HL Deb 25 March 1999 vol 598 cc1524-36

9.36 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will give advice to police authorities on the circumstances in which police vehicles may exceed speed limits, ignore traffic lights and in other ways disregard the regulations governing traffic on public roads.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, who I am glad to note is to reply to the debate, can inform the House about the present situation and any review of guidance to police that may be in train. The police have to achieve a difficult balance to respond urgently to emergencies and also to create the minimum of danger and inconvenience for the general public in doing so.

I am raising an aspect of relations between the police and the public and not just the motoring public. My aim has been to help improve those relations. A recent incident some four weeks ago brought the subject to the headlines. A well-known television presenter, Sheena McDonald, was, as a pedestrian, hit by a police car with its blue lights flashing and siren wailing. She had to be placed in intensive care in hospital. I hope she is making a good recovery.

I shall not comment on cases in which investigations and proceedings are continuing. I shall refer only to indisputable facts reported in the press—the accidents, deaths, and injuries. These are some of the recent ones. The Times of 3rd February reported a court in Newcastle being told that a police car on the wrong side of the road travelling at 70 miles an hour had killed a pedestrian. The Daily Telegraph of 22nd February reported a case of two police officers seriously ill in hospital after crashing in east London when answering an emergency call. In November, on the outskirts of Aberdeen, two pedestrians (a married couple) were killed by a police car answering a call to investigate a suspected robbery in a video shop. Last Christmas Eve a 10 year-old boy was severely injured in South Shields by a police car that crashed into a fence and lamp-post before mounting the pavement. Noble Lords will know of other incidents.

The Times has also provided some general statistics from Home Office sources presumably referring to England and Wales only recording that between 1991 and 1995 nearly 100 people were killed and about 1, 400 injured in accidents involving police vehicles.

I am not launching a campaign against the police. Far from it. In six days' time I am to initiate a debate on car crime, having been successful in the ballot, and I shall then, as in the past, be examining ways in which the police should be assisted and supported. I am a member of the European Secure Vehicle Alliance whose membership includes police forces. We work together at meetings and in correspondence.

My interest and concern in the roles of police cars were aroused during the four years when I was Secretary of State for Scotland and answerable to Parliament for the police forces in Scotland as Minister for Home Affairs. As Secretary of State I made an official visit to the Scottish police college at Tulliallan. I was glad to be briefed there on driver training, which I count as very important. I insisted, though, that exercises in speeding at 120 or more miles per hour should only be carried out on the adjacent public roads when the essential training of drivers required it, in the interests of the public. Of course, in certain situations the police have to reach high speeds; for example, in a chase. And we encourage them, if they are pursuing known murderers, terrorists or drugs gangs. However, speed can be a killer and should be resorted to with care.

Another organisation with which I am associated is the Parliamentary Advisory Council on Transport and Safety. Six weeks ago it held a conference solely on the subject of speed and its connection with crashes and severity of injuries. The opening speech at that conference was made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty. So I hope that I need not dwell now on the dangers of speeding and the need to restrict it to special circumstances.

My concern was heightened when, by chance, about four years ago I saw a police car accident near here and reported it, realising that I might be the only independent witness. I should explain that I have to visit hospitals as a patient to be inspected at least every six weeks as a result of being severely wounded in the war, and when I am in London it is St. Thomas' Hospital I visit, now the parliamentary hospital. In the Lambeth Palace Road near here, I saw a police car being driven at speed on the wrong side and at a blind curve have a head-on collision with a car whose driver could not have avoided the crash, though both managed to slow down. When I returned to the Houses of Parliament I reported what I had seen to the Metropolitan Police who then acted, I thought, admirably. They thanked me because they had received no other observer's report and kept me informed about the case, to my surprise, for months. Finally, they informed me that there had been an appropriate reprimand or equivalent given to the policeman in the car. In that connection, I wonder whether the noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, can confirm a recent report that the Metropolitan Police are starting to fit black box recorders, like those used in aircraft, in their cars to help trace the course of those cars.

