Policing (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:42 am on 28th June 1985.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Cartwright Mr John Cartwright , Woolwich 11:42 am, 28th June 1985

I agree with many of the comments of the hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) and particularly with his major theme—that we cannot tackle the appalling problems of London's crime simply by saying that it is simply a matter for the police and that the community has no responsibility. It is clear that the community has a role in helping to tackle many of the problems of crime that we are debating today.

Because of that, I greatly regret that the Metropolitan police should have become the butt of the sort of political controversy that has surrounded its activities in recent years. It is all very well for people to hold differing views about the best ways of achieving operational effectiveness, but what we have seen in recent years from some on the Left—I stress, only from some—is a constant flow of anti-police propaganda which seems to be aimed at undermining public confidence in the police. From some on the Right—again, only from some—we have total, uncritical and unquestioning support for the police. Neither is helpful in the current situation.

The majority of Londoners value the discretion that the police have, and are opposed to attempts to introduce political control over the day-to-day operations of the Metropolitan police. However, that discretion is a privilege which must be exercised with skill and sensitivity. The objective must clearly be policing by consent and we must always be on the look-out for new ways of establishing that element of consent.

The police consultative committees are an important way of helping to achieve that objective. They provide a vital bridge between the police and the community. They need time to build up public confidence in theft effectiveness and they need to show real results to convince the doubters, but they have a considerable role to play.

I regret the attitude of some boroughs, mine included, which want liaison with the police solely on their own terms. They do not want more community involvement in a police consultative committee and their objective is much less to do with consultation than with control over the police. If those authorities are adamant in refusing to play a part in the development of genuine consultative machinery, the Home Secretary should not hesitate to bypass them and establish effective grass roots-based community liaison committees and consultative machinery in those areas.

Also important in developing the idea of policing by consent are the hard-pressed inner city areas of London, where greater priority should be placed by the police on operational sensitivity. The hon. Member for Westminster, North said that the majority of crime, certainly in the inner cities, was ordinary, routine, bread-and-butter house-breaking and burglary. The complaint that I most often receive from constituents is either that the police did not bother to come at all, if it was a minor matter, or that they came, showed little interest and went away and nothing more was heard about the incident.

I appreciate the pressures on the police. Routine break-ins are a fact of life and there is little chance of anything very effective being done about them. Nevertheless, For the individual concerned, the person who suffered the break-in, it is a traumatic experience. Greater recognition of that by police officers would go a long way to strengthening relationships with the community.

The same is true of the ethnic minorities. We should recall what Lord Scarman said in his report following the 1981 riots. He pointed out that, in the already deprived areas, the black community suffers more severely than the white community from the deprivations found in the inner city, especially in relation to unemployment, educational achievement and housing. That should be at the forefront of the minds of those concerned with policing in the inner cities.

If I were in a senior position in the Metropolitan police, I should be extremely concerned about the view of many black and brown Londoners that the police are not on their side and form an alien force. We need a greater concentration of skilled police resources in the inner cities to counter that problem. It is no use putting into the inner cities comparatively new recruits who do not have the expertise to deal with these different problems.

Related to policing by consent and the need to develop public confidence is the question of complaints machinery. I appreciate that we should not get complaints against the police out of perspective. I welcome what is being done under the 1984 Act to try to develop conciliation on minor matters so that such issues do not have to go through the plethora of complaints machinery. I also welcome the introduction of the new police complaints authority and its ability to monitor the investigation of more serious complaints. However, for most ordinary people the idea that the police should investigate complaints against the police is not acceptable. They do not believe that the investigation will be as impartial and objective as it must be to inspire public confidence.

I am glad that, in the report of the Commissioner, considerable emphasis is placed on crime prevention. As the hon. Member for Westminster, North said, there must be greater co-operation between the wider community and the police in, for example, a number of elements in public administration in London.

Housing is one such element. The design of many London council estates makes them a paradise for vandals, muggers and hooligans. They are full of opportunities for criminals to prey on their victims and provide ample ways for offenders to get away rapidly before the police arrive on the scene. More attention to that sort of problem would reduce many of the risks that our constituents have to face.

