Police (Public Trust)

Nick closes a Westminster Hall Debate on public trust in the Police

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on securing this debate, on putting his case with his customary clarity and forcefulness and on initiating a debate, to which many right hon. and hon. Members have enjoyed contributing, on a matter that is close to our hearts -the performance of our local police forces and their ability to deal with crime, which is still of great concern throughout the country.

First, I should like to pick up on the last point made by the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and, in doing so, congratulate him on his new position as shadow Police Minister, which is particularly interesting for him as former Police Minister. He will bring an alarming amount of experience and knowledge to bear and will, I am sure, hold the Government to account through a challenging period for policing. I look forward to working with him as constructively as we can in the weeks and months ahead. I shall return to that subject when talking about crime statistics.

The hon. Gentleman recognises that the overwhelming majority of police officers could not be characterised in any way by some of the things that have been said during this debate. I echo that. I am conscious that, in the past few weeks and months, we have talked about police reform, the challenging spending environment and about the decisions ahead that need to be taken, and that we can lose sight of the fact that, every day, police officers throughout the country work hard to keep all of us safe. The overwhelming majority of them act with impartiality and integrity. Sometimes sufficient tribute is not paid to the work that they do. I should like formally to thank them.

Those of us who recently attended the national police memorial day service in Belfast or the police bravery awards and spoke to the relatives of police officers who lost their lives doing their duty in the past year, including PC Bill Barker, who was swept away when attempting to help people on a bridge in Cumbria during the floods, could not have failed to be anything but struck by the heroism and professionalism of the police and be reminded of the job that they do for us. In the course of this debate about police legitimacy, conduct and accountability, how they respond to us, and their links with the public, we should remember all those officers and what they do. We should recognise that this is a period of uncertainty for people who work in our public services, including police officers, and we should be sensitive to that.

Although I disagree with some of my hon. Friend's sharper points, the issue, which is essentially trust and legitimacy, is a proper one to raise. He referred to Sir Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing, and quoted his famous seventh principle of policing that

"the police are the public and the public are the police".

My hon. Friend might have quoted Sir Robert's second principle:

"The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions."

In this country, we have a tradition that policing is not only carried out by consent, but that it flows from the fact that the police are of their communities and have the active support of the public. When that support has ebbed away in specific circumstances, policing has gone wrong. We saw that in the past in the way in which the police interacted with black and ethnic minority communities. When confidence in policing goes, legitimacy also goes. Our leaders in the police service are acutely aware of that important link between confidence and legitimacy.

It may help hon. Members if I add a few metrics to the debate to provide an understanding of the extent to which the public have confidence in the police. The last British crime survey found that overall public confidence in their local police was 69%. That may seem to be high, and is certainly much higher than public confidence in, for example, our profession as Members of Parliament and the media; nevertheless, 30% of respondents said that they did not have confidence in their local police overall. Other figures should make us pause: for example, 50% agreed that the police could be relied on to be present when they were needed, and less than half-48%-agreed that the police could be relied on to deal with minor crimes.

I welcome the fact that the same survey showed that the proportion of people who believe that the police in their area are doing a good or excellent job rose from 49% in 2004-05 to 56% in 2009-10. A majority of the public believe that the police in their area are doing a good or excellent job, but a significant minority do not. On public confidence in the police and local councils, there is a problem with questions that link the actions of both. It is difficult to disaggregate responsibility when they deal with crime and antisocial behaviour issues that matter locally, but only around half of respondents to the survey had confidence in the police and local councils together.

That suggests a number of issues on which we should pause to reflect in the relationship of the police with the public. First, hon. Members have mentioned specific incidents that gave rise to public concern. In every case, there were proper investigations by the authorities and the Independent Police Complaints Commission, but they left an impression-

Mr Watson: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I will respond to his points.

There is a danger, as the hon. Member for Gedling said, that such incidents create a damaging impression of policing as a whole. The problem is accountability. We live in the age of accountability, and people expect institutions and individuals who hold office to be properly and transparently answerable to them. That is right. We must have a system for complaints and the public must be able to take up issues if they believe that police performance has fallen down. We must have an overall system of answerability that commands public confidence and strengthens the links between the police and the public.

