HC Deb 11 November 1991 vol 198 cc875-82

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

10 pm

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

It is without any pleasure that I seek once more to call the attention of the House to the problems faced by Derbyshire police force. I am pleased to see so many of my colleagues here, including my hon. Friends the Members for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) a:nd for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and several other colleagues. I know that they share my views and worries.

The House will recall my Adjournment debate of 22 January 1991 following the publication in December 1990 for the first time of the annual report by Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary, Mr. Geoffrey Dear. Mr. Dear painted a picture of a poorly funded, undermanned force under great pressure, and a chief constable with his hands tied behind his back by council rules and bureaucracy such that decisions on spending even minute amounts have to be referred to a committee, including items as minute as the installation of a telephone line.

The fingerprint bureau was on the point of collapse. Specialised services on drugs and undercover activity were severely curtailed. The police computer was overloaded. Police stations were falling apart and in a disgusting state. The net result was rising crime and falling detection rates—an astonishing pattern in our sensible and law-abiding community. In all, Mr. Dear threatened to withhold the certificate of efficiency if matters did not improve.

Mr. Dear has now returned to Derbyshire and has produced another interim report. It makes even worse reading and it distresses me to have to bring it to the attention of the House. In paragraph 2.2 he reminds everybody that in his first report the state of policing in Derbyshire was described as 'mixed but all too often one of deterioration in infrastructure and morale.' … The position almost 12 months later is now worse. He reports, for example, exactly what the committee has done since the first report was published. The report was discussed with the police authority back in October 1990 and with the chairman of the police authority in October 1990. It was published in December 1990 and almost immediately debated by the police committee. What did the committee do? Did it pass resolutions to spend more money and get itself organised to ensure that the police could run themselves properly? No. The only thing that it did was to clarify the legality of its position. So it sought the opinion of legal counsel. It instructed him in February 1991. It received his opinion in March 1991. The report went back to legal counsel with suggested amendments. It was debated again on 4 June 1991.

Mr. Dear says that almost no action that could be registered and measured by Her Majesty's inspector has yet been taken by the police committee. He commented rather wryly: Whether or not the delay of almost 6 months was procrastination must remain a matter of opinion. The committee was still discussing its response to crucial aspects of the first inspection when the next inspection process commenced in May this year.

Where are we now? Let us take staffing. The authorised establishment of Derbyshire police force is 1,820 officers. That is effectively the official Home Office ceiling. It has been increased twice in recent months. It has been increased by 27 posts. But the actual number of police officers employed at 15 October 1991 was 1,713, not 1,820. That is a reduction of 38 officers in a year. The council's main reaction to Mr. Dear's complaints of undermanning has been to cut the force even further. All recruitment stopped in mid-1990 and we are now more than 100 officers below strength. Moreover, there are now 66 fewer officers in post than there were 10 years ago. That has been the result of 10 years of Labour control in Derbyshire county council. Yet, according to the chief constable, in the same period calls for service have increased by 85 per cent. In 1990 a total of 220,000 calls for service—a record—were received. The sensible response would have been to increase the number of officers, not to cut them.

The shortfall was made worse by the high level of civilian staff, which is traditional in Derbyshire. However, the county is not recruiting them either, and they are 100 posts below establishment. That means that we have even fewer uniformed officers on our streets because they have to do civilian tasks such as manning telephones.

There are virtually no traffic wardens, school patrols are entirely haphazard activities, and in many parts of the county rural policing has disappeared—it is non-existent in many parts, especially in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West and in my own constituency.

This is not fantasy—I am not making it up. In paragraph 2.16 of his report, the inspector says: The effect on the public of Derbyshire must now be very serious. It was apparent throughout the Inspection that substantial areas of the County are no longer patrolled by the Police. The Chief Constable has recently stated that community policing is now a myth and foot patrols a rarity. The results should be fairly obvious. The crime rate in the first quarter of 1991 rose by 26 per cent. over previous years in Derbyshire. In the same period, burglary in dwellings was up by 65 per cent., compared to a 15 per cent. increase nationally. The detection rate is well down and has fallen steadily in the past four years—the detection rate for burglary in dwellings is now less than 20 per cent.

Officers are working huge amounts of overtime and they are not being paid for it. The sickness rate is well up and is a matter of considerable concern. Because no spare officers are available to give assistance, attacks on the police have increased and are 50 per cent. higher than in similar forces.

The situation is deeply worrying. Let me quote again from the report so that people realise that I am not making this up. For example, in paragraph 2.19 it states HMI was concerned to hear, repeatedly, from police officers that they were having to concede more and more ground to the hooligans in the street, as no police back-up could be expected when scanty resources were deployed to incidents. Those of my constituents who are members of the police force—both uniformed and civilian—and those in the constituencies of my hon. Friends are absolute saints to continue to work in such circumstances with bravery, courage, commitment and cheerfulness. The fact that they do so and produce any results at all in such circumstances says a great deal about the men and women who serve us all in Derbyshire. It is a heartbreaking business.

