HC Deb 20 January 1959 vol 598 cc163-70

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

9.59 p.m.

Mr. Donald Sumner (Orpington)

I am glad to have this opportunity of raising the matter of the police arrangements for the Orpington district. I make it clear at the outset that this is not a criticism of the police, or of any individuals who carry out their police duties in or for Orpington. Rather I seek to question whether the best possible arrangements are made for the district and to suggest how in my humble opinion they might be improved.

The whole district comes within the Metropolitan Police area. The district consists of highly residential areas and of villages which still, I am glad to say, have village life which we want to retain.

It being Ten o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. Sumner

The villages are bounded on the south by the Kent Police area so that they come on the extreme fringe of the Metropolitan Police area. The whole district is within the Police Division of Bromley, which is a large geographical area of which the Orpington district forms only a part. There are only two police stations for the whole of the Orpington district. Very roughly and rather inaccurately, they come at the northern corners, at any rate, with the effect that most of the district falls to the south and to some extent lies between them, so that in no sense are they centrally placed.

The district has grown enormously. In 1939, the population was about 46,300. By 1950, it had gone up to 59,500; in 1953, 63,000; and in 1958, 73,600. Some 7,000 new houses have been built since the war. Nevertheless, there is no central police station in Orpington. The average new resident might be expected to ask for the Orpington police station, but he would find that there was not one. I remember being puzzled by that when I first went to live in the district after the war.

So far as I know, there is no senior police officer in Orpington responsible for the district. If one went to either police station, one could expect to find only a sergeant and no more senior officer there. I believe that there is no senior officer at Bromley who is made responsible solely for Orpington. Again without criticism of any individual, it is inevitable that the general feeling is that there is no local police force or rather there is a lack of feeling that there is any local police force and, within the police force, there is possibly a feeling that there is no one especially responsible for Orpington.

The whole district is policed from those two police stations, but they are also responsible for other areas of a considerable size which fall outside the Orpington district. We have two police stations, but not their undivided attention. Presumably because of the difficulty of policing the whole area from those two stations, or at any rate partly for that reason, most of the work is done by motor cycle patrols. I believe that there is now only one foot patrol.

When, a year ago, I questioned by letter the arrangements for the Petts Wood district, which is a large and important residential area, I was told that the Commissioner had recently increased the number of constables at the police stations by one-third. I cannot say what the effect on crime has been in Petts Wood, but it is clear from the figures given by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary last month that the position in the district has not changed for the better, and that there is room for improvement.

Those figures appeared in the OFFICIAL REPORT for 18th December, 1958, and they show that in 1956, in respect of the crimes of burglary, housebreaking, shopbreaking and attempted breaking there were 153 cases and 35 arrests; in 1957 there were 200 of those crimes and 33 arrests, and between January and October, 1958 there were 190 crimes and 22 arrests. Other figures for crimes cleared up were also given. They no doubt refer to cases in which arrests led to confessions of other crimes.

In order not to complicate the issue, however, I want to concentrate upon crimes and arrests. The figures show a considerable increase in crime without a corresponding increase in the number of arrests. What is perhaps rather more remarkable is the number of attempted breakings. In 1956, there were 49; in 1957, there were 18 and for that part of 1958 for which figures are given, 12. It is inconsistent that the number of cases of breaking should rise while the cases of attempted breakings should fall. I think it indicates not so much the increased success of those who attempt to break in as that the attempts are not now known to the police to the degree that they were in 1956.

The figures in respect of housebreaking have risen from 41 in 1956 to 92 in 1957, and for that part of 1958 for which figures are available they stand at 77. The figures in respect of shopbreaking have risen from 54 in 1956 to 74 in 1957, and they stand at 81 for the part of 1958 for which information is available. I leave these figures to speak for themselves.

Two-and-a-half years ago it was rumoured that there would be a new subdivision at Bromley, centred upon St. Mary Cray, at which is situated one of the two police stations that I have mentioned, and which is just within the district. According to a report which appeared in the Orpington and Kentish Times on 5th August, 1955, a Scotland Yard spokesman, when interviewed about the matter, said that inquiries were a little premature. That was two-and-a-half years ago. In my opinion a new sub-division is needed, preferably centred upon a new station in Orpington itself, so as to be in a central position for what is a greatly expanded and expanding district. It should concern itself only with the district of Orpington.