I have been pursuing my own research and inquiries into other incidents. It seems that a large proportion of emergency calls are false alarms or are found to be trivial or unnecessary. We have to ask whether a reasonable balance is being maintained between a quick response on the one hand, and the danger and inconvenience to the public on the other. Of course, the police have to respond quickly; they are not to know until later whether or not an emergency call was a false alarm.

At this point I must comment on the report of the Audit Commission for England and Wales published last January on police performance indicators. The commission produced league tables comparing the records of various police forces on two counts. The first was the average time before a police car responds to an emergency call. The second was the average time to reach the incident. The first is an excellent competitive measure—that is, the time between a call and the car moving off—a test of readiness at all hours. The second is, in my opinion, unfortunate in promoting competition of a different sort. The time taken for a police car to reach an incident depends on several factors beyond its control; for example, whether it is in a city or urban area, whether it is during the rush hour or in fog or bad weather. Pressure to drive fast through red traffic lights on the wrong side of the road in order to compete and record times that look good invites accidents.

I thoroughly approve of the Audit Commission's general principle of obtaining value for money, but on the subject of emergency calls I believe that the test should be limited to how quickly the police car moves off after receipt of the call.

I have so far been speaking of accidents and casualties. But there is also the inconvenience, the aggravation and the minor damage often experienced by the public, whether motorists, cyclists or pedestrians, when, for example, a police car suddenly decides to start up its siren and dash through red lights as traffic observing the green light is already crossing its path. Any damage may be minor—small dents to bumpers or panels caused by sudden braking and involuntary shunting. But the repairs needed deprive the owners of their cars for a day or two, or longer.

My understanding is that if a police car hits something or someone, the police accept some responsibility. If, however, it does not hit anything, the police practice is not to accept any responsibility nor to contact witnesses who have come forward to volunteer accounts of what they saw of the police car's passage. The trail of minor mayhem that a police car may leave in its wake, especially at the crossings and corners on its path, which may extend for several miles, is not, apparently, their concern,

I entirely understand that attitude. The bills that the police would face could be enormous. There are specialist solicitors who will advise their clients in those situations how to claim for such things as whiplash, stress, nightmares and other alleged conditions. The police may avoid such claims, but the insurance companies will have to cope with them to the detriment of the public as insurance premiums increase. I speak as one who was the non-executive chairman of an insurance company before I reached its retiring age. I am aware of the escalating quantity of claims in this area. I am informed that police forces are now insuring only against claims above £50, 000. Nonetheless, I hope that they are covering fully injuries to their own personnel.

A recent development that may reduce the turmoil among the traffic affected by a speeding police car is a new kind of siren called the "Localizer". It apparently indicates the direction from which the police car is coming. Noble Lords will immediately see the advantage of this if they have experienced the sudden, deafening start of a siren nearby. It is impossible to tell whether the police are coming from behind or from either side at a crossroads. Drivers try to react helpfully, but perhaps do so in the wrong direction or bump into each other.

The West Yorkshire Police who are carrying out trials with the new siren have so far reported favourably. Where other traffic is concerned, their figures are these. There has been a 15 per cent. reduction in what are described as "panic" manoeuvres, and a 20 per cent. increase in signalled manoeuvres, while the police car has experienced an 8 per cent. reduction in lane changes. That is the way that the success of the experiment so far has been described. I suggest that this directional siren should be an improvement. The noble Lord, Lord Hoyle, may care to comment in that respect.

I know that the law allows police vehicles to ignore speed limits and other regulations if the purpose of their mission would otherwise be harmed or frustrated. But how is that decided, often at very short notice, and by whom? The police are not above the law. We wish them well in their endeavours to curb crime and help with emergencies. But who polices the police?

Is a decision to start on a dangerous run through traffic at speed delegated to a sergeant or constable in the car, or must he get permission over the radio? I presume that most forces delegate instant decisions to the policemen in the car, but if so they should nonetheless be operating within clear guidance and according to directives carefully prepared by their superiors. Can the noble Lord confirm and tell the House that reviews are taking place, with government supervision, to spread best practice and to standardise procedures where this is relevant?

