The Police

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:28 pm on 31st January 2001.

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Photo of Lord Dholakia Lord Dholakia Party Chair, Liberal Democrats 3:28 pm, 31st January 2001

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to contribute to this debate. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, for providing this opportunity. Needless to say, I may not agree with many of the things he has said.

Law and order repeatedly surfaces as a key issue that concerns the community. It is no secret that it will continue to remain higher on the agenda in readiness for the next general election. I see nothing wrong in that, provided that we do not use the police and policing issues as a political football.

Until recently, there was a substantial and steady fall in police strength. The fall in numbers, which began under the previous Conservative government, has accelerated under the present Government. The slogan,

"Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime", has an ingredient missing: those responsible for dealing with crime--that is, our police officers--are thin on the ground. The fall in the number of officers since 1997 is very serious indeed. Even now, there is serious concern about whether we shall be able to replace the officers lost since then. Of course, we welcome the recent recruitment drive, which looks promising. Let us hope that the Government will never again contemplate sticking to the spending plans--as they did during their first three years in office--which brought about the serious decline in police numbers.

There is no guarantee that the increase in police numbers will reduce serious crime. We need to probe much deeper into why our society, particularly our young people, have scant regard for the law. We need to probe more deeply into why, despite repeated criminal justice legislation and a record number of new laws to tackle crime, we have failed to tackle the increase in serious crime. An increase in police numbers alone would not solve our problems. The Government should have realised the folly of restricting their spending on police recruitment. No one has ever argued that crime reduction is assisted by a reduction in police numbers.

There are two reasons for the decline in police numbers. The first, undoubtedly, is the level of funding. The second is recruitment and retention. We can add to this the unfunded police pension scheme and the significant cost of new technology to keep pace with the sophisticated and international nature of crime.

The Government's own figures show that, after the proportion of police funding which is allocated to meet pension requirements is taken into account, in 1997-98 14 forces, in 1998-99 16 forces and in 1999-2000 15 forces had a cut in funding in real terms. The issue of pensions will not go away. It is time for us to know something about the Government's thinking on the subject.

Of course, there is some truth in the saying that fear of crime is greater than crime itself. It does not help the situation when all the evidence points to the declining public confidence in fighting crime, and the police being held responsible for what, ultimately, is the responsibility of the politicians. Ask any citizen and the complaint is that policemen are simply not visible enough in our communities and that the police do not even have the resources to respond to all the important demands made on them. Certain crimes no longer feature as important to the police, and yet they have a very profound effect on victims. Those of us who have items stolen from our cars can vouch for that statement.

Simply blaming the police service is not an answer. Talk to any police officer and you can see his or her frustration. Police officers care about public concerns and they want to be the reassuring presence on our streets. We were repeatedly told that the amount of unnecessary paper work would be cut down and that that would release more officers on to the beat. However, this does not seem to have happened. Can the Minister say why not?

The history of law and order over the past two decades is so telling. Of course, the Conservative government could claim falls in recorded crime in the later years of their administration, but recorded crime was still 81 per cent higher in 1997 than in 1979. Violent crime rose every year between 1979 and 1997. Over this time, there was a 168 per cent rise, and the percentage is now rising again. Against this, the number of convictions in courts has fallen. I am referring not only to the proportion of crime leading to a conviction--the conviction rate fell--but also to the fact that the absolute number of convictions also fell. Whereas there were nearly 1.9 million convictions in 1979, there were 1.4 million in 1996. Crime nearly doubled during this time, but the number of criminals brought to account in the courts fell by 20 per cent. In 1985, there was a conviction for every eight crimes; in 1997, there was only one conviction for every 14 crimes.

The simplistic answer of creating more criminal offences has hardly helped. Is it not time for us to allow our criminal justice system to bed down before embarking on future laws? Should we not look to prevent offending in the first place?

Police morale is undoubtedly a real issue in many parts of the country. Genuine problems of numbers, recruitment and conditions also contribute to poor morale.

Perhaps I may congratulate the Home Secretary who set up the Stephen Lawrence inquiry--the request for which was, at one time, refused by Michael Howard when he was Home Secretary. However, it is important to resist the dangerous argument that the reforms instituted by the police service following the Stephen Lawrence inquiry are an important factor in denting police morale. In fact, I cannot recollect working in any organisation in my life where morale has ever been high. It is particularly specious and inaccurate to suggest, as some have done, that police officers have become so afraid to stop and search black suspects that this has produced an increase in street robbery.

