HC Deb 09 December 1996 vol 287 cc91-100

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

9.4 pm

Mr. Chris Davies (Littleborough and Saddleworth)

Earlier this year, two important reports were published that considered the effectiveness of police patrolling and the work of the bobby on the beat: the Audit Commission's "Streetwise" report, and the Police Federation's "Patrolling" report. Each made practical suggestions for improving police performance. I am grateful for the opportunity today to raise those and some other points. My remarks are intended to address national concerns, but I shall include some local examples to illustrate my points.

The public hold in the highest regard police patrol officers and the bobby on the beat, and I believe that they are right to do so. I, too, want more officers to be working the streets and for them to do so more effectively—working to clear objectives, with better training, more responsibility and enhanced status. Such improvements would be to the benefit of our communities.

The watchword today is "intelligence-led policing", and performance criteria stress the number of arrests being made by police officers. So the question is, "Is there really a role for officers on patrol, and especially on foot patrol?" My answer to the question, very firmly, is yes. The work of patrol officers is not simply about detecting crime: it is about maintaining order and tranquillity within a community. Too much emphasis on crime-fighting leads to a one-sided view of policing. People do not simply want criminals arrested; they also want daily problems solved: excessive noise, rowdy youths, double-parked cars.

Just an hour ago, a constituent reported to me some problems occurring in Oldham road, Springhead, which is in my constituency. Although it is a good area, it seems to be afflicted temporarily with the problem of crowds of up to 60 rowdy and sometimes drunken youths gathering round local shops. Individually, they are probably not breaking the law; collectively, they are a real nuisance, causing problems for shopkeepers and residents. Simply put, good local policing will be needed to sort out the problem, and I am confident that our divisional commander will ensure that his bobbies soon put a stop to the hooligan behaviour.

It is because of the same desire to maintain confidence and to reduce the fear of crime that I am so concerned about last Thursday's announcement that a local police station—in Milnrow, in Rochdale borough—is to close for health and safety reasons. I make a personal plea to the police authorities in Greater Manchester to ensure that that building is either put back into use or that an alternative facility is provided at the earliest opportunity.

Far from being separate from intelligence-led policing, police patrolling is crucial to it. As one sergeant recently said to me: It's not the police who solve crimes, it's the public. They provide the information. We just fit the pieces of the jigsaw together. Bobbies on the beat may not see the crimes taking place before their own eyes, but they talk to people on the streets, gather information and sense the atmosphere.

It is therefore disturbing to read the Audit Commission's finding that only 5 per cent. of police officers are debriefed properly at the end of a shift. If there is inadequate debriefing, the patrol officer is not being used properly, and, therefore, crime desks will not be provided with the intelligence necessary to ensure that criminals and crimes are targeted. I do not regard foot patrols as a panacea, but specialisms and targeting of particular criminals and particular crimes can and should be built around patrol work, rather than regarded as more important than it.

Some of the basics of good policing were perhaps forgotten in the 1960s, when the mobility provided by cars and the communication values of radios were placed over the value of the officer working a beat. Policing became more reactive, and officers less approachable. I am glad to observe recent efforts to re-establish some of those lost links.

In his most recent report, David Wilmot, the chief constable of Greater Manchester, stated: Patrolling is an important function, not least because of the reassurance and perception of safety it conveys to the public. People want to see police officers on the streets. That is absolutely right. It is via patrols that the police deliver a service to the public, but I wonder whether the good intentions outlined in such reports are being put into practice across the country.

I know from talking to the divisional commanders in Oldham and Rochdale that they want more officers put on the beat, and they are making sure that it happens. However, the Audit Commission revealed that only 5 per cent. of officers are on patrol across the country at any one time—one police officer for every 8,000 people. I have been trying to find out how many of those patrol officers are on foot.

The chief constable wrote to tell me in October: Across the Force area 4,013 officers are assigned to general police duties. The number on foot patrol duties vary from day to day at the discretion of the local Commanders. This allows for a highly flexible and unified response". However, it also means that we do not get to know how many patrol officers are on foot, and that patrols can quietly be used as a reservoir of manpower whenever something else turns up.

