Skip to main content

Crime (Bristol)

Volume 949: debated on Tuesday 2 May 1978

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Harper]

11.28 p.m.

I wish to raise the subject of rising crime in Bristol—the figure for the police area as a whole was a 27 per cent. increase on that for last year—not because there are no other large provincial cities that have similar problems in respect of crime but because a few weeks ago the chief constable responsible for public safety in the city made an alarming statement. Mr. Kenneth Steele is the chief constable for Avon and Somerset. He is a vastly experienced police officer. He said on 30th March, according to the Bristol Evening Post:

"I had hopes that the Avon and Somerset police would have made the streets of Bristol safe for anyone to walk in day or night; sadly we have failed."
I think that it would be said in the ordinary course of events that if any public official, paid to perform a task, states that he has failed, the public who pay are bound to ask whether there is something wrong with the maker of such a statement, or the organisation that he controls? However, it would be unfair to blame the police administration of Avon and Somerset for the serious state of affairs as reported by the chief constable in circumstances in which the police force itself, and the resources that it commands, are stretched beyond reasonable limits. Mr. Steele states that he needs at least 600 more men and women adequately to do the job for which he has responsibility. That means an increase of approximately 500 on the present establishment of about 2,850, and the present establishment is 100 short of that figure.

Public alarm at the chief constable's frank remarks have been heightened in Bristol by a series of especially unpleasant and degrading rapes of women and girls in the Clifton and Redland area of the city. The perpetrator or perpetrators of the crimes has or have not yet been brought to book. In his statement the chief constable pointed out that which is undoubtedly true, that the reduction of crime, even with the largest and most effective force, needs not only police action but the full practical co-operation of the public in detecting crime and general community awareness of the situation.

In the outstanding need to make the public as a whole more crime conscious the local Press can obviously play a part. One Bristol newspaper, the Bristol Evening Post, has run a vigorous campaign towards that end. I have in my possession, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State may be interested to know, some copies of the correspondence that has passed between Mr. Gordon Farnsworth, the editor of the Bristol Evening Post, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department. I shall not quote directly from that correspondence. I merely say that it is understandable that my right hon. Friend should resent any suggestion that he and the Government are complacent in these matters. It is equally understandable that a local newspaper editor should sharply reflect the worries and anxieties of the citizens. I shall leave that correspondence there, having put the two points of view as fairly as I can.

The truth is that the increase in crime in Bristol and in the country generally cannot and should not be a party issue. Those politicians who succumb to the temptation to treat it as a party issue for the sake of easy votes are accumulating much future trouble for themselves should any of them be called on to undertake the heavy responsibilities carried by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and other Ministers in his Department.

I am aware that my right hon. Friend has no full responsibility for provincial police forces, although I believe that the 1962 Act modified that state of affairs to some extent. However, it is clear that in a highly centralised country for government purposes such as the United Kingdom the public look to the Home Secretary and to the Government for a lead at least.

There was a day's debate on law and order in the House on 27th February. It was initiated by the Opposition; I believe that it was a Supply Day. I have read carefully the remarks of my right hon. Friend on that occasion. Much of his speech was most impressive in terms of figures. He said, for instance, that as a proportion of total expenditure the police service was doing far better than it was four years ago, even allowing for the effect of inflation. Also, he said that there were altogether 7,500 more police officers in 1977 than there were in 1974.

I accept those figures, as I must, but there is a paradox here. The chief constable of the Avon and Somerset Constabulary, in his 1977 annual report, refers to financial restraints. If there are these restraints locally, in spite of more money being spent nationally, surely there is something wrong with the system. It appears that at the top more money is being allocated and that locally less is spent.

I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. As he suggests, is it true that once again too much goes on administration and not enough on policemen on the streets?

I want to raise a point about public involvement in the work of provincial police forces. It is true that the 1962 Act—I am sure my hon. Friend the Minister will confirm this—gave rather greater direct powers to the Home Secretary. I think that in the House he now answers for provincial police forces. Nevertheless, the system has still much local autonomy in its make-up and I can say that on the whole I like that; we do not necessarily want a national police force, on the lines of that of the French Republic. But need there be this extraordinary excessive secrecy about the membership of police authorities?

