Policing (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:57 pm on 28th June 1985.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn , Islington North 12:57 pm, 28th June 1985

The debate is a travesty of the way in which we should discuss the organisation, control and operation of the police force in London. No one can pretend that it is satisfactory, when an organisation spends £800 million a year, to debate it once a year in the House on a Friday morning, with few hon. Members present and with the Home Secretary present for only part of the time, although he is the police authority for London. There will be no vote at the end of the debate, and we can have no detailed discussion on the way in which the police force is organised in each area.

I hope that, when the Minister replies, he will concede that there is a glaring lack of democracy in the running of London's police force compared with the system elsewhere in the country. Ministers must accept that, if Londoners are to have any confidence in the running of the police force, they must have an elected police authority. If it is good enough for every other police force to be run democratically, why is it not good enough for London?

Although we are discussing the police force, some reference must be made to the growing influence that the Commissioner and deputy commissioners of police have over the public order legislation framed by the Home Office. They also have growing influence with the media on the way in which public order issues are discussed. The Home Office has produced an ever-increasing framework of control and repression in its public order legislation. These are important matters.

The Home Secretary and police officers call for the control of political activity and dissent. The licensing system for marches, the control of political organisations which wish to march in London and the cost of policing those marches is creating an atmosphere of political repression which will lead to the banning of some political organisations. The Home Secretary's job is to protect political freedoms, not to create an atmosphere in which political freedoms are denied or might even be taken away. He should address himself to his role in protecting civil liberties rather than appearing on television and radio and making utterances in the opposite direction.

How is it that the Metropolitan police force manages to spend £801 million a year and claims to be an ever-growing force, yet it is always short of staff and its clear-up rate is by far the lowest in the country? It is incredible that the police are seriously considering tagging reported crimes so that they can decide whether they are worth investigating because their clear-up rate is already so inefficient.

I suspect that the Government intend to use the crime figures in the same way as the unemployment figures and to change the basis of the statistics so that they look better than they are. If the police decide that it is not worth following up a housebreaking when the goods lost are worth less than £100, for example, the clear-up rate will look much better. I hope that the Minister of State can assure us that the Government have no intention of introducing a system which would allow certain crimes to be ignored because the police cannot be bothered to clear them up.

Government Members talk about confidence in the police force and attacks on the police, real or imaginary, by Opposition Members and the GLC or borough councils. The Minister should consider the feelings of people in the communities, particularly in inner-city areas such as the one that I represent. Peolle are worried about burglary, damage to property, theft, racist attacks, attacks on women and safety on council estates. When approached locally, the police are often helpful and are prepared to discuss such matters. However, higher up the hierarchy of the Metropolitan police one finds a growing obsession with the need for high technology, highly mobile and heavily motorised policing which does nothing to improve the safety on council estates, and nothing to reduce the incidence of housebreaking, theft or petty burglary. In fact, it does the opposite.

People complain that, when a local policeman is appointed to a particular estate, as soon as he gets to know the area and to understand and work with the community he is moved to another beat. That is unsatisfactory. What does the Minister of State intend to do about that?

The lack of democracy in the police force is underlined by the complaints procedure. II cannot be satisfactory for an organisation to investigate itself when a complaint is made against it. A complaint against local government is investigated by the Commissioner for Local Authority Administration in England. Complaints against the Civil Service or any other public body are not investigated internally. The police tend to investigate themselves, and there is much disquiet about that. Lord Scarman, reporting in November 1981 following the Brixton riots, said: There is a widespread and dangerous lack of public confidence in the existing system for handling complaints against the Police. By and large, people do not trust the Police to investigate the Police. He was right, and all the surveys carried out by independent research organisations support that view.

Fears have been expressed about the reorganisation of the Metropolitan police. Many objections and complaints have been made about the proposal to reorganise the police into larger areas. In my area, the inner city borough of Islington, the unemployment rate is registered at about 20 per cent., but in real terms it is 30 per cent. or higher. For youth it is higher than that, and for black youth it is higher still. My constituents suffer enormous social deprivation. Our local police force is to be linked with Waltham forest, Haringey and Enfield, so creating a new police area extending from the City of London to Cheshunt in Hertfordshire. These are entirely different areas with different problems and different social attitudes.