The thrust of our proposed reforms is to rebuild the bridge between the police and the public, and in particular to recognise that police forces sprang from local communities. We have never had a national police force in this country. Police legitimacy essentially flows from consent in those communities, and we want to loosen the central grip on policing that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) described and, in exchange, strengthen forces' local accountability.

Mark Pritchard: The Minister refers to accountability. Does he accept that there is concern among the public, the rank and file in the police and certainly among senior and chief officers that it is difficult to sack police officers who are not doing their job correctly? Will he respond to my earlier comments and say that he will consider the matter, whether it will be part of the review, and whether we can get rid of some of the police officers who are doing such damage to the reputation of the police service?

Nick Herbert: I apologise to my hon. Friend, I will certainly respond to the specific points that he raised, but the review into police pay and conditions, which will be led by the former rail regulator, Tom Winsor, has a free rein to consider all such matters, and the way in which police officers are employed should certainly be one. People are free to offer their views to Tom Winsor and his fellow reviewers. That is reasonable, particularly given the scale of the fiscal and other challenges facing the police and their leaders

I turn to the reforms and the specific points made by the Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. A key element of our reforms is that police and crime commissioners should be directly elected, thus strengthening the bond between people and the police, and allowing local forces to be held to account. We also intend to introduce transparency. The public should know more about what is happening with crime in their area, and they should know how money is spent by police forces. That principle of transparency should apply throughout the criminal justice system, and from January 2011 we will introduce crime mapping at street level to provide the public with more information about what is happening in their area.

On crime statistics, I agree that we need a non-partisan debate. It is important to build public confidence in statistics, and the political trade about them has been unfortunate. Local crime mapping will give the public unimpeachable information that is directly relevant. I am afraid that national crime statistics are becoming less and less relevant because they are not believed. We have two measures of crime, but the recorded crime figures are susceptible to alteration and the way the figures are collected has been changed, and the British crime survey misses out large sections of crime.

I would like to return the challenge. I am relatively new to my position, and the hon. Member for Gedling is relatively new to his. If he would like a sensible discussion about how we can collect crime figures, so that in future months we do not have a dispute about the figures but talk instead about policy and what lies behind those figures, my door is open. That would be a sensible thing to do.

Keith Vaz: Hear, hear.

Nick Herbert: I note the intervention from the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. That is a genuine offer; this is the moment to make such a move.

My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin talked about leadership, and I strongly agree with him about the value of leadership in policing. We have asked the former chief constable of Thames Valley police and chief executive of the National Policing Improvement Agency, Peter Neyroud, to conduct a study into how we can ensure the right leadership and training in the police. In the end, however, that must rest with the police themselves. Part of the reforms that we wish to introduce concern the reform of the Association of Chief Police Officers to ensure that it takes responsibility for such matters in an accountable manner.

My hon. Friend also called for a review of agencies and quangos, and he will be hearing a great deal more about that in due course. We have proposed a decluttering of the landscape surrounding policing by winding up the National Policing Improvement Agency and taking those functions to a new national crime agency.

On the point raised by the right hon. Member for Leicester East (Keith Vaz), I will of course pay attention to all issues and concerns that are raised by people about the whole spectrum of reforms to policing. As he will know, I have been attending to those issues, and I have taken care to pay attention to the views of stakeholders, police organisations and so on.

Mr Watson: There are 30 seconds to go. I asked whether the Minister thinks there are merits in having an outside force investigate the conduct of the Metropolitan police inquiry into phone hacking. Will he respond to that point?

Nick Herbert: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman; I am running out of time. He has raised such matters before. It was and remains a matter for the police, who have made it clear that they will consider fresh information if it emerges. That is precisely what they are doing, and it is right to await their conclusion. Those matters have been debated in the House and are now subject to investigations by two Select Committees. The right way forward is to await the outcome of those latest inquiries.

In conclusion, I believe that the debate about how we structure our police in the future is important. The Government reforms are intended to ensure that we have a strong connection between the police and the public.

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13 October 2010

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