HC Deb 24 February 1965 vol 707 cc567-78

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

12.7 a.m.

Sir Cyril Osborne (Louth)

I apologise to you, Sir, and the servants of the House, for raising an Adjournment so early in the morning, or so late at night, whichever way you like to look at it, and to the Minister who is to reply, but I have done so in view of the great importance of the question. It has nothing at all to do with party politics.

Both sides of the House have the highest respect for the police and I am asking tonight that the hon. Gentleman should get his right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary to look at his reply to the Police Federation on the question of the protection of its members. When the police representatives saw the right hon. and learned Gentleman, just before Christmas, they came away very dissatisfied. They were disappointed and a little disillusioned by his attitude towards them.

I think that we would all agree that the police do a fine job for the country and that they are entitled to the full protection which they themselves consider they need. They are always risking their lives to protect ours, and the least we can do is to give them all the protection within our power to protect their own lives. What makes the position even worse is that their forces are heavily undermanned and overworked. Because of recent happenings in the criminal world, and partly due to the right hon. and learned Gentleman's decision, the wives of policemen are getting concerned about their husbands' position. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may well find that there will be a lot of men resigning from the force, which will make the position a great deal worse.

On 4th February, I put this Question to the Home Secretary. I asked him what representations he has received from the Police Officers' Association in regard to the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill; what extra protection he proposes to provide for police officers whilst on duty; and if he will make a statement. I got the following reply: The Police Federation have represented to me that capital punishment should be retained for the murder of a police officer acting in the execution of his duty or to any person coming to his assistance. I am simply quoting the reply given to me in the House by the Home Secretary. I am not discussing the Bill or its merits. The right hon. and learned Gentleman went on to say: I am satisfied that other penalties which are available to the courts for attacks on police officers whilst on duty are adequate."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 1260.] The police do not believe that other penalties are adequate. This is the great problem. I have more sense than to discuss a Bill which is under discussion in Committee and I do not need checking on that.

I asked the Home Secretary what answer he gave to the police representatives and I discovered that he gave them no answer. He called them to his office and he rather lectured them for a long time and they went away very dissatisfied. Will the Joint Under-Secretary ask his right hon. and learned Friend to see the police officers again, give them a hearing and listen to them and not lecture them, because they have a deep sense of grievance? They were bitterly disappointed.

This is the memorandum that the police sent to the Home Secretary. In it, they made the point, which the right hon. and learned Gentleman gave to me, that they firmly requested the retention of capital punishment as a protection for them in the exercise of their duty. They justified this by saying that they are expected to take special risks during the course of their duties protecting civilians. With this, everyone would agree.

They then made the point to the Home Secretary that they go about unarmed, more so than any other police force in the world. They reinforced that by saying that to the criminally minded, police officers unarmed and alone are "easy meat". They then said that in their opinion the previous Regulations acted as a deterrent. That is their opinion. Finally, they said this: It is also a fact that the policemen and policewomen consciously feel that the special provisions serve as an effective protection"— and this is the important thing, which I put to the Joint Under-Secretary— So do their wives and families. If their wives and families get the feeling that this protection is being taken from them, the Home Secretary will find himself in trouble with the numbers who want to resign.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

So that I may do justice in my reply, will the hon. Member make it clear whether he is arguing the case about hanging? Is that the provision that has gone? If not, will the hon. Member make it clear, because I want to do justice to him.

Sir C. Osborne

It would not be in order—

Mr. Thomas

I know.

Sir C. Osborne

I was not born yesterday. I have been here 20 years.

The police say that from their point of view, the threat of hanging for the murder of a police officer whilst in the execution of his duty, or of anyone assisting him, acts as a deterrent. They ask what extra protection, if that is taken from them, the Home Secretary will give them. The Home Secretary has said that there are plenty of adequate protections. The police say that there are not. If this is what the police and their families feel, and the Home Secretary loses a lot of policemen and police women, there will be no adequate force left.

