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18 Dec 2007 : Column 240WH—continued

3.49 pm

Robert Key: With the leave of the House, Mr. Cummings, may I thank the Minister for the spirit in which she responded to this important debate? I hope she understands that we are aware that she has had to answer for the decision of another Department, which is what caused the rumpus, and that she will have a great deal of cross-party support as she seeks to achieve what she set out today.

I reiterate how important it is that the machinery of government address the issue and resolve the problems facing the Minister. I come back to a point that I referred to earlier: there has been a breakdown in the machinery of government over much more than the past eight or 10 years. Indeed, it is more like 50 years, because it is 50 years since the first schemes were proposed for dealing with the roads around Stonehenge. As well as a disappointment, the current situation is an opportunity, and we should all view it in that spirit. The devil is in the detail, and we must all pledge ourselves—I certainly do—to seeking consensus on the way forward. With that, Mr. Cummings, I thank you for chairing this extremely important debate.

3.50 pm

Sitting suspended.

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City of London Police

4 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): One of the many historical quirks of my constituency is its policing structure. Whereas Britain as a whole is covered by only 43 local police constabularies, my constituency is served by two. The Westminster part is policed by the Metropolitan Police Service; the other—the famous square mile—is served by the City of London police. That leaves me in a relatively unique position to compare and contrast the workings of a large, lumbering, bureaucratic and, in recent times, politically tainted constabulary with a smaller, localised responsive and accountable force. Is it a coincidence that in my six-and-a-half years in Parliament, I have received not a single complaint about policing issues from any of my City of London constituents? For the fifth successive year, figures confirm that crime in the City has fallen.

In recent years, there has been talk of change in London policing, and ideas about merging the City of London police with the Met have been bandied around. That must not happen. Far from being amalgamated into a bigger organisation, the City of London police should retain its independence, and I would argue that we should not stop there. I believe that the City force needs to be regulated as a template for policing to be emulated across the whole of London, and its model should be rolled out to ensure that all residents of the capital benefit from a responsive, localised and properly accountable police service.

The City force has a unique role. It exists to ensure the safety and security of the City, not just for its 8,000 residents, but for the 300,000 people who arrive each day to work in the square mile and for the many tens of thousands who daily visit iconic sites such as St. Paul’s cathedral and the Old Bailey. When Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing in the late 1820s, set up a structure of policing in the capital, almost a quarter of London’s population lived in the City; as a result, it was assigned its own police force, which was answerable, as it is today, to the City of London corporation. Meanwhile, the rest of the metropolis was served by a body that finally became the Metropolitan Police Service. The arrival of the steam train led to the emergence of the commuter, and the City of London rapidly depopulated. It is only in the past decade or so that that process has begun to reverse itself.

The very distinctive demographics of the City demand a style of policing that is, in my view, very different from that of any other force. Businesses and residents in the City experience the very best of traditional British policing, alongside a technologically adept force with a wealth of experience in counter-terrorism and financial investigation. The constabulary may cover a small geographical area physically, but it reaches across regional, national and even international borders as a widely recognised leader in policing global business.

I have witnessed at first hand the force’s effectiveness at street level. Only a few weeks ago, I joined the City of London’s special constabulary on one of its busy Friday night shifts for a patrol of the square mile. The City has about 75 specials, which is 10 per cent. of the total complement. They form a team of dedicated volunteers
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who, in addition to their normal jobs, help to police the streets. The force has managed to utilise volunteers to make a real difference to policing and to provide an effective and visible presence on the streets. Despite the relatively small size of the specials’ team, the variety in their work is probably the best national demonstration of innovative deployment and the use of a special constabulary. Rather than invest money in the relatively powerless paid community support officers, the City prefers to train its volunteers to a high level, providing them with the longest basic training period in the UK and the most intensive tutoring programme to get them to independent patrol status. That alone gives their regular colleagues the confidence to use them in a wide variety of roles, from policing high-security state occasions to cracking down on general street crime.

Friday nights in the square mile have traditionally been quiet affairs, with the working population heading to the west end for after-hours entertainment. One could have argued, therefore, that the City force has an easy job compared with the Met, which regularly deals with alcohol-fuelled disorder, and not just in central London, but that is no longer true. In recent years, a large number of night-time bars and clubs have begun to open their doors within the City of London as well. Joining the specials on their neighbourhood patrol, I witnessed at first hand their quick response, their zero tolerance and their very visible approach to policing. The message that the force wants to send out is clear: “Commit crime in the square mile and you will run into the law.” On our patrol, even relatively minor crimes such as cyclists going through red lights, and drunks urinating in the streets or collapsing on the pavement, were followed up. Officers approached each person in a calm and civil manner; there was no aggression, and all those who were approached showed a willingness to co-operate. The specials also displayed and demonstrated incredible enthusiasm for their role. I have to say that the team was well resourced. There was a great spirit of camaraderie, with one volunteer officer telling me that he gets far more out of this part of his work with the City force than he puts in.

