HC Deb 20 February 1991 vol 186 cc294-317

'Any person convicted of assault causing actual bodily harm on a police officer in the execution of his duty shall be sentenced to a term of imprisonment of not less than three months, and shall not be released before he has served three months of his sentence.'.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

I wish to declare an outside interest as the parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation of England and Wales. The purpose of the new clause is to introduce a mandatory minimum custodial sentence of three months for assaulting a police officer while in the execution of his duty and where such assault occasions actual bodily harm.

Another reason for the new clause is to draw the attention of the House and the Government to what is now a major problem facing the police in this country. Many of my hon. Friends have put their names to the new clause and they all, in one way or another, advise on and take an interest in police matters. The aim is to deter persons from assaulting the public servants we pay to protect us and every citizen in Britain.

The House may ask why it is necessary. There are now about 20,000 assaults on the police each year and, unhappily, the number is rising. As a result, many officers are unable to return to duty for weeks or even months. Some are permanently disabled and their injuries are so severe that they never return to duty. Some die from their injuries. That is truly shocking, and it seems clear that those who assault police officers are not deterred from doing so by the existing range of penalties imposed by British courts.

I shall give a few examples. In Lancashire, in 1989–90, there was a 38 per cent. increase in assaults on officers. Of three convictions, one involved a sentence of probation for 12 months and compensation of £50, and another was reduced to common assault and the case did not even justify a court hearing. In Northamptonshire during 1990, 208 police officers were assaulted out of a force strength of 1,141—almost 20 per cent.

I received a fax this afternoon from the secretary of the joint branch board of the Northamptonshire Police Federation. It said: The Chief Constable and my Chairman are continually asking the Magistrates to impose severe sentences for this type of assault, and we fully support your attempt to make a mandatory prison sentence. 4.45 pm

In Avon and Somerset, in February 1991, an unemployed person who had been convicted walked free from court after a third conviction for assaulting the police. He was given a 15-month suspended gaol sentence after finishing a one-year sentence for offences which included an assault on the police. The judge is reported to have told him that a gaol sentence would do nothing more than protect the police and the public. If the report is accurate, that seems a rather strange comment.

I could go on reading a long list of convictions that have not incurred a custodial sentence, and where a fine has been imposed or perhaps a community service sentence. For example, in Nottinghamshire in December, there were two convictions. One involved a fine of £100 and another involved 100 hours of community service and £20 compensation. The constable concerned is still on light duties and may have to undergo surgery. We are talking not about minor scuffles with the police in which a police officer is nudged or shoved but about offences involving actual bodily harm.

I know that many hon. Members read Police magazine, the journal of the Police Federation of England and Wales. Some hon. Members may have already seen today the tragic case of the late PC Robert Gladwell, whose name has been added to the roll of police officers killed by a criminal assault while in the execution of their duty.

PC Gladwell and a woman colleague were sent to the Plaza hotel in Queensway, Paddington, on 16 December to deal with a disturbance. The woman officer, Constable Sharon Hofland, was assaulted and sustained a fractured hand as well as being kicked in the stomach. Constable Gladwell attempted to protect her, and received a blow to the head. He suffered concussion and was taken to hospital. On returning to Harrow road police station he began to vomit. He returned to duty on 2 January this year but, two days later, he collapsed and was taken to the Royal Free hospital for emergency brain surgery. He died without recovering consciousness. A subsequent post mortem found that his death was attributable to assault.


Superintendent Don Edwardson of Harrow Road described PC Gladwell as a professional and conscientious police officer who always gave of his best. He was a former soldier who worked on bomb disposal in Ulster and in Germany. Only a month before his death, he and his wife, Gillian, had adopted a child. I take this opportunity to pay my respects to the memory of a fine officer, and I am sure that the House will join me in expressing our deepest sympathy to his widow. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]

It is not enough simply to express our sympathy, and his death in the line of duty must not be in vain. The Government must take action to make it clear that society and Parliament do not accept the fact that 20,000 such assaults can take place without a real and powerful attempt to deter them.

My constituency of Uxbridge is a law-abiding area but, even there, out of a force of 230 officers there was one case of grievous bodily harm, with eight cases of actual bodily harm and 22 simple assaults, during 1990. In Hayes and Harlington, which for policing purposes covers part of my constituency, 58 officers were assaulted on duty in 1990.

The police, who are often young men and women, are at much risk in patrolling the down-town areas of our towns and cities. The same can be said of police officers in country areas, who are frequently assaulted when, single-handedly, they have to deal with drunken rowdies after closing time.

When I first became parliamentary adviser to the Police Federation, I laboured under the delusion that the lot of a country police officer, as portrayed over the years, was a quiet one—that it involved little more than having a jug with the landlord now and again and keeping an eye on the boys who were involved in a bit of local scrumping. I quickly found that the reverse is true. In many villages and rural areas, only one or two police officers may be on duty, and the nearest help is probably 25 miles away. They must often deal with a bunch of rowdies who travel by coach to a pub or club in a large town but return to cause problems in their village. The difficulties and serious assaults that I have described are by no means confined to urban areas.

How different is sentencing practice today from in the past? I am told that, perhaps, 25 years ago, an assault occasioning actual bodily harm on a police officer would almost certainly have resulted in the offender going to prison, probably for at least six months. A chief superintendent whom I spoke to about a week ago told me of a magistrate in Edinburgh, whom he knew well when he was stationed there as a young constable, telling a defendant, "I will not have you assaulting our police—six months." That was not an untypical sentence. As a result, everyone in the community knew that a person who was convicted and sentenced had committed a serious offence. That person was not, thereafter, well regarded in the community in which he or she lived.

Today, when assaults are commonplace and incur only a fine or community service, the feeling among the police is that few of the convicted person's relatives, friends or employers are aware of the gravity of the offence or of the conviction. That must be stopped.

A further reason for the new clause is to demonstrate to the police, including those who have been seriously injured and the relatives and friends of those who have died, that hon. Members care and support police officers in the difficult and dangerous task on which they are engaged at our bidding. That is an important aspect of the new clause.

I invite hon. Members who may doubt what I am saying to ask any police officer on duty in the House whether they think that penalties for assaulting the police are sufficient to act as a real deterrent, or whether they feel that Parliament cares sufficiently about the dangers to which they and their fellow officers are exposed. Hon. Members will find that the answer to that question is no.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State may say that we do not want to send more people to prison—a proposition with which most hon. Members will agree—but we are debating violent offences against those whose job it is to uphold the law. As the Home Secretary has made clear, violent sentences merit a custodial sentence. As Mr. Speaker Thomas used to remind the House from time to time, this is the High Court of Parliament. This High Court should decide today that it will not tolerate those who punch, kick, stab and slash police officers, or women officers having their hair torn from their scalps or their breasts beaten by someone who thinks that they can do so with impunity to resist arrest. It is time to call a halt.

