HC Deb 19 January 1978 vol 942 cc814-24

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the growing crisis facing the Metropolitan Police. I should immediately make clear to the Minister that this is a matter of concern not only in Bexley-heath but throughout Greater London.

As I shall dwell on the factors that make up the crisis, I want to state clearly that the "Met" has been able to provide Londoners with the highest standard of policing in the world. Its record in fighting serious crime, countering international terrorism and tackling the IRA's despicable bombing campaign deserves and has the wholehearted gratitude of those whom it serves.

Rightly, coppers of the world beat a path to the doors of New Scotland Yard to learn how their job should be done, but it is the duty of Parliament and Back-Bench Members to attract attention to what is going wrong and to make suggestions on how matters may be put right.

Crime, especially violent crime, is an increasing affliction on Londoners. The latest available report of the Commissioner—for 1976—records that nearly 500,000 indictable crimes became known to the Metropolitan Police—a rise of nearly 20,000 on 1975. Offences against the person increased to 12,613 and robbery and violent thefts increased to 10,129, including no fewer than 1,020 attacks on the police. The House will be alarmed to learn that weapons were involved in 6,772 cases and that firearms were fired in 553 cases.

There was a total of over 100,000 burglaries. The Minister will know that in London every year about one house in every 50 is broken into. There is a feeling among some people that burglaries concern only the very rich. That is nonsense. Unfortunately, they are becoming the experience of all too many people in the "Met". Apart from the loss of valuables and regret at losing family possessions, there is the unpleasantness of returning home and finding that one's house has been invaded and, all too often, turned upside down.

According to an analysis prepared for the Police Superintendents' Association, the total of offences in 1977 will represent a 12.8 per cent. increase over 1976. This would be the second greatest annual increase in records kept by the force.

I shall spare the House a detailed breakdown of the figures that are known for that year so far, but that projection is based on 11 months and is presumably fairly accurate. No wonder so many households in my constituency have guard dogs and that after 9 p.m. so many folk turn their homes into miniature fortresses. No wonder Londoners were horrified to learn that on some mornings recently one-fifth of the Metropolitan Police force had been withdrawn from their streets and shopping centres to contain the union mobs outside Grunwick.

At the centre of this debate is the reality that as crime increases in Greater London the forces of law and order are being diminished. Back in June 1974 Sir Robert Mark—whom I regard as an outstanding Commissioner and to whom the Government should have given far greater support and attention—warned that the quality of policing in London was seriously threatened by the shortage of manpower. He stated that there were fewer in the force than there were in 1921, although the provincial forces had risen from 38,000 to 76,000 during the same period. He added that crime was 20 times higher and the increase in serious crime disproportionately greater in London.

The main question that I put to the Minister is this: knowing how grave the position was in the summer of 1974, why have the Government allowed it to become even worse over the last three and a half years? Today the force is 4,308 officers below establishment—and that establishment is certainly too low. Marten and Wilson, in "The Police—A Study in Manpower" stated that under normal circumstances the effective strength of the police force is rather less than two-thirds of its total strength on paper. This is because some police officers have to be away on leave, on courses, and so on.

The conclusion is that not all that many policemen are available every day to tackle the rising crime wave on our streets. Last year 1,128 officers resigned before completing their pensionable service, which was 211 more than the previous highest figure, recorded in 1974. The number of men and women who applied to join was 30 per cent. down on 1976. The Home Secretary is directly responsible to Parliament for the Metropolitan Police. He is an intelligent and civilised man, but he has presided over the wasting away of a great police force and it is high time that he was removed by the Prime Minister.

To contain the crime wave the country needs a much more energetic and effective Home Secretary—one who can regain the confidence of the police and put the fear of the law back into the heart of the criminal. The Prime Minister must take the measures that Londoners want and that their police need.

First, there must be a generous settlement of the police pay dispute. The House debated this issue recently and I look forward to learning the latest details from the Minister tonight. Policemen have a better case than do firemen. My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) has informed me that the Police Federation has traditionally opposed different rates of police pay in different areas, but it recognises the need for special allowances to cover special problems and in Greater London we have special police problems.

