Parliament and the 1965 Race Relations Act

Passing legislation with a small majority is an ongoing problem for our current government, but this not an unusual parliamentary position. In today’s guest blog, Dr Simon Peplow discusses the difficulties faced by Labour in passing the first Race Relations Act in 1964-5 with a small majority …

When Labour returned to power in 1964, they did so with a manifesto pledge to legislate against racial discrimination. This resulted in the 1965 Race Relations Act, the first legislation in Britain to address racial discrimination, outlawing ‘discrimination on the ground of colour, race or ethnic or national origins’ in ‘places of public resort’ such as hotels and restaurants, and punishing incitement to racial hatred. However, it has been almost universally criticised as ineffective and too narrow, failing to address the main areas of discrimination within employment and housing. For example, during its passage through Parliament, leaders of the standing conference of West Indian organisations in London considered it ‘well-meaning but virtually useless’.

The Act was presented as part of a ‘package deal’, which allowed the passing of harsher immigration controls whilst appearing to combat discrimination against those already settled within Britain. Successive governments during the period believed that a numerical limit on immigration would itself improve race relations, as famously summarised by Roy Hattersley: ‘I believe that integration without limitation is impossible; equally, I believe that limitation without integration is indefensible’. Through explicitly linking a reduction in immigration with improving racial harmony, it characterised immigration as a problem and, by extension, so too immigrants and their descendants themselves. This thus made the job of such anti-discrimination legislation immediately more difficult.

When it came to drafting the legislation, the Society of Labour Lawyers recommended that it be in the form of conciliation machinery combined with civil remedies. This followed observation of North American experiences, where it was believed that local law officers and juries were reluctant to prosecute and convict under the criminal law. Such proposals were widely circulated, through groups such as the newly-established Campaign Against Racial Discrimination, and therefore most MPs who favoured anti-discrimination legislation were convinced that this was the best form for it to take in order to obtain convictions and positively influence public opinion.

Nevertheless, when Home Secretary Frank Soskice introduced the Race Relations Bill into the Commons on 9th April 1965, it included punishments under the criminal law. This was due to the belief that criminal sanctions would be a more significant indication of public disapproval, and ‘considerable anxiety’ that conciliation proposals would ‘give rise to a great deal of conflict and complaint which otherwise might not find expression’. Whilst punishment under criminal law would indeed seem to be of greater force, it was at odds with what available evidence suggested would be most effective – and, more importantly, also with the general political consensus at this point. Soskice, suffering increasingly ill-health and struggling with the demands of the role, was later described by successor Roy Jenkins as ‘a remarkably bad home secretary’. Certainly, the air of defeatism that encapsulated Soskice’s tenure is summarised by his internal memo that lamented: ‘Poor old Home Office. We are not always wrong, but we always get the blame’.

The Bill thus faced great resistance from the House. Supporters bemoaned that the criminal-law approach would make obtaining convictions more problematic, whilst some Conservatives objected in principle to the perceived restrictions upon free speech. Most of all, the lack of possible conciliation between involved parties prior to conviction was criticised. Opposition Spokesman on Home Affairs, Peter Thorneycroft MP, claimed that many Conservatives had previously favoured conciliation and Labour MP Bernard Floud stated that, without such machinery, it ‘does not make the positive contribution to the solution of the problem which could be made’.

Due to Labour’s 1964 victory returning a majority of just four seats, any Bill required either full Labour support or cross-party backing to pass through the Commons; and it was clear that the present Bill would not receive such without the inclusion of conciliation machinery. Therefore, in order to push the Bill through the House, Soskice announced plans during its second reading to incorporate conciliation machinery and it duly passed by the narrow margin of 261 to 249 votes. The Bill accordingly underwent great changes during the committee stage, to a degree that Erik Bleich described as ‘virtually unknown in Britain’.

Maurice Foley, Undersecretary of State for Economic Affairs, believed that a conciliation commission would be most effective with wider powers extending into housing, employment and education, and Soskice himself recorded that such a commission required this extension to be successful. Nevertheless, Foley convinced Soskice that it was ‘important tactically’ to establish conciliation machinery ‘within the terms of the present Bill’.

Consequently, the Act that subsequently passed included conciliation and civil remedies addressing racial discrimination in some, but not all, places of public resort and did not include those areas where discrimination was most apparent, namely housing and employment. It was recorded that this was due to ‘compelling reasons’ from those Ministers directly concerned – such as that special measures for certain sections of society would increase discontent and that ‘nobody can be said to have a right to a particular employment or to the purchase of a particular house’ – although public explanation for these significant omissions did not occur.

Despite losing the severity of original criminal sanctions, it could be argued that conciliation and civil remedies improved the chances of the Act functioning effectively to reduce levels of racial discrimination in Britain; however, the failure to extend its scope into the areas where these would be most effective resulted in extremely weakened legislation. To illustrate, out of the 327 complaints that the Race Relations Board, established to enforce the Act, received in its first year, 238 (73%) were deemed to be outside the scope of legislation.

Later discussions regarding extended legislation revealed that areas such as housing and employment had been excluded from the 1965 Bill to keep its additions to the criminal code ‘as limited as possible’. When criminal punishments were replaced with conciliation and civil remedies, however, the Act was not broadened into such areas and was consequently significantly constrained in its ability to tackle racial discrimination. It would take until the 1968 Race Relations Act before those areas demonstrating the worst excesses of racial discrimination were addressed.


Further reading:

  • Simon Peplow, ‘The ‘Linchpin for Success’? The problematic establishment of the 1965 Race Relations Act and its Conciliation Board’ Contemporary British History (available here)
  • James Hampshire, ‘Immigration and Race Relations’, in The Labour Governments 1964–70, edited by Peter Dorey, (Oxford: Routledge, 2006) pp. 309–29.
  • Gavin Schaffer, ‘Legislating against Hatred: Meaning and Motive in Section Six of the Race Relations Act of 1965’, Twentieth Century British History, 25, no. 2 (2014), 251–275.
  • Keith Hindell, ‘The Genesis of the Race Relations Bill’, The Political Quarterly, 36, no. 4 (1965), 390–405.

Dr Peplow is a historian of modern British race and immigration history currently based at the University of Exeter.

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