HC Deb 05 February 1971 vol 810 cc2162-72

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

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Reg Prentice (East Ham, North)

I know from experience the reluctance of Home Office Ministers to take a public attitude which is different from that taken by the heads of police forces. Nevertheless, on the Adjournment this afternoon I am raising a matter of such importance to road safety, particularly the safety of children, that I hope that exception may be made in this case.

I have in mind the decision of the Commissioner of Police for the Metropolis to withdraw the specialised police road safety teams from their work in schools and other parts of the community with effect from July this year. These are special teams which were formed in 1965. There are nine, each consisting of five police officers, operating in the Metropolitan Police District. That with which I am familiar operates in my constituency and the surrounding areas. It operates from the Plaistow police station, and its work covers the Boroughs of Newham, Barking, Haveringham and Tower Hamlets. What I am about to say refers to the work of that team, but I understand that the eight other teams in the Greater London area work in a similar way.

A week or two ago I was privileged to see this team giving a demonstration in a primary school in the Borough of East Ham. It was typical of the demonstartions which it is giving all the time. It was a demonstration in kerb drill and road safety generally, given to seven-year old children. It was given with tremendous skill and ingenuity, with a certain amount of humour, and it was considered a great success. The team held the attention of the children for 20 to 25 minutes, which the teachers at the school assured me was a most unusual feat, and the children obviously both enjoyed the experience and learned a great deal from it.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham North)

May I first congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this subject. He has mentioned the enjoyment of the pupils. Is he aware that the police are very anxious to continue doing this and that they, too. are enjoying it?

Mr. Prentice

This is certainly true. Through talking to the policeman, teachers, borough officials, parents and all concerned, directly or indirectly, with this, I know that they all support this excellent work. This is only part of the work done by these teams.

They give talks to older children, they lecture at driving courses, they help organise road safety weeks in the schools, quizzes and brains trusts. They train cycling instructors, they test candidates for the cycling proficiency certificate, they give demonstrations and talks to children under five accompanied by their mothers at the "Tufty" Clubs. They lecture at advanced driving technique courses organised in the borough. In a variety of ways they are integrated with the work of the local authority in promoting road safety. They work long hours with great dedication and excellent results.

Those who are close to this and have experience of it are unamimous in their praise of this work. Many organisations in the Borough of Newham have gone on record deploring this decision by the Commissioner of Police to disband these teams. The Borough Council, the Newham Road Safety Council, the Newham Teachers' Association, the Newham Head Teachers' Association, the Newham Trades Council and many other bodies have done so. I cannot do better than to quote to the House an extract from a letter I received from Councillor Jenkinson, Chairman of the Highways Committee, who said: During the five years the police have been operating in the schools their influence with the young children has been most marked. There is no doubt the police team can take considerable credit for the fact that in the first nine months of 1970 there has been a significant reduction in child road casualties. And there is no doubt the total effectiveness of their work will not be in evidence until these children drive motor vehicles on our roads in a few years' time. When they do they will be drivers who have had a close contact with police officers. They will know that the man in the uniform is concerned with road safety and that the rules and regulations he has to enforce are in the best interests of the road user. It is certain that these young people will have a much better understanding and respect for safety legislation and the essential part police have to play to enforce it, as will the adults who come into contact with them in this work. If the teams are withdrawn the police will lose means of accumulating the goodwill of children, who in a few years, will be a new generation on our roads. I have made no attempt to canvass opinion in other parts of London but I understand from several of my hon. Friends that anxiety has been expressed by other local authorities. This matter was discussed not long ago at a meeting of the London Boroughs Association, when anxiety was expressed about this proposed change. Hon. Gentlemen on both sides of the House have raised the subject in questions to Home Office Ministers and Ministers from the Department of Education and Science and the Department of Environment, who all have an interest in the matter, asking what possible reasons there are for making the change.

The first reason that we have been given is that it will save manpower. I put it to the House that we are concerned here with 45 police officers who are a tiny percentage of the total strength of the Metropolitan Police. I anticipate the reply that these are skilled officers, of great experience, with training in road safety who could be deployed on traffic duties, particularly at black spots in the Greater London Area.

I think the answer to that is that if one considers the great number of traffic black spots in the Greater London area—I do not know how one defines a black spot, but there are hundreds of them—one realises that the impact of 45 police offices released to this duty is bound to be marginal. Against that, we are disbanding teams which, in the view of those close to the situation, have had an effect in saving life among children, and it seems to me, therefore, that both the Commissioner and the Home Secretary have got their priorities wrong.

I quote from a letter which I received from the Home Secretary on 4th December. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis) received a letter in similar terms. The right hon. Gentleman said: In the field of road traffic the primary police obligation is to facilitate the orderly movement of all road users. It is an aspect of this that road users should do so in reasonable safety. With respect, that is surely not the case. Surely road safety should be the first priority? We are all concerned with the orderly movement of traffic, and we have all sat in traffic jams and been frustrated, but these are not as important as considerations of road safety, and particularly road safety among children.

