HL Deb 17 July 2000 vol 615 cc578-82

2.45 p.m.

Lord Bradshaw asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made in considering the potential of a part-time police force to support regular forces.

Lord Bach

My Lords, the Government are currently looking at whether a part-time or retained police officers scheme would be a viable and useful tool in the fight against crime, particularly, although not exclusively, in rural areas. Creating such a force would not be straightforward. We shall need to discuss the issues it raises with the police service and police authorities before reaching any firm conclusions on the merits of the proposal.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Bach, for that reply, from which I draw considerable comfort. Is the Minister aware of the very serious recruitment crisis in the police, particularly in London and the South East, where house prices are so high?

Although the Government have made money available for recruitment, is the Minister aware of the wastage rates? In my own police force of Thames Valley, in June we recruited 23 new officers, which is the number needed to meet the Government's targets. Twenty officers resigned in that time. So that is a net improvement of three.

Is it not time to face up to the potential crisis and that real urgency—perhaps something which is in rather short supply sometimes in the Home Office was directed towards how police numbers could be enhanced by the use of retained or auxiliary policemen?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I dispute the noble Lord's comment that there is not real urgency in the Home Office in relation to this problem. There obviously is a real problem, both in the Metropolitan Police and the Thames Valley Police, which the noble Lord mentioned. Of course, he has a distinguished role with that force.

The figures for Thames Valley are that the force may recruit a maximum of approximately 240 new officers per year, dictated by training course capacity. A number of officers voluntarily resigned from the force during the course of last year. Twenty-six officers were transferred in from other forces during last year. But I am pleased to say that 151 probationer constables were appointed during this year. There is a problem of recruitment which the Government are determined to conquer.

Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, obviously, the police force operates in an employment marketplace? The real answer to the problem is proper establishments and a police force which is fully up to strength. In the light of that, does my noble friend agree that remuneration is a crucial element? The previous government took away the housing allowance. The sooner that is replaced throughout the country, the better it will be for recruitment.

Lord Bach

My Lords, my noble friend is right. He has made the point on a number of occasions. In the opinion of the Government, it is one which cannot be made too often. Police pay is based on national pay scales. Starting pay for police officers compares favourably with other public service occupations. A police officer will now earn £16,635 on recruitment, whereas a fire-fighter will earn £15,381; a prison officer £15,842; an immigration officer £14,224 and a graduate teacher £15,537. Anyone who suggests the Government are not doing anything about that is obviously wrong.

Baroness Trumpington

My Lords, I hope this is not a stupid question. Could the Minister tell me the difference between a part-time police force and a special constabulary?

Lord Bach

My Lords, that is certainly not a stupid question, but an extremely good one, if I may say so. It appears that I may! The essential difference is that of payment. Special constables are unpaid. Many special constables join up through altruism and obviously not for financial gain. However, the relationship of the special constabulary to a part-time force is one of the issues raised by the creation of such a force. The Government are considering that issue at present.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, it is necessary for the Government to continue to involve the normal citizen in helping the police authorities where needed. Does the Minister agree that it is the duty of the citizen to support the maintenance of law and order, and, therefore, that the Government should do everything they can to create the climate of opinion in which this naturally arises from the duty of citizenship?

Lord Bach

My Lords, my noble friend is right. It is the duty of citizens both to assist the police and do their own bit as far as concerns maintaining law and order. Noble Lords will know that the neighbourhood warden scheme is up and running. That affects ordinary members of the public associated with it. However, it should be said that special constables are ordinary citizens who give up their free time in order to preserve law and order. They do their bit for the public, unpaid. I know that this House greatly respects what they do. I am delighted to say that the Ferrers Trophy—named after the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—for the special constable of the year, has been awarded to Daren Fitter of the Leicestershire Constabulary, a special constable in my home town of Lutterworth.

