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Column 858I pay tribute to all those who do so such an excellent job in looking after our inheritance, which is what the cathedrals of England are. They are this country's great treasures, and some people give their lives to looking after them. I also pay a specific and timely tribute. My diocese is about to acknowledge the retirement of the Very Reverend David Edwards, who was at Westminster abbey and has had a distinguished career outside and in the House.
David Edwards retires formally at the end of August, but a farewell service is being held next week. Many people in this place remember with affection his time here. He has made great contributions to the Church of England, academically and in his writings as a historian, and in his last post he looked after a beautiful building and made it a vibrant centre for the church and non-church community. People certainly value cathedrals for their beauty and the tranquillity that they offer, but also because they play a role in the wider community.
I wish simply to put on record a second point, but it may elicit an answer. It appears that the Measure provides powers to deal with cathedral administrations that fail to look after their buildings properly. That is a good thing, but my concern is that sometimes it is not, technically speaking, the fabric of the buildings which, for understandable but mistaken motives, administrations may decide to treat wrongly.
I come from Hereford. One of the most controversial incidents for the Church of England and its cathedrals in the past decade was when the dean and chapter of Hereford cathedral decided to sell Mappa Mundi. Technically, it is not part of the fabric of the cathedral, but it is a Hereford cathedral creature. It was made in Hereford and was intended to be in Hereford since the 13th century. It would have been sold had there not been an outcry, and a building is now being constructed in Hereford to accommodate it properly. We have a duty to ensure that the fabric of our cathedrals is looked after by a policing management, but those of us who are equally concerned about the treasures in the cathedrals must find a mechanism to ensure that there is no danger of our suffering from the mistaken short-termism that drove the dean and chapter of Hereford to make a wrong but understandable decision. The national outcry proved how wrong that decision was.
I echo the sentiments expressed by the hon. Members for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for York (Mr. Bayley) about the beautiful cathedrals in Yorkshire. I am grateful that the Minister and his Department have become increasingly sensitive to the notion that it is vital for the state to take its share of responsibility for cathedrals. If it does not, we risk being unbiblical. We risk charging people to enter our cathedrals. In many places, that step is now unacceptably close. It appears to be assumed that anyone going into a cathedral does so as a tourist and should therefore pay. Of course, the upkeep of cathedrals costs a great deal, and members of the church worldwide may feel an obligation to contribute if they can. However, increasingly the impression is being given that a person entering a cathedral has an obligation to spend money. That is entirely unacceptable, and I hope that the tendency will be resisted. It is also unacceptable when the commercialism of cathedral merchandising operations trespasses increasingly on our worship and fails to remain well and truly outside the building. I seem to remember that Jesus had very clear views about money-changing in the temple. We are not far
Column 859from that in many of our cathedrals and cathedral premises now. I have made that view known with regard to my own cathedral, where I think the buying and selling should be done further away from the centre of the building, and not simply in the side aisle. My point is that if the fabric and maintenance of cathedrals are funded properly, the pressure to be commercial can be resisted. If there is no security of funding, they are often driven, because of the need to maintain the fabric and contents, to do things that I think are increasingly inconsistent with their role as mother churches of the diocese for all the people--native and visitors--of the churches of England. I hope, therefore, that the Church will be continually vigilant and the state regularly generous, and that as a result we can have security for our buildings so that they can continue to serve the purpose for which they were so beautifully built.
Mr. Alison : With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the debate. I am grateful for the constructive and warm welcome which my colleagues have given to this limited but valuable Measure. I appreciate the remarks made by my neighbour, the hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley), about the contribution that the Government--public finance--have made, and will continue to make, towards York Minister. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, who is on the Front Bench tonight, probably hesitated to intervene in the debate because the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman are not strictly within the ambit of the Measure--he might even be out of order if he
Column 860attempted to intervene from the Front Bench. However, I am sure that he will have heard the remarks made and the queries raised by the hon. Gentleman. One of us will communicate with him specifically to respond to the points made.
