Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:31 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Lord Imbert Lord Imbert Crossbench 12:31, 2 March 2006

My Lords, like other Members of your Lordships' House, I am grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for putting down this most important and timely Motion for debate and for setting the scene in his comprehensive opening address. It is timely for two reasons. The first is the proposal, as has already been mentioned, that some of the smaller forces should amalgamate with others to make fewer, but larger police areas. The second reason, as already mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, is that Sir Ian Blair called in his recent Dimbleby address for a public debate on what sort of police service we want. That question is apposite to all citizens: those who are policed in this country.

I realise that I follow most erudite and experienced speakers and I shall attempt not to go over their ground again. The noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, is a former senior police officer; the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is a former Home Secretary; and the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, has experience as a member of a police authority and the vice-chairman of the Association of Police Authorities. As a simple bobby, I wonder how I can follow such erudite and experienced speakers, but I shall do my best and try not to go over their ground.

Regarding amalgamations, big is not always beautiful. I pray that size is not the only criterion by which the future structure of the police is to be decided. That would be unwise. Although some amalgamations are inevitable in the quest for better value for money and enhanced efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of service, I hope that any changes will be decided on a case-by-case basis and in consultation with the communities and the police authorities of the areas concerned.

I fully support an examination of the structure and role of the police in this country. I hope therefore that the debate will contribute in some way not only to the question, "What sort of police service do we want?" but also to the question, "What kind of police service do we need?"

Since Sir Ian called for the debate, the Independent Police Research Foundation, the think-tank of policing, together with the Oxford University Centre for Criminology, has picked up the gauntlet and organised a forthcoming conference to try to identify what the Government and the police themselves think they ought to be doing and how they should be doing it. Any national debate must examine the use of lethal force by a largely unarmed service in a liberal democracy, balancing the question of how the police should deal with suicide bombers and armed criminals against our long-held tradition of civil liberties. Most importantly, the debate should take note of what the public expect the police to do on their behalf.

Ben Whitaker, a lawyer and erstwhile Member of another place, asked in his study, The Police in Society, what we want the police for. He wrote:

"Only by resolving the conflict in values between liberty and law enforcement can we determine the paradox of the police's position in the future".

Those are very wise words.

So far as the role of the police is concerned, the first two Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police, Rowan and Mayne, set out the objectives and role of the new police as follows:

"The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime"— that is absolutely right so far—

"the next that of detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed".

Punishment of offenders is not the responsibility of police.

In the late 1980s, when the police of London also were asking the question, "What sort of policing do you want?", a capital-wide survey was commissioned to find out what the London public expected police to do and how they wanted them to do it. The public's unequivocal response was that they wanted firm policing for those who broke the law, but fair and friendly policing for the law-abiding: firm, fair and friendly.

Further London-wide consultation resulted in a new mission statement—we called it a Statement of Our Common Purpose and Values—which explained the role, objectives and style of policing sought by modern-day Londoners. In September 1989, in response to public demand, the ethos of the Metropolitan Police was changed from force to service, but, as has already been mentioned today, times have again changed dramatically since then, when the suicide bomber had yet to appear here. The modern mission statement of the Metropolitan Police now begins with the words:

"The purpose of the Metropolitan Police Service is . . . to prevent crime; to pursue and bring to justice those who break the law".

The final paragraph includes the exhortation:

"We must strive to reduce the fears of the public, and, so far as we can, to reflect their priorities in the action we take".

Their priorities are good neighbourhood policing.

Just one or two officers out of a workforce of more than 30,000 described the concept of service as opposed to force as "a soft option", initially failing to see that to arrest an armed and dangerous criminal is to provide a service to the law-abiding public, and that it is just as much the job of police to facilitate peaceful protest by accompanying marchers, even though one may have found their views odious, as it is to quell a violent demonstration.

The police are the servants of the public and not their masters. Policing the area between liberty and licence has never been easy. This year, hundreds of officers have already been assaulted and injured while on duty. Many have been women officers, of whom one was shot dead and two are still in intensive care. Like many thousands of members of the general public, I pay tribute to those ordinary men and women who are doing an extraordinary and, not infrequently, life-threatening job. As has already been mentioned, police will sometimes get it wrong and, because of the nature of the job we give them, often dramatically so. That understandably becomes headline news.

It was Pascal who said:

"The problem of the human race is that it consists of human beings . . . The makers of the law, the breakers and keepers of the law all have one thing in common: they are all human beings".

The police, albeit as human beings, must continue to serve the public within the laws, as enacted by Parliament. I make a plea to the legislators to make such laws understandable and acceptable to the public, so that they will want to live within them, and, indeed to refrain from making too many.

I listened with interest to what the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie, said about his definition of heaven. I have a similar, but slightly different, definition:

"Heaven is where the cooks are French, the lovers are Italian"— that must be why my wife is going on holiday to Italy soon—

"the engineers are German, the police are British and it is all organised by the Swiss. Hell is where the cooks are British, the engineers are French, the police are German, the lovers are Swiss and it is all organised by the Italians".

In case anyone should think that is racist, it comes to me from the owner of an Italian restaurant, who has it pinned up on a board. The moral of the story and definition is that, although there must be changes, do not rush to make them without careful thought and genuine, meaningful consultation. To put it another way, we must be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.