It is also true that the standard of housing management has an effect on crime levels. If flats or houses are left empty for long periods, if vandalism is not swiftly countered, if lifts are left unrepaired and if bread-and-butter administrative matters are not dealt with properly, a higher level of crime is encouraged. Many of my constituents argue, with considerable justification, for greater investment in the provision of entryphones, in reducing public access to council estates and in providing more caretakers and, in extreme instances, a concierge system. Although it would cost money, the expense must be offset against the cost of repairing the consequences of vandalism and hooliganism. My constituents argue that sensible investment of this sort would be good value for money and cost effective in terms of crime prevention.

The development of neighbourhood watch schemes is encouraging, but the numbers of such schemes are small when compared with the problem of routine crime in London. There is worrying evidence that neighbourhood watch schemes have been most successful in middle-class areas, where it is possible to find people who are prepared to contribute the time and effort necessary. The schemes in these areas have raised the awareness of the need to prevent crime. They have involved the local community in devising initiatives of their own and they have improved relations between the police and the community.

Unfortunately, there has been less progress in the development of neighbourhood watch schemes on council estates. Burglary and mugging is not confined to the comfortable parts of London. The worst examples occur in council estates. Many of my constituents' homes have been broken into twice and three times. We all know that the lone pensioner feels especially at risk on many council estates.

We should ensure that greater effort is directed to encouraging the development of neighbourhood watch schemes on council estates, and the Woolwich police force has been attempting to do so. The Woolwich divisional report shows that there has been some progress. In view of one of the comments made by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley), it is worth repeating what appears in the recently published report of the Woolwich division. It states: The schemes are obviously aimed at reducing crime and there is some evidence to show a degree of success. The report continues to underline a problem when it says: the main element in reducing crime relies on the publicity given in these areas that a neighbourhood watch scheme exists. A problem has been encountered in Woolwich in obtaining planning permission to display neighbourhood watch scheme signs, and to date none has been placed. I investigated the matter and I found that the difficulty lay more in lack of ability to reach an agreement between the police and Greenwich council than in obtaining planning permission.

The Woolwich police want neighbourhood watch signs to be placed on lamp posts throughout the areas where the schemes operate. Greenwich council says yes, provided that the police pay £40 for every sign that is erected. The police contend that the signs will benefit the community and that the council should therefore meet the cost. The council says no and argues that it costs £40 to erect a sign and that the police must pay £40 before a sign is erected. There is now a complete impasse. I would not mind so much if virtually every lamp post in my constituency did not already bear a sign erected by the London borough of Greenwich. Some of them are reasonable. For example, some signs draw attention to traffic problems and litter problems and other matters of general interest. However, some are political. They refer, for example, to nuclear disarmament, rate capping and other issues of political concern to the council.

The council is spending a good deal of money on lamppost signs and I cannot understand why it refuses to assist the police in areas where neighbourhood watch schemes operate. Surely £40 a lamp post would be a good investment for the borough council.

I take up the remarks that have been made about improved efficiency and professionalism. I am glad that, in the Commissioner's report, there is a considerable commitment to improving both these objectives. The force reorganisation is a step in the right direction but, like others, I regret the lack of consultation before the reorganisation was launched. The Metropolitan police are seeking to strengthen links with the community and it would have been useful to have delayed the implementation of the initial stages of reorganisation while some local consultation took place.

It is important, whatever form of organisation we have, that there are not rapid shifts of key officers. We have frequently complained about the speed with which commanders, for example, have been moved in the London area. If the Metropolitan police are trying through the divisional system to develop genuine links with local communities, it is clearly extremely important that key officers are able to stay long enough in any one area to ensure that personal links are established. That must be a considerable priority.

I welcome the improvements in training that are referred to in the Commissioner's report, but I regret that one of the Lord Scarman's main recommendations seems not to have been accepted. He recommended that there should be a minimum of six months' training for every recruit. That seems to be a reasonable objective, given the situation in London, and I am sorry that the recommendation is not being implemented.

There is a case for far more priority to be given to in-service training, especially in areas that bear on relationships between ordinary police officers and members of the public. Some officers are very good, but others have a good deal to learn about how to handle members of the public. When there are pressures, as in inner London, in-service training to improve relationships between police officers and the public should have high priority.

The Government can claim genuinely to have provided considerable additional financial support for the Metropolitan police. That is true of improved manpower, better pay and conditions for individual officers and the modernisation of methods and equipment. However, at this stage, Londoners cannot say that they are seeing a genuine return on that investment. They are not seeing a substantial reduction in crime and they do not have a greater sense of security particularly in the inner London area. Given the money that has been invested, Londoners are entitled to look for considerable improvements in the near future.