HC Deb 16 February 1959 vol 600 cc159-68

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Bryan.]

10.11 p.m.

Mr. John Baldock (Harborough)

Recently, a good deal of interest has been re-awakened in the idea of having special traffic officers, or police, or wardens, specifically for the job of controlling and dealing with traffic. Far from this being a new idea, it is one that I myself have raised in this House before, but no action appears to have been taken on any of the proposals that have been made in the past, except to create school -crossing wardens.

The proposal to have special traffic officers, or wardens, is now receiving more attention for two reasons. One reason is that the Chief Constable of Nottingham has brought out a plan on these lines, which he is prepared to operate at once, if necessary, and the other is that the public is becoming more and more concerned at the continuing increase in crime—especially crimes of violence, and of a serious nature against the person—and by the increasing amount of traffic congestion.

The idea of having traffic officers, or special traffic police, is a practical step towards dealing with both of these problems, and it is something that could be done at once. There is no doubt that many chief constables are very much aware of the shortage of police for dealing with the serious increase in crime. Over and over again in their reports they say, in effect, that the lessening risk of detection of crimes increases the temptation to commit them, but that owing to traffic duties the number of men on patrol gets less and less.

What does this mean when translated into figures? The Chief Constable of Nottingham has said that no less than 44 per cent. of the available foot patrol strength is employed on traffic duties. That excludes point duty work, I understand, but if that were taken into account it would mean that about half of the available foot strength of the City of Nottingham is employed on traffic duties. That is a very substantial proportion of a city's police force.

In addition to that 50 per cent. of foot strength entirely engaged in traffic duties, the Chief Constable of Nottingham says that hours of the patrol time of every police officer are inevitably spent on traffic offences, so that the total proportion of police time spent on work connected with traffic is very substantial, indeed—considerably more than half.

In Birmingham the police force is 266 men short. Crime is rising year by year, and the Chief Constable says in his report: It is very doubtful whether any improvement can reasonably be expected without a substantial increase in police. In Port Talbot the police spend 50 per cent. of their time on traffic duties. In Chelmsford 75 per cent. of the local constables are tied down on traffic problems.

This is all under normal, everyday conditions, but in most towns and cities there are inevitably special occasions which occur more or less frequently, race meetings, football matches, and in London, ceremonial occasions, when very large numbers of police have to be drafted in for traffic work. Some of there are special constables, a force which, unfortunately, is very much below strength, far more so than the regular police, but, even so, taking into account the numbers of special constables who help on these occasions, the proportion of the police force engaged then in purely traffic work must be very great indeed.

It is fairly common knowledge, presumably, to those who are concerned with criminal activities that if policemen are spending their day on traffic duties and on special occasions of this kind they are unlikely to be on watch at night as well. I think this is not the time or situation for complacency on these questions. The public are seriously worried, with every justification, about the increase in congestion of traffic, and they want to see some action quickly.

The case for traffic officers to relieve the hard-pressed police forces and to make a real effort to reduce crime seems to me to be unquestionably made. I think the only questions which remain are what should their duties be and what should their powers be? I think there can be no disputing that they should be brought into existence. Whatever their duties and powers should be I certainly think they should control parking, and I myself believe that they could very well contend with point duty, if the right type of men were recruited.

It has been suggested on several occasions, I think I have done so myself before, that this would be a very good opening for ex-N.C.O.s from the Services. These men would have the right kind of experience of dealing with people. They would be steady and reliable and of good character. They are people, some of them, at least, who have had very considerable experience in handling traffic and marshalling large numbers of vehicles. An ex-sergeant of the Royal Engineers wrote to me who had had very considerable experience of that kind. They are men to whom, it is generally agreed, the country owes a debt of reinstatement when they have finished their Service careers, but yet many of them are men it is hard to place in industrial and other jobs because they have no trade skill or experience. This would be an excellent opening for such people and I think they would do the job extremely well. I myself believe that men of this calibre could handle traffic work, including point duty, which is at present done by new recruits into the ordinary police force. They would have a vast amount of experience behind them.

Whether they should have the power of arrest, I do not know, but I can say that in Paris, out of 14,000 police, 3,000 do nothing but traffic work. They are specially recruited into traffic companies for that purpose. It may be worth studying how that works in Paris. This seems to be a reasonable way of arranging the duties.

The whole community would benefit from action of this kind, except criminals, and no one more so than the shopkeepers, who suffer particularly from both sides of this trouble, both from the increased traffic congestion and increased crime. They are particularly vulnerable to thefts and violence, and their trade declines because cars are unable to get near them if they live in the centres of towns and cities. Cars are not allowed to park in front of their doors. This is something which probably could be overcome if proper traffic wardens or officers were available to regulate parking in the streets.

