Policing (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:09 pm on 28th June 1985.

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Photo of Mr John Fraser Mr John Fraser , Norwood 12:09 pm, 28th June 1985

The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) said that the response to more crime should be more police. To an extent, there has to be an immediate response to protect the community. However, what divides hon. Members is the fact that some of us believe that the response to more crime also has to be more homes, more jobs, more stability and less poverty, because there is an inescapable connection between the degradation and indignity to which many people are subjected in our inner cities and levels of crime. If one correlates the most depressed areas with the greatest indices of deprivation, one sees that they also have the most crime. There is no way out of that problem simply by providing more resources for the police, although I would not disagree that there are circumstances in which that has to be done.

I welcome the open and frank style of the Commissioner in his report. On page 13, one tries to spot one's own constituency. On that page, the Commissioner frankly sets out the problems when there has been drug dealing, when one has to satisfy the demands of the local community which does not want that anti-social activity, while at the same time the police do not want to damage the support that has been built up throughout the whole community, by going in in a rough and unfeeling way. The way in which the Commissioner poses those problems is a frank admission of his difficulties. He is also frank in dealing with some past mistakes, although I do not always agree with his conclusions.

For instance, the Commissioner says that the Vagrancy Act 1824 could have remained on the statute book if it had been more sensitively used by police officers. He believes that we need not have had the Bail Act 1976 if the police had been more sensitive. I have no doubt that it was right to get rid of the Vagrancy Act and introduce the Bail Act, but I do not take credit away from him for recognising weaknesses in the past and building on experience.

We welcome the increasing clear-up rates where they take place, as well as the Commissioner's emphasis upon co-operation with the community. Although overall crime has continued to rise in Lambeth, there have been some dramatic improvements in relations between the police and the public as well as in clear-up rates, as a result of community activity and co-operation between the police and local groups. Part of the success has come from increasing co-operation between the police and the local authority. When one reads what local authorities say about the police and what the police sometimes say about the local authorities, one would not always know that that was so, but under the surface I believe that there is growing co-operation particularly between housing departments and local police forces. The Government must recognise the importance of retaining the link between the police and local authorities, particularly after the abolition of the Greater London council and the end of any strategic authority for London.

The Government must recognise that one day local authorities will play a part in the accountability of the police. Anything that tears apart the relationship between the police and their local authority is wrong. My local police consultative committee has been disappointed with the Commissioner's plans to break up the districts. Lambeth police had the same boundary as the local authority. We were particularly disappointed because that proposal was made without prior consultation. We were told that the broad framework of the reorganisation of the London police had been established, and there was to be consultaion only on the detail. That was wrong. The closer that the organisation of the police force can grow towards the organisation of local government the better.

One notes from the Home Secretary's remarks that there are now 5,000 more police and civilians on the staff. We all recognise that one of the reasons why we are elected to Parliament is to protect the citizen from violence and theft so that he is safe in his own home and upon the streets. That is our duty, but the Home Secretary has completely failed to discharge that task. There is no evidence in the report that any of the duties that the right hon. and learned Gentleman takes upon himself have been discharged.

The hon. Member for Westminster, North (Mr. Wheeler) said that there was a breakdown of confidence in the police in 1979. He welcomed the report and the extent to which it mapped out the success in rebuilding morale since then. However, since 1979 there had been an increase of 30 per cent. in recorded crime in London, yet between 1977 and 1979 there was a reduction in recorded crime. I should have thought that the police would draw more confidence and morale from a reduction in recorded crime than from an increase of 30 per cent. over the past six years.

Even in the past year there has been a failure—crime in London has risen by 9 per cent., which is higher than the national average. That has happened although, as he said, the Home Secretary has added the equivalent of the entire Merseyside police force to the establishment of the Metropolitan police. The clear-up rate in London is far too low. At 17 per cent. it compares extremely unfavourably with other conurbations where the clear-up rate is two to three times better. It is no better in my constituency than elsewhere.

My people continue to be failed. In Lambeth, the chances of being robbed or being the victim of crime are almost three times greater than in the rest of the country. That is not right. There is an insufficient perception about who the victims of crime are. Some people have a sentimental, sloppy view that crime involves a transfer of resources from the rich to the poor, that somehow there is a Robin Hood element in the criminal fraternity that brings about the transfer of resources. That could not be further from the truth. I have always taken such an interest in the policing of my constituency and my borough because I know that the victims of crime are among the poorest in the community. The chances of being robbed on the streets of Lambeth are about 20 times higher than on the streets of Kingston upon Thames or Richmond upon Thames. If one is affluent enough to have a car, the chances of being robbed when one is doing the shopping or of having a chain snatched from around one's neck are far fewer than for those who have to walk home or queue for a bus.

The same is true for the pattern of burglaries. A survey of one of my estates showed that about 40 per cent. of the inhabitants had a personal acquaintance with burglary, either of themselves or of an immediate neighbour. That is an extraordinarily high figure. It underlines the fact that the victims of crime tend to be the poorest and most vulnerable in the community. Any idea that such crime is directed by poor people against the rich is not true, certainly not numerically.

Despite the growth of crime in London by 30 per cent. in five years, and 9 per cent. over the past year, the Government are responding to the problems of crime in the same way as they do to the problems of housing, health care and so on. They have decided that monetarism is more important than a safe community. They have now announced the cash limiting—the rate capping as it were—of the Metropolitan police, as well as of several boroughs. It is no good the Government pretending that, once they start capping expenditure and resources in that way, it does not have some effect on policing.

