HC Deb 14 April 1976 vol 909 cc1482-90

4.28 p.m.

Mr. Bryan Davies (Enfield, North)

I am sure that the Minister, no less than myself, would enjoy a well-earned Easter break without the problem of school-crossing patrols in London, and Enfield in particular, being considered by this House. It is for this reason that I feel particularly privileged to have the opportunity of addressing our minds, if only for a short period, to the proposal for the reduction in school-crossing patrols in the London area. I am shocked that economies should have been directed at this inexpensive but essential service.

I was pleased, as I am sure was the whole House, by the Minister's recent announcement on increased road safety provision for schoolchildren. Last year, for instance, a major publicity campaign costing nearly £600,000 was launched. It was particularly directed at the road safety problems of the 5-to-9-year olds. This is a group which we ought to ensure is educated properly in road safety particularly when it is realised that in the last year for which full figures are available—1974—no fewer than 505 young children were killed on British roads and 33,000 were injured. It is certainly not before time that major efforts were made on the part of Ministers to improve road safety for schoolchildren.

I wonder how we can reconcile this with the rather savage reduction in school-crossing patrols which has taken place in recent months in the London area. Each patrol, I am assured, costs only a small figure—less than £500 a year. In London, therefore, last year the total saving effected by this economy was probably below £50,000. That is surely but a small fragment of any major budget. It is certainly a very small fragment of even that budget which is being devoted to publicity for road safety measures. Yet I maintain that road safety patrols contribute at least as much to the welfare of our children on the highway as education within schools on the subject, however desirable and important that is.

The school-crossing patrols direct a specific service at children. They are there for only restricted periods of the day to ensure that young children succeed in crossing busy roads. The criteria before such patrols are instituted are severe. Many hon. Members will be aware of the difficulty of convincing the authorities of the necessity for such patrols, even in areas where their constituents have identified the dangers to children and the problems with traffic.

The school-crossing patrols provide a service which is greatly supported by the community. In connection with one crossing with which I have been particularly concerned in recent months—the crossing in Ordnance Road, which is patrolled in the interests of children at Chesterfield Road School—the parents have demonstrated their social concern about the withdrawal of this facility. They began by presenting a petition to me with more than 500 signatures. They continued by sending letters to newspapers, and they succeeded in interesting that all-powerful expression of the media these days, television.

The parents themselves have been prepared to do their own homework, and not just their children's. They organised surveys in which detailed statistics were taken of the incidence of traffic on the road, including the number of vehicles passing at peak hours. They also paid particular regard to a crucial statistic in that situation—the attendance by police officers—because they had been assured that the withdrawal of the crossing patrol would be covered by the attendance of police officers whenever possible.

I raise this matter not just as one of local concern to a specific number of constituents, and not just because I believe in the desirability of restoring this patrol and that an emphasis should be placed on road safety. I raise it also because there is no local authority to which I can present the case of the parents. Had there been, I suggest that more progress might well have been made. I cannot see how a local authority would be deaf to the pleas of local people once it had identified so clearly their requirements in this respect.

The responsibility for crossing patrols in London, as opposed to the rest of the country, in fact lies not with local authorities but with the Metropolitan Police. I have enormous respect, as, I think, have the vast majority of the British people, for the work of the police —particularly the London police, who are facing increasing difficulties. Their record in recent years has been one which we would all applaud. But I maintain that in this matter, which I recognise is not one of the most significant issues before the police, they have got their priorities wrong. Not only is the safety of children threatened, not only are local feelings being ignored, but the decision, in all honesty, is unjustifiable on cost grounds.

What is happening at present is that where patrols are being withdrawn, local police are doing their best to repair the deficiency by using skilled professional police officers who are taken off other duties to fill the gaps in these patrols. While the present concern for economy in public expenditure is proper, in this particular instance not even that is being achieved. I have had the opportunity to discuss the issue with Metropolitan Police officers and I have been able to identify their particular difficulty. When restraint on expenditure has been placed on them by the Government it has been expressed over a period of time in manpower terms. The Metropolitan Police have repeatedly looked to a situation in which they could demonstrate that they were not increasing the numbers of staff.