These steps to introduce traffic officers would require money and the willingness to experiment and break new ground, but I believe that this would not deter my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who has shown great willingness to be associated with reform in other branches of his Department. I hope to see the Nottingham scheme enabled to go ahead and be put into operation as a pilot scheme for the provinces, and the Home Secretary putting into operation a similar pilot scheme for one of the Central London police districts. I believe that the public demand action of this kind for the serious reasons which I have stated and that they do not want to see further delay over a scheme which they believe can bring immediate relief to the problem.

10.12 p.m.

Brigadier Terence Clarke (Portsmouth, West)

I agree to a great extent with what my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) has said. I am sure that the police, a highly trained body, are wasting an immense amount of time in dealing with traffic problems. I go further and say that if they stopped dealing with some of these problems the traffic would move faster than it does at present. At some of the traffic spots one often sees traffic moving satisfactorily until the police come along and hold up their hands and stop vehicles going round a roundabout. When one is getting away from Epsom racecourse on Derby Day one finds that the traffic flows beautifully until about six o'clock in the evening when policemen are put on duty. Almost everything then comes to a standstill. All the traffic entering the main road is held up for traffic going the other way, whereas if motorists were left to their own devices the traffic would revolve round the roundabouts and there would be no trouble at all.

I do not think my hon. Friend has the real answer, which is to clear the roads of all stationary vehicles. Wherever one goes in London one sees expensive roads, on which the country has spent a mint of money in building and maintenance, completely cluttered up with vehicles parked on both sides. Everybody recognises that as an evil, but no one does anything about it. Why do the Government not insist upon the local authority doing something to get these stationary vehicles off the roads? That is far more important than having more traffic cops and incurring still more expenditure. If these vehicles were removed from the roads things would be made far easier for everybody.

There is any amount of scope for the provision of parking spaces on bombed sites. There are even garages which are not fully occupied because people are allowed to park on the road. They are permitted to park on both sides of narrow roads which were meant not for parking but to enable traffic to be kept moving. The Minister of Transport can build most excellent and expensive roads between Liverpool and Manchester, and Manchester and London, but that is no good at all, because when one gets to the city there is a complete bottleneck as a result of both sides of roads being occupied by parked vehicles. If the Government would give local authorities the necessary grants they would erect garages and remove these stationary vehicles from the roads. If they do not do it today, they will have to do it in five years' time. The sooner the Government either give a grant to local authorities or tell them to get on with the job, the better. Then these extra traffic cops, who will in the end only hinder traffic and stop it getting through quickly, will not be needed.

10.25 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

I cannot share the views of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West (Brigadier Clarke) about the results of police intervention when they are trying to ease the flow of traffic, but I am glad of my hon. and gallant Friend's conversion to the view that cars which cause obstruction should be freely removed.

The whole House sympathises with the desire of my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Baldock) to help the police to combat the crime wave and to ease the flow of traffic. The possibility of relieving the police of some of their traffic duties has been suggested in different ways by many different people in recent years. When I was a back bencher some four years ago I had a shot at it. Indeed, I voiced some of the opinions that my hon. Friend has voiced this evening. I can assure him that, like my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I am not unsympathetic to some of the points which he has put forward.

In considering this matter, we should make an important and clear distinction between control of parking and control of moving traffic. In case there is anybody who thinks that a corps of civilian traffic wardens in this country could successfully cope with police duties regarding mobile traffic, I must remind hon. Members of some of the difficulties which arise. We live in a most highly mechanised society, and even criminals use motor cars to a great extent. The police are becoming increasingly mechanised. Their motor patrols and motor bicycle patrols are capable of dealing, not only with dangerous drivers, but with criminals. They deal with criminals in two ways. First, if the criminals are using cars, it is necessary for the police in their cars to get after them as quickly as possible. Secondly, even if the criminals are not using cars, mobile police patrols, by being put on the spot by means of wireless, can track down the criminals very quickly.

I am sure that my hon. Friend will therefore realise that there is an inseparable link between the traffic duties and the motorised existence of the police, on the one hand, and crime prevention and general enforcement of the law in a motorised society, on the other hand. Those considerations make it extremely difficult to separate the duties of the police with regard to mobile traffic from their more static duties.

Without the authority which the police command, there cannot be effective control of moving traffic. In our opinion, it would be a mistake to establish a separate corps of men, possessing lower qualifications, for dealing with such an important part of police work as the duties which arise from dangerous driving and keeping traffic on the move.

