HL Deb 18 December 1979 vol 403 cc1566-71

Second Reading debate resumed.

4.14 p.m.


My Lords, we return now to the Police Bill and I rise not to make a debating speech, but simply to ask the noble Lord two or three questions, about which I spoke to him in the Lobby earlier. The Bill is drafted in very general terms, so I do not think it unreasonable to ask questions, as other noble Lords have done. I am glad to say that the noble Lord has cleared up the question of the status of the chairman and vice-chairman, but there is still the question of the size of the board and the balance between the different interests. On occasions like this there is a great temptation for all and sundry to claim representation on the board, which in the end has "Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all" as members, and so becomes so large that it is very difficult to come to clear decisions; much of what it then decides is compromise. I hope that the noble Lord can say something about the size of the board that he has in mind.

Then we come to the question of regulations. What parliamentary control will there be over the regulations mentioned in the Bill? Can Parliament pray against them? I think that that is possible, but it is not clear in the Bill; and if it cannot, what else can Parliament do?—because Parliament must surely have some status in this matter. I ask this particularly because it seems to me that there is confusion in the police world between what are regulations and what are simply recommendations from the Home Office, which are sent as letters and addressed both to the chairman of the authority and to the chief constable. Those letters are not regulations, however great may be the respect paid to them.

Then we come to Clause 2 of the Bill where there are references to Sections 33 and 35 of the Police Act 1964, and where one notices that Section 34 has been left out. Section 33 concerns regular police. Section 35 concerns cadets. As I understand it, regulations made under the Bill would be laid only after consultation with representatives of staff associations. I may be very ignorant, but I did not know that cadets had a staff association. If that is so, I wonder who is going to represent the cadets before such regulations are made.

We ought to turn for a moment to the section which is left out, Section 34, which concerns special constables, of whom there are now 23,000 in this country, unpaid, and underrated by all of us and by the regular police. It is possible that in the foreseeable future they might be paid a bounty on the lines of the Territorial Army. If we come to that, is there power in the Bill to decide the rate of such bounty? Is there authority for any such decision to be made? If these steps are taken in the future, who will represent the special constables? They have no staff association, no national organisation, and no means of having their voice heard on a national issue.

Then we have what used to be called the first police reserve. I think I am right in saying it faded away at the end of the war, but still exists on paper. If that is so, how is their pay to be decided? How is their voice to be heard before such decisions are made?

This vague drafting gives the impression that the agreement with the federation is still very brittle. There has already been reference to the objections which the federation made to the representation of the staff associations on the board. We know that the federation upset the Police Council for about two years—the Minister told us this again this afternoon—and brought the Police Advisory Board to a complete standstill, as was shown in the Answer to a Parliamentary Question only last week. For over two years the Police Advisory Board simply did not function. Even the Patriotic Front, which recently held up the Rhodesian negotiations for three months, was not as successful as the Police Federation has been in delaying negotiations for about two years. I see the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, who is sitting opposite, smiling. What signs can the Minister give us which will strengthen our confidence that these tactics will not be repeated the moment something comes to the fore which the federation does not wholly approve of?

My last point concerns numbers and quality. We have twice this afternoon been told to applaud the increase in the number of recruits to the police service, which we all welcome. Neither of the noble Lords who spoke from the Front Benches mentioned the question of quality.

In the police service it is not just numbers that count; it is the quality of those who join the service which is so important. We consider, rightly I think, that our police are leaders in the world in so many fields. But they are not leaders in the minimum educational attainment required of recruits; nor are they leaders in the pattern of training which we provide for them. The minimum educational standards required are revealed in a national examination set by the Home Office. I think it would shame many noble Lords if they saw some of the tick-in-the-box papers. I am going to ask the Minister now whether he would arrange for a set of these papers—say a year or two years old—to be put in the Library, so that we can in fact see what is required of recruits who have not the necessary four O-levels, of which English and elementary maths must be two, which is a low enough standard.

My Lords, I would submit that the important things in a police force are their standards and their relations with the public they serve; and public confidence depends on their being as open as possible. Of course, we must also ensure that the police forces of this country receive proper remuneration and can look forward with confidence, knowing that Parliament will see that this happens. I hope this Bill will contribute to this confidence over pay, and I hope, too, that it will contribute to happier relations between the police and the public whom they are paid to serve.

4.21 p.m.


My Lords, I propose to speak very briefly because I did not put my name on the list of speakers although I informed the Parliamentary Under-Secretary that I was going to say a few things this afternoon. First of all, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, who always takes a very keen interest in matters concerning the police, although, as he will recognise, he has gone rather outside the precise terms of the Bill we have before us today. He referred to the question of special constables. Like him, I attach the greatest importance to them; but I think he is a little unfair in saying that their value is in some way underrated by the police force generally. Certainly chief constables I know attach the highest importance to them; and certainly anything that the present Government can do to stimulate recruitment would be very welcome to many of us, including the noble Lord. Secondly, the noble Lord referred to the question of police training, and perhaps we may come back to that on some occasion because, again, it is outside the terms of this particular Bill. Nevertheless, like the noble Lord, I attach the greatest importance to it.

As the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said when he introduced the Bill, this measure has had to he presented to Parliament because of the breakdown in the Police Council; and think he sketched in the background to the dispute very fairly. There were obviously incomes policy reasons behind the dispute; of course there were. But there were other disagreements as well, and these were touched on by my noble friend Lord Boston of Faversham and the noble Lord, Lord Wigoder. One was the composition of the official side of the Police Council. The problem, undoubtedly—and the federation representatives at the time put it to me very firmly—was that they were extremely dissatisfied with what they regarded as the over-political attitude of the local authority representatives.

I think we have to recognise the fact that the police service is not like other services of local government. I think it does require special and very sensitive treatment; and I think there is a great deal to be said for bringing magistrates into these negotiations. I think it will solve quite a number of the problems which have arisen in the past. Speaking for myself, I welcome it, and I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will come to this point when he winds up.

I should like to say only two other things. First, I very much welcome what my noble friend Lord Boston has said about the police service generally—about their courage in many intensely difficult situations and about their high standards of professionalism. I think it is necessary to say this, and to say it fairly regularly, because there unhappily appears to be something of an obsession in this country by way of denigrating the police service. One hears it all too often from some Members of another place and some sections of the media. I think it is right, when we are discussing a Bill of this sort, to express our admiration for the admirable job which the police service does and acknowledge the very heavy debt we all owe to them.

Secondly, I think it is only right to say a few words about the noble Lord, Lord Plowden, who has taken over the chairmanship of this important new body. The noble Lord, Lord Plowden, was in fact the deputy chairman of the committee of inquiry presided over by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Edmund-Davies, and I think we are very grateful to him that he has taken on this extremely important job in addition to his existing job as chairman of the Police Complaints Board. I do not think we could possibly have anybody of higher standard doing this important and sensitive job, and I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House in thanking him for doing it and in expressing our pleasure that the Government have thought it right to offer him this appointment.