In a recent booklet that we produced. I and a number of my hon. Friends who represent London seats called for a substantial premium to be paid to the Metropolitan Police. I believe that it should be at least £1,000 a year. A recent Police Council sample shows that on average constables in London work for 51.6 hours a week. For detective constables the figure is 61.4 hours. At the same time, their leave entitlement is substantially below that enjoyed by their counterparts in Paris, Bonn and Rome.

All too often leave entitlement is lost because of the need to police the 500 or so demonstrations and events that take place in the capital each year. That extra duty destroys family life. Those demonstrations are to some extent part of our tradition—the march from Hyde Park Corner to Trafalgar Square. But has it not got out of hand and become an absurdity? Does every little group that has a point to make have to walk that path on a Sunday or a Saturday? Do they not realise the inconvenience that they are causing to so many people, particularly to police officers and their families?

More assistance with housing is required. The cost of this commodity is a particular anxiety to many young policemen that I meet in my constituency who are scraping up the money for a mortgage. The cost of living in London is much greater and travelling to work more time-consuming and expensive. A police officer in West London told me the other day that he found it impossible to use public transport in the way that he would like. His hours of work make it essential for him to have his own car. When he gets to the police station he finds that he has nowhere to park his car. Surely bet- ter arrangements could be made for policemen to park their cars.

One of the most depressing figures each year is that showing the number of policemen leaving London to join provincial forces, where their duties are lighter and their purses heavier. A point of particular concern is that in Greater London there is alarm at reports that many local police stations are to be closed. In my part of the world, Sidcup, Erith and Belvedere police stations have been mentioned. We were told at the time that these were just rumours, but they were accompanied by diagrams and breakdowns of officer strengths in the new locations.

Such a move would be wrong policy being brought in at the wrong time for the wrong reasons. The concept of "fire-brigade policing"—bringing men into an area for emergencies—is one to which we, in Bexley, are totally opposed. Individual policemen should be given responsibilities for a certain neighbourhood, where they should live and work and get to know the local schoolchildren.

This year the London borough of Bexley is paying £3 million towards the cost of the police force. When is the Commissioner going to tell us his plans for us, and what opportunities shall we have to make constructive suggestions before any final decisions are made?

More funds should be allocated to improve police relations with London's immigrant communities. I pay tribute to the work that the Metropolitan Police have done in this respect. I have met one or two of the key officers dealing with race relations, and I have been very impressed.

I shall seek to move an amendment to the Children and Young Persons Act to enable magistrates, rather than social workers, to deal with the rabble of young muggers and vandals that we have in London. Also, I want more severe penalties for those who attack police officers on duty. This year, one out of 10 policemen can expect to be injured on duty.

I welcome the fact that there are more policewomen in the force, as they have a vital part to play. I am pleased to see more policewomen on duty at the House of Commons. I cannot think why they were not given this job before. However, at some future Grosvenor Square riot, the Commissioner will need policemen to deploy alongside his policewomen, and there is a danger of the force getting out of balance. I press for the Specials to be given greater responsibilities and improved conditions.

I want the Government to change their policy on overtime, which has reached absurd proportions in the Metropolitan Police. A short while ago I was told that at one station there was a 50 per cent. ban on overtime, and the station officer assured me that this was hampering police work. How could they get involved in long and complicated cases when there were such restrictions on their overtime? I hope that the Minister will comment on the overtime problem.

The measures that I have called for cannot be quickly and easily brought into effect, but the vicious circle of dwindling numbers of police, unacceptable conditions, falling standards and a greater shortage of manpower, must be reversed. Neither can we tolerate the rapid replacement of seasoned officers by raw recruits.

The purpose of this debate is to spur the complacent Home Office into taking action on behalf of and for the benefit of those whom I am privileged to represent and all the citizens of London.

Mr. Dan Jones (Burnley)

With respect to the hon. Member for Bexley-heath (Mr. Townsend), and with greater respect to his case, does he not think that if these matters are considered sympathetically at the Home Office there may be a dangerous split between the policemen in the rest of the country and those in the Metropolitan area? Does he not think that that possibility is something that we cannot anticipate with any sort of equanimity?