The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) made a couple of points. I promised that I would try to answer his first intervention. Despite the title that it bears, Bath abbey is a parish church and therefore is covered by the care of churches legislation. All other churches which are consecrated as parish churches are likewise covered by the existing church facilities which we debated and passed in 1991. Churches that are not strictly consecrated but are so-called dedicated-- that could even include chapels in hospitals and such things--are subject to the faculty jurisdiction by the direction of the bishop. That just about encompasses all conceivable sorts of church buildings which might be relevant to the debate. The hon. Gentleman asked about the Mappa Mundi, for example. I am glad to be able to tell him that the control mechanism in the Care of Cathedrals Measure which he and I debated and which was passed in 1990 covers not only fabric changes but the disposal by sale or otherwise of outstanding movables, to give them their technical term. So Mappa Mundi is subject to enforcement of that Measure. Against that background, I hope that the House will agree to give a fair wind to the Measure tonight.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Care of Cathedrals (Supplementary Provisions) Measure, passed by the General Synod of the Church of England, be presented to Her Majesty for Her Royal Assent in the form in which the said Measure was laid before Parliament.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]
Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath) : I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the important and topical subject of the arming of the Metropolitan police. I thank the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for coming along tonight to give the Government's response. I am sure that his considered comments will create considerable interest.
Last month, Sir Paul Condon--the House will wish to congratulate the distinguished Metropolitan Police Commissioner on his
knighthood--announced that his officers will in the future openly wear handguns on London streets in certain circumstances. I have carefully read through the resulting press coverage of that announcement, and I am astonished how inaccurate and exaggerated much of it was. What the Home Secretary in fact agreed was that officers in armed response vehicles--ARVs --in London can wear their side arms in holsters at all times. Previously, they armed only when they reached the incident to which they had been called. They needed the permission of a high-ranking officer, who in practice had to be contacted via his bleeper at all hours of the day or night, before removing guns from a secure metal box in their car.
In London, officers in ARVs are dedicated to attending incidents in which firearms are being or may be used. Clearly those side arms will not be visible while jerseys are worn, but when officers are in shirt sleeves only, they will become visible in their holsters. That is a comparatively small step, and is by no means unreasonable. The purpose of our brief debate, however, is to consider the arming of the Metropolitan police in a much wider context and over a longer time. Here I must express a long-held sense of unease, which I am confident that I share with many of my constituents in Bexleyheath, Welling and Barnehurst.
I will put my case in simple terms. I claim that during the past 20 years more weapons have been placed in police armouries. I claim that more automatic weapons have been given to the police, some with astonishingly high rates of fire. I claim that, if that trend continues during the next 20 years, the British police service--the Met traditionally sets the pace-- will become much more like many of its European counterparts and many more police officers will carry weapons on duty, and perhaps even off duty as happens abroad. I claim that there is a certain ratchet effect. The decisions go in one direction, and it is very seldom reversed. Finally, I claim that that long-term trend, which has involved a number of Commissioners and Home Secretaries and is probably not supported by a majority of Members of Parliament representing London, is almost certainly not proceeding with the blessing of those people who pay towards the funding of the Metropolitan police, namely the people of London. There are two basic approaches to the police carrying guns. There is that adopted in most states of the United States, where the police carry guns as a matter of routine and where many police patrols have considerable fire power at their disposal. I suggest that it becomes normal in such circumstances to cock guns and not to hesitate too long before firing them. Then there is the approach adopted
Column 862in Britain and a few other countries, where the police go about their duties unarmed except for a truncheon. There are hosts of arguments to be deployed, but at the end of the day I am fiercely proud of the British approach and I speak tonight in favour of its being continued and not undermined.
There must be--and Parliament has seen to it that there are--very heavy penalties for criminals who go about their business carrying knives and guns. It follows that the courts must not hesitate to use the powers that they have been given when the facts have been properly established. That must be the starting point, rather than attempting to match weapon for weapon. At the same time, it is vital that it gets harder--not easier, as is the case now--for criminals to obtain guns in the Greater London area. There must be a crack-down on the number of arms imported into the United Kingdom. I am well aware how difficult that is to achieve. There must be a determined drive to find the weapons which are held illegally in our major cities, and they must be seized and destroyed. Perhaps more amnesties are called for. I suggest that at present too many firearms certificates are issued. In 1992, the Metropolitan police issued 9,427. I believe that they are far too easy to obtain.
Some years ago, I applied for a shotgun licence at a police station a few hundred yards from here at the request of a national newspaper. I was not examined as to why I needed a shotgun while living in London.
Winston Churchill wrote a wonderful description of the battle of Sidney street in the east end of London when he was Home Secretary. My hon. Friends may recall the superb remark of Balfour after Churchill was photographed risking his life at the scene. He commented :
"I understand what the photographer was doing, but what was the right hon. Gentleman doing ?"
A detachment of 20 Scots Guards armed with rifles had been summoned to deal with three Russian anarchists after some policemen had been killed.
