My Lords, I congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, on securing the debate. It is both timely and important. The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police recently suggested in his Dimbleby Lecture that we should have a debate about policing issues.
I attended an FBI conference a couple of years ago at which one of the delegates was Belgian. He started by saying that in Heaven, the cooks are French, the police are British, the lovers are Italian and the Germans organise everything. He continued that in Hell, the cooks are German, the police are French, the lovers are British and the Italians organise everything. Although that is a sweeping generalisation, there is a grain of truth in it. I took pride in his saying that in Heaven the police are British. We have a lot to be proud of in our police service, as faulty as it may be in certain areas.
I go back well over 40 years, when I joined the police service. It was a very different police service—and a very different public then. We often hear about the lack of police presence on foot on the streets. There is a fairly simple reason for that. In pubs and clubs, people often ask me why there seemed to be more police officers in the old days. In those days, police officers were not required to work an eight-hour shift. I recall being a village policeman—the television programme "Heartbeat" is a good example of what I am talking about—when the officers all came into the office at nine o'clock in the morning and perhaps were still there at midnight. Many noble Lords will have had the same experience. That does not mean that the officers were working 24-hour shifts, but they were doing, what we called, detached beat work. They turned out when they were required and made their presence felt in the village, town or community at appropriate times. They might see the children to school, they might see them home at lunchtime, and they would certainly be there when the pubs turned out.
In the late 1960s, the Police Federation—I was then a member—quite rightly secured the right of officers to have an eight-hour continuous tour of duty. When one takes account of leave and other factors, 5.4 more police officers are required to replace one village constable. That is the key to why there appear to be fewer police officers on the streets. To return us to where we were, we need an increase of something like five times the number of officers, which economically is not viable. I mention that because I am often asked about numbers and visibility.
The noble Viscount is quite right to say that the service changed its policy and started to put officers in cars. When I was a young constable, there was only one car for the whole division. If you arrested someone in the town centre of Jarrow, where I was stationed, you had to find a way of getting the man back to the police station. In essence, you walked him back; you were very fortunate if a vehicle came to give you some assistance. Times change and clearly that does not happen now. We have vehicles, but, where possible, we must encourage officers to communicate with the public. That is probably the key point. In this country, we police by consent, and consent means communicating and talking to members of the public.
Last year, I had the privilege of giving a lecture in Switzerland, where I met a retired Scotland Yard officer—and I am pleased to see that we have an ex-commissioner speaking in the debate. That retired officer is now in his 80s, but many years ago he was a detective. He said that one of the main sources of arrests was stopping and searching. As a plain-clothes detective, he would probably stop and search 26 to 30 people in a shift. Nowadays that may be looked on as unacceptable, but his instincts told him who to check and who to stop. He was not being discriminatory; he just had a feel for who should not be in a particular place at a particular time. As a result, he had many successful arrests through stopping and searching.
To a great extent, I believe we have lost that. Officers now are a little worried about stopping and searching for obvious reasons: they may be accused of victimisation or harassment. I suspect that we need to encourage officers, where appropriate, to carry out more stops and searches, particularly when we are concerned about knife crime and firearms. We need to encourage officers and not discourage them. The Macpherson inquiry was mentioned by the noble Viscount. In some senses that acted as a deterrent. It made officers worry about being accused of racism and all the other things that we read about. We need to speak out more and to give the police support where we can and not criticise too often. The police service is made up of officers who represent the community and all the faults of the community are in the police service as well.
We also have to deal with risk assessment. Senior officers now have far more problems than I had as a commander. I would act on instinct and send officers into situations in a way that perhaps would not be possible now, because of the requirement to make a risk assessment. We see senior police officers being accused, charged and disciplined for making the wrong decisions. It is extremely difficult at times. We saw the tragic case recently in which the police stood back and did not go in to assist two ladies who had been shot—noble Lords will have read about it. The police even prevented the medical services from going in, not through callousness, but because the senior officer had made a risk assessment. He did not know whether the gun was still at large and he would personally have been under threat of prosecution, or at least disciplinary action, if he had made the wrong decision and some of his officers or the ambulance crew had been injured as a result. We should consider that when we criticise the police.
The police make mistakes. I have certainly had my brushes with senior police officers since I retired. I think of the Tony Martin case and cases like it. When the police attend the scene of an incident, they look at the thing in the round and, particularly when a burglar or person on the street who has potentially committed a crime has been injured, they quite often interview and in some cases arrest the householder. That is absolutely ludicrous. The police have discretion; there is nothing to prevent them from inquiring into the circumstances and determining whether appropriate force was used. In my judgment—and I have said so—they do not necessarily have to arrest the householder, take him to the police station, formally interview him and even, in some cases, charge him. Very rarely is a conviction secured in these circumstances, because juries have common sense. They say that the criminal who was injured when he was burgling the house was probably the author of his own misfortune. Any sensible person would say that.
I implore the police to use a little common sense when investigating these things, because even if the case does not result in a conviction, householders and the public generally will be very concerned that they have been subject to arrest and detention in the police station. Of course, that makes people worried about defending themselves. The process starts with the police. As with many things, the police are in a position not to send a case to the Crown Prosecution Service. The police now are not acting alone; they work in partnership with many other organisations.
I look very carefully at amalgamations. I lived through the amalgamations of the 1960s and 1970s, to which the noble Viscount referred. That was a traumatic time for police officers. People do not like to give up their little fiefdoms, which is understandable to some extent. My judgment is that the time is right for the police to be reorganised. Strategic forces are exactly what they say they are—strategic forces. In my view, the change will not affect policing on the ground one iota. If you talk to the average person in the street, I think that you will find that he is not interested in and probably does not know where the police headquarters are. His concern is the policing in his community, which is done at the level of a local commander of a basic command unit, usually of superintendent or chief superintendent rank. Those are the guys or women who deal with the community issues; they liaise with the local council and with the other agencies in the area. So the location of the headquarters is not really relevant.
The big advantages of having strategic police forces, as I see it, are the economies of scale from training together, providing resources to tackle terrorism and all the rest that HMI set out in its report recommending that forces should have more than 4,000 officers to be viable for dealing with organised crime and terrorism. Therefore, I welcome the proposals. I think that perhaps the change is being carried out a little hastily; there is something in that argument. The police did not have a lot of time to consider the alternatives, but I think that, now that the process has started, it should continue. As I said, I welcome the move towards larger strategic forces. I do not want a national police force for the reasons that the royal commission set out all those years ago, in 1960. It recommended that we should not have a national police force because such a force would make it much easier for political control to be exercised over the police service.
We have a proud tradition of policing in this country, valued throughout the world. Whenever I travel abroad, people are interested in the British policing model. Many places try to copy it, and we provide a lot of training to other countries on policing issues. That is something we should be proud of. When the new arrangements come in, we will still have 10 or 12 police forces. Again, political control will not be possible unless you manage to control all 12—I would suggest that it is very difficult to control 12 independently minded chief constables.
I welcome the Government's proposals and again congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, on securing the debate.