Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Bill - Committee (2nd Day) (Continued) – in the House of Lords at 6:15 pm on 23rd March 2023.
Moved by Lord Hogan-Howe
48A: After Clause 3, insert the following new Clause—“Review: extending restrictions to other services(1) Within the period of one year beginning with the day on which this Act is passed, the Secretary of State must review the extent to which this Act has achieved its objectives.(2) The review must consider whether it would be expedient to enact further legislation applying the restrictions provided for under the Schedule to other services, in particular, services that support police services, including forensic investigation services and telephone call handling services.(3) On completing the review, the Secretary of State must lay a report before Parliament.”
Amendment 48A is tabled in my name and that of the noble Lord, Lord Greenhalgh. I am conscious that it is the last amendment, and I will be brief. I mean it; I do not intend to take too long. I know this has been a big political debate, as has been demonstrated today. My reason for this amendment is not to do with whether the Bill should be here or whether there should be a minimum standard; it is to do with who should be on the list if the Bill becomes an Act.
The reason why I became interested this is twofold. First, in the list of services that are to be included we have ambulance and fire, but the police are excluded, and clearly they are one of the three emergency services, so I was intrigued by that; it seems odd. Secondly, that has been compounded to some extent by the Home Office’s response, for which I will say thank you in a second. I do not think it appreciates the fact that the civilianisation, which is what it is termed, of the police over the past probably 20 years has been a really good thing. It has taken cops out of doing things that they do not need to do and has put people who have better skills in to do them. We have moved from a situation where probably 90% or so of the police were police officers, to a stage now where probably nationally about two-thirds are cops and one-third are “police staff”, which is the term now used for civilianisation. Those people have some incredible skills and are part of the delivery of front-line service. They are not merely, important though it is, support. They are part of the front line.
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who is no longer in his place, for referring my queries in two places to the Home Office, and I am also grateful for the response to my query from the noble Lord, Lord Sharpe, which I received yesterday. Even though I received it yesterday, I have not withdrawn my amendment from the Marshalled List as I do not think it really addressed my concerns. I raised two particular groups of police staff whom I thought were representative of the front line, but they are not the only two I could have raised. One was call handlers and the other was forensic scientists and forensic specialists, because I thought they were the easiest to sketch out quickly, but I want to touch briefly on some of the groups I could have mentioned.
The letter I received talked about call handlers only, and I was not persuaded by it for this reason. Of the Metropolitan Police, which has around 50,000 people even now, around 1,500 of them—probably nearer to 2,000—are call handlers. You could argue that that is only 4% of 50,000, but when the Home Office responded on how we can rely on the call handling still happening if police staff withdraw their labour, it assumed that police officers were going to backfill. There are problems with that assumption. First, 1,500 is quite a large number, and it is 1,500 not of the 50,000 but 1,500 front-line police officers. There are probably around 17,000 of them, so we are down to find about 10%. My concern is not just the fact that you would have to take them off the front line to backfill for call handling; you have to train them. They do not have the skills. They cannot do what I used to do, which was merely use the radio, answer the phone and make a written note. You now have to use a computer to work the radio; you have to use a computer to record all the data. There are an awful lot of things you have to be able to do before you can work in a control room. It is not as simple as going there and working. You cannot train someone in one year and then for five years, say, they do not do anything but they just turn up on a Monday and do it.
Secondly, we are talking about a very significant number of calls. Annually in England and Wales there are more than 20 million telephone calls with people in life-threatening situations or, at the other extreme, things that may not be life-threatening—but you do not know until you answer the phone which it is. It is essential that phones are answered and, frankly, it is the main way that people in this country still access police services. I know that there are more online options but, for an emergency, you are going to ring. That call has to be answered, which is why I majored on it.