The Audit Commission also revealed that the proportion of constables whose main duty was foot patrol varied from 23 per cent. in some forces to a staggeringly low 1 per cent. in others. It seems that we are never going to meet the public's demand for more bobbies on the beat unless we establish a baseline for the number of officers allocated to the task of patrol work, and, in particular, patrol work on foot.

Chief constables are required annually to produce a local policing plan. I believe that it should contain a patrolling plan which sets out clear objectives for patrol work as well as the minimum target for the number of officers who should be on mobile or foot patrol at any one time in particular areas.

Some police officers say that to produce such figures would reveal just how few police officers are on patrol at any one time. The Audit Commission notes that the police are always reluctant to admit how thinly the blue line is stretched, because it undermines one of the very things that the police want to do, which is to give the public reassurance. However, I believe that the public should be made aware just how few police officers are available in the community. How else, for example, will they be encouraged to press for best practice or to pay for more officers? I am seeking a statement of minimum targets, not actual practice, so that, for the criminal, uncertainty will remain.

I realise, of course, that for divisional commanders the task of allocating manpower is a thankless one. To meet competing demands, it will often be a matter of robbing Peter to pay Paul, but unless targets are set publicly, the job of patrolling will always risk coming bottom of the list of police priorities.

The policing plan drawn up by the chief constable should also clearly explain the force's approach to geographical policing and how it will allocate more officers to that work. The Audit Commission places great emphasis on the importance of that approach as a means of making policing and patrolling more proactive, problem solving, effective and satisfying for the officers involved.

I am convinced that having officers take responsibility for the "ownership" of an area is vital. I am sure that the people I represent want to know that there are not just a couple of area constables working in the community but a much larger group of patrol officers who regard towns like Shaw, Milnrow or Lees in my community as their patch.

My impression is that there has been some resistance to geographical policing in Greater Manchester because of fears that the command structure may be weakened if an inspector is too committed to just one part of a division. The answer is that implementation of geographical policing should be left in the hands of sergeants and experienced constables, rather than to the daily supervision of inspectors.

I pay credit to the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, who, in his recent report, entitled "The London Beat", took up all the points made by the Audit Commission and pledged to take most of the steps recommended in it. I shall watch with interest how his positive statements are put into practice.

Last year, the Police Federation reported that almost half the patrol officers wanted to transfer to a specialist unit. Why does the bobby on the beat want to get off the beat? It stems from the frustration of officers who are spending their time doing work that either seems to them to serve no purpose or which gives them no opportunity to get to grips with solving local problems. Too often, patrol officers say that they are treated like the lowest form of police life. It is important for the public to recognise those officers' responsibilities.

Decisions on the street are made not by officers, but by constables with minimum supervision. They decide whether to make an arrest and whether to use force. They are the physical demonstration of lawful authority in our land, and their work can be demanding and dangerous, but, as the Audit Commission revealed, in some cases, foot patrol is carried out exclusively by probationers. The report referred to "deeply ingrained attitudes" that undervalue patrol work, and said that any move to a specialist post was viewed as an upward step. Plain-clothes officers are threatened with being "sent back to the beat" if they do not perform.

One constable told me recently, referring to his superiors, "When we're in plain clothes, we get treated like adults. When we're in uniform, we get treated like children." It is sad that only 5 per cent. of officers are consulted about the annual policing plans drawn up by the chief constable. Only one third of constables are consulted even about local priorities for patrol work, or feel that patrol work is valued by senior officers.

That is the national picture. I should like to make it clear that I have the highest respect for, and a great deal of trust in, my local divisional commanders, and I know that they go out of their way to find ways of rewarding officers who prove themselves good bobbies, doing a good policing job. Personal recognition by the boss is a great morale booster.

However, formal steps should be considered by all forces to raise the status of patrol officers. Increased training is one such step, together with the chance to undertake a wider and more satisfying range of police work, such as including experience of taking fingerprints.

The need for new designations of police officer is perhaps more important. We need a rank between constable and sergeant. The Audit Commission suggests a rank of beat manager for an officer who is encouraged to develop skills, experience and contacts that can be applied to one community. Such officers would not only tutor probationers, as many experienced officers already do, but assist the sergeant in briefing and debriefing and assign voluntary or part-time officers to roles in the area, helping to put geographical policing into practice.