The police are performing a difficult function in this area. Ultimate responsibility at higher levels is divided and not clear. Chief constables have duties concerning their particular forces. Police authorities are now a mixture of councillors, magistrates and others. The presiding Ministers are the Home Secretary and the Scottish Secretary in their respective territories, with the exception that the Home Secretary of course is also directly responsible for the Metropolitan Police.

It is our job as parliamentarians, I suggest, to protect the interests of the public—and that is my aim this evening—to improve safety for individuals on our roads and pavements, whether on wheels or on foot, and also to reduce the disarray and tribulations that a speeding police vehicle can leave in its wake.

9.51 p.m.

Viscount Simon

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has tabled this Unstarred Question. It gives us the chance to debate matters which are of concern to many people today. I may inadvertently even answer some of the questions that the noble Lord has raised.

It is quite common for people to complain about the press conducting witch hunts unnecessarily, but on this occasion I am pleased that the Daily Mail has decided to highlight certain aspects of police driving. Before proceeding any further I should perhaps declare that I am a civilian holder of the police Class 1 driving certificate, a former examiner of advanced motorists in Australia, and a civilian who regularly goes on traffic patrol with the police and is learning many other aspects of their difficult job.

Legislation exists which gives drivers of emergency vehicles exemption from certain aspects of the Road Traffic Acts when attending an emergency call. It allows drivers of such vehicles to be exempted from compliance with speed limits, and traffic signs etc., but places an obligation on the driver to drive with due regard to the safety of other road users, including pedestrians, at all times. And, to answer one specific part of the noble Lord's question, it should be pointed out that traffic signs, such as red lights and stop signs, are treated as give way signs and individuals should only exercise legal driving exemptions when they have received the appropriate driver training. Should an emergency vehicle, travelling in these circumstances, cause, or be involved in, a crash, then the driver of the emergency vehicle is liable to prosecution. If an emergency vehicle is not on an emergency call and the driver fails to comply with the Road Traffic Acts, that driver is liable to prosecution.

Regarding the fitting of black boxes, these were tried out some time ago. As the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, has indicated, they are being fitted again to about 500 vehicles. I think that they will certainly be useful.

It should not be forgotten that emergency vehicles attending an emergency have been summoned by somebody who believes that urgent intervention is necessary; nor should it be forgotten that the police attend more emergency calls than the other two emergency services. But it would be unhelpful to divorce police vehicles from other emergency vehicles which have permitted exemptions and whose vehicles have completely different handling characteristics.

The ambulance service must meet certain standards—called Orcon standards—set by the Department of Health and those standards exist for urban and rural areas. The fire service has slightly more complicated response times imposed upon it depending on the number of pumps to be deployed, whether the call originates within a city, town or is rural.

Operational control of each police force rests with the chief officer and instructions cannot be issued by the Home Office or a police authority which in any way remove that operational autonomy. The level of response and time of attendance is determined by questioning the caller about the nature of the emergency and a graded response has frequently been adopted to cope with demand which sometimes outstrips available resources. I have been with a crew in London responding to a call for assistance some 10 miles away when no other vehicle was able to attend. This took place after dark but with numerous other vehicles on the road. The driver went rapidly between points A and B and was only slightly hindered by a youth stopping on a pedestrian crossing and giving us a "V" sign before continuing to amble across. It transpired that someone, who was completely blotto, had been bowled over by a van—fortunately without injury—and I assisted the officers in their examination of the vehicle involved and the cause of the crash. But, in this instance, all the crew knew was that someone had been run over and that, despite being far away, no other vehicle was available. Therefore speed was of the essence. I can only say from personal knowledge that traffic officers do not exceed speed limits unnecessarily nor speed inappropriately.

There have been other times when a crew has been called to an incident but, after a short time, has had its attendance cancelled, leaving anybody observing the marked deceleration and extinguishing of lights and noise somewhat bemused.

Ambulance crews know roughly what they are going to; fire crews usually know what they are going to: but the poor police officer sometimes knows what he is attending, but not always, and therefore the response time can be critical. I was amused to read in the Mail on Sunday last weekend that the police rushed to the aid of a terrified woman who told them, presumably when they arrived, that she had seen a gigantic, poisonous tropical spider. It turned out to be a large ball of wool.