Mr. Townsend

I assure the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Jones) that when my colleagues and I were writing our pamphlet we considered that point carefully. We basically believe that police duties in London are more onerous than in many other parts of the country. We believe that the cost of being a police officer in London must be taken into consideration. If we can get the Metropolitan Police establishment up to a realistic level, and if we can tackle the crime that is starting in the East End of London, the whole country will benefit.

10.51 p.m.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

I congratulate and thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) for so eloquently raising the subject of the Metropolitan Police. I am sure that his constituents will be most grateful to him.

I shall make four brief points. First, I believe it is wise to wait until Lord Edmund-Davies and his review body reach conclusions and report. I only hope that they will do so quickly. I am sure that it is right to have a national rate of pay, but there is a need to take into account the special problems of the Metropolis and to pay a rate that will attract a sufficient number of men to fill the gaps in its ranks.

My second point relates to demonstrations. Those who suffer most from demonstrations within the Metropolis are elderly women and others in the neighbourhoods of London who lose the protection of those police officers who are drafted to deal with the Grosvenor Square-type demonstration. It must be recognised that they pay the price.

Thirdly, I want to refer to the Special Branch. We all know what a magnificent job its officers do in protecting us from terrorists and hijackings. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to say, in guarded terms, whether she believes that this force is adequately manned and supported.

Finally, I turn to the question of women police officers. We must all welcome women into the police service. However, I am not sure whether the Sex Discrimination Act has not had an unfortunate effect, in the sense that women in the service are now being asked to perform tasks that they are physically ill-equipped to do. For example, male police officers are having to spend as much time in protecting the girls on duty with them as they are in doing the job of defending their neighbourhood against the vandal and the mugger.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and the Minister for allowing me to intervene.

10.53 p.m.

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

I welcome the opportunity that the hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) has provided for the House to discuss the Metropolitan Police. A great many points have been raised and I shall try to deal with as many of them as possible in the time that remains.

I cannot agree with the totally depressing picture painted by the hon. Gentlemen. The problems facing the Metropolitan Police, like the rest of the police service, are extremely serious, but I hope to put them into a little better perspective and to make clear the Government's support for the police service, and especially for the Metropolitan Police.

As the hon. Gentleman stressed, the fact that London is our capital city creates special problems of a scale that are not found anywhere else in the United Kingdom. The Metropolitan Police are regularly required to provide cover for ceremonial occasions and public demonstrations. They have to remain constantly vigilant in the face of possible terrorist threats.

The role of London as a world financial and commercial centre has had its darker side in the developement of large-scale complex fraud. The number of vehicles commuting into the capital each day is increasing. The huge number of people who visit the capital as tourists, or who work or live in London, provide a target and a cover for the criminal. These are just some of the problems with which the Metropolitan Police must deal each day, with speed, efficiency and expertise.

There is, nevertheless, this increase in crime—which is a matter of great concern to everyone—not only in London but throughout the industrial nations of Western Europe and North America. It is not peculiar to the United Kingdom or to London. The level of crime in London and its rate of increase are disturbing. In 1976 the total number of indictable offences known to the police in the Metropolitan Police district was 505,595—an increase of 4 per cent. over 1975.

Although in certain important categories of crime, for example assault, robbery and other violent theft, the percentage increase for the first 11 months of 1977 is significantly lower than for the same period in 1976, the general trend is a worrying one. In this context the force's manpower position assumes, as hon. Members have said, a special significance. In the calendar year 1977 the Metropolitan Police had a net loss of 233 police officers. Recruitment continued during the year at a satisfactory rate, above the level of 1975 and earlier years, although below the record level achieved in 1976. The total strength at 31st December 1977 was 22,012, and it is higher now than it was three years ago. The real problem has been wastage. [...]his increased by 50 per cent. over the 1976 level.

The pay situation, which I shall cover later, was not the only factor causing this. The size of the immediate post-war intakes to the force and the decision to allow war service performed before attestation to count at half rate for pension contribution to the increase. Nevertheless, we are far from complacent about the situation and shall continue to do everything possible to support the Commissioner in the vigorous efforts that he is making to increase recruitment, to make up the losses and to gain further strength, moving towards the force's establishment.