I suggest that the Army should be called in more often today when the authorities believe that rifles and sub-machine guns would be appropriate. By all means, let us match armed bank robbers with an armed response team. But if it is thought that the Provisional IRA or other terrorists are present, why are we so reluctant to call on the Army to support the police ?
It is becoming commonplace when terrorists are being tried in London to watch on our television sets armed police on the rooftops near the court in those ridiculous baseball caps which are so fashionable among schoolboys, wearing body armour and carrying sub-machine guns, and perhaps rifles with telescopic sights. The serious point is that this does the image of the constabulary no good at all. I would take some persuading that sharpshooters serve any real purpose on those occasions. If they really are essential, why do we not use the snipers of, say, the Royal Green Jackets ? The public understand that soldiers need to be trained in the use of sniper rifles, telescopic sights and night-firing aids, but does the same apply to Metropolitan policemen ? The Army can offer a broad range of support to the Commissioner from, at one end of the scale, a Royal Military policeman with a revolver to those highly trained specialists of the Special Air Services so brilliantly sent into action during the Iranian embassy siege. I would put it to senior police officers that, just as the public were soured by the disappearance of the bobby on the beat in favour of high-speed patrol cars--a trend which happily is
Column 863being reversed--so, too, they are alienated by the regular sight on television of heavily armed police officers on our streets. In a fine piece of journalism in The Times on 18 May, Simon Jenkins wrote that the police, who deserve every support, "would help themselves if they stopped calling press conferences . . . with photographs of policemen dressed as John Wayne, courtesy of Messrs Smith and Wesson and Messrs Heckler and Koch."
Senior police officers should appreciate that many Londoners would agree with that comment. The article continued, after referring to the criminals who import and sell cocaine and crack, by saying : "One country has wide experience of using a heavily armed police and paramilitary force to stamp out the cocaine trade. It is the United States of America. The result has been a disaster for the American police and especially for its relations with black people. Local police forces send one delegation after another to Britain to learn how we do it better."
Policemen to whom I talk seem divided in their views on that issue, but most do not want an armed police force. They feel that such a move would encourage criminals to carry arms, especially quick-firing weapons. They are not convinced that it would save police lives in the long run--we are all thinking of a particular tragic event. They remind me that not all police men and women are suitable for weapons training and that the equipment is expensive to buy and maintain at a time when money is scarce.
Problems also exist in the secure storing of weapons. Some police officers mention that, each year, a significant number of police officers in America are killed by their own weapons and that members of the public there are not infrequently injured when a shoot-out occurs, as happens all too often. Most of them know that fewer police officers in Britain are being assaulted each year, even if that fact is not known to the public. Last year, 3,370 London police officers were assaulted while on duty but five years ago the figure was almost 5,000.
In the real world, although more guns are being used in crimes--I gather that replicas are a particular problem--they are rarely fired at police officers. The figures are clear on that point. Police officers know that they are respected by the public because they are prepared to face danger unarmed. It is a tradition of which they can be proud. Some recall, too, the bad publicity that followed the police shooting of Stephen Waldorf. In a recent issue of the Police Review I came across a warning by Mr. Jim Sharples, the Merseyside chief constable and chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' Firearms Committee. He said :
"Arming the police would mark an irreversible change which could have unknown implications for the service and the community. Such a move would have unpredictable effects. Would an arming of police . . . lead to an even greater carriage of arms by criminals ? Would even more injuries and death ensue ?"
During my time as an infantry soldier I carried a weapon while on active service. My experience was that, even among the best trained soldiers, accidental discharges were bound to occur and preventing weapons from falling into the wrong hands, including those of children, was a constant problem. Police forces already have difficulties looking after their own weapons. The Times reported a few weeks ago that two loaded police handguns were found lying in a street in the centre of Blackburn, Lancashire,
Column 864after apparently falling from an armed response vehicle. A passer-by handed them in to the nearest police station. Think for a moment what might have followed had those loaded weapons come the way of one of Her Majesty's less well disposed subjects. My observation is that the more weapons are carried by the police, the more such incidents are bound to occur and the more people will suffer injuries as a result.
In a recent professional survey of police officers, paperwork and bureaucracy ranked higher than violence against the police. Nevertheless, I support refresher training in self-defence for police officers throughout their careers. I would welcome my hon. Friend's comments on that point. And protective vests should be more readily available. Few people object to police officers in the capital carrying the new-style baton, which is longer than the traditional wooden truncheon, while hoping never to be on the receiving end. Medical tests on devices such as pepper sprays must be speeded up. Perhaps my hon. Friend would comment on that, too.