A paragraph in the report, quoted by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Gorton (Mr. Kaufman), makes this clear: If we rise, for example, to a centrally counselled drive against drugs, which brings heavy demands on manpower through round-the-clock surveillance, then the existence of finite ceilings to manpower will dictate the removal of officers from other duties. The moment that one starts limiting the expenditure that the police believe they should undertake, somebody will suffer. We must recognise that the drive against drugs is an extremely expensive and detailed operation. I know that from my constituency, where, over several months, the police mounted a carefully targeted operation to catch the dealers, not the punters. In that way they caught the real criminals and did not alienate those who simply dabbled in a joint or two of cannabis. It was an extremely successful operation, but it cost money. If we are to have expenditure limits on policing a borough such as mine, something must suffer, and I suspect that people will suffer. They will be burgled at home or experience what are called "opportunistic crimes".

More money must be spent on detailed surveillance to tackle the heroin problem. The police have not caught a worthwhile heroin dealer if he is an addict. It is easy to push up the number of dealers who have been caught, to put them behind bars and to parade those statistics, but if only people who are addicted to heroin are being caught, there has been no success.

The pattern of heroin dealing and consumption in south London is rather like pyramid selling. Once somebody becomes addicted to heroin, he can usually satisfy that addiction only by going into crime or by becoming a dealer. Such a person needs 10 or 12 customers to provide enough profit to satisfy the habit. When the addict's new customers themselves become addicts, they will need another 10 or 12 customers, who will probably become addicts, to supply the profit to sustain their addition. Once addicted, people are likely to get caught — heroin addiction rots their brains, among other things.

There must be a much higher level of police surveillance targeted at those who make the real money. That entails resources. It would be ridiculous to cap any such expenditure, whether by reducing the amount of money spent on catching dealers or by reducing expenditure on other forms of policing.

If we are to deal with the problem of heroin dealing and addiction, the Government must consider other aspects of the law. I believe that part of the rise of crime in south London is accounted for by heroin addiction. Somebody who attends a court might find that 10 people are charged with offences ranging from burglary to shoplifting and taking and driving away a motor vehicle. It is quite likely that none of them will be being charged with possessing heroin or dealing in it, but, digging a little deeper, it might well be found that the substantial cause of almost every crime was addiction to heroin.

A robbery might appear in the statistics as a robbery when it was the consequence of heroin addiction. That means that many people are now beginning to commit crime almost as automatons and they will commit crimes as long as they remain addicted. We must therefore consider much more deeply the treatment of offenders when the prime cause of an offence is addiction.

I have talked exclusively about heroin in this context, but cocaine is an increasing influence. We cannot deal with the problem simply by recourse to the criminal law, to imprisonment and its alternatives. I go as far as saying that people who are hopelessly addicted to heroin should be treated as mentally ill rather than criminal. The result of such treatment would be that their immediate suffering and the constraints on their liberty were greater. The Government must take a much deeper and longer look at the correlation between the criminal law and the law for the mentally ill if they are to deal with the heroin problem.

One of the consequences of escalating rates of crime in south London is a rise in insurance premiums. Insurance companies log burglary claims according to postal districts so that, if crime is especially high in, for example, SW2, SW4 or SW9, the premium becomes prohibitive. The result is that the mixture in a community will get poorer as people with possessions will leave the area if they cannot get insurance cover or find it prohibitively expensive. Poverty and deprivation in some inner-city areas will therefore be intensified. I should like local authorities to run some form of insurance scheme on council estates. After all, people who are "allocated" to an estate deserve the protection and security of insurance.

The number of black applicants to the Metropolitan police dropped from 444 in 1983 to 400 in 1984. We must recognise that there is something seriously wrong. The ethnic minorities are badly represented in the Metropolitan police. I know that this is not scientific evidence, but I should like to give an example of how the perception of black policemen can differ in other parts of the world.

The film "Beverly Hills Cop" has been so successful that it has probably grossed more money than "Gone with the Wind". People have gone back time and again to see Eddie Murphy playing a New York cop on holiday in California. There are enormous queues outside cinemas—I have tried twice to get in. Many of the people who have gone to see the film are black. They love the film and regard the cop as a hero. He is investigating cocaine dealing and is obviously the object of adulation and great humour. We should compare the perception of that black cop with that of his counterpart in the Metropolitan police. I was struck forcibly by the difference of perception when I saw a black policeman guarding the South African embassy recently. It is almost as though somebody was being humiliated.

It would be much better if we saw a few more black policemen in positions of authority. I should like to see more black policemen on the cars—I have never seen a black policeman driving a police car. How many black detectives, how many Eddie Murphys, are there in the Metropolitan police? That kind of image of the Metropolitan police force among the black community shows that something is wrong.

I am not trying to apportion blame, but the under-representation of the black community in the police force shows that something is seriously wrong. A more imaginative approach should be adopted. The number of black applicants to join the Metropolitan police is 400, but only 30 of the 400 have been accepted. Only a small number of the black people who applied to join the Metropolitan police were even interviewed, which suggests that the employment policy of the Metropolitan police is not sufficiently imaginative.

One of the ways of improving relations between the police and the community and catching more criminals is to have all sections of the community represented in the Metropolitan police. Then there would be more understanding of the mores of the local community and the different cultural groups. I am not suggesting that blacks should be set to catch blacks, or whites to catch whites, but there is something wrong with the present recruitment policy and it must be improved.

I ask the Government not to remain complacent and unctuous about the achievements of the Metropolitan police. No matter how great a gloss the Government put upon the report, the truth is that life in London is becoming less and less safe and people's property less and less secure.

This is having an effect on the inner city areas in particular. For the Government to respond by cash-limiting the Metropolitan police and dressing up the figures in the report as some kind of achievement is nonsense. They need to think again about their responsibility to the whole community.