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PC Richard Keel

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 4 July 2006

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

Police officers in Shrewsbury and throughout England are extraordinarily brave and honourable people. They put their lives at risk every day, as PC Beshenivsky reminds us. Currently, police in Shrewsbury are dealing with the brutal murder of two women that has so shocked our community, and Guy Rutter and his team are working extremely hard to find the perpetrators of this heinous crime. We politicians have a duty and responsibility to protect the rights of the police and to stand by them in difficult times. They need to know that they can trust us and rely on us to provide them with justice.

There has been a gross violation of justice, however, in the case of PC Richard Keel, who is a constituent of mine. This is a young man of 33 years, who has a lovely, charming wife, Samantha, and a beautiful daughter, Bethany, who is eight years of age. I am not an emotional man, but I must say that my interactions with this constituent on numerous occasions have made me very emotionally involved in this case, and I feel a great sense of passion for him and his family.

In May 2004, PC Keel was called to a riot in Wellington in the eastern part of Shropshire, outside my constituency. During an attempted arrest, he was surrounded by 20 young men of Asian origin and seriously assaulted. I will not give details of the assault in the Chamber, but I have a copy of a witness statement signed by PC Richard Keel that was made immediately after the riot. Importantly, it includes the names of the people who committed the assault, none of whom has been properly prosecuted or received any prison sentence whatsoever for the crimes that they committed against a serving police officer. To my knowledge, only two people have been subject to a minimum section 4 public order fine of less than £50.

There has been no justice in this case. Police injustice attracts a great deal of media coverage and attention, but when it is a case of injustice against the police by members of the public, there is silence. I should like to describe to the Minister the injuries suffered by my constituent. He has a slipped disc in his neck and in his lower back. He has severe problems with his left shoulder, and he is taking high-dosage sleeping tablets, extremely strong anti-depressants and morphine-based drugs to ease his pain and suffering. He has been waiting a long time for operations and he has called on my help to try to speed them up. Vertebrae and a disc have been removed from his neck, and a cage inserted in the space that was left was filled with bone taken from his hip. Pins have been inserted in his spine, and he has been given steroid epidurals in his lower back and shoulder. He is considered 50 per cent. disabled, and he must continue to endure operations.

My constituent has received inadequate compensation. Two years after the attack, the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority has still not paid a penny of the compensation to which PC Keel is entitled. Either the authority is not fit for purpose, like the rest of the Home Office, or it is drastically underfunded. Whatever the case, it has not paid a penny to my constituent. I have spoken to other Members of Parliament about the issue, and it appears that there are many police officers up and down the country awaiting compensation for the injuries that they have sustained. I shall certainly try to secure a Westminster Hall debate on the issue to get to the bottom of whether the authority is fit for purpose or drastically underfunded. In the short term, I appeal to the Minister to write to the authority and do whatever he can to speed up compensation for my constituent, PC Keel.

My constituent has told me that the figure of £5,000 has been bandied around as potential compensation, but how can that compensate a young 33-year-old man for the disability and trauma inflicted on him and his family? Will the Minister help me to ensure that PC Keel receives proper career advice so that he can secure a non-front-line job in the police force? As things stand, his salary will be cut to zero in September, and he will have to rely on statutory sickness benefit. That will in no way allow him to pay for his mortgage. He has shared with me in confidence his mortgage details and I know how much the mortgage is and how much it costs to support his family. The sickness benefit will not allow him to cover his mortgage or look after his family. I urge the Minister to help my constituent get a non-front-line job with pay similar to what he earned before the incident. He can no longer have a front-line role because of the injuries that he sustained.

I come to an extra piece of information that I gleaned from my constituent this evening. Again, I say this to the Minister in a non-partisan way and with all sincerity. My constituent pays £15 a month to the Police Federation. In his case, that is the Police Federation based in Worcestershire. The Police Federation, which is meant to look after the interests of my constituent and other police officers and protect their rights, has not returned any of his calls and has told him in no uncertain terms not to speak to the press. The Police Federation has admonished him greatly for daring to raise the matter with me “at a time when West Mercia police already have enough problems with the proposed merger of West Mercia with other police authorities.”

What sort of society do we live in when members of the Police Federation tell police officers not to rock the boat and not to talk to their Member of Parliament because they are fearful of the impact that that will have on the Minister in his consideration of the unpopular proposed merger of West Mercia? That is more like Ceausescu’s Romania than the great democracy that we live in—a disgrace. I cannot begin to describe how emotionally charged I feel at such disgraceful behaviour.

Moreover, the Police Federation asked my constituent how he could remain in the police force after complaining to his Member of Parliament. What a disgrace. He has every right to ask for the support of his Member of Parliament, and every right through him in this august Chamber to plead with the Minister for help. I do not expect the Police Federation to treat police officers in that way.

I sent a copy of the witness statement to the Minister this afternoon. I hope he will investigate and ensure that the criminals named in it are prosecuted for the heinous crimes that they have committed against a member of our police force. If we do not protect our police officers, we will not get the next generation of youngsters coming in and doing that vital job, because they will have no confidence that politicians like us will protect them when the going gets rough.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) on securing the debate. He has raised with me the case of PC Richard Keel, an officer in the West Mercia constabulary, who was twice injured on duty, once on 25 August 2004 and again on 16 April 2005, and who remains on sick leave as a result. I recognise PC Keel’s work for the force and wish him and his family well in what must be a very difficult time for them. I endorse the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the recent double murder case and wish the force well in their investigation.

