Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Baroness describes Tory crime policy as “back of an envelope”

BARONESS SMITH of Basildon rose on the floor of the House of Lords to criticise the coalition handling of the criminal justice system.

“My Lords, like other noble Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Henig, for initiating today’s debate. It has been extremely useful and shows the House at its best and the degree and depth of knowledge and experience among your Lordships.

The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, rightly criticised the Government for not building on the success we have already seen in fighting crime, including the partnerships. She outlined the sweeping and wide-ranging changes in governance, organisations and structures. I shall not repeat the detail that she gave but lack of funding to help make the transition to these changes and a lack of clarity in many areas about what is involved have caused enormous concern.

I wish to look specifically at the creation of the National Crime Agency, the abolition of the National Policing Improvement Agency and the police and crime commissioners. During the debates on the Crime and Courts Bill, which will shortly continue, we raised our concerns about the lack of clarity and the lack of detail. Far too often it seems that policy is made up on the back of an envelope and is then coloured in with the detail later. At the last election, one of the Government’s flagship policies, as we have heard, was the election of police and crime commissioners, and yet, despite the rhetoric, the Government seem determined to undermine this office.

As your Lordships know, and as we have heard today, we opposed the creating of those positions. Not only is it expensive at a time when the Government are cutting to the bone but there remains a woeful lack of clarity and understanding about how the relationship with the chief constable, the Home Secretary and the new National Crime Agency will work. The noble Baroness, Lady Henig, highlighted the problems that could occur from what could be seen as a politicisation of our police force. Despite the spirited and committed defence of the policy by the noble Lord, Lord Wasserman, it was flawed by not recognising the existing role of local councillors, local partnerships and local community partnerships, which work and are very successful at present. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Haringey, asked specific questions around those relationships and operations which I hope the Minister will be able to answer today.

If the Government’s initial rhetoric about PCCs being at the heart of the community and the voice of policing is to be believed, surely that would lead to them wanting the highest possible turnout and participation in these elections, and yet, unlike with mayoral and many other elections, there is no free postal delivery of candidates’ information to voters. So not only is it difficult for the public to have any information on the candidates, it also makes it harder for those standing as independents to let the public know what they stand for. Indeed, it makes it difficult for any candidate, given the huge areas that they intend to represent. Moreover, the idea that holding stand-alone elections in November would somehow help turnout is ludicrous. I noted the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, about America, but I think that at the moment most Americans, particularly those on the east coast, would not exactly welcome November elections.

The Government’s response that information is available online is really quite insulting and inadequate. The Electoral Reform Society has estimated that turnout could be as low as 20%, and the Government have taken no serious or meaningful action to address that. I concur entirely with my noble friend Lady Henig’s comments about the appalling adverts that are somehow supposed to increase enthusiasm and anticipation for people to vote in these elections. The ones I have seen-there may be others-show one example of fly-tipping and numerous examples of young people attacking older people. Dealing with those problems is not the only role for police and crime commissioners and it undermines the very serious role they will play. Despite all this, we have some really able and committed candidates who will do an excellent job as PCCs. They will certainly try their best, but they are being let down by the Government and they deserve better.

Alongside these new positions, we have seen so much change in the structure of how the police operate. I will not repeat the excellent analysis made by my noble friend of the range of changes and the effect that they may have. What worries me is the lack of detail that has been made available. We all want the new National Crime Agency to be successful, but throughout our debates in Committee on the Crime and Courts Bill, we were never able to conduct any meaningful scrutiny of the National Crime Agency because the framework document-the fundamental document setting out what the NCA will do and how it will do it-has not been available. The Minister’s response at the time was that it might be available for the Report stage, but if it was not, it would be available for when the Bill reaches the Commons. Again that is completely inadequate, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give us an assurance today that when we reach the Report stage later this month, he will have ensured that the framework document is available for discussion.

The National Policing Improvement Agency has been abolished before the legislation has even been passed, and yet still there is no complete clarity on where all the functions of the NPIA, its responsibilities and its staff, will be allocated. It is starting to look like another back-of-the-envelope policy where the colouring still has to be added in. It takes no account of the changes and reforms that the agency had already made.

Finally, I turn to the significant changes. The Government have now announced that they are minded to opt out of all the pre-Lisbon policing and criminal justice measures where we co-operate with other European countries. Earlier this week I attended a conference in Berlin of the European Confederation of Police, the umbrella organisation for organisations such as the Police Federation. Senior members of its committee were discussing various issues, including that of policing across borders. How can we expect our police effectively to fight cross-border serious crime such as terrorism, sex abuse and the trafficking of drugs and people without European co-operation? How would the British police have been able to co-operate with the French police to return Megan Stammers to the UK and her family if we were not part of the European arrest warrant system? Yet again we have proposals for further changes that do not seem to have been fully worked out.