But as far as I can ascertain they were not under any obligation to offer any other measure of economy in this respect. Therefore it would appear that we could arrive at a situation where, provided that the total number of staff remained the same, the police were meeting Government requirements.

Although this result may be achieved by the withdrawal of a crossing patrol, representing a certain element of manpower, its replacement by highly paid senior police officers costs the public purse a great deal more.

I do not blame the Metropolitan Police for trying to achieve the best establishment position they can. That is quite right. But it is an odd situation where the Government target figures are laid down in terms of manpower figures on the establishment and no clear indication is given as to the levels of various sections of the staff.

The reason why the Minister was able to indicate that nearly 100 crossing patrols have been withdrawn in London in the past 18 months is that they have not represented net savings to the public purse. What they have represented is a transfer of resources from crossing patrols to other elements in police duties, other contributions to the effectiveness of the force. At present we are getting the worst of both worlds. The irregularity of the attendance of police officers means that safety is not guaranteed.

Local police chiefs have indicated, for example, that when the alarm bells are rung and it is necessary for a maximum number of the police force to be on duties such as for the protection of passengers on public transport during the latest bomb threats, officers are transferred to these necessary duties and other duties are neglected. Is it surprising, therefore, that one of the duties which are most obviously forgone at that point is a duty which quite properly does not belong to a skilled police officer at all but which ought to be filled by a school-crossing patrol?

Not only have we a situation in which the safety of schoolchildren is not being guaranteed because the police officers cannot guarantee attendance, but the fact is that the use of police officers in this capacity is not providing an effective economy measure. I support my constituents when they say at this stage that they want their lollipop patrols back. They want these familiar figures as a guarantee of road safety for their children. I recognise that it is the responsibility of parents to ensure that their children are properly trained. I also recognise that it can be argued that parents ought to be concerned to escort their children to and from school if they are young children. Nevertheless, as a community we have recognised for some time now that parents are not always in a position to carry out that supervision.

We have recognised widely the desirability of crossing patrols. In my view the reduction of these patrols is a particularly niggardly and mean-minded measure to effect the total of public expenditure restrictions and it does not achieve that objective. On these grounds I maintain that the whole situation involving the withdrawal of crossing patrols should be looked at again.

I emphasise that the way in which the measures have been carried out has paid no regard to safety priorities. At this crossing to which I have referred the withdrawal of the patrol rested on the personal decision of the patrol lady who preferred to transfer to another crossing patrol which was more convenient for her. I defend her right to exercise her judgment in that respect. She is perfectly entitled to do so. What is reflected here is that there is no attempt at all on the part of the authorities to identify which crossing patrols, if any, could more safely be withdrawn. There has been no attempt to achieve priorities. What we have is a reduction in school crossing patrols simply on the basis of the decision by people manning the controls to discontinue their occupations.

I have appreciated this privilege of making a contribution to the last debate of this Session. When I realised that I was due to be called at this particularly auspicious hour I derived a degree of satisfaction in that I could, at least on this occasion, be guaranteed the last word. I regret to say, however, that on this occasion, in public as so often in private, I must yield the last word to my hon. Friend the lady Minister.

4.43 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Dr. Shirley Summerskill)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Mr. Davies) for setting out so clearly the problem which exists in respect of school-crossing patrols in London. He has illustrated the difficulties with a case from his own constituency and I am sure that there are other London Members, one of whom is in the House this afternoon, who could produce similar examples of crossings which have been without a regular attendant for some time.

With regard to the crossing which my hon. Friend has mentioned, I am sure that he is aware that it is the Commissioner's responsibility to decide how to deploy the staff at his disposal. It would not be proper for my right hon. Friend or myself to seek to intervene in this decision or other operational matters for which the Commissioner is responsible.

Under present arrangements the Commissioner deals with particular situations in particular areas. He is aware of the manpower and the womanpower available in each area. This availability varies from one area to another, and the work force —the manpower and womanpower available—fluctuates in any area. These are clearly operational matters for which the Commissioner must have responsibility, but I know that he is familiar with the constituency case raised by my hon. Friend.

