HC Deb 24 February 1972 vol 831 cc1655-66

11.10 p.m.

Mr. Denis Howell (Birmingham, Small Heath)

I wish to take this opportunity to raise the subject of the undermanning allowance to the Birmingham City police force. This is a matter of considerable importance and raises no small matter of principle.

The question of paying an undermanning allowance to those forces which have to contend with rising crime rates and with a difficult manning situation was first determined by the Police Council in 1965. It occurred as a result of an arbitration award. This principle was accepted by the Home Office and as a result of that award in 1965 the Police Council, which is the national joint negotiating body for pay and conditions, set up a special sub-committee to determine which forces, in its judgment, qualified for payment of undermanning allowance.

One of the first forces to be considered was the Metropolitan force, and in 1965, after a recommendation by the then Home Secretary, it was accepted that the Metropolitan force should have this additional undermanning allowance. In 1967 the Liverpool force was recommended for a similar claim and in 1968 Glasgow and Birmingham were so recommended. Liverpool and Glasgow both had their claims accepted by the Home Secretary of the day.

I do not wish to make any party issue of this matter, and much of my criticism is levelled against the Home Secretary in the Government in which I served. I regret that the deplorable practice of not accepting the recommendation of the national joint council started in that era and has continued through the period of office of the present Government. In 1968 the claim of Birmingham was turned down.

This brings me to the first main question of principle that I wish to raise. I raise this matter both as a Birmingham Member of Parliament and also as the national president of a trade union. I always thought it was a sacred practice that when a negotiating committee for a body of workers recommended a pay deal it was automatically accepted, unless there were some overriding circumstances of national emergency to prevent it.

I shall deal presently with the three grounds on which my right hon. Friend the former Home Secretary turned down the award. Two of the three grounds were based on the proposition that there was at that time a national economic emergency. Whatever one may think of those reasons, they were the reasons given at the time. It is a matter of serious concern that a properly negotiated national award should be found to be unacceptable. It is even more regrettable, indeed lamentable, that such a recommendation is not accepted in the case of a disciplined service such as the police. If it were any other body of trade unionists there would be hell to pay if such a nationally negotiated award between employers and employees were not accepted. For such an award not to be accepted when it is known that the people to whom it applies are members of a disciplined force and, by the very nature of their service and agreements, cannot and would not wish to take any industrial action makes the position even more unacceptable.

Therefore, I ask the Minister of State to apply himself to the question of principle. Are there any circumstances today in which such a recommendation from the national joint negotiating committee would not be accepted? I do not believe there are. Whatever circumstances obtained in 1967 or 1968, they certainly do not exist today.

I have a copy of the reasons given for the Secretary of State's decision on 18th March, 1968, rejecting the recommendation that an undermanning allowance be paid to the Birmingham police force. Two of the reasons were concerned with the economic situation. First, it was said that a limitation on recruitment had been imposed. We know that a limitation on recruitment had been imposed because of the serious economic situation prevailing at that time. The second reason was that an incomes policy was in force. As those of us who had responsibility in those days recall, there was indeed an incomes policy in force.

I am sure that my right hon. Friend, if he were here, would not mind my saying that I expressed privately to him at that time that in my view, notwithstanding the economic emergency, it was wrong to set aside the recommended award of the national joint negotiating committee. Indeed, I think that the position now is untenable.

The third reason was that there had been an increase of 130 in the Birmingham police force in 1967 and that that had been achieved without the payment of such an allowance. My right lion. Friend was right about those figures. However, that was not an argument which he could have used in 1969; it was an argument which could be used only in 1968 because that was a freak year. I think I am right in saying that it coincided with a rather substantial wage award for the police in that year compared with other industrial workers. That, therefore, brought about the tremendous leap of 130 in recruitment for that year. The figures for the next year showed, however, that just as the graph had dramatically gone up in 1967, so in 1968 it had gone down even more dramatically below the point at which it was in 1966. Therefore, the then Secretary of State took his decision in the middle of what was a freak year in recruitment.

Whatever the argument about this matter today, that argument which the former Home Secretary used in 1968 has no validity in the terms and conditions now facing us. I do not need to emphasise that the principle of applying this award to Birmingham has not only been reaffirmed by the Police Council on one or two occasions, and as late as July, 1971, but has been unanimously accepted by the Birmingham police authority.

My second question to the Minister of State, if he does not concede the case this evening—that is perhaps asking too much on an Adjournment debate; I had to answer Adjournment debates many times when we were in office, so I know the difficulties—is: what are the principles today which apply regarding the payment of undermanning allowances and how do they apply to the Birmingham situation? As London, Liverpool and Glasgow policemen get this payment, I am at a loss to understand why it is not paid in Birmingham.

