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Police Recruitment

Volume 569: debated on Friday 25 October 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Stephen Crabb.)

In 1881, the Cardwell reforms abolished the practice of selling commissions in the Army. In 2013, we are adopting similar measures in relation to the British police force.

Earlier this year, one of the country’s top police officers complained that there was a growing diversity problem in the police service, and that he was “embarrassed” by the lack of progress in addressing it. This debate has been prompted by similar concerns.

We have just experienced a period in which our police service, especially in my part of south London, has increasingly begun to resemble the community that it patrols, but I fear that measures being introduced by the Government and by the Mayor of London will take us back in time. In particular, I fear that the way in which the police have been told to recruit will make it less likely that people from disadvantaged backgrounds, including ethnic minorities, will join the police forces.

Sir Peter Fahy, who is the spokesman on workforce development for the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester, said that police forces should recruit more black and ethnic minority officers in order to reflect British society, because there was an operational need for forces to have staff who understood and worked within Britain’s diverse communities. Figures from The Guardian suggest that in England and Wales there are just 48 black or ethnic-minority superintendents and chief superintendents, and just six black or ethnic minority chief officers —3% of the total. Sir Peter said he feared the diversity problem would get even worse because of budget cuts and the removal of senior posts, as that would make it harder for ethnic minority officers to get promotion to senior roles. He therefore wanted to see a

“wider interpretation of employment law and the issues which can be taken into consideration when making selection decisions”.

Earlier this week, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Gloria De Piero) launched a sweeping review of race relations that suggests, among other measures, changing the law to allow more targeted recruitment of black and ethnic minority police officers. Anyone can respond to the review, not just Labour members, and replies will feed into the party’s policy commission. The review says:

“It is time to look at whether the legal framework needs to be changed to allow police forces to pursue BAME recruitment programmes to meet their operational needs.”

I have a lot of sympathy with that position. When my local police service was expanding in the previous decade, it was notable how many recruits were young and from ethnic minorities. They could relate to the communities in which they operated, especially to the young people who were most at risk of getting into trouble.

More than a decade ago, I persuaded my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), who was then the police Minister, to meet local people on Steers Mead who wanted a team of police to tackle the low-level crime and antisocial behaviour that affected their part of Mitcham. Thanks to her, we fortunately got one of the country’s safer neighbourhood teams. The model of one sergeant, two police constables and three police community support officers in every ward has been a great success and has directly led to more police officers, especially PCSOs, patrolling the streets. One reason for that success is that those officers and PCSOs looked like the people whose streets they walked down. The police had drifted away from community policing for decades, but safer neighbourhood teams meant that we had six people working local beats whom we knew and who could not be moved away from us.

It is a great tragedy that those teams are now being broken up. No longer are they required to work in one ward, and one ward alone, in which they can build up relationships and local knowledge. Instead, most safer neighbourhood officers are being asked to patrol anywhere.

Even worse, the overall number of police officers has been falling. In March 2010, when police numbers in my borough of Merton were at their height, we had 60 police sergeants, 246 PCs and 85 PCSOs. According to Merton’s borough commander, by September 2013 the number of sergeants had dropped by a third, to 39.5, the number of PCSOs had dropped by around 40%, and there were 15 fewer PCs. Inevitably, that results in fewer people in our police service who reflect the social composition of the wider community. That is why it is important that when the police recruit they do so in a way that does not discriminate against under-represented parts of the community.

As the Minister acknowledged in his reply to a question of mine last Thursday, police recruitment is currently low. It is therefore even more important that recruiters ensure that what little recruitment there is does not make it harder for people from disadvantaged backgrounds or ethnic minorities to get a job.

We are certainly not going to tackle the diversity crisis in our police service by charging potential recruits nearly £1,000 just for the privilege of going on a course that might—just might—enable them to apply. We must make no bones about it: that is what is happening with the roll-out of the new certificate in knowledge of policing.

In my view, the introduction of the CKP will seriously damage police attempts to recruit people from disadvantaged backgrounds. The CKP will make the police’s ethnic profile even less like that of the community it serves than it is now. It was already hard enough to apply to the police, but the introduction of this certificate will make it even harder.

Already there are concerns that the composition of the police is being adversely affected by the move to recruiting ever more police officers from volunteer specials. In September 2010 the Metropolitan Police Authority announced that two thirds of its recruits would need to have volunteered as police officers for more than 18 months even to be considered. That was driven by a desire to

“deliver savings of between £12,000 and £20,000 per officer in salary costs during their training period.”