While announcing in May a doubling in the number of London ARVs from five to 12, the Commissioner apparently said that the further carrying of guns by his officers would be "event driven". That odd phrase concerns me. It rather suggests the initiative being passed by the goodies to the baddies. Does the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State accept that if there are more armed robberies in the Metropolitan police area, the police will be bound to respond by carrying more arms ? I hope not. I like to think that the Home Secretary has some over-arching strategy, and that the traditional character of British policing and its humane face will be enhanced. I like to think that if, in the next 20 years, the terrorist threat diminishes in Greater London--and there must be a good chance that it will--there will be fewer ARVs and fewer armed policemen as a result. Police officers up to the rank of chief inspector are to be balloted about whether they wish to have the
"right to carry firearms in the course of normal duties". It is important that the Home Office's considered advice is well publicised in advance of that little referendum. The possible arming of the police will remain high on the political agenda.The basis of my brief submission is that Britain leads the world in
community-based policing, and that that is helped by the lack of conspicuous weapons. We have a right to look to our Government to give a lead. I trust that they will continue to make clear their determined opposition to a general arming of our police forces, who at the end of the day do us proud.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle) : I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend on raising this important issue and I welcome an opportunity to explain to the House the recent changes that have been made and then to put them into context. I agree with many of my hon. Friend's sentiments. I also join him in congratulating the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis on his knighthood.
My hon. Friend is right to assert that the changes recently announced by Sir Paul Condon are modest. However, he spoke of longer-term trends and extrapolated from that a gloomy picture for some years hence. I think that he strikes too pessimistic a note and I shall seek to reassure him by my remarks.
Column 865My hon. Friend also spoke about an amnesty for people who hold firearms illegally. I understand the attractions of that, but I am bound to tell him that, as I am sure he appreciates, it is a delicate judgment because, if one has an amnesty with any semblance of regularity, it allows a person to think, "Perhaps I shall wait for the next amnesty." Nevertheless, I understand his argument. I am bound to say, as I know that he appreciates, that the deployment of authorised firearms officers for whatever purpose--whether as sharpshooters, as he describes it, or as anything else--is an operational judgment for the chief officer, and in this case for the Commissioner.
Before turning to the specific question of the overt arming of some Metropolitan police officers, I shall explain the range of measures being taken to offer greater protection to the police. It is important to set the issue in that context because the recent changes spring solely from a desire to protect officers more effectively as they carry out their duties. The changes are not the first moves in a fundamental change to the style of policing in the Metropolitan police district.
The physical danger that police officers confront on behalf of the rest of us cannot, and should not, be forgotten, and my hon. Friend made the same argument. The tragic deaths of PC Patrick Dunn and Sergeant Derek Robertson in the past year have brought that home to all of us. The risk in policing cannot be removed entirely and there is no infallible protection available, but a great deal can be done, and is being done, through a range of co- ordinated measures. The recent change which has precipitated the debate relates only to Metropolitan police officers in armed response vehicles-- ARVs, as my hon. Friend called them--attending incidents at which armed officers are judged to be operationally necessary. ARVs carry carbines and sidearms and, until recently, the specific authority of a senior officer was required for either of those weapons to be removed from the locked box in which they are transported. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has recently agreed that, from now on, ARV officers in London can wear their sidearms overtly. ARVs are usually on patrol so that they can be readily available should it be necessary to respond to a firearms incident. Where such an incident takes place, the ARV may be deployed either at the direction of a senior officer or on the initiative of ARV crew members who may observe an incident in the course of their patrol. In London, ARV crews are deployed only where there is a perceived firearms or other lethal threat. It therefore makes sense for them to have the immediate capacity to defend themselves and others. The previous procedures, which involved retrieving weapons from the fixed locked box in the back of a fast moving vehicle, can be unsafe. In operational terms, the handguns carried by ARV officers would be clearly visible only when they are in shirtsleeve order. My hon. Friend alluded to that. They will still require authorisation to remove their carbines from the locked box in the ARV.
Routine arming of the police is simply not the issue here--that would be a fundamental change to the style of policing. What is intended is that the police should be given the protection they need to do their job. Far from shifting towards routine arming of police officers, the Commissioner has said that the average member of the public will never see--unless he is travelling through
Column 866Heathrow airport--officers routinely carrying guns on the street. I am only sorry that media coverage following this recent change has given an impression to the contrary.
