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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 1st July 1983.

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Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Minister (Health) 1:47 pm, 1st July 1983

There have been several changes in the arrangements for the Metropolitan police over the past few months. Even at the general election we had one change which might be regarded as a change for the better in that the police authority for London is no longer the Member who was elected for Penrith and The Border. The constituency has moved about 90 miles nearer and he is now the right hon. and learned Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Brittan). We look forward to the day when a Member of Parliament for London will become the police authority for London, but I suppose that we shall have to wait for that.

In October last year we had a change of police Commissioner. In view of the previous police Commissioner's record, we could scarcely have expected a change for the worse. At the invitation of Sir Kenneth Newman, London Labour Members went to see him shortly after he was appointed. We welcomed that meeting. It was useful, because it gave us the opportunity to explain to him that we and the people we represent are sick to death of soaring crime in London and the shortcomings of the Metropolitan police in doing something about it. We made it clear that we and our constituents were sick to death of the increasing violence and rape and the massive number of burglaries in our capital city.

Following our discussions with the Commissioner, we did not expect that we would soon be accusing him of complacency. He seemed to be a committed, intelligent man who was determined to do something. It is therefore disappointing that the only way of describing his report to the Home Secretary, which was published yesterday, is to say that it is very complacent indeed. I can only presume that, as the man between the upper and nether millstones, he is accustoming himself to the low standards of performance of the Metropolitan police below him and, above that, the complacency of the Home Office.

The Commissioner tries to explain away the poor clear-up rate of crime in London by saying that the statistics do not show exactly what is happening, that they are capable of being misinterpreted and that it is not fair to say that the clear-up rate is important. The fact is that the Metropolitan police's clear-up rate is twice as bad as that of the next worse police force in Britain. That is unacceptable.

It was even more distressing to read in the Commissioner's report: The overall clear up rate also obscures the fact that our performance in relation to serious crimes is quite impressive. For example, the clear up rate for murder is 75 per cent., for kidnapping 65 per cent. Sir Kenneth Newman may be impressed by a clear-up rate in which no one is tracked down for one quarter of the murders and 35 per cent. of the kidnappings carried out in London, but Labour Members and their constituents are singularly unimpressed with that performance. Sir Kenneth's view may be influenced by his background in Northern Ireland. The latest figures show that the clear-up rate for murders in Northern Ireland is 44 per cent. That is understandable there, but it is unacceptable for the Commissioner to tell the people of London, and for The Standard apparently to endorse his view, that the fact that one quarter of all murderers get away with their crime is an impressive record.

There is amazing complacency in the Home Office. For example, a murder was committed in King's Cross in 1980 and the trial started at the Old Bailey in June 1982. It was abandoned because the Crown ran out of living witnesses, and the man accused of the murder is walking free in my constituency. I wrote to the Home Secretary in August last year and sent him a reminder in September. On 30 November, Lord Elton, on behalf of the Home Secretary, finally replied to the questions that I had raised about the disappearance of the witnesses. He said: You mention in your letter a recent case where a man charged with the murder of a person involved in prostitution in Kings Cross was released because the prosecution witnesses were missing. I think you may be referring to the case of Mr. John Docherty"— Lord Elton is obviously a very acute fellow— who was shot dead on 18th November 1980, and the trial of the man accused of his murder which began on 8th June 1982. I will now deal in turn with your detailed points about missing prosecution witnesses: No potential witness was shot dead while under police protection. That is a relief to us all. Lord Elton went on: Although it was likely that Patricia McClellan would have been called as a witness in the case had she not been murdered, no evidence was found that her death had any connection with persons suspected of being connected with Mr. Docherty's murder. It is true that a man was stabbed to death outside the house where Mr. Docherty was shot but there is no evidence to connect this murder with that of Mr. Docherty … It is correct that a woman, who associated with Mr. Docherty and the man accused of his murder, was found dead in bed from a heroin overdose. There were, however, no suspicious circumstances surrounding her death.The Commissioner has no knowledge of a person connected with this case who died of alcoholism.As to witnesses disappearing there was one witness who did fail to appear at the trial. Police protection had been offered to him but he declined to accept it. I have made further inquiries of the Home Office about what happened to the man who went to Leicester and disappeared. The Home Office and the Metropolitan police assure me that he is alive. However, there is a warrant for his arrest for failing to appear at the Old Bailey as a witness. If the Home Office and the Metropolitan police are convinced that he is alive, I want to know why he has not been arrested and taken to the Old Bailey to explain his disappearance. I suspect that the poor man now forms part of the motorway system. That is an illustration of the total complacency of the Home Office.