It has been put to me by several people with whom I have discussed the problem that we do not have minimum penalties. I asked the Library to compare the position in Britain with that in other European Community countries. That is not an easy task, because unfortunately the only available documentation is dated June 1978. I would not be surprised if my right hon. Friend the Minister told me that the position has changed. According to a Home Office report entitled "Sentences of Imprisonment: A Review of Maximum Penalties", published by the Advisory Council on the Penal System, other western European countries, broadly speaking, operate a system that specifies a minimum and maximum penalty for each offence, within which judges are permitted fairly wide discretion.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

It is the same in some states of America.

Mr. Shersby

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) reminds me that the position in some American states is similar.

In Belgium, a minimum and maximum penalty is specified in the criminal code. The penalty for ordinary theft ranges from one month to five years. In Sweden, the minimum sentence is one month of imprisonment. In the Netherlands, the acceptance of the short prison sentence is even more marked—less than three months tends to be the norm—and the minimum sentence is one day of imprisonment. I quote those examples to show that the concept of a minimum custodial penalty is not novel. I am asking the House not to return to the days of transportation to the colonies but seriously to consider the position that obtains in other countries of the European Community, to which we pay such regard these days.

I should like to quote from a letter that I have just received by fax from the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Mr. Owen, to show that the argument that I am putting before the House is, I hope, balanced: I much regret I am unable to support the amendment, for it is far too simplistic. Would someone go to prison for slapping a police officer or spitting at him? That would in my view be totally counter-productive. My answer to Mr. Owen is no, I do not believe that someone would. The offence must be assault occasioning actual bodily harm.

Mr. Owen further says—it is important that the House should have regard to this— Having said that, I am sure you will appreciate the very strong groundswell of concern over the number of police officers who are being assaulted and assaulted quite seriously. We have no protection save the Courts and it is to the Courts that we must look for that protection. I have over the last several years publicly expressed my concern and pointed to the leniency shown by the Courts. A recent example of 26 officers assaulted over the Christmas period in my Force resulted in the Chairmen of the Magistrates' Courts in North Wales meeting to discuss the problem. It is right that we should draw attention to the growing concerns of the police officer on the street. We need to be sure he will approach and tackle all those incidents which he finds. If he feels isolated, who knows what course of action he will take?—to the possible detriment of society. Mr. Owen makes my point very well, and I agree very much with the sentiments that are expressed in that paragraph.

Although Mr. Owen has reservations about the new clause, I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will take them seriously, because they support my general proposition that it is not good enough that there should be 20,000 serious assaults on the police and that this House has a duty to ensure that the men and women who protect the law-abiding citizens of this country can go about their job as we would wish them to, in the knowledge and belief that an adequate deterrent is available to deal with those who assault them.

This matter requires urgent attention. It cannot be left for a couple more years or for another Criminal Justice Bill. I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will assure me, the federated ranks of the police and ACPO that the Government will take action.

5 pm

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I understand the purposes of the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) in tabling the new clause. I welcome the opportunity that it gives to highlight the risks of serious assault faced by the police force and to highlight a growing problem. Parliament is anxious about this matter, and the hon. Gentleman was right to provide an opportunity for this debate.

I am afraid that it is not possible for me to concur with the view of the hon. Member for Uxbridge that we should accept the new clause. He made a big assumption, the force of which is not easy to demonstrate—that the proposed minimum mandatory prison sentence will act as a deterrent. There is a risk that the new clause will act in precisely the opposite direction. People who are stopped by the police want to avoid detention or being taken into custody. If a prison sentence were likely, a person stopped by the police would be likely to go to greater lengths to avoid being taken into custody and the risk of assault faced by the police would be even greater than it is. That would be counterproductive.

I would move from that view if the hon. Member for Uxbridge produced evidence to rebut it. The hon. Gentleman did not inform the House of the views of the Magistrates Association, although he informed us of the powerful view of the Association of Chief Police Officers that the approach of the new clause to this difficult problem was too simple. I believe that it is, indeed, too simple. The circumstances in which assaults causing actual bodily harm occur can vary considerably, as can the degree of culpability and of mens rea associated with such assaults. Imposing a mandatory minimum sentence would fail to take account of those variations.

The House sympathised with the point made by the hon. Member for Uxbridge about the tragic case of Police Constable Gladwell. A murder charge may be appropriate if the offender is discovered and brought to trial, but I am not sure that that case is relevant to the new clause. The hon. Gentleman says that Parliament believes that violent crime should result in severe penalties, but most people are aware of the limitations of incarceration as a deterrent. Whether imprisonment prevents crimes has increasingly been called into question. The hon. Gentleman did not discharge the burden of proof in explaining why we should depart from the normal practice of not having minimum penalties.

I should be bound to vote against the new clause if it were forced to a vote. The new clause would damage the cause that the hon. Member for Uxbridge understandably espouses—the provision of greater protection for the police. It would be more likely to lead to greater violence by those resisting arrest, which would constitute an additional threat from which the police would have to be protected.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I intervene briefly to support the new clause so ably and convincingly moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby). He deployed a powerful case for having additional penalties which are an effective deterrent.

I, too, must declare an interest. I have been the adviser to the Police Superintendents Association of England and Wales, the senior officers in the field, for—I hesitate to say—some 25 years. I have got to know the police well. I respect and admire them. They deserve much more than they get, given their vital task. They have always had a difficult task. Being a police officer is difficult at any time, but never more so than today when the police have to cope with a rising tide of crime, especially violent crime. They are the thin blue line standing between the public and criminals who do not hesitate to use violence to achieve their ends and to maim and sometimes kill.

The trend is horrifying. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge gave the House some examples. Let us consider the most savage crime—murder. Five years before the abolition of capital punishment, there were 290 murders per year on average. That is a frightening figure, but in the past five years there have been 647 murders a year on average. In the 25 years before abolition, 14 police officers were murdered in the course of their duty; in the same period since abolition, 53 have been murdered—four times as many.

I have been in the House for more than 40 years. During that time I have seen a steady deterioration in public behaviour and an increase in criminality of all kinds. It behoves us to stop now and again and to ask ourselves whether we are doing sufficient to reinforce and to protect the thin blue line. If the public are to be protected effectively—that is, after all, the task of the police—the thin blue line needs to be reinforced. As my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge could have told the House, there are several ways in which that can be done. For example, we could recruit more officers and double the police force—assuming that, in the conditions of today, young men and particularly young married men would wish to join the service. We could increase the number of police officers, or if that proved difficult, we could arm the police. [Interruption.] There is no need for my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge to intervene. I would never favour such a move, except that if nothing is done to give effective protection to police officers it will happen, and the public will support it.