No doubt I can find out who is a member of the Avon and Somerset police authority if I make the effort. Probably my hon. Friend would send the information to me if I asked her. But the national handbook on our constabularies does not give the names of members of local police authorities. We get the name of the lord lieutenant—I do not regard him as a very active practitioner in these matters—and we have that of the chief constable, and usually the name of the chairman of the police authority, but no one else. The report of the Avon and Somerset chief constable does not give other names. He pays a tribute to his superiors and thanks them for their co-operation and help, but if one looks through the whole book one does not get the names of the members of the police authority to whom he is responsible.

Surely, if the public, locally and nationally, have to find the money for the police forces, and if they want a much better service—it may not be the fault of the police that they are not getting that service—they have the right to know locally who is accountable. I should have thought that it would be a very much overdue reform if the police authority made the report to the public rather than that the chief constable did. We could let the chief constable report to the members of the authority, as their principal officer, and let those members, who are indirectly elected to serve on the authority, report in turn to the public.

Locally, there could be far more interest in what is happening with the police than is the case at the moment, when it is often left to members of Parliament—none of us shrinks from the duty, of course—to raise these matters in this House. Given a decentralised system, much of this should be surely dealt with locally.

As I said, the House had a full day's debate on 27th February. I cannot hope and would not make the attempt in 15 or so minutes to go over the whole of that ground. Therefore, I shall put forward a few short points with which I hope my hon. Friend who is to reply will be able to deal.

First, when is it expected that the Edmund Davies Committee will report on improved police pay and conditions? May I also have confirmation that its recommendations will be speedily implemented? I am sure that it is a matter of great interest to the public and certainly to the hard pressed members of the force.

Secondly, if it is proposed that the country should allocate much more money to the maintenance of law and order—I think that is the first duty of any Government—what guarantee has the taxpayer and the ratepayer that that money will be used effectively?

Thirdly, what mechanism has been developed to ensure that the best police brains and skills for certain classes of crime are available to every local force? I think that the Bristol rapes are a case in point.

Fourthly, have the Government any set policy to guide the courts on sentencing? I favour the short sever sentence for the confirmed offender. I am not talking of the genuine first offender, the prisons being as overcrowded as they are. I think that there should be more of a national policy on this matter.

Fifthly, and perhaps most interesting of all in a way, what studies are being undertaken to understand the paradox of our times which applies to all advanced industrial societies—that the reduction of the worst poverty, rightly by public welfare and organised social concern has apparently been accompanied by a rise, not a fall, in crime? I should have thought that this subject was of major interest to the Home Office and that it would merit much more national investigation than it has so far received.

11.42 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-East (Mr. Palmer) has raised an extremely serious subject which naturally concerns his constituents and those of other right hon. and hon. Members who sit for the city of Bristol.

As my hon. Friend said, the number of crimes recorded by the Avon and Somerset police, in whose area Bristol falls, rose by 28 per cent. in 1977. We do not have figures for the city of Bristol as such, but I understand that the increase in the central police division was higher still— namely, 34 per cent. This acceleration is a depressing fact after the smaller rise of 3 per cent. recorded in 1976. The first indications this year are that the increase has slowed down considerably. A particularly melancholy aspect of the crime figures is that nearly a third of arrests in 1977 were of young persons under the age of 17.

I recognise the concern which the people of Bristol feel, especially about the increase in serious crimes, such as rape which doubled from 14 to 29 in 1977. While the number of homicides has remained constant at 13, I recognise the anxiety to which the increase in offences involving violence against the person give rise. That was an increase of 10 per cent. in 1977, which was significantly above the national trend.

As a Minister in the Home Office, I certainly do not minimise the problem of crime which we in this country are facing and which, as my hon. Friend recognised, the whole of the Western industrialised world is facing. The problem is not unique to Bristol. Throughout the country, last year showed a depressing upsurge of crime after a more or less stationary situation in 1976.

