‘Race relations’, government accountability and public inquiries in the UK, 1979-1981

After writing about government inquiries last week and reflecting on my own research, I have been thinking about a ‘watershed moment’ in contemporary British history, particularly in the history of ‘race relations’ in Britain. Between 1979 and 1981, three incidents occurred – the death of Blair Peach in Southall in 1979, the ‘virginity testing’ controversy in 1979 and the Brixton riots of 1981 – which shifted the relationship between the institutions of the state and Britain’s ethnic minorities, particularly the political space that ethnic minorities had access to and the accountability of state institutions to these members of the British public. These volatile and controversial incidents were all handled differently by the British Government and from the archival record, we are starting to uncover the competing factors that influenced the decision-making process for the Government to decide whether to proceed with a publicly accountable investigation. I am interested in seeking out why the Government was able to hinder an official public investigation into the death of Blair Peach in 1979, but then had to concede to an inquiry into policing matters connected to the Brixton riots in 1981. And in between these two incidents, why both the Labour and Conservative Governments tried to stop the Commission for Racial Equality from investigating discrimination within the immigration control system, but finally relented after a High Court judgement against the Home Office.

In some ways, I think that these cases represent a turning point in the relationship between the state and ethnic minorities in Britain. Before 1979, the general consensus within government circles was that the institutions of the state (and thus the Government) were largely unaccountable to these members of the community, but by 1981, pressure from Britain’s ethnic communities, alongside NGOs (such as the National Council for Civil Liberties and the Runnymede Trust for example) and anti-racist campaigners, forced the British Government to acknowledge their presence and acquiesced to the Scarman Inquiry.

This post may form into a more composed piece of writing in the future, but at the moment, I am going to outline some of background to each incident and some of the archival material that I have found relating to how decisions were made as to whether an inquiry was to occur.

The death of Blair Peach and the events at Southall, 23 April, 1979

On 23 April, 1979, the National Front (NF) attempted to hold a meeting at SouthallTown Hall, a London borough with a large South Asian population. Around 2,000 demonstrators tried to prevent NF members from entering the Town Hall. Over 2,700 police descended on the site of the demonstration, with the Special Patrol Group (SPG) involved in numerous violent clashes as it sought to move protestors away from the town centre. In the ensuing chaos, a number of people were severely injured by the police, with one fatality. Blair Peach, an anti-fascist demonstrator, died from a blow to the head after being chased by members of the SPG.

As the death occurred during the dissolution of Parliament, it fell to the incoming Conservatives to decide whether to hold a public inquiry into the events at Southall. On 25 May, 1979, Conservative MP Leon Brittan announced that ‘various inquiries’ were underway and these internal inquiries were ‘the right and proper course to establish the facts of what occurred and to deal with the allegations and complaints.’ Syd Bidwell, the local Labour member for Southall, pushed for a judicial inquiry, but Brittan argued that a decision about this should be delayed until after a report was completed by Police Commissioner David McNee (Hansard, 25 May, 1979, col. 1404) Commander John Cass conducted an internal investigation for the Metropolitan Police, which uncovered a stash of illegal weapons held by officers of the SPG, that could have caused similar injuries to those sustained by Peach. Despite this, Cass’ report was not released and no charges have ever been brought for the death of Peach or the other injuries incurred by numerous persons during the Southall demonstration.

In 2010, the Cass Report was finally released and digitised by the Metropolitan Police. The documents relating to this report can be found here.

According to files opened in 2007 by the National Archives, the Director of Public Prosecutions decided after reading the Cass Report that ‘the available evidence was insufficient to justify any criminal proceedings’, while the coroner’s inquest, held at the same time, was ‘prohibited by law from appearing to determine any matter of either civil or criminal liability’. (Letter to Arthur Lewis MP, July 1980, HO 299/114, National Archives) When it was announced the National Council of Civil Liberties was to hold an unofficial ‘people’s inquiry’ into the events of 23 April, 1979 at Southall, the Government retorted that there were five internal investigations already occurring and that the Home Secretary had concluded that ‘there is no significant gap in the various inquiries which have taken place into Southall which a public inquiry could usefully fill’. The only public discussion would be a Green Paper on the effectiveness of the Public Order Act 1936. (‘NCCL Inquiry’, 25 July, 1980, HO 299/114, NA)