What possible reason could there be for introducing that form of reorganisation? When the plans were placed on our desks, we learned that the proposal had come about as the result of management experts discussing with the police the most efficient way, in the view of the management experts, of running the police. The greatest input appeared to have been made by the McDonald hamburger chain. There was no consultation with local authorities, community organisations, tenants' associations and others concerned with the issues involved.

The Home Secretary may say that if we went in for super police areas the local relationship would remain unchanged. I do not believe that. We are likely to have a series of super police headquarters around London. Indeed, one is being planned for Islington. That will lead to the closure of other police stations, which in turn will lead to a highly centralised police force, with one person in charge of the district and responsible directly to the Commissioner, and the local level of consultation will have gone.

Underlying the plan by the Home Office is, in my view, a fear of the growing demand for democratic control of the police. Under the present system there is, in large measure, conterminosity between the boundaries of police districts and the borough councils.

A constituent of mine living in, say, Hornsey road in a council flat can, if wishing to complain about the flat, visit the local council offices or see the locally elected representative on the council. If that person is concerned about something to do with the police, he or she can do little but come to me, and one day once a year, in June, I might get a chance to raise the issue in. Parliament.

A parallel is becoming obvious with the denial of democratic rights as the police force is organised into a larger unit, which denies local authority consultation methods. Indeed, various consultation groups in London met the Minister of State about this issue and then presented him with a resolution. Police-community consultative organisations from Enfield, Hammersmith, Fulham, Harrow, Islington, Kensington, Chelsea, Lambeth, Merton and Wandsworth met on 18 March last and agreed a resolution saying: The group expressed its regret that the Consultative Committees were not given any prior notice of the proposed reorganisation … calls upon the Commissioner to amend his proposal to retain the Borough as the consultative unit, thereby also retaining the District as an operational unit under the control of a District Commander … calls upon the Commissioner to retain the Borough-based Community Liaison Officer. It would be interesting to know how many objections to the plans for reorganisation and, implicitly, the changes in consultation arrangements the Home Secretary received.

It would be interesting also to know how many of those complaints went on to call for a more democratic system of control of the police force in future. The Home Office owes it to the House and the people of London to explain the real motives behind the process of reorganisation. It has not convinced anyone that the reorganised force will be any cheaper to operate. I am convinced that it is trying to deny the possibility in future of locally elected police authorities, or at least some form of consultation at borough level in the running of the police force.

Many elements lie behind the problems of crime. There are important social elements such as the difficulties of unemployment, the disaffection of individuals and the degrees of alienation that many young people feel towards society. There are problems arising from our physical environment. A system of crimewatch has been established in Islington on the initiative of the London borough of Islington's police authority. The system has the support of the police committee support unit. The object of the crimewatch system is to set up a series of crime prevention working parties in the districts where the crimewatch system operates. The neighbourhood offices — they are part of the council's decentralisation programme—have as one of their jobs the operation of a crime prevention working party, which involves local community associations and tenants' associations. The working party examines the causes of crime, the safety of people walking along the streets and in estates at night, racial attacks, especially those on minority ethnic communities, lighting in council estates and many other matters.

The council has shown a commendable sense of responsibility towards the community in setting up the crimewatch system and involving the local community in it. I hope that I shall hear from the Minister of State that the Home Office is aware of what Islington is trying to do and of the co-operation that it has received from local community organisations. I hope also that he will say that he is prepared to extend the idea to other parts of the country, instead of going along with the Metropolitan police's obsession with public relations, which leads them to remove their contact with elected representatives of the people while they attempt to relate to everyone by means of press releases and media handouts.

The Minister of State will do well if he can tell us exactly what the cost is to be of reorganisation, and especially the cost of the new buildings that will be erected around London.

The debate is an unsatisfactory way of dealing with the immense problems which many people face in London. They feel that the police are not responding adequately to their worries and concerns. They do not see the police force in London as a responsive unit. Instead, they consider it to be extremely expensive, inefficient, bureaucratic and undemocratic.