With just over 32 crimes per thousand of population, the situation facing the Avon and Somerset police is not as grim as that facing some other forces. The average for England and Wales is 43 per thousand. The Avon and Somerset area comes half way up the scale, although that is no consolation to the citizens of Bristol who are concerned about the local problem.

What can we do about this problem? The Government are anxious to secure a decent and ordered society in which civilised life can be enjoyed without fear of attack on property or person. This I know is what the great majority of the population want. The Government's role is important. But, of course, crime cannot be eradicated by legislation or indeed by public expenditure alone. Ultimately society is as civilised as the individuals who make it up. The role of the community in securing the sort of society it wants is fundamental.

The response to crime is indeed a joint one, involving the local community and their representatives as well as central Government. It is no doubt right that this House should be devoting attention to so important a local matter as crime in Bristol. But I must emphasise that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary does not have specific responsibilities for measures to tackle crime in Bristol or inded elsewhere. It is to the police that we look for action against crime.

The Secretary of State has the fundamental responsibility of promoting the efficiency of the police and the measures that he is taking to fulfil this responsibility as it effects Bristol will be the main aspect with which I shall deal. But I should emphasise that the responsibility for maintaining, in the words of the Police Act, an
"adequate and efficient police force"
rests with the local police authority constituted by the local county councils and magistrates.

My hon. Friend asked about the local police authority. In the Avon and Somerset authority it is constituted by the two county councils. Its members are two-thirds county councillors appointed by the two county councils and one-third magistrates appointed by the magistrates of the area. Perhaps my hon. Friend can suggest to the chief constable that in his next report he includes the members as well as the chairman of the police authority.

Is it the normal practice not to give the names of the members of the police authority?

I cannot give my hon. Friend a categorical answer to that. I doubt whether it is laid down that the names of members should not be given in chief constables' reports. I should imagine that it is left to each chief constable to decide what he wants to put in his report.

The operational responsibility for the force rests solely with the chief constable. This tripartite division of responsibility for policing is of the essence of our system. It has the inestimable advantage that politics play no part in police operations. I must keep carefully in mind this division of responsibilities between my right hon. Friend, the Avon and Somerset police authority and its constabulary.

Through Her Majesty's inspector and his officials the Home Secretary takes a great interest in the problems facing the Avon and Somerset police and keeps himself fully informed of the local situation. The Minister of State responsible for policing Home Office matters, Lord Harris, attended a police function in Bristol last week.

A healthy police service is society's first defence against crime. I am glad to reaffirm the Government's commitment to supporting the police. For the first time for many years the strength of the police forces of England and Wales, regrettably, declined in 1977. We have discussed this situation on many occasions in the House. Suffice it to say that, while recruitment last year at over 8,000 remained good after two exceptional years, the great increase in wastage hit the police badly.

The experience of the Avon and Somerset police is not untypical. The strength of the force fell last year by 53 despite an intake of 174. In other words, the force suffered a wastage of 227. Wastage naturally tends to be high after good years of recruitment as probationers find that the police service is not for them. It may help to put the wastage in perspective to note that of the 227 officers who left the Avon and Somerset police about half—112—resigned prematurely. One-third retired on pension. It is the premature wastage which is of major concern. The majority—62—had less than two years' service. The number of experienced officers, with five years' or more service, who left the Avon and Somerset police last year was 36—in other words, about a sixth of the wastage. It is the experienced officers who, above all, we must seek to retain in the police service.

I am glad to say that, like other forces outside London, Avon and Somerset seems at least to be holding its own this year. In the first quarter the force recorded a net increase of six officers. At the end of March the force strength stood at 2,755. Despite the losses last year, the force has grown by 206 in the four years since it was constituted following local government reorganisation on 1st April 1974.

The force has been conducting its own programme of recruitment publicity. It has, for example, advertised in the local Press. Its local activities are supported centrally by the police national recruitment campaign which we run from the Home Office for the benefit of all forces in England and Wales. In the last financial year over £500,000 was spent on police recruitment publicity through the national campaign and, subject to the approval of Parliament, the figure will be nearer £800,000 this year. One aspect of the national campaign is Press advertising designed to attract recruits particularly to the forces covering the larger cities like Bristol. The Avon and Somerset police are specifically mentioned in some of the advertisements. My hon. Friend mentioned police pay, which is an extremely important factor.

