“(3A) Section (Assemblies and one-person protests: British Transport Police and MoD Police) comes into force at the end of the period of two months beginning with the day on which this Act is passed.”
New clause 4 closes a gap in the existing powers at part 2 of the Public Order Act 1986 for policing public processions and assemblies. It does so by harmonising the position between on one hand the territorial police forces, those covering a geographical force area, and on the other hand the British Transport police and Ministry of Defence police force.
The present position is that the territorial forces are able to exercise those powers, but the British Transport police and MOD police are not. New clause 4 extends to those forces some of the powers of part 2 of the 1986 Act where there is an operational case for doing so. It does not extend all the part 2 powers, as not all are relevant to the functions of those forces. I emphasise that new clause 4 does not create any new powers, nor does it broaden existing ones. It simply serves to close a potential gap in jurisdiction by extending certain existing powers to these two additional non-territorial police forces. The powers contain various limitations and safeguards. For example, only the most senior of the officers present may exercise the powers, and there is a requirement that the officer must reasonably believe that the assembly may result in certain forms of serious disorder. These limitations and safeguards are replicated in new clause 4.
These modest and proportionate measures largely seek to address an anomaly in the powers currently available to our specialist non-territorial forces. I imagine it would surprise the British public that the British Transport police in particular does not have these powers.
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It applies where they are part of a territorial police force. I know she has a particular interest in Dover port police, and we will seek clarity for her on that before Report.
I think the British public would be surprised to know, given how much protest is targeted at the transport network, that the British Transport police does not have these powers. The new clause will deal with that anomaly. The existing legal tests and safeguards for the use of these powers will continue to apply. Making these changes will help to promote a consistent and effective response to public order protests. I commend the amendments to the Committee.
When we debated the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, the Government brought in a police covenant, for which many people had campaigned for years. We had a debate at that time because British Transport police and Ministry of Defence police were not included in that covenant. The Government said it was too difficult to include them in any Bill that introduced new powers. After a lot of pressure from other organisations, they were able to do it. It is good to see them doing it again.
The various parts of our policing system have different funding pots, ways of existing and remits, but they are just as important as our main police force. British Transport police does crucial work on all kinds of issues, particularly county lines over recent years. The provisions on protests we are debating here cover everything BTP does as well as potentially what the Ministry of Defence police does. We do not agree with the premise of the Bill, but I have spoken to people in some parts of the policing system who say they feel slightly neglected by the wider policing family. It is absolutely right that they should be on the face of the Bill and play a part of wider policing.
“(3A) Except as provided by subsection (3), sections 1 to 5 and 11 to 22 of this Act may not come into force before the Secretary of State has laid before Parliament and published a report containing—
(a) an assessment of the current capability of police services in England and Wales in relation to the provisions of this Act,
(b) an assessment of the numbers of police officers who will need to be trained in relation to the provisions of this Act, the number of officers who will be needed to deliver the training and the amount of time that that training will take for each officer,
(c) details of how police units will be deployed in relation to the provisions of this Act, including the number of police officers who may be redeployed from other duties, and
(d) an assessment by the Home Office of the likely impact of the provisions of this Act on the number of police officers who will be moved from their usual duties to public order operations in other places.”
This amendment would mean that sections 1 to 5 and 11 to 22 of this Act could not come into force until the Government has laid before Parliament a report assessing the current capability of police services to operate the provisions in those sections and the impact on police deployment.
Amendment 28 is consequential on amendment 27. We may not have found much to agree on so far in Committee, but what we have all agreed on is how hard our police officers work, how challenging the job is, and how difficult it can be to fulfil their variety of functions. The amendments would place a duty on the Government to report to Parliament on the police’s ability to meet their obligations under the Bill before it comes into force.
I am asking for an assessment that includes an analysis of current capability, how many officers would need to be trained to fulfil the requirements, and how many officers would be diverted from day-to-day policing. We all care about local policing and local services, and ensuring that when somebody does contact the police, they have a timeous response that deals with their complaint. We need police officers in our communities, we need them on the streets, and we need them to respond to the public and investigate crimes.
We heard in evidence last week that responding to protest activity already overstretches the police. Chief Constable Noble told us that Staffordshire police has two or three officers at gold standard and a dozen at bronze. Those courses—gold, silver and bronze levels—are accredited by the College of Policing, so I suggest that people cannot undertake those roles without having completed that training and having had it accredited.
What Chief Constable Noble was not able to tell us, and what we have no way of knowing at the moment, is whether that will be enough to meet the obligations under the Bill. Although I have talked about the accredited courses, there will be a number of other trainings with no accreditation, particularly at constable level. There are additional stop-and-search powers in the Bill, as well as the new offence of being equipped to lock on and the processes for applying for and monitoring SDPOs. That will take up time for police forces that are already overstretched.