Mr. Maclennan

Has the right hon. Gentleman studied evidence in the United States, where police forces are armed, and has he considered whether the situation there is safer for the police? My impression—it is no more than that—is that proportionately more police officers are killed in those circumstances.

Sir Bernard Braine

I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I am talking about crime and policing in this country. When I first entered politics we proudly claimed that we had the finest police force in the world—the constable armed by the public, by which I mean not physically armed but mandated by the public to protect them. When I was a youngster, a police constable did not need any weapons—he was a respected figure—but I have seen the respect deteriorate, not because the quality of the police has changed but because society has deteriorated.

If we do not face up to that issue, we shall need to consider certain alternatives. The first would be to recruit more police officers. I am asking the House to consider whether young married men with children, knowing what happens on our streets, will rush to join the police force. The second alternative—

Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Bernard Braine

I promised to make a brief speech, and I want to keep it brief.

Mr. Archer

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way on the point that he has just made?

Sir Bernard Braine

I will give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

Mr. Archer

Twice now the right hon. Gentleman has queried whether recruits are prepared to join the police. Is he aware that I fully support his view that we need more police officers, but in the biggest police force outside the Metropolitan area—the West Midlands police—the limiting factor is not the number of recruits who are prepared to apply but the number on the strength that the Home Office is prepared to authorise?

Sir Bernard Braine

Perhaps I did not make my meaning as clear as I should have done. With the new clause we are asking for action to be taken by the Government to ensure that there is a deterrent to assaulting a police officer. That is all that we are asking. If the warning that my hon. Friend described in detail is not heeded, we shall need to consider other means. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be right, but if the trend continues and more police officers are murdered in the course of their duties, or injured and forced to retire from the police force through injury or ill health, it will become more difficult to recruit. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman cannot grasp that, he cannot grasp anything. I am talking about trends, and I make this appeal to the House because the trends that we have been witnessing are serious and worrying. That is the purpose of my support for my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge.

The idea of arming the police is politically objectionable in present circumstances. I have no desire to emulate the example of the United States. I want a police constable to continue to be an ordinary citizen who is armed by the community to preserve law and order—that is a wonderful, noble tradition and I want to preserve it—but if the idea of arming the police is politically objectionable, the only remedy is some kind of deterrent to make the men of violence think twice before attacking police officers. That is what the new clause would do.

5.15 pm

It is necessary to issue a warning. Unless Parliament shows itself to be concerned to protect the police—to protect the protectors of the public—recruitment will fall. I have been in close touch with police matters for many years. There is no dearth of young men who would like to serve in the police. Indeed, I have a grandson who, when he comes out of the Army, intends to join the police. He is most anxious to join and I am proud of him. But if we ignore the warning, recruitment will fall. I speak with some knowledge of the police and their views. We have no right to show indifference to the increasing dangers faced by police officers. For that reason, I am happy to support the new clause.

Mr. Ken Maginnis (Fermanagh and South Tyrone)

I am grateful to be called at this stage, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for being late, but I was detained by duties in another part of the House.

I must acquaint the House with my interest as a parliamentary adviser to the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Although the Bill does not apply directly to Northern Ireland, there will subsequently be a direct knock-on effect in that part of the United Kingdom. My concern is not exclusively with police in Northern Ireland; it is with all policemen in the United Kingdom. It is 33 years since I, as a young man just out of college, became a special constable, so I have some experience of policing from the coal face.

Throughout the years, I have seen at first hand the increasingly difficult job that our police forces have in dealing with the public. The vast majority of the public support our police forces in an increasingly passive manner. But more and more members of the public are prepared to confront the police and to assault them when there is an opportunity to do so. If we are not careful, we shall soon find police officers believing themselves to be totally vulnerable and that there is little public sympathy for them in carrying out their difficult job. The actions and behaviour of constabularies throughout the country are being questioned more and more. Their job is coming under more and more public scrutiny. It is, therefore, illogical that we expect the maintenance of the highest standards of behaviour from the police service, but that as a nation we do not give its officers every possible protection.

There will always be those who, perhaps as part of a football crowd or a group coming out of a public house late in the evening, may confront a policeman or policemen and even assault an officer, and who, the following day, will regret those actions. From what I have heard from Opposition Members so far, there may be those in the House who think that a mandatory three-month sentence is a draconian measure. However, we must remember that the minor incidents of people assaulting police officers in the circumstances that I have just described can lead to even more serious assaults or ultimately to an assault that could leave a policeman with a permanent injury or worse.

Policing is a partnership between the public and those upon whom we call to serve the public by maintaining law and order. If we then require the utmost discretion from our policemen and women, we must demonstrate to them not only that the public, but that we who represent the public in this House, care about them. We can do that only if we demonstrate as firmly as possible that we are not prepared to see them violently interfered with.

Therefore, I ask all those who care about the police service to ensure that we do not ask its officers to do the job under the impression that they must do it alone. They must be assured that every hon. Member, representing the community at large, is fully behind them and wants to provide them with the best possible protection.

The alternative was spelt out by the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine): to arm our police service and to provide its officers with other means of protecting themselves. None of us wishes that. I have experience of the necessity of arming the police service in Northern Ireland and no one wants that to spread throughout the United Kingdom.

The answer is clear. The police must have the full protection of the law in just the same way as the public expect to have the full protection of the law. The police are not set apart from the community; they are part of the community. For that reason, I have pleasure in supporting the new clause.

Mr. Teddy Taylor

If any hon. Member doubted the danger to police officers, the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), who represents so well the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Northern Ireland, could give the real picture. However, many of us have pictures from our own constituencies. I recently had the experience of going out with the police in Southend when they had to deal with a crowd of drunks on a bus. There was also a frightening incident involving an assault on a police officer outside my own home at 4 o'clock in the morning.

The crucial thing about which I hope the Government will think is that we are not being successful in deterring crime. No Government have probably tried so hard to reduce the crime figures. We have increased the number of police officers. We have done everything that one could reasonably do, but the plain fact is that we are not succeeding. If the present crime figures had occurred under a Labour Government, I fancy that Conservative Members would have been jumping up and down, making a great deal of noise. We cannot condemn the Government for the figures, but I hope that they accept that they have not been successful in deterring crime.

The easiest way of discovering the reason for that lack of success would be to take a public opinion poll of young people. We could ask one of the splendid organisations that constantly carries out such inquiries to ask young people, "What do you think would happen to you if you committed a certain crime?" Young people are misguided because the popular newspapers constantly devote headlines to judges who give a sentence of a bag of sweeties to someone who has committed a dreadful crime. Such headlines are far from being representative of what happens in courts because some stiff sentences are applied. However, the Government are probably not fully aware of the extent to which young people are under the impression that not much would happen to somebody who committed a crime, especially if it was a first offence. In Glasgow, many youngsters seem to think that if they say that they are joining a youth club, not much will happen on a first appearance in court. The Government might be alarmed at the answers that they would get if they were to ask young people that question. One of the serious problems facing society today is that those beliefs about what happens in court to young people are leading to a sharp increase in crime; they are certainly not deterring it.