In forensics, the number of these people is smaller but very significant. There are probably three levels of service provider: the people who go to the scene of the crime and collect the evidence at the scene; the people who work in the lab; and the specialists who try to interpret the results of the first two. They have substantial skills and are very well qualified, and there is now a forensic-accredited regulator. It is impossible for cops to go in and do that job. At the moment, I do not know the exact number of them—the Home Office might possibly mention this in the reply—but I suspect that 98% to 99% of people in forensics are police staff, quite properly. This means that it does not have the skills and it does not have the numbers, and so really is struggling. You could argue that, for a few days, this may not matter too much, but it matters for those low-volume serious crimes, such as murder and terrorism—I will not go through the list as noble Lords will know what is on it. It seems to me pretty important that forensics is still carried out.
The third group, which I did not mention the first time, is surveillance people. It used to be that police officers were the only people who did surveillance, but that is not the case now. Many forces in the country have police staff who are part of the surveillance teams. The argument goes that, if you do not need to arrest someone, why do you need police powers? That is quite right. If you have good observation skills, and are good at noting detail and at blending into the background, that is even more reason why you do not necessarily need to be a police officer. However, it is a big issue because the surveillance teams are employed only on serious crimes—they are not employed for minor crime; they will be used only for serious crime because it drags in so many resources. Without going into numbers, you are talking about significant numbers to get a surveillance team on the ground. It is important that that is still possible.
The final area is one that we do not talk about much in public but one to keep in mind. When you are dealing with serious crime, from terrorism to murder to other serious crimes, one technique involved is listening to telephone calls—surveillance and intercepting. If there is a threat to life, that will be within 24 hours, and probably seven hours a day. Someone has to do it, and it is now members of police staff will carry that out; there is no need to be a police officer.
I mentioned those series of examples, but the response from the Home Office talked only about call handlers. For the reasons I have set out, the response did not fully reassure me.
Noble Lords might be grateful to know that this is my final point. I mentioned in the Cross-Bench meeting my worries about the coastguard service, and the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, faithfully reported that back to the Home Office. People who do not live on the coast often forget that the only way you can co-ordinate the rescue of people at sea by people who are on land, in the air or on the water is through the coastguard. It has the facilities to communicate and map out where people are. It is no good talking to a police control room; it does not understand how things move around on the sea.
The coastguard service is vital, every day. It co-ordinates the lifeboat charity, the outsourced helicopter service, the police, ambulance service and fire service—we all know the people who get involved—and the coastguard who patrol at that point. If the coastguard is not there, I am not sure who the fallback is. It may be that there is a military option but the military has been pared back so significantly that it does not have coast-wide coverage for this reason. It may have coast-wide coverage for defence but I am not sure it has it for rescuing people and for the co-ordination of all the services involved.
I think it is worth considering these people when we talk about life-saving options and emergency services. There was a choice of two services other than the police, but I say that the coastguard service should be considered seriously. As I said, I was not reassured entirely by the Home Office’s reply.
My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. As the deputy mayor for policing and crime alongside him when he was a very distinguished commissioner, I always defer to his operational understanding. This is someone who led a very large service and understands the constraints that would occur if we saw a withdrawal of labour from these very specialist police staff who do more than just support police officers on the front line.
I draw attention to the fact that there is a real inconsistency here. As a former Fire Minister I am delighted to see that fire is included when it comes to call handling, and as the son of a surgeon I am delighted to see that the London Ambulance Service and other ambulance services are included in the Bill. Let us take London call volumes as an example, to give a sense of the order of magnitude. The Met answers 13,000 calls a day, which is nearly 5 million calls a year. The London Ambulance Service answers just over 2 million calls a year, while for the fire service it is probably nearer to 150,000 calls a year. We need parity when it comes to our three blue-light services, particularly because, as the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, put it, some of these calls are about wheels moving fast to save lives, even if they do not always know that is the case. I just do not understand not having the same approach to all three blue lights.
The noble Lord also raised forensics. The clear-up rate is about 95%—I hope that is still true—for murders in our capital city. That is largely down to a team effort that includes the use of forensics, and we have just heard about the importance of surveillance in tackling crime.