As my noble friend Lady Henig made very clear in her comments, there have been too many changes made with too little co-ordination. Also, all of these changes and potential changes have to be seen against a background of cuts in budgets and resources-and as my noble friend Lord Prescott pointed out, it is not just the Government making cuts. Crime and disorder partnerships and other partnerships have been cut by local authorities.

The new National Crime Agency will take on the roles of SOCA and the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, and it will have increased responsibilities around the issues of border control and revenue and customs. Your Lordships will know that no change is ever cost free. The election of police and crime commissioners, the abolition of the NCA and the creation of new bodies such as the new National Crime Agency are all taking place at a time when resources are precious and deep and unprecedented cuts are being made. I am seriously worried about effecting deep and fundamental change without ensuring that the resources are available to ensure that it works. We know that resources are tight and we know the pressures that the police are operating under. We also recognise that cuts would have been made under a Labour Government, but the difference is one of scale and size. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary made it very clear that cuts over 12% were unsustainable and would lead to a worse service. The Government have ignored that advice and have instituted cuts amounting to around 20%. In my county of Essex, we are losing one in 10 of our front-line police officers. We no longer have any 24-hour police stations and a number have closed completely. That is not unusual as other noble Lords have told the same story from where they are.

But this is not just about abstract numbers and concepts. It can really make a difference, and I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Newlove, did this House a service by focusing on how victims are being impacted by these policies. Noble Lords may have seen press reports of the murder in Southend in Essex of Jeanette Goodwin, following harassment and threats made by Martin Bunch which had already led to several arrests and a conviction for battery. Reading through the reports of this case show that it is clear that there were a number of failings along the line in the criminal justice system, although no criticisms were made of the police until that final day. Laura Smith, of the local newspaper, the Echo, after reading reports and interviewing serving police officers, identified serious problems with staffing on that day. A number of officers were sick, another had to provide constant supervision for a prisoner in the custody block and one was sent to the operations management unit at police HQ to deal with appointments there. The result was that there was an acting sergeant and five constables on duty. They were extremely busy because of another 999 call to a violent domestic incident. The police have admitted that even if the final call that Jeanette Goodwin ever made had been classified as urgent, there still was not anyone to attend. The reports make it clear that the man in question was intent on causing her harm. One call handler said that when she arrived on her shift, there were more than 100 incidents on the “open list” and many had not even been allocated. There were a number of other failings across the criminal justice system as a whole, but despite those other failings, there must always be the question that had the police responded immediately with a patrol car, had they been up to full strength on that day, and had they not had to absorb such a high level of cuts, would Jeanette Goodwin still be alive? I do not know the answer, but if we fail to ask the question and continue just to talk about processes and procedure, we fail in our duty to the public and to victims.

When I have asked about cuts in services, I have been disappointed with Ministers’ replies. They say that cuts are the responsibility of chief constables, but Ministers set the budgets within which chief constables have to operate. However good a police and crime commissioner is, he or she can only act within the budget that is to be given to them by the Government. I hope sincerely that the Government do not say, “It is not our responsibility, it is for police and crime commissioners”, because they are acting within the Government’s budgets.

The public must have confidence in the police; it is something we all want to see. We want the public to have respect for the police, and in turn we want the police rightly to earn that confidence and respect. My fear is that the Government’s obsession with changing structures and governance, often not fully worked out and often not having fully understood what was already in place, ignores the serious underlying issues and concerns. The public have not been set alight by the PCC elections and they are not queuing up to vote. However, we want them to do so because for these provisions to be successful, we need to see a greater buy-in from the public. But if the Government really believe in their policy, they are facing a lost opportunity. They need to stop obsessing about structures and look instead at resources, commitments and a whole range of factors that will make policing in this country a success story that we can be proud of.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Who is this woman. She kept her mouth shut about Gordon and got her reward of an income for life in the lords. Shallow words from a politician who presided in a government of spineless liars. A government who became the friends of the criminal. A former Labour liar lecturing the public on law and order when they tell criminals it’s not their fault. It’s all the fault of society.

  2. Policing in this country has been below par for years and years, largely because they are continually hamstrung by woolly minded, bleeding heart politicians like the good Baroness. It’s no good her crying foul now when her party did nothing to improve real policing when they had the chance.

  3. Both Labour and the Coalition have failed the general public with their law and order plans, this country is being held to ransom by the EU and they have to follow the EU rules, the sooner we pull out of the EU the better and start laying down our own laws the better.

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