Although this debate relates primarily to the police, I hope that the Government will consider the principle of a mandatory statutory sentence. In my opinion, that would lead not to more people going to prison, but to fewer people in prison because it would deter crime. If people knew that the consequence of a particular crime was a mandatory sentence, I am convinced that the numbers of people committing those crimes would fall sharply.

People who doubt that may ask, "Where is the evidence?" My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), who has represented that constituency so well for so many years, gave a hint of the evidence. I challenge those who disagree to say why the murder figures did not rise during the 20 years from 1945 to 1965 when we had the only mandatory sentence—capital punishment—yet all other crimes more than doubled. Of course, some people might say that there were special reasons for those murder figures, but we must ask why they did not rise at all when general crime was on the increase. There is no doubt that many people knew that a dreadful deterrent could be applied if they carried or used a gun. Since the abolition of capital punishment, we have not only had the huge rise in the incidence of murder to which my right hon. Friend referred, but there have been even more dramatic rises in crimes involving the use of firearms and, perhaps more importantly, in all crime.

Several hon. Members take my view that the only way to curb crime and stop people going to prison is to have a mandatory sentence so that people know that if they are found guilty of shoplifting, of robbing someone's house or of assault, mandatory sentences will be applied. Judges could be given special powers to depart from such sentences if they thought that there were particular circumstances relevant to that case. If we tried it, we might succeed in deterring crime—[Interruption.] It is not a matter of fun. I see that my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr Patten), is throwing up his hands as the argument advances——

Mr. John Patten

Not at my hon. Friend.

Mr. Taylor

I apologise. My right hon. Friend was making a gesture at another hon. Member who had said something else. I take it all back and wholly withdraw the implication of what I said.

If my right hon. Friend the Minister does not feel that we should try out the proposal in the new clause, will he please think about the problem of the rising crime figures? We could make many speeches about it. It causes terrible alarm among many people that crime is rising so quickly.

I accept that the Government have done many things. They have increased the number of officers. They have increased pay. They have done everything that one could expect to deter crime. We have even tried in our own narrow way to improve the living standards of the average family. But we are losing the battle at what seems to be an accelerating rate.

I appeal to the Government to consider the principle of the mandatory sentence. The evidence is available that it would work. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) suggests that we should try mandatory sentences, not for all crime but for assaults on the police. Of course, we have an obligation to treat policemen in a special way. They are the chaps who have to face the dreadful problems of crime. I have seen the problems that they have, as have other hon. Members.

5.30 pm
Mr. John Patten

My hon. Friend is on to an extremely important and interesting point when he directs the attention of the House to who is responsible for stopping crime. I have paid great attention to my hon. Friend's speech. Is he aware of a survey published just before Christmas which was commissioned by the Home Office? It showed that a relatively small number of people in Britain pointed the finger at the Government or the police and said that they should prevent crime. The overwhelming majority—53 per cent. of those asked—pointed the finger at the family and said that it was in the front line in preventing crime and stopping criminality.

Mr. Taylor

I am delighted that the Home Office is carrying out surveys. That is a step forward. It is good news. I accept that family breakdown or problems such as increased drinking may be factors which lead to a general increase in crime. The Government may be innocent. They may have been wrongly attacked all along. The Minister should receive a medal and I should be glad to give him one if it would reassure Ministers that I am making the serious point that we are not succeeding in reducing crime. There is evidence that mandatory sentences would reduce crime. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge suggests that we should try a mandatory sentence for assaulting police officers. There are abundant reasons why we should make police officers a special group. They justify special attention because they do a special job. Let us try a mandatory sentence. If it does not work, people like me and others who have argued for it will have nothing much to say. But I believe that it would deter crime.

I appeal to my right hon. Friend the Minister, now that the Home Office has started to conduct surveys—I wish the Government good luck in that—to ask young people what they believe would happen if they were found guilty of a crime. If he does, I believe that he will find overwhelming evidence that standard mandatory sentences, which let young and older people know that if they commit a certain crime they will receive a certain sentence, would deter crime.

Mr. John Patten

My hon. Friend has made a positive suggestion that our next survey should include questions about what young people believe would happen to them if they were found guilty in court. I shall do exactly as he suggests.

Mr. Taylor

That is a massive step forward. I have been greatly impressed by the active and positive way in which my right hon. Friend the Minister has approached his duties. I honestly believe that if he takes up my suggestion, he will find interesting information. Once that information is available, it might be possible to introduce mandatory sentences.

I assure my right hon. Friend the Minister—and I am sure that he accepts—that the object of the new clause is not to put more people in prison or to hammer people for assaulting police officers, but to attempt to stop crime and stop youngsters and others getting into trouble. My right hon. Friend has already made a major advance by promising to carry out the survey that I suggested. Let us hope that that and other advances will allow us to begin to tackle and overcome the crime problem with the great zeal and enthusiasm that my right hon. Friend the Minister has shown in his approach to this serious problem.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

I accept that, by tabling his new clause, the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) has highlighted a problem. But his solution to the problem is not appropriate. I hope that at the end of the debate, which should be useful in drawing people's attention to the problem, he will withdraw his new clause.

Everyone should be worried about the loss of public esteem for the police and the damage done to individual policemen. It is important that as a society we restore public esteem for policemen so that there are fewer assaults on them and they are shown more respect by the general public. It is especially important that the general public come to the assistance of the police automatically and without question when the police need them. One of the saddest features of many cases in recent years has been the lack of assistance from the public to uniformed policemen.

I add to the hon. Gentleman's list of the problems of the police the growing trend for criminals to use dogs to further or protect their crimes. It is an extremely harrowing business for a police officer to attempt to apprehend someone who has with him one of the more vicious dogs such as the pit bull terrier, the rottweiler or the German shepherd, or to enter a house where such a dog is present. It takes a great deal of nerve for a police officer to carry out his duty when he knows that an individual has such a dog with him or on his premises. There is also considerable anxiety among police officers about the increasing use of firearms.

I accept that there is a problem of the police being attacked. One need only consider the amount of time that police officers have off work to recover from assaults to realise that violence against the police is a major problem. The problem is not only the pain and suffering of the police officer but the loss of a highly qualified officer from work.

