Police (Defensive Equipment)

Oral Answers to Questions — Home Department – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 20th April 1995.

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Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Uxbridge 12:00 am, 20th April 1995

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what consultations he has had with the police service about the possible introduction of (a) the pepper spray and (b) CS gas as defensive equipment. [18358]

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I took full account of the opinions of all the police staff associations before announcing my support for police trials of CS spray for self-defence.

Photo of Mr Michael Shersby Mr Michael Shersby , Uxbridge

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that, in the light of the tragic death this week of PC Phillip Walters, the evaluation of that incapacitant spray is timely and necessary? Will he also tell the House whether that is an interim measure pending further evaluation of the health and safety issues surrounding the possible introduction of the pepper spray?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am sure that the House will want to join me in expressing its condemnation of the callous murder of PC Walters, which reminds us yet again of the risks and the dangers that police officers run on our behalf day in, day out. I am sure that the House would wish to join me in extending our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of PC Walters.

As to my hon. Friend's question about sprays, he is right to say that a number of pilot schemes are proposed. We shall evaluate the results and then decide how to proceed.

Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I can assure the Home Secretary that there is outrage in all parts of the House at the death of a courageous police officer. In the Metropolitan police area, is body armour available to officers who believe that their duties will require them to use it? Are arms and armed response units available in all the circumstances where officers judge that they may be required? If those things are not done, the pressure for routine arming of the police so that they may be protected will become irresistible. I think that, like me, the Home Secretary would not wish that to happen if it can be avoided by the effective use of arms in a more controlled way.

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks. He will know that the deployment of body armour and armed response vehicles is an operational matter for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis. I can confirm that those two pieces of equipment are available—body armour is now available in significant quantities. The difficulty is that no entirely satisfactory sort of armour has yet been found that is both effective and light enough to be worn for prolonged periods. That is an on-going problem, and research is continuing to try to find body armour that is both effective and can be worn comfortably for long periods.

Photo of Mr Anthony Grant Mr Anthony Grant , Cambridge South West

Is it not absurd that the majority of policemen who require bullet-proof vests, and obviously want the best ones, should have to pay about £300 of their own money for them? In his consultations with the police, will my right hon. and learned Friend discuss the matter and ensure that, in future, all police can get bullet-proof vests if they want them without having to pay for them out of their own money?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend will be aware that chief officers are increasingly making body armour available for the officers in their force—its availability is extending all the time. I gave the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) information about its availability in the Metropolitan force, and body armour is becoming increasingly available elsewhere.

Photo of Jack Straw Jack Straw Shadow Secretary of State (Home Office), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

May I associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with the remarks of the Secretary of State and the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). I believe that the House felt intense anger and shock when the news came through yesterday of the killing of Police Constable Phillip Walters by an armed thug. Police Constable Walters was showing the same selfless courage as is shown every day by thousands of unarmed police officers across the country. I commend what the Secretary of State said yesterday about the routine arming of police. Does he agree that, in making difficult judgments about the availability of CS gas canisters or pepper sprays, the only issue is the protection of the police and of the public?

Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. Yes, the only relevant criteria in the measures that I have announced are the protection of the police and of the public. The hon. Gentleman and the House will know that I have taken a number of measures since holding my present post to increase the availability of equipment that helps the police in the performance of their daily duties. They now have more batons and the availability of body army is increasing.

I hope that the CS spray will be a valuable addition to the equipment available to them. We must also recognise that no piece of equipment—not even the routine arming of the police—can ever offer an absolute guarantee of the safety of those on whose bravery and courage we have to rely day and night. We must always keep that in the forefront of our minds. We should always be aware of the deep debt that we owe to the police officers of this country.