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Policing (Public Events)

1.30 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I sympathise with the Minister in his incapacitated state. My incapacity--such as it is--is my throat. I hope that it will last the duration of the debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that was raised with me by constituents, but has wider relevance. I shall talk about the policing of outdoor public events and, specifically, the traffic management role of police at one-day agricultural shows, Pony Club events, village fetes and the other voluntary or semi-professional events that are held each summer that many people want to attend, but which cause some disruption to local traffic and need to be organised with a little care.

The issue was first brought to my attention by Mr. Charles Bradley Hudson, whom I met at Wincanton races. I do not raise everything that I am told at Wincanton races on the Floor of the House, but the gentleman involved was responsible for stewarding the races and therefore had relevant expertise. He was concerned that police policy had changed and he thought that that would have knock-on effects for commercial organisations such as his and for voluntary organisations.

As I pursued the issue, I found that it was not confined to Avon and Somerset police, with which the Minister knows that I am familiar from my past career. The guidance given by the Association of Chief Police Officers and the public safety policy that it issued on 28 April 1999 mean that the issue is relevant across the country.

The policy represents a shift in police thinking, probably for good reasons. The chief police officers are anxious to use their human and financial resources to best possible effect, and the best use of a uniformed constable is not necessarily directing traffic. I understand that. I have argued for many years that we require additional police officers in Somerset and elsewhere and I understand the difficult decisions that police management must take.

There is concern, which is also expressed in the public safety policy document, about the liability of police officers in such circumstances. The point that has been repeatedly made to me is also made in the introduction to the policy document, which says:

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The consequence of that view is that the police should not be directly involved with policing outside public events. That should be the responsibility of the event organisers, and the police should be employed only in the circumstances that I described earlier: where there is an imminent threat, or where there is no reasonable alternative. The outcome of that change of policy has been a withdrawal of police presence at outside public events this year. I understand some of the arguments for that, but I also want to explore with the Minister some of the consequences for others of that outcome and consider how that vacuum might be filled.

There is a vacuum in preparation and planning for events, in training and accreditation of people who take on the role of directing or assisting traffic movements and in terms of signage, liability and powers. During the past few months, I have addressed people in the various Government Departments who have partial responsibility for that area in an attempt to obtain some answers. Indeed, I received a helpful answer from the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), who said:

Actually, that is not the case. I do not deny that the Minister was given that advice, but according to the House of Commons Library researchers, local authorities have not set up safety advisory groups. The Association of Chief Police Officers would like such groups to be set up, but there is no mechanism to make that happen. Indeed, the Local Government Association is wary of following that course. There is a question about which authority is responsible. The responsible authority for licensing a particular area to be used for an event will almost certainly be the district council, which is not the highway authority. Therefore, there is a dichotomy between the responsibilities of the various local authorities.

It would be extremely helpful to have a system that permits a proper exchange of views. That would cure some of the problems, but I suspect not all of them. I also wrote to the public safety committee of ACPO, chaired by Mr. Sean Price, the assistant chief constable of Nottinghamshire. He wrote me an extremely helpful letter and offered to meet me--an offer that I intend to take up to enable me to discuss these issues with him. He said that the intention was for the traffic management policies that emerge from those advisory groups to be self-policing, but I do not believe that that is the case. For example, I do not believe that the Frome cheese show, a significant one-day agricultural show, will be self-policing. However sophisticated the signs and cones, traffic management will not simply happen of its own accord; it will need direction and support.

The likely result of an absence of police, traffic wardens or some other uniformed presence is chaos. Chaos is good for no one and is certainly not good for organisers of events. There is also a potential danger to public safety if emergency vehicles, for instance, have to get through. That is what concerns me.

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Mr. Price continued by referring to the point that I had raised with him about the training of those who control or who seek to control traffic. His opinion was:

People whose job it is to organise events, such as Mr. Charles Bradley Hudson, to whom I referred, want their stewards to be trained properly and to be able to do the job properly. They want accreditation, which could best be provided by the police, to enable that to happen.

