HC Deb 07 June 1976 vol 912 cc1044-50
Mr. Aitken

I beg to move Amendment No. 41, in page 9, line 3, after 'day' insert: 'following the expiry of a period of twelve months from the date of passing of this Act'. The purpose of the amendment is to delay the legislation by one year from the date of the passing of the Act. We believe that such a delay is advisable so as not to bring Parliament into ridicule and contempt on account of the astonishingly misguided sense of priorities which the Government have in the matter of the Police Complaints Board.

It is vital not to do anything to undermine public confidence in the police. It is perhaps worth reminding ourselves at this stage of our deliberations that the public seem to have a much higher opinion of the high standing of the police than some Labour Members who have been so critical of the police in the course of our debates. In 1973–74 the Public Opinion Research Centre carried out a series of public opinion polls asking those interviewed in which of the leading 18 public institutions they had most confidence. Rather surprisingly, perhaps, the police came top of the polls. That is an important indication of the high degree of public confidence which exists in the police.

During the course of our debates I have often wondered whether we are not creating a camel to strain after a gnat. I recognise that some years ago there were grounds for anxiety, particularly as regards the Metropolitan Police Force. Today, thanks to the remarkably clean sweep of the broom of Sir Robert Mark, there has been a change in the whole ethical tone of the Metropolitan Police Force—the Criminal Investigation Department, in particular. Indeed there has been a cleaning up of many other police forces in the country over the past five years. One wonders whether the Bill is not aimed at answering a demand which does not now exist, even though there were murmurings some years ago.

9.45 p.m.

The Bill is ill-timed, its structure is thoroughly bad and it creates a large new bureaucracy at a substantial cost to taxpayers at a time when they can least afford it. There are cheaper ways of introducing an independent element, which should be studied more closely to oversee complaints against the police.

I question the sense of priority which has brought the Bill to the forefront of the Government's legislative programme. At a time when the war against crime is being fought more fiercely than ever, when terrorism is increasing and when there is rising tide of juvenile crime and general lawlessness, it is astonishing that the Government have chosen to bring forward a Bill to make it easier to complain against the police.

The Under-Secretary of State last week addressed senior police officers in Bournemouth. She indicated that stringent economic measures would be necessary to restrict public spending on the police and yet she comes to the House to make it clear that the Government are willing to spend large sums of public money—our estimate is between £1 million and £2 million—on complaints against the police. That is disgraceful. She is Scrooge when it comes to providing money to fight crime and Lady Bountiful when it comes to enabling people to make complaints against the police.

The Bill has a Byzantine complexity. The worst feature is the Government's refusal to look at the one structural remedy which could make such a difference to the Bill and which would allow the Bill to be complainant activated. We have already debated that matter but it is a manifest absurdity that we should have a new bureaucracy involving nine new members of the complaints board, 30 new civil servants grinding away at a mass of paper work simply to try to find complaints which are so important that they need to be taken to tribunals and investigated more fully than at present. That these procedures are to be operated automatically is an absurdity. It would be better to have machinery which is complainant activated. The complainant can stop the procedures but not start them. That is illogical.

One aspect of the Bill which has not yet been touched upon is that it will reproduce exactly the same procedures into Northern Ireland. I cannot think of a worse place to impose this impossible bureaucratic structure without it being at least complainant activated and without the structure and public money involved being cut.

Several senior police officers, including Sir Robert Mark more publicly, have said that the Bill will make it harder effectively to operate internal discipline. Sir Robert Mark has spoken of the undesirability of reducing internal police discipline to what he called an unsatisfactory level of criminal justice ". Internal disciplinary procedures for doubtful policemen must be tougher and harsher than those set for criminal justice. Anything which devalues those standards is to be abhorred by the House.

I turn to the bureaucracy which we are creating. This Government in particular have created a plethora of boards, ranging from the absurd Rhubarb Advisory Board now to the Police Complaints Board. I am very much concerned about the extension of Prime Ministerial patronage that the Bill envisages, at a time when such patronage is already under sharp public scrutiny. After the honours list of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), nine new fat cats, each paid an average salary of £10,000 a year, will be brought into the bureaucracy. The timing, if not the whole concept, is utterly wrong.

I should refer to the political dangers of the Bill. It is essential that politics should be kept out of the police, yet the Bill, by bringing Prime Ministerial appointees to oversee the whole system of internal discipline, could be, in the view of many chief constables and senior officers, the Trojan horse which brings political interference into the police complaints system.

Finally, and perhaps most important, I turn to the question of costs. We had from the Chancellor of the Exchequer today yet another sharp reminder that despite his air of seeming complacency there is a real desire by the Government, and certainly there is by my party, to bring public expenditure under control. But what can foreigners or British taxpayers think when they see a Bill which seeks substantially to increase public expenditure? Throughout our debates the hon. Lady has consistently said that the Bill will cost the taxpayer only £300,000. That is a demonstrably fraudulent figure. The hon. Lady's own figures include paying £96,000 to the chairman and the board members, £36,000 for accommodation costs, £24,000 for typing, duplicating and use of stationery and telephones, and £113,000 for the salaries of the 30 or so civil servants. Looking at those figures, we soon realise that we are in a world of soothsayers and astrologers rather than statisticians when we try to make them add up to a realistic total.