The work of the specials feeds into the ward policing system in which constables play a vital role in ensuring that the concerns felt by local businesses and residents about public order and terrorism are fed directly into the force. The community beat officer system gathers local intelligence to ensure that wider policing resources are effectively targeted to local problems, with the ward constable acting as an approachable figure within the community. A notable success of that localised and visible approach to policing has been in the City force’s ongoing work with St. Mungo’s, the homelessness charity. The police initiatives with St. Mungo’s have been especially important since the enlargement of the European Union in May 2004, which led to a large influx of migrants arriving in central London. Many migrants have secured jobs and homes in advance of their arrival, but a significant minority have not. They may choose to sleep on the streets because they lack money, or because they want to avoid spending their wages on the very high rents in the centre of London. Operation Poncho, which began in May, engages with people who are sleeping on the street. It checks their welfare and offers access to support services such as accommodation and alcohol and drugs rehabilitation. Since the start of that initiative,
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City of London police officers, in conjunction with their partner organisations and St. Mungo’s, have assisted some 400 people with a history of rough sleeping.

It is not just in tackling everyday crime and social disorder that the City force excels. Its economic crime unit has an enviable international reputation and boasts the largest fraud squad in Europe. It is regularly called upon to investigate crimes that arise nationally and internationally, and the high esteem in which the unit is held has clearly assisted in giving people confidence to report many alleged crimes. The City of London police’s high degree of experience and expertise in the investigation of white collar crime has led to the Government granting it lead force status for fraud cases across the whole of south-east England. The economic crime unit has recorded exceptionally high detection rates—in the region of 80 per cent.

In late 2005, when the Government announced that they were considering the reconfiguration of police forces with the aim of improving counter-terrorism activity and work against organised crime, there was great disquiet within the business community. There was a strong feeling that the City force had an extremely highly esteemed brand and that interfering with that winning formula could impact negatively upon the continued success of the UK’s financial centre.

In addition to its growing domestic role, the City force has also received funding from the Department for International Development for a new dedicated team to investigate allegations of overseas corruption. That international element to its work links into and complements the City’s extensive experience of responding to terrorist crime. Having fallen victim to large-scale terrorist attacks in the square mile in the early 1990s, the City is an area that is uniquely prepared to deal with those who target our capital. Responding to the IRA’s assaults of that decade, the City invested very heavily in state-of-the-art technology and restructured itself to tackle the major threat from terrorism. On my own tour of duty with the force last month, I was shown the City’s control room and was astounded by the quality of technology at its disposal.

The force’s network of cameras keeps a close eye on all the crime hotspots and entry points to the square mile. By co-operating with organisations such as the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the force can identify stolen, uninsured and untaxed vehicles within seconds and stop them before they leave the square mile within the few minutes it takes to communicate with patrol cars on the ground. That heavy investment undoubtedly helped the force’s response to the July 2005 attacks by home-grown Islamic terrorists. When those attacks occurred, the City of London police was able to provide resources quickly at the Aldgate site, which is in my constituency, and even attached specialist officers to the Metropolitan Police Service for the subsequent investigations into all four terror attacks. In the following weeks, officers engaged in prolonged tours of duty owing to heightened security levels, but the impact on other criminal activity was minimal. The City’s success in that area is proven by the fact that the square mile has continued to prosper as a leading financial centre, despite those ongoing security threats.

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The ability of the City of London police seamlessly to co-operate with other forces, such as the Met and the British Transport police, has enriched both its own work and that of its partners. It polices more than 1,300 ceremonial and public order events every year—about five every day—including all the state banquets held at the Guildhall, where the safety and security of visiting Heads of State is in the force’s hands. That requires the ability to co-operate with diplomatic protection, security services and traffic controllers. That ability and experience will no doubt be called on when the 2012 Olympics roll into town—an event for which the force is, rightly, already preparing.

Given the importance of the City to a number of the Government’s broader objectives, it is regrettable that all police authorities will receive grant floors of only some 2.5 per cent. for each of the next three years, apart from the City of London police. Unfortunately, despite working beyond its boundaries as a trusted, relied upon and frequently utilised resource, the City force is not financially rewarded.

In the light of the current dispute over police pay, I must provide a voice for a force that offers the Government fantastic value for money, in contrast with what has increasingly become a politicised Metropolitan Police Service. At a time when the Met’s senior officers are losing the trust and confidence of many Londoners, we witness the disturbing spectacle of the police threatening to renege on their no-strike agreement. I accept that the Police Federation has a legitimate grievance. The no-strike deal is the other side of the coin of the Government being bound by arbitration. Unfortunately, the Government have torn up their side of that deal, but I suspect that many Londoners will not take kindly to the threat of strike action, not least so soon after the Met closed ranks and accepted so little responsibility for the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes and the systematic cover-up that followed that catastrophic episode.

Within days of the shooting, I made my position extremely clear about the mendacious way in which various incorrect details were leaked to the press. We have still not had a full apology for that regrettable episode. I am not here to advise the Police Federation, but it should soft-pedal a little, because I suspect that much of the sympathy that the public at large have for the police is skin deep, and if it went ahead with strike action it would be disastrous for what I think is in principle a pretty good case.

