Policing (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:02 am on 28th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South 11:02 am, 28th June 1985

I am not responsible for the remarks of either of those gentlemen or for what is printed in newspapers, but I am concerned about the laughter that greeted my right hon. Friend's suggestion, because laughter is not appropriate when there is evidence to show that the true situation is very deep.

When the Conservatives talk about violence, their immediate reaction is to escalate policing. I do not blame them for that. That is how they have been brought up and that is how they think. They do not go for the root causes or for earlier action to prevent the violence. In that context, I include constitutional violence. I shall not dwell on GCHQ or the Levene case, which would have had Mr. Gladstone revolving in his grave, but there was certainly constitutional violence in those cases.

On the Commissioner's report and the speech of the Home Secretary, I endorse the apposite comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton, who rightly corrected the short, narrow and somewhat lukewarm introduction from the Home Secretary—who, after all, is the Cabinet Minister responsible to the House for these matters. I welcome the wide scope of the Commissioner's report. It gives us a great deal more information than we had before and to that extent the Commissioner is to be congratulated.

I also congratulate the Commissioner on two initiatives that he has taken during the year. The Home Secretary has already referred to the first of these — the official attitude of the police to racial attacks. In the end, of course, what really counts is the attitude of individual constables and station sergeants and the way in which the machinery operates when incidents of this kind or the risk of such incidents occur in any given area.

In this context, I pay tribute to the greater sensitivity shown by the police in my part of Newham—I cannot speak for any other part. These matters depend on sensitivity and local links, which may not necessarily be formal, and on confidence and co-ordination between the police and leaders in the community. That is something for which one cannot legislate and which cannot be created by writing enlightened paragraphs into annual reports or making enlightened speeches on the subject. It has to be worked on, people have to take initiatives, and the police are in a central position because it is they who are able to take initiatives which will count. So I offer my congratulations to the Commissioner in that respect.

The second cause for congratulation is the Commissioner's initiative in respect of membership of those organisations whose members are not readily identifiable. I leave it at that. It was a bold initiative and a correct one. Any person in public life, whether he is a Member of the House, a policeman or an official in local government, should be known to the public if he has any obligations which may affect the discharge of his public duties. In that respect, the Commissioner's action was welcome and bold.

The theme of the report is community policing. The Home Secretary himself laid stress upon the formal arrangements that he hoped to initiate in the boroughs, and referred to some of the less formal ones. I believe that both are important, but even more fundamental is the combination of theory and practice.

What might be called the Newman regime at Scotland Yard has been described by some people as cerebral policing. That is welcome, because the old image of the policeman was that cerebral activity was less marked than some other activities. That bias is welcome, therefore as far as it goes, but it is not enough. We have to think and to discuss, but we have to be practical as well. It is what happens on the street and what happens in incidents as well as what happens in blueprints and theories that makes for success, as it does in all that we do, especially all that Governments do. In that connection, I have some less welcome comments to make, but I hope that they will be regarded as constructive.

The first is in respect of the exercise of new police powers. Under the new Police and Criminal Evidence Act — I cannot remember when it comes into force, but it cannot be very far off — big new powers will be available to police constables on the beat and to the officers who direct them when there are a number together, whether they are whizzing round in white vans or are at large demonstrations.

I shall not go into the merits of that Act, because they have been discussed; in any event my hon. Friend the Member for Norwood (Mr. Fraser) is in a much better position to speak expertly about them than I am. However, the degree to which those powers are used by individual constables in the first instance and the degree of sensitivity, imagination, common sense, sense of proportion and perhaps sense of humour displayed by those constables are all-important. Incidents can be sparked off by any combination or lack of those and rapidly get out of hand. That is very important in the use of these new powers.

We tend to forget that the discretion of a single constable is at the heart of policing. He does not have to use the powers available to him. Deciding that cannot be legislated for by senior officers. It is up to him, because the powers of constables are vested in each member of the force. We can write as many blueprints as we wish in respect of these new powers, many of which are controversial, but the decision to use them rests with the individual constable.

I touched upon my second criticism when I intervened in the Home Secretary's speech. It has to do with the reorganisation, and it is referred to on pages 25 and 26 of the Commissioner's report. I am sorry to see that everything else in the report is to some extent negatived by what has happened, and I regret the lack of reassurance that I was able to obtain from the Home Secretary. If I was disorderly on that occasion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will understand why.

The Commissioner's report is extremely enlightened, in theory. He is concerned with public perceptions, public preferences and the priorities that the police have to address to meet the expectations in any one community. However, the reorganisation proposals which have been launched and which I am glad to hear have not yet been completed are fundamental in many ways to how those aims are discharged.