A letter from the Home Office’s Assistant Secretary, G.H. Phillips to Stephen Boys-Smith further demonstrated that the Government was able to use the possibility of Blair Peach’s family launching a civil case to resist announcing a public inquiry. After the five internal reports recommended that no criminal action should be taken, the Government felt by mid-1980 that this was the best time to ‘draw a line under the issue of a public inquiry into Southall’. (‘Blair Peach and Southall: After the Inquiry’, memo from G.H. Phillips to S. Boys-Smith, 30 May, 1980, Hop 299/111, NA)

The ‘virginity testing’ controversy and the Community for Racial Equality’s investigation

A few months before the death of Blair Peach at Southall, in February 1979, details emerged in The Guardian that immigration officials at Heathrow and at British High Commissions in South Asia had conducted ‘virginity tests’ upon Asian women attempting to enter Britain, particularly those attempting to gain entry on a fiancée visa. Home Secretary Merlyn Rees announced that the Chief Medical Officer, Sir Henry Yellowlees would conduct an internal investigation, hoping to quell the controversy before the 1979 General Election, but the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) declared that it would also conduct an open and independent inquiry into racial discrimination within immigration control procedures. After the Conservatives gained power, the Home Office tried to quash the CRE investigation, launching legal action to discredit the CRE’s power to investigate an institution of the state and other methods to frustrate the inquiry.

As our article in Gender & History has shown, the Home Office argued that the Commission for Racial Equality could not investigate the activities of the immigration control system as it was outside the scope of the Race Relations Act 1976 and launched legal action against the CRE in late 1979. J Woolf, who presided over the case, found that an investigation into the control of immigration was within the parameters of the Commission’s duty under the 1976 Act and declared, ‘I cannot accept that Parliament must be assumed to have intended, as the Home Office contends, that the field of immigration should be a no-go area for the Commission’ (Home Office v Commission for Racial Equality, 1981, All England Law Reports, pp. 1042-50). The CRE were allowed to proceed with the investigation, but the Home Office were not obliged to co-operate with the Commission.

Internal Home Office documents reveal that the Government feared ‘potential embarrassment’ if they had to hand over documents and files which they would disclose to Parliament, such as ‘the General Instructions to the immigration Service’, and believed that they could not show ‘files containing officials’ advice to Ministers’. (Letter from Mr Woodfield to Mr Halliday, 14 April, 1981, HO 418/40, NA) Employees in the Home Office were instructed that ‘for presentational reasons’ they had to ‘be seen to co-operate as fully as possible with the CRE’, but demanded that the CRE agree to restrictions placed upon the dissemination of any information obtained from the Home Office. (Note from Elizabeth Moody to Neville Nagler, 6 April, 1981, HO 418/40 338797, NA).

One concern expressed by the Home Office was the ramifications of the CRE investigation upon other state institutions, fearing this ‘right to establish an investigation’ could be ‘far-reaching’. J.D. Semken wrote to James Nursaw, a Home Office lawyer, about the implications that the CRE investigation had upon the functions of state institutions:

If the CRE have power to institute an investigation into the manner in which the Home Office enforces the immigration law, then they must equally have power to investigate the police, the DHSS, the Inland Revenue and Customs & Excise in relation to their practices in enforcing the law and in preventing fraud and evasions. (Letter from Mr Semken to Mr Nursaw, 18 June, 1979, HO 418/30, NA)

The underlying assumption here, made in 1979, is that what may be construed as racial discrimination by the Commission for Racial Equality was inherent in how the British Government functioned, but this notion was starting to be challenged as the CRE investigation got underway. At the same time that CRE investigation was being conducted, riots in inner city areas broke out across Britain in April and July 1981, with Lord Scarman appointed to conduct an inquiry into the riots in their aftermath. There was a worry that the Scarman Report and the CRE investigation would have long-term effects on accountability within the police and other government institutions. Brian Morrissey, General Secretary of the Association of Chief Police Officers, wrote to the Home Office, with this concern over further investigation into police procedure, written shortly after the publication of the Scarman Report, expressing concern that ‘by permitting police officers to be interview by C.R.E. Investigating Officers we may be creating a precedent which could lead onto a further probing of police records and procedures’. (Letter from Brian Morrissey to R.M. Morris, 16 February, 1982, HO 418/40, NA)

The Yellowlees Report was only released to MPs in Parliament and no copies were made available to the public. The text of the report has only come available in the last year as the National Archives have now opened all of the files relating to the Yellowlees investigation. On the other hand, the CRE report was not released until 1985, into a very different political landscape.

