Police (Derbyshire)

– in the House of Commons at 12:12 am on 22nd January 1991.

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Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Kirkhope.]

Photo of Mrs Edwina Currie Mrs Edwina Currie , South Derbyshire

I rise to call attention to the difficulties faced by Derbyshire police force, currently under the management of Derbyshire county council. I am pleased to recognise the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) here tonight. I have no complaint against the police themselves. Derbyshire police officers, men and women, uniformed, detectives and civilians, are outstanding people and perform their difficult task in that county with good humour, courtesy and competence. Indeed, police at all levels are well respected and trusted by my constituents. I am also glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) here tonight.

The problem is that the police in Derbyshire are forced to do their job hampered and hindered quite deliberately by the county authority. The results are truly appalling, as demonstrated in the recent savagely critical report by Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary published in December 1990, based on an inspection carried out between 16 and 20 July 1990. For example, in paragraph 1.8, the inspector says: The picture of Derbyshire police force portrayed during the inspection is mixed, but all too often one of deterioration of infrastructure and morale. More than 40 urgent recommendations are listed in that report.

Derbyshire covers 1,000 square miles and the police force has to look after 1 million people. Officially, the establishment is a full one. We have 1,791 officers in post out of an establishment of 1,793. But first of all, the establishment is not enough. Each Derbyshire police officer polices 63 more people than the national average. The last time that there was any increase in police numbers was in 1987. Since then, the police committee has refused to guarantee its part of the funding for increases, so we have lost all the increases.

Nor does the problem relate only to uniformed officers. In Derbyshire, we are particularly dependent on civilians, with a higher than average civilian establishment to population size. But worse, the civilian posts are not filled either and there is a continual shortfall. The uniformed officers then have to do the job of the civilians. For example, there should be 309 traffic wardens. That is the official establishment. In post at the time of the report there were 84. As a result, police officers are frequently required to carry out traffic warden functions. Similarly, there should be 14 more control room operators, who are supposed to be civilians according to official Derbyshire police force management policy—but there are not, so the job has to be done by uniformed officers.

Many civilian posts have been outstanding since 1988 and the average length of time taken to fill a civilian post is six months. That is expensive, it withdraws beat officers from their duties and it means that police are frequently not visible at all on the streets of Derby and in the Derbyshire villages.

That also increases the strain on all the officers. As the report shows, the number of days lost through sickness has been increasing steadily—an increase of more than 19 per cent. between 1987 and 1989. More worrying, the time lost through injury on duty jumped by 38 per cent. in a year. The situation is a matter of considerable concern to all our constituents and most of all to those serving in the force.

The report quotes many similarly worrying features about staff, equipment and buildings. The fingerprint bureau should have 13 officers, but it has an establishment of nine with only six in post. As paragraph 4.30 of the report says, the position is untenable and the department teeters on the brink of complete collapse. We have only 16.4 marked vehicles per hundred officers, whereas similar forces have 20.5—25 per cent. more. There are no armed response vehicles. There are no trained accident investigators. There is insufficient protection for the police in cases of public disorder. The police computing facilities are inadequate, unsafe, inefficient and obsolescent. The main processes on the command and control system failed 128 times in a year. The inspector says: The normal workload of the computer grossly exceeds the design capacity by 227 per cent. The casualty bureau is totally inadequate and we are told that the system would fail under any realistic pressure". Some 45,000 crime reports have to be read and analysed manually, which is almost unbelievable in a force this size. There is no female police surgeon. There are inadequate facilities for rape and child abuse cases. No drug squad member is trained to nationally recognised standards. Derbyshire constabulary lacks surveillance capacity and has only limited access to vehicles suitable for covert operations.

