By Dr Phil McCarvill
In the wake of the long overdue convictions in the Stephen Lawrence murder case much has been made of the profound impact of the initial case for policing in the UK and for London in particular. The fall-out from the original case and the resulting Macpherson Inquiry undoubtedly had huge implications for a service which had been labelled as being ‘institutionally racist’.
However, arguably the greatest legacy of the Lawrence family’s determined battle was that in addition to leading to fundamental changes in the way in which police forces operate, it also prompted a much wider reappraisal of the nature of public service delivery in the UK.
The campaigning of Lawrence family and their supporters led the then Labour government to establish the Macpherson inquiry.
In turn, Macpherson’s damning assessment of the workings of the police and the perception that such attitudes and practices went beyond policing led to fundamental changes to the existing race equality legislation.
Most notably, it led to a new requirement for public authorities to demonstrate the impact of their policies and services for different communities.
These changes placed a proactive duty upon a whole range of public bodies (not just the police, but also Whitehall departments, local authorities, health services, schools, colleges and universities), which required them to demonstrate the potential and actual impact of their policies and services upon different racial, ethnic and national groups.
This led to a positive emphasis on the promotion of equality of opportunity, good race relations and the tackling of racial discrimination through their work as both service providers and employers.
Gone were the days of merely mouthing empty platitudes about the valued contribution of different ethnic communities, now public authorities had to demonstrate the actual and potential impact of the things that they did.
The strengthening of race equality legislation represents a direct legacy of the light that was shone on the work of public authorities by the death of Stephen Lawrence; the campaigning of his family and the recommendations of the Macpherson inquiry.
The positive impact of the equality duties is often overlooked, and not just by those on the political right.
The left has a whole has been slow to understand or appreciate the significance and benefits of the duty. The initial race equality duty helped ensure that the type of attitudes and actions that Macpherson identified within the Metropolitan police were addressed across the breadth of the public sector.
The duty helped lead to the evolution of more conscious and confident organisations; staffed by better trained people; making better decisions and genuinely engaging with different communities.
It specifically helped ensure better levels of ethnic minority representation within the police; prompted remedial action to address on-going disproportionate outcomes for black young men within the mental health and criminal justice systems; focused attention on underperformance at GCSE level of a number of ethnic groups.
The duty did not simply enable public authorities to address wilful acts of discrimination, but also to address those unintended consequences of individual policies and service decisions.
The duty has more generally helped ensure the delivery of better thought-through public services and not just in terms of the experiences of different ethnic minorities. The bottom line is that by considering the actual and potential impact of what they do, public authorities have been able to remove many of the rough edges and unintended consequences of their policies and services to the benefit of all service users.
It is also clear that without the race equality duty it is hard to envisage a situation in which any UK government would have introduced similar duties in respect of disability, gender or wider equality.
It can therefore be argued that those who have used the disability, gender equality duties and the new Equality Duty to ensure a stronger focus on disability hate crime, gender pay, violence against women and equal access to public services also owe a debt of gratitude to the Lawrence family.
• “Sorry if you were offended” does not cut it, Diane - Daniel Elton, January 5th 2012
• Stephen Lawrence: The legacy that lives on, the hope, the dreams of a better future - Shamik Das, January 4th 2012
• Clegg needs to turn anger at dugout discrimination into action - Shamik Das, November 24th 2011
• Undercover policing: We need an inquiry that looks at the bigger picture - Rebecca Quinn, June 12th 2011
• Hancock breaks ranks with attack on Equality Act - Shamik Das, October 5th 2010