Policing (London)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:47 pm on 28th June 1985.

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Photo of Harry Cohen Harry Cohen , Leyton 1:47 pm, 28th June 1985

In the first debate on policing in London after the 1983 general election, the Under-Secretary of State spent virtually the whole of his speech boasting that Red Ken's efforts to control the police had been beaten off for ever. I think that that is a fair summary. The Minister tried to personalise a serious issue facing London. The debate was not about Ken Livingstone. It was, and it still is, about accountability. It is an argument about democracy. Moreover, the Minister was wrong, because the move for accountability has not been beaten off. It is the return of the repressed. The movement has come back even stronger and it is a growing constituency, as the Tories will discover to their cost.

Accountability is still very much a live issue because of the rising crime rate. There have been record increases in crime every year, and I suspect that the figures for the past year will be even higher because London was left to the criminals while the police were taken elsewhere to do the Government's dirty work against the miners. The clear-up rate is also pathetically low — just 8 per cent. for burglaries in my area. The police have been shown to be increasingly ineffective in stopping the rising crime rate. That is why accountability becomes ever more necessary and higher on the political agenda.

It is unfortunate, but true, that the public's alienation from the police runs deep in all sectors of the community, and it is not smoothed over by Tories saying, "The police are doing a wonderful job. Let's leave it to them." As one of my hon. Friends said in an aside, "You might as well give the public a police horse to stroke and all will be well." That approach will not solve the problems.

Police-community relations are at a low ebb, and there are many reasons for it. The police are perceived as a force and not as a service to the community. They are increasingly seen as overtly political. Against the miners, they were put in the forefront of that political role by the Government, and in London we saw them even harassing people who wanted to make collections to support miners' families on the poverty line. They are used politically against blacks and the ethnic minorities. They are used against the Left. My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Mr. Roberts) did not quote the headline which I have in my possession. Newman said in his last report: Our enemies are on the Left. The police perceive the Left as the enemy.

What is more, the police are often seen by the public as being above the law. There is not an independent complaints procedure. The police investigate themselves. The figure for successful complaints — assuming that people bother to go that far with the procedure, because often many give up without going through it—is a little over 1 per cent. That does not inspire confidence.

People see that they do not have any real say. I remind the House that £400 million is spent on the police by Londoners, but they have no control or effective say. It is because of that lack of democracy that the police are so slow to react to community needs.

The alienation is in all parts of the community, but it is very high amongst the ethnic minorities. Polls taken from those living in ethnic communities show an immense lack of confidence in the police.

In my own Waltham Forest area, there have been calls for vigilantes amongst those groups to defend their communities. I oppose the idea, because those ethnic minorities pay their taxes and have the right to proper police protection. They should not have to resort to vigilantes. But the calls have been fueled by racial attacks, including some terrible murders in east London, and the police have been slow to realise the racist nature of many assaults and harassments. During this Session of Parliament, I intend to introduce my Racial Harassment Bill under the ten minutes rule with a view to making such conduct an offence and tightening the law. But the police must step up their campaign against racists if they are to get the confidence of the ethnic minorities.

The police need the support of the community. The recently published Leyton police divisional report recognises that. It says: There is abundant evidence that police action is insufficient to reduce crime. The aim of gaining the active co-operation of others is imperative. Efforts are being made. Some are real. Others, I am sorry to say, are token efforts. But the reality is that, because of Home Office negligence and the overall lack of accountability of the police, the opposite is true. There is less public confidence in the police.

Another cause of alienation is the obsession of the police with moving to high tech, which is often not properly thought out and certainly is not cost-effective, instead of getting policemen on the beat, with the confidence and support of the public.

I shall give three examples of high-tech policing and its disturbing implications. The first relates to the tracking bugs which the police can place on cars. In the recent case of Mr. Colin King, it was shown that the police had placed such a device on the car of a man who had no criminal record and who was subsequently acquitted in court. The police officers who used it now await trial for setting up a bank robbery. The case has serious implications, because it is another step in the increasing intrusion into people's private lives and disregard for their civil liberties. The police should not be allowed to track cars simply because they do not like someone or, as in Mr. King's case, his friends. That amounts to harassment and intimidation.