Given the public demand for visible policing and the effectiveness of patrolling when done with clear objectives, we should consider how to supplement the number of full-time officers available beyond those who can be released by the civilianisation programme or by current plans for additional funding for the police.

I shall not bandy words with the Minister about how many extra police officers are being allocated or have been allocated in the past. I am pleased that the Government are committed to increasing the number of police officers. I hope that the Minister will note that my party is, too. I note that the Labour party, not surprisingly, has once again refused to make any such commitment to expenditure.

I pay tribute to the voluntary work undertaken by the 20,000 specials across the country, but the hours that they can be expected to contribute and the high drop-out rate in urban areas such as Greater Manchester make it difficult to justify heavy investment in their training and development, or in building a visible policing strategy that relies on them.

I put it to the Minister that it is time to introduce a new category of retained police officer, similar to the retained firefighters who do a splendid job in many parts of the country, including Littleborough in my constituency. Officers in that category would be upgraded, better trained and paid specials, who could be rostered for an agreed and contracted number of hours each week, supplementing full-time officers in a wider variety of ways.

I refer finally to communications between the police and the public. Greater Manchester police has recently embarked on the closure of its divisional control rooms and the setting up of four area operations rooms. I am told that teething problems continue some months after the launch of the project.

Police officers keep telephoning me from across the country with one story after another, pleading with me not to reveal their names or the source, for fear of disciplinary action. They tell me that unlimited overtime is being paid to plug some of the holes and deal with the problems. They tell me that breakdowns in the computer equipment break links with the police national computer, and that poor radio reception means that officers simply cannot understand one another, and have no confidence that their messages are being received.

I do not know whether those allegations are true. Officers on the ground clearly believe that they are, but assistant chief constables denounce me as profoundly mistaken. As £11 million hase been invested in the project, perhaps they found it embarrassing to admit that problems are continuing. However, if they are, and that is being denied to ordinary officers who are experiencing them on a daily basis, the top brass are giving ordinary constables the impression that they are not listening to their concerns.

The Audit Commission attributes the problem to civilian staff working in control rooms across the country without understanding the day-to-day realities of police work. I have certainly encountered that problem in Greater Manchester. That leads to a breakdown in communications. Those staff should spend time accompanying police officers on the beat, so that they understand the terminology and the way in which the police react in a variety of circumstances.

Finally, I draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the 999 system is overburdened. It is being used more than ever before, but not exclusively for emergency calls. The operator has to determine which are emergency calls and which are not. The sheer number of 999 calls now being made means that patrol officers are firefighting rather than solving problems.

We need a 333 national line for non-emergency calls and crime-stopping information. The introduction of such a line will make people stop and think. If they have a serious concern to discuss with a police officer, but one that can wait 24 hours, for example, they should call 333. However, if it is really an emergency that requires a police officer immediately, they should call 999. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board. It was recommended by the Audit Commission, and it is his chance of fame today to announce that the Government will take positive and practical action in that respect.

Chief constables should set clear objectives for patrol officers, to raise the status of their work and put more officers into visible and effective geographical policing. The Home Office should publish guidelines to the effect that annual policing plans should make progress towards those ends, and I look forward to a positive response from the Minister.

9.22 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Timothy Kirkhope)

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth (Mr. Davies) on obtaining tonight's Adjournment debate. The debate comes a little earlier than we expected, but it deals with an important subject and he has raised some significant issues.

The Government take the subject seriously. We fully recognise the value of patrol in delivering an effective police service and the need to keep under constant review how such important work can be made even more effective.

Indeed, the Government have an unparalleled record in supporting the police service in all aspects of its work. It ensures that the service is provided with sufficient financial resources. However, when it comes to the use of those resources, policing is fundamentally a local service and must be responsive to local needs.

Local conditions and patterns of crime vary from area to area. It is, therefore, for police authorities and chief constables to determine the issues to be given priority in their local policing plans. I shall deal specifically with the issues which the hon. Member has raised, but first I should like to say a few words reminding the House of the resources that the Government have provided for the police service.