I am concerned that police arrangements should keep pace, as far as possible within the manpower position, with the great changes in the district; that some senior officer should feel responsible for Orpington alone, and that a real sense of the existence of a local police force should be created.

So much for the general position. I now want to say a word about the villages. There was much opposition to the villages being taken over by the Metropolitan Police from the Kent County Police about ten years ago. My predecessor, the late Sir Waldron Smithers, was much opposed to it, as those who knew and remember him would imagine. Anything which detracted from village life always met his opposition. The opposition, however, was not successful, and the villages were taken over. Unfortunately, that opposition has now been justified. We have lost our village policemen. They have gone completely, and in their place we now have 2motor cycle patrols. That is a very great mistake.

I am often told by responsible people and organisations, particularly in the three villages of Chelsfield, Knockholt and Cudham, what a mistake this is. One would think it was almost unnecessary to stress the importance of the village policeman and his part as a respected member of the local community and, in particular, his great value in the prevention of crime. I stress the word "prevention". The motor cycle patrols cannot possibly compare in value. They do not have the knowledge of individuals or of the locality. They come from a far distance and their approach is heralded by the noise of a motor cycle. Their routes are known, and they cannot both ride motor cycles and observe, as can a man who is on his feet. To sum up, they are both too distant and too impersonal.

In the village of Knockholt we still have two policemen, but they must go some six miles to Farnborough each day to perform their duties of motor cycle patrol. Only rarely do they come on circuit to their village, which of course they know. In one other village the police house has actually been sold, I believe.

It is perhaps of interest to record that villages in Kent which bound us and which are indistinguishable in character as one village almost runs into the other, still have their village policemen. There is a general feeling that hooliganism and crime have multiplied considerably since the village policemen were taken away.

The suggestion I would make is that what we need for the greatly increased district is a subdivision responsible for that district alone, and within that subdivision the restoration of the village policeman.

I do not expect to be told by my hon. and learned Friend tonight that all that will be done, but I ask that he would kindly take note of what I have said and assure me that it will at least be considered, and that my hon. and learned Friend will let me know the result of this consideration.

10.13 p.m.

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

I readily give my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Sumner) the assurance for which he has asked. I am sure that the Commissioner of Police will be grateful to my hon. Friend for having expressed his opinions about these matters and will be glad to consider them.

Perhaps, as a background to the complaints made by my hon. Friend, I might say that there are more than 2,000 fewer policemen in the Metropolitan Police District now than there were in 1938. A good many more civilians are employed than was the case before the war. Some of them release police officers for patrol duties and enable police officers to be transferred from purely administrative work to more active police duties. We have to remember that police work is more complex these days and that many more officers have to be diverted from beat and patrol work to special jobs and to deal with particular areas of crime.

Then there is the burden placed on the police generally by the fact that crime as a whole has increased, and, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the population has increased, especially in my hon. Friend's own constituency. There is also an increase in traffic duties. Moreover, less cover can now be obtained from a given number of policemen than could be got twenty years ago. That is purely because of increased leave.

Although the Metropolitan Police are still seriously short of men, substantial progress in recruitment has been made in recent years, and is still going on. In fact, the number of Metropolitan Police is higher now than at any time since the war, although the force is 3,000 below establishment. I suppose, from the point of view of my hon. Friend, that the important thing to consider is whether his constituency has its fair share of those policemen which the Commissioner can make available for that part of the country.

I hope to be able to assure my hon. Friend that it has. The disposition of the police as between various parts of the Metropolitan Police District is an operational matter for the Commissioner. It is for him to decide how to make the best use of men at his disposal. The Home Secretary would not think it proper to intervene and he has every confidence in the Commissioner's ability to deploy his men to the best advantage.

My hon. Friend has asked that Orpington should virtually have its own police station and be the centre of a sub-division and that there should be a senior officer specifically for Orpington. Unfortunately, the Commissioner of Police is not always able to oblige in that way. He has to make the best use of the forces in the Metropolitan Police District, dividing them up as operational necessity and the number of men available will allow.

