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Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I, too, add my thanks to the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, for securing the debate. As always in your Lordships' House, a debate of this nature shows the extraordinary range of ability and expertise that it commands. It is interesting that we have had not only speeches on the strategic issues of policing, but interesting insights into specialist policing from the noble Viscount, Lord Simon, and the British Transport Police from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. Were I not speaking from the Front Bench, I would be inviting your Lordships to assess where I stand in the post for which the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, and my noble friend Lord Elton are vying.
The debate has provoked an interesting discussion, with valuable contributions from all sides of the House, and it is clear that it is time for a fundamental review of policing in this country. However, we on these Benches disagree with the current proposals that are, in the words of my noble friend Lord Waddington, though not in this debate,
Issues have been raised with which we wholeheartedly agree. Our police forces have been subjected to an increasing weight of bureaucracy amid growing concerns over the future of the office of chief constable and the political independence of the police service as a whole. Reference has been made to the new Police and Justice Bill, which has had a very rough ride from all my noble friends behind me, and from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. My noble friend Lord Waddington said with cold logic that the fewer police forces there are, the greater the ability of the Home Secretary to control them. We wish police forces to be professional, flexible and to have incentives to do their job with real accountability to local people. We need time to consider how best to achieve that, in a way that will strengthen the bond of trust between the police and the public. That is, again, a point made by my noble friend.
I hope that the Minister will outline the Government's response to the IPCC report, and how they intend to help the IPCC to encourage confidence among the more vulnerable and minority sections of society.
We all wish to find a better way of dealing with serious crime, as the Police Federation has highlighted. The challenges facing the service have never been greater, from tackling anti-social behaviour to combating international terrorism; from yobs to bombers. We want to improve the ability of our police to deliver their services in the light of those challenges. We need to ensure that they have the training, skills and resources to do so to the best of their ability, and where possible to build up their expertise and experience.
We acknowledge the need for reform. Nevertheless, we do not support the changes suggested, and the hasty amalgamation programme planned by the
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Government is not justified, which is a strand that has run through the whole debate. My noble friend Lord Waddington referred to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report on the proposed restructuring, highlighting that short timetables limit the scope for debate and impede consultation with all stakeholders. It is vital that change should not be achieved at the expense of doing it properly.
The Home Secretary decreed that all forces should produce business plans for amalgamation before Christmasthe noble Baroness, Lady Harris, gave us that timetablebut none did so. Only seven signed up to the full regional mergers, and none has the unanimous approval of the forces concerned, save for Lancashire and Cumbria. West Mercia has become the high-profile leader in the objections, as we have heard, in detail, from the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw. My own county of Hampshire is faced with three options: one, to remain on its own, which I understand is the preferred option of the force; two, to amalgamate with Wiltshire and Dorset; and, three, to amalgamate with Thames Valley. I understand that the second option has been ruled out as, once again, it crosses Mr Prescott's regional boundaries. One can starkly see the impact of this regionalisation by stealth. In the case of Hampshire, the Minister will also have to deal with a very concerned judiciary; it is concerned about the break-up of the Crown Courts organisation in Wessex.
My noble friend Lord Waddington and I, and no doubt others, have had a go at the Minister about this, and, ever the optimist, I hope that she can enlighten us further. I have a further question for the Minister: will these amalgamations lead to the enforced retirement of a number of assistant chief constables and, if so, why are a number still being appointed to that rank?
Efficiency and effectiveness have been key considerations in the debate. I share the view that the Government's proposals have too often been viewed solely through the lens of economies of scale. Quality of service delivery in conjunction with financial efficiency must be the key. We propose that some police forces could increase their efficiency by sharing services, if they choose to do so. That would enable economies of scale on cross-border issues but also enable constabularies to retain independence and be accountable to local people. The noble Earl, Lord Rosslyn, provided an interesting suggestion about collaboration rather than amalgamation.