Then I shall be told that alternative arrangements can be made, and here I believe there are two suggestions. One suggestion is that the local road safety authorities can recruit teams—civilians, not policemen—to do the kind of job which is now being done by these police teams. I suggest to the House that, however successful such teams might be, however dedicated they are, and however experienced they may become, they are not likely to have the impact on children that uniformed police officers have. Uniformed police officers have a special impact in that they are serving policemen who come from a police force, which the children see on the streets as they go about them. These police officers therefore have a particular impact.

Then there is the complementary suggestion that police officers on the local beat should be encouraged to make more visits to schools in their localities, and by doing so reinforce the work of the civilian teams provided by the local authorities. Here again the policeman off the beat, however hard he tries, and however good he may be, does not have the same kind of expertise as these teams have. The members of these teams are not merely experts to start with but by working as a group over a long period they acquire techniques of how to deal with children, and they learn from experience how to make their presentation most effective. In other words, they are doing a unique job which, in my submission, cannot be replaced either by civilian teams or by policemen off the beat making an occasional visit to the schools. These teams have been proved a success in the work that they are doing, and this success is acknowledged by those with experience in the field.

The debate today is mostly about road safety, but there is an additional point of some importance, and it is that the work of these teams is good for the whole relationship between the police and younger members of the community.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

Particularly in the East End of London.

Mr. Prentice

With respect to my hon. Friend, not only in the East End of London, but in any part of it, and in other parts of the country, too, where the same problems could arise. These teams are popular and respected because they are helping children to cope with the real problems which they face every day of their lives. They put the lesson across cheerfully and helpfully, and the children know that it makes sense, because of their everyday experience. It seems to me that in a period of increasing lawlessness, and when there is a dangerous degree of alienation between the police force and some members of the public, we should not lightly abandon something which promotes confidence and good will and which can have intangible but important results in the future.

My main point is that we are concerned today with the safety of children. In the years ahead the amount of traffic on our roads will increase, and the potential danger to children will increase. Everyone should do more to deal with the problem. If the argument is that local authorities should now have a growing and more positive rôle in road safety, no one denies that, and local authorities would accept it, but it seems to me that it is a great mistake in that situation to disband an organisation which has proved to be so successful.

4.15 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Richard Sharples)

I am glad that the right hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) has raised this subject, which gives me an opportunity to remove one or two misconceptions and to pay tribute, as he did, to the work of these road safety teams. Everyone knows of their excellent work and the great amount of expertise which has been developed in this field. I should like to set the record straight on various matters, some of which the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

The first point that I should like to make, and to make firmly, is that there is no question of the police, either in London or anywhere else in the country, deciding or having been advised to cease to take an interest in road safety in the schools or anywhere else. Nor is there any question—I am talking of the whole country—of any force refusing to assist, so far as their commitments permit, with road safety instruction in schools. But this is not to say that a particular arrangement, made some years ago, is sacrosanct and should not be changed. Conditions and problems change rapidly; nowhere more than in regard to the police service.

Changes must be made to meet changed conditions. I was interested in what the right hon. Gentleman said about the importance of maintaining the links between the police and the schools. I recognise the particular importance in the area represented by himself and his hon. Friend the Member for West Ham, North (Mr. Arthur Lewis), who is also present.

All police forces, Metropolitan and provincial, realise that links with schools are important. They are important above all in the creation of the sort of police- public relations that are essential to effective policing in this country as we know it. There is no reluctance on the part of any police force to pay visits to schools. They welcome the opportunity. But it does not follow that school instruction and visits about road safety should be the sole responsibility of the police or that they are necessarily undertaken as a full-time duty by specialist officers.

In the field of road safety the primary obligation on the police is to facilitate the orderly and safe movement of all road users. Of course, within this, giving of talks and instruction in schools and other places on road safety has an established place, but a balance has to be drawn up as to where and when resources available shall be deployed; this must cover all aspects of police activities and obligations across the board. There can be no undertaking that police can accept permanent responsibility for ranges of social service, however deserving, outside the functions which fall to them alone.

There is now a well-developed and accepted policy of appointing local authority road safety officers to promote and co-ordinate—as well as to take a leading part in—all local road safety activities. The right hon. Gentleman will know that this was a policy initiated by the Government of which he was a member. It makes sense to look at road safety officers to co-ordinate road safety instruction in schools. The police will always be glad to co-operate, but we look to the road safety officers to plan what is needed and then to see how and by whom the tasks set out shall be undertaken.

The police are as well aware as all of us that a visit by a police officer, particularly in uniform, to a school does attract attention amongst schoolchildren, particularly the smaller children, and the police welcome this as an exercise in improving police-public relations.

The police are anxious to have entry to schools for this reason, and there is no question of them looking for reasons to withdraw from this contact with the schools. The police are always willing to assist school teachers—who, of course, have expertise in teaching—to acquire expertise in this subject, and in many ways this may be a development to which we can look forward and, in some respects, may prove to be the best answer.

