rose to call attention to the role and organisation of the police in England and Wales at the present time; and to move for Papers.
My Lords, I begin by saying how delighted I am to see the Minister, the noble Baroness, Lady Scotland, in her place on the Front Bench for this debate. I am sure that she is ready to give helpful and informative answers to all the questions that noble Lords will pose.
Given the amount of daily attention in the media about police and police-related subjects, it is perhaps remarkable that, although specific matters relating to the police have prompted many Starred and Unstarred Questions, as far as I have been able to discover, there has not been a general debate on the subject in this century—probably for much longer. I have deliberately made the terms of reference as wide as possible, not to remove any bite that there might be in noble Lords' remarks, but so that each speaker, if he or she wishes, can speak to his or her area of particular concern.
I come from a Cross-Bench stable that contains many thoroughbreds—three former Metropolitan Police commissioners, one former chief constable and a serving senior police officer—and I am glad that two of my noble friends are taking part. My presumption in instigating the debate might be thought to be breathtaking but it seemed to me at the time that the kick-off might be better executed by a referee not beholden to any side. In mitigation, I can plead over 20 years on the bench, some as chairman, and nine years on a local police authority.
The Police Act 1964 created 43 forces out of 117. Again we face amalgamations in the near future—more of that later. In the intervening years, nearly everything has changed: our perception of the police; their perception of us; the breakdown, to some extent, of social cohesion; the arrival of the technological revolution that has altered the face of much of the crime that is committed, as well as the modus operandi of many criminals; together with numerous other developments, not least the continuous growth of a multi-cultural and multi-racial society.
Let me start with the demands of such a society. It is essential that any effective police force should be viewed as a force for all the colours and creeds that help to form it. Ideally, that force should, at least in part, look like the community it serves. The Macpherson report raised the spectre of institutional racism in the police, and, vital though this issue is, I suggest that this has become an unhelpful preoccupation in recent years. Together with human rights legislation, it may even have contributed to a certain mindset that sees the police as an integral part of social accountability, perhaps almost on a parallel with social services, and where the letters "PC" stand rather more for "political correctness" than "police constable". That may account for the vigour with which some fashionable offences may be investigated at the expense of traditional crime, even though the latter is inevitably of far greater concern to the public.
I am sure that all noble Lords would agree that one of the best ways of embracing ethnic communities is by having ethnic representation in the service. Yet in March last year, out of 140,000 officers, only 4,500—the figures are rounded up—or 3.3 per cent, came from a minority ethnic community. At a higher rank, the disparity becomes even more pronounced, with only one chief constable, five assistant chief constables and ten chief superintendents from a minority ethnic community. But as the president of the National Black Police Association has been quoted in the press as saying:
"It takes a very determined black person to join the police force because a lot of black youths see black police officers as traitors".
This alarming and sad judgment, coupled with the current difficulty of retention, is a problem that has to be solved. Can the Minister give an assurance that it is high on the Government's list of priorities and that they will put in hand initiatives to reverse this alarming trend?
Of course quotas should not be blindly filled. The suitability and potential of an applicant for this demanding role should always be the primary consideration in selection. But it is condescending in the extreme to assume that ethnic minorities cannot supply recruits of a suitable standard, and that consequently the quotas have to be filled willy-nilly. It is the sort of muddle-headedness which, as was recently reported, results in 200 applicants being rejected by a force because they are white and male—which was quite correctly reported to the Commission for Racial Equality.
It is now generally accepted that the policy of taking officers off the street and putting them in cruising squad cars, unfortunately coinciding as it did with an explosion in street crime, resulted in much public disaffection and has been a major cause of the public's lack of confidence in policing strategies. Indeed, "Bring back the bobby on the beat" has become the bleat of politicians of all parties in recent years. Fond comparisons have been made with the "Dixon of Dock Green" days. But reference to a television series, however entertaining and heart-warming, is never the way to assess rationally the true state of play. Back in those so-called golden days a good deal of police procedure was unacceptable by today's standards. And with total police numbers significantly below what we have now, it is difficult to see how there could have been a constable on every street corner—more central casting than Hendon, perhaps.