Kit Malthouse, the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Authority, claimed that the charges were needed because of a “financial jam”. However, even the Liberal Democrats recognised that the charges would make it harder for police recruits to reflect the communities that they serve. MPA member Dee Doocey said that the recruitment process would favour middle-class people who had spare time. The reliance on specials is hard enough, but if serving as a police officer is possible only for people who are able to cough up nearly £1,000 many months before they can even apply to become an officer, who will sign up? Will that interest the black and Asian young people from areas such as Mitcham and Morden, where £1,000 remains a very large sum to come by? I do not think so, and in fact that is what we are experiencing.

Although total staff levels of police officers, police community support officers and sergeants are down, we are one of the few places in the country that are recruiting to even a handful of positions. The new posts do not compensate for the positions that we have lost, but at least they are something. The experience in Merton is that, thanks to the certificate in knowledge of policing, for black and Asian members of my community, applying to be a police officer has become even more difficult.

It is already rightly difficult to join the police. Applicants have to complete a pre-application questionnaire, which takes about 45 minutes. If they pass that stage, the police service will send them an application pack to fill in. If applicants meet the required standard and get through that stage, they are invited to an assessment centre for a two-day assessment. That includes a 20-minute structured interview, followed by a numerical reasoning test. That is followed by a 30-minute verbal logical reasoning test, and two further written exercises, including one in which the applicant writes a proposal document. That is followed by four interactive role-play scenarios. Day two concentrates on assessing whether the applicant can meet the physical and mental challenges of policing. Even that is not the end of the matter: the applicant still has to go through security and reference checks. It is notoriously difficult to conduct assessments in such an environment in a way that does not favour certain socio-economic or cultural groups.

The point is that it is quite feasible to spend £1,000, and months gaining the certificate in knowledge of policing, and still not get through the recruitment process. Unless they had time and money, and confidence that they would pass the rest of the recruitment process, why would anyone get the CKP? For someone from a cultural background that is already under-represented in the police force, the only rational conclusion is that it would not be a good idea for them to part with their money. That is exactly what we are finding in Merton.

We in Merton are extraordinarily grateful for the fact that, that under the guidance of Darren Williams, our borough commander, we are recruiting 17 PCs, who, if they live in the borough, can remain in it. Mr Williams organised a recruitment day a few weeks ago in our local Odeon cinema. I was desperate for young people from my half of the borough—Mitcham and Morden—to be as well represented as those from Wimbledon. I was delighted to see that two thirds of the young—and not so young—men and women who arrived were from my constituency. Everyone was excited, but many were put off when they learned that the £1,000 for the CKP was the starting point of their application. For those of us with credit cards, £1,000 may not seem like a lot, but for families who have very little, it is like £10,000 to us.

In a parliamentary answer to me last Thursday, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said:

“The Certificate in Knowledge of Policing is not a requirement for entry in to any force.”—[Official Report, 17 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 824W.]

I can categorically tell him that as far as my local police force is concerned, that is not the case. Those attending the recruitment fair were told in no uncertain terms that the CKP was mandatory. They would need either to have one, or to have enrolled to get one before February, or they would not even be able to apply to work as a police officer. The outcome was entirely predictable: disappointment and frustration from those who felt that they could make a police officer. My borough commander was so worried by the response that he approached me to ask if there was some way that we could run a pilot looking at how we could meet the costs.

As the Minister for Policing admitted to me in his answer last Thursday, no forces have established bursary schemes for students undertaking the pre-joining arrangements. However, in Merton we have attempted to start. We started by approaching the local Ahmadiyya Muslim community to ask whether they might be prepared to put up the money to allow the best of those 17 recruits to be chosen and not to be put off by the cost of joining. I am grateful that the community has agreed to put the money forward not just for people from their community, but in favour of all young people in the area, irrespective of whether they have a religion, what colour they are or whether they are a man or a woman. I am incredibly grateful to the community, as there are many other things that they could, and do, spend their charitable money on. Should they have to do this? No. To weed out people who are poor, who do not have access to such funds, but who would make police officers, is entirely wrong.

The police themselves regard the introduction of the fee as a crude way of saving money. The CKP saves the police service the cost of training, accommodation, uniform and so on. Put simply, it removes the cost of the first half of the 18-week course that used to take place at Hendon. Responsibility for paying for that will transfer from the police to the applicant, and responsibility for administering the scheme transfers from the police to the new College of Policing. But the outcome will be simple and far-reaching.