The figures published earlier this month under Section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 show that there has in fact been a larger fall in stop and searches of white people than of black people, and that black people are still five times more likely to be stopped and searched by the police. This is hardly compatible with the image of a police service paralysed by political correctness. The figures also show a larger fall in those types of crime for which arrests commonly follow stop and search than for those, like robbery, which stop and search rarely uncovers. Many of the arrests that follow stop and search are for drug offences, and the number of recorded drugs offences has recently fallen significantly. Far fewer arrests for robbery result from stop and search, yet the robbery statistics have risen sharply. This suggests that there is little relation between the trends in the use of stop and search and the trends in crime rates. Stop and search may sometimes be necessary, but, frankly, it is overrated as a tool for reducing crime.

The results of recent pilot experiments in some parts of the Metropolitan Police district in making a more targeted use of stop and search are encouraging. These have reduced the overall number of stop and searches, reduced the racial disproportion in its use and, at the same time, an increased proportion of stop and searches have resulted in an arrest. So a better-targeted use of these powers has had more effective results. We need to build on the results of these experiments, and not return to the pre-Lawrence inquiry practices, which did so much damage to the confidence in the police service of minority ethnic communities.

We also need to question the peculiar argument that the racial disproportion in the use of stop and search can be justified because there are proportionately more black people on the streets in the areas concerned. Some senior police officers have started talking about the population "available to be searched". What is this supposed to mean? The fact that people are "available" does not mean that you have to search them. In order to justify a fivefold disproportion in the use of these powers, we would need to show not just that black people were five times more likely to be on the streets but that they were five times more likely to be on the streets and up to no good. Does anyone seriously argue that black people are five times more likely to commit crimes than white people? No statistics have effectively demonstrated that fact.

Let us stop looking at specious arguments of this kind that can only fuel racism, and look instead at some more valid reasons for poor police morale. One such reason is the tendency of many people to blame the police unfairly for high crime rates when these are in fact due to a range of social factors outside the direct control of the police. If we seriously want to bring down crime rates, we need a comprehensive strategy to tackle the root causes, involving all government departments as well as statutory and voluntary agencies. This means providing more support for families under stress. Research shows that effective family support programmes can pay for themselves five times over by reducing the rate of family break-up and delinquency by children of those families.

It also means tackling the problem of truancy and school exclusion, because research shows that persistent truants commit three times as many offences as children who attend school regularly. It means working to ensure that there are accessible work and training opportunities for the most disadvantaged, because young offenders commit three times as many offences when they are out of work as when they are employed. It means providing youth facilities and sporting activities for young people in disadvantaged high-crime-rate areas. Research into intensive youth activity programmes run by organisations like NACRO (my own organisation) and Crime Concern shows that they can reduce different types of youth crime locally by between 30 and 75 per cent.

It means tackling problems of drug and alcohol abuse, because drug addicts who continue with their drug habit commit five times more crimes subsequently than those who enter treatment programmes. It also means working to resettle offenders on release from prison. Prisoners released homeless are two-and-a-half times more likely to reoffend than comparable offenders who have access to stable accommodation. Unemployed former prisoners are twice as likely to reoffend as those who get and keep a job.

In short, policing has a vital role to play in preventing and reducing crime; and where the police service has genuine grievances, these must be addressed. But, ultimately, a determined attack on the causes of crime will do far more to affect crime rates than the police service could ever hope to achieve on its own.

Last week I asked the Minister whether he would consider establishing a Royal Commission on policing to address the many and varied issues facing the police. This is also called for by the Police Federation. The Minister seems to have brushed that aside. Of course we discuss policing issues on a piecemeal basis but Parliament has failed to take a comprehensive look at policing. Is it not time that we took a more fundamental look at the police and at policing issues? Is it not time that we developed a much more effective strategy on crime prevention? Is it not time that we gave support and encouragement to the thin blue dividing line which makes a difference between democracy and chaos?

That requires valuing the independence of our police. We must not make them a political football. The public's consent to policing will be eroded if we fail to give a lead.