Adequate temporary signs could make a major contribution in the absence of police but, again, we have a little policy vacuum. Lord Whitty tells me that signs can be put up only with the agreement of the relevant traffic authority, which again puts the onus back on event organisers. He also tells me that the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is reviewing and updating traffic sign regulations--the code of practice and guidance on the provision of temporary signs to special events.

That is all well and good, but to implement half a policy and then wait for the other half to come along is not a sign of what we have come to call joined-up government. The people caught in the middle are those least able to find their way through the jungle--those trying to raise money for charity and to organise events. I worry about the situation.

My final major point is liability. People who have no training or accreditation in directing traffic are personally liable for their actions. They have no power to stop vehicles. If a driver gets fed up in the traffic and does not like the look of the chap in the orange jacket, he could drive past irrespective of the consequences. That was confirmed by my local chief superintendent, Ted Allen, who told me:

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I could mention in passing the Road Traffic Regulation (Special Events) Act 1994, but that is a different issue as it concerns road closures and smaller organisations. For example, I could mention its effect on west country carnivals--a matter of great importance in my part of the world, which has a superb carnival season and circuit. The new restrictions are justified in public safety terms, but they become very onerous for many event organisers. However, I do not want to divert the discussion into such matters.

I should like to leave the Minister with the final conclusion of ACPO in its policy document. It states:

We should not allow well-meaning people, who are trying to serve their community by putting on events for the public good, to be put in the impossible position of not managing the traffic satisfactorily and in a way that the public will accept and, more importantly, of not ensuring public safety. I invite the Minister to consider the matter and to try to find ways in which the Government can help to resolve these issues, some which have been left open to discussion. No clear solutions are being evolved to many of the problems, either at local or national level.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien ): I thank the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) for raising this important issue, which he has done reasonably and sensibly. His quotations from the Association of Chief Police Officers sub-committee on public safety policy were all accurate. The final paragraph of its study states:

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of issues and I shall try to deal with each in its turn. We all realise that the police have a difficult job and we have recently witnessed a number of public events in which their involvement was crucial. We have seen a number of instances of organised disorder, in which protest groups or others acting under the guise of a legitimate cause have sought to cause havoc on our streets or at public events. In the events of 18 June and 30 November last year and of 1 May this year, the police faced a difficult task in containing those groups and maintaining order in our streets.

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Certain police roles are important and central to the handling of such events. The police are expected to prevent and detect crime, to prevent disorder and breaches of the peace and to ensure action is taken together with the other emergency services in the event of any major crisis. That work involves a good deal of preparation, planning and consultation, especially when it relates to sizeable events. The wider community and other agencies must also be fully involved in such work. The police always have a role to play in public events that are likely to result in problems of disorder or that might do so. As far as organisers and the general public are concerned, they also have a role in events that are less likely to result in serious problems, to ensure that they are properly policed and that the core functions and responsibilities of the police are properly attended to. Those functions are preventing crime and disorder, maintaining the peace and investigating offences, which are essentially operational matters. It is for the police to determine the level of resources that they can devote to particular events.

The police are not the only public organisation involved in ensuring public safety at organised events and it is not a core police task to organise or manage traffic or to organise the events themselves. That task falls primarily to the organisers of the event. Other agencies--in particular local authorities--must also play their part. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Association of Chief Police Officers has issued guidance on public safety policy, which clarifies the police role and the tasks of other agencies.

Over several years, a creeping involvement of the police in the management of public events had come about. They had taken over responsibility because the organisers of events had been willing to let them do so. The police therefore were organising traffic management schemes and sometimes advising on the layout and organisation of an event. Those are not core police roles, but the responsibility of the organisers. The police should by all means consider the extent of their involvement in advising on such matters, but it is for the organisers to deal with them.

The premise of the hon. Gentleman's reasoned and carefully argued speech was that the police are better trained to manage the types of event in question. The assumption behind that is that somewhere police officers are being trained in traffic management of more than a basic type--by which I mean standing in a street and directing traffic. As I understand matters, traffic control officers are trained in such traffic management techniques, but ordinary police officers receive only basic training on how to direct traffic.