The problem is not recruitment. The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) did not have a valid point when he said that recruitment was a problem. The problem is rather different. It is the loss of good police officers to the service as a result of physical damage which results in their taking early retirement. There is also the problem of fear. Not many police officers are willing to admit that they are frightened by their job, but there is much evidence that their spouses are frightened and fear for their safety. That may lead policemen to look for an alternative job. There is a problem of people leaving the police service early when a great deal of money has been spent on training them and they are just beginning to become skilful officers.

I accept that there is a problem, but the idea that it can be solved by a mandatory three-month sentence is ludicrous. Some serious assaults have been mentioned. It is a pretty sick society which believes that three months is a long enough sentence for such assaults.

Mr. Shersby

I said that three months would be a minimum sentence. Anyone who assaulted a police officer and occasioned actual bodily harm would be given a sentence of at least three months. There is nothing to prevent a judge or magistrate from imposing a much longer sentence.

Mr. Bennett

I understand that, but we are dealing with the psychology of crime. We must get it across to people that if they commit a serious assault they will be given a serious prison sentence. It does not seem to me that a three-month sentence would fulfil that psychological role.

I suggest that the essential problem is that, in far too many assaults, the culprit is not caught. Ensuring that people are caught is the most effective way of stopping crime. I should have been much happier if the hon. Gentleman had put more emphasis in his new clause on making sure that people were caught. If we make it almost a certainty that people will be caught, it will be a deterrent.

Mr. Maginnis

I understand what the hon. Gentleman says, but it shows a danger into which we have fallen. We constantly talk about catching criminals and terrorists. The real secret is deterrence. We must deter the potential criminal and terrorist. The new clause is designed simply to prevent those who begin at the lowest level to assault policemen from doing so. It is intended to be a deterrent.

Mr. Bennett

I firmly believe that the best deterrent is the likelihood of being caught. It is important that an offence is followed by punishment, but I do not believe that many people would commit a crime if they knew for certain that they would be caught. Catching the culprit is the most important deterrent.

I accept that we have more policemen in our forces, but have we got more of them out on the beat performing their duties? From talking to policemen in Greater Manchester, I know that one of their worries is that far too many of them are not out on the streets undertaking police work because they are tied up with work in the police station. They argue that the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 has increased their paperwork. I believe that most of that paperwork is necessary, but in Greater Manchester too many police officers are using typewriters—often they type with only one or two fingers—to prepare material and reports when that work should be done by people trained for the job. We could do much more to ensure that more policemen are out on the streets, but that comes down to resources.

The hon. Member for Uxbridge did not establish the essential argument that many people have been caught and convicted of assaults and given trivial sentences. I do not believe that that case can be established. There is a danger in giving new powers to policemen, whether uniformed or not. In my constituency I know of a sad case of someone who was convicted of assaulting a police officer, but because that officer was in plain clothes the person convicted was not aware of his identity and thought that the officer was carrying out an assault. That problem must be resolved. The new clause states that a person should be convicted of assault on a police officer in the execution of his duty". When is a police officer off duty? It is important to consider that.

The most important thing to ensure is that the public go to the aid of a police officer. The central problem with the new clause is that it seeks special treatment for police officers. Let us assume that a police officer is being attacked and I, as a member of the public, go to his assistance. If the police officer ended up with his arm broken, the person responsible would, under the new clause, be guaranteed to receive a three-month sentence at least. If my arm was broken in assisting that police officer, there would be no guarantee of such a punishment. If one wants to encourage the public to go to the assistance of police officers one must ensure that all receive even treatment. We must not make a special case for police officers.

Police officers do a difficult job and the law should provide them with the same protection as the rest of us. When people carry out serious and dangerous assaults, they should expect to be caught and the courts should then give them an appropriate sentence.

I hope that the hon. Member for Uxbridge will withdraw the new clause. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will tell us what the Home Office intends to do to ensure that more police officers walk the streets to provide protection for the public. I hope that he will also say what protection will be given to police officers in the course of their duty, as I have every sympathy for a police officer who is on his own with little chance of summoning assistance.

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

When my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) introduced his excellent new clause he cited figures relating to attacks on police officers in Lancashire. He said that in 1990 the number of such assaults had risen by 38 per cent.; but there is more to it than that.

Before 1989 no record was kept in Lancashire of the number of policemen and policewomen assaulted. In 1989, when those figures were first collated, 277 officers received injuries in the course of their duty. Unfortunately, as we are unaware of the low number of attacks before 1989 we cannot know how big an increase this is, but now we are reaching figures that are increasingly horrific.

Police officers in our part of the world are fairly tough. They do not consider that they have been assaulted if they end up struggling in the gutter with a drunk. They regard that quite good humouredly and deal with it in an appropriate manner. They do not consider that they have been assaulted if they are hit by a mentally disturbed person, since Lancaster has always been a centre for the treatment of mental illness in that part of the north-west. The police regard their help in dealing with such unfortunate cases as part of their normal duties. In common with all other police officers, they do not regard themselves as assaulted if they try to intervene, perhaps rashly, in a dispute between husband and wife.

The figures recorded in Lancashire relate to deliberate attacks on serving officers. We know only too well that the public and the police are supposed to react to trouble differently. The public are advised to retreat from any bother, although sometimes brave members of the public do not heed such advice, but policemen must go in, come what may. The recent unfortunate accidents in the tube, which I accept have nothing to do with assaults on police officers, show that police officers have to go to the heart of things—it is their duty to go forward, not back.

5.45 pm

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge that a mandatory sentence would have a salutary effect on the public. People would then know that if they deliberately laid a finger on a police officer they would go to prison and that is that.

Mr. Shersby

My hon. Friend will be interested to know that I received a letter today from the secretary of the Lancashire joint branch board of the Police Federation. He said: Youths from Blackpool with many previous convictions escaped from a police van, assaulting police officers, and escaped from the Crown Court by jumping from the Dock. Eventually received community service order at Crown Court Does my hon. Friend believe that that is an adequate deterrent?

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman

I agree with my hon. Friend that that is inadequate. If people received a mandatory sentence for such an offence we would not witness an increase in the number of people incarcerated in prison—rather those numbers would reduce because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) has already said, people would know that if they attacked a police officer they would go to prison, and therefore they would not do it.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

As the House knows, I was once a policeman. My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) referred to his grandson and my eldest son is at present working in the recruitment office of one of our constabularies during his year out from his degree course. I hope that, when he has completed his degree, he will take up a career in the police.

Assaults on police officers are a serious problem, as the evidence cited by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) makes clear. Something must be done.

The Bill has established some new powers, and I hope that they will go some way towards doing something about rowdy behaviour in our high streets, particularly during the weekend, late at night. We hope and expect that the courts will use the new power for curfew orders and electronic tagging. I also hope that the courts will take seriously the new powers relating to parental responsibilities and that community sentences will not be a soft option, but will be extremely tough.

