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My Lords, I want to speak about policing, both in terms of what is promised in the Queen’s Speech and how that will impact on police activity and effectiveness, and about one or two significant gaps in the proposals. In doing so, I draw your Lordships’ attention to my interests as listed in the Lords register.
We are promised an early policing and criminal justice Bill, and I would very much like to welcome one of its objectives—to reduce the amount of time that police officers currently spend dealing with people with a range of mental health issues, and to ensure that such people have more appropriate safe places in which to be detained than police cells. Such measures are long overdue and have my strong support. However, at the same time, the Queen’s Speech makes it clear that the public sector will continue to bear the brunt of the Government’s austerity policies, which inevitably will lead to further cuts to police budgets.
My knowledge of economics is not extensive, but I know that the public expenditure cuts of the past five years have resulted not in a reduction of government borrowing, but in a massive increase to a level nearly 70% higher now than in June 2010. So much for continuing the work of bringing the public finances under control. So far this has lost us 17,000 police officers, many from the front line. How many more thousands will soon be sacrificed to the false god of austerity, and will we still retain a viable and resilient police service?
We know that what the public value above all else from the police is good, consistent neighbourhood policing, which is the bedrock of the British model of policing, and I cannot see how forces can continue to deliver this on the severely reduced budgets they can expect in the next few years. It is officer intensive, and needs continuity of personnel to be effective, and forces will struggle to provide it. But I want to be constructive in this debate, and to make three suggestions which might help to protect neighbourhood policing and preserve those basic ingredients of the British policing model which people value so highly.
My first suggestion arises from the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, where it is proposed that a directly elected mayor would take control of policing—and, I assume, would be able to raise significant funding locally to pay for local policing initiatives and priorities. I am speculating a bit here but, given the level of financial autonomy that Scotland will surely soon receive, I cannot believe that our English regions and future metro mayors will settle for less than an equally significant level of devolution of financial powers from the Treasury. We already have directly elected police and crime commissioners in place, albeit elected on abysmally low electoral turnouts and, to be consistent, surely the same principles should be applied. Surely police and crime commissioners should be able, having consulted and received the support of a majority of people in their force area, to raise the local police precept by more than the 2% currently allowed. This would be a way of injecting much-needed funding directly into the safeguarding of neighbourhood policing, and would underline the local accountability side of policing in England and Wales.
If the Government are not able or willing to persuade the Treasury to lessen its vice-like grip on police spending to that degree—and I suspect that that might be the case—maybe my second suggestion might be more welcome. Can we really continue to sustain 43 separate forces? Scotland has one, Northern Ireland one, and there have been proposals to combine the four Welsh forces into one. Is it not time to revisit the strong case put several years ago for a restructuring of the present 43 forces into 10 to 12 strategic forces, so that neighbourhood policing can continue to be delivered in the same way as now, but enhanced and supported by a more strategically focused provision of support and protective services above it? Such rationalisation could deliver not just significant efficiencies but substantial savings that could be ploughed back into policing.
My third suggestion is to expand the number of partnerships between the police and the private security sector. I know that the police and the public are wary of the privatisation of policing, as many see it, and I understand that, but there are many areas in which the private sector is already working very cost effectively with the police, and targeted collaboration will be one way in which the police can reduce some of the burdens they carry and make some savings. There are already some promising initiatives under way—the long-standing Project Griffin and, more recently, the police and security group initiative, which has just started between the Metropolitan Police and representatives of private security.
If such collaboration is to flourish, senior police officers and the public have to feel able to trust private security companies, and at present we know this is not the case. This, of course, is why so many of us in and around the private security industry have been calling for business licensing of companies so that criminality is rooted out of the sector, and that standards, pay and working conditions are driven up. The Government promised four years ago to introduce business licensing of private security companies but failed to deliver. A number of busy people wasted a lot of time in endless meetings which led nowhere, and businesses were not able to plan properly, not knowing whether business licensing was coming. I hope we will not see the sorry saga repeated in this Parliament. We can be fairly certain that business licensing will be introduced in Scotland, where the Scottish Government already require that public sector contracts can be awarded only to security companies that have approved contractor status, and I would not be surprised if Northern Ireland follows Scotland. I hope the Minister can tell us whether business licensing will be introduced in England and Wales and give definite dates because without such licensing the police will continue to be wary of working more closely with the private security sector.
If business licensing of private security is introduced, I urge that it covers private investigation businesses. Private investigators cover a wide range of inquiries relating to fraud, employee theft, the suspected infidelity of partners and missing people, and their opportunity to pose a serious threat to individual people if they act unscrupulously is, as we have seen in the past few years, very great. A former president of the Association of British Investigators shocked me recently by reminding us that it is still perfectly possible for a paedophile who has been released from prison to set up an agency to trace missing children. This has happened, and it cannot be right. So much for safeguarding children. How much longer will it be before the Government honour the Home Secretary’s pledge to license private investigators?
I hope some of the suggestions I have made to fill the gaps in the Queen’s Speech in relation to policing may receive sympathetic consideration from the Minister when he answers the debate later this evening.