I will give the deficiency figures at the time the original decision was taken. The deficiency of the police force in Birmingham in 1967 was 23 per cent., in Glasgow 16 per cent., in Liverpool 22 per cent. and in the Metropolitan area 20 per cent. So when the decision to exclude Birmingham from this payment was made Birmingham had a greater deficiency in its numbers than any of those other forces.

The Minister and I are both busy at present in the Standing Committee on the Local Government Bill. In two years' time it is very likely that the Birmingham police force will be turned into a metropolitan police force—the West Midlands metropolitan police force. It will be even more incomprehensible if such a force is affected by these great deficiencies, with the great difficulty of policing the area caused by its geographical and social nature, if the award is not payable then but is still in force, as it undoubtedly will be, for the London Metropolitan Police.

The Birmingham case is that the workload of the Birmingham City police force is fantastic. Although there has been some increase in the strength and some recruitment in the last year or two, I am sorry to have to tell the Minister that the latest figures I have show a further deterioration in the position in the first two months of this year. Although there was a deficiency of 416 in the force in 1971, today, two months later, the deficiency is 444, which is a considerable deterioration. In considering the workload of the Birmingham force, obviously the figures ought to be considered against the background—and the figures bear this out—that the force is one of the most efficient forces, if not the most efficient, in Britain.

The number of crimes reported in 1961 was just under 25,500 and 10 years later, in 1971, the figure was just over 49,250. There has been almost a doubling of the amount of crime in Birmingham in the last 10 years. The extraordinary thing is that the force has cleared up double the number of crimes. The percentage of crimes cleared up shows only a marginal change, from 37 per cent. in 1961 to 36 per cent. in 1971, although the amount of crime and police work, and the burden on the force, has doubled in those 10 years. That is a remarkable achievement, and I am sure that the Minister of State would agree. It is a great tribute to the Birmingham City police force. This has been achieved because Birmingham has pioneered mechanisation, the Panda system and the Birmingham project, about which the Minister knows, and is constantly in the forefront in trying to apply new, sensible, efficient methods to the policing of our city and to crime detection.

A most serious situation is the fact that 137 men of the Birmingham force have now completed 25 years' service. They are men who came into the force immediately after the war. It is this above all else which muses great concern to all of us in the city who have any responsibility. Those 137 men are now eligible to retire and could retire. The incentive of the last award, a year or two ago, is obviously wearing off, as is apparent from the figures I have given about the deteriorating position.

I want to give the Minister adequate time to reply to the debate. I think I have deployed the case reasonably adequately and raised the principles which should be raised.

In conclusion, I return to my main point as to the rôle of the national joint negotiating committee and the Police Council in this matter. I understand that that committee, which was set up as a result of arbitration, is to meet again on 7th March. I know that the Minister is a reasonable man and will answer the debate in a reasonable manner.

A most important point to make is that we have record unemployment figures in Birmingham, as we have had during the last year. If there was any force in the argument that the numbers in the police force tend to increase when labour is available, that has been seen not to be the case in Birmingham. That is not happening, despite record unemployment figures. The numbers joining are not as great as we should wish to see, and the deficiency has gone up even in the last two months, whereas the contrary position would be the normal expectation.

The special sub-committee is due to meet on 7th March. It will review the rise in crime in Birmingham, the recruitment situation, the wastage now occurring and the unemployment, figures, details of which the city and, no doubt, the Home Office will supply. If the subcommittee decides to reaffirm its view that the Birmingham police force ought, on any fair consideration, to be paid the undermanning allowance. I hope that the Minister of State will say that the case has been made, that it has been considered again in the light of the circumstances and that the Government will not on this occasion wish to interfere with a proper, voluntarily negotiated award which has the support of all the authorities in Birmingham.

11.27 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Small Heath (Mr. Denis Howell), as one would expect, has made his case with force but with fairness. I am grateful to him for that. As we both know, this is not a party political matter. A great deal of the history that the hon. Gentleman has recounted refers to the period in office of the last Government, of which he was a member.

I do not dispute what the hon. Gentleman says about the history of the case. Before turning to the main point of the argument, however, I join with him in paying tribute to the efficiency of the Birmingham police.

I have had representations on this matter from hon. Members on both sides of the House who have pressed hard because of the campaign launched by the Birmingham branch of the Police Federation on behalf of its members in the Birmingham City police.

Undermanning allowance was introduced as a temporary measure in 1966 for the Metropolitan and City of London forces on a recommendation by the Police Arbitration Tribunal. Later this was extended to Liverpool and Bootle and to Glasgow. The tribunal also recommended that a sub-committee or panel of the Police Council should examine the conditions upon which payment might be made to forces outside London and should re-examine them after a reasonable period of trial.

In November, 1967, the Police Council published the criteria which it intended to take into account and invited police authorities to submit proposals for payment of the allowance. The council stated that it would submit recommendations to the Secretary of State, to whom the final decision would be reserved, and that it would review all cases of payment of the allowance whenever a police pay review took place—that is to say every two years, in September, 1968, 1970, and so on.