Why is it happening? Money has a lot to do with it, as it has with every problem in Derbyshire. It is interesting to reflect on that. The Labour party won control of Derbyshire with a substantial majority in 1981 and the inspector of constabulary says that there have been at least eight years of progressive underfunding by the police committee—1.8 per cent. per annum less than the average for English non-metropolitan forces. The cumulative effect in the past decade means that the force has more than 14 per cent. less funding than it would have been expected to have. The inspector adds that he thinks that the Force was in a parlous state in 1990. This year he says: a further £2.116 million has been cut from the budget. Effectively the police budget only grew by 5.4% in 1991–92 over the previous year, in the face of inflation and pay awards running at 9.5%. That results in an absolutely ridiculous state of affairs. The way in which the cuts and budgetary controls are applied makes Derbyshire the laughing stock of the country. I shall give the House a few examples. Throughout the country, mileage restrictions on operational vehicles and on essential users include the following: in the north west of the County, an area 20 miles across, was patrolled by an Area car with a 40 miles allocation for an 8 hour tour of duty; in the conurbation the panda vehicles were restricted to 28 miles for each 8 hour shift". One of them recently ran out of petrol and had to do a 45-mile round trip for fuel when its total allocation for the whole shift was only 28 miles. supervisory officers were virtually confined to their office or foot after midnight on the night shift when they had used up their allocation. Some detectives were restricted to 18 miles per day with their main custody suite located some 12 miles away from their base. That of course means that the police pay for petrol out of their own pockets and that is an absolute disgrace.

There was a row over a kettle in the communications room at Alfreton in Amber Valley, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley drew attention. The electric kettle broke down and will not work unless somebody stands beside it holding in the knob. They sensibly asked for a new kettle but were told that they could not have one because cuts meant that no new equipment or furniture of any kind was available. The office staff even have to share staples. Depriving our police force of a cup of tea is astronomically vindictive and silly.

However, Derbyshire county council is not short of money. The standard spending assessment for all services in Derbyshire was set at 17 per cent. over the 1990–91 figure. By anybody's calculations that is much more than inflation and allows a tremendous amount of growth—and growth there has been. The fire service, which has an SSA of £15 million, had a budget of £15.7 million. It spent more than its SSA, but perhaps that has something to do with the marginally left-wing nature of the fire services union in our area. However, the fire service, especially in south Derbyshire, does a very good job.

The SSA for the social services is £68 million but the total spend is £86 million. That is not a misprint. The social services spend £18 million more than SSA partly because everybody in Derbyshire gets free home helps whether they are in financial need or not. Education has an SSA of £311 million, but its actual budget this year is £350 million, almost £40 million more than its SSA. My hon. Friends know where the money is spent. I shall return to that.

The police SSA is £32.3 million and that is the amount that the county budgets to spend on them. It is the only budget in which the SSA is exactly matched by what is spent. The largest chunk of the increase over SSA is spent on funding school meals in Derbyshire because the price has not been increased for more than 10 years. My constituents face the most extraordinary problems. They cannot police the place for themselves or teach for themselves, yet 400 teachers face redundancy this year. My constituents cannot run the library service for themselves, but some libraries in my constituency have been closed.

The one thing at which my constituents are jolly good is feeding their children and they do not need to be subsidised to the tune of £14 million a year to do it. That is where some of the money goes. Some of it also goes on several splendid, wonderful, much-admired council newspapers. The official cost of this rubbish is nearly £200,000 a year. There is one for the work force and something called "Green Watch" on which I have had correspondence with the county director and which costs about £60,000 a year. They all go in the bin because we have abandoned the process that we adopted some years ago of posting them back to the county officials and the councillors because that was not having any effect. If the official cost of that little lot is well over £250,000, I suspect, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley will agree, that the actual cost is much more.

Our football clubs have free policing. Mr. Justice Taylor's report following his inquiry into the Hillsborough stadium disaster commented on the cost of policing and stated: The temptation to the clubs to leave it all to the police is stronger if they are not required to make a realistic payment for police services. He commented with amazement that the charge was supposed to be entirely arbitrary and that at one ground it was said to be nil. Just one ground in the entire country does not pay for its police service, and of course that has to be Derby County football club, yet it is the Derbyshire police force that so desperately needs the money.

The council spent £600,000 on a legal department. It has sued most hon. Members in the Chamber tonight——

Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)


Mrs. Currie

No doubt it will be equally unsuccessful in future. Goodness only knows why the county has to spend so much. It challenged the Government on charge-capping legislation and lost. The moment that there is any challenge to the council, there is an inquiry. It spent £24,000 on a so-called independent inquiry into the library service. It spent £10,000 on market research into the attitudes of the police, when it could have spent that money on such items as kettles for the constables to have a cup of tea, a little more petrol and so on. It is all nonsense.