It is not just personnel and equipment that create problems, but buildings as well. The last new police station was completed in 1981. The county failed to submit any building plans from 1987 onwards. One station in Derby, Peartree, which was intended to have a 20-year life when it was erected in 1945 but is still there, is nearing the point of total decay and is an insult to police, civilians and the public with foul toilets, a temperature in the office at the time of inspection of 98 deg F, a badly leaking roof and various other major problems. The inspector says that the state of repair of police buildings is generally quite extraordinary. But it is not that money is not available. Indeed, he goes on to say: The fact that moneys allocated and approved for building maintenance have been consistently underspent for the past four financial years seems irreconcilable with the building deterioration evident during the inspection. In fact nearly £168,000 has been underspent in those budgets in the past four years. The inspector is also extremely critical of the state of police housing. In fact, savings are made on the police budget and the report says very cautiously in paragraph 2.72 that these savings may be spent in another area of County Council concern. In other words, the county has the money, but it chooses not to spend it on the police.

In one area, Derbyshire county council is very careful with money—other people's money. It charges £22 for a neighbourhood watch sign or £112 if it comes with a pole. In the HM inspector's words, this appears a direct disincentive to this priority crime prevention initiative. As a result, complaints are up by 22 per cent. and only 57 per cent. of respondents to Derbyshire county council's own survey in 1989 reported satisfaction with the police. I must say that I think it is the height of cynicism for Derbyshire county council to spend public money doing a public opinion survey on attitudes to the police when the main problem comes from the county's failure to spend money allocated to the police.

Worst of all, crime rates are climbing in Derbyshire, in 1989 crime was up by 13 per cent. on the previous year. That is higher than in similar forces. In the six months before the inspection in 1990, crime climbed by a further 22 per cent. and the detection rate was falling. Indeed, the detection rate was well below that of similar forces. This is partly because we do not have enough police and partly because they are not well equipped. It is also partly became they are forced to do the wrong jobs. Most of all, it is because the police do not have the support of those responsible for the Derbyshire county council and the police authority.

The problems mainly arise because of the control systems exercised over the police, which are unbelievably bureaucratic and cumbersome. I quote the report again: In Derbyshire budgetary control has yet to be devolved to the Chief Constable. That is normal practice elsewhere. Constant interference by councillors means that the chief constable has no opportunity for virement or to manage his budgets efficiently.

Photo of Mrs Edwina Currie Mrs Edwina Currie , South Derbyshire

No, I will not give way.

Any purchase of more than £3,000 must be approved by the police committee. The same applies to any purchase of more than £300 if it is a piece of electronic equipment. Such a thing as a new telephone line must go back to the police committee for reapproval. It is noticeable, of course, that these committees are extremely well staffed, and their staffing has increased. "Management" means holding reviews and producing dozens upon dozens of reports, turning the police body over and poking it until it is red raw. The reports are then put on the shelf and remain stuck in the system for years. These include urgent items which are 100 per cent. funded by the Home Office.

According to the inspector, the bureaucratic requirements of the county council and the police committee are a major obstacle to the efficient management of the force. He talks about the parsimonious fettering of police management which has taken its toll of both innovation and morale. I believe that it is more than parsimonious and more than a major obstacle—I believe that it is reckless, dangerous and unbelievably stupid.

It is nothing to do with capital controls or expenditure limits—these affect every police authority in the country and none has the mess that we have in Derbyshire. It has nothing to do with charge capping, which was brought in after the inspections which led to this report. The problems have been going on for a very long time.

There has been a virtual standstill in developing the constabulary and its resources for the last eight years. That is a direct quote from paragraph 1.9. In those eight years other overall staffing in the county rose by more than 8,000, and the county budget topped £500 million—one of the largest in the country. There is no shortage of money in Derbyshire.

The fact is that certain key people in our county hierarchy are deeply hostile to the police for political reasons. They believe that the police should be accountable. They want a police force and a chief constable who will do their bidding. All the financial and administrative procedures are designed to that end. We saw it during the miners' strike, when I had to insist to the Home Secretary that my working miners had full protection in order to exercise their right to work. We saw it during the hounding from office of Chief Constable Alf Parrish. The expenditure row was blown up out of all proportion and led to his early retirement, his subsequent breakdown, and his tragic early death—a broken man—just a few months ago. That death should be on the consciences of Councillor Bookbinder, leader of Derbyshire county council, and his henchmen, for the rest of their lives.