My noble friend Lady Shephard has given us a vivid illustration of the thoughts and aspirations of the very disparate police forces in East Anglia. There is an overwhelming argument for a local approach to policing. Indeed, the Police Federation itself remains unconvinced that,
Each area has its own requirements. The organisation best suited to deal with terrorism is not necessarily the best suited to deal with shoplifting. Moreover, there are serious concerns that amalgamations will drain resources from rural areas, a point highlighted by the noble Baroness, Lady Harris, as regards Yorkshire.
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The prime example of too much haste is the cost of the proposed changes, which has been very thoroughly dealt with by your Lordships today. My right honourable friend David Davis observed in another place that the O'Connor report, Closing the Gap, said that the cost,
The APA's estimate of the cost of this operation of £0.5 billion has, I know, been disputed by the Minister. Be that as it may, the Government have belatedly offered £125 million, which, we understand, would be raided from the capital budget for the police, but it still leaves a huge gap. Even having to find a generously low figure of a net £350 million means that average increases in council tax band D across the whole of England and Wales, excluding London, will be £23.
For a moment I would like to dwell in more detail on the modernisation of police pay and work conditions. At the start of this speech I mentioned the need for the police to have incentives in their work. Police officers are relatively well paidbetter than teachers or nurses. Their levels of pay reflect the value that society places on them and the nature of their work, which is often difficult and dangerous. We should never forget the risks that police officers run for us. However, officers tend to be paid according to length of service or seniority. We would wish to see pay in relation to skills, competence, performance and professionalism and an increasing regard given to rewarding merit. What discussions has the Home Office had with the Police Federation and the Association of Police Authorities regarding the modernisation of police pay? Has she addressed the vexed question of "working the sickie", which, unfortunately, is rife in some forces?
In a speech in January, my right honourable friend David Cameron referred to the necessity of attracting recruits of the highest calibre. The noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe, has also mentioned this. From time to time, it is asked why the service does not introduce Sandhurst-type officer cadet training, which works so well in the Armed Forces. A senior police officer explained to me why a similar system in the police will not work. She outlined to me, in persuasive terms, the feeling of being "on your own", often in conditions of great danger, which a police constable will inevitably experience from time to time and which, on the whole, has no counterpart in the Army, for example, where a soldier would normally be part of the unit, however small, be it a section or a platoon. She went on to argue that a token period spent on the beat would be a wholly insufficient experience. Noble Lords will be aware that the Trenchard Officer Cadet Scheme, introduced between the wars, was very unpopular with the police service and was abandoned after the second world war. Interestingly, Sir Ian Blair, the current Police Commissioner, in his remarkable Dimbleby lecture, said:
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"I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by people that they had thought of joining the police but hadn't had the courage to do so. What they actually mean, by and large, is that they thought that, interesting as it was, they were of too superior a class or educational background".
I am told that the so-called fast-track schemes are not really effective. That was obliquely referred to by the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby. Are the Home Office and the police service addressing the problem of creating a really effective scheme, whereby men and women, whose qualities of intellect and leadership may be recognised at an early stage, may be able to rise rapidly up the ladder, without sacrificing the irreplaceable experience of the police constable, which is so much the backbone of policing in this country and about which my informant felt so strongly?
The noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, referred to the small number of minority ethnic officers in the national police force. Last month, at a reception held in another place, Sir Ian Blair gave us a statisticI hope I quote him correctlythat 50 per cent of current recruits to the Metropolitan Police are from a minority ethnic background. If that is so, it is a very encouraging trend.
It has been well said that every country has the police that it deserves. In this country, where Sir Robert Peel invented the concept of the community policeman, we are proud to have a force that, despite the threats of 21st-century terrorism and criminality, remains, for the greater part, unarmed. However, with the increasing sophistication and resources available to terrorists and criminals, the police must keep ahead of them. In view of the quality of members of the police service in this country, I hope that all sides of the House will share my confidence that they will. But they require every assistance from the Government to enable them to fulfil their purpose: serving their local communities, as the noble Lord, Lord Imbert, has said with such eloquence.
I hope that the Minister will use her very considerable influence in the Home Office to convey to her right honourable friend the Home Secretary the unanimous sentiments of this debate in urging him to think again, particularly on the programming of the proposed timetable. I shall be very interested to hear her comments.
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