Those are some of the many reasons which we must keep in mind when making the important distinction between mere control of parking and the more difficult task of supervising moving traffic, which is such a vital part of police work in modern society. I concede to my hon. and gallant Friend that there would be less objection to the use of special traffic wardens to control parking, whether in car parks off the street or parking on the street.

In a sense we already have some special traffic wardens, namely, the parking meter attendants who are an essential part of the parking meter schemes which are increasingly being set under the Road Traffic Act, 1956. But I must stress that these parking meter attendants are employed by local authorities and not by the police. However, when the parking meter schemes are more widely extended it may be found practicable and desirable to extend also the range of duties of the parking meter attendants, and so give some relief to the police in this way.

I now turn to the proposals which my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough mentioned and which have been put forward by the Chief Constable of Nottingham. These proposals involve the setting up of a corps of traffic wardens to deal with parking offences—not to deal with all the traffic duties which fall upon the police but with parking offences—and those wardens would, he suggests, be under the control of the police.

Home Office officials have already had informal discussions with representatives of the Nottingham Watch Committee and with the Chief Constable of Nottingham, but so far we have had no formal request from the Watch Committee for the Home Secretary's approval of such a scheme. My right hon. Friend's approval would, of course, be necessary, that is to say, if a 50 per cent. grant were to be paid on the expenditure to be incurred.

I can tell the House that if a satisfactory scheme could be worked out, my right hon. Friend would welcome an experiment of the kind considered in Nottingham. Under the scheme put forward by the Chief Constable of Nottingham, the traffic wardens would, as I say, be under police supervision, but they would not have—and this is an important point to note—police powers of prosecution or direction. They would help motorists to find parking space, and they would do their best to see that restrictions were complied with and, where necessary, they would report offenders to the police. But it would be for the police to carry out the duties for which they are specially trained in charging offenders and bringing them before the courts.

If we had an experiment of this kind it would undoubtedly provide valuable evidence of the contribution which could be made by a separate force of civilian traffic wardens in helping the police in the task of keeping the streets clear of stationary vehicles, which is so dear to the mind of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West, so that other traffic can be kept on the move.

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough has raised this matter tonight, and it will be interesting to see what further developments arise from our discussion. I must correct one slight misapprehension expressed by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Portsmouth, West when he said that the Home Secretary should get local police authorities to get on with schemes of this kind. My right hon. Friend has no power to compel local police authorities in that way, and, indeed, I think I should tell my hon. and gallant Friend in all candour that not all chief officers of police and police authorities are necessarily in favour of even a limited proposal of the kind put forward by the Chief Constable of Nottingham.

My hon. Friend was referring to specific cases—of which I had not had notice, so I cannot check the details of the individual instances which he gave—of certain police authorities where the time of the police is being exceptionally taken up with traffic duties, but I think it would be helpful in the minute or two which remain to take a somewhat broader view of this question and to remind the House of the assurance which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave in the debate on the Address on 31st October when he pointed out that so far as the evidence at his command indicated the position was not quite so alarming as it is sometimes made out to be and that he was satisfied that, broadly speaking, the police were not wasting their time on traffic duties.

As to the strength of the police, the position varies a good deal in the country. The general position is that with hardly an exception the county forces are well up to strength, and there is no great recruiting problem in the smaller boroughs, but the difficulty is in the large cities and particularly in the Metropolitan Police District, where the strength is 15 per cent. below the authorised establishment.

On the other hand, it is reassuring to note that there are now altogether, taking England and Wales as a whole, 5,000 more policemen than there were four years ago. What is more, although the establishments have been increased in the last four years, instead of being 10,000 below establishment as the police were in 1955, they were 6,700 below establishment altogether on 31st December last. As I have pointed out already, the greatest shortages occur in the Metropolitan Police District and in the large cities.

So far as the Metropolis is concerned—I think both my hon. Friends were particularly anxious about the position in the Metropolis—my right hon. Friend is keeping in close touch with the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation about this matter. Under the Road Traffic Act it is for the local authorities to make proposals for the parking meter schemes. As I say, those schemes are building up, and eventually it will be possible to take better stock of the position than we can do tonight with regard to the better arrangement of the parking of cars in London, and it will be possible also when there are more schemes under way to take stock of the contribution which the parking meter attendants, as special traffic wardens—which is, in effect, what they are although they are not under the police—can make in helping the police in performing their duties with regard to parked vehicles.

As I say, we are grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough for having raised this matter, and we shall take good note of what he has said.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.