The British government has been accused by some of its own supporters of lacking commitment in the battle against racism, following the rejection in Parliament last week of tough new anti-racist legislation.
Parliament members from both sides of the House sharply criticized government ministers for opposing amendments to the Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which would have created specific laws against racial violence and harassment.
Even the passing of the government’s own amendment, which makes the production and distribution of racist publications an offense that could lead to arrest, did little to blunt their comments.
Two Jewish Conservative members of Parliament, Sir Ivan Lawrence and David Sumberg, voted against the government, led by their own party, by supporting an additional amendment to introduce longer sentences for crimes involving racially motivated violence.
The government’s stand brought expressions of dismay from anti-racist groups, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Inter-Parliamentary Council Against Anti-Semitism.
In a two-hour debate on April 12, the House considered a draft of anti-racist amendments, presented by Lawrence, who is chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and backed mainly by the opposition.
Lawrence told the House that his committee, which is soon to publish a report on racial violence, believes that racism is spreading and that the situation is so serious “that the present state of the law is simply not enough.”
He called for “a strong signal” of the authorities’ intention to take the problem of racist violence seriously.
Home Office Minister Peter Lloyd made it clear in his reply that the government was opposed to the amendments.
There were angry mutterings when he said, “We do not want to bring about circumstances in which a mugged pensioner could say, however unfairly, that if he had been black, his assailant would have had to receive a much heavier sentence. Why introduce a potent source of misunderstanding?”
Sumberg, who with Lawrence and another Conservative member, Hugh Dykes, abstained in the voting, told the London Jewish Chronicle, “I felt there was a lack of commitment to take action and a feeling of complacency.
“Home office officials are not sufficiently aware of the concerns of the Asian and Jewish communities. All is not well and I can’t pretend it is,” Sumberg said.
Dykes also said there was a lack of understanding among government leaders about the need to grapple with racism. “People who are not affected by it do not realize how horrendous it is. We will continue to fight to toughen the law,” he said.