I should like to say something about the general principle involved. As has been said, the position with regard to the employment of school-crossing patrols in the country as a whole is that outside London this is a matter for local authorities but within the Metropolitan Police district the patrols are employed by the Commissioner. I would just point out that the Metropolitan Police are expected to comply with the financial and manpower restrictions which apply to local authorities outside London, and that in respect of school-crossing patrols the Government assumed that there would be no increase in spending in the financial year that has just ended. That is not to say that we imposed a rigid ban on the expansion of this service. But since the rate support grant negotiations for 1975–76 concluded with an understanding that overall spending by local authorities should not increase, it followed that one service could be increased only at the expense of reductions in others. It is for local authorities to decide for themselves where their priorities should lie.

The Metropolitan Police, unfortunately, have less room for manoeuvre. They do not operate anything like the range of services of a local authority, and it follows that they do not have the same scope for making compensatory cuts. Following the rate support grant settlement at the end of 1974, the Home Office told the Commissioner that we would expect him not to exceed for 1975–76 the number of school-crossing patrols which the Metropolitan Police employed on 30th September 1974—the mid-point of the preceding financial year, which was taken as a base. At it happened, recruitment had been good between that date and the date when the Commissioner was told of these restrictions, and as a result he had to allow the number of patrols in his employment to fall back to the earlier figure. This meant, of course, the immediate suspension of recruitment, so that posts were not filled as they fell vacant. That, unfortunately, is what happened in my hon. Friend's constituency in the case which he described.

However, by the end of September last year, the number of staff in post for school-crossing duties was down to the required level, and since that date the Metropolitan Police have again been recruiting on a one-for-one basis as vacancies arise. I understand that they follow a policy of maintaining supervision by immediate replacement wherever possible, to maintain continuity, and that posts that have been unattended for a long time usually take a lower priority. This is because crossings where parents and children have become used not to having a patrol are likely to be less dangerous than one from which a patrol has just been removed.

I should, of course, make clear that the Commissioner has special arrangements for those crossings which are recognised to be exceptionally dangerous. The most dangerous of all are covered full-time by the police or traffic wardens, and there is a second category where a patrol is normally sufficient but where the police or traffic wardens provide cover if a patrol is not available. These arrangements are a matter for the Commissioner's judgment, but I hope that the House will accept that they seem to represent a sensible use of the limited resources at his disposal.

My hon. Friend has quite naturally questioned the wisdom of making comparatively small savings in public expenditure at the expense of the risk to children's lives. I naturally appreciate and share his concern, but I am afraid that there is no prospect of making additional funds available to enable the Commissioner to recruit patrols or other civilian staff up to establishment. It is inevitable that if the state of the economy demands that controls be placed on public expenditure there will be some reduction in services.

The House will know that everything possible has been done to protect the public themselves from restrictions of this kind. My hon. Friend will know of the welcome increase which is taking place in recruitment to the Metropolitan Police. No financial cuts have been made in that connection. That is why there has had to be some reduction in school-crossing patrols. Of course, the police and traffic wardens do whatever they can to cover dangerous crossings where there is no civilian patrol, but they have only limited manpower and many other commitments.

I am sorry if I sound harsh—I do not means to be—but I am sure that my hon. Friend realises that once one exception is made it becomes doubly difficult to apply the restriction elsewhere, and in the end it loses all value and effect. The Metropolitan Police are doing what they can to fill new vacancies as they arise and to keep to a sensible order of priorities. I am sure that the Commissioner is right to try to maintain supervision where it exists and not just to fill posts ad hoc, so that no one can be sure from one week to the next whether a particular crossing will be manned or not.

While I can offer no commitment to my hon. Friend, I know that the Com missioner has the needs of his constituents in mind and has this particular crossing in mind, as I said. Let us all hope that events will so improve as to enable us before too long to allow some further growth in essential social services, which at present, however hard it may be, the Government cannot afford to see expanding.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Five o'clock till Monday 26th April, pursuant to the resolution of the House yesterday.