What made the position startlingly worse—because I regard the Home Secretary as an honourable, decent and straightforward man—was that he made a statement which, had it come from any other Minister, I would have said was straightforward fraud. He said: … I do not accept that the rise in the number of crimes of violence is so striking. It fluctuates."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 4th February, 1965; Vol. 705, c. 1261.] That was an astonishing thing for the Home Secretary to say, because it is against the background of these crimes that the police have to judge their risks and their job. In Command Paper 2525, Criminal Statistics, England and Wales, 1963, the figures are given in Chapter 3. Indictable offences known to the police and cleared up increased as follows between 1938 and 1963: larceny, 199,000 to 635,000; breaking and entering, 49,000 to 219,000; receiving, 3,000 to 17,000; fraud and false pretences, 16,000 to 45,000; sexual offences, 5,000 to 20,000; violence against the person, no less than 2,000 to 20,000.

In the light of these figures, how can the Home Secretary say there has been no great increase in crimes of violence? If that statement had come from anyone else, I would have thrown it in his face on behalf of the police. Other offences are up from 6,000 to 19,000. The total of indictable offences known to the police and cleared up went up from 283,000 to 978,000. It is monstrous to say that the police have not a much more difficult job.

Incidentally, while I am not allowed to discuss the matter, the number of murders and manslaughters increased from 92 to 224. I regard these figures as alarming, and so do other people. But it is not only that the numbers have increased enormously. The percentage cleared up has fallen. In 1938, the percentage of crimes known to the police and cleared up was 50.1 per cent.; in 1962, it was 43.9 per cent.; and in 1963, this had fallen to 43.1 per cent.

The fact is that, among the indictable offences known to the police, larceny cases totalled 1,478,000 in one year—1963—of which 635,000 were clear up with only 120,000 convictions. Eleven out of 12 of the offenders got away scot-free. That is the problem facing the police. These figures relate to crimes carried out by desperate men.

There were 509,000 breaking and entering cases known to the police in 1963 and only 219,000 were cleared up, with 47,000 convictions, which means that only one of 11 of these offenders were punished. That is an unsatisfactory state of affairs for the country, yet the Home Secretary says that there is no alarming increase in crime.

Of the 41,000 receiving cases known, 18,000 were cleared up and only 10,000 people were punished—one in four of the offenders. The number of sexual offences totalled 47,000, of which 20,000 were cleared up and only 6,000 people were punished—one in eight. Seven out of eight scoundrels guilty of sexual offences got away with it. The police and the public are concerned about this.

There were 47,000 violence against the person cases known to the police and only 20,000 were cleared up. Those punished totalled 12,000—one in four of the offenders. It is alarming and that is why I cannot understand the Home Secretary making such a statement. There were over 2 million criminal cases known to the police in 1963, an average of 5,000 a day, including Good Friday and Christmas and Saturdays and Sundays. It is an alarming and depressing picture. How can the Home Secretary say that there is not a great increase in crime for the police to tackle?

What of the strength of the police? The Home Office said some months ago that we were short of 15,000 policemen, but The Times estimated that the number was nearer 18,000. In the City of Cardiff, from which the Under-Secretary comes, the police are 203 below establishment. The figures for Liverpool and Birmingham are 500 each and in Manchester 300. The number for London is 7,000. It is a staggering comparison that in the metropolitan area in 1938 there were 18,501 policemen and today 18,300, 200 fewer while the population has grown enormously and London is a more desperate wicked city and a more dangerous city.

What makes it worse is that fewer policemen are on the beat because more are used in the bureaucracy, while, because of longer holidays and shorter hours, fewer men are available. It is possible to drive through a great city and scarcely see a policemen except on traffic control. The few men who are left had to face this enormous problem of dealing with desperate men who stand at nothing.

On 20th February, the Economist said of offences in which shotguns were used: … there were 14 cases in 1961, 7 in 1962. 7 in 1963 and the relatively enormous number of 45 in 1964 an increase of over 500 per cent. … These were shotgun offences alone. The bulk for the latter year were in the last part of 1964.