The way to achieve the best results may vary from area to area and from school to school, depending on the resources and personalities that can be brought to bear. Often the best solution may be to deploy police manpower on road safety tasks that only a man in uniform can do, such as enforcement of the law and improvement of road user behaviour on the spot.

I come to the matter which particularly concerns the right hon. Gentleman, and that is the effects of the decision of the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police about the Metropolitan Police District. This is a subject on which the right hon. Gentleman and a number of hon. Members who represent London constituencies have written to me.

I am sure that all of us—all London hon. Members, including myself—accept that one of the problems, particularly in London, is manpower, as well as the very large police traffic and road safety problems which exist in the area. The Commissioner of Police hopes to be able to achieve significant accident reductions in the street by deploying specialist groups of officers in activities designed to prevent high risk situations arising. Experiments in this sphere have been taking place with a considerable degree of success.

The Commissioner deserves—and I ask all hon. Members to accord him this—our warm support in this attempt to take positive action to reduce accidents. The present plan for trying to achieve this is to set up a sort of tactical reserve of specialist officers who can then be deployed on carefully worked out projects based on accident intelligence.

The manpower for this reserve must be found from somewhere, and the Commissioner will do this by using the men presently manning the road safety teams, and handing over the responsibility for school visits to local police in the area of the school. This is an operational decision which is entirely for the Commissioner and with which the Home Secretary has no authority to interfere, even if he wished to do so.

I do not pretend that the Commissioner might not have continued the present arrangements had he had the men to spare, or that the change does not pose local problems. However, a year's notice was given of the change.

Mr. Prentice

We, naturally, support this idea of what the Minister described as a tactical reserve. Bearing in mind the size of the Metropolitan Police Force, is he satisfied that it would not have been possible to have formed that reserve and yet still to have kept the 45 officers in the role which they had performed so successfully and in which they had fitted in so well with the methods and objectives of local authorities in the road safety sphere?

Mr. Sharples

As I said, this must be an operational decision for the Commissioner. He is aware of the state of his manpower. Although the right hon. Gentleman points out that only 45 men were involved, he must accept that in terms of the Metropolitan Police one can talk of taking away 45 men from a job here or a job there but one must put all available men where they can be best employed. The right hon. Gentleman paid a well deserved tribute to these teams, in which one has a great deal of expert knowledge, with officers who are devoted to this aspect of their police work.

As I was saying, a year's notice was given of the change, following discussions initiated by the London Accident Prevention Council, about London borough road safety organisations. Police personnel will remain available to train their successors—that is, the local police—and local police will be available to cooperate in future with local road safety officers in all local road safety activities including school visits. The best ways of doing this and of making the change as easily as possible are now under study.

I would not wish to pretend—to do so would be to mislead the House and the right hon. Gentleman—that the same kind of excellent and frequently amusing displays given by the present road safety teams in the schools will be put on by the local police. On the other hand the local police are likely to be able to visit schools more frequently than the road safety teams, who may only have visited each school once a year. They may be expected to know a good deal more about the local traffic conditions that the children face in the areas in which they serve.

I hope that local authorities will accept that it is for their road safety officers to take the lead in organising and coordinating all local aspects of road safety, and that they will encourage them to make positive and effective plans for schoolchildren and other groups in which the police will be happy to co-operate. Given good will, imagination and support, I see no reason why the effectiveness of such plans should not equal or surpass that of the present arrangements.

There is no dispute between us about the objectives. We are all concerned with the importance of road safety and with the safety of schoolchildren in particular, who are a particularly vulnerable group. The question is the best way to go about doing this. This Government, like the last Government, have adopted a policy of local authority road safety officers with the responsibility of co-ordinating local activities. The police will continue to help so far as they can and there is no question of police efforts being reduced as a result of Government policy.

But it must remain for chief officers of police, in the country generally as well as in the Metropolitan area, to make the best use they can of their manpower and resources in this field and in all other fields in which they have responsibility. I have been very carefully into this, and I am satisfied that the Commissioner in making his present plans has, indeed, all these factors in mind, and I believe that he deserves our support in his endeavours.

4.28 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) for raising the subject, and I congratulate him on his excellent presentation of the case. I must say that I am very disappointed with the Minister's reply. With respect, I do not think that he attempted to answer the case at all. He told us, in effect, that the Commissioner has decided, that therefore the Commissioner is right, and that is that.

The Commissioner may have been right to decide, but the hon. Gentleman might not only in our borough but throughout London has expressed exactly the same have suggested to the Commissioner that as everyone connected with road safety, views as has my right hon. Friend, the Commissioner might be wrong. I do not suggest that the Commissioner is wrong, but it seems strange, on the other hand, that everyone else should be wrong. Perhaps some of the others may be right It is strange that the whole host of arguments by persons who have had a lifetime of experience should be wrong and that only the Commissioner should be right. To me, it just does not add up. I suggest that the Minister should tell the Commissioner that what is now done is necessary, and that the alternative is not really an alternative.

I am sure that we will continue to do all we can, even after July, to show that we are not at all satisfied with the position, particularly when we know that the police themselves, who are doing the job as well as they are able within their resources give us 100 per cent. support.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock