Skip to main content

Police (Manning, Efficiency And Morale)

Volume 984: debated on Monday 12 May 1980

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. Newton.]

12.12 am

As everyone who has had experience of police forces overseas well knows, our police are the finest in the world—not only because of the individual character of the average British policeman but because of his sturdiness and honesty, and because of the high professional standards of the force, as exemplified last week in the incident at Princes Gate. Therefore, one might think that their high professional reputation would protect them from mindless and politically motivated hostility. But that is not so.

Whatever the source of the criticism, the press and the broadcasting authorities are only too eager to publish sensational allegations of corruption and misconduct made against the police. They do so knowing the inherent unreliability of such stories and the totally unrepresentative nature of such individual cases that are proved. In seeking to sensationalise such stories, the press and media besmirch the good name of the police generally and undermine public confidence in our system of justice. Relatively little prominence was given to the findings of the jury that Jimmy Kelly died in police custody from natural causes, whereas acres of newsprint over many months were devoted to allegations that he was killed by the police. Also, in the aftermath of the Southall riots the press made much of the fact that one demonstrator died from a blow to the head but very little of the fact that in the same incident nearly 100 policemen were physically attacked and injured.

The effect of all this is to put the police and the Government constantly on the defensive—to explain and to placate criticism, almost to apologise for the fact that the police have to do their duty when, in fact, the Government should be seeking to make law enforcement more effective. They defend the existence of the special patrol group when they should seek to form mobile reserve groups in every city. They create a huge bureaucratic apparatus for the investigation of complaints when they should be getting more men out on the beat. I want to focus attention on those aspects of the police that are more important for their quality and efficiency and more deserving of urgent attention than the comparatively trivial matters that are taken up by the press.

The biggest scandal in police affairs is the pathetic inadequacy of the numbers presently employed. We raise our hands in horror at the appalling increase in the figures of crimes, especially violent crimes, yet we do virtually nothing to increase the numbers of police to cope with it. Since 1960, the total strength of the police in this country has increased by half, but the number of reported indictable—that is, serious—offences has trebled in that time.

For London, where the problem is greatest and where indictable offences have risen astronomically, the figures are appalling. The strength of the Metropolitan Police has remained below 23,000 for the past 50 years. We had 21,020 in 1921 and the number was still only 22,408 in 1977. Yet during that period the total strength of the police outside London rose from 38,498 to 97,560. We have the ridiculous position that the police force whose size has remained virtually static for the past 50 years is also the force for which the Government are directly responsible.

The setting of a figure for the establishment of individual police forces is pure fantasy. The figure for the establishment in London is particularly unreal. Apart from the fact that it has not been seriously reviewed for 50 years—it stands today at 26,628—it takes no account of the special demands made on London police which are not made on the same scale, or at all, on provincial forces. Public order, race relations, terrorism, hooliganism, Notting Hill carnivals, road and air traffic and tourism make demands on London policemen far greater than those experienced elsewhere, while protection of royalty and visiting Heads of State and VIPs, diplomatic protection and security of Government and parliamentary personnel and buildings are special to London.

It is no wonder, in view of all that, that there are no policemen to go on the beat, yet there is no greater deterrent to crime, no better conciliator of local disputes and no better promoter of race relations than the "bobby" on the beat. We do ourselves great injury by failing to provide for him.

So much for the inherent problem of manpower shortage. What of its effect on the efficiency of the police as a whole? It is not merely because the level of crimes has increased that we are compelled to examine the present force establishments. It is because policing a modern, civilised, highly sophisticated society makes special demands on police manpower which make it impossible to maintain an adequate level in the streets and in the routine role of law enforcement.

The need for an adequate mobile reserve of police officers to deal with sudden demands on police manpower is manifest. Call it a special patrol group or what you will, Mr. Deputy Speaker, the need was made manifest by the Bristol riots. There was in Bristol the most appalling breakdown of law and order seen in this country for many years. As the magazine Police said at the time:
"The long term consequences of those six hours of unbridled lawlessness go far beyond the hundreds of thousands of pounds of damage to property, the stoning and the looting. The issues have ominous significance for all major cities with inner areas like St. Paul's and large concentrations of alienated young blacks. In particular, what happened there is of direct concern to every police force in the country."
The most significant fact to emerge from what we already know about the Bristol incident is that the original 40 police officers deployed for the raid on the cafe had grown to no more than 70 before the withdrawal took place more than two hours later. Apparently it took four hours after that to get reinforcements.