I said that the Government's record is unparalleled, and so it is. Since we came to power total spending on the police has more than doubled in real terms. Total police service expenditure will have increased from just over £1 billion in 1978–79 to around £7 billion in 1997–98. The number of officers has increased by around 16,000. Civilian support staff numbers have risen by over 18,000. Constable strength is just under 98,000—an all-time record.

Funding this financial year is nearly 4 per cent. higher or £247 million more than it was in 1995–96. In 1997–98 there will be enough provision for chief constables to recruit 2,000 additional police officers. Funding for the current year and the next two financial years will enable an additional 5,000 police officers to be recruited nationally. The hon. Gentleman may be especially interested to know that, as part of that additional funding, Greater Manchester will receive £1.9 million in 1997–98, which is sufficient to recruit 100 more officers. It is estimated that its force strength will increase this year by 105. It has also instituted an ambitious civilianisation programme, which is expected to result in the release of 300 officers for operational duties.

I am delighted to say that in Greater Manchester there has already been a significant increase in patrol officers. In March 1981, there were 350 sergeants and 2,355 constables. In September 1996, the figures had risen to 395 sergeants and 2,815 constables. The chief constable is to be congratulated on that achievement.

The Government provide the strategic framework for the police service in England and Wales. Under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, now consolidated in the 1996 Police Act, my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has the power to set key national objectives for the police service. Those are determined in consultation with chief officers and police authorities. They reflect the major policing concerns of the public and give the police service a clear steer on national priorities.

The key national objectives for 1997–98 are: to maintain and if possible increase the number of detections for violent crimes; to increase the number of detections for burglaries of people's homes; to target and prevent crimes that are a particular local problem, including drug-related criminality, in partnership with the public and local agencies; and to provide high-visibility policing so as to reassure the public. I assure the hon. Gentleman that chief officers are required by the Local Government Act 1992 to publish the percentage of uniformed operational constables' working time spent outside the station and in public. The final key national objective is to respond promptly to emergency calls from the public. I shall come later to the hon. Gentleman's suggestions for changes in that respect.

The objective on high visibility policing clearly reflects the importance that the Government attach to patrol work. Police authorities are required to have regard to those objectives when drawing up their annual policing plans, but all day-to-day operational matters are for chief constables to decide. How many officers are assigned to foot patrol is one such question and it would not be right to introduce a central requirement for patrolling plans to be produced.

In addition to the key objectives, local priorities can be reflected in specific local objectives for each police force area. Those are set by police authorities in consultation with chief officers, not by chief officers alone, as the hon. Gentleman said. The Police Act 1996 also requires that police authorities consult their local communities on local objectives. In that way, local people can give their views on what goes into the annual policing plans. A two-way dialogue with the local community is crucial in enabling the police service to be responsive to local needs.

Annual policing plans are published by police authorities. Assessments of how far the plans have been achieved are included in the authorities' annual report. There is therefore considerable scope for public involvement in the determination of policing priorities. Through putting plans in the public domain local people can then see what the force is doing and through the annual reports they can see how well it is doing it. I am satisfied that those arrangements are what is needed for assessing police performance.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Audit Commission's "Streetwise" report, which was published in February this year. That report contained a number of recommendations aimed at helping the police to target their resources more effectively and we welcomed the report. The complex nature of the recommendations means that they might take time to implement and the report recognises that. It is also essential that any changes lead to tangible benefits in the longer term. Already a management handbook, entitled "Tackling Patrol Effectively", has been produced by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Audit Commission, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, and the Home Office and it was issued to forces during the autumn. The handbook contains examples of good practice drawn from forces across England and Wales and I am sure forces will find these valuable.

The handbook provides good practice advice on many of the issues the hon. Member has raised, such as measures for patrol work; geographical policing; problem-orientated policing; enhancing the status of patrol officers; and beat managers. The hon. Member also mentioned measures aimed at enhancing the status of patrol officers through the introduction of beat managers. As I mentioned, advice on and examples of those issues are covered in the handbook and West Mercia introduced beat managers in April 1995. Dyfed Powys has established them throughout its area. Through the handbook, other forces can learn from their experience and consider the adoption of similar schemes. Other forces have found other ways to enhance the role of patrol officers by specifying the skills and aptitudes that a good patrol officer needs. Officers can then be accredited in those competencies. Such schemes are running in Kent and Merseyside. Again, forces will be able to refer to the handbook and cherry-pick those that they feel would work in their area.