I think that even at this late stage we should consider the police service within those public services where we require a look at minimum service levels. It makes intellectual sense, and I know that at this stage we could introduce these amendments. Based on the response from the Home Office, we will see whether we bring this back on Report in the right part of the Bill—we were a bit late tabling the amendment, for various reasons.
It makes sense to have parity between the three blue lights. That is why I support the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. As deputy mayor, I always knew to defer to his operational excellence.
My Lords, we are not particularly in the business of adding people to this Bill. If the noble Lords had attended all our sessions, they would have heard that we are not terribly appreciative of the Bill’s objectives, nor the way in which it goes about them. But I am grateful to the noble Lords for highlighting, as we pointed out earlier, the curious selection of services. We particularly questioned the decommissioning of nuclear installations, for example, where voluntary agreements already exist on a pretty comprehensive scale, so why is this in there?
I am also grateful that they have attracted a Home Office Minister here to answer the question. My question for him is: how much consultation was held with the Home Office by what was then BEIS, which drew up the Bill, about choosing who was on this list, and indeed who was not, when it came to drafting the legislation? That would be an interesting point.
I could not resist pitching in on forensic services. As the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, knows, since the change in the whole service, essentially its privatisation, a large lump of that service went into the police force—I was going to say it was “captured”, and that is not supposed to be in a pejorative sense. In the Metropolitan Police, a huge proportion of what was often delivered externally to the police force is now being delivered internally; I think it is around 80% in the case of the Met. That leaves 20% of the service coming from private sector providers and what I call specialist suppliers, which are often academics or people who have set up organisations. I suggest that it is much harder to make those two types of supplier fall within the remit of what the noble Lord envisions, given the debate we have had about involving private sector suppliers in the health service or transport. That debate has clouded how this would operate. Still, a large proportion of the forensic service is within the police ambit when it comes to management.
With those notes, the key issue is to ask the Home Office why fire and rescue is in but the police are not. What consultation process did that go through, and how did the decision come about? We would be interested to see inside the box.
My Lords, I get the impression that the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, did not necessarily want to associate himself with the whole Bill, but was asking questions about who was included and excluded and why.
From our Labour perspective, one of the key worries about the Bill has been: are we going to see executive powers taken to add in sectors at different stages without proper scrutiny, proper accountability or consultation? Many see this as an attempt to ban strikes, a fundamental human freedom, through the back door. It might get to the stage where it would be easier to have a list of sectors not covered as opposed to those that are.
We oppose this amendment; fundamentally, because it fails to address the root causes of the problems people face. I hesitate to advise the noble Lord, who knows far more about this than I do, but since 2010 we have seen police funding cut by £1 billion. We have seen huge cuts to police officer numbers of 20,000 and a similar number of support staff being cut. In the Casey report, it was pointed out that those cuts in support staff were having a direct impact on police officers, who were having to cover that work too and that impacts the effectiveness of the service.
It seems to me that these are far bigger issues at a time when so many staff in the police service and elsewhere are facing real-terms pay cuts year after year, which have a real impact on morale, recruitment, retention and our ability to deliver the high-quality service that we all want to see. My sense is that it would be much better to focus on tackling the root causes of concern and discontent rather than suppressing the symptoms.
I thank all noble Lords for their contributions to the debate and in particular my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh and the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, for their amendment.
This amendment seeks to require the Government to undertake a review into whether and to what extent the legislation has met its objectives and whether the legislation should be extended to additional services, particularly police support services. On completion of the review, the report would be laid in Parliament. The Government are committed to reviewing the impact of the Bill within five years of when the first secondary legislation comes into force. Given that the detail of minimum service levels will be set out in the regulations that follow the Bill, this is an appropriate approach and timeframe.
On the specific point about extending the Bill to additional services, it is worth repeating that the key sectors covered by the Bill are broadly the same set of services that were listed as important public services in the Trade Union Act 2016, which have long been recognised as being important for society to function effectively. The 2016 Act did not include policing, in part because the prohibition on police officers taking strike action meant that this was not felt necessary.