It is generally known in London that the reorganisation of the police into three tiers of command was unsatisfactory. The areas themselves were unsatisfactory. Many of them go back to Victorian times and take no account of the motor car, let alone the helicopter and more recent technological advances. In general, much of what is said on pages 25 and 26 of the report is right. There ought to be larger areas. There ought to be greater scope for senior officers to exercise individual responsibility. It may be that we need to compare some of the new areas with forces outside the United Kingdom for all sorts of reasons, especially bringing in new talent and enabling experienced officers of the Metropolitan police to obtain posts outside. Matters such as that are very important, but overriding all else we have to reflect the needs and expectations of the public, and that is where in one respect there is a grave error.

The Commissioner says on page 26 of his report: To date only the broad outlines of the reorganisation have been determined. The Home Secretary went a bit further and said that it had not been finalised. However, in practical terms it had gone rather further in respect of the allocation of stations, preliminary thoughts about areas, and so on.

One controversial issue that has been around for six months or more is not the principles of the reorganisation, which are generally understood and not too controversial, but the eight new areas which are to be determined.

The theory is that there is to be a petal pattern in London, and I go along with that. There is to be one central area covering the well-understood special needs of Whitehall, Parliament, the Palace, the west end and the City. Round it, there are to be seven other areas going out like a petal covering London. That makes an attractive and common-sense picture. However, certain areas of inner London whose needs are very special will now not be under one unified police command, whatever the quality of police-public relations, but are to be split among as many as three areas.

The single central district is solely north of the river, perhaps with a temporary extension across Westminster bridge if there is a procession. It does not extend to the urban areas of south London.

This will not affect east London greatly, except that in the London borough of Newham there are at present two police districts which are conterminous with broadly different parts of the borough and reflect the different needs and the different things that happen in those areas, some good and some not so good.

The reorganisation in south London which affects the well-being of policing and the community is not oriented to those needs. Worse, there was not adequate consultation before the possibility of an extra area in the south was ruled out. This is a major reorganisation, and the Home Secretary admitted that there was not satisfactory early consultation. I understand that business organisations were consulted, not about their views of the reorganisation, but about administration. However, hon. Members were not consulted.

Many commercial organisations to which the Government urge us to go for expertise have certain qualities but providing a complex service immediately is not their responsibility. Marks and Spencer, McDonald's and other big food companies do not have to stock anything that they do not want to sell. They do not have to be where they do not want to be. Modern business, which is so lauded by Government Members, does not have to cater for complex needs in the same way as the Health Service or the police. Inbuilt constraints and qualities are entirely absent.

The police, like the fire and the ambulance services and local authority social services, which Government Members so often criticise, have to meet difficult and intractable situations. They cannot refuse to meet the demand. Marks and Spencer does not have to stock anything that it does not want to stock. The opposite is true of the police and many other civic services.

The people who are involved in comparable spheres, such as probation officers, social workers, local authority councillors and, indeed, Members of Parliament, must be consulted. I hope that Government Members agree with me, because they know that many problems are almost insoluble and require a great deal of capital effort by them and others before they can be solved. Such problems require the commitment of personal time so that they do not escalate. Communication with others skilled in particular arts is essential. Keen Government Members will have developed a network of communication locally, involving a host of people upon whose advice and co-operation they can rely and which is readily given. Without that, we could not fulfil our function.

Such a network is often related to a civic structure. Everything is centred on the town halls, particularly in London. The statutory structure of local government—what is left of it—is under pressure. Splitting a single London borough three ways for policing will create difficulties. Inner London, with its own historic, social and ethnic problems, is to be split so that the area headquarters and the weight of activity is in the outer areas. That will cause trouble.

I understand that the area of conflagration four summers ago will be subject to such a dissection. Everyone asked then, "What's gone wrong?" We know what went wrong—stop and search in Brixton was used ill-advisedly. There was an escalation caused by the misuse of police powers and the incident got out of control. That was at a time when there was a single police command. Conditions and understanding have improved, but that is all to be changed.

Some hon. Members laughed when I mentioned the Cortonwood example. There has been no proper analysis of the police role, in spite of all the brave words in the report and the excellence of hon. Members' speeches.

Whitehall, Buckingham Palace, the west end and the City are exceptional and need a different type of policing. That area is unique and perhaps experience there will not stand an officer in good stead for promotion in a county or provincial town. However, unless we pay attention to the special needs of other parts of London which are dissimilar to the outer areas and which can have a coherent police presence, whereby all the sensitivities listed in the report can be dealt with as a whole, the rest of the report might as well be forgotten.

I hope that it is not too late. During the Home Secretary's speech, I asked whether he could assure us that we could re-examine the proposal for eight areas. On the spot, he was unable to give me that assurance, and I understand that, but the fact that he could not give that assurance shows that insufficient attention has been paid to that aspect. It is a factor which involves not only the House but the morale of the police. It is a matter for the practical men who understand the problems and know what is required.

I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Gorton said. I give two cheers for this enlarged and informative report. I hope that cerebral policing can be extended to practical policing and that the combination of both will give us a police force of which London can be proud and in which we can have confidence.