The Police

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:01 pm on 31st January 2001.

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Photo of Lord Tebbit Lord Tebbit Conservative 3:01 pm, 31st January 2001

rose to call attention to police numbers and morale and to the level of violent crime; and to move for Papers.

My Lords, I rise to call attention to police numbers and morale and to the level of violent crime. Perhaps a shorter title for this debate would be, "The preservation of the Queen's peace"--that being the second priority of government, second only to the defence of the realm.

We would all, I think, acknowledge that changing moral standards and social pressures have a huge influence on the propensity to violent crime. Criminologists and sociologists will argue about the causes of violent crime, but there can be no argument that the Crown should honour its side of the social contract with the people to preserve the peace. We heard earlier today during Questions expressions of grave concern about the state of the preservation of the Queen's peace in relation to the activities of animal extremists. Nor can there be any argument that the numbers and the morale of the police are crucial in that operation.

Fortunately, the statistics on numbers at least are reasonably reliable and those on sickness and retirement rates shed some light on the otherwise subjective assessment of morale.

Statistics on crime are less reliable and much more difficult to interpret. Inevitably they are only statistics of reported or detected crime. I recollect that during the miners' strike when violent picketing called thousands of officers away from their normal work, crime apparently reduced. That was because there was no one to detect or to receive complaints of crime. Legislation criminalising what were hitherto lawful activities, whether selling bananas by the pound or beef on the bone, driving at 80 miles per hour (chief constables and Ministers excepted, of course) or hunting with hounds, is likely to increase the level of crime. Decriminalising the possession of drugs, late abortion or early sex is likely to reduce the amount of reported crime.

The statistics of violent crime may be more reliable than most, but their reliability and our confidence that we are comparing like with like is greatly affected by the willingness of victims to report criminal incidents. One need not go as far afield as Belfast or Londonderry to see that. In the third world societies of our inner cities, hostility to and lack of confidence in the police ensure that much violent crime goes unreported. In rural areas, the perception that to report lesser crimes will result only in time-wasting form filling has a similar effect. To that extent, the less effective policing is, the less crime will be reported.

Since a recent debate on these issues in another place was largely an exercise in attempts to beat one another into submission with statistical weaponry of great unreliability, I believe that I should issue a health warning: statistics of crime are addictive. They can have unexpected side-effects and dependency on them should be avoided.

Let us start with police numbers. Total police strength peaked in 1993 at 128,000 and is now around 124,000. There had been a huge increase during the Thatcher years: a rise of some 17,000 by 1987 when I retired from government--although I was not at the Home Office--then a fall during the Major years. Between the Thatcher victory of 1979 and the defeat of the government in 1997, total numbers rose by 16,000. Numbers were rising again towards the end of the Major years. Then there was a sustained sharp fall through the Blair years until the final half of the year 2000-0l, which showed an increase of 444. Overall, police numbers have fallen by 2,500 and, since May 1997, the Special Constabulary has been reduced by 6,000.

Of course we can all pick and choose particular dates and numbers, but I think that I have given a fair summary of what has happened under the three administrations. We are told that numbers will now continue to increase, although the Prime Minister's famous promise of 5,000 extra police by the time of the general election has now been completely withdrawn in favour of the promise made by the Minister of State, Mr Clarke, that by March 2002, with a fair wind and on a good day and a little luck, numbers will have moved back to the levels of March 1997.

Overall numbers, effective strength, wastage rates, sickness rates and morale are all clearly interlinked. Events in Northern Ireland and the Patten report have devastated morale in the RUC. I suspect that we shall hear more of that shortly. Morale in the Metropolitan Police in particular is extremely low. As a London dogwalker, I encounter and talk to police officers every day. An alarmingly large proportion of experienced and senior constables have told me that they are working out time and staying out of trouble until they can retire. Furthermore, many younger officers are looking to transfer to less stressful police forces.

Low morale breeds high sickness rates. That puts more pressure on those remaining at work, which in turn increases sickness. Quite properly, the rules on sickness and early retirement on grounds of ill health have been tightened in recent times. But in some cases they have been over-tightened and officers are pressurised to continue at work when they should be on sick leave.

I need hardly make the point that the Macpherson report has had a disastrous effect on morale in the Metropolitan force. The supine acceptance by senior officers of a quite disgraceful slander against the men for whom they are responsible has made matters much worse. In passing, I might add that the existence in Scotland Yard of what I am told is called the Lawrence steering group does not help. I could understand a steering group on the Macpherson report, but the existence of a Lawrence steering group raises the issue of whether there should be a PC Blakelock, or a Damilola Taylor or an Anna Climbie group. Should their relatives not receive the same consideration as those of Mr Lawrence?

I would not defend much of the Sheehy report, least of all the decision on the Metropolitan Police housing allowance. I welcome the decision made by this Government that a metropolitan allowance of £6,000 a year is to be paid, although of course that merely exacerbates the problems in the Home Counties forces around London.

The Minister will, I am sure, make the most of the recent increase in recruits. I hope that he will say something about their quality. Is it correct that a criminal record is no longer necessarily a disqualification? Have physical standards been maintained, and what is the rate of wastage in training? I am told that there has been a considerable increase in the extent of the practice known as "back classing" on the 18-week training course at Hendon; that is, where recruits cannot reach the standard, they are put back in the course to try again. Is that so? If it is so, is it because the standard of the instructors or that of the trainees has fallen?