When Mr. Parrish's replacement—an internal appointee who did his best—retired last year, Mr. Bookbinder attempted several times, with complete cynicism and great determination, to impose his chosen candidate as chief constable. He was another internal candidate, and no doubt a very good policeman, but he was not approved by the Home Office. Mr. Bookbinder tried, but at last—thanks to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my hon. Friend the Minister of State—he failed. We now have a new chief constable, John Newing from the Metropolitan police, to whom I and my hon. Friends offer our best wishes and support.

Armed with the report, and with the continued backing of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I hope that we may now see progress. Tonight, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to say what action has been taken to put matters right since the report was published. A recent Home Office letter stated that certain measures had already been put in hand. I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister will say what they are. What further action is in the pipeline? When will the next inspection be made, because the present situation cannot be allowed to continue much longer? The county says that the previous Her Majesty's inspectorate inspections were favourable. If that is true, it is scandalous. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that claim.

When the Government have a role in setting and monitoring police standards but the powers to run the establishment are delegated by law to a local authority, may we have an assurance that the Government will do everything necessary to guarantee proper maintenance of standards in relation to the police and crime prevention in Derbyshire so that my constituents, those of my hon. Friends, and everyone in the fine county of Derbyshire, will be properly cared for?

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley 12:26 am, 22nd January 1991

I thank my hon. Friends the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and the Minister for allowing me to make a short contribution. The overview given by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South was so comprehensive, and her indictment of Derbyshire county council's political interference in its police force so devastating, that I have little to add.

When Derbyshire county council has been criticised over the years for wasteful spending on a variety of pet political projects, such as the now defunct millionaire's playground, into which the council invested an unknown amount of money, and publicity such as—

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. What does that have to do with Derbyshire police?

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

When the county council has been criticised for such expenditure, it has argued that it at least runs its administration efficiently. The report blows a large hole in that rickety argument. It is probably the most devastating indictment of a council's administration. It is certainly a devastating indictment of its interference in the police force.

The report says that the way that the council acted verged on the unconstitutional, and reveals that Derbyshire county council, far from being an efficient authority, is grossly inefficient and has no regard for administration and value for money.

One of the claims made by those who defend the council is that the situation all has to do with underfunding, under-resourcing and poll-tax capping. The truth is that Derbyshire county council is one of the highest-spending authorities per head in the country. County councils such as Surrey spend less, yet it has the same problems in administering its police force.

Photo of Mr Harold Walker Mr Harold Walker , Doncaster Central

Order. It is unfair to the House for an hon. member to use another hon. Member's Adjournment to widen the debate beyond the subjet that is on the Order Paper. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will now address his remarks to the question of Derbyshire police force.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

Funding relates directly to Derbyshire police force, because one of the arguments is that the force is underfunded and that that has caused the problems which have given rise to this devastating report by the inspectorate.

I seek to refute that argument by asserting that Derbyshire has been extremely well funded and is one of the highest spenders per head. Therefore this has nothing to do with funding and everything to do with priorities. Other counties spend far less per head, yet manage to spend more on their police force or have fewer problems with its administration. This has everything to do with priorities because Derbyshire county council has been more than happy to put its money into many other areas but the police force has been starved of funds. The council has been willing to put money into Insight and is considering putting Insight on to video, yet too often simple requests for extra funding for the police have been turned down in a manner which has been prejudicial to the well-being and the running of Derbyshire police force.

An early-day motion on this subject mentions the need for democratic accountability. The problem with Derbyshire police force is not that a lack of democratic accountability is undermining the police force, but that local councillors, who are using their democratic role to politicise the force, are undermining it.

