HC Deb 27 January 1992 vol 202 cc788-94

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

10.13 pm
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

In recent weeks, there have been a number of vicious, unprovoked and unwarranted attacks on police officers in North Yorkshire, in which officers have sustained serious injuries. I am glad to have the opportunity to draw the attention of Ministers and other hon. Members to the profound public anxiety that exists about the growing amount of violence against police officers, and to reflect on what we could do about it. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department for replying to the debate, and to my colleagues who, through their presence this evening, have demonstrated their concern and that of their constituents.

I am indebted to the chief constable of North Yorkshire, Mr. David Burke, for the following details of the incidents that have prompted considerable disquiet and distress throughout north Yorkshire.

At 7.50 pm on 20 December, a police officer received hospital treatment for a suspected fractured cheekbone, concussion and bruises to the head and body after being attacked by a drunken man. At 2 am the following day —21 December—another police constable suffered two black eyes and a broken nose when endeavouring to arrest two men about to steal a motor car.

At 4.35 am on 22 December, a policewoman was attacked and knocked unconscious by a suspect in a Harrogate car park, where she remained for an hour until she was discovered by colleagues. At 12.6 am on 7 January, a police constable was struck over the head and suffered concussion, cuts and bruises while investigating an attempted burglary. At 12.30 am on 18 January—even after this debate was arranged—a police constable in Scarborough sustained cuts to his hands and face and injury to his right leg during a disturbance at a pizza takeaway.

In this letter about these incidents, the chief constable tells me: Sadly, these attacks are no longer unusual in today's society and it is having to become an accepted part of the job., The job is a great deal more dangerous than it used to be. While I was a Metropolitan police officer in the 1960s, I was assaulted more than once, but I do not think we faced the kind of vicious attacks that have become all too frequent today.

It may be significant that four or five of these incidents took place after midnight or in the early hours. In three incidents, officers on the beat appear to have confronted criminals in the act of stealing of or from a motor vehicle or about to commit another crime. The most recent incident seems to typify the kind of aggressive, violent conduct that has become all too familiar among young men who are the worse for drink and for whom a Saturday night brawl has become a desirable attraction.

Last year, 149 officers in the North Yorkshire police were assaulted. That is one assault for every eight officers. Thirteen officers sustained serious injuries, against only six in the previous year. The number of working days lost because of assaults rose from 274 in 1990 to 419 last year.

The experience of North Yorkshire police is shared by police forces throughout the United Kingdom. In my region of West Yorkshire, 700 police officers—one in every seven—were assaulted in 1991. In Northumbria, the number was 872—one in every four. In Lancashire, Humberside, Durham and Cleveland, one in six or one in seven officers were assaulted.

It no longer seems to matter whether we are talking about notorious clubland areas of our major cities or about the more traditionally peaceful rural backwaters. The chance of any police officer—rural village bobby or member of an inner-city late-night task force—being attacked and sustaining serious injury is very real. Commenting on BBC Radio York this morning, a young rural beat police constable from my constituency, who has been assaulted three times in his five and a half years in the force, described how the fear of assault was constant and undermined police confidence.

All too often young criminals—especially the young —resort to violence in resisting arrest, while routine, premeditated and organised thuggery seems to typify the anti-authoritarian attitude displayed by rowdy, loutish hooligans, who form a significant minority of today's youth. The level of violence confronting the police is evidenced by the regrettable increase in the number of police officers murdered while on duty.

The recent brutal murder of two Metropolitan officers—Sergeant Alan King in Walthamstow and Detective Constable Jim Morrison in Covent Garden—and the attempted murder of Constables Castrey and Jenkinson, all involving vicious knife attacks, deeply shocked and saddened the entire police service and the public as a whole.

I find it almost impossible to describe my sense of outrage at these mindless acts of savagery and my utter condemnation of those responsible. Thank God there are still many young men and women with the principle, the courage and the fortitude to serve the public in today's police and the tenacity and determination to stand up to the thugs and the criminals. We pay tribute to their bravery, and we express our gratitude to their wives and families, who must face many anxious and worrying moments.