In this, as in any other case relating to the welfare of officers, the responsibility for supporting the officer rests with the chief officer of police, and it is not for me to comment on a particular case in any regard whatsoever. I know from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary that the West Mercia police force provides a good standard of occupational health and welfare services and that its systems ensure effective health and safety procedures. I shall say more about that shortly.

The Government support the police service in maintaining officers’ health, safety and well-being, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. That is critical to the forces’ ability not only to deliver the police service that the public expects, but equally in terms of recruitment and retention.

I would like to explain how we have been working with the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, the Health and Safety Executive and the police staff associations and trade unions to improve occupational health services over the last five years. During that time, the service has significantly reduced sickness absence and ill-health retirements, both of which are indications of real improvements in the health and welfare of officers and staff. All those working in the service have reason to be proud of this achievement, which has meant that between 2001-02 and 2004-05 additional front-line strength equivalent to 1,500 officers has become available, enabling more officers to return to duty, serving the public, which is what they joined the service to do.

The hon. Gentleman may know that in 2002 we launched the strategy for a healthy police service, an initiative with which the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee was closely associated and which he personally launched. The strategy aimed to maintain police officers’ and staff good health and reduce injuries. It provided forces with funding of £19 million over four years to help police officers and staff to return to work and carry out a full range of duties.

Forces were given discretion to identify initiatives where that pump-priming activity would have the greatest impact. Initiatives included health promotion, stress counselling services, fast-track surgical interventions and attendance management training. An overall initial evaluation of this work shows strong anecdotal evidence that the funding has made a significant impact on forces’ ability to manage and reduce sickness absence.

West Mercia has used its funding to augment its occupational health department, introducing a physiotherapy scheme, stress audits and support for psychological disorders. Its physiotherapy pilot project in the Worcester division reduced absence due to musculoskeletal injuries by some 10 per cent. Those measures contributed to reducing sickness absence from an average of 13.2 days lost per officer in 2001-02 to an average of 87.8 hours, corresponding to approximately 11 days lost per officer in 2004-05.

The strategy for a healthy police service recommended that managers work with occupational health to plan how the force can assist an officer’s recovery and return to full performance, and forces agree a policy for the use of private health care with their police authority. Guidance has also been issued on delivering a fair and consistent approach towards early retirement due to ill health so that officers can continue to serve where they are capable of performing sufficient duties to make their retention operationally justifiable.

There has been a reduction in the number of ill-health retirements over the years. In 1997-98, there were 14 ill-health retirements for every 1,000 officers in service across forces in England and Wales. By 2004-05 that rate had been reduced to 3 per 1,000. For West Mercia in 2004-05, the figure was 4 per 1,000. That is well within the target of 6.5 ill-health retirements per 1,000 that we set for forces in the national policing plan of November 2002.

In June 2000, the Government published “Revitalising health and safety”, which set a target to reduce the number of working days lost per 100,000 workers from work-related injury and ill health by 30 per cent. by 2010. The current target for sickness absence in the police is eight days per year for police officers by 2008. The latest figures available for 2004-05 show the average hours lost was the equivalent of nine days per officer per year.

We are not complacent and we know that we must continue to improve. The Home Office and ACPO have commissioned a review of the provision of health and safety arrangements in the police service that will make recommendations for improvement and provide a benchmarking standard. We will also be working with the Health and Safety Commission to evaluate progress from the initiatives of the strategy for a healthy police service and identify what elements have been most successful.

As the hon. Gentleman suggests, policing is necessarily a difficult and often dangerous job, never without a risk, and I applaud his broad sentiments about the lot of our police when they are on the front line. But forces are increasingly well equipped to assess and manage such risks. Officer safety training, the use of protective equipment and the careful planning of operations all have a part to play. Reducing the number of incidents in which officers are injured is clearly the first priority. When they are injured, better occupational health services have a real part to play in supporting recovery. The service’s record in this area is good on the whole, but we will continue to work for further improvement in the interest of officers, police staff and the public.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to debate the broad aspect of this important issue in the House. The Government recognise the importance of effective health and safety arrangements for officers and staff to the provision of effective policing. Performance on that has improved significantly since the launch of our strategy for a healthy police service and due to the funding to forces that we have provided. As I said, neither the Government, nor the police service in general, are complacent. We will continue to work with the police to maintain and improve the arrangements.

I have to say two things in conclusion. First, the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Ceausescu’s Romania were misplaced and simply did not belong in what was otherwise an entirely reasonable contribution. Secondly, I repeat that, although he is a relatively new Member, it would still be wholly inappropriate for me to comment on an individual case, whether that is in terms of human resources, support from a force, an individual’s relationship with the Police Federation, or any other matter. Such points would be more properly raised by the individual concerned—with or without his MP, I freely concede—at local level with the West Mercia force. I cannot comment at all on any of the more specific remarks that the hon. Gentleman made, and I certainly cannot, and will not, undertake to do any sort of bidding for the individual. I have to say, as I have said on other occasions, that such focus on an individual case in the Chamber is a wholly inappropriate use of the process of Adjournment debates.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes past Eleven o’clock.