Much as I believe that anyone who seriously assaults a police officer should go to prison, we must consider whether the new clause is appropriate. There is some difficulty in defining actual bodily harm.

I know that the House likes to listen to my brief stories from my time as a police officer. I was once kicked extremely violently in a very uncomfortable place——

Mr. Shersby

In Soho?

Mr. Greenway

No, it was in the foyer of one of the most distinguished luxury hotels in the west end. I was kicked in a very uncomfortable place. I assure the House that that definitely occasioned actual bodily harm—certainly it was extremely painful. However, the person who did it was a distinguished Scottish teacher, in a dinner jacket, who was blind drunk. Are we saying that that man should automatically go to prison for three months? I suffered other assaults as a policeman 20 or so years ago, and I agree entirely with what my right hon. and hon. Friends said: the violence that today's police force has to face is considerably greater than it was in my time in the 1960s.

Dame Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

Is my hon. Friend saying that a crime of assault or of any other nature committed when drunk should not be an offence?

Mr. Greenway

No, I am saying that when people are brought before a court and convicted of an offence, we must expect the court to take notice of their entire circumstances, not just the fact that they have committed an offence. There should be no absolute or mandatory sentence imposed on them. The courts require flexibility.

When the Select Committee on Home Affairs conducted an inquiry into the Crown prosecution service last year, it became clear that the problem of assaults on police officers, and the way in which they are prosecuted in our courts, was of much concern to the police service. In particular, there is criticism that the Crown prosecution service may charge for a mere assault on the police, which is only triable summarily in a magistrates court, rather than charging for section 47 or section 18 offences—actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm—which are triable in a Crown court.

I believe that all hon. Members will expect that the vast majority of defendants in that position should be sent to prison. I hope that, if nothing else comes out of today's helpful debate, we can send a message to the effect that the House expects our courts to use their powers.

Much as I would like to support my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and new clause 1, as he supported my new clause some two months ago, we do not know how big a problem this is. We do not know how many police officers are being seriously assaulted and suffering serious injuries. We do not know how many of the attackers are not being sent to prison. We do not know how many people who commit assaults are being charged with too minor an offence in the first instance.

Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

My hon. Friend said that we do not know how many assaults there are, but we do. The figure has been given in today's debate; concrete and well-documented figures have been produced. In the past year, there have been more than 20,000 assaults.

Mr. Greenway

My hon. Friend says that I asked how many assaults there had been. With respect, that is not what I asked. I asked how many cases there had been of police officers who had been seriously assaulted, their assailants found guilty before a court of this country, whether a magistrates court or Crown court, but were not sent to prison for at least three months. That is what we want to know.

This afternoon, my right hon. Friend the Minister has already greatly helped the House and the cause of protecting our police force by responding to a request from my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) for a survey of young people's attitudes towards what happens if someone is arrested, charged with a crime and found guilty. The Home Office, in collaboration with the Association of Chief Police Officers, must undertake an inquiry into the sentencing by the courts, as well as the prosecuting through the Crown prosecution service, of cases of assault on police officers, so that the House can consider the matter with all the available information and make a judgment.

I agree entirely with the sentiments expressed in the letter received from the president of ACPO, David Owen, the chief constable of north Wales. Sadly, we cannot put the new clause on the statute book, but through today's debate we can send a message to the courts that the House and the public expect them to be tough in sentencing people who assault our police officers. Something more needs to be done.

Dr. Blackburn

As the House will expect, as an act of courtesy to the House I shall declare my interest. For the past 10 years, I have been parliamentary adviser to the National Association of Retired Police Officers. In addition, I declare an interest as a former serving police officer. However, the greatest mandate I have to speak on the new clause is that, for more than a century, members of my family have served in the police force. There are currently three members of my family serving with the Merseyside police.

The new clause has the full and unqualified support of my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Sir R. McCrindle) who, due to parliamentary duties, cannot be present for today's debate.

The House has a solemn responsibility to defend the police service, and the men and women in it. Tonight, every serving police officer in this country will despair at the speech made by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), which was appalling in its content. It failed to defend the police and show them that the House has confidence in them as they perform their duties.

The new clause will be supported by all reasonable and responsible people of good will who are prepared to associate themselves with the police service. Many speeches we have heard today are testimony to the support given to the police service. I am horrified when I think of what would happen if the day dawned when the House did not give a vote of confidence in, and salute, the fine men and women of our police service.

By definition, a police officer is a citizen. It is important to note that he is part of a community—the man who lives down the road. We all know him and his family. He is locally appointed, which is why we have 47 police forces in the country. However—this is important—he acts under the authority of the Crown, which is given to him by the House. His role is the maintenance of peace and the prosecution of offenders against the law. The task facing us today is to cloak the police service with the protection of the law. We have a solemn responsibility to do that, and we must exercise it today.

What will Parliament's response be to the pleas by serving police officers through those right hon. and hon. Members who have been called to speak in the debate? I hope, cry and pray that we shall have a positive response from the Minister of State, and that he will salute the men and women of the police service. However, more important than words are actions. We must make positive moves, particularly in response to new clause 1, of which I am delighted to be a signatory.

The House has always been generous to me. I was a serving police officer for 15 years. During that time I was wounded twice and assaulted five times. As a result of that experience, I can do nothing else but to support the new clause.

I take issue with the idea that the deterrent is not the sentence but the arrest. I have seen many culprits arrested, and they have never been deterred by that. When they have appeared before the courts, they have not been given sentences that could be construed as a deterrent either. I know of occasions when police officers have been caused bodily harm in the execution of their duties and when the offender has also been charged with causing damage to police uniforms—and magistrates have imposed heavier sentences for the damage to the uniforms than for the damage to the police officers. Those are the hard facts of life for the men and women of the police service.

6 pm

The right hon. and learned Member for Warley, West (Mr. Archer) said that the biggest police force apart from the Metropolitan police was the West Midlands police force. Not so. The biggest police service apart from the Metropolitan police is the Greater Manchester police force. My constituency is under the protection of the West Midlands police, however. I should like to give the House a few details about that police force, which is headed by Chief Constable Ronald Hadfield.

The last published figures—I take no pleasure in them—in the annual report of the chief constable revealed that two police officers in the west midlands were murdered in the execution of their duty—one shot in a bank raid, the other stabbed to death in the centre of Birmingham. No words of mine could ever convey my strong desire to ensure that this House affords the men and women who daily risk their lives because of the responsibilities that we have given them the protection that they need.