The guidelines on the use of such devices are lax. At least when the police want a search warrant, they must obtain authorisation from a high-ranking officer or, independently, from a justice of the peace. There is no such safeguard here. The Secretary of State must approve any telephone tapping, but he need not approve car bugging. There is no compensation for the victims of unjustified bugging.

It might be said that innocent people have nothing to fear from this high-tech intrusion into their lives. However, people's private lives are not shop windows. If the police themselves were bugged, we would catch many more crooked policemen, but, rightly, there would be outrage from the Police Federation. Civil liberties apply to everyone, not just to the police. The fact that the Home Secretary has no control over the use of car bugs means that it has become much more widespread.

The second example is the automatic fingerpinting machine purchased by the Metropolitan police for £1,654,000. No doubt its running costs are also substantial. However, identifications have increased by only one a day. That is not real value for money, and I do not believe that the Minister can justify it. I know that he sent me a letter on the subject, but I wish to quote the draft Home Office circular of September 1984: The AFR system at New Scotland Yard has the capacity to make one million comparisons a day. This is a very substanial figure but is small in relation to the size of the database which the system could hold. For example, only four marks a day could be searched against an entire collection of 250,000 sets of prints (ie 2·5 million digits). Moreover, if the marks could not be identified as belonging to a particular digit the search could take up to 10 times as long. Preliminary trials with an alternative make of AFR system have indicated that it is faster but less accurate. The Home Office draft circular shows that the technology is too slow. The police should have anticipated that and should not have spent £2 million on a system only to find out that it is too slow. The Minister has a duty to get value for money from high tech.

The third example is the police national computer. A recent parliamentary question from me elicited the amount of information that is stored from the computer. There are many implications relating to the number of car records on it. The police can obtain someone's name and address immediately by asking the computer. They never used to be able to obtain the address.

The criminal names index with its 5 million names has created a stir. One person in 10 is categorised as a criminal. When the figures were published, one criminologist said that one man in three in his lifetime is likely to be categorised as a criminal. People are being stigmatised. That is serious, particularly at a time of high unemployment, because people might find it more difficult to get a job if their names appear on the index. If the trend continues, Britain is likely to have more criminals than workers. There is a long way to go before we reach that position, but that is the trend.

The increasing number of secret records on individuals has all the hallmarks of police states throughout the world, yet the Home Office is letting it happen. No guidelines have been issued about the names that go on the criminal names index or about their removal. I received a letter recently from a man who was stopped for a car check and the police knew that he had stolen a bottle of milk 22 years ago when he was only 16. That letter is on its way to the Home Office.

How soon does information go on the computer? Does it go on before a person is acquitted by the courts? Access is another problem. Terminals are being set up in police stations throughout the country. What rules govern who can have access to the information? Information could find its way to finance companies or blackmailers. Individuals do not have access to their own records or the opportunity to correct errors. The Home Office has ignored all the serious implications.

The Guardian of 13 June summarised three key issues effectively: First, the decision to computerise must be taken properly and openly, after effective consultation and with stringent evaluation of the effectiveness of the investment … Second, computerisation should be confined to proper police functions — not rumours and gossip or "so-called criminal intelligence." Finally … there must be effective safeguards for the individual.The Guardian was right in that respect.

High tech has serious implications which have been ignored by the Home Office. Community policing is being ignored in the high-tech drive and the crime rate is rising. High-tech policing is bad value for money. A better job could be done through community policing.

Under the victim support scheme, 587 local referrals have been made since November 1984. The Department of the Environment turned down the urban aid application for that scheme, but the much-despised GLC came to its rescue. The Department of the Environment and the Home Office squabbled about who should foot the bill.

The Government have a responsibility for the social conditions which increase crime in London and throughout the country. They are responsible for unemployment and the cut in services. People who are jobless, who receive no help and are bitter, might well reject the order in society. That might have bitter consequences for Britain's youth. The immigration laws give encouragement to racism, and the Government have a responsibility in that connection, too.

The Tories have fostered a society based on personal acquisitiveness and greed instead of co-operation. That is the main reason why they are the guilty men in terms of policing in London. In the main, it is not a question of the police doing a good or bad job—although the lack of accountability leads to the latter — but of the Government having failed to stem the rising tide of crime. Instead, they are fostering the conditions for crime.