Previous SectionIndexHome Page

11.10 am

Norman Baker (Lewes): I welcome the debate and thank the Government for their initiative in introducing it. I hope that it will become an annual event. It is certainly timely this year, given the progress of the Police Reform Bill and the recent vote of Police Federation members. I want to discuss the results of that vote first.

I was grateful that the Minister approached the matter with such an emollient tone, but he must recognise that, rightly or wrongly, there is a major problem, which the Government must deal with, in their relations with the Police Federation and police officers. The proposed package of pay, terms and conditions probably did not merit the 91 per cent. rejection, but 91 per cent. against and 9 per cent. in favour is a huge rejection. Every police force in the country and every policy authority area voted to reject the deal. In the Met, only 2 per cent. of officers voted in favour, and every rank voted to reject the deal. The best that the Government could manage was 29 per cent. among chief inspectors. A Police Federation briefing suggested that 37 per cent. said that the proposed reduction in overtime rates was the prime reason.

I do not want to say whether the deal was right or wrong; that is essentially a matter for police officers to decide in conjunction with the Government. I happen to think that it contains several good measures, although there are significant problems with the overtime package. Yesterday I spoke to a police officer in my part of the world, in Sussex—where I had a meeting with Police Federation representatives—who tells me that he has managed to have Christmas day off only twice in

8 Mar 2002 : Column 557

20 years. Despite booking the day every year on 2 January or whenever, he is regularly called in to do mandatory overtime on Christmas day. Once or twice he was told almost on the chimes of 12 o'clock on Christmas eve that he was coming in to work the next day. If the Government are going to require that of police officers—as they do, and of course police officers must be called in when there are reasons for them to be—they must recognise that when there is mandatory overtime, cuts in overtime rates are likely to be a red rag to a bull.

Irrespective of whether the deal is fair, the Government have a small political problem with the Police Federation. I understand that the matter will now go to arbitration, but I should be interested to know how the Government intend to extricate themselves from the position that they have got themselves into.

The language used by police officers who write to me as a constituency MP is striking. It is far more confrontational than I have read in letters from police officers on any issue. I have received a letter from Graham Alexander of the Sussex Police Federation, a very long-serving police officer who is joint branch board chairman. He is quite a moderate person and I was surprised by the tone of his letter. He says that

It has been suggested that that position is not entirely justifiable; Labour Members may well say so when they speak. It is certainly strong language. Regardless of whether it is justified, there is a problem, which the Government must tackle.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): I too have been surprised by the vituperation and seething anger in the correspondence that I have received from serving police officers, and I cannot believe that all of it is synthetic.

Norman Baker: It is not synthetic, and it behoves all of us to try to find a way forward and to help the Government if we can. I am willing to do that in some shape or form if I can, and I am sure that the same applies to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), as spokesman for the official Opposition.

I believe that some of the conditions that the Government proposed were not understood. There is scepticism about whether some of the promises made will replace some of the definites that would be removed. The Police Federation told me yesterday that the deal contained proposals, welcome in principle, to reward good performance from officers, but I was told that there is something called the outstanding performance appraisal payment, which was part of the Sheehy package, but not one police officer in the country has received any such payment. I do not know whether that is true, but perhaps the Minister will look into that.

Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is essentially correct. The Sheehy package theoretically opened up an additional point at the top of the pay scale but no

8 Mar 2002 : Column 558

mechanism was put in place at the time to enable an officer to get it. For the avoidance of doubt, our commitment to enabling that to happen is absolute.

Norman Baker: That is a helpful response. I am grateful to the Minister. Perhaps more definitive statements might be helpful in the debate. At the moment, police officers feel that they are being asked to lose certain quantifiable privileges and benefits but are being offered what they regard as vague, unquantifiable benefits in return. That is part of the problem.

When the Minister replies, will he say how he intends to take the matter forward, through arbitration? Is it the Government's intention to impose the deal ultimately, even if there is continued massive opposition from police officers?

The issue of pay and conditions is also important because it affects morale in the police service. I am sure that all hon. Members wish to have a substantial number of police officers who are well motivated and who stay in post for a long time and therefore build up experience and the ability to police even more effectively than they do when they leave training college.

Numbers recruited are up. Belatedly, the Government have taken steps in recent months to deal with the shortage of police officers and more police officers are now being recruited throughout the country. That is very welcome, but retention is a problem; it is falling. The Minister may remember that when we had the debate on the police plan, I drew attention to the fact that resignations from the Metropolitan police area were up 29 per cent. on the previous year, that there was a similar problem in Greater Manchester and that the number of officers transferred from the Met to other forces was up 63 per cent. I am not sure whether to go along with the bucket metaphor used by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but perhaps a colander metaphor might be more appropriate: water is poured in at one end and it comes out at the other.

Mr. Paice: That was on a different issue.

Norman Baker: It was a different issue, but it was related.

The 1997 Labour manifesto said that Labour wanted to get more officers back on the beat, which I take to mean two things: that people would not be stuck in offices doing paperwork and that the number of police officers would rise.

Mr. Denham indicated assent.