The hon. Member also raised the issue of whether a 333 line should be introduced. The Association of Chief Police Officers has asked the Police Foundation to undertake some research on non-emergency communications between the police and the public and that may shed some light on whether such a service would be beneficial. I have taken careful note of the hon. Gentleman's comments and his support for such a scheme. On present knowledge, however, it is not certain that such a service would have the effect that the Audit Commission or the hon. Gentleman anticipate.

Emergency calls are just one of the many and various demands placed on our police service. A constant challenge for it is how to respond to those demands as efficiently and effectively as possible. Resources will always be finite and so it would be unrealistic to expect chief officers to increase activity on all fronts at once. Clearly a balance needs to be struck between putting officers on patrol and targeting resources at prolific offenders. Experience has shown that the targeting approach can be very effective in tackling crime.

Forces have gained good results by the improved use of information and intelligence, by using targeted data against prolific offenders and by assigning responsibility for investigation to local units. In some areas where the police have adopted those approaches they have more than doubled their clear-up rates. That has all contributed to the reduction in crime that has been achieved in the past three years. In the 12 months to June 1996, 5.1 million offences were recorded in England and Wales—a drop of 10 per cent. since June 1993. In Greater Manchester, a 14 per cent. reduction was achieved. That overall improvement is not consistently reflected across all types of crime, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, but it is extremely encouraging. The police service should be congratulated on its efforts to reduce crime.

The hon. Gentleman referred to various policing models used in the fight against crime. It is for individual chief constables to decide whether those models are appropriate for their areas. A number of forces have introduced such models and found them to work effectively, but that will not necessarily be the case everywhere.

Of course, the police, however effective, cannot do it all and the route to safer communities involves other agencies, the community at large, and other developments such as closed circuit television. CCTV does not replace officers, as some have said, but helps them do their job even better. It helps them detect and reduce crimes and convict criminals. It has been welcomed by the service and the Government fully support the introduction of new technology to fight crime. We are making £45 million available for CCTV through our challenge competitions. Our target is to have 10,000 new cameras in place over the next three years.

My ministerial colleagues and I have already had the pleasure of launching dozens of CCTV schemes that have received funds from our very successful competitions. I am privileged to have been asked to launch one such scheme in High Wycombe tomorrow. High Wycombe has benefited from the award of a £50,000 grant in our first competition. I am looking forward to seeing that system join the long list of those that are helping to fight crime and make our streets safer.

The hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth also mentioned special constables, an area of particular interest to me personally. People who give up their spare time to become volunteer police officers are fulfilling a vital role, working with the police at the heart of the community to beat the criminals. I was pleased to attend recently the launch of a scheme to boost recruitment of special constables in Northumbria. This campaign, which is part funded by the Government's specials challenge fund, is aimed at promoting the special constabulary to potential recruits. As I said on that occasion, Specials are a shining example of partnership. Work has started on the findings of the special constabulary working group, whose report was published in August this year. The Audit Commission's recommendation that special constables who perform a stipulated number of hours a week should be paid a bounty will be considered in the light of the working group's recommendation that a bounty should not be paid to specials. Whether or not a bounty is paid, special constables should not be asked to perform duties for which they have not been trained and properly equipped. Some £10 million of Government funding provided for the special constabulary over the last two years will help police forces to attain a common standard of equipment and training for their specials.

In conclusion, I would like to reiterate that we have a police service—from bobbies on the beat to the latest in technological innovations—that is second to none. The service is constantly facing new challenges and has an excellent record in responding to these. As the hon. Member for Littleborough and Saddleworth is aware, Greater Manchester is one of several forces to have won the charter mark this year. That reflects just how well it is are responding, and the high-quality service it provides to the public. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the service as a whole has the resources it needs so it can continue to deliver those high standards, of which we in this country are justly proud.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Ten o'clock.