My hon. Friend suggested that the Army should be used at incidents currently dealt with by armed police officers. I am not persuaded of that. Of course, there have been and may again be particular incidents in which the expertise of the armed services are called upon. However, for the regular policing needs of London, the right response is from police officers who will be unarmed in the vast majority of cases, but who must, when operationally necessary, have access to appropriate firearms.
I agree with my hon. Friend that we should keep a clear dividing line between the work of the police and the work of the Army. They have different jobs to do and different methods. One of the great strengths of British policing is precisely that the police are the police and the Army is the Army. We have always been careful not to mix them up. That is why I would not want the Army drawn into police work any more than is absolutely necessary, even if it were practicable to do so.
I hope that I have made it absolutely clear that we are not talking about routine arming or anything close to it. Although routine arming might, in some cases, assist morale, it will not often help against sudden and unexpected attack. In my view, routine arming does not have a realistic place in the balance that needs to be reached between giving proper weight to protecting officers against attack and protecting the character of policing in this country, of which my hon. Friend spoke.
The House may wish to know that the present number of authorised firearms officers in the Metropolitan police has decreased by almost 600 compared with the number of such officers in 1991. The number now is just over 1,950 ; in 1991, it was 2,583--hardly evidence of a move towards the routine arming of the police.
However, in responding to police anxieties about the dangers that the police face, we must not concentrate exclusively on the debate about arming. The risk of other, lesser assaults is much greater, as the figures show. In the past six years throughout England and Wales, four officers have been killed by firearms and about 50 more have been injured, the majority not seriously. Those figures can be set against annual figures for England and Wales of between 17,000 and 18,000 a year for all assaults on police officers, a little over 300 of which occurred in the Metropolitan police district. Incidentally, the figures for overall assaults have not risen in recent years--indeed, they have fallen slightly--although I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that they remain unacceptably high.
We believe that a great deal can be done to offer greater protection to police officers through a range of co-ordinated measures. The truncheon can be made more effective. A number of alternatives have been or are being trialled. The main trial is that of the expandable side-handled baton and we are providing technical support for that. Interim reports from those trials have been received and I understand that the results so far emerging are encouraging. This equipment greatly improves the confidence of officers and it also promises to be a highly effective tool of control and restraint. That is important in itself. Research recently carried out by the Home Office shows that one half of all injuries to officers are sustained while suspects are restrained. The results of the trials are now being considered by the Association of Chief Police Officers and a final decision is imminent.
Column 867As my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary has already made clear, from the evidence so far we are likely to support any chief officer who decides to introduce the baton. Exercising his special responsibilities as police authority for the Metropolitan police, my right hon. and learned Friend has agreed to proposals by the Commissioner to introduce two types of 22 in baton and other new batons will join the list if we are satisfied that they properly meet the undoubted need.
Body armour is also necessary in some circumstances. Many of us would have thought that it was not beyond modern technology to produce body armour that provides effective protection against knife and gun attacks and is comfortable to wear all day. However, the Home Office police scientific development branch and ACPO do not consider that there is yet such a product.
Body armour is issued for firearms incidents and stab-resistant and dual- purpose vests are increasingly purchased by forces. Chief officers will, of course, do everything they can and I commend the vest trials which are taking place in the Metropolitan police. Such trials are needed if we are to find the right product.
The Home Office is, with ACPO, considering whether pepper spray is the good thing that, by many reports, it seems to be held to be in America. Curiously, it has not been subjected to the vigorous health checks that one would expect in the United States and we must be concerned about evidence that it may be carcinogenic. I
Column 868have a particular concern for officers who would be deploying it, for the simple reason that they are the most likely to experience frequent exposure.
We agree with ACPO that the issue must be resolved as speedily as possible before we can make further progress. We have been advised by the Department of Health that we should be able to get a clearer answer within months, given the right scientific research. We have, of course, asked for the necessary work to be put in hand. It is, I am sure, an essential step in reaching a position where decisions can safely be made about whether and if so in what circumstance pepper spray should be used.
A few moments ago, I referred to the number of assaults in the Metropolitan police area. I thought that I said something over 3,000. I am advised by an alert observer that I may have said over 300. If I did, I correct myself here and now. The figure I had clearly in mind and in front of me was over 3,000 and I apologise if I said the wrong figure.
I hope that, by putting the recent justifiable changes to the way in which armed officers carry their sidearms into the wider context of the measures being taken to offer the police better protection, I have shown the House that, far from representing a fundamental shift in policing, they are a measured response to changing circumstances. We must remain flexible and imaginative in our response to the shifting changes which confront police officers as they go about their duties ; that is our intent.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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