Last year in the west midlands, 1,060 police officers were wounded in the execution of their duties. I was pleased to hear someone mention money and the training of police officers, and the subsequent problems when they are assaulted. The 1,060 police officers wounded in the west midlands lost 7,000 working days because of their injuries. Worse still, many young men and women found themselves, perhaps in the middle of promising careers, before medical boards being discharged from the police service on medical grounds because of the assaults on them. This House has a responsibility to protect the fine men and women of the police service and to do that by supporting new clause 1. I wish it godspeed on behalf of every serving police officer.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

It is lonely speaking as a Conservative Member and not having been a serving police officer, although on reflection I seem to recall that my wife's grandfather was the chief constable of Northumberland. It is also fairly miserable following my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn), who condemned anyone who had doubts about the new clause as not being a reasonable person or a person of good will. I hope that he will not ascribe those defects to me. He and I have known each other for a long time and we are great friends.

Like all other hon. Members who have spoken with great passion on this subject, I am concerned about the safety of police officers. Those who have been here longest will know that I have spoken for the restoration of capital punishment for the murder of police officers—as a great protection—for many years. I have nearly 30 years of practice in the criminal courts and I know from experience longer than that of most hon. Members—except, perhaps, that of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) who was a serving police officer—about the bravery and courage of our police force.

Nevertheless, I have doubts about the new clause. I do not like minimum sentences. They reduce the discretion of the courts, and all who practise in or know anything about the courts realise that human life spans an enormous width and that there are many degrees of blameworthiness. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale told us of his experience with an intoxicated reveller who attacked him in his foyer—[Laughter.] I should perhaps have said in the foyer.

Once we go down the slippery slope of minimum sentences, where should we stop? I know that we have one for murder, but that was a quid pro quo for abolishing capital punishment and there were special reasons for it; when this Bill is considered in the other place it may be attacked for doing nothing about the abolition of that statutory sentence. Why should not we have minimum sentences for child abuse, rape, pornographic offences, perversions, buggery or torture? Why not for blackmail—or even for theft of the royal mail? The only way to ensure that the mail is always delivered is to give out stiff sentences to postmen or anyone else who interferes with it. That is done in the United States of America.

Speeches calling for minimum sentences have always been resisted over the years. Governments have resisted the idea of going down this slippery slope because if one case is allowed as an exception it becomes difficult to refuse other cases——

Mr. Teddy Taylor

My hon. and learned Friend said that there was a minimum sentence for murder, but my understanding is that life sentences can mean anything at all, depending on the views of the Home Secretary of the day. Some life sentences are served in six months.

Mr. Lawrence

My hon. Friend and I have common cause in that campaign and I agree with him; nevertheless, the sentence is statutory. Since my hon. Friend has provoked me, I must point out that if we imposed a minimum sentence for assault occasioning actual bodily harm to a police officer, resulting in offenders being sentenced to at least three months' imprisonment, it would not be the courts that decided what the sentence should be: the prosecuting authority or the police would decide that a type of offender should not go to prison for three months and would therefore charge him with, say, assaulting a policeman in the execution of his duty even though there had been assault occasioning actual bodily harm. That would take us further down the road to which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor) objects—that of administrative sentencing. That is as undesirable as minimum sentencing, and for the same reason. It removes the power of the judiciary to assess the appropriate sentence for the circumstances.

Sir Bernard Braine

My hon. and learned Friend has enormous experience of the courts and I follow his line of argument up to a point, but what we are concerned with is how to prevent assaults on police officers. We are concerned with preventing violent crime. How would he prevent the assaults on police officers that the House wholly deplores?

Mr. Lawrence

If one gives the courts flexibility of sentencing, in an appropriate case they may give nine, 12 or 18 months or even three years for an assault occasioning actual bodily harm to a police officer.

I left the Chamber for a moment to fetch from the Library the "Current Sentencing Practice", because I should not like my hon. Friends to think that no guidance was given to the judiciary. Unfortunately, someone has stolen it. The stealing of law books from the House of Commons Library would be my first choice for a minimum sentence.

Mr. Tim Janman (Thurrock)

May I suggest to my hon. and learned Friend that the point at which we stop on minimum sentencing is embodied in my new clause 5? It is not the judiciary who are elected to the House to represent the concerns of the British people about crime and the need to give greater protection to the "thin blue line", as my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) said. Hon. Members do that job. As there is still a great deal of flexibility for the courts if we set a minimum as well as a maximum sentence, I do not understand why my hon. and learned Friend has such an objection to the elected representatives of the people seeking to insert, for various categories of crime of which this may be one, not only a maximum but a minimum sentence. There would be a good deal of flexibility between those extremes.

Mr. Lawrence

My answer to that point is the entire speech that I am making. I do not think that Parliament should set minimum sentences, for the reasons that I am trying to give.

Returning to the point that I was making before my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman) intervened, I was going to bring into the Chamber "Current Sentencing Practice", which contains several pages of guidelines to Crown court recorders, High Court judges and anybody else in the process of sentencing about what to do in the case of an assault on a police officer in the execution of his duty or an assault occasioning actual bodily harm. I cannot remember word for word what their lordships have said in the higher courts—I shall be corrected by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Blackpool, North (Mr. Miscampbell) or by the right hon. and learned Member for Aberavon (Mr. Morris)—but my recollection is that it is that assaults on the police are so serious, and it is so important that we should defend the police, that it must hardly ever be appropriate not to send the offender to prison. Therefore, only very occasionally should those who commit assaults occasioning actual bodily harm on police officers not be sent to prison, and the reasons for not sentencing them to prison must be weighty.

With all my regard for my hon. Friends, for their depth of feeling and for their passionate support, which is totally justified, of police officers, I do not think that the police officers themselves would, in quiet, considered moments, consider that we should go down the slippery slope of minimum sentences, for the reasons that I have given. Strong emotion is one thing; cool thought is another. I am sure that most of the people who sit or spend time in our courts will want us to consider long and carefully before we go down that slope or support this new clause. If statistics were to show that police officers were inadequately protected, I would change my mind, but I do not think that they do. Until they do, we should continue not to have a minimum sentence.

I hope that when my right hon. Friend the Minister of State replies he will take into consideration the views that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale have expressed.

6.15 pm
Mr. Sheerman

This has been a most interesting debate. Uncharacteristically, across the party divide, I feel myself drawn warmly to some of the arguments by hon. Gentlemen with whom I do not often agree. I think particularly of debates on capital punishment and the arguments that I usually hear from the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence). On this occasion, however, I find his arguments convincing.

Anyone who has listened carefully to the debate, as I have, senses that it is a feeling of frustration which has led to this new clause. I can understand that frustration. When crime rates have been soaring and when we do not seem to know what to do about them, there is a feeling that almost anything must be tried. The motives behind the amendment may be quite pure, and they were passionately put by the Father of the House, the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). I understood the passion and frustration in the amendment which bears his name, but as a sensible and rational response to the problems of rising crime and attacks on the police, the amendment will not work.