The county council has consistently run Derbyshire county constabulary in a fashion that verges on turning it into a department of the council, which is virtually unconstitutional and an absolute disgrace.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

The early-day motion that the hon. Gentleman referred to is in my name and it points out that the report is a hatchet job, which attempts to undermine the police committee and democratic operations in the area. The report lacks professionalism and the evidence that goes with it is full of inconsistencies and takes no account of any of the financial problems under which the authority has to operate. Derbyshire has a fine county council and a fine police force, and I am sorry to hear the hon. Member attacking both.

Photo of Mr Philip Oppenheim Mr Philip Oppenheim , Amber Valley

The hon. Gentleman is acting his role as the poodle of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) in his absence and is way over the top in his support of the council. People in Derbyshire do not think that they have a fine county council—they are sick and tired of it and cannot wait for the day when we get rid of Councillor Bookbinder and his motley crew, who have done so much damage to Derbyshire police force. They have also immensely damaged the people of Derbyshire.

The report, which is not a political report but was compiled by a highly respected independent inspectorate, makes it clear that the police have been politically interfered with by the local councillors who run Derbyshire county council, in a way which is prejudicial to the well-being and the good policing of the county. The sooner the hon. Gentleman accepts that fact and stops defending Councillor Bookbinder and his crew, merely because they happen to be in the same party, the better. Derbyshire county council is an absolute disgrace and the way in which it has tried to interfere with the police force is also a disgrace.

If a Labour Government got in and tried to increase what they term the "political accountability" of police forces, we would end up with an even worse situation. There would not merely be the sort of political interference which we have at present, but police committees and elements of the police force would be packed with the political friends of the likes of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East and Councillor Bookbinder. If they had their way I should not be surprised if people like David Skinner, the chairman of Derbyshire Labour party, who has already been given one plum county council job, did not find their way into a police authority job.

That is the danger of the sort of political interference which has taken place within Derbyshire constabulary, and which we should see even more of if Opposition Members had their way. Such politicisation of the police force is immensely dangerous, and I suspect that the majority of Opposition Members, who have a modicum of sense, do not want it.

This report is undoubtedly the most devastating indictment of the way in which a police force is run that has ever been produced in this country. It behoves Opposition Members to take some note of that and to be concerned about it, instead of blindly defending their political mates in the county of Derbyshire. I believe that the day is dawning when we shall be shot of Councillor Bookbinder and his motley crew, and I have a suspicion that we have not much longer to wait.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham 12:34 am, 22nd January 1991

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on securing tonight's debate. She is rightly concerned about the state of policing in Derbyshire; so, clearly, are a number of my hon. Friends who represent Derbyshire seats and who are present tonight. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim)—who has just spoken to considerable effect—and my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) a re worried about the recent report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which presented such a bleak and disturbing picture, as they took the trouble to tell me so beforehand. Although I note that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) is also interested in the matter—I have read his early-day motion—he did not contact me; nevertheless, I listened carefully to his intervention.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

I will give way briefly, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, I have little time. On the last occasion when I faced him from the Dispatch Box in an Adjournment debate, his remarks took up almost all the time available.

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

The Minister says that I did not contact him about the issue. I contacted the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) to ask whether I could be allowed a short period in which to make a speech—

Photo of Mr Harry Barnes Mr Harry Barnes , North East Derbyshire

The hon. Lady said no: obviously, she was frightened of what she might hear. As it was her debate, there was no point in my approaching the Minister to discuss the issue; but I will certainly approach him I o discuss the content of that disgraceful, unprofessional report. The person who produced it is also disgraceful: he used it to undermine a police committee, and it is inconsistent with all the earlier reports.

Photo of Sir Peter Lloyd Sir Peter Lloyd , Fareham

That may be the hon. Gentleman's view, but this is my hon. Friend's Adjournment debate, and it is her privilege to determine who should contribute to it.

As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said when the report was published, it was without doubt one of the worst reports on any police force; but before I discuss the report itself, and the action that we are taking, I must draw an important distinction between the Derbyshire constabulary and the police authority.