Fortunately, London is better prepared, but what other police forces have a contingency plan to cope with serious public disorder and a mobile force that they can call upon?

I turn to the effect of shortages of both men and money on the morale of the police. Police morale is not simply a matter of pay. Since the implementation of the excellent Lord Edmund-Davies report, the level of pay of the police is satisfactory. A higher rate would not necessarily fill the vacancies. Morale depends on many things besides pay. There is the question of time off for overtime duty. In some forces, the constraints on expenditure have imposed unreasonable restrictions on the amount of overtime that may be worked. Yet the alternative—time off in lieu of overtime worked—is not available because of the insufficiency of manpower available to cover proper manning levels. The result is that a high proportion of offences goes uninvestigated. In London especially, the burden of responsibility on the police to maintain and enforce the law and to investigate and prosecute crime is beyond their present capacity to sustain. The case load on the CID is enormous and well beyond its present resources.

The evidence exists for all to see—the limit on permissible overtime and the rationing of fuel for patrol cars. Some provincial forces limit their patrol cars to absurdly small distances per day. There axe only small numbers of typists and typewriters available in police stations to cope with mountains of paper work. Police are absent from whole areas of London on occasions on special duty. Everyone knows that it is hard to find a "bobby" on the beat. It is left to retired police officers, such as Sir Robert Mark, to tell the truth, namely, that police numbers are wholly insufficient to cope with all the demands made upon them.

What is the effect of the Government's defence attitude towards the police on police efficiency and morale? I have spoken of the unwillingness of the Government to be positively enthusiastic about police and to seek ways of promoting their efficiency and welfare. I believe that the Government should seek to amend the law to improve police methods of investigation. For too long, our criminal law and our law of evidence have been slanted in favour of the accused when it should be neutral. This attitude stems from the days of capital punishment. Now that there is no capital punishment, we should set about revising the law to put it in its proper position and balance. There is no need for the so-called right to silence. Juries should be allowed to draw the commonsense inference from an accused's silence. There is no longer any need for the police to abide by the strict terms of the Bankers Books Evidence Act. It should be possible to get access to a bank account, before a prosecution is started and while inquiries are proceeding, on an application to a magistrate without going through the formalities required by the Act.

On the other hand, there are many current attempts to weaken the power of the police. I can refer to at least one—the investigation into the so-called "sus" law that has aroused the concern of many intelligent people who should know better. It is a law that applies nowadays to the petty thief, the pickpocket and the wretched individual who steals from parked cars, handbags or whenever he thinks that no one is looking. It serves a useful purpose. I hope that, whatever the Government decide to do about the "sus" law, the police will retain the right to arrest people reasonably suspected of being about to commit an offence.

Naturally, in a force of more than 100,000 men and women there are bound to be some who spoil the record. There are comparatively few dishonest and unsuitable policemen who should be dealt with strictly. But the scale of the bureaucratic machine, costing £3 million a year and involving 184 officers, that looks into complaints is not justified; nor is the immense palaver that is aroused when an inquiry into corruption or other misconduct is in progress. I ask my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State to bring Operation Countryman to an early end. Leading counsel should be put on to it, if necessary, the whole time, but the agony should not be prolonged, a moment longer than necessary. It has simply be- come a vehicle for grievances against the Metropolitan Police and is doing great harm to all police morale.

On the whole, we have a splendid police force that deserves the praise given recently. The Government should support it wholeheartedly in its great battle against crime, violence and lawlessness.

12.25 am

I intervene briefly to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) on his choice of subject and on the admirable and comprehensive way in which he has dealt with it. I am sure that the Minister will want seriously to consider the many important points that my hon. Friend has raised. I wish to raise just two.

