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Police: Custody

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government how many people have been in police custody during the past 12 months, and how many of them were black or Asian.

My Lords, the Government hold data only on those taken into police custody at the point of arrest. According to the latest statistics from the Home Office Statistical Bulletin, of the nearly 1.4 million people arrested in 2009-10, 8 per cent identified themselves as black and 6 per cent identified themselves as Asian.

The Guardian’s analysis of 1 million court records shows that black offenders are 44 per cent more likely than white offenders to be sent to prison for driving offences and Asian offenders are 41 per cent more likely than white offenders to be sent to prison for drug offences. Why should black and Asian offenders be so much more frequently imprisoned than white offenders?

My Lords, one has to accept that the figures are not exactly proportionate; neither are the figures cited by the noble Lord. They are not proportionate to the population as a whole. Similarly, they would not be proportionate by age profile, gender or any other measure. Having said that, we are very keen that the criminal justice system should be neutral in these matters as far as possible, and I hope that it is. However, there is scope for others to undertake more in-depth analysis of why that should be. I cannot comment on the figures that the noble Lord has given me but, as I said, arrests are broadly, although not quite, proportionate. They are disproportionate in many other ways, depending on how one looks at them.

My Lords, at last week’s excellent Scarman lecture, the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted that there are more than 400 more young black British men in prison than at the Russell group universities. Does the Minister share my concern that, with the vast majority of young black people unemployed, this is an indictment of years of failure to tackle poor education, employment and opportunities for young black men in our society? What action is being taken to address this?

My Lords, I accept my noble friend’s point and share her concerns on these matters. On policing, for which the Home Office is responsible, we are committed to delivering a police service that promotes equality, does not discriminate against anyone because of their race and is effective in rooting out and tackling racism. Where there are disproportionate numbers in one group as opposed to another, that invites further research. That is something we should do. However, at this stage I would not want to comment on why there are, as my noble friend puts it, more black people in prison than there are at the Russell group universities.

Would the Minister say that racism of any kind is unacceptable in our society, especially as far as the police are concerned? Would he distance the Government from the racism practised by certain sections of the police today?

My Lords, I do not accept that the police act in a racist manner. I do accept that where one group is disproportionately involved in crime it deserves some degree of analysis and is something that we need to look at. However, I totally reject the noble Lord’s complaint about racism in the police force. That allegation has been made in the past. It is something that the police have addressed over the years and something that they have dealt with themselves.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that it is just as wrong to apprehend or arrest a person because of the colour of his skin as it is to exonerate somebody who is quite clearly guilty for the same reason?

My Lords, as I made clear, I do not believe that the police are guilty of racism. The police should, quite rightly, arrest those they think are committing offences and the criminal justice system should prosecute those people, irrespective of the colour of their skin, their gender or anything else.

My Lords, since the closure of the CRE, what steps have been taken to assist the police in dealing with the institutional racism that was clearly declared in the Scarman report?

My Lords, I think the noble Baroness is referring to the Macpherson report, not the Scarman report. Allegations were made about institutional racism at that time. The police have addressed that matter and I do not believe that there is racism within the police service as a whole.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that confidence among ethnic minorities in the even-handedness of the police in keeping people in police custody would be greatly enhanced if we could improve our record of recruiting more black and Asian police officers?

My Lords, again, that is something that I believe the police are managing to do in the 43 police forces up and down the country so that they better reflect the communities they serve. With the introduction of police commissioners, that, again, will be a matter that police forces will be able to continue to address in years to come.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that there is particular concern about deaths in police custody among members of black and minority ethnic communities. Often investigations fall to the IPCC to undertake. Can he tell me why, despite months of notice that a new chairman was required, the Government have yet to appoint a new chairman of the IPCC?

My Lords, again, I note the concerns expressed by the noble Lord. I join him in agreeing that every death in police custody is a tragedy. If he looks at the figures that the IPCC published, he will find that the deaths in custody—sad though every single one of them was—are generally proportionate to the ethnic make-up of the detainees as a whole. As regards the appointment of a new chairman to the IPCC, I hope that we will be able to make an announcement shortly.

My Lords, the Minister has frequently referred to the need for more in-depth analysis and more research. However, we have had masses of it. The Runnymede Trust in the 1980s spelt out precisely this issue—the disproportionate amount of sentencing of people of Afro-Caribbean background. When on earth will the authorities take any action?

My Lords, a great deal of research has been done. The noble Lord refers to research that was done as long ago as the 1980s. We are talking about the figures we have at the moment, which deserve further in-depth analysis. However, I do not think that the mere fact that there are disproportionate numbers being either arrested or charged necessarily amounts to racism. That is wrong. They are disproportionate in a whole host of other ways, whether by age, gender, socio-economic factors or whatever.