By Hassan Mahamdallie
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Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry

This article is over 8 years, 8 months old
Richard Stone
Issue 380

Twenty years ago this month Stephen Lawrence was struck down by racist attackers and died on the pavement in Well Hall Road in south east London.

Although two of his attackers have been jailed for murder, at least another three are walking free, as are all those who covered up for them.

Dr Richard Stone, one of the three advisors who assisted Sir William Macpherson in the official inquiry into the Metropolitan Police’s role in the failure to catch the killers, has written a book of personal reflections on his involvement in the case.

What comes across very strongly in the book is the message of “unfinished business” on all levels, and a large amount of frustration in the way the recommendations, particularly around institutional racism, have been buried.

He quotes then Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson talking at a conference in 2009 to mark the 10th anniversary of the publication of the inquiry report: “The label of ‘institutionally racist’ no longer applies…We must move on from an obsession with race. Diversity is no longer an end in its own right. I do not want the Met to be distracted by the debate about institutional racism”.

Of course the people primarily who are “obsessed with race” are the police themselves – and not in a good way, as, for example, the continued use of stop and search as a way of controlling the black population demonstrates.

Richard Stone pinpoints something that I became very aware of at the time – the way in which the authority of the inquiry was undermined. When the New Labour home secretary Jack Straw met the longstanding demand of the Lawrence family for a public inquiry shortly after the 1997 general election he thought that it would be a risk free move that he could take credit for. The inquiry chair appointed by Straw, Sir William Macpherson, an eminent member of the establishment, was seen a safe pair of hands.

But as the inquiry began to unravel the reasons why the police had failed to catch Stephen’s killers, it began to take on a logic of its own. What was revealed, day upon day, lead Macpherson, Stone and the others down a path towards unavoidable but radical conclusions. Macpherson himself, I believe, was shaken to the core by the evidence put before him.

The denial of the detectives centrally involved in the investigation that the murder was racially motivated despite all the evidence, the extent to which the Met had covered up wrongdoing, the stink of corruption, the defiant performance of the suspects, who believed themselves safe in the knowledge that they would never be brought to justice and the embarrassing performance of Met chief Sir Paul Condon and his refusal to even utter the words “institutional racism” when it came for him to give evidence, began to take the fundamental credibility of the Met as a law enforcement institution apart, bit by bit.

A small example: Stone reproduces a note written to William Macpherson by Edmund Lawson QC – who led questioning on behalf of the inquiry. Condon was so reluctant to give evidence he sent his deputy, Assistant Commissioner Johnston, to appear before the inquiry and make a kind of apology to Doreen Lawrence “I am very, very sorry and very, very sad that we have let you down”. (It would have meant a little more if Doreen Lawrence had been there to hear it – but the Met had not told her beforehand that Johnston would be making such a statement).

Lawson’s note, sent to Macpherson, reads, “Bill. Re Johnston’s proposed ‘opening statement’. See the attached. Please try and read it (a) with a straight face, & (b) without throwing-up!”

It was Straw who stepped in to save Condon’s skin by refusing to bend to widespread calls for his sacking. It was an attempt to seize back the agenda and limit the repercussions of the inquiry and its final recommendations.

At various points during the inquiry the police attempted to take control of it, particularly to limit the attendance and participation of those who sat in the public gallery. I do remember, although Stone does not mention it, a source close to the inquiry telling me there had been a break-in at the inquiry’s offices and forces within the police were involved.

As Stone writes, “one can understand that powerful people may use everything in their power to deflect threats to it. This book describes manoeuvres that I believe were used to undermine the changes that the inquiry demonstrated were necessary”.

This is a modest book in many ways, and I feel sure that Dr Stone has more to say.

Hidden Stories of the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry is published by The Policy Press, £16.99

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