Lord Dholakia

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the targets set up following the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence about the recruitment of people from ethnic minorities, black and Asian police officers, have not been met and are very much below target? It is highly unlikely that the target set by the Home Office will be met. Does the Minister accept that one way to build the confidence of the minority is to establish a part-time police force within which at least they would have a first stepping stone towards a career in the police service?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the ideas and views of the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, on this issue are always treated by the Government with the greatest respect. His idea concerns the very real problem of recruiting and retaining ethnic minority police officers. We shall consider this proposal with the same interest as we consider his other proposals.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, is not the problem as much in the deployment of existing policemen as in the recruitment of new ones? I ask the Minister to comment in particular—he probably cannot do so immediately—on the employment of an armed car in the Isle of Wight which has meant that the police force available to police the island, which is very small in any case, has been depleted by 14 men.

Lord Bach

My Lords, deployment is important. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot comment on the position in the Isle of Wight. However, I shall look into the matter and write to him.

Lord Dubs

My Lords, my noble friend will be aware of one other possible source of recruitment for police forces in England and Wales; that is, Northern Ireland. What are the Government doing to make it possible for serving RUC officers to ask to be transferred to the Metropolitan Police or other police forces over here where there is a shortage of recruits?

Lord Bach

My Lords, interesting and new ideas do not come only from the Liberal Democrat Benches. My noble friend's idea is new to me and one that I should like to consider. I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, has the Minister noticed the reports in the newspapers of the law and order problem created by the growth of late night clubs operating in inner cities, generally in disused warehouses and similar premises, which turn out their occupants in the middle of the night, sometimes at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m? Would it not be difficult to get part-time police officers to serve at such inconvenient hours? Would not a better answer be for local authorities to refuse planning permission for these operations which cause such great difficulties for the police?

Lord Bach

My Lords, the noble Lord invites me to comment on issues which are far beyond my brief. All I would say is that police officers, whether regular officers or special constables, have to put themselves at considerable risk in a way that many members of the public are not always aware of. They do so at night, not just in our big cities but in our small towns, at "chucking-out" time, whether it be in clubs or pubs. Their bravery, in the face of unwarranted aggression by those who are kicked out, has been praised in this House before and should be praised again.

Baroness Sharpies

My Lords, can the Minister say what encouragement the Government are giving to neighbourhood watch schemes?

Lord Bach

My Lords, like the previous Government, this Government have supported neighbourhood watch schemes to a great extent. I am not in a position to give figures to the noble Baroness, but we support the schemes in precisely the same way as her Government did, and so that should be. This is a matter which should be beyond party.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the suggestion by his noble friend Lord Dubs is one which could have wide support, particularly when the situation in Northern Ireland permits? Can the Minister tell us about the present position of the exiting part-time police force in Northern Ireland, the Royal Ulster Constabulary reserve? Are they being looked after properly?

Lord Bach

My Lords, I shall be frank with the House. I have no information about the part-time police force in Northern Ireland. The best I can do is to write to the noble Lord.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, can the Minister tell us if there is any indication that there will be a Government Statement within this calendar year on the issues raised by my noble friend Lord Bradshaw? Is he aware that the point made by his noble friend Lord Mackenzie of Framwellgate is a powerful one? The recruitment crisis in London is caused by the acceptance of the then Government's Sheehy report, which has done so much damage to the police service in this country.

Lord Bach

My Lords, I cannot give a definite answer to the first question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, as to whether or not that will be within this calendar year. The matter is under active consideration by the Home Office. The noble Lord will know better than I what that means. There must be every chance that a fairly early conclusion will be reached. However, I cannot go further than that. My noble friend was right; the Sheehy report and all that followed did, and continues to do, quite a lot of damage.

Lord Roberts of Conwy

My Lords, I am sure the Minister is aware that many police forces have been selling police homes and police stations in rural areas. Are the Government now satisfied with the policing of rural areas in general?

Lord Bach

No, my Lords, we are not satisfied. That is the reason that extra money already has been given to ensure that policing, and particularly call-out times, in rural areas are improved. We are not satisfied. More needs to be done, and something is being done already.