The basis of our legal, judicial and policing system is at risk if witnesses in murder trials can be murdered or spirited away. It is serious when the Home Office and, apparently, the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis are so complacent that they do nothing about the incidents to which I have referred. Something needs to be done.

Although the new Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis managed to make a few offhand attacks on people he called activists—I do not know what sort of activists — who are undermining the policing of the metropolis, he did not, in his apolitical way, suggest that there may be a number of other factors leading to an increase in crime. There are a number of factors to which he might have drawn attention, even if it embarrassed his political masters. He might have drawn attention to the fact that in May 30,000 school leavers in London were out of work. It would be foolish and abusive to suggest that every young person in our capital who is out of work is automatically a criminal. I am mindful of the old saying that the devil finds work for idle hands. No fewer than 20,000 of those young unemployed are 18 years old and have never had jobs. For every school leaver in London out of work in 1979, there are now five out of work. The problem is becoming worse.

The Secretary of State for Employment—Chingford's answer to the "Fiddler on the Roor—changed the basis of the unemployment figures in October last year. That resulted in a 7 per cent. reduction in the national unemployment figure. Because of peculiar circumstances in London, it had the effect of reducing the figure by no less than 15 per cent. Therefore, one can add 15 per cent. to any of the figures about which we are talking.

The unemployment figures given by the Secretary of State for Employment show a fall of 2·2 per cent. nationally, an increase of 2·1 per cent. in Greater London and an increase of 5·1 per cent. in inner London compared with those for October last year.

The Commissioner in his report — I do not think anyone would disagree—rightly stated: crime statistics are as much a reflection of the performance of other social agencies as they are of police performance. He said that he would like to see an improvement in the overall situation with the help of the other agencies.

The Commissioner must remember that, while his resources have been increased, all the other agencies in London about which he is talking have had their resources decreased. The Inner London Education Authority, which should be making a big contribution to keeping down the level of crime, has had its funding from central Government stopped.

If we consider what has happened to central Government funding of local authorities in inner London, in 1979–80 they received £695 million by way of rate support grant, whereas this year they are estimated to receive £407 million— a 41 per cent. reduction. Yet social service and other departments of local authorities will be expected to make their contribution to the general effort which the Commissioner is looking for from all social agencies in London. They will be grossly inhibited in their capacity to do that by the cuts that have been made.

Faced with everything that is going wrong in London, the Government come up with a few trivial by-plays to distract attention. The Prime Minister has a new motto —not, "If you can't beat it, join it", but, "If you can't beat it, abolish it." She cannot beat the GLC, so she wants to abolish it, and, because she cannot beat the ILEA, she wants to abolish that, too.

Throughout the rest of the country — in Norfolk, Hampshire and elsewhere—people are trusted with the capacity to choose a local council or county council which will carry out the functions given to those authorities by Parliament. No Labour Government ever suggested the abolition, for example, of Hampshire county council simply because it was always a Tory authority. The Conservatives are proposing the abolition of the GLC because it is intermittently Labour, and the abolition of the ILEA because it is usually Labour.

It is ironic that a woman Prime Minister should propose that the people of inner London, for the first time in 110 years, should not have the opportunity directly to elect the people who run inner London's education service, because the old London board of education 110 years ago was the first public body on which women were allowed to sit.