Prior to October 2019, it was well documented that police forces in England and Wales were suffering from a lack of numbers. While the Government have since announced the recruitment of 20,000 officers, that simply reverses the previous cuts. Recent reports into the state of policing by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services found that recruitment is slow and retention rates are unclear. We also know that the McCloud judgment in relation to pensions will potentially impact officers at the ranks of chief inspector, superintendent and above, so the capability that Chief Constable Noble talked about could also be impacted as those people leave the service.
If there are not enough police officers trained to properly respond to protests and apply these new laws, that means that more people must be trained—training that costs thousands of pounds and means that officers are potentially in classrooms, not out on the street. Chief Constable Noble estimated that the most basic training for an officer takes a few days each year; for a command officer, training takes a week; and the most specialist roles must undertake two to three weeks of training. I know from my own experience how onerous that training commitment is for public order officers. Sir Peter Fahy agreed with him, saying
“There is no time in policing for training. Again, those officers who are going to be on training courses have to be taken away from other duties”.––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
How are police supposed to train with all the day-to-day of policing?
With new laws, such as the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 and this Bill, training is potentially going to get longer and more complicated. Sir Peter went on to tell the Committee that police officers
“with due respect to them, do not have the sort of professional background on how to interpret legislation”.—[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
I am pretty sure that Sir Peter did not mean, as it was suggested the shadow Minister meant earlier, that police officers are not capable of interpreting legislation. It absolutely does not mean that, but the job of a police officer is a little bit like the job we do as MPs, in that we are generalists. We have to know lots about everything. If we are very lucky, we get to specialise in a particular area, but we know a lot about a number of things so that we can respond appropriately to our constituents and to legislation.
I entirely agree with the hon. Lady. As I said, the police in Bristol will be used to dealing with these sorts of situations on the streets, but we will have to bring in police from other forces who will not be accustomed to dealing with them. Does she agree that that is of particular concern? They will not have the knowledge that comes from just being on the job, dealing with cases and talking to colleagues.
I agree with the hon. Member. The COP26 policing effort of last year involved mutual aid. That involved, for example, training in Scots law for officers coming from England and Wales, so that created an additional training requirement as well. We have to think about those things. As for my own police experience, my specialism was in sexual offences; I was a sexual offences-trained officer, but from a general perspective, I policed football matches, marches and local demonstrations, and interpreted the law accordingly.
Returning to the evidence given by Chief Constable Noble, the chief constable for Staffordshire, if his numbers are reflective of England and Wales as a whole and assuming that no more officers need to be trained—although I have illustrated why I do not think that is the case—over 3,000 officers across England and Wales will have to be removed from duties and trained in these new laws. That is equivalent to about 125 lost days of frontline policing in local communities, and once those people are fully trained, they will need to be diverted from their duties to police the offences set out in the Bill.
It is logical to think that if it takes 25 officers, currently, to police a protest—I am not putting a number on how many people might be there—through the additional offence of being equipped to lock on, and opening the door to extensive stop and search, many more officers may be required. As I said on Tuesday, if we start arresting protesters, we will run out of police officers before we run out of protesters. I also remember Chief Superintendent Dolby talking about the fact that part of their safety techniques in dealing with protesters involves five police officers to arrest a single protester, so the Minister can quickly see how the odds shift.
Nearly 47,000 incidents of knife crime were reported to the police in England and Wales in 2021. That is 128 every day. There were nearly 185,000 sexual offences —more than 500 each day. Given the choice between having police officers responding to those calls, filling in paperwork for SDPOs or stopping and searching protesters, I think I know what I and the public would choose. In a recent YouGov poll, more than half of respondents stated that they do not have any confidence in the police to deal with crime. Traffic offences were the only crime that more people than not thought the police were handling with enough rigour.
I also know what the police would choose. That is because our witnesses told us, and because it is set out in the HMICFRS report. Accepting that protests do need policing, all the evidence tells us that best practice requires strong, pre-existing community relations, which simply cannot be established by constantly lifting police officers in and out of the day job and abstracting them to other duties.
I would hope that these amendments would just require the Government to properly look at how the police are resourced. Government Members want this legislation to be successful, but it will not be if the police are under-resourced. Again, Sir Peter Fahy referenced the fact that, in relation to the response to protest, the police could be viewed as incompetent. I am sure that those on the Government Benches would not like that to be the outcome of this legislation.
The Minister heard the same evidence that I did, and he will have heard the same significant concerns about resourcing. Will we get to a position where, in all areas, police officers have been called to deal with protests, and where a demonstration is more strongly policed than crime? The police cannot be given more work and left to struggle. I would argue that all our communities deserve more. I am potentially looking to withdraw my amendment, but I would be happy to discuss, constructively, with the Minister, how we ensure that capability is there.
I thank the hon. Lady for her speech. She covered a wide range of challenges the police have before them. It is not unreasonable to expect the Government to ensure that there is capacity within policing to implement legislation if we are making them do so. I also think that she is probably the only person in this room who has policed protests, so, unless anyone else has, we should probably listen to what she says.
