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Tony Blair blocked racial inequality strategy following Stephen Lawrence murder inquiry

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Tony Blair vetoed a 10-year plan to tackle racial inequality in the wake of the landmark report into the racist murder of Stephen Lawrence for fear that legislating on all its recommendations would create “too many hostages to fortune”.

The Macpherson Report, published early in 1999 with the key finding that the Scotland Yard investigation into Stephen’s murder in south-east London six years earlier had failed in part due to “institutional racism”, made 70 proposals for anti-racist reforms in policing and across civil society.

Documents released at the National Archives in Kew, west London, show that then home secretary Jack Straw, who had commissioned the Macpherson inquiry when New Labour came to power in 1997, was ready to embrace the 350-page report’s findings and drew up proposals for a white paper laying out in law a 10-year strategy for tackling racial inequality.

The inquiry into the murder of Stephen, a black teenager, delivered a devastating critique of failings within the Metropolitan Police and singled out individual officers alongside a core finding that the investigation into the killing had been hobbled by “a combination of profession incompetence, institutional racism and a failure of leadership”.

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But the papers show Mr Straw’s proposals drew markedly less enthusiasm in Downing Street, where officials and Mr Blair expressed doubts about the ramifications of some measures, including a suggestion that there be a presumption of dismissal for any police officer found to have made racist remarks or committed a racist act.

In a letter to Mr Blair shortly before publication of the findings of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, headed by retired High Court judge Sir William Macpherson, Mr Straw urged the then prime minister to back his initiative to put race equality at the heart of New Labour’s policy making agenda.

Setting out his proposal for legislation, Mr Straw said: “At the extreme, black and Asian youngsters have observed their grandparents and parents suffer discrimination, harassment and racial violence and are developing very hardened attitudes against the white community… We have to win back their confidence in the institutions of British society.”

The response from Number 10 was cautious, with Mr Blair expressing concern that a white paper could presage a “regulation nightmare”.

In one memo, Angus Lapsley, an adviser in Mr Blair’s private office, said he and colleagues were “cool” about the suggestion of presumed dismissal against racist actions by officers on the grounds of fears that it could become a hobby horse for right-wing newspapers.

Mr Lapsley wrote: “This could easily become a ‘[Daily] Telegraph’ cause célèbre if taken too far.”

In a note in the margin, Mr Blair wrote: “I agree”. He then added: “We do not want to go OTT on this. You’re right.”

Elsewhere in files dealing with the New Labour government’s response to the Macpherson Report, Mr Blair wrote: “I really don’t want a regulation nightmare out of this.”

The documents suggest that the difference between Mr Blair and Mr Straw lay in the means of achieving the goals set out by the report, which demanded that the debate about racism in policing and beyond “ignite” by its deliberations be carried forward, rather than the validity of the findings.

Within two years of the report, some 67 of the findings had led to changes in practice or legislation, including the establishment of an Independent Police Complaints Commission and recruitment targets for ethnic minority officers.

But Mr Straw’s cherished idea of a wide-ranging white paper was eventually ditched at a meeting with Mr Blair in March 1999. A note on the discussion stated: “The Prime Minister said that he shared the Home Secretary’s political objectives and it was clear that the Government needed to have a clear and positive agenda for change.

“However, a white paper would offer too many hostages to fortune and the Government would find itself under pressure to include all sorts of measures that it would prefer to avoid.”

The note added that the two men agreed to proceed instead via a series of consultation papers.

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