Recently, the council agreed to send a group of its councillors and supporters on a day trip to Brussels in December to lobby MEPs on the single European market impact on "immigration and citizenship issues." That quote comes from the council's press release. The council is sending not just one or two people, and not at their own expense; it is sending a whole coachload of them at our expense. Goodness knows what they think they will do when they get there, except possibly claim their attendance allowances and charge us even more.

We all know how the funding system works for the police. The county council could choose to spend more on the police now; my understanding is that the Government would match that spending pound for pound because the Home Office pays 51 per cent. The Government cannot simply hand over a large chunk of money, as they have done for education, because it would be wasted in the same way that so much of the other money is wasted.

I quote with approbation the hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett), the Labour party spokesman on local government, who said: Bureaucracy and incompetence are not a result of financial stringency … but rather the result of poor management or political direction. Never was a truer word spoken. It is time that Derbyshire county council accepted its responsibilities and ensured that the police can do their job. We want our lovely and beautiful county to return to the peaceful and relatively crime-free state that it was in before Labour won control.

Labour's stupid and lunatic policies, which I have described, are the brainchild of one man, currently the leader of the council. I think that he hates the police, but why is a matter for speculation. Perhaps it is because he was convicted under a Trade Descriptions Act prosecution. Perhaps it is because of the miners' strike, when the working miners in my constituency were protected by the police. Perhaps it is because of a lingering belief in certain left-wing circles that the police should be the instrument of a socialist state, do what they are told and not make life difficult for criminals. That is a criminal attitude, which is found in county hall, and especially in the plush offices of the leader of the council and the chairman of the police committee.

I call on both those people, but especially Councillor Bookbinder, to do the honourable thing and resign and let someone else, less political, less irresponsible and more sensible, to take their place.

10.18 pm
Mr. Phillip Oppenheim (Amber Valley)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Order. Does the hon. Gentleman have the consent of both the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) and the Minister to speak?

Mr. Oppenheim

Yes, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) for allowing me to participate in the debate. I congratulate her on raising such an important issue. I do not want to go over the ground that she so expertly and thoroughly covered, but I want to emphasise that we are talking about real problems that have been caused for our constituents.

Rarely a weekend passes when a constituent does not come to me worried about the state of the police, about underpolicing in the area and about the way that the police are so thinly spread on the ground that they cannot always tackle the problem of crime in the way that they should and would like to be able to do.

I emphasise that I do not believe that the current state of affairs is in any way the fault of the police. People in Derbyshire get a tremendously good deal from their police, who are generally people of the highest calibre and do a tremendous job under difficult circumstances. In return, the police receive the wholehearted support of the vast majority of Derbyshire people. If it were not for the high calibre of the county's police and the attitude of Derbyshire people, the situation would be much worse.

The problem is that Derbyshire police are hamstrung by the county council, which effectively holds the purse strings. Councils all over Britain have to order their priorities, and we all appreciate the difficulties of prioritising different parts of public spending. The difficulties in Derbyshire centre on the priorities that the county council and its leadership have chosen.

Over the past 10 years or so, the county council has taken on more than 8,000 extra staff—the highest increase of any such authority in England and Wales. At the same time, Derbyshire is the only county in England and Wales to have fewer police. Virtually every county in Britain except Derbyshire has many more police than 12 years ago. It seems strange that the county council's priorities are so warped that it can employ 8,000 extra people—some of whom are in worthwhile jobs, but not all—but employ fewer police than 10 years ago.

That serious problem possibly transcends all the other difficulties that the regime in Matlock has caused for people in Derbyshire. Responsibility for it lies fairly and squarely at the feet of the leader of the county council. I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South in saying that it is time that Councillor Bookbinder did the honourable thing and departed quietly from the scene.

People in Derbyshire are sick of Councillor Bookbinder's posturing and posing. They are tired of the way that he seems to place more emphasis and importance on trying to set up a millionaire's resort in Russia, and manages to give well-paid jobs in the council to his political friends and cronies—rather than do his job properly and ensure that police in Derbyshire get the resources and support from the county council that they need and deserve to do their job properly.

Above all, people in Derbyshire are fed up with Councillor Bookbinder's priorities, which hold that it is more important to spend £1 million on a publicity department than to put more police on the streets.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Instead of this knockabout stuff, will the hon. Gentleman say whether he agrees that the Government's standard spending assessment, which determines the level at which Derbyshire county council can spend, is wholly inadequate? Should not the Government ensure that the SSAs for many items, but particularly those relating to the police, are increased? That would improve the Government grant and ensure that money available for other areas could appropriately be spent on policing. That would also go some way towards improving what is a desperate situation—and the policing situation is desperate throughout the country.