Are we doing enough to help the police in the difficult task that they face or can more be done to protect them? We must consider two separate matters—first, the prosecution of police assault cases and the sentences imposed by the courts; and secondly, protective measures for individual officers.

Last February, during the Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, Ministers promised a six-month review of police assault cases to discover whether assaults were being prosecuted with sufficient vigour and whether the courts were using their sentencing powers to the full. It is time that we knew how that review is progressing.

Hundreds of officers have been seriously injured since we last debated the issue. We cannot be complacent; the need for action is urgent. There have been many calls, including some from colleagues in this place, for a mandatory prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. I believe that, for those who assault police officers and cause serious injury, a long prison sentence should be the norm, if not mandatory. It should be longer by far than a court might consider appropriate in similar assault cases, because an attack on a policeman is more serious.

Prison is the normal option for someone who holds a court in contempt. Surely, when a police officer is assaulted, the assailant shows contempt for authority, and prison should be the norm for him too.

Parliament has a duty to ensure that the police have all the equipment and facilities they need to carry out their task and prevent needless injury when attacked. The primary responsibility for that rests with police authorities, but it is up to Parliament to take the lead.

The police helmet was designed to protect an officer from injury by a blow to the head. The truncheon was designed to help disarm an attacker. They are no longer enough in many patrol situations. I understand that some police officers have purchased with their own money bullet and knife-proof protective vests. That shows the extent of concern felt by police officers about the risk of being assaulted or attacked. We must examine urgently whether protective clothing should be available to all patrolling officers if they wish to wear it and if it can be designed to facilitate the ease of wear and general appearance.

The Police Federation has called for side-handled batons to be issued for officers on patrol in place of truncheons. Those batons are now standard issue in more than half the police forces in America, where they have been extremely successful in protecting officers who have been properly trained in baton use. This baton enables an assailant to be restrained and handcuffed speedily. More importantly, it allows an officer to keep an attacker at a distance and out of knife range. However, that seemingly vital tool is being denied to police officers in Britain. Surely, at the very least, it should be introduced by one or two forces for an extensive trial period.

His Honour Judge Pickles recently called for police officers to be issued with a stun weapon to help to disarm suspects or criminals armed with guns. That followed a shooting incident at Rastrick in West Yorkshire. I know of no such weapon, but the idea has considerable merit and it could help avoid more police officers being routinely issued with firearms—something that I and most other hon. Members do not want to see.

Training in self-defence, even in the martial arts, is a crucial aspect of police protection. It is also vital that communication and contact with patrolling officers is maintained at all times. North Yorkshire police will complete a three-year programme this year for upgrading computers, telephones and radio patrol systems—a new completely integrated network—which will bring considerable benefits to the efficiency and operation of the force's patrol rooms.

There is, however, already genuine concern that current arrangements for capital spending allocations will hamper the updating and replacement of that generation of technology within the next five years. I commend to my hon. Friend the Minister an excellent report prepared by the chairman of North Yorkshire police committee, Major Parfect, calling for consultations with Her Majesty's chief inspectorate of constabulary, Sir John Woodcock. It makes a number of valuable recommendations about police resources, forward planning, and the development of strategy for policing priorities.

An overall strategy for the enhancing of the protection of our police officers is what is needed, and needed now. We should establish a new working party with experts drawn from the Home Office, the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Federation and local authority associations to examine many issues—for example, protective clothing, side-handled batons, disarming weapons, training and communications—with the clear objective of making urgent recommendations to police authorities about what they should do to reduce the risk of officers sustaining serious injury from assault. The public expect nothing less.

We must also continue our initiative of increasing the number of policemen available for outside duties. North Yorkshire has been authorised to recruit another 50 officers since the last election. We were disappointed to have been allocated only four more officers this year, but we recognise that the prior claim of other police forces is important. Interestingly, eight officers will be returned to normal duties as a result of this year's improvements in the control room arrangements to which I have referred.