Police officers receive a very high standard of driver training at various police driving schools throughout the country. The Metropolitan Police adopt these standards, with trained divisional officers either assessing and authorising the basic driving qualification for panda cars or, as at present, courses at the police driving school at Hendon for those who drive emergency response cars and vans. It has been said that a Hendon-trained advanced driver is one of the best in the world, and other countries have not only adopted its training methods, but send some of their officers to be trained there.

The system of car control has evolved since the driving school was first opened in the 1930s. As a direct result of being trained, I have to say that the last insurance claim I made was about 40 years ago. Unfortunately, like other areas of modern life and the demands placed upon it, fewer but sufficient funds are being allocated in different ways and are being better targeted towards those who need the driving skills.

The newspaper suggests that driving should be independently monitored. There might be some benefit in that suggestion—I am not in a position to judge—but it should be stressed that police driving is not linked to normal civilian driving. Advanced training reduces the chance of accident and the skills reached reflect the competence to drive urgently in an unusual scenario. The ACPO Police Pursuit Driver Training Report of September 1998 makes many recommendations, including accreditation of driver training, competency-based assessments and standardisation of instructor training. I would hope that this important ACPO report is adopted by every force. Having said that, it should be noted that in some forces basic drivers are not authorised to respond to emergency calls.

A recent report by Her Majesty's Inspectorate makes the recommendation that although traffic policing has been ignored for some years it should become a core police activity. I hope this recommendation will be implemented.

While legislation and service instructions already exist in respect of compliance with the Road Traffic Acts, no call is so urgent as to warrant the involvement of an emergency service vehicle in a crash, which will only delay the attendance of help to the person or incident. Drivers of emergency vehicles have the ultimate discretion to discontinue a fast response or pursuit if the safety of others is compromised in any way.

Sometimes we hear of someone being killed in a crash involving a police vehicle engaged in a pursuit. Thankfully, such incidents are rare. The newspapers always seem to make as much as possible out of such a tragedy, usually slating the police, whereas in reality if the driver of the pursued vehicle had stopped when ordered so to do, the death would not have occurred. There can be no excuse for not stopping when so ordered.

I wrote down what someone said in April 1997 in Greater Manchester, when her son, and others, had been killed following a pursuit. She said, "There are five mums who have all lost sons because of this. We have come here to try to work out what happened. The police should not have been chasing them". I feel sure that, if she has come to terms with her awful loss by now, she will agree that everyone should stop their vehicle when ordered to do so by a police officer. Sympathy goes to the family and friends of anyone killed in a crash following a pursuit, but that does not hide the fact that, had that person stopped when told to do so, the fatality would not have occurred.

Noble Lords may be interested to learn that within the Metropolitan Police (I do not know about other forces) a system exists of awarding points for mishaps and more serious incidents. Similar to the civilian points system on licences, one to 12 points may be given depending on the severity of the wrongdoing. At a certain stage the officer is recalled for assessment and possible retraining. I am led to believe that an officer receives one point for damaging a wheel after hitting a kerb. So the system demands a high standard even of standard class drivers.

Finally, it might be worth reminding your Lordships that a police vehicle called to an incident may well be making a loud noise and flashing blue lights. But that is necessary to warn other road users and pedestrians of its approach. While some people may regard that as an intrusion on their senses, those people would not expect anything else if they had caused the emergency and were awaiting the attendance of the police. The use of noise and lights only applies when necessary.

10.1 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, we are more or less agreed on the principles of this subject. We all want the police to arrive quickly when we need them, particularly at serious incidents, when crime or danger can be avoided by the police being present. The same applies to the other emergency services. But at the same time we want them to drive safely for the sake of others, and indeed for their own sake. Policemen have been hurt in accidents in the course of high speed manoeuvres en route to incidents as have other people, as my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy pointed out. Certainly, our sympathy goes out to everyone who is hurt in this way, and particularly to those who who have been close to people who have been killed.

Speed on the roads is dangerous in any circumstances. That is why we have speed limits. But speed is sometimes necessary for the police and the other emergency services. That is why I welcome this Unstarred Question requesting fuller consideration of the matter and guidance for the police. I do not mind whether it comes from the Home Office or from ACPO; it should come from whichever is most appropriate.

