The Police

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:18 pm on 31st January 2001.

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Photo of Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate Labour 3:18 pm, 31st January 2001

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on choosing such an important subject for today's debate. As he suggested, it is very close to the top of people's concerns and fears. As to the point that he made towards the end of his speech about the surveys of people's satisfaction with policing, it will be of interest that the greatest satisfaction was achieved during the Home Secretaryship of the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, on the debilitating effect of the compensation culture. I do not demur at all on that.

The wording on the Order Paper states that the debate is to call attention to police numbers, morale and the level of violent crime, as though they are all connected. In my small contribution I shall attempt to prove that this is not necessarily so.

Dealing, first, with police numbers, the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, will know that the setting of establishment figures by the Home Office was abandoned by the previous government. Presumably, that policy was supported by the noble Lord. It was placed in the gift of individual chief constables. It follows that if some chief constables decide that money is better spent on new technology, air support or civilian support, there is precious little that Ministers can do about it.

There may well be a case for maintaining centrally a minimum "ground cover" figure, as we used to call it, for every force before siphoning off officers or cash for specialist departments, squads or national agencies. It is a matter that my noble friend the Minister may wish to consider in the light of my following comments.

The Motion implies that "more police on the beat" means less reported crime. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, noted that that is not necessarily true. Often, the opposite is true. The obvious truth is that, the easier it is made for members of the public to report crime, the more crime will be reported. It follows, therefore, that in order to reduce the crime statistics the trick is to make crime more difficult to report--one method is to have fewer police officers in contact with the public. I hope that I am illustrating the unreliability of the Home Office crime statistics and not suggesting a template for crime reduction!

That said, it is undeniable that the public get a sense of security from seeing the patrolling bobby, regardless of the effect on crime figures. The fear of crime is probably far greater than the reality. If we can reduce this fear by adding more foot patrols, any sensible government are right to underwrite such an increase. That is why I applaud the Government for ring-fencing funding for an extra 9,000 officers over and above the normal intake. I understand that these recruits are now working through the training schools. The Minister may wish to give up-to-date figures in his response.

The difficulty in recruiting police officers is true of public services generally, not just the police service. I think there is no disagreement on either side about that. It is in a sense a measure of the Government's economic success because of a tightening in the employment market. It is universally accepted that a far more accurate measure of the volume of crime is the British Crime Survey, the latest edition of which was published on 17th October last year. It indicates clearly that in the two years between 1997 and 1999 the number of violent crimes fell by 4 per cent. Similarly, all crime fell by 10 per cent over the same period.

The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, mentioned assaults on police officers, which we all deplore. Police officers do suffer from assaults, and this has the effect of lowering morale. The apparent acceptance that the police, or indeed any other public servants, can be used as punch-bags cannot continue. I read recently that only 12 per cent of those convicted of assaulting police officers receive a custodial sentence. That is a disgrace, and the judiciary and magistracy should take note. Perhaps my noble friend the Minister could give the most up-to-date figures for custodial sentences following assaults on the police.

Noble Lords opposite should be careful in highlighting crime. The record shows that crime doubled during the administration that they supported. In contrast, this is the first government for 50 years to finish their term with less crime than when they came to office. The noble Lord will rightly say that specific categories of crime have risen: I refer to robbery and the theft of goods from the person. It is common ground between us that this area must be targeted and tackled. Part of the rise is accounted for by a sensible change in the counting rules. However, a great deal of such crime is attributable to the mugging of youngsters by other youngsters, usually for items such as mobile phones, which are almost becoming fashion accessories.

The Home Secretary was right, therefore, to call in the phone manufacturers to explore means of reducing such crime by making phones worthless to anyone other than the owner--in a similar way, the targeting of motor manufacturers reduced car crime. I am sure that noble Lords opposite would have expected nothing less.

I turn now to the important subject of police morale. Morale in any organisation can be affected by several factors. Remuneration, conditions of service, management style and complaints against the police are the obvious important factors. I shall deal with them briefly.

It was the previous government who removed the police housing allowance, in 1993--identified by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, as the date when recruiting figures began to deteriorate. That had an immediate effect on recruiting and morale, and the service has never recovered. It was the previous government who removed overtime for the ranks of inspectors. Consequently, senior investigating officers--officers working in excess of 60 hours a week, often heading murder inquiries--are taking home less than the junior officers working for them. To quote this week's Police Review,

"Inspectors in charge of up to 14 cases each are becoming human wrecks!"

It is becoming virtually impossible to find applicants for this demanding work. This lowering of morale was again caused by the Sheehy-type savings imposed by the previous administration supported by noble Lords opposite.

It was the previous government who abolished the rank of chief superintendent, thereby weakening the ability of chief constables to manage huge divisions, some larger than small police forces. Sense has prevailed, and the rank of chief superintendent is being brought back by the present Government.

The complaints system is not working. For some time, the staff associations have argued for the independent investigation of complaints. We have had, for example, the Lancet inquiry in Cleveland (of Ray Mallon fame) which has gone on for over four years, with many, including Mr Mallon, being suspended for over three years. The cost to the ratepayers of Cleveland is estimated to be in the region of £5 million to £7 million.

In 1996, the Police Superintendents' Association, of which I was then president, discussed reforms with the previous government and the Police Complaints Authority. Unfortunately, our pleas fell on deaf ears. The present Government are reforming the police complaints system.

In conclusion, as the Lancet inquiry has been completed, will my noble friend the Minister give the House some idea of when the Crown Prosecution Service will put the officers being investigated, the remainder of the force and the people of Cleveland out of their misery and announce the final decisions in the inquiry? Mr Mallon has already been cleared of any criminal wrongdoing and this sorry mess needs concluding.

I think it is evident that this Government need no lessons in police funding, management or reform from noble Lords opposite.