Policing of London

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:53 pm on 5th February 1996.

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Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge , Barking 7:53 pm, 5th February 1996

The hon. Member for Croydon, North-East (Mr. Congdon) spoke about the lack of policing resources in his own constituency, so it is rather surprising that he now attacks me for talking about policing resources in the capital. He should also know that it is nonsense to make a crude comparison between spending per head on policing in London and that in the rest of the country. The Metropolitan police have a number of national duties over and above those covered by other police services.

Finally, I was referring to the distribution of resources. I should have thought that every London Member who cared about London would have joined me in saying that London will lose the money it desperately needs to provide a more secure place for people to live and work by having an effective police service.

The Government claim to be the party of law and order. If that is the case, why are they cutting police strength in London and the police budgets for London? Why is London the only police service not to receive the minimum 3.6 per cent. increase in funding that the Home Secretary promised all police services? Why are the Government letting London down? It is now part of the well-worn political lexicon, but it is a classic example of a Minister failing miserably to do what he says.

Could all that have happened if there had been a properly accountable police service in London? I think not. If London had a proper democratically accountable police authority, we would not be facing the crisis of confidence that exists in every community in London. The accountability of police in London is wrong.

It is wrong in principle, as every police service should be democratically accountable to the community that it seeks to serve and the people who foot the bill for that service. London council tax payers pay a precept, yet they have no say. It is wrong in practice because a necessary precondition for an effective police service is the consent and support of the community that is being policed. London lacks the transparent institutional link between the community and the police that must form the basis for building the trust and consensus that are required for effective policing.

It is particularly wrong because of the present Home Secretary. Theoretically, the Metropolitan police should be accountable to the Home Secretary and, through him, to Parliament. Our problem in London is that the present Home Secretary weaves and dives every time anybody suggests that he is responsible for anything. He may be trying to cover his own back, but he does so at the expense of Londoners. The creation of yet another unelected quango stuffed with Conservative yes people is an insult to Londoners.

When I asked the Home Secretary a series of questions about the newly formed Metropolitan police committee for London, he replied: These are matters for the chairman of the Metropolitan Police Committee.". Therefore, I dutifully sought a reply to my questions from the chairman of the Metropolitan police committee only to be told that he could not reply to my questions because his advice is confidential. That was in the name of accountability—what a farce.

The Metropolitan police committee for London has not yet celebrated its first birthday, yet it is already clear that the band of unknown men and women plucked from the Government's politically partial list of the good and the great is bound to fail. The committee was dreamed up as a sop in response to the legitimate protests of Londoners that the police service is not accountable to them. The committee is not succeeding, and it will not succeed. Indeed, it can never succeed.

The committee's members are selected, not elected. As I read the list of members, it is difficult to find a good reason for their appointment to such an "august" body. The members include, for example, a retired general from the Falklands. The members have no legitimacy in the eyes of London. The chairman is Sir John Quinton— I have no doubt that he is an honest and good man—who assures me that he has never paid a penny into Conservative party funds. He knows all about London. He lives in Chenies in Buckinghamshire, which is the last Conservative-controlled shire. His background and experience are utterly relevant to policing the capital!

Sir John is a banker by trade. He is chairman of Wimpey plc and the non-executive director of an East Anglian building society. When I asked him to describe how he kept in touch with Londoners and their needs when it came to policing, he said that he obtained a useful insight from people he came across at his local tennis club. When I asked him how he saw his role, he gave me his mission statement. None of us has seen that statement because it is confidential. It appears, however, that he saw his job as providing the best possible police service in London within existing resources. That seems fine but surely that is the job of the Home Secretary—or is it not?

The Metropolitan police committee costs London council taxpayers nearly £400,000. What for'? What is the added value of the committee? I do not know and its members cannot tell me. The chairman tells me that it is consulted on matters such as whether a firing range should be bought or a new helicopter. I am sure that these are vital matters, but the chairman cannot tell me what input, or effect, he is having, for example, on next year's policing plan for London.

I understand from what I have read in the newspapers that there is a row going on between the committee and the Commissioner on next year's policing plan. Perhaps the Minister will enlighten us when he replies. What is the nature of the argument? Why do we want a police committee for London? We want a committee that acts as the public voice in policing matters. Instead, the Metropolitan police committee meets in secret. It gives advice to the Home Secretary that we shall never see. It has yet to publish a public report. How can that be said to reflect the voice of Londoners?

The situation becomes worse. When I asked Sir John Quinton whether he carried out surveys to test customers' views on policing—our views—he said that the committee did not carry out its own surveys but used those of the Metropolitan police. It seems that the committee has no independent means of testing Londoners' views.

When I asked whether the committee was taking a view on the effectiveness of existing police consultative groups, Sir John said that he had not interfered with the way in which the Metropolitan police consults these groups. When I asked how he incorporated Londoners' views in his report, he replied that, if his report was heavily criticised by the people of London, "we shall take account of it." That reflects the inadequacy of the current structure.

In answer to a question put to the Home Secretary in October 1995 by the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway), the Home Secretary replied: I am confident that the Metropolitan Police Committee will play an important part in improving the way in which policing in London can involve the community."—[Official Report, 19 October 1995; Vol. 264, c. 471.] Given the way in which the committee functions, however, it does nothing to involve the community any more in the policing of London. Unelected individuals who have no clear locus and no democratic constituency cannot improve the way in which policing in London involves the community. They are not doing that and they do not pretend in their mission statement to recognise that as their legitimate role.

We know that £400,000 would buy us an extra 20 policemen and women for London. I believe that that sum would be better spent on extra police officers rather than on a committee that is unelected and unaccountable, and ultimately will be unsuccessful.