I hope that those who prepare any new guidance will think the matter through. I hope they will consider whether it might be possible in these days of fast, elaborate and more accurate communications to give more information about the cause of a call and to distinguish between a real emergency, when police on the ground a minute or two earlier can make a real difference, and other incidents where an extra minute or two makes little or no difference. In these days of better communications that might be possible. False alarms are a matter about which the police can do little at the time. But not all genuine 999 calls justify risking lives. It is much worse for someone who is maimed by a police car in those circumstances or for someone who loses a relative or friend, if it turns out that the call was made for some relatively trivial incident where a policeman arriving a minute or two later would have made no practical difference to the situation.

I do not pretend it is an easy matter to sort out but, as the noble Lord suggested, it needs careful consideration, particularly because the other two emergency services sometimes have more information about the incident they are trying to attend.

Obviously, the best training that can be provided is important and highly desirable. However, I should not wish to limit high speed response to a selected group of policemen who were specially trained, while those not specially trained were not allowed to respond to an incident. It is not desirable.

While the matter is being examined, I reinforce what my noble friend said about sirens. It is an important question and I find it difficult to tell from which direction some of the modern whistling, wailing sounds come. It makes it more difficult to keep out of the way or take appropriate action in a car or vehicle. In urban situations the sound reverberates from the buildings and as the vehicle moves, the sound appears to come from different directions, and it reverberates differently. Careful thought should be given to the problem and if new types of sound would be of benefit, they should be adopted as soon as convenient. When crashes occur, they are not necessarily all the fault of the police drivers. It may be that others react in an unpredictable way, not least because they misunderstand where the sound is coming from.

Altogether, the debate has been valuable in drawing attention to the matter and I thank my noble friend for providing the opportunity for your Lordships' House to consider it.

10.6 p.m.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, like other noble Lords who have spoken, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for raising the issue. It is right that when Parliament passes laws we should pay particular attention to anyone granted exemption from them. The police driver has been granted some exemptions from road traffic law, but they are limited and specific.

Before I discuss those matters in more detail, I wish to deal with some of the points raised here tonight, particularly those made by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell. My noble friend Lord Simon was supportive of the police and made many of the points that I shall make, so I shall reinforce what he said. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Cope, also was supportive of the police, as were all those who spoke tonight.

First, as the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, said, we cannot discuss particular cases but we all hope that Sheena McDonald is making a speedy and complete recovery. We extend our sympathy to the families of those who have lost their lives after being involved in crashes with police vehicles, as well as other vehicles.

It is interesting to look at the statistics. Most of the fatalities occurred in three police activities: 20 per cent. were routine patrol cases; 23 per cent. arose from responses to emergency calls, which we have been discussing; and 45 per cent. were pursuit-follow situations. It is also interesting that in 73 per cent. of the cases the vehicles were travelling at below the local speed limit when the accident occurred.

I was also asked about driver training. The media have made a number of comments about that. As has been explained by my noble friend Lord Simon, driver training is very rigorous. Drivers are trained to a very high level of expertise. Like my noble friend, I hope that the ACPO police pursuit driver training document issued in September 1998, which made a number of recommendations, including night training for drivers— because that is when many pursuits take place—will be accepted by many police forces.

Reference was made to black boxes being fitted to vehicles by the Metropolitan Police. It is true that those boxes are being fitted. If any vehicle were involved in an accident the black box would be able to provide independent evidence of speed. Other police forces will be watching with great interest to see just how effective that is.

Various aspects of police vehicles were referred to, including police sirens. White noise sirens have been developed by the University of Leeds. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, referred to this. The noble Lord, Lord Cope of Berkeley, said that if there was a better type of siren it would be a great advantage because very often one did not know from which direction the police car was coming. The white noise Localizer siren operates on a broader sound frequency and enables people to determine not only the presence of the emergency vehicle but, more importantly, the direction from which it is coming. I believe that that is a great advantage. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, accurately summed up the results of the experiment in West Yorkshire. The new siren has resulted in a 15 per cent. reduction in the incidence of panic manoeuvres, a 20 per cent. increase in signalled manoeuvres and an 8 per cent. reduction in lane changes.