Like my hon. Friend, I believe that we are in the presence of a concerted campaign on the fringes of politics, in the media and occasionally in this House, to denigrate the police service. There have been attempts to depict the police as brutal beaters-up and even killers of persons in custody, as Cossacks deployed by the Government to beat back honest trade unions, as racialists, as corrupters and as Fascists. No organ of opinion in this country has done more to disseminate and endorse these mendacities than the BBC. I want to put it on record that the police resent this mischief from the broadcasting authorities and that the police record in purging themselves of biased and dishonourable police officers is vastly better than the purging conducted by the broadcasting authorities.

This campaign has recently surfaced in some quite specific demands. I list some of them. One is the abolition of the special patrol group. Nearly 100 hon. Members put their signatures to a motion suggesting something like that. Others are to repeal the anti-terrorist Act, clip the wings of MI5, reduce and cut the Special Branch and disband the SAS. All those demands have been made in recent months, and we have recently seen in Princes Gate that if any one of them had been carried through it would have been impossible to have conducted the relief of that siege as effectively and as famously as was done.

Secondly, it is now the fashion to say let us get back to community policing and, of course, we all want that. But with the sheer volume of crime, with the arrival in our midst of other people's problems that spill over into terror, with the massive demonstrations and occasional racial clashes that happen, it is, regrettably, impossible any longer to keep the peace solely by community policing. There needs to be an availability of mobile forces and of specialists, whether the Fraud Squad or the Diplomatic Protection Squad.

While I totally endorse the proposition that as far as possible we should get officers back on the beat so that they are in close, initimate contact with the citizen and, therefore, able to benefit from his intelligence and his support, I believe that there is no longer any effective way of managing public order and crime without effective, mobile, well-trained and professional squads of police officers, available to be deployed when they are needed.

12.28 am

I welcome, and I am sure that the police service will welcome, the words of support which my hon. Friends the Members for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) have expressed for the way in which the police are responding to the challenge they face. The support given to them in this House is amply deserved and fully justified.

We expect a great deal of our police-We look to them to preserve good order in our society, to prevent crime and detect offenders, to respond to the emergencies and disasters which may be visited on us, and to give aid to those in distress. For all the material progress of society, the burdens on the police have increased, not diminished.

This is an opportunity for me on behalf of the Government to say something of what has been done to make the police service strong enough to meet the increased demands on it. It is, after all, one of our prime responsibilities to ensure the efficiency of the police service. But is is well to emphasise at the outset that good policing, whether it is community policing or not, depends on the community as a whole. The police service is not the Government's police service. It is the people's police service. We have an obligation to the community to maintain the strength and efficiency of the service, but without the support and co-operation of the community, however the manner of policing is determined, it could not be as effective as it ought to be.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington referred to the numerical strength of the police. At the end of March, the total strength of the police service in England and Wales was 114,543. There were 5,342 vacancies, 4·5 per cent. of the total establishment of 119,885. The partial implementation of the Edmund-Davies report on police pay in July 1978 by the previous Administration, the full implementation by the Government when they came to power in May 1979 and the upgrading of the Edmund-Davies scales in September 1979 have completely transformed the police manpower situation.

Although my hon. Friend feels—and I can understand his feeling—that we still do not have enough police, I believe that it is important to put on record the change that has taken place. There was a net gain of 3,714 from July 1978 to April 1979, 1,192 from April 1979 to August 1979 and 1,858 from August 1979 to March 1980—a total net gain since the report of 6,764.

The report had three main effects. It stimulated recruitment, it brought forward more candidates of higher quality so that many forces have been able to raise their standards of entry and reduce losses during the first few months of service, and it encouraged experienced officers to stay on, to qualify for pension and often to the age limit. Before the report, the police service had been losing too many experienced officers who are essential to effective policing. Those that remained now have a valuable contribution to make in training the large numbers of new officers to the standards that we expect of our police.