Some of the events in question require considerable traffic planning. Specially trained traffic control officers would not normally be involved in that. They would be on the motorway, or dealing with large and complex incidents, or the transport of heavy goods. We would not expect specially trained officers to become involved in smaller events such as fetes or carnivals, often in rural areas. That brings us back to the ordinary officer with basic training in traffic management. There is no reason why an organiser of a public event could not investigate such training, assuming that it would be relevant--it might not--or obtain advice on traffic management

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from other properly trained and skilled people. There are plenty of consultancies. Doing so might require resources and some of the organisations concerned might be charities, but it is the responsibility of people who organise events to ensure that they can do so properly and not to transfer to the police a responsibility beyond their core job of protecting society against crime and disorder.

Mr. Heath : I am grateful to the Minister and I accept his basic premise. The difficulty is that the police officer, however well or badly trained, has one great advantage: the power of his office of constable and the fact that he is in uniform and that if he puts his hand up the traffic will, by and large, stop. That is an attribute that the volunteer or even the professional steward does not have. That is why some training is important. Some organisations find it difficult to provide that training for their staff.

Mr. O'Brien : The hon. Gentleman is right that a police uniform conveys authority and that a uniform worn by a steward may not do so. However, we need to ensure that the authority of the police is used in a way that senior police officers feel will best contribute to preventing crime and preserving order. A senior police officer might decide that the best allocation of resources would be to have a police officer on the beat patrolling a particular area, or to use him to investigate a particular crime, rather than making him spend the day directing traffic outside a rural fete. That does not undermine the importance to the local community of that fete, but it avoids placing an additional burden on the police.

When people decide to use their land for a car boot sale, a music festival or a garden party for their friends, they should not be able to call on the police to direct traffic because we have given them a statutory responsibility to do so. That would allow everyone to call in police resources to direct the traffic as they see fit. Too often, the police have taken over the virtual management of an event on behalf of the organisers. That is regrettable.

However, the hon. Gentleman raised a number of concerns. He said that safety advisory groups have not been established in all local authorities. We will have to discuss that with the Local Government Association and ACPO. He also suggested that there is a vacuum in training with regard to how to assist traffic movement and to sign appropriately. We shall also want to discuss that with ACPO.

The subject raises the issue of where power and responsibilities lie. Advice from ACPO properly indicates that there is, to some extent, a lacuna in legal provision. We are trying to engage with ACPO and local authorities to decide how to proceed, but this is not a simple situation. I do not want to create a lot of extra duties for police officers that give public authorities and private individuals the ability to take control of the placement of police officers. That power should remain in the hands of chief constables. I accept that responsibilities should be more carefully defined, but we must not transfer all the responsibility to the police because that would place substantial demands on resources.

The hon. Gentleman asked which authority would have responsibility. In some areas, such as the hon. Gentleman's and mine, the county council is the traffic

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authority, but the authority that gives permission for events is sometimes a district council. We need to clarify which authority would be responsible. He said that if the police are not involved, public safety would be put at risk by the ensuing chaos. I do not accept that argument. The police in my area are often not directly involved in traffic management at an event and stewards are used instead. That happens in many parts of the country, but the practice varies from place to place depending on the resources that are available to chief constables. I do not envisage any great threat to public safety by allowing the police to be consulted and to give advice, but people who arrange private events must ensure that they are properly organised. It is their job to ensure that traffic is not disrupted. It is up to the police to ensure that if

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public safety is at risk, or if a crime might be committed, they are there to do their job in the proper way, but they must decide how best to allocate their resources.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned liability. People should be aware that if people organise a private event they might be liable for the consequences. However, in the case of Wincanton, I understand that the Avon and Somerset police reviewed the role of their officers who attend race courses and a great deal of good work has been done in properly stewarding the Wincanton races.

We will consider the issues. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that we have given an appropriate response to an important issue.

Question put and agreed to.

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