Mr. Oppenheim

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman believes that this is knockabout stuff. The issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South and I are raising are of great concern to our constituents. It is disgraceful of the hon. Gentleman to claim that this is some sort of political knockabout. As to the SSA, clearly the hon. Gentleman did not listen to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South, who dealt fully with that aspect.

Councillor Bookbinder's fan club is dwindling, with its membership in the House now confined, it seems, to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes)—and even the councillor's own Labour colleagues in Derbyshire think that it is time for him to go. If Councillor Bookbinder lines his own pockets with some spurious, well-paid county council job when he goes—as it is rumoured he will try to do—the people of Derbyshire will never forgive either Councillor Bookbinder or his Labour colleagues for letting him get away with it.

10.24 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Peter Lloyd)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) on securing this Adjournment debate. I am grateful to her, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim), for their clear exposition of the difficulties faced by Derbyshire police as a result of the county council's policies and priorities. I am well aware that my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) are also deeply concerned; they have demonstrated that by their presence in the Chamber this evening.

As the House has already been reminded, this is the second Adjournment debate on this subject in the current year. That is a proper reflection of the continuing worry felt by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South—who has secured the debates—and other Conservative Members representing Derbyshire constituencies, who have given her audible moral support. It also reflects the Government's concern. We all share the same determination to ensure that the deficiencies that have been identified in successive HMI reports are addressed, and addressed effectively, so that the long-suffering public in Derbyshire can benefit from the standard of policing that other counties can take for granted.

I stress, however, that it is the Derbyshire police force itself that most wishes to see improvements in the service with which the public are provided. It is no criticism of the chief constable or his officers to say that they are prevented by council policies from delivering the service that they would like to operate. Indeed—as Mr. Dear's most recent report makes clear—they are going to heroic lengths to provide as good a service as possible in the difficult circumstances in which they have been placed.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South pointed out, overtime is being worked voluntarily, without payment and without time off in lieu. Private vehicles are being used without recompense to ensure minimum levels of services. Everyone in Derbyshire can feel both pride and gratitude in regard to the dedication and commitment that are being shown throughout the force. Only by the determination of individual officers have the Derbyshire public been shielded from the full effects of the county council's lack of adequate support for the police.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire South knows, the Government share her concern about the state to which the county council has brought policing in Derbyshire. At a meeting last month, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary discussed the position with her and other Conservative Members, in the light of Mr. Dear's interim inspection report published in September. It may help the House if I set out now how the Government see the position, and the next steps to be taken.

Mr. Dear's first inspection report on Derbyshire, published in December 1990, set out in detail the effects of the combination of neglect and restrictive procedures from which the police force has suffered for a considerable period. He found the force on the brink of inefficiency, and made a series of key recommendations for improvements. Mr. Dear reviewed the position in a further inspection, the report of which was published in September. I am happy to say that the recommendations that were matters for the chief constable have largely been addressed, but recommendations affecting the procedures imposed by the police authority and the county council had been addressed so recently that Mr. Dear could reach no conclusion on their effectiveness at the time. Exceptionally, he has deferred making any formal judgment on the force's efficiency, and will revisit the force before the end of the financial year to assess the effect of the changes now in progress.

I hope that by then Derbyshire will have taken the action needed to bring its police force up to the standards enjoyed by other counties. Let us make no mistake: it is the legal duty of the police authority, under section 4 of the Police Act 1964, to secure the maintenance of an adequate and efficient police force for the area". That is the authority's duty, and its alone.

The whole tripartite structure of our policing is based on the division of powers and duties between the chief constable, the police authority and the Home Secretary. It works as long as all parties share the common aim of achieving the most effective policing possible; but it runs the risk—as we have seen in Derbyshire—of standards falling sharply if one party puts a spoke in the wheels. Derbyshire's problems are clearly of its own making. The county council may try to blame the standard spending assessment formula or the limited sums available for capital expenditure, but the fact remains that those factors apply equally to all other police authorities. Only in Derbyshire have affairs been so badly managed as to provoke such a level of criticism from the independent inspectorate.

For all the serious criticisms in the report—and I do not devalue them in the slightest—Mr. Dear has noted some signs of progress. For instance, in January's Adjournment debate I drew the House's attention to the example of the casualty bureau which would, in the judgment of the 1990 report, be totally inadequate to deal with the demands of a major disaster. That has been improved, and I hope that other improvements will follow. Powers exist, resting with the Home Secretary, that can be used if the inspector, in his report, declares the authority to be insufficient, and not to be providing a service that can be described as in any way compatible with its obligations under the law.

The motion having been made at 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 half-past Ten o'clock.