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My Lords, I will speak on policing issues in England and Wales and will touch, albeit briefly, on policing in Northern Ireland on an issue which I believe needs to be mentioned.
The latest Home Office statistical bulletin, Crime in England and Wales, and data from the British Crime Survey put my county, North Yorkshire, as one of the safest areas with the least crime in England. The latest Home Office report, which is always behind real time, shows that in the financial year since April 2011 crime fell by 7%, that 62% of the residents of North Yorkshire felt that their local police dealt well with their concerns, and that the North Yorkshire police force regularly rates the highest public satisfaction levels in the huge Yorkshire and Humber region. All of this was achieved before the new regime of police and crime commissioners, so I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister will congratulate North Yorkshire Police and the former North Yorkshire Police Authority and its staff for their dedication and focused commitment to dealing with crime and driving down crime statistics year on year.
Police authorities have been given precious little recognition for their sterling efforts over the years, supporting their police forces and dealing imaginatively with falling budgets but they have been denigrated for their lack of democracy or their invisibility. Frankly, they did an amazing job, quietly getting on with providing first-rate services and shunning media opportunities. It is rather different from what is now emerging across the country. Perhaps “I would say that, wouldn’t I?”, and I draw your Lordships’ attention to my registered interests. Having been chair of my local police authority some 12 years ago and involved in policing at a national level in a number of areas for many years, all I can say is: if things were so bad with the governance of policing then, how come crime has fallen so dramatically year or year now, for a number of years?
It is not just in this country. It appears that crime is falling just about everywhere. How can this be? Were we not told that because of swingeing cuts to budgets, crime would inevitably rise? It appears not. In a fascinating article in the Observer on
“Crime is diminishing across the developed world, falling in broadly the same way in conservative countries and in leftish countries. Countries with starkly contrasting social policies and strikingly different penal policies are seeing similar falls in crime. It is dropping in countries that lock up a lot of people and it is also down in countries that put a much smaller proportion … behind bars. This strongly suggests that the policy remedies for crime pursued by politicians have had only a marginal influence, if any at all”.
Where does this leave the police? They are having a very difficult time of it at the moment, as my noble friend Lord McNally recognised—more difficult than I have encountered in the 30-plus years that I have been involved with policing. Change happened periodically during those years, but nothing like as significantly as now. Police officers feel beleaguered and fearful for their futures.
An example of this is how the police are being treated. Here I turn briefly to Northern Ireland, as I said I would, where policing is a devolved matter. I have to say that the recent treatment of Police Service of Northern Ireland officers was very badly handled. A 12-week consultation process was given to the police in England and Wales for their views on changes announced by the Home Secretary to move from a well established Police Negotiating Board—the PNB—to a pay review body system. Again, this was mentioned by the Minister in his opening remarks. Unfortunately, the PSNI was missed off this process and found out only by chance that it would be made to move to a pay review body. There was no consultation or discussion. Officers were told that they should have looked at the Home Office website to see whether they were included in the system. What utter nonsense. You cannot expect police officers to keep an eye on the Home Office website to see whether their long-accepted method of sorting out their pay and conditions of service was being changed, without any hint of it being proposed in the first place. It will affect Northern Ireland officers greatly.
Fortunately, and by the good offices of the Minister of Justice for Northern Ireland, I understand that this is now being remedied. But it begs the question: what did the civil servants think they would achieve by trying to push this through the back door? It was not a good idea, especially in Northern Ireland.
There is a wider lesson here for anyone involved in policing—sitting down and talking can often solve a lot of problems. The police are not frightened of change; they know it must come. But they feel utterly overwhelmed by its pace and bewildered by the demand that they must give up more of their hard-earned and properly negotiated pay and conditions of service. Let us have a look at those: they cannot strike; they are effectively on duty all the time. Their training is now in the hands of the College of Policing, but they do not know how they will manage to move from what was the excellent National Policing Improvement Agency.There is even talk of officers having to pay for themselves if they want to improve their chances of moving up the ranks. How is that going to work? Is this a sort of “pay as you go” police service?
The police are concerned about who will lead them in the future, with talk of direct-entry candidates at inspector and superintendent level. Why is it felt that someone with managerial experience of, say, Marks & Spencer or someone from the Armed Forces would make a better leader than someone from within policing?
Why, indeed, is an officer class deemed sensible in a civilian force? Soldiers do an entirely different job in an entirely different environment. At what point can a newly badged entrant, with no background in policing, take control of a civilian firearms incident or, indeed, any critical incident? If you have not experienced it, how can you manage it?
Police officers need key communication skills and abilities, and my contention is that they can obtain those only by having done their time on the beat and gone up through the ranks. Call me old-fashioned, but if I am so wrong, why are we still acknowledged as having the best police service in the world? Why on earth must we mess about with newfangled ideas instead of sensibly improving on what we already know works?
I will say a word about compulsory severance. It is being used to remove expensive officers who have done their 30 years’ service. All that experience is going to waste. Might I suggest that we look at encouraging those officers who would like to remain on active duty, so to speak, to consider joining the Armed Forces police reserve? As mentioned in the gracious Speech, reservists will be a major defence line in the future, and I know that they prefer to take on people with a policing background. It may well help ease the transition to eventual retirement when they are still fit and young enough to have another career. Indeed, I recently met a serving police officer who is also in the RAF Police reserve and doing a first-class job. Perhaps the Minister will speak to his MoD counterpart to see whether this might be an option for retiring or, indeed, still-serving police officers to consider, should they want to.
Finally, the police know they have to change. Their HMIC has left them in no doubt about that, but my hope is that this can happen through sensible, adult discussion on both sides, where concerns are listened to and options are aired. When things go wrong, it is the police, as always, who pick up the pieces, and they deserve our thanks and our loyalty for the extraordinary work that they do on our behalf.