Instead of reflecting the communities they serve, the police will become like the Army was in Jane Austen’s day, when it was only those who could afford to buy a commission who became officers. Merit did not come into it. The best never got to serve. In battle after battle, brave British lion-like troops were sent to their slaughter under the leadership of well-to-do donkeys. The certificate in knowledge of policing will do the same thing for the police. In a few short years, the police have been transformed. As we have seen this week, the force is not without its problems, but it is more modern and more representative of the people that it serves than it was even as recently as at Hillsborough.

We should not be turning back the clock. The last thing we should be doing is using cost as a barrier to exclude the very best potential officers from serving their community. The cost of these certificates is far too high. It will turn the police back into a job done for those with money, by those with money. Do we want the most able people, or only those with money, to get the best jobs? What would it say about our society if those who are most likely to be affected by crime—those from poor backgrounds and from ethnic minorities—are the least likely to be able to afford to get into the police? Is it the plan that people without money should be kept out? No matter how much we improve their schools, and no matter how hard young people work, as we can see from the recent qualifications being achieved in London, are their jobs to be only zero-hours low-wage contracts?

I feel very sorry for my borough commander, Darren Williams, who has been in place for 16 years and is certainly the most outstanding chief officer I have had during that time. He has a thankless task. How is he to find like-minded new officers who are prepared to make a difference in their communities, when the only people he will have under his command will be those with a spare grand? The cuts to our police service in the past few years have been very depressing. The 1-2-3 model of safer neighbourhood policing is no longer sacrosanct; police offices and police stations are closing. The number of police and police community support officers in our communities has fallen.

Constituents like mine are more likely to be affected by crime than residents in more affluent areas. They are starting to feel the difference. Even the police themselves recognise that they have a problem because they do not reflect the wider community. I therefore ask the Minister to review urgently the costs and roll-out of these certificates before they have a disastrous effect on our communities.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this afternoon’s debate on the important subject of police recruitment, but also on the important issue of greater diversity within the police service, which I strongly endorse and on which a number of important actions have been and continue to be taken by senior police officers. She referenced Peter Fahy and some of his comments on the rightful need for a more diverse police force serving our communities throughout the country.

I pay tribute to the work of police officers in the hon. Lady’s constituency and across the Metropolitan Police Service. They do an incredible amount of work for us, day in, day out, week in, week out, to keep our communities safe and to bring to justice those who would do us harm. I pay tribute to the work of her borough commander, Darren Williams, whom I had the pleasure of working alongside when he was working in my London borough of Bexley a few years ago. I know how hard working and focused he is.

Let me be clear at the outset that we have an excellent police force, one that has delivered a 10% fall in crime under this Government, despite the difficult but essential funding decisions that we have had to make. Chief constables and senior police officers are rising to the challenge of making efficiency savings and providing greater value for money while protecting services to the public. It is important to put it on the record that we inherited the toughest fiscal challenge in living memory, and had no option but to reduce public spending. At the start of the current spending review period, the police spent some £14 billion a year, so it is right that they should make their fair share of the savings that are needed. The police, like other parts of the public sector, cannot be exempt from the requirement to save money.

What matters is how officers are deployed, not how many of them there are. All forces need to look at the way front-line services are delivered to ensure that the quality of service provided is maintained or improved. As Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has previously made clear, and its latest report reinforces, there is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, between numbers and the visibility of police in the community, or between numbers and the quality of service provided.

There is no question but that the police still have the resources to do their important work. The Metropolitan Police Service has announced plans to recruit 5,000 officers during the next three years. Recruitment is under way, and 1,500 are expected to be in place by the end of March 2014. The Mayor of London has said that he will meet the demand of Londoners to keep police numbers high at 32,000 to deliver a safer London and to help reconnect the police with the public. That will mean that the police in London will be more visible and available, with more cops out on the street where the public want to see them.

Under the Metropolitan Police Service’s local policing model, Merton will see an additional 49 officers going into safer neighbourhood teams, almost doubling their numbers to 107. We know that, based on published data to June 2013, overall police recorded crime in Merton was down by 7% in the year to June 2013 compared with the previous year. I pay tribute to the officers in Merton for their work in achieving that result. That is why the most important factor is that forces prioritise their front-line delivery, that crime continues to fall and that victim satisfaction is up.