Officers also complain about the extent of paperwork. It is claimed that an officer who makes an arrest at the beginning of a shift is effectively hors de combat for the remainder, incarcerated in the police station, entangled in paperwork. Is that necessary?

What will be the effect of the wider-scope fixed penalty notices envisaged in the Criminal Justice and Police Bill? The Council for Civil Liberties has expressed concern over the presumption of innocence and the burden of proof. But if a police officer has to report and form-fill for each notice issued to the standard required to arrest and charge an alleged offender, he will not issue many notices in a day. Perhaps the Minister will say whether he expects the police workload to be increased or decreased by these proposals.

Another cause of concern, I am told, is the poor performance, insecurity and unreliability of police radios. My understanding is that the new TETRA digital system currently on trial continues to have problems. I am told that there is a health and safety issue to be resolved; that because it causes interference with other equipment it cannot be used near hospitals or police headquarters; and even that it may adversely affect speed cameras on motorways--not, to my mind, a grave disadvantage. I hope that the Minister will be able to deal with these matters before the close of the debate.

We have a police force not only under strength and demoralised, but one facing an increasing workload. Some of that workload arises from our lawyer-driven compensation culture in which we see compensation claims from citizens who are dissatisfied with the inability of the police to arrest and charge those alleged to have done them injury. Those same lawyers may have their part in making it much more difficult for the police to identify and arrest those who have committed crimes. The net effect is to swamp the police with paperwork and to reduce the time and the effectiveness of their work in catching wrongdoers. Even when criminals are caught, convicted and sentenced, the Home Secretary seems to let them out rather early in order to re-offend.

Increasing crime and increasing awareness of crime are also adding to the police burden. In 1993-94, the earliest year for which I can find figures, there were 4.5 million 999 calls. By 1999-2000 that had risen to 9.5 million. While the recent slight fall in recorded crime is welcome, it remains at a high level, and violent crime is still increasing. Soft sentences and early releases are no doubt factors in this, but to what do the Government attribute the rise and who does it most affect? My impression is that the victims are principally those who live in our third world urban areas.

Perhaps here I may take up with the Minister a matter which continues to puzzle me. In June last year I tabled a couple of Written Questions concerning the ethnicity of the victims and perpetrators of racially-motivated crime in the Metropolitan area. I was very surprised to receive an answer from the Minister which told me that information on the ethnicity of victims and perpetrators of racially-motivated crime was not kept. The Minister looks surprised. So was I. But when I subsequently saw the figures published in the Daily Telegraph, I wrote to him and asked why they had not been available in answer to my Question. He told me that the information I had read in the Daily Telegraph came from Scotland Yard figures. Does not the Home Secretary, as the police authority, ask what is going on and what figures it has? Is that not extraordinary? Could officials have prepared an Answer for the unfortunate Minister to sign on the basis of not telling him that the figures were available in Scotland Yard, even if they were not on the file in his office? I find that not only extraordinary but quite outrageous. I hope that the Minister will do something to ensure that nothing of that kind ever happens again.

As noble Lords will know, violent crime rose in the 12 months to last September by some 8 per cent, despite a slight fall in sexual offences. Assaults on constables rose by 12 per cent to 27,000 out of a total of 588,000 offences. That is not much encouragement to recruitment. Even the slight fall in sexual offences is slightly suspect in that there was a fall recorded of 38 per cent in offences of gross indecency between males. That would be very welcome if it actually happened, but I rather doubt it did. There was a record fall in the practice of buggery of 22 per cent. Rape, on the other hand, edged up by 3 per cent. I wonder whether those figures can all be correct.

Perhaps I may end with a verdict on these matters--not mine, which might be thought by some to have some bias, but that of the people as a whole as measured recently by MORI. Asked about the level of crime in their areas since May 1997, 17 per cent of respondents said it had got better, 36 per cent said it had got worse, 44 per cent said it was unchanged. On standards of policing, the verdict was similar: 16 per cent better, 33 per cent worse, 46 per cent the same. As to the number of police on the beat, 9 per cent thought there were more, 49 per cent thought there were less and 36 per cent thought things were unchanged.

It is worth noting that 20 years ago 70 per cent were satisfied and 25 per cent dissatisfied with the way their locality was policed, a plus rating of 45 per cent. In February 1999, the figures were 70 per cent satisfied and 22 per cent dissatisfied, a positive rating of 48 per cent. The Minister has a slight smile. I do not think he should have because as we go on we find that, as the Government's policies have begun to bite, the mood has changed. Now, fewer than 45 per cent are satisfied and 50 per cent are dissatisfied, a negative rating, for the first time, of more than 5 per cent.

How do Ministers explain this? Have the public become--what is the expression this week?--"detached" from reality? Are they having, like Ministers, "moments of madness"? Does Mr Straw think that the public at large have a collective inability to remember or recognise what is going on? Is there "something strange going on" in the collective head of the public? Or will the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, own up like a man and say, "Yes, this Government have brought about a crisis of confidence in the ability of the police to combat violent crime in particular"--that they have, indeed, failed to preserve the Queen's peace? My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.