As my hon. Friend indicated, the Borough of Orpington is in the Bromley sub-division of P Division of the Metropolitan Police District. It is policed as he said from stations at Farnborough and St. Mary's Cray. Those stations lie approximately and respectively to the west and to the east of Orpington itself. Although it is true that they lie at the two northern corners of the area my hon. Friend has in mind, I think it will be found, on looking at the map, and especially at the density of housing in the area, that those two stations are fairly well sited to cope with the work.

The whole of the Farnborough station area is in my hon. Friend's constituency of Orpington, but only part of the St. Mary's Cray station is in that area and, therefore, covers part of another constituency as well. The Commissioner candidly does not think that there is anything special or unusual about the problem of policing Orpington. Although as my hon. Friend has pointed out the level of crime there is higher than it used to be, that, unfortunately, is true of the whole Metropolitan Police District and, indeed, of the country as a whole. The increase of crime in Orpington appears to be no higher than in other comparable areas, although I should like to consider the figures with rather greater opportunity than I have by merely taking a note of those which my hon. Friend gave the House this evening, in order to make quite sure that what I have just said is, in fact, accurate.

I am advised that, broadly speaking, the increase in crime in Orpington is no higher than elsewhere. There is no special problem of hooliganism there, I am advised. The traffic problem in Orpington is a factor which has to be considered. It is a fairly large traffic problem, especially at weekends in the summer and on the main road which goes to the coast, but most other areas in the Metropolitan Police district also have considerable traffic problems.

Some changes in the methods of policing these two police station areas have been made in recent years. Especially at St. Mary's Cray strength has gradually been brought up, an additional wireless car has been stationed in the neighbourhood so that there is now a 24 hour cover by two wireless cars and the section patrol system has been introduced. Under that system a number of police constables operate in the area as a team doing duty in different places at different times under the direct leadership of the sergeant who is in a motor car. He is in touch by wireless with police headquarters. Being mobile and in a car he can get in touch with other members of the team. That is considered a better use of manpower and a more effective way of preventing crime than the old fixed beat system.

My hon. Friend mentioned the question of the village policeman in those parts of his constituency which are still rural. He complained that villages have lost their village policemen and that they have been replaced by police on motor cycles covering several villages at a time, which, he says, is not so good. I feel bound to point out to him that this is a tendency which is now prevailing over a great part of rural England and that it is a system which has been introduced by some chief constables as a result of very careful thought.

Although I know that in my own constituency the village policeman has always played an important part in village life when he has been there, it may well be that from the point of view of his being used effectively as a policeman it is better to make him mobile and the best use of the constabulary in rural areas is very often to put its policemen on motor cycles and to allow them to cover several villages.

It is not a question of the man on the motor cycle being better than the man stationed in a village and patrolling on foot or on a bicycle. The point is that unless many police are given motor cycles and made to control large areas, some places would not see a policeman at all. Although that is true, as I say, of village police activities, in suburban areas it is even more true, so I am advised, in that mechanisation of police officers in suburban areas gives the public better protection and, indeed, more confidence. I do not think that my hon. Friend need be very much worried about the policeman's approach being heralded by the noise of his motor cycle. Good motor cycles which the police use need not be operated noisily and, generally, are not so operated.

Mr. Sumner

I live on the route he passes. It may be an advantage to be able to hear him approaching, but I assure my hon. Friend that I do hear him approaching.

Mr. Renton

It may be that my hon. Friend is vigilant and his ears so attuned in the matter that he would be on the look out for them. My experience has been that the motor cycles which the police use are for the most part not especially noisy and can be run fairly quietly.

To revert to the question of whether Orpington is getting its fair share of the manpower available, the Commissioner is satisfied that the standard and adequacy of the policing of Orpington and the surrounding area bears satisfactory comparison with the standard and adequacy of policing in other parts of the Metropolitan District. The Commissioner, I am sure, can be trusted to deploy to the best advantage the men and machines at his disposal and he will always decide how to deploy them in the light of the evidence which comes to his notice.

As I said in my opening remarks, I am sure that he is glad of the evidence which my hon. Friend has put before him and that he will study carefully what he has said in the debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes past Ten o'clock.