I want to address a number of the points that the hon. Lady raised in relation to the recruitment exercise. As I have already highlighted, the Metropolitan Police Service’s plan is to recruit 5,000 new constables by 2015, with an aspiration that 2,000 of them will be from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. It is notable that that objective has been set within the overall recruitment focus. In relation to the Mayor’s objective to achieve a more diverse police force in London, I understand that the Mayor’s office for policing and crime has established a task force to support the Metropolitan Police Service as it recruits new police officers. The task force is progressing with initiatives to introduce community ambassadors aimed at promoting and encouraging police officer recruits and careers across London and communities, to help to identify opportunities for community engagement.

The task force also suggests media improvements to increase the appeal for women and black and minority ethnic applicants. Most notably, adverts must encourage the positive impact that BME applicants could have in keeping their communities safe and improving policing. There is also a suggestion about introducing a London factor to the recruitment process, including elements of intercultural competency, London residency, subject to certain legal issues that the Mayor is examining, and language skills. Therefore, although I note the hon. Lady’s concerns, I think that the Mayor’s office for policing and crime—it is at the sharp end of the recruitment process, rather than the Home Office—from the information I have received from it, is ambitious and is seeking to drive its work forward in ensuring that the Metropolitan police work force better reflect and represent the diverse communities of our capital city.

I want to address some of the hon. Lady’s other points, for example on changes to equality legislation. We believe that the Equality Act 2010 included positive action provisions to enable employers to address identified under-representation of protected groups in the workplace. We are working with forces and colleagues at the Government Equalities Office and the College of Policing to identify ways of tackling under-representation under existing equalities legislation.

In the four minutes remaining, will the Minister address the certificate in knowledge of policing and the requirement to pay approximately £1,000 to apply to become a police officer?

That was the next point I was coming to, so unfortunately I have now lost a few seconds of my time, but the hon. Lady was not to know that.

The certificate in knowledge of policing is one of a number of routes into the police. It is designed to increase access and inclusion and to build the professionalism of policing. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner has chosen, as part of his plans to recruit the 5,000 officers I referred to, to make it a requirement that candidates applying must have completed a certificate in knowledge of policing before starting as a constable. Chief officers—in this case the commissioner—are best placed to determine the skills and capabilities most needed locally, based on their understanding of the local labour market and what is needed in their forces. That is a decision best taken by the chief officer, rather than the Home Office.

The certificate can be taught and assessed by approved external providers. It is not intended that the certificate should be a prerequisite for all new recruits; the intention is to reduce training time and salary costs for cohorts of entrants who have achieved the award prior to recruitment.

I will move on to the cost of the certificate, which the hon. Lady focused on in particular. It is for each provider to set a fee—so far, 37 providers have registered for the certificate and 12 have been approved—but it is estimated that the cost of the certificate will be between £800 and £1,000, as she suggested. Many other professions, particularly law and medicine, require people to pay for the costs of their initial training. Further and higher education providers, as well as independent providers, will obtain a licence from the College of Policing to deliver the certificate course and may offer grants or loans to individual students.

The College of Policing is monitoring take-up of the new qualification, including demographic data on candidates. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice stated in answer to the hon. Lady, it is too early to give an informed response on the certificate’s effect, because it is still in its infancy. It would be a matter for the force to decide whether it wished to reimburse the costs of obtaining the qualification for those who were successfully recruited. However, some further and higher education bodies that run the course may offer grants or loans to individual students.

I want absolute clarity. Is the Minister saying that whether the certificate in knowledge of policing is required is a decision for the chief officer of the Metropolitan police?

Yes, that is my point. It is a local decision. It is right that chief officers should determine the skill sets that they require and therefore the appropriate process in the context of recruitment. I understand that the Metropolitan Police Service is considering providing loans for students undertaking the pre-join programmes. There are also some examples of community and local business consortia developing their own schemes to provide funding and support to those interested in taking the certificate and applying to the Metropolitan Police Service. The hon. Lady’s points are recognised and being examined further, from the information that I have been provided with by the Metropolitan Police Service and the Mayor’s office for policing and crime.

People across all communities want the police to fight crime while having confidence that their individual needs will be understood and respected. That is fair and effective policing. Police forces that reflect the communities they serve are crucial to cutting crime in a modern, diverse society. The police need to understand communities if they are to tackle crimes that affect them. Diversity is more than ever an important part of operational effectiveness.

Equality and diversity have always been a fundamental part of the British model of policing by consent, and I am clear that we must retain that model. That is why representative work forces are such a serious issue and why I am grateful to the hon. Lady for securing this debate.

There are important issues to do with the size and composition of a police force that are a matter for individual chief officers. Recruiting the right people to the police is vital in the fight against crime and will ensure that we continue to see a fall in crime and an increase in victim satisfaction long into the future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.