I believe that any plans to diminish the independence of the City of London police are unlikely automatically to result in service quality being maintained or improved. Indeed, many of the City’s unique resources might be merged into a lumbering bureaucracy, with loss of the ability to react quickly and to co-operate simply. It is not only the City force’s independence that we should cherish. I believe that we can learn important lessons from its effective law enforcement, which should be used as a template for policing in the capital and beyond.

I would like the Metropolitan Police Service to be broken up into smaller, more locally accountable, manageable constabularies that properly serve the people of our capital city. In many ways, the spirit of the age has moved away from amalgamation to localised and democratically accountable control. That applies not only within London, but in the context of what I see with my own eyes in my constituency. There is a view in
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the political arena that we all believe in localism, and in this area it is crucial. Rolling out the City’s model of localised and democratically responsible and visible policing will ensure that residents throughout London benefit from the same degree of excellence.

4.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Cummings. I congratulate the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) on securing this debate, and on the informed and measured way in which he made his case with clear historical research. I also congratulate him on the time that he spent with the specials, which is something that I have not yet had a chance to do. It sounds as though he had an interesting time, and it is always good for us in the House to get out and see what it is like on the front line.

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman that the support of the City of London police, alongside the Metropolitan police, after the events of July 2005 was very welcome. His constituency and mine share a boundary, and many of my constituents were caught up in the Aldgate bombing. We were grateful for all help on that difficult day and those following.

I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s comments about police community support officers, and will go into that in more detail. It is important to stress that they play a different role from that of special constables, who are volunteers. I am interested in the City’s training programme, but police community support officers play a different role and, rightly, were introduced partly because of the plethora of popular neighbourhood wardens on the fringes of my constituency and his. For example, I once counted five different uniformed groups, including the police and neighbourhood wardens. Police and community support officers being trained alongside the police and working properly alongside them are doing very well. They also have the advantage of diversifying the Metropolitan police, particularly because they often provide a source of trainees and recruitment. I have met police community support officers who have gone on to become police constables.

Mr. Field: During my first year in Parliament when my party opposed PCSOs, I made it clear that I was very much in favour of them. The visible activity of PCSOs has had tremendous benefit, particularly in the Westminster part of my constituency. My point was simply that in many ways there is a risk that the emergence of and reliance on more and more PCSOs, especially in London, might be to the detriment of encouraging people to go down the specials route. It would be a shame if that happened.

Meg Hillier: I will perhaps deal with the issues concerning special constables with the hon. Gentleman afterwards rather than waylaying this debate, because I have other points to make in response to him, but he raised some interesting issues.

Another issue that I shall go into in further detail is the model that the City provides and whether it could be a model for the Met. I disagree, and point the hon. Gentleman to what happens in the Westminster half of his constituency. Neighbourhood police teams are local
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and accountable in my constituency. For example, groups of residents determine on a ward basis some of the priorities for those groups, and there are borough command units. The hon. Gentleman did not suggest that the Met is one large body, but that suggestion would be wrong.

Keeping people and the City safe and secure is an important task that falls to the City of London police, and it performs it very successfully. In 2006-07, 7,973 offences were recorded in the square mile, a fall of nearly 500 from the previous year, and there has been a reduction of more than 20 per cent. since 2002-03. I congratulate everyone involved on those impressive results. One key factor has been special constables, and the hon. Gentleman articulated better than I can some of the lessons that we can learn from that model.

I was interested in the hon. Gentleman’s comments on the continuing operational independence of the City of London police, and I can reassure him on one point in particular. When the Government contemplated police force mergers a couple of years ago, no steps were ever taken to change the status of the City’s police. It is worth reminding the Chamber that one reason was that we would have needed primary legislation to do so because of its make-up. The Government have since made it absolutely clear that mergers are no longer on the agenda, and I believe—I heard what the hon. Gentleman said—that the City has no desire for change. I can see no prospect of the force merging with any other, or of it losing the operational independence that comes from being a separate entity with its own commissioner, and from reporting to its own police authority in the form of the police committee of the court of common council.

Mr. Field: I thank the Minister for that reassurance. Clearly, the City of London police is concerned not necessarily about the Home Office but, more often, either directly about noises off from senior Metropolitan police officers or, potentially, at least this side of 1 May, about a Mayor of London who might in future look to flex his or her muscles on such issues. However, I take on board what the Minister said, and thank her for that reassurance.

Meg Hillier: Mayors, Metropolitan police chiefs or whoever may flex their muscles, but, in the end, it will be a matter for the Home Office to decide, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken my reassurances on board.

The hon. Gentleman praised the efficient working of the City of London police, which I endorse, but suggested that it compares favourably with its larger neighbour. I take issue with that slightly because the Metropolitan Police Service faces a unique range of challenges and yet it scored two “excellent” ratings in its last police performance assessment, and was deemed to be improving in the resources and efficiency category. When the Metropolitan Police Authority was established in 2000—I was a member of the London assembly at the time—I saw people leaving MPA meetings looking pale at some of the old-fashioned practices under which the Met worked, but we are now seeing improvements come through in those results.

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