The police face a desperate situation and feel that the Home Secretary has not understood their position and has not sympathised with them, that he has rather brushed them off. If he is not careful, he will find himself without an adequate police force to carry out his work.

If the Under-Secretary will not listen to my pleading, would he be good enough to listen to the voice of a dead friend whom we both love, Mr. Llywelyn Williams, a good man, a fine man, and an ardent Socialist, who died a fortnight ago? Speaking on this subject on 13th November, 1963, he made this impassioned appeal: I want to deal with a question which is causing me a tremendous amount of concern … the relationships between the police and the public in Britain. I think that the police are having a rough deal. This is what I am saying and I know that my old frined would have been supporting me from the other side of the House had he been here. I do not think that they are having a square deal from the Press or from some hon. Members on both sides of the House. We place the police in an impossible situation … If the Government are determined to take away what the police regard as the safeguard of capital punishment, what adequate substitute are they to give the police, who are very disappointed?

My good friend went on to say something which should appeal to an Under-Secretary from Wales: I would draw attention to something which occurs every week in my constituency. Young men are brought before the courts in the Western Valley of Monmouthshire because of the way in which they have ill-treated the police. … My next-door neighbour, a young married policeman, a fine type of man and a local Baptist preacher, only a fortnight ago was dealing with two ruffians on the streets of Abertillery. They were using obscene language and were under the influence of drink. The young policeman was shockingly bruised and knocked about. What protection is to be given to these young Welsh policemen? He continued: We are leaning over backwards to try to see the point of view of the criminal. I say strongly that there is a war going on in Britain today. This may be a highly dramatic statement to make, but there is a war going on between crooks and society. They have declared war on society."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th November, 1963; Vol. 684, c. 286–7.] If we are to appeal to policemen and policewomen to risk their lives, risk their limbs, to protect us, we ought to give them every protection they think they need. If the hon. Gentleman and his party are determined to carry on with the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Bill, and take away this great safeguard the police have, we are entitled to know from the Home Secretary what substitute protection he will give to them. I beg of the hon. Gentleman, on behalf of a fine body of men, who are serving us well, to see what he can do to influence his right hon. and learned Friend to satisfy the policemen, to meet them again, and to try to give them that protection they think they need.

12.26 a.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Thomas)

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Louth (Sir C. Osborne) was quite right in beginning his speech with the statement that there are no politics in the police force, and that both sides of the House have a great regard for them. I fear that that is as far as I am likely to agree with the hon. Gentleman, who, I thought, was very unjust to my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, as I propose to explain.

The hon. Gentleman addressed the House as though he was speaking on behalf of the Police Federation—as he may well have been; I do not know. But I was present at the meeting which my right hon. and learned Friend had with the other Home Office Ministers, with the Police Federation. It is true that the Federation expressed its views on the death penalty. It is not true that it left so very disgruntled and disappointed. It may have been disappointed, but it certainly did not leave that room giving the impression that it was embittered, as the hon. Gentleman seems to have indicated tonight. The Federation has confidence in my right hon. and learned Friend, who, to my knowledge, has never refused to talk to the Federation about any of its problems, and is never like to refuse to talk to the Federation.

The representatives of the Federation came to the Home Office on 14th December last. There was a full and frank discussion between us all, with my right hon. and learned Friend in the Chair. The representatives of the Federation put their points and my right hon. and learned Friend replied to them. The hon. Gentleman is quite right—the answer which my right hon. and learned Friend gave was largely contained in the reply he gave to him on 4th February. The hon. Gentleman seemed to complain that the Federation had not received a written reply. When a deputation comes and discusses a question with the responsible Minister it is not usually the custom, after it has left, for us to send it a letter: it has already had a meeting, and it has expressed its views.

I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman would like to create ill-feeling, or mistrust, or suspicion between such a wonderful force as we have in this land and the responsible authorities.

Sir C. Osborne

I am not speaking for the Federation. I am speaking for myself, and I am speaking for all the people outside who, like myself, admire the police and want them to be protected.

