complain that the recent official focus on disability discrimination and gay and lesbian equality has been at the expense of the anti-racism drive.

The Macpherson report made 70 recommendations – 67 of which had led to specific changes in practice or the law within two years of its publication. They included the introduction of detailed targets for the recruitment, retention and promotion of black and Asian officers. The creation of the Independent Police Complaints Commission with the power to appoint its own investigators. The abolition of the "double jeopardy rule" – that nobody could be tried for the same crime twice – eventually led to the conviction of Gary Dobson and David Norris for Stephen's murder at the Old Bailey in January 2012.

The new definition of a racial incident has obliged the police to investigate every incident that the victim believes to be racially motivated and heavier penalties means the courts recognise that crimes motivated purely by hatred are different. The extension of such 'hate crimes' to cover attacks motivated by somebody's religion, sexuality, disability or gender has also increased public confidence in the willingness of the police to tackle this kind of crime.

Macpherson's most controversial finding was his use of the term "institutional racism" which he explained as the "collective failure of an organisation to provide a professional service … through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people".

Its impact was electric and it was initially disowned by then Metropolitan police commissioner, Sir Paul Condon, who wrongly took it to mean that every officer in his force was being branded a racist. He later accepted a redrawn definition making it clearer that it was racist outcome rather than racial motivation that was the issue. But the myth had been born and down the years every right-wing columnist has used it to condemn any form of anti-racism as political correctness, preferably 'gone mad'.

police hats
The Lawrence case has fundamentally changed the way the police investigate murders. Photograph: Peter J Ordan/PA Photograph: Peter J Ordan/PA

For some Met police officers, their anger at Macpherson remains as strong as ever as was recently demonstrated by the newly elected police and crime commissioner for Surrey, Kevin Hurley, who is a former Met commander. Justifying his distinct lack of interest in diversity recruitment targets, he dismissed Macpherson earlier this year as suffering "post-colonial guilt".

It was Macpherson's insistence that the full force of the 1976 Race Relations Act should be brought to bear not only on the police but across the whole of the public sector. It is not realised now but until the 2000 Race Relations (Amendment) Act, the police and many other public bodies including the immigration service, were exempt from the race relations legislation. The new legislation extended protection of the law to the victims of discrimination by public bodies for the first time. It made clear that discrimination could take place indirectly as well as directly. It also placed a general duty on public bodies to promote equality of opportunity and good race relations.

The move triggered a self-examination of recruitment, retention and promotion policies across Britain not just in the public sector but in major private sector employers as well as it became a major benchmark for newly emerging human resources departments and their rapidly developing diversity policies.

Macpherson's report undoubtedly shook the police out of their complacency but it seems that their progress in tackling these issues has been far more patchy than the rest of Britain.

Police cordon
Nearly 60% of the public believe the police response to such cases is quicker, fairer and less racist. Photograph: Andrew Stuart/AP Photograph: AP

For the police, the Lawrence case has fundamentally changed the way they investigate murders and support the families of murder victims with the appointment of family liaison officers. Despite that, Doreen Lawrence has said too many officers still assume that black victims of violence are themselves involved in criminal activity.

The police also struggled to get anywhere near their Home Office target of matching the ethnic make-up of England and Wales by employing 7% of their officers from black and minority ethnic groups by 2009.

Progress has undoubtedly been made since 1993 when the proportion of minority ethnic officers was stuck at only 2%. By December 2008 the figure had reached just over 4%. The target has since been abandoned and the latest numbers for 2012 show that the proportion has reached 5%. That is a total of only 6,664 officers out of 134,101 officers across England and Wales and some officers still complain about specialist squads where black or Asian people are said not to fit.

So the police are a little nearer to meeting Straw's aspiration their ranks should one day reflect the communities they serve. But while police numbers grew from 2% to 5% the general minority ethnic population has grown from 7% to 9% so the gap remains substantial.

Meanwhile some of the newly elected police and crime commissioners have talked of their hopes of seeing a more representative service but few if any have set actual diversity targets for their force. The evidence also mounts up that black and Asian officers are less likely to get promoted and more likely to face disciplinary action.

No wonder Sir Peter Fahy, the Greater Manchester chief constable, has said that legislation allowing positive discrimination is going to be needed to end the embarrassing lack of black and brown people at the top of British policing.

Recent polling by Britain Thinks for British Future confirms a majority of the public believe there is less racial prejudice now than there was in 1993. But it also shows there remains a clear lack of confidence in policing amongst the black and Asian communities with only 35% thinking it is generally fairer today.

Perhaps the most important police activity is stop and search which has been described as "the central historical flashpoint" in relations between black people and the police.

In 1993 when Stephen Lawrence was murdered a black person was five times more likely to be stopped and searched on the street under section one powers in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act. The latest numbers compiled 14 years after the Macpherson inquiry reported show that black people are now seven times more likely to be stopped and searched than white. In London, the gap is actually getting worse. with 52% of all stops involving black and minority ethnic people -f ar in excess of their proportion in the populationThis problem of the disproportionate treatment of minority ethnic people runs right through the criminal justice system all the way to the prison cell - albeit in less stark terms. As last year's "Reading the Riots" research showed stop and search remains a major problem.

The British Future poll said that nearly 60% of the public believe the police response to such cases is now quicker, fairer and less racist. The police say that much has changed over the past decade and there is now a firm desire throughout policing, especially within its leadership, to tackle racism more robustly. Doreen Lawrence says that determination has yet to be shared by every constable on the beat. That is the limit of Stephen Lawrence's legacy.


Alan Travis, home affairs editor

The GuardianTramp

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