Work is also being done to improve the visibility of police vehicles. It has been suggested that motorway police vehicles in particular should be of standard design and that they should have blue and yellow side markings. I am pleased to say that already 22 forces in England and Wales have adopted that. In addition, pulsing headlamps have been designed which show more white light to other road users. That is another safety device that will become available. All of those measures, taken together, I believe will help to improve road safety, which is what we are about.

Perhaps I may deal with the response time to emergency calls, which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy. He said that there should not be any competition in relation to that. I am sure that we all agree with that, but if people make emergency calls they want the police to arrive as quickly as possible.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, the Minister may have misunderstood my point. I said that competition as to the shortest time to leave in the car was admirable. That could be a matter of 10 or 20 seconds. I was referring to a league table to show the time between leaving for and arriving at incidents. That might be 15 or 20 minutes. I described many variables. That was the kind of competition of which I disapproved.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, I think that I understood the point made. However, when the public call the police they want to see them arrive as soon as possible, taking safety into consideration. That is why the police seek to meet the 15 or 20 minute period depending on whether it is an urban or rural area. That is important. It does not involve a league table. It is a key objective of the police service. While it will not feature as a ministerial priority, it remains an important area of police activity. My noble friend Lord Simon pointed out that when a person calls the police, he wants to see them arrive as quickly as possible.

Having dealt with the many issues raised, perhaps I may refer to the point on exemption from road traffic law. In the case of speed limits, Section 87 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 provides that, No statutory provision imposing a speed limit on motor vehicles shall apply to any vehicle on any occasion when it is being used for fire brigade, ambulance or police purposes, if the observance of that provision would be likely to hinder the use of the vehicle for the purpose for which it is being used". In other words if the vehicle is needed, it can breach the speed limit. The section effectively provides that not only must the vehicle be being used for police purposes but that those purposes would be hindered on the particular occasions by complying with the speed limit.

The provisions are clearly seen as applying to vehicles involved in pursuits and emergency responses. It should be noted that it gives the police no exemption from anything other than the breach of the speed limit which would otherwise constitute an offence.

The police must be very careful at traffic lights. The limited police exemption is set out in the Traffic Sign Regulations and General Directions 1994. Those provide that when a vehicle is being used for fire brigade, ambulance or police purposes, and the observance of the prohibition conveyed by the red signal would be likely to hinder the use of that vehicle for the purpose for which it was being used, then that restriction should not apply.

However, the restriction is more limited because the regulation goes on to state that in those circumstances the vehicle may go through the red light but should not proceed beyond the stop line in a manner or at a time likely to endanger any person or cause the driver of any vehicle proceeding correctly with the lights to change its speed or course in order to avoid an accident. In other words, it simply gives the driver the right accorded to any driver in the case of a give-way sign. It is up to the driver to proceed with care, bearing all that in mind. The police vehicle has to comply with the regulations in that way. There are similar exemptions and provisions which apply not only to red lights but to pelican crossings and to various light and horn regulations so as to permit the police vehicle to use special lights. However, strict compliance with other road traffic regulations is always required.

I hope that it will be appreciated from what I have said that police officers do not have carte blanche to ignore speed limits or red traffic lights. The exemptions which have been granted to them are very specific, limited and are enshrined in law. If as a result of exercising those exemptions any accident occurs, the police driver is every bit as liable for the consequences as any other motorist using the road. The courts will have to make their own decision where proceedings are brought in the light of particular circumstances.

The law in relation to these matters is very clear. Guidance on these exemptions has been issued and we expect strict compliance with them. However, I shall ensure that all the points that have been made tonight— and they have been made in a very constructive manner—will be considered and, if necessary, I am sure that the attention of the relevant authorities will be drawn to them.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, because in this kind of debate I do not have the right to wind up, I should like to take this opportunity to thank the noble Lord for having answered concisely most of the questions which have been put during the debate and particularly the matter of exemptions and the law that applied with the regulations in 1994. I am sure that what he has said will be read very carefully by the large number of people who are concerned with this subject.

House adjourned at twenty minutes past ten o'clock.