The members of the Derbyshire constabulary have done an excellent job in maintaining standards of service as well as they have in what can only be described as the most difficult circumstances. My right hon. Friend and I have great admiration for the way in which it has managed to maintain a high standard of professional policing while buildings deteriorate around it and the police authority imposes absurd levels of bureaucratic control on the police budget.

It is with the police authority that the responsibility lies. Under section 4 of the Police Act 1964, it is the police authority that has the duty to secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police force for the area", and, as the inspection report shows, it has come perilously close to failing in that duty.

My hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South has already drawn the House's attention to the manifold failings of the police authority—the failure to devolve any significant financial responsibility to the chief constable; agreed expenditure having to be reapproved through a labyrinth of council committees; civilian posts left vacant, or taking six months to fill; trained police officers being taken off the streets to cover for civilian vacancies; 19 additional posts approved by the Home Secretary for 1990, but turned down by the council; maintenance budgets consistently underspent while broken windows remain unrepaired—and so on, and so on. The report is a published document, as all HMI reports now are, and the details are set out in it by the regional HMI better than I could hope to do tonight. It repays careful reading—particularly, I suggest, by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East.

Let me pull out just one chastening detail. Paragraph 3.5 points out that the casualty bureau is antiquated and that the four incoming telephone lines would be inadequate to deal with the demands of a major disaster. The HMI concludes that the system would fail under any realistic pressure". The House has listened too often to statements from Ministers detailing the horrific disasters which have befallen us in recent years. None of us can say that it will not happen in my county, and we know the pressure of thousands of phone calls from anxious relatives. Therefore, I find the complacency of Derbyshire frightening and inexplicable.

What is the response of Derbyshire county council? It is to blame the Government for cuts in funding. Well, I suppose they would say that. But what puzzles me is this: if it is all the fault of the Government, as they say, why is it only Derbyshire that faces such extreme problems? The same funding principles apply across the country, but Her Majesty's inspectorate reports for other counties present a very different picture, with an effective partnership between the police authority and its police force. There is no magic that uniquely puts Derbyshire in a worse position than its neighbours. The issue is simply that Derbyshire county council, through its police authority, exercises a very different set of priorities on policing.

It is instructive to look closely at how Derbyshire adjusted its budget for 1990–91 in response to capping. The county council's total original budget was 40 per cent. above the standard spending assessment, but the original police budget of £29 million was marginally below the police SSA of £29.6 million. No cuts at all need have been made in the police budget, but the council imposed a uniform cut of 3.5 per cent.—nearly £2 million—to finance its overspending in other quarters. The council was well aware of the damage that would do to the police: last August, the chief constable, the clerk to the police authority and the county treasurer wrote jointly: The reductions for the constabulary will cut deeply into the level of service provided to the people of Derbyshire. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East would no doubt complain about the effect of reduction in capital provision, but the reduction in capital provision applies to forces across the country, not just to Derbyshire. Derbyshire's protests sound a little hollow when one remembers that the authority has not seriously attempted to upgrade its police building stock for many years.

Derbyshire tells us that the inspectorate's criticism has come out of the blue and that things cannot have deteriorated so swiftly since the previous year's inspection. Indeed they did not. That is why letters to the chairman of the police committee in 1987, 1988 and 1989 drew attention to a range of serious concerns about delays in filling vacancies, the budget review process and the absence of a building programme. It is the sustained failure of the police authority to take action on these matters that has led to the present deplorable situation.

It is clear that I shall not have time to finish the remarks that I wanted to make in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South. In summary, the inspectorate is staying closely in touch with Derbyshire. A number of measures to improve efficiency have already been put in hand. The responsibility for meeting these criticisms rests firmly with the Derbyshire authorities, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be receiving reports on the matter. If the situation does not improve, he has a responsibility to make sure that in the end it does; but I hope that it will not come to that.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seventeen minutes to One o'clock.