Mr. Thomas

Yes, but the hon. Gentleman also said that the Federation was lectured by my right hon. and learned Friend, and that it was given no answer. But it was given an answer. The hon. Gentleman said that the Federation went away bitterly disappointed, and he went on to ask whether my right hon. and lerned Friend would see its representatives again. Have they asked the hon. Gentleman to ask us that tonight? If not, what is he talking about? He gave the impression that he was speaking in this debate on behalf of the Police Federation.

I want to answer some of the other questions which the hon. Gentleman asked. He said that if one sanction was to be removed, we ought to give the police what they were asking for, but he was careful not to tell the House what they were asking for, because the police certainly do not want the sanction of carrying arms.

Sir C. Osborne

I did not ask for that.

Mr. Thomas

What greater sanction does the hon. Gentleman think the police should be given? He made not one constructive suggestion tonight as to what the police were asking for by way of greater security than they have at present.

The House believes that it is essential that the police, who are embarked on a difficult and dangerous task on behalf of the community, should be given all the protection that this House can give them. It is vital to their success that they should have the material backing and all the support which they deserve and need. It is not for my right hon. and learned Friend to tell the courts what penalties they shall impose where there are difficulties involving the police, but he is responsible for ensuring that the courts have available to them adequate maximum penalties, and the question before the House is: does the law provide adequate penalties for those who attack the police?

Any proposal for legislation to increase penalties would, I know, be out of order, but my right hon. and learned Friend is satisfied that the existing penalties for offences of violence against the police are adequate. The maximum for attempted murder, for wounding, or for inflicting grievous bodily harm with intent, is life imprisonment. For assaulting a constable, or a person assisting a constable in the execution of his duty, the maximum under the Police Act, 1964, is two years' imprisonment, and under the Firearms Act, 1937, a person using a firearm to resist the lawful arrest of himself or any other person is liable to be sentenced to up to 14 years' imprisonment. This may be in addition to the penalty for the offence for which he was arrested.

The increase in crime is of concern to us all. Earlier today in the House a Bill was presented to amend the Firearms Act of 1937, which we hope will enable the police and the courts to nip in the bud trouble with people who use firearms, or who might be about to use them. The House and the country should know that the police have not asked for exceptional means of protection which are not available to the ordinary citizen, and, of course, the hon. Gentleman was very careful not to—

Sir C. Osborne

They have.

Mr. Thomas

Although time is limited, if the hon. Gentleman was prepared to be brief I would give way to him if he wanted to tell me of any constructive request which has been made for additional protection—unless, of course, he wishes to discuss the death penalty again.

Sir C. Osborne

That is the one thing for which they are asking.

Mr. Thomas

I know that the hon. Gentleman has been struggling to keep in order, but he must take that quarrel somewhere else. Tonight, we are discussing the protection of the police if the death penalty goes. The hon. Gentleman assumed that it was going, and asked what we were going to provide in its place. He said that the police were asking for something, but neither he nor anyone else has told the House what extra is being asked for. I shall not spend time dealing with the arming of the police, since the hon. Member clearly did not regard that as a sensible solution.

There is the question of criminal statistics. The hon. Member made use of some. I will not go into detail, although he made one or two errors which he will discover when he looks again at the figures. The criminal statistics, which are at present under review by a Departmental Committee, do not provide separate figures for offences of violence against police officers—and it is with police officers and their security that we are concerned tonight—except where the offender is dealt with for the offence of assaulting a police constable.

The statistics show that the number of persons dealt with summarily for assault on a constable dropped each year from 1960, when it was 6,886 to 1963, when it was 5,728. I believe that the House and the country will be pleased to know that the trend of such attacks on police constables is downwards and not upwards. This is not to underestimate the grave danger and difficulties of the policeman. The figure for 1964 is not yet available.

As regards the offence of shooting, the number of indictable offences in the Metropolitan Police District in which a firearm was used and a police officer was the victim was 11 in 1962; four in 1963 and four in 1964. There are no corresponding national figures. During the 20 years since 1945, seven persons have been convicted in England and Wales of murdering a police officer.

The House wants—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-three minutes to One o'clock.