On funding, there is a raft of information out there on the lack of and need for training. I would add a couple of other points, made by the inspectorate and others, on what we must do to ensure that we do these things better. The first is on intelligence gathering—finding out, upstream, what is being planned—to ensure that we have enough resources in that area, because that is one of the most effective ways to prevent those repeat offenders.
There is also an interesting chapter in Matt Parr’s report on collaboration between agencies, because to effectively police a protest, we need all of the other agencies, such as the local authority and emergency services, alongside the police as well. There were many examples where that collaboration was not working properly, perhaps because people do not have the time to put that in place. In his report, Matt Parr recommended a joint review of that process. I understand that there will be one, but, of course, that has not happened yet, and so those challenges are still there.
I know that the hon. Member for North East Fife is intending this as a probing amendment. However, I think it is a reasonable challenge to the Minister that we should have enough resources to implement this when crime has risen, prosecutions have fallen, and we have seen huge cuts to policing across the board—the numbers have not yet gone back to previous levels. We would support the hon. Lady’s amendments.
I have great respect for the experience of the hon. Member for North East Fife, and I salute her service as a police officer. It is a noble calling and she has my admiration for her career, but I am genuinely perplexed by the amendments. They are unnecessary, not least because much of what we have discussed so far and the amendments that we are putting through are about giving the police more prosecutorial powers and allowing them to get ahead of certain protest tactics and to prevent them, therefore reducing the resources required.
For example, we have discussed stop and search. We have had episodes where police officers have seen the lorries going past with the scaffolding poles sticking out of them, but are unable to stop the vehicles and search them for the equipment and have to wait until the individuals erect them. Then the height team has to be called and the unlocking team has to be called. The ability to intervene earlier would mean that we need fewer specialist teams; that we are able to deal with things much more quickly and on a preventative basis, and therefore there is likely to be less call upon resources.
Notwithstanding what the hon. Lady says, we have significant police resources at our disposal now. The last published police officer numbers figure was 142,000. The peak in 2010 was 144,000. We still have 6,000 or 7,000 to go in our recruitment, so we will be well above the previous peak when we get there. There are lots of resources there.
Obviously, police officers need to be trained properly and there need to be adequate resources to deal with public order issues, but we are acting in this debate as if the police are not already heavily engaged in public order, and as if there is not already an enormous absorption of resources. With the Just Stop Oil protests, for example, officers were drafted from Scotland to come down and assist Essex police and Warwickshire police with the policing of the protests.
We are acting as if it is the legislation that we are going to pass—I hope—that will put a demand on the police, rather than the protesters themselves, who are dragging the police officers away from their important work dealing with knife crime and burglary and robbery in our neighbourhoods. The hon. Member for Croydon Central makes much of overall crime being up; she never mentions that kinetic crime—crime in our neighbourhoods—is actually well down. As she says, fraud is up, and that adds to crime and is something that we need to address but, overall, the crimes that impact on us physically are significantly down and that is a tribute to the work that the police have been doing over the last couple of years.
The other thing I find perplexing is the unwillingness to address the urgency of the situation. I understand that on a hot afternoon, on a Thursday with a one-line Whip, it is easy to be relaxed about this, but we should be in no doubt that in recent months we have seen some extremely dangerous protest tactics: people lighting cigarettes on top of petrol tankers; strapping themselves to fuel gantries, through which millions of gallons of fuel are flowing; or digging tunnels that have been caused to collapse on contractors, bringing people’s lives into danger.
There is an urgency to what we need to put in place. I understand the desire of the hon. Member for North East Fife to have a training audit before we do anything, but I do not think the situation gives us the time to do that at our leisure. We have to act as swiftly as possibly. I am happy to write to the hon. Lady with what we understand the impact is likely to be, but I ask her to withdraw the amendments on the basis that we must act urgently.
We cannot wait, given the danger that is being presented to the protesters and certainly to the police, and the disruption that the public are seeing. At this time of a cost of living crisis, with people struggling and with rail strikes and whatever we may see over the summer to come, we really cannot have these protest tactics taking place. That is why I would be keen for her to withdraw her amendments.
I suppose we could say that the Minister and I have a difference of opinion here. Without an assessment, we will not know who is accurate. The Minister’s position is that the measures in the Bill will ultimately mean less abstractions. My argument is that they potentially mean more, from a training and deployment perspective. Without an assessment, we will not know.
“the public think that there are lots of police officers sitting around in police stations doing nothing, whereas the reality is—somehow the police service needs to find a better way of articulating this—that no, even the Metropolitan police does not have loads of spare officers.”––[Official Report, Public Order Public Bill Committee,
The Minister has said that he believes there are sufficient resources, but he also went on to say that the authorities needed to bring police officers from Scotland in order to stop a Just Stop Oil protest. There are issues with resources, and my amendment would ensure that there was a report looking at the capability of police services. I welcome the Minister’s offer to write to me on what assessment the Government have taken into consideration, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.