The Birmingham police authority submitted a proposal to pay the allowance in November, 1967, and the Police Council recommended payment in March, 1968. The then Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), declined to act upon the recommendation, as he was quite entitled to do. The hon. Gentleman has outlined the reasons which led the then Home Secretary to turn down the award at that time. There was a later recommendation, again to the previous Government, in February, 1970, but no reply had been given to it by the time of the General Election in June, 1970. It was still outstanding when the present Government took office. There was pressure upon my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to act upon it.

It was quite clear at that time that the Birmingham force was not alone in facing manpower problems. Many forces were failing to attract an adequate number of recruits. More serious, far too many trained and experienced officers were being lost to the service prematurely by resignation. There was broad agreement within the Police Council that the first priority in the 1970 pay negotiations was to get the general level of pay right and to introduce a new national pay structure designed to strengthen the police througout the country, rather than attempt to deal piecemeal with local problems. That was the view at that time of the Police Council. A recommendation for a national pay award was made by the Police Council in February, 1971, after lengthy negotiations, and this award was approved by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

That pay agreement provided for substantial general betterment. It provided for improvements in the scales designed to improve recruitment and particularly to reduce the loss of experienced officers. The problem of wastage particularly relates to the man who leaves the service after about seven years' service. He is probably one of the most valuable persons in the force. The Police Federation agreed that, except for the increase awarded after the Royal Commission report in 1960 this settlement was the best increase in pay ever negotiated and it published this opinion in the March, 1971, edition of the magazine Police published by the Federation—which I always read—under the heading: A Significant achievement. Meantime the claim of the Birmingham force for payment of an undermanning allowance was being pressed by the local branch of the federation. I am sure the hon. Member recalls coming to see me with a delegation of Members of Parliament from both sides of the House in September, 1970, to discuss this question. As I said then, undermanning allowances had produced no significant improvement in manpower in the four forces in which it was being paid. There were 12 other forces in England and Wales which were below establishment to a greater degree than Birmingham, of which only three were receiving the allowance. Negotiations were already in progress in the Police Council which the Home Secretary had reason to hope would result in an improved pay and manpower situation. Moreover the Police Council was itself committed to a full review of the under-manning allowance.

I return to the question of the pay award agreed in February, 1971. It clearly offered hope to the undermanned forces. That was certainly the view of most police authorities. All but one of those which had submitted proposals for payment of the allowance either withdrew them or advised the council that they could be regarded as shelved for a period. Birmingham shelved its proposal until the end of 1971. The police authority has now resubmitted its proposal to the council, which will consider it on 7th March and decide whether a new recommendation should be made to the Home Secretary.

We have taken measures to increase police strength, such as the pay scales of 1970, since topped up by an increase from September, 1971, and the recruiting drive undertaken by the Home Office and chief officers of police. These must be allowed time to work before considering whether any local problems call for special attention. I am glad to say that the position throughout England and Wales is much more encouraging than it was a year or two ago. For example, during the calendar year 1968 the total gain in police strength in England and Wales was only 142. In 1969 it was 980, in 1970 it was 1,986 and in 1971 it was 3,108. In January alone of this year the provisional figure was a net increase in strength of 599.

I know that Birmingham has its own special problem. The comparable figures for Birmingham show that in 1968 there was an increase of 42, in 1969 an increase of 38, and in 1970—a very bad year—there was an increase of only 15. Since then, however, the situation has improved. In 1971 there was a net increase of 86 and in the month of January this year alone there was an increase of 33. So whatever may have been the situation in the past, the trend is encouraging.

Mr. Howell

The Minister gave an answer the other day which showed that the deficiency had risen from 416 at the end of 1971 to 464. This hardly bears out the statement that in the last month at any rate the position has been as good as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Sharples

My last figure was that there was an increase in January, 1972, of 33, which is good. I do not have the figures for February, because the month is still only halfway through, but I have no reason to think that there is any change in the situation.

I would not pretend that police manpower problems are solved, whether in Birmingham or nationally. There are still deficiencies in Birmingham, as there are in many other places, but the fundamental problems of Birmingham are common to many other police forces. Their solution is likely to be found, so far as it depends on rates of pay, in coordinated action on a national basis rather than piecemeal. Recent trends are encouraging, particularly in the reduction shown in premature wastage of experienced police officers.

This matter is due for discussion at the forthcoming meeting of the Police Council on 7th March. I would not like to forecast any recommendations which the council might make to my right hon. Friend. As I said to the hon. Member when he came to see me, my own view remains that it is the general level of police pay and conditions of service which count rather than special allowances for particular forces. Nevertheless, any recommendation from the Police Council on this or any other matter is important and whatever it puts forward will be seriously considered by my right hon. Friend and myself.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-three minutes to Twelve midnight.