In any event, the arrival of community support officers, although admittedly without powers of arrest, should ensure that there is a visible police-type presence on the streets. Perhaps the Minister can tell us how successful this initiative is proving to be, and how popular their arrival has been, at both higher and lower levels in the force, since there may not necessarily be unanimity on this point and there is some anxiety that their presence and use may result in beat officers not getting the experience that they should in policing at local levels.
It must undoubtedly be right to return to community policing, where a copper knows his patch and is in turn a familiar and trusted individual to the people on it. But two points are worth making. The first and obvious one is that the beat officer is inappropriate for any serious crime where the victim likes to feel that the rapid deployment of experts is top priority. The second point relates to the status of the beat officer, often used as a useful, last-minute resource and available for redeployment at anything from a football match to a demonstration. How many officers on enlistment are advised by older hands—who are always hanging around to advise young officers—to get a specialism in order to advance their career in the force?
As a magistrate, two things, not directly related but impinging on each other, used to worry me. The first was the degree of paperwork to which the police were subjected—from PACE onwards through stop and search, which resulted in almost endless filling in of forms. In 2004–05 the Met spent nearly £102 million on paperwork and a further £21 million on checking it, out of a total budget of over £3 billion. That was more than was spent on robbery and burglary prevention combined. I must not guess the Minister's response, which may be that there has been an expansion of civilian staff to cope and that well over 7,000 forms have been scrapped. But can she give me comfort that more initiatives are on the way? Is there, for example, continuing dialogue with the legal officers and CPS about how this burden might be reduced without the entire legal edifice tumbling down? How many forms are catch-all, designed to cover the whole spectrum of criminal offences, so that if, for instance, a simple theft is being investigated, questions are asked, inter alia, about any racial or sexual implications in the offence?
My second worry was the degree of understanding which existed between, say, quite junior officers and those operating in the lower courts. I remember when I was chairman, setting up a mock court for one of the Bramshill courses. Both sides felt that it was beneficial in succeeding in putting before each group the problems with which they had to deal. I was disappointed not long after to be advised that it was to be the first and last initiative, on the grounds that the law should not be seen to be doing anything, however helpful in an educational sense, with the police. Will the Minister confirm whether today there is any student interchange, particularly at lower levels, not just in the rarefied atmosphere of the Police Staff College, between the components of the legal system? During training, do police officers become familiar with all other branches of the Court Service? This is particularly important when the police no longer prosecute, and when their court appearances are fewer by the day.
We live in a society dominated by targets, probably as a result of this Government's obsession with them. While checking on progress is an excellent discipline, I remain worried about its universal application in the police service. For example, how much do targets skew arrest patterns? How great is the temptation for police officers to go for the easy option with a quick result that will show up favourably in the figures, rather than concentrate on a more complicated and serious charge where there is a distinct possibility of no result? There is a saying in parts of the service: "If you can't count it, it'll be discounted".
The media grants the police no favours—and doubtless much of what they write is taken out of context—but nitpicking on the part of officers and an insistence on pressing charges for what most people would regard as trivialities are public relations own goals. This must be addressed as a matter of urgency before irreparable damage is done. Is any guidance given on this subject, perhaps via ACPO?
Recruiting and associated matters were dealt with in great detail in a Politeia report in the autumn, and I am sorry that my noble friend Lord Ramsbotham, one of the authors, cannot be with us today owing to an important engagement overseas. The report asserts that public confidence in the police is declining, and implies that some of the current failure is down to the quality of officer recruited. Among other issues, the report identifies the need to attract new blood, particularly at senior levels, and draws attention to the drawbacks of single point of entry, in that it is too cumbersome and not flexible enough in providing for rapid change, so far as specialisms and ethnic minority representation and requirements are concerned. The report further advocates a distinct graduate entry route, as opposed to the high potential development scheme. It goes on in some detail to criticise the current quality of training. Will the Minister tell the House what the Home Office's view of this report is, and whether any steps are being considered to take account of any of its suggestions?
