Orders of the Day — Urban Affairs

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:56 am on 5th November 1982.

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Photo of Mr Roy Hattersley Mr Roy Hattersley , Birmingham Sparkbrook 9:56 am, 5th November 1982

It is not clear to me, although it is perhaps to him, what the Home Secretary is saying. I make the point that it is entirely his responsibility. The right hon. Gentleman made his view clear four years ago when he sat on the Opposition Benches. At that time he was continually telling the Government of the day that the deterioration in the crime rate and the detection rate was entirely their responsibility. I shall remind the right hon. Gentleman of what he said in April 1978—in Lambeth of all places: A Conservative Government under Mrs. Thatcher has positive policies to deal with the criminal in a really effective manner. The right hon. Gentleman was saying that the Conservatives had positive policies ready four years ago to deal effectively with criminals. Today those policies have turned into a reassessment of methods and tactics and plans … in hand to launch a number of local initiatives". Following his promise in the Lambeth speech that the Conservatives had positive policies which would be put into operation at once, the right hon. Gentleman said a month later: The failure of the Labour Government to act with resolution and stop crime is one of the major blots on its record.

If that was a blot on our record I do not think that there is a noun to describe the extension of that blot over the past four years. We are entitled to ask the Home Secretary what went wrong. We were promised so often under a Conservative Government that things would get better. Why did they get dramatically worse? The Home Secretary has not attempted to answer that question today. Nor did he attempt to answer it in a debate on the same subject six months ago. With your agreement, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to fill the vacuum.

First and foremost, the increase in unemployment for which the Government have direct and intentional responsibility has been a major cause of the increase in crime in this country. When he was in Opposition, the Home Secretary actually believed that. The right hon. Gentleman said that he believed that crime and unemployment statistics were directly correlated. He said: There has been a dramatic rise in unemployment among boys and girls. That is the responsibility of this Government. Let no one have any doubt about the danger that that has created in terms of crime of all sorts, violence and vandalism".—[Official Report, 27 February 1978, Vol. 945, c. 40.]

It does no credit to the right hon. Gentleman if that is not now his opinion. If it is still his opinion, it is a formidable indictment of the Government in which he serves. The increase in unemployment is the main reason for the increase in crime in this country. Until that increase is reversed, the crime crisis will continue.

Another factor is the undoubted effect of the physical deterioration of living conditions in the old industrial towns and inner cities and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) has remarked, in many other parts of the country. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) is lucky enough to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, before the end of the debate he will develop the description of the deteriorating physical environment, the reduction in amenities and the increasing deprivation which has contributed to the crime level.

Neither he nor I suggest for a moment that the deterioration began three-and-a-half years ago. We do, however, insist—I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend will demonstrate this—that it has cruelly deteriorated over the past three-and-a-half years largely as a result of the Government's attack on local authority spending. In fact, the Government have created conditions which breed criminals and crime. Nowhere, I fear, is that more true or more apparent than in London—here in the metropolis, where the rise in crime is greatest and where the campaign against crime is the least successful.

The Home Secretary is directly and absolutely responsible for crime in London. He is, or claims to be, the police authority for the Metropolis, which is, I repeat, the area where crime rates rise most quickly and where the crime clear-up rate is worst. Yet the right hon. Gentleman's constant contribution to the debate about crime in London is the stubborn refusal to consider any radical ways in which the condition might be improved. Whether he is discussing Operation Countryman, the Brixton disorders or the general question of control and organisation, the Home Secretary's initial response is to refute every criticism, negative and positive.

This "Boys' Own" view of loyalty may be enormously impressive in Cumberland, but it is no comfort in Brixton, Lambeth, Camden and Peckham, where there is an urgent need to make the Metropolitan Police more effective. A radical reorganisation has to come about, and one day it will come about. In the meantime, there are other improvements which I hope are coming. But the Home Secretary can take hardly any of the credit, if any at all, for those improvements, when they come.

I had the good fortune two weeks ago to meet the new commissioner and to discuss with him the prospects for his period in charge of the Metropolitan Police. The new commissioner described himself as not being "squad happy". By that, he meant that he preferred police visible on the beats rather than in specialised, quick reaction cadres ready to pounce on single crimes in particular areas and not generally available for the comfort, support and protection of the population at large.

The Labour Party has been saying that for years, and the Home Secretary has regarded the prospects that we have offered of making the police in general and London's police in particular more visible as just a manifestation of our wish to control the police in some political measure.

What has to happen now is that the police have to respond to the needs and wishes of the people whom it is their duty to protect. I have no doubt that if the police, especially the police in London, had been under the strategic control of elected police authorities which reflected and represented the views of the people, the police would have been back on the beat years ago. We would not have needed a new commissioner to announce, rightly and properly, that he was not "squad happy" but wanted to get the police back on the beat. Previous commissioners would have been told by the elected authorities that they should not be "squad happy" and should organise London's police in different ways.

I welcome at least that part of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. I believe that the police must became closer to the people whom they serve and protect. I welcome what the Home Secretary said about policing by consent. I welcome the arrangements for local consultation. I welcome the proposals for improved training. Certainly I welcome what has happened about recruitment, especially the increase in numbers recruited from members of the ethnic minorities who, I hope, understand increasingly that the police can and should be their friends and that they should work with the police as closely as possible. But the truth is that it will be a long time before the unhappy trend over the past 15 years is reversed, because we have seen 15 years during which the police have become more and more remote from the people. That is partly because of their organisation and it is partly because of the duties required of them. My fear now is that the new police Bill, instead of bringing the police and the public back together, will further alienate the police from the public whom they serve.

I was astonished that the Home Secretary did not take the opportunity—I thought that this was what such debates were intended to provide—to describe in some detail the contents of the new police Bill. Does he intend to introduce a legalised system of stop and search throughout the United Kingdom? Does he intend to introduce the opportunity for the police to hold suspects without charge for 96 hours? If those are his intentions, I hope that he will understand that the only result can be a further alienation of the police from the public.

It is not simply a matter of how these measures will affect the inner cities, the boroughs and the rundown central areas. It is how they will affect even more prosperous parts of the country. I look round the Chamber and I see many right hon. and hon. Members, some of whom are in their places today, who, if they were stopped—I choose an example at random—in Louth and told by the police that it was proposed to search them and their cars and to require them to explain what they were doing, where they were going and why, would not feel any more close to the police than they did the day before they were stopped and searched. At a time when we want to bring the police and the public back together, the idea that we should contemplate the introduction of such measures seems to be a destructive move in the wrong direction.

All those criticisms will be advanced by the Opposition when we come to the Second Reading of the long promised, long awaited and extremely leaked Bill.