My Lords, I too start by thanking my noble friend Lord Harris for securing this timely and important debate.
As most of your Lordships will know, my background is in policing, where I spent 35 years of my life serving the community. It is natural, therefore, that I have been watching the debate develop with regard to police numbers, policing priorities, hate crime and the like, with great interest. I remember back in the day when I was a young constable and we had an inspector who was designated simply to look at “ground cover”—that was his sole job: to make sure that he had sufficient officers on the beat in the area he was responsible for.
Such luxuries, I am afraid, have almost disappeared, and with them the ability of police to nip problems in the bud—to intervene in anti-social behaviour, hate language and the minor frictions in society that can lead to more violent altercations if left unattended. These officers would also get to know the up-and-coming criminals and, probably more importantly, their families. This has led to what I call fire-brigade policing or fortress policing. We seem now to have a siege mentality where police remain in the fort and come out only when called, if they decide to come out even then. I despair when I hear some politicians say that reducing police numbers is not a causal influence in this sorry state of affairs. It is as plain as the nose on your face.
This has damaged police relations with the public, who feel they are getting a reduced service. It has also, incidentally, caused a reduction in valuable intelligence on crime and terrorism. We have to accept that while modern technology is exciting and useful in fighting crime, it is also creating new ways of committing crime and increasing demands on policing. We have cybercrime, with online fraud developing on a massive scale and with people losing their life savings to fraudsters. We have online child exploitation increasing year on year in the so-called safety of children’s own homes. Nearly everyone these days carries a valuable mobile phone which makes them easy victims of thieves on mopeds. We have platforms such as Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the like harvesting data. That is then sold on to companies that use it to target advertising and, perhaps worse, sell it on to hostile foreign Governments who use it to target political propaganda, via social media, to undermine democracy itself.
Then there is the insidious increase in bullying on-screen, with threats and abuse on social media increasingly being passed on to the police for further investigation. The point is that tackling all this new criminal social activity is labour-intensive, and more and more police resources are required at a time when budgets have been cut because of austerity. This has led to a reduction in the number of front-line police officers, as we have heard, of probably over 21,000.
I have not even mentioned the increase in the number of drug gangs distributing and dealing across the nation by so-called county lines, leading to increased turf wars and often fatal stabbings. These operations are often directed with the use of mobile forms. I say this loudly and clearly: there would be fewer young men carrying concealed knives if they thought that they risked being stopped and searched by the police. The police have backed away from this approach for the last few years because of criticism and allegations—sometimes true—of discrimination and racism. Of course, stop and search must be done responsibly, fairly and with justification. As the noble Lord, Lord Harris, said, the introduction of body-worn video cameras by officers now helps such operations to be transparent, and they should be further rolled out nationally.
In my view, violent and offensive language is an important factor. A police presence on the street and in the community, which we are lacking, is an essential way of preventing these incidents at an early stage. Police chief Sara Thornton said recently that the police should not get bogged down with recording new hate crimes of misogyny and the like when violent crime and burglaries are increasing and the number of detections falling. However, we must understand that the drip, drip of hate speech by leaders can affect people’s reactions, as we saw with rabble-rousing leaders of the past, such as Adolph Hitler and Mussolini—proponents of this type of populist leadership. I am afraid that Donald Trump is a modern example. His constant reference to fake news and to journalists as enemies of the people is a very risky strategy. The number of murders of journalists throughout the world has been increasing over the last few years, culminating in the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Turkey last month.
Coming back home, Ken Marsh, chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, has urged people to assist officers in trouble on the streets. I well recall as a young probationary constable being assaulted at the bus station in Jarrow by a number of youths. One guy came to my assistance. He was a bus driver at the bus station and he turned out to be a special constable. Specials are wonderful allies of the police on the streets and I urge the Minister to encourage citizens to volunteer for this important work. I am delighted to see my noble friend Lord Simon sitting on the Woolsack, because he was a special constable in London for many years. We owe people like him a debt of gratitude.
Since that incident, I have always admired people who volunteer for such duty. I ask the Minister whether the number of specials is rising or reducing. One thing I do know is that criminals will take advantage of a lack of police presence on the streets to prey on innocent citizens. Can the Minister confirm that it is in fact a common law offence to refuse to assist a constable in such circumstances when requested to do so by the police officer?
I agree that we should treat violence like a public health issue. Early signs of it, such as hate speech and abusive texts, are the canary in the mine, and it should be confronted to prevent its spread. This is best achieved by early intervention by the police working hand in hand with communities. We need to harness the other agencies in the community such as hospitals, schools, charities and social services to work with the police to stop this modern virus spreading. I welcome the setting up of the Violent Crime Task Force in London, which is now taking this approach.
The tragedy is that the great majority of victims of violence tend to be those in poorer communities who rely on the police to prevent crime and investigate it when it occurs. Noble Lords will know that those who can afford it—we see this in sharp relief in the United States—will live in gated communities with private security patrols to keep them safe and reassured. Poorer communities turn to vigilante patrols. We should try to avoid such divided communities, which can only bring about a “them and us” mentality.
In conclusion, I often think about my early years as a patrolling beat bobby in the north-east over 30 years ago with very few resources: a torch, a whistle and a truncheon. On the night shift, I used to try shop doors, which is what you did at the start of your beat. Woe betide you if a shop had been broken into and you had not found it. I occasionally found shops that had been broken into. I remember on one occasion a violent burglar attacked me and I received my first commendation. He received nine stitches and six months for his trouble. The point is that, had I been an armed police officer, he might well have been shot.
I often reflect with not a little nostalgia what a different world we live in today, but, as with military operations, quite often the solution is more boots on the ground, and I hope that the Government are listening.