Lord Scarman’s inquiry into the Brixton riots

In April 1981, a riot broke out in the London borough of Brixton, where a large Afro-Caribbean community lived. The riot, which saw both black and white youth participate, was started by a confrontation between a group of black youth and the police, but was also the result of years of police harassment and other forms of institutional racism experienced by Brixton’s black community, coupled with the strict socio-economic policies of the Conservative Government. After the Brixton riots, Lord Scarman was appointed to launch an inquiry into the events. Unlike the other two controversial incidents, the archival record does not show any hesitation or debate by the government on establishing an inquiry into the riots. On 13 April, 1981, a statement by the Home Secretary declared that under Section 32 of the Police Act 1964, Lord Scarman had been invited to undertake an inquiry (partially based on Scarman’s overseeing of the 1974 inquiry into the death of Kevin Gately at Red Lion Square during an anti-National Front demonstration). The terms of reference given to Scarman were quite broad: ‘To enquire urgently into the serious disorder in Brixton on 10 to 12 April and to report, with the powers to make recommendations.’ (Statement by the Home Secretary Willie Whitelaw, 13 April, 1981, PREM 19/484, NA).

There is the possibility that the Scarman Inquiry was launched to investigate why the disorders had seemed to take the police by surprise and form part of a ‘law and order’ narrative that would condemn the rioters and support the police, but in practice, Lord Scarman did not take this approach, and sought to uncover the socio-economic, political and criminogenic conditions that allowed the disturbances to occur.

The importance of the Scarman Report, released in November 1981, was its investigation into the socio-economic and criminal justice policies of the Conservative Government and the reprimand of some of the more forceful measures undertaken towards Britain’s black communities. While Scarman concluded that ‘racial disadvantage and its nasty associate, racial discrimination’ existed within the Metropolitan Police, he controversially claimed that ‘“Institutional racism” does not exist in Britain’. (Lord Scarman, The Scarman Report: The Brixton Disorders 10 – 12 April 1981, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, 1986, p. 209) Stuart Hall later wrote that the Scarman Report ‘was no panacea’, but it ‘broke the prevailing law-and-order consensus’ that the police, and the wider institutions of the state, were blameless for the existence of racial discrimination in Britain. (Stuart Hall, ‘From Scarman to Stephen Lawrence’, History Workshop Journal, 48, 1999, p. 193) However institutional racism continued to exist within the police after the Scarman Report and there was still massive resistance amongst the police to any investigation of their practices concerning black Britons. It was not until the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation of the death of black teenager Stephen Lawrence in 1999 that it was recognised that ‘institutional racism exists both in the Metropolitan Police Service and in other Police Services and other institutions countrywide’.  (Sir William Macpherson, The Stephen Lawrence Inquiry, Cmnd. 4262-1, 1999, 6.39)

The long process between the Scarman Report in 1981 and the Macpherson Inquiry in 1999 is important because it demonstrates a growing recognition at the official (and public) level that the institutions of the state could be responsible for racial discrimination and a recognition that these institutions should be held accountable, with a greater emphasis on transparency of government agencies. Although the Scarman Report referred only to the accountability of the police, the same calls for transparency were directed at the immigration control system and the Home Office after the ‘virginity testing’ controversy. The argument used by the Home Office in 1980 in their court action against the CRE’s investigation into immigration control procedures became increasingly implausible to defend as the Scarman Report got underway. As Marinella Marmo and I have argued in a forthcoming article available in this collection, police have had greater accountability enforced upon them since the 1980s (such as the Police and Evidence Act 1984), but the immigration control system has not undergone the same level of transformation towards accountability. The immigration controls system has continued to rely heavily upon the discretionary powers of individual immigration officers, where accountability and scrutiny have been difficult to implement properly.

An eventual report into discrimination within the immigration control system was published by the CRE in 1985, but the Conservative Government disregarded many of its findings and in the meantime, had placed further restrictions on immigration to the United Kingdom. Further riots occurred in 1985 which led many to question how much the Government and the police had learnt since 1981, with further inquiries undertaken. A quick hypothesis that might be deduced from this may be that governments have learnt that, in some ways, it was better to allow a public inquiry to investigate controversial events,* but the implementation of any reforms leading from these inquiries could be minimised in the future. However this approach is not always taken, as David Cameron was quick to dismiss a public inquiry after the riots that broke out in August last year across Britain.

*Something else that I need to explore is the theory that public inquiries are established as a spectacle that is used to distract public/media attention and absolve the government from undertaking reforms.

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