Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8.29 pm

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot): It is a contempt of Parliament that the Home Secretary is not here to take through what on the Government's own admission—not that of the Opposition—is an extremely important Bill. It is no disrespect to the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety to say that he has been put up as the monkey when the organ grinder should have been present. It is, of course, in stark contrast to what the Prime Minister has said about his belief in the importance of Parliament and, therefore, to the proposals that he has suggested to demonstrate that, such as coming before the Liaison Committee. I am afraid that the Home Secretary has betrayed the Prime Minister's intentions in that respect. The Minister could have done himself and the House a favour by explaining why the Home Secretary is not in the Chamber.

The debate is being held not just against the background of the contentious issues that my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) set out so graphically, but against a great deal of dissatisfaction in the police service. As my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mr. Simmonds) said, morale is extremely low. There was an overwhelming vote against

7 May 2002 : Column 101

the Government's proposals on pay and conditions, and the police service has been left thinking that it is not appreciated by the Government. Everything that the Government have said about their intentions to improve the lot of our police service, to make it more modern and to improve the detection of crime has to be set against the experience of police officers up and down the country in recent months.

I make no apologies, as a Hampshire Member, for bringing to the attention of the House and the Minister the concerns of the police in that county. The chief constable, Mr. Paul Kernaghan, wrote to me on 25 February this year. Against the background of the dissatisfaction of the federated ranks, he said:

That speaks volumes. Mr. Kernaghan is chief constable of a force that serves a county for which the Minister is a Member of Parliament and he is reporting the dissatisfaction of police officers in our county.

On 18 January this year, a number of right hon. and hon. Members met members of the Police Federation at Netley where we listened to their concerns about what was happening. Something like 78 police officers were present, all of whom had come in their own time. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), my hon. Friends the Members for Havant (Mr. Willetts), for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) and for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) and the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. Chidgey) were present. It was one and three quarter hours into our discussion before the issue of pay arose, so it was not a bleating operation by police officers in Hampshire, but the expression of real concerns, three of which I shall highlight.

The first relates to the new scheme to create community support officers. First and foremost, officers were worried about the experience of CSOs and what knowledge they would bring to the policing of our locality. They wanted to know who would train them and how long that would last. The particular point was made that cases might not proceed to court because those acting in a quasi-police role who do not have the full training and do not understand the ins and outs of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and other Acts that regulate the conduct by which police officers bring evidence to court would be unlikely to follow the rules of evidence.

Mr. Kevan Jones: The hon. Gentleman sets out why we should not have CSOs. Is he therefore at odds with his Front-Bench spokesmen who favour them, except for their powers of arrest?

Mr. Howarth: I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, who is very intelligent, failed to grasp that I am highlighting the concerns of police officers in Hampshire and some of the practical questions that they posed. That is not the same as opposing the idea of introducing CSOs; I am merely posing questions that have not been answered by the Government on how the CSOs will operate.

7 May 2002 : Column 102

The police officers made it clear that they do not want to fill in forms or write out verbatim reports. Instead, they want to be on the streets doing precisely the job that the CSOs are supposed to do. As one of them said, that role used to be played by park keepers, bus conductors and others in a uniform. It is because those people are not so much in evidence and, indeed, because of the fear that some people might take the law into their own hands that the Government have come up with the proposals. The overwhelming message was that existing officers want to get on to the streets. My hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) made that point. He also referred to the special constabulary. We need to increase the number of specials rather than creating CSOs in the first instance.

The second point made by the police officers relates to bureaucracy. Police officers spend a great deal of time sitting around in court. Sometimes that is because the courts are not well organised and police officers spend time waiting for cases to be heard that are not running on schedule. That is a complete waste of their time. The Government should do something to address that problem because that will help to ensure that police officers do the job that they are supposed to be doing.

Vera Baird (Redcar): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Howarth: If the hon. and learned Lady will forgive me, I will not because many other hon. Members wish to speak.

One of the members of the constabulary, who is based at Aldershot police station, wrote to me explaining how difficult it is to do the job that he is charged with doing. He said:

the European convention on human rights,

The Bill does little, if anything, to address the concerns of police officers about the amount of time that it takes to bring cases to court. What police officers want is a reduction in bureaucracy, but there is very little sign of that in the Bill. That is a practical example for the Minister of how the Bill fails to address the concerns of the policemen out there on our streets.

Finally, the independence of police authorities has been mentioned several times. I simply want to reinforce the arguments that the Minister has now heard from hon. Members on both sides of the House. His own police chief, Mr. Kernaghan, asks:

He continues:

7 May 2002 : Column 103

There in a nutshell is the case against what the Government are doing, and I hope that they will have the sense and the wit to recognise the validity of the changes made in another place, and to accept them here.

8.39 pm

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and Cleveland, East): I welcome the Bill for its radical police reform. Time is of the essence, and I shall concentrate on parts 2 and 3, and particularly clauses 8 to 34 on complaints and misconduct.

It is no secret that in Teesside our local community has been sorely riven by one of the most high-profile police disciplinary cases that has arisen in this country. I refer, of course, to Operation Lancet, of which I am sure some hon. Members are aware. There have been debates about it in the Chamber and publicity in the national papers. Serious allegations were made against eight serving Cleveland police officers, most notably Detective Superintendent Ray Mallon, all of whom were suspended. Subsequently, a further 400 allegations that could be construed as criminal were made against 60 officers.

The case became a huge operation that took on a life of its own: 571 disciplinary notices were served; 6,701 inquiries were launched; 3,162 statements were taken and 8,311 other documents were taken into consideration. After a period of intense scrutiny and the referral of the allegations to the Crown Prosecution Service, none of those allegations was found to have any criminal content. Lancet has lasted for over four and a half years, and I estimate that it has cost over £7 million.

I do not intend to enter into a debate on the rights and wrongs of Operation Lancet—that is not the purpose of this debate. However, its subject is a fresh look at how police misconduct matters could be handled in future, and what lessons we can learn from the problems highlighted by the present system. My concerns are that it is bureaucratic and cumbersome, and gives a licence for investigations to grow like Topsy.

The present system dates from 1984 and is itself the child of previous legislation. The Home Office has always made it clear that the aim of legislation governing police complaints is

However, in cases such as Lancet and similar investigations elsewhere in the UK, it is difficult to discuss the substance of allegations against a police officer and the defence of that officer without looking at the central direction of a police force and whether that direction serves the public interest.

Allegations have been made against individual serving and suspended police officers which have been publicly rebutted by those very officers. Allegations and counter-allegations have been made not in a committee room at force headquarters but in the columns of the national press and on television. They have been part of a controversy that has rocked and destabilised the Cleveland police—a controversy that arose solely from serious jealousies and rivalries within the ranks of the senior management of the Cleveland force.

7 May 2002 : Column 104

There are big issues here too about the seeming independence and openness of the complaints procedure. I want to make it clear that I am not criticising the officers from external forces who were drafted in to consider Lancet issues; they have conducted themselves in the great spirit of impartiality and independence which should characterise this country's police. However, the procedure has led the public of Teesside to conclude that Lancet is a case of the police investigating the police.

When questions arise about the suitability of the actions of the employing force and about the central direction and management of that force, it would be better to have an independent structure in place. That has been called for several times in relation to matters other than Lancet, most notably in the Macpherson report on the murder of Stephen Lawrence. From my own local perspective, it is welcome that the Bill addresses the need for an independent complaints commission.

Next Section

IndexHome Page