London (CNSNews.com) - Britain's Conservative Party is under fire after party leader William Hague charged that a government report into the murder of a black teenager had caused a serious collapse in police morale and was compromising the fight against crime.
The report by Sir William Macpherson found that there was "institutional racism" in the Metropolitan Police, and suggested that police officers were picking on blacks without sufficient reason when using their powers to stop and search suspects.
Almost two years after the report was released, Hague said in a wide-ranging speech on law and order, police were still being prevented from doing their jobs properly for fear of being labeled racist.
There was a connection, he maintained, between the Macpherson report, a fall in the use by police of stop-and-search powers, and a rise in street crime in London and other large cities.
Eighteen-year-old student Stephen Lawrence, was stabbed by a gang of white youths in London in 1993. No one has been convicted of the murder.
The Macpherson report found that the police investigation had been incompetent, and also cited evidence that police were stopping and searching six times as many young black men as white men.
The report defined "institutionalized racism" as "the collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their color, culture or ethnic origin."
Hague said the murder had been appalling, and agreed the investigation had been "incompetent" and "a cause for anger and shame."
But, he continued, police officers were feeling demoralized and under attack.
A politically-correct "liberal elite" were using the Macpherson report to brand every officer and every branch of the force as racist. Hague said this "has contributed directly to a collapse of police morale and recruitment and has led to a crisis on our streets."
Street crime had soared, and police were using stop and search powers less frequently than before.
"The people who are suffering most from the post-Macpherson collapse in police morale, and the rise in street crime, are the ethnic minorities themselves," he said.
Hague's speech coincided with the arrest by London police of a group of teenagers following the death late last month of a 10-year-old Nigerian boy. Damilola Taylor bled to death after being attacked on his way home from the local library in south London. Amid a massive public outcry, police launched their biggest operation in recent years.
"The power to stop and search suspects is there to help the police protect the interests of the law-abiding majority of every race and religion," Hague said.
He also noted the drop in the number of police officers since Labor came to power in 1997. The number of those resigning from the force each year has increased by 60 percent in those three years, parliament was told this week.
"It is hardly surprising that more people are leaving the police, and fewer people are joining, when many police officers now spend more time at their desk filling in forms than out on the streets fighting crime."
Hague said that under a future Conservative government, "political correctness will not be allowed to get in the way of law enforcement."
"Until we have a government that stops treating criminals as people drawn into crime whether they like it or not, and starts dealing with them as people who must be held responsible for their own actions, then we cannot begin to win the war against crime."
The reaction to Hague's statements was quick in coming.
\tx4320\tx8640Home Secretary (interior minister) Jack Straw said Friday the speech had been a "disgraceful attack" that would sour relations between the police and black community.
"There is no evidence whatsoever to link the changes in behavior of the police since the Macpherson report with the increase in street robberies," he told the BBC.
Prime Minister Tony Blair's office called the speech "desperate and disreputable," and Lawrence's father, Neville, accused Hague of playing the "race card" in the run-up to the election, expected next spring.
Macpherson denied that his report was linked to an increase in street crime.
"Nowhere in the report did we suggest that stop and search should be reduced.," he was quoted as saying. "We positively said that it was an important tool in the armory of the police. What we did say was that the police should not discriminate in stop and search."
Conservative home affairs spokesperson Ann Widdecombe said the party was not completely rejecting the report: "Good also came out of the Macpherson report, no one is saying that it was useless. But because of that unfortunate phrase 'institutionalized racism,' police are afraid to do their job."
Police Federation chairman Fred Broughton agreed that some police officers felt their hands were tied when dealing with suspects from ethnic minorities, and that this had a "negative effect on crime reduction."
The main conservative and liberal newspapers also weighed in on either side of the row.
The Daily Telegraph said Hague had displayed "great courage" by telling the truth about an issue as sensitive as race, while the Guardian accused the Conservative leader of "string[ing] together a breathtaking collection of dishonest facts, misrepresentations and plain lies."