Opposition Members take these things extremely seriously. We have been working very hard, looking at the whole way in which policing is carried out, and we feel. with great respect, that we need a far more fundamental evaluation of our present position on law and order and effective policing. It is high time—the debate on this amendment demonstrates it—that we had a thorough look at policing in the late 20th century.

I agree with the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, David Owen, the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and other hon. Members on both sides in their analysis of the amendment, that we must do something about these attacks on the police but that this is not the right way to do it, even though we condemn the assaults and condemn the environment in which they take place. Not only must such behaviour be condemned—we must consider seriously the way in which we solve the problem; but we cannot support this new clause.

I do not want to keep the House; we have spent a long time on this new clause, and there are many more to come. The law as it stands provides the right remedies. The guidelines mentioned by the hon. and learned Member for Burton exist. A very dangerous precedent would be set by this blanket ruling. It would undermine a fundamental principle of British justice—that cases must be judged, within that framework of guidelines, on their merits.

I talked very recently to an eminent recorder who pointed out that he had had before him not long ago a case of quite a serious assault—in one way, a very similar assault to the one mentioned by the hon. Member for Ryedale. A policeman got a black eye, a damaged ear and other slight injuries. The court, taking the circumstances of the case into account, did not send the man to prison. There is a great danger that, if the flexibility of our court system were not a fundamental principle of British justice, it would be less fair.

The second part of the new clause would remove parole from the options. This also is difficult, as it would run counter to the theme behind the Government's proposals in the Bill.

We hope that the Government will resist the new clause. It is unnecessary, it is against the feeling of the Bill and it would sidestep the issue that we should be doing something fundamental to reassess the role of British police in our society.

Mr. John Patten

The House has been united on two points. The first is our sorrow at the outrageous incident that led to the death of PC Gladwell. I know that the House would like to extend our sympathy to his widow and family. Secondly, we are united in whole-hearted support of the police, and in our desire that the police should be protected.

This interesting debate was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) who, with his usual clarity, set out the position of the police, and the need for protection in contemporary society. My hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge was strongly supported by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and by the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis), whom I first met in a back kitchen near the border when he was an innocent member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, before he came to the House. We all listened to what he had to say and we support what the Royal Ulster Constabulary does in the Province to help the people there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor), who was kind enough to let me intervene not once but twice in his speech, and my hon. Friends the Members for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) and for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn), who made a characteristically powerful speech, supported my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge.

We also heard from some agnostics, some "don't knows" and some "dead againsts" such as the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett). Another was my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who was a serving policeman. He has given a new impetus to the expression "a kick in the foyer". My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) spoke powerfully, as someone who sits as a recorder.

If all worked well in the criminal justice system, the police would get the protection that most people want them to get, because of the offences that already exist. Section 51 of the Police Act 1972 and the important guideline sentences from the Court of Appeal are part of the system. In 1979, the case of McKenlay laid down the clear guideline judgment that, even in the case of minor assaults on the police, if the court sees fit to give a sentence of imprisonment, it should do so.

In the same year, the equally important case of Byrd went to the Court of Appeal. Two police officers were knocked to the ground; their assailants were found guilty and sentenced to six months. In an appeal, the judgment was upheld and the Lord Justice of Appeal thought that the sentence might not have been long enough. The Attorney-General now has the power to go back to the Court of Appeal when he feels that sentences are too lenient, and he has done that in 24 cases. In 21 of those cases, sentences were increased. That additional power was welcomed when it was introduced.

I prefer not to get into too much detail on whether we should have minimum sentences, for I am looking forward to debates on that when we get to the new clause tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Janman). In any case, my case was pleaded eloquently for me by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton. Nor do I want to get involved in a debate about where to stop. We could ask whether such protection should be extended to prison guards, probation officers or even sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses, all of whom do a difficult job.

I make my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and his supporters an offer. We do not have adequate information. I have already given my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East, in response to an important point he made, an undertaking that I will ask a series of survey questions. We do not yet have the 1990 figures, but we have the 1989 figures. As I remember it, there were about 37,000 convictions for assault occasioning actual bodily harm in England and Wales. In 10 per cent. of those cases, sentences of imprisonment were given, and the average sentence was seven months.

However, we do not know how many of those cases of assault were against policemen and policewomen, who share the difficult task that the federated ranks and the superintendent ranks carry out. For the reasons that I have given and that have been given by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton and others, it would not be right for us to proceed on the basis of inadequate information. There is a great deal of anecdotal information, of which I do not doubt the importance or strength, but that is not sufficient evidence. I have already ordered a survey of such statistical material as the Home Office has to see whether we can get this information.

In response to the powerful arguments of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, I am prepared to say that, for a six-month period from 1 June this year, we shall conduct a survey of all court sentences on this offence to see how many involve policemen and policewomen and how many lead to sentences of imprisonment. Then, if we find that the situation is not as we want, we shall have to take action—I echo the views of my hon. and learned Friend and of the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman).

As soon as the figures are available, we shall conduct a survey, and I shall make the figures available to the House. I hope that, with that undertaking, my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge will not push the new clause to a Division.

Mr. Lawrence

Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The Minister has resumed his seat.

Mr. Shersby

I thank the House and all hon. Members who have contributed to this useful debate. In particular, I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for the assurance that he will conduct a survey. I gave a figure of 20,000 assaults on police, many of them occasioning actual bodily harm, and I am certain that the Police Federation and the other police staff associations will be pleased to co-operate with the Home Office in carrying out the survey to validate those figures and to pinpoint how many of them fall in that category.

The Police Federation, in advance of the debate, asked the secretaries of the joint branch boards of the 43 police forces in England and Wales for information about the number of cases where a custodial sentence was not awarded. I was alarmed at the information that came back to me, which showed that custodial sentences have not been awarded in quite serious cases. That is why the offer of a survey is valuable; it will enable the House to have at its disposal figures which are incontrovertible.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will lose no time in coming back to the House, when he has the evidence, with proposals to deal with the problem. I am sure he knows that Greater Manchester police have already set up a survey and monitoring procedure of their own; that was announced by Sir James Anderton recently. I hope that my right hon. Friend will draw upon the information gathered by Greater Manchester.

In the light of what the Minister has said and the contributions of other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Huddersfield, who rightly pointed out that we need to examine the problems faced by the police in modern society, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

6.30 pm
Mr. Lawrence

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you would want me to tell the House that when, in the course of my speech, I said that someone had stolen "Current Sentencing Practice" from the Library, I appear to have been mistaken. I should not like to cast aspersions upon anybody who has anything to do with the House of Commons Library.

I have a note from the Librarian to say that the book has been returned. That means, first, that there was never any intention to deprive the owner permanently thereof, and therefore it cannot have been theft; and, secondly, that there is more to be said for televising the proceedings of the House than I had thought.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I am very relieved to hear that honour has been restored.

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