It is correct to say that vacancies still exist, and they are not evenly distributed. Of the 43 forces, only eight outside London have deficiencies greater than 4 per cent., and of these three have recently had establishment increases. They have not yet had time to recruit the extra police they can now take on. They include some of the major conurbations, like West Midlands and West Yorkshire, but all eight are making progress towards reaching the establishment level. If, as we hope, the present favourable situation continues, all forces outside London should reach existing establishments within the next 12 months or so.

My hon. Friend rightly pointed out that reaching existing establishment levels is not the end of the matter by any means. In this regard, as in others, we have to pay attention to the need to restrain public expenditure. Therefore, when talking about increasing establishments, we must do so to the extent that is necessary to maintain an acceptable standard of policing. Having said that, it is right to point out that increases of just over 900 were authorised up to March 1980 and further modest but essential increases can be expected in the current financial year.

My hon. Friend specially drew attention to the Metropolitan Police. The Edmund-Davies report made special provision for the London forces and this has considerably helped the Metropolitan Police, which has gained 1,173 men since the report was published. The strength now stands at 22,804. But there are still 3,785 vacancies. Recruitment is now at its highest level ever, and the training school at Hendon is working to full capacity, but it is undoubtedly the case that it will be some time yet before the force reaches its present establishment. That ought to be our first target, and it is certainly one that we very much have in mind.

When examining the effectiveness of the force, one must also examine its size and organisation. With only limited additional resources available, existing resources must be used to best advantage. It is impossible to lay down a standard pattern. Each chief constable, in consultation with his police authority, must work out the best arrangement for the area. Change might be needed in the territorial organisation of the force or in its methods of working. That balance between different types of unit must be considered. The underlying objective is to ensure that police officers are available to serve the community where they are needed and where they can best use their expertise and powers.

The need for the best use of limited resources is perhaps most pressing in the metropolis simply because it is in London that shortage of manpower remains most acute. With my right hon. Friend's support, the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis is taking steps to restructure his force to release police officers, where possible, from administrative duties. He has recently completed a review of local policing arrangements, designed largely to make officers available for operational street duty. I am glad to say that in this way the Commissioner expects that in due course as many as 1,200 officers will be redeployed Substantial progress towards this target has already been made. That is an encouraging development, which the House will welcome.

My hon. Friend referred to the situation that arose in Bristol at the time of the serious disturbances there. I agree that it is important to ensure that police forces can rapidly call upon sufficient trained officers to deal with such situations. For that reason, my right hon. Friend announced on 28 April that he was asking senior Home Office officials and Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in conjunction with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis and the Association of Chief Police Officers to examine thoroughly and urgently the arrangements for handling spontaneous public disorder. My right hon. Friend added that he would publish the results of that review. That shows the Government's serious and urgent concern for the points that arise from that aspect of the Bristol disturbances.

My hon. Friend referred to various matters relating to the powers of the police and evidential matters concerned with the trial of criminal cases. Many if not most, fall within the ambit of the Royal Commission on criminal procedure and we shall take those points seriously in our consideration of the Royal Commission's report.

My hon. Friend referred to the criticism of the "sus" law. The use and value attached to that law vary throughout the country. Before a view is taken about the merits of the present law, it is important to have the benefit of inquiries and the report of the Law Commission on the law of attempt. The extent to which the law of attempt can be changed to take account of an act which cannot be the subject of prosecution for attempt is a factor which we shall wish to consider when deciding what changes, if any, should be made to the "sus" law.

Operation Countryman was also mentioned. I accept that an investigation into allegations conducted in that way and on that scale is of concern. I agree that the appropriate course is for it to be concluded as rapidly as possible. I accept the need to take whatever steps are necessary to bring that about, but it is a complicated investigation, and if justice is to be done to the police officers under examination as much as anyone else it would be wrong to seek to bring it to a precipitate end in a way which did not allow a full investigation to proceed in the right way.

I take note of the comments about complaints against the police. It would be surprising if the morale of officers against whom complaints were made was not affected when the complaint was trivial, malicious or politically motivated. One must also take into account that the investigation of some complaints involves a lengthy process, and it is discouraging for an officer if he or his colleagues are subject to such investigation, especially if suspension is necessary. The police recognise—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, 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 eighteen minutes to One o'clock.