The police have regularly called for better and increased powers to stop and search. Surely only those who break the law have anything to fear from being asked by police to explain their movements and agree to their pockets or vehicles being searched. Stronger powers could help to discourage delinquents, vandals and criminals from carrying knives and firearms, particularly replica guns, which have become a real menace. We need to re-examine the law relating to replicas. It should be an offence to carry a replica firearm in a public place without lawful authority or reasonable excuse. That would put replica guns on all fours with knives.

The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 makes it an offence to carry a replica firearm in the commission of a crime. If I understand the position correctly, the onus is on the prosecution to prove that the accused used or intended to use the replica in the commission of the offence. I suggest that we reverse the burden of proof without delay.

Referring to the tragic killing of Police Sergeant Alan King just before Christmas, Police magazine said: Alan King's sacrifice has left another devastated police family bereft of a husband and a father. It has reminded the people of London (not that the vast majority had forgotten), that there is another side of the coin. It shows a service which, every night and day of the year, serves and protects the people, and whose members put their lives at risk to defend the oldest values of civilised society. That is true of North Yorkshire police and of every police force throughout the United Kingdom. I deliberately say the "United Kingdom", to include Northern Ireland.

Attacks on police officers are attacks against authority, society and democracy. No civilised society should tolerate the present level of violence against the police as routine and a matter of course. Rising crime and mindless violence should not be considered inevitable. They can be checked and reversed, provided that we have the political will, the strength of purpose and the determination to take the strong measures needed to achieve that goal. I am in no doubt whatsoever that the public demands and will support the strongest possible response to attacks on our police—indeed, they expect nothing less from a Conservative Government.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) has raised a matter which rightly gives concern to the public not only in North Yorkshire but in the United Kingdom generally. There is a sense of outrage, which is not surprising, given some of the appalling attacks which have recently been reported and to which my hon. Friend so graphically drew attention —as he is especially qualified to do, as a former member of the Metropolitan police.

We know that there were just over 17,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales in 1990, and slightly more in the previous year. In about 10 per cent. of cases, the police officer concerned was so seriously injured that hospital treatment was necessary and in two horrific cases, alas, the police officers died.

Let us be absolutely clear that attacks on police officers in the course of their duty, whatever the extent of the injury received, are nasty and despicable and deserve to be punished accordingly. The police are especially vulnerable and have a difficult job to do on our behalf. The Court of Appeal has repeatedly made it clear that a deliberate attack on a police officer which inflicts harm should be dealt with severely. Immediate custody is justified even if the injury is relatively minor. For the most serious attacks on police officers, as on any person, Parliament has provided very severe maximum penalties. A life sentence is mandatory for murder. Present policy is that a person convicted of murdering a police officer will stay in custody for at least 20 years.

The number of assaults on police officers over the Christmas/new year period revealed in the survey conducted by the Association of Chief Police Officers of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the details of which were widely reported in the media last week, did not make pretty reading. This is the first time that ACPO has conducted such a "snapshot survey", so there are no equivalent figures for previous years. Neither ACPO nor Her Majesty's inspectorate is aware of any international figures with which they might be compared. Nine out of the 744 assaults on the police in the survey period took place in North Yorkshire. The chief constable has provided sobering examples of those assaults—my hon. Friend quoted some. They unfortunately led to some of his officers requiring medical treatment for the injuries that they received.

