Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:02 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of The Earl of Rosslyn The Earl of Rosslyn Crossbench 1:02, 2 March 2006

My Lords, in thanking my noble friend for introducing this debate I should declare an interest as a serving officer in the Metropolitan Police, where I have responsibility for royalty and diplomatic protection. It was also a pleasure to hear one of my former commissioners speak today. While my future career prospects no longer depend upon agreeing with him, I did so in almost every respect.

Few mission statements survive contact with 200 years of organisational development, and rare is the corporate performance indicator that seems as relevant in the 21st century as it did in the 19th. Thus, when the first commissioner defined the primary role of police as preventing crime, and the protection of life and property and public tranquillity as measures of success, he showed acute and enduring insight. But while those principles guide us still, the operating context of policing has changed profoundly and today is more complex than ever, with the risks to operational officers painfully self-evident. Part of that complexity derives from the relationship between national, regional and local policing, how it is to be delivered and by whom. This, I believe, is today's greatest challenge for my service. How do we respond to serious organised crime and terrorism while retaining the spirit of localism in policing, so greatly valued and so fundamental to its overall success?

Organised crime groups increasingly dominate the criminality most threatening to our national interest. Sophisticated, well resourced and operating across force boundaries, they have a growing understanding of law enforcement techniques and use elaborate counter-surveillance techniques themselves and complex money-laundering arrangements. The scope of their criminality and capacity for extreme violence and intimidation made the case for the Serious Organised Crime Agency, soon to be operational, which will link intelligence investigation and intervention and provide a single point of contact for international partners.

However, that national response to organised crime cannot be detached from other aspects of law enforcement and must link effectively with local policing. Organised criminality has loose structures with its roots in local crime where criminals learn from dysfunctional role models. Even when operating at a national or international level such criminals are, as another noble Lord mentioned, still based in local communities. Recognising these interdependencies and managing relationships with local police and neighbourhood communities will be a key determinant of the new agency's success.

A parallel challenge exists in counter-terrorism. With its indifference to mass casualties, its international capability, unconventional structures, disinterest in negotiation—and with suicide as a feature of attack planning—the UK today faces what is perhaps the first truly global terrorist threat. While, in scale and complexity, the threat is still revealing itself we have already seen offenders entering this country from abroad to commit attacks, UK citizens involved in terrorist offences overseas, and now British citizens conspiring to commit acts of terrorism here. We have seen alongside that, in the efforts of the emergency services and the public, an inspiring contradiction to the prevailing cynicism which assumes that people always act out of their narrow, short-term interest.

With intelligence often fragmentary and hard to interpret, those investigating such offences must carefully balance public safety, community confidence and evidence gathering. Moreover, while the level of collaboration between international agencies is unprecedented—and co-operation between the police and intelligence services is unique internationally—we need to consider how police capability can further be improved. In particular, we need to question honestly whether we have sufficient resilience if faced with sustained demand on the scale of July last year.

At present, New Scotland Yard has the only substantial capability for terrorist investigation; yet it is clear that we face a threat not uniquely metropolitan in nature. While the Association of Chief Police Officers sets strategic direction for counter-terrorism policing, we do not presently have a national structure for investigation linked to regional investigative capability, which can in turn connect with local communities. Nor are police lines of accountability perhaps as clear as they might be. Does the Minister agree that further progress needs to be made in that area?

Finally, I turn to the proposed restructuring. If larger strategic forces are to be created—and there is a case for some change—people may, instinctively at least, feel a greater sense of detachment unless some compensating measure exists to make them feel otherwise. Now, I accept that a community's strongest affinity lies with its local police commander, but some of these new force areas could be very large with, for example, Avon and Somerset—as the noble Baroness, Lady Shephard, mentioned—potentially becoming part of a force whose northernmost point is nearer to Scotland than to the Cornish coast. That is a striking example, as nobody wishes policing to be seen as the agency of a distant power.

That compensating measure to which I referred could, I believe, come from the development of neighbourhood policing models which provide greater responsiveness and accessibility. In London there are already over 250 of these safer neighbourhood teams—as they are called here—aligned to ward boundaries, working with partner agencies and with guidelines preventing their abstraction for other duties. Early results are promising with evidence of environmental, economic and social gains as well as reductions in crime. But nothing will deliver effective neighbourhood policing if public engagement is absent at the design stage. If, therefore, in the context of force reorganisation, neighbourhood policing is to be an effective compensating measure, local communities need to understand the bargain that they are being invited to strike. We need to be really confident, in more than an aspirational sense, that police and partners can deliver.

This is the most radical proposed reorganisation of the police for decades, with—albeit latterly—a developing and quite proper level of scrutiny at a professional level about cost benefits and arrangements for governance and accountability. I hope that collaborative arrangements short of force mergers will not be discounted if the balance of interest recommends it, and that final judgments will be the product of critical analysis rather than the application of some rigid formula.

But long-term success, together with sustainable progress against terrorism and organised crime, depend on a public who understand the case for change and do not feel disengaged or misled. I feel that more needs to be done at all levels to involve them—a point made by a number of noble Lords. For if larger, seemingly remote forces neglect the diverse context in which policing takes place, public confidence will erode and policing at all three levels will be diminished.