Agreement was reached with the police service last year on an immediate increase in pay of 10 per cent. together with an independent inquiry into pay and other matters. The committee is now engaged urgently in this task. The Government have made it clear that we will accept the recommendations of the inquiry on pay, reserving only the right to consider the phasing of their implementation. The committee under Lord Edmund Davies is giving priority to this subject. It has now finished taking evidence and will, I am sure, report as soon as it can. It is essential that the committee should take adequate time to give the difficult issues involved full consideration. The Government are confident that the committee's report will pave the way for the health of the police service for years to come.

On the question of establishment, I have said that the strength of the Avon and Somerset police now stands at 2,755. This represents a deficiency of 96 below the authorised establishment of 2,851. Though this deficiency of 3·39 per cent. compares favourably with the national level of nearly 9 per cent., it is, of course, a matter of concern to the people of Bristol. As I have said, the force is holding its own this year. I look forward to good progress following the Edmund Davies report.

The appropriate level of establishment of the Avon and Somerset police is a matter in the first place for the police authority. But this is a responsibility which it shares with the Secretary of State. Under Section 4 of the Police Act the police authority has to obtain the approval of the Secretary of State for the level of establishment which it sets. I know that there is strong local feeling that the present level seriously underestimates the number of police officers needed to give adequate police cover. It is part of our standing arrangements between the Home Office and police authorities that establishment levels should be reviewed at regular intervals. The chief constable has, I know, conducted a review of his establishment and is discussing his proposals with Her Majesty's inspector. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has, however, not yet received any proposals for an increase in establishment from the police authority.

I am not, therefore, in a position to comment on the question of an increase in force establishment at this stage. Suffice to say that my right hon. Friend will consider any proposals the police authority submits in due course with great care and sympathy in the light of the problems and the needs of the area and its police force. I should like to emphasise one point, however. The present level of establishment is not at this stage a restraint on increasing the strength of the Avon and Somerset police. As I have said, the force has—regrettably—scope for growth within its present establishment in view of the deficiency of nearly 100 on the present level.

I turn to the question of public expenditure. Everyone agrees that increased public expenditure is desirable. Accordingly, the Government have exempted the recruitment of police officers up to authorised establishment from the public expenditure restrictions which the economic situation has made necessary in recent years. There is nothing to stop Avon and Somerset police from recruiting up to establishment.

The police service could not, however, be entirely exempt from these restrictions. It was generally agreed that the lesser evil was to concentrate the necessary cuts on the various categories of civilian support staff and on other expenditure like goods and services. The Government recognised that this would inevitably have an effect on the ability of forces to respond to the challenges facing them. We regretted that it was necessary to cut back in the recruitment of police cadets and police civilians. I know that Avon and Somerset has been particularly affected by these public ex- penditure cuts. Representations were made to the Home Secretary last year. My right hon. Friend was therefore very glad to be able to relax the restrictions. The extra expenditure which he announced last November is of tangible benefit to the Avon and Somerset police. It will enable them to recruit some 25 cadets and about 20 new civilian staff. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in his Budget speech, the Government have now been able to relax the restrictions further. We shall be getting in touch with the Avon and Somerset police authority along with the other police authorities shortly about the details.

On the specific question that my hon. Friend asked about co-operation and co-ordination between forces, this is possible and it is done. Where there are particular problems, such as the incidents of rape in Bristol, it is open to neighbouring forces to co-operate with each other.

There is a great deal of research about the causes of crime, and its link with the affluent society, going on in many universities, and perhaps even in Bristol University itself. There is no lack of effort being made to try to find the causes of rising crime, and what it is linked to. There is no easy answer to the problem.

I have dwelt on the general considerations affecting the strength of the Avon and Somerset police. Without wishing to encroach on the responsibilities of the chief constable, I should, however, end with some reference to the action which the force has been taking to deal with the situation which my hon. Friend has described. To counter the problem of street crime at night the chief constable has increased the police cover in Bristol—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.