Norman Baker: The Minister confirms that. In September 2001, there were 127,231 police officers. The Minister says that he wants to get that figure up to 130,000. However, the September figure was only 73 higher than that for March 1997, and in the meantime the trend has dipped and then gone back up. It has taken four-and-a-half years not to make much progress nationally, and 18 of 43 constabularies have fewer officers than they had in 1997; I believe that Sussex is among the 18.

Those figures are a major concern because there has been an increase in some forms of crime—although not all—and we have a raft of new laws that require the police

8 Mar 2002 : Column 559

to deal with and act upon them. Thus, the pressures on the police are increasing. There is also more technology to deal with. The lot of the average police officer becomes more and more weighed down with legislation. Under those circumstances, it is necessary to have an increase in officers almost to stand still.

Mr. Denham: Perhaps I may ask the hon. Gentleman for his views on a specific issue, which Sussex illustrates—Sussex was mentioned earlier. It is true that between 1997 and September 2001 the number of police officers fell by about 240. Over that same period, the number of civilian staff increased by 357. It is clear that, to a degree, Sussex police service made that choice. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government were probably right to tell the police service as a whole that the fall in numbers went further than was necessary or desirable? Ring-fencing the crime fighting fund to ensure that numbers increase is the right response nationally, and for local forces.

Norman Baker: I agree with the Minister in two respects. Civilianisation has a role. In Sussex, it has been useful to consider what posts can be civilianised, and crime fighting has not suffered as a consequence. Occasionally, some of us in opposition try to have it both ways, but I agree that it is difficult to blame the Government for falls in police numbers, and then to credit increases to local authorities and council tax payers. Either the Government are responsible or they are not. Of course, the reality is that they are not entirely responsible, but there are levers that they can pull and perhaps they should have pulled them slightly earlier and further. However, I agree with the essence of the Minister's comment. The number of civilians involved in police work must be taken into account, but civilians will not provide the extra police on the beat that constituents want, for all manner of reasons.

Many of the proposals in the Police Reform Bill will be welcomed by all Members of the House, the police and the public. For example, I agree entirely with the creation of information technology and fraud specialists. Many criminals are highly specialised, and they need to be dealt with through specialisation in return. The Proceeds of Crime Bill was one way of dealing with that issue, and specialists in the police force is another. It is entirely sensible to go down that road.

In principle, there can be no objection to the reasonably uncontroversial idea of civilianised escort officers. Indeed, the Prison Service has such officers. However, there are one or two very controversial matters in the Police Reform Bill to which I want to draw attention, the first of which is the role of community support officers. I am concerned that the Government's approach—which has perhaps been adopted with the best of intentions, and in the light of the comments of the Met's Sir John Stevens—will lead to a lack of clarity and a plethora of different people performing different roles in different parts of the country, which in turn will lead to confusion among the public. A CSO could say, "You have crossed the border into borough A, where I have a particular power, but in borough B, in which you live, your CSO does not have that power." That is not a satisfactory way to proceed.

8 Mar 2002 : Column 560

If we have a plethora of people with different responsibilities who are accountable to different people, our collective objective of ensuring the proper public accountability of those who undertake police functions will be weakened. That serious point must be borne in mind if we are to ensure that the police remain accountable—as the Government doubtless intend—and that such accountability be strengthened as far as possible.

I have a problem with the idea that someone who is not a police officer should have the right to lay a hand on another person and to detain them for up to 30 minutes. That is a very dangerous road to go down, for all manner of reasons. Such a person is liable to command less respect, and therefore to engender greater resistance from certain elements of the community. Nor is it entirely clear what will happen after 30 minutes if a police officer has not arrived. Presumably, the person in question will be set free. Respect in general for law enforcement agencies might also be weakened if those who detain people are regarded as elevated park keepers. That would weaken the authority of the police, and to judge by representations made to me by the Association of Chief Police Officers and others, the police themselves are concerned about that serious point.

I ask the Government to ensure consistency in the powers given to CSOs throughout the country, and that those powers are limited and do not include the right to interfere with the free passage of individuals. The Liberal Democrats are happy with, and will support, the concept of CSOs—indeed, we included such a provision in our last manifesto. We believe that the role of traffic wardens could be integrated with that of CSOs, so that they share the same functions. I am sure that abolishing traffic wardens—if that proved necessary—would be a popular policy in some parts of the country, but in principle there is no reason why traffic wardens should not become CSOs and be given increased powers. Similarly, CSOs could take on certain powers currently enjoyed by traffic wardens. That clear and popular option would relieve the police of a number of duties that, frankly, they do not want to perform.

There is a particular problem in my constituency—it is doubtless mirrored elsewhere in the country—with untaxed vehicles. I receive many letters from constituents, saying, "There is an untaxed vehicle at the bottom of my road, but no one is interested." The council cannot tow such vehicles away because they are not officially abandoned. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which is a long way away in Swansea, has one officer in Brighton to deal with Sussex responses. The reality is that untaxed vehicles sit on streets for weeks and months, and no one does anything about them. In turn, that infuriates law-abiding constituents who say, "Why should I bother taxing my car, given that this abandoned one is not taxed and no one is doing anything about it?"

There is a clear and obvious need to create an enhanced tier of civil enforcement, under local authority control, to deal with such issues. However, that is very different from establishing a second-rate police force, which would not command respect and would lead us into dangerous territory.

Next Section

IndexHome Page