Dr. Summerskill

I am trying to follow the hon. Gentleman's argument as it relates to his amendment. Surely all these criticisms about the Bill and the board would still apply if it were carried.

Mr. Aitken

The advantage of our amendment is that it gives 12 months for second thoughts about these figures and, perhaps more important, that it gives the Government time to come clean about the real costs of the Bill. They cannot be made to add up as little as £300,000 when we take into account inflation and the substantial travelling costs. No doubt there will soon be the acquisition of prestige offices and regional departments. The work load, which the hon. Lady estimates at eight and a half complaints per member per day, is unsustainable.

The A10 Department of Scotland Yard, whose work load will be immeasurably increased by the Bill, already employs 90 people and costs more than £1 million a year to operate. The Kent police have investigated this year one complaint which cost them £16,000 and many other complaints running into several hundreds of pounds. From that one area alone I have been able to derive accurate figures suggesting that the hon. Lady's £300,000 estimate is absurd.

We should also remember that, again on the hon. Lady's own estimate, whereas complaints against the police are now running at 17,000 a year, there will be a substantial increase in the volume of complaints as a result of the board's being brought into existence, thanks to extra publicity and so on. This will mean in effect a 50 per cent. increase, leading to 25,000 complaints a year by 1977. That is the hon. Lady's own estimate—not mine. It really is a nonsense to suggest that by enacting this Bill we shall be fulfilling our duty as legislators and getting our priorities right. The time is surely ripe to pause and reflect upon whether we need the Bill at all and whether we could not find some simpler and cheaper way of introducing the independent element into complaints against the police.

Above all, on the public expenditure point, we are being two-faced and hypocritical if, on the one hand, all parties call for restraint and yet the Government, even when they say they are trying to reduce public expenditure, introduce a Bill which can do nothing but throw away public money to the tune of £2 million or £3 million.

Sir Bernard Brainerose

Mr. Speaker

Before I call the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine), may I say that I was more tolerant than usual with the hon. Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken) in allowing him to make his "Third Reading speech". I thought it might save time later.

Mr. Aitken

I am sorry, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I hope that nobody else will think that he can make a Third Reading speech on this amendment.

Sir B. Braine

I am deeply moved by your kind advice, Mr. Speaker. I shall seek to follow what you have just said.

I begin by expressing my wholehearted agreement with my hon. Friend the Member for Thanet, East (Mr. Aitken). The Bill is certainly ill-timed and largely unwanted. The delay that my hon. Friend seeks by means of the amendment is, in my view, wholly justified, so that second thoughts may prevail, so that there can be long and, I hope, fruitful and constructive consultation with the police staff associations and local authorities, and so that a little realism may be allowed to creep into the matter.

I say that for two reasons. First, investigations of complaints by the public against the police are carried out by the police service itself. They cannot be carried out by any other body. No matter how the Government like to dress up the new machinery, at the end of the day

Division No. 160.] AYES 10.00 p.m.
Abse, Leo Bean, R. E. Bray, Dr Jeremy
Allaun, Frank Beith, A. J. Brown, Hugh D. (Proven)
Anderson, Donald Benn, Rt Hon Anthony Wedgwood Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)
Archer, Peter Bidwell, Sydney Brown, Ronald (Hacknoy S)
Armstrong, Ernest Bishop, E. S. Buchan, Norman
Ashley, Jack Blenkinsop, Arthur Buchanan, Richard
Ashton, Joe Boardman, H. Butler, Mrs Joyce (Wood Green)
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Booth, Rt Hon Albert Callaghan, Rt Hon J. (Cardiff SE)
Atkinson, Norman Boothroyd, Miss Betty Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Bottomley, Rt Hon Arthur Campbell, Ian
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Boyden, James (Bish Auck) Canavan, Dennis
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Bradley, Tom Cant, R. B.

the whole system depends upon the capacity and, indeed, the willingness of the police service to carry out these investigations.

It is relevant for my hon. Friend to remind the House and, in particular, the Government that the police service at the moment is carrying an exceptionally heavy burden in the fight against crime and in the protection of the public against terrorism. The burden was underlined by the speech of the Under-Secretary of State when, at Bournemouth last week—I think it was very courageous and proper of her—she warned the police service as a whole that there was no more money in the kitty and that the service would have to make do with what it had.

I am not criticising the hon. Lady Tot making that statement. All I am saying is that to put an additional burden on the police service at this time, without full consultation, is wrong and that the amendment will provide an opportunity for reflection and proper action. The Bill does absolutely nothing to ease the burden that the police are shouldering; indeed, in present circumstances the proposals in the Bill will add very heavily to that burden. That is my judgment and the judgment of many people in the police service with whom I have talked.

Complaints against the police are running at 17,500 a year—

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.