That brings me seamlessly to the subject of amalgamation. It is perhaps worth recording that there was similar vociferous opposition to the process when the 1964 proposals were first mooted, though possibly with less justification then. Nevertheless, we must not become too hysterical about them. Some forces are too small to stand alone and provide the capability to deal with serious crime and terrorism, which know no international frontiers, let alone county boundaries. It is also true to say that such developments need not spell the end of local accountability if the changes are carried out sensitively and imaginatively. However, despite the Minister's assurances on Tuesday, I remain sceptical about how much notice has been taken of local anxieties in view of the unseemly rush to kick-start the operation.
The plans announced to reduce to 12 super-forces raise many questions. Will the new areas make operational sense? What will happen to existing authorities? Are the Government satisfied that there is sufficient expertise to run the new forces? Above all, where is the money to come from? We are told that these amalgamations will strengthen the fight against terrorism, but, if that is so, why do we have a National Crime Squad but, so far as I am aware, no plans for a national counter-terrorism agency? I would greatly appreciate the Minister's answer to that. Will Special Branch officers continue to be farmed out to the new super-forces, or are there plans to integrate them nationally?
Wherever amalgamations occur there will be upheaval; a lack of operational efficiency, though, I hope, only temporary; uncertainty among staff at all levels about career prospects; and of course the question of costs. On operational efficiency, it is often difficult to see where that ends and political considerations take over.
Let me give an example which, as a loyal Welshman, I cite with great trepidation. Wales is to be merged into one force, which, on the face of it, gladdens the heart of every patriot west of Offa's Dyke. But accessibility between the north and south of the country has long been the subject of jokes. It can still take four hours—if one is lucky—to get from one end to the other. I doubt whether north or south Wales have much in common from a police point of view. Unless there has been a remarkable change in recent years, I suspect that the north Wales force looks towards Merseyside and the north-west for co-operation and operational dovetailing.
Uncertainty about careers will inevitably be widespread in affected forces. Below the rank of, say, chief superintendent, it is unlikely that many, if any, will be affected. Do the Government have plans to reassure those lower ranks about their future, ahead of the changes? Junior ranks would also welcome assurances that they will not in principle be redeployed far from their existing homes, which is of particular importance to married officers and their families. That factor will obviously affect both recruiting and retention.
With regard to costs, how will the money be found? Will it come from the Exchequer or, as I suspect, from the council precept? Council tax payers will be hit ever more fiercely, and will have to stump up for—at least in the throes of reorganisation—a less efficient service. As if that were not enough, in 2008, the 85 per cent funding of CSOs will end. From then on, will that burden have to be accepted by the long-suffering taxpayers? That is a time bomb ticking away under the seat of government. I hope that the Minster can answer those questions to the satisfaction of the House.
The police service is in the spotlight as never before. The technological age has provided it with powerful tools in the fight against crime, but that factor, reinforced by forthcoming legislation on identity cards and anti-terrorism, has given it unprecedented power over our lives. It is therefore essential that our faith in it is not shaken by improper use of that power. Much has been made in recent months of the need for a public debate about the police. "It is your force", or so the argument runs. "You must engage in saying what you want it to be". I do not want to be simplistic about such a sensitive and complicated question. However, I believe that the public want the primary function of the police to be to catch and, if appropriate, put criminals away. They want the police to be: locally accountable; a visible part of the community; and people they can trust to be sympathetic and even-handed to all in the community of whatever colour or creed. They do not want them to be another branch of the social services. That is what the people want, and I suspect that that is what the police want as well. For good measure they might add that they want an end to overenthusiastic intervention by central government at every opportunity.
With those aims always in view, let us give our support to those brave and dedicated men and women who do a job that most of us would not care to do and who, for the most part, do it very well. I beg to move for Papers.