I welcome, with hon. Members, the fact that there is good recruitment of women to the Metropolitan Force. I do not see how the exemption of the police from the terms of the Sex Discrimination Act would automatically lead to the increase that we all want to see in the number of men recruits.

The Government have taken other steps to increase the resouces available to the police service and to the Metropolitan Police in particular. The force will benefit substantially from the measures that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced to the House on 7th November. He has agreed that during this year 900 new police cadets should be appointed to the Metropolitan Police, the maximum number that its cadet training school can take. A substantial proportion of these will be between the ages of 17 and 18, and the net result should be a marked increase in recruitment from this source during 1979 and 1980.

Another effect of these measures is that the force's civilian staff can be increased this year by about 500. The first claim on this pool of additional staff will be to fill posts that will release police officers for operational duty. The remainder will be used on work that will improve the effectiveness of the force. The force will also be able to increase in real terms its expenditure on vehicles, and on goods and services, by 3½ per cent. and 2½ per cent. respectively. The Government's intention, is to give priority to the police service and especially to the more hard pressed forces in urban areas like the Metropolitan Police.

I said that I would refer to police pay. I hope that the police service is now entering a happier and more settled phase in this respect. As the House is aware, an offer was made to the police of an immediate increase of 10 per cent. in pay and an independent inquiry into pay and other matters. The offer was accepted, and in the long term I am sure that the agreement to extend the terms of reference of the body reviewing police negotiating machinery, under the chairmanship of Lord Edmund-Davies, to include a review of pay, will represent a considerable advance.

The Government have made it clear that they will accept the recommendation of the inquiry on pay, reserving only the right to consider the phasing of the implementation of its recommendations. The Committee is now receiving evidence on pay and will make a separate report on the matter as soon as it is able to.

I should like to turn briefly to the problem of public order. One of the most disturbing features of the last year has been the growth of violence at some demonstrations. The maintenance of public order is one of the first responsibilities of Government in a civilised society, and the Government, the Home Secretary and the overwhelming majority of the people of this country support the police in the job they are doing.

The Home Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that chief officers can count on his support in the exercise of their powers to prevent disorder. The Government are also determined to ensure that both the framework of the law and its penalties should be brought fully to bear on those who resort to violence. My right hon. Friend is therefore carefully re-examining the Public Order Act and the related criminal law to see whether changes can be made which would assist the police and perhaps offer the hope of avoiding or reducing the risks of violence. But whatever the law, practical problems for the police on the ground will persist, and changes in the law could easily make matters worse.

The hon. Gentleman referred to police stations. The Commissioner keeps constantly under review the methods of policing employed in his force. It is in this context that his predecessor established a steering committee to review the command structure of the Metropolitan Police. The hon. Member referred to this review and to the possibility that a small number of police stations may be closed as a result of it. Let me make the position clear. The primary object of the review is to enable the Commissioner to decide the most effective way in which he can use his available manpower, with the particular aim of releasing officers from administrative tasks for operational duties. The closure of any station would not have an adverse effect on the number of police parols in the area covered by that station.

Nevertheless, the current position is that the review has not yet been completed and no decisions have been taken about the future of the stations concerned. When the results of the review are available it will be for the Commissioner, not the Home Secretary, to reach a decision, as operational considerations are primarily involved. The Commissioner has given an assurance that before any action is taken the views of interested parties, including the police representative organisations, will be considered. I shall therefore draw the hon. Member's remarks to the attention of the Commissioner as well as my right hon. Friend.

It is understandable that we have dwelt on the problems facing the Metropolitan Police. We should not overlook its successes. In the minute that I have left I want to say that the Metropolitan Police has a world-wide reputation for excellence, and rightly so. It stands high in the public's esteem, and with its professional skill and dedication to duty it will continue to do so.

It is right that I should close by paying tribute to the force and to the Commissioner who so ably leads it—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock 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 three minutes past Eleven o'clock.