Even one assault on the police is too many, but the picture as a whole for 1990—the last year for which fully comparable national figures are available—is that the percentage of sick leave in North Yorkshire due to assaults was less than a third of the average figure for England and Wales. That shows that, despite its problems, the county force is not suffering disproportionately from the effects of violent behaviour in its area, either in relation to the country as a whole or in relation to neighbouring forces. However, I realise that that is cold comfort when one bears in mind the figures for the country as a whole.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, Parliament has given the courts a range of penalties to use according to the circumstances of the case but, like my hon. Friend, the Government are anxious to obtain comprehensive information about the way in which the courts deal with cases involving different degrees of assault in different parts of the country. We have therefore conducted a six-month survey of sentencing practice in the courts during the period to the end of December 1991. The survey will be published as soon as all the returns have been received and the results analysed, when we shall also examine what further action is necessary.

My hon. Friend referred specifically to the side-handled baton. If a force wished to conduct a trial with side-handled batons, it would be free to do so. The decision is one entirely for the chief officer. However, it is unlikely that a force would introduce the baton unilaterally. Such a weapon raises a number of policing issues, and the matter would no doubt be referred to ACPO for a policy decision because of its concern that equipment should be standardised wherever possible.

My hon. Friend asked whether there should be a joint ACPO/Home Office working party to look into improvements of existing equipment and into new equipment which might provide increased protection for officers. In fact, both ACPO and the Home Office already have in place the mechanisms to evaluate developments in public order equipment.

The public order forward planning unit, a national unit based in New Scotland yard has the duty of considering the equipment that is required by the police service to deal with all types of violence and public disorder. It reports to the Home Office and to the appropriate ACPO committees. In addition, the Home Office police scientific development branch undertakes research on behalf of the police service. It has only recently completed research on stab-resistant materials, and its report is available to chief officers. It is also currently working, inter alia, on a minimum standard specification for police riot helmets, and on a project on flame-retardant overalls. But if ACPO wished to conduct a trial, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary would give it full Government assistance.

Indeed, in a recent answer to a parliamentary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby) about the introduction of side-handled batons for the police, I made it clear that we would be prepared to arrange for a scientific evaluation of any—I repeat, any —equipment that might help in public order control, if chief officers requested it.

Those who use knives to inflict serious injuries, whether the victim is a private citizen or a member of the police service, can expect to spend a long time in prison. My hon. Friend mentioned replica firearms. At the request of the Home Office, the firearms consultative committee has considered the issue. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is looking urgently at recommendations made by the committee. They involve, first, extending the range of offences relating to the misuse of replica firearms and, secondly, ensuring that in future the packaging of such weapons carries a warning about offences and penalties relating to their use.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned stun weapons and the suggestion of Judge Pickles that such weapons should be made available to the police. My hon. Friend felt that that suggestion should be considered. Again, if chief officers believed that any products available would help to protect police officers from attacks, the Home Office would be prepared to make a full evaluation. However, there are considerable practical difficulties, at least in the police using stun guns to repel attacks. They can only be used at close range, because for the stun to take effect it is necessary to make contact with the attacker. Moreover, the operational effectiveness of the weapon can be greatly reduced by such simple factors as the amount of clothing worn by the assailant.

There would also be difficulties in deciding on the appropriate charge to use. The degree of force required to stun someone would vary according to the age, stature and health of the person. A miscalculation might easily result in either little effect or a lethal effect. A stun gun is not, I regret to say, a safe, simple and reliable alternative to the officer with a firearm in circumstances when firearms might be needed.

My hon. Friend also mentioned manpower. Of course, police manpower has been increased in the years that the Government have been in office, not least in North Yorkshire. My hon. Friend described how the number of operational officers could be increased by sensible arrangements, especially civilianisation. He also said that chief officers appreciated the latitude and discretion that they have to make their own judgments about how to spend money on equipment. We are considering the recommendations made by the Audit Commission to see how that discretion can be increased still further.

Home Office representatives are taking soundings from various police forces, including North Yorkshire, to come up with further recommendations. If it appears that it will be useful for police forces and mean that money is better and more responsibly spent, greater discretion and choice will lie with the police authority and chief police officers.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the deeply disturbing and pressing matter of attacks on police officers and for giving me the chance to respond to the particular points that he raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes to Eleven o'clock.