Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:22 pm on 2 March 2006.

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Photo of Viscount Bledisloe Viscount Bledisloe Crossbench 1:22, 2 March 2006

My Lords, I join all of your Lordships in expressing gratitude to my noble friend Lord Tenby for introducing this debate and for doing so with his customary skill and wisdom. Like him, I find it surprising that it is so long since this topic has been debated in your Lordships' House, especially as the role and the position of the police have changed, and are changing, so much.

Although it is as I gather his birthday, I must start by contradicting the noble Lord, Lord Elton, absolutely. I, and nobody else, am the person by far the least qualified to speak in this debate. I have absolutely no specialist knowledge of the topic and I speak as an ordinary member of the public with, no doubt, many misconceptions shared by members of the public. From this position of outside ignorance, what are the changes in the roles of the police which seem to be the most significant? First, as many noble Lords have said, the nature of much of major crime has become vastly more complicated. Furthermore, much of major crime is international and, as my noble friend Lord Tenby said, it knows no boundaries. Much of it is also highly technical and complicated, involving sophisticated use, or indeed misuse, of modern technology. Fortunately, as a corollary, many of the methods of detecting crime and proving it are now highly sophisticated. Surely, top-class criminal brains, with their inventive ingenuity, require top-class police brains and skill to match the opposition.

Secondly, it seems to me and to many others that a much higher proportion of police time is spent on desk work and form filling. Again, my noble friend gave figures to demonstrate the truth of that proposition. There are no doubt many reasons for this. There is the increasing insistence, both in legislation and in the courts, that the police must go through lengthy procedures and must be able to demonstrate that they have done so. Then, almost as a corollary, there seems to be an ever-increasing demand within the police organisation, and from those with responsibility for it, that forms should be filled in and records kept to show what every policeman has done and why he did it. This is, I suspect—the noble Lord, Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate, made the point—because of an ever-growing fear of claims and complaints that lead people to go through procedures to avert those complaints or be able to answer them.

These requirements are no doubt devised with the best of intentions and to protect the public from unfairness or malpractices. But, as with so much form-filling requirements devised by government or by authorities, it seems to me highly dubious whether these requirements achieve their end and certainly whether the benefits of them outweigh the very considerable time spent upon them. Those who impose these kinds of requirements, whether upon the police or upon people in every other walk of life, seem to fail to recognise that rules of these kinds do not deter those who are bent upon malpractice. Such people merely tick the required boxes and ignore the substance of the requirements. Where they do bear heavily is upon your normal, reasonably conscientious police officer or citizen who regards form filling as a waste of their time and a distraction from the real functions which they hope to perform when they join the police.

Thirdly, there is the creeping expansion of the police role from law enforcement into what one might call social services and nanny-state good works. Fourthly, there is the unfortunate widening gap, almost alienation, between the police and those whom they should be seeking to serve. The public nowadays has a strong feeling of "them" and "us", which did not previously exist and which is highly undesirable. There are no doubt many reasons for this and various individuals who would give differing reasons. But I have little doubt that almost everyone shares my perception on this, and equally that almost everyone feels that it is a serious and indeed sad change, which it would be highly desirable to reverse.

The other side of this Motion is in the organisation of the police. My gut feeling is that the changes in the organisation over the past years have not been such as to keep up with the changing role and the ever more complicated and difficult task of the police, or to give police management the skills needed to cope with the new problems and to overcome them. On this issue, I want to raise with much diffidence the question of the quality of those in the upper, although not necessarily the top, levels of the police hierarchy. Many years ago I took a humble part in a lengthy inquiry conducted by Mr Justice Mars-Jones into a particular incident in a police station and into the defects of the subsequent investigation by the police hierarchy of that incident. In the course of that inquiry we heard evidence from all the senior officers involved in the chain of command. Our unanimous feeling—our team was headed by Lord Lane, who became the Lord Chief Justice—was that virtually everyone in that chain of command had been promoted beyond his level of competence.

I do not know, but I suspect, that this would still be the case. My main reason for this feeling is that, as a general rule, you do not get enough talented natural leaders in any organisation if the sole or main route to the top is by steady promotions from the very bottom. In business, commerce and industry, as well as in the armed services, people are taken in expressly to be leaders and to manage. It may be true that every private soldier has a field marshal's baton in his knapsack, but none the less the majority of our generals, admirals and so on did not start as private soldiers or able seamen. Of course in any organisation there will be some who rise to the top and perform magnificently—and we have in this House living proof of that fact—but that does not mean that the average occupant of a second-tier leadership post has the talent, the breadth of vision and the mental scope required nowadays in a top-class police force needing to cope with the great technical difficulties of modern policing.

I am well aware that these tentative views may sound horribly elitist, but we need to consider carefully why it is that the police have a system of breeding their managers that is totally different from anything that occurs in private business or in the armed services, and which they find best, indeed essential, to get leaders without whom nothing can go right.