Police staff across the country make an exceptional contribution to policing and we are grateful for the professionalism and dedication they show in their work. Police staff, including police community support officers and other members of the police workforce who do not have warranted powers, have no restrictions on their right to take industrial action and there are no provisions currently in place to provide minimum service levels. However, chief constables have a statutory duty under the Civil Contingencies Act to ensure that plans are in place to maintain key services when instances such as a strike occur. When police staff have taken strike action in the past, police forces have put in place plans to ensure resilience among their police officer workforce to ensure that essential front-line services are maintained.
Similar responsibilities apply in the fire service, in respect of the Civil Contingencies Act, so why is it necessary to include fire services in the Bill?
The context for the police is clearly different from that for the fire service, in that the vast bulk of police officers, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe, are covered by the provisions of the earlier legislation precluding them from striking. As we discussed, this puts them and the force in a different category.
Contingency plans are largely based on the redeployment of police officers to cover operational staff roles. Police officers are of course prohibited from participating in strike action and, therefore, chief constables are able to meet any such obligations under the Civil Contingencies Act. I hope that goes some way to address the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hogan-Howe. The Government currently have no intention to add to the sectors covered by the Bill, and any future amendments would require separate primary legislation.
The Minister’s point—that arrangements are being put in place for police officers to backfill—is fair, but there are two problems: if you have fewer and fewer cops who can be in the control room all the time, you have to keep them trained, and then you have to withdraw them from the street, which is a significant diminution. First, if you have to train them every year, that costs money and takes time—and then you presumably have to withdraw them when there is some kind of action. For me, it is not a reassuring answer to say that police officers can just backfill, because I am afraid that they cannot without training or experience in this vital part of the service.
The contingency plans are of course already enabled in the Civil Contingencies Act and, although this situation would be less preferable than the one that prevails in a non-strike scenario, it would be successful in the Government’s view. Furthermore, in the event that police staff take strike action, or when they have taken strike action in the past, police forces will or have put in place plans to ensure resilience among their police officer workforce, to ensure that essential front-line services are maintained. However, as noble Lords would expect, we will keep under review the sectors that we are discussing in this debate, and will not hesitate to take further action if we judge that necessary.
I will briefly address some of the specific points raised by noble Lords. Clearly, from the Government’s perspective, we accept that the points raised by the noble Lord address a broader class of people—of police auxiliaries, if I might style them like that—than just those in call handling. Of course, he made a good point that this goes across the piece; the vital work done by broader police staff is something we should consider.
The noble Lord raised points in relation to His Majesty’s Coastguard. I confirm that the Department for Transport is still considering which other sectors minimum service levels may apply to. Therefore, the position on applying MSLs to coastguard services will be kept under review, and any decision regarding these services will of course be subject to consultation. Similarly, my noble friend Lord Greenhalgh made some powerful points about the importance of auxiliary staff in this context, and I take those very much on board.
As to the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I can confirm that there was consultation with other government departments prior to the selection of the list described in the Bill.
Turning to the points made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Grady, this is clearly not an attempt to ban strikes. The key sectors covered in the Bill are broadly the same set of services as those listed in the Trade Union Act 2016, which have long been recognised as being important for society to function effectively. Strike action in these sectors has the potential for far-reaching consequences for members of the public who are not in any way involved in the dispute, and it is only right that these sectors are included within the scope of the legislation.
For all those reasons I invite the noble Lord to withdraw the amendment.
I am grateful for the Minister’s reply and for the contribution of other noble Lords. I was not sure whether the Minister said that the Home Office or other departments had been consulted, but I will let that rest. I am grateful for the consideration and take his point that there will be further review in due course, be it the police or the coastguard. I am content to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 48A withdrawn.
Clause 4: Extent
Amendment 49 not moved.
Clause 4 agreed.
Clause 5: Commencement
Amendments 50 and 51 not moved.
Clause 5 agreed.
Clause 6 agreed.
House resumed. Bill reported without amendment.