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As the Tories press for a harsh new Police Bill,
Terry Fields MP poses the question ...

Who Controls the Police?

(November 1983)

From Militant, No. 676, 18 November 1983, p. 8.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Police and Criminal Evidence Bill was debated in the House of Commons on 7 November at its second reading.

The Bill proposes drastic new laws covering the searching, arrest and detention of suspects. It removes many safeguards and tries to “solve” the enormous social problems in Britain by a greatly strengthened police force.

We print below the speech by Terry Fields, Labour MP for Liverpool Broadgreen which shows clearly why workers and socialists argue for accountability of the police in the community.

The speech infuriated certain members of the Conservative Party front and back benches. One Tory MP Tony Baldry, the MP for Banbury said he was tempted to invite Terry Fields to his constituency and pay his expenses so that the public could hear the real voice of the Labour Party!

Mr. Baldry, for once, is correct. This is the voice of the organised working class. The Labour Party should ensure that the arguments used by Terry Fields are given wide publicity in the campaign for the defeat of the Police Bill and for full accountability of the police.

THE discussion about accountability and lack of accountability is not new.

It has been going on throughout the history of the police force and the various vested interests which have been pulling law and order about during that period.

The police have not always been unaccountable to local pressures and local democracy. When the Metropolitan police and the police forces up and clown the country were created in 1829 they were under the control of watch committees made up of local councillors who fixed pay and conditions and looked after the everyday running of the police forces.

When the county councils were formed in 1880, they had standing joint committees – 50 per cent county councillors and 50 per cent local magistrates – with powers similar to watch committees and absolute control over the running of those police forces.

Chief constables made weekly reports to the county councils as a duty, but continuous pressure from government to establish greater central control, as today, was resisted by local interests.

During the 19th century the Home Secretary’s main role was the maintenance of adequate police forces and establishments. Perhaps that is what certain Home Secretaries should be confining themselves to in modern times.

The relationship at that time was not only a matter of convenience but a reflection of the balance of class forces in society and the political relations that flowed from them. At that time borough councils were dominated by industrialists and commercial capitalists who paid the police out of the rates and therefore legitimately insisted on democratic control over the police.

The industrial middle class was suspicious of government which it associated with extravagance and unnecessary expenditure – a crime of which it would not accuse the present government – and which it feared would interfere in its affairs on behalf of the aristocratic oligarchy which dominated government at the time.

The demand again was for local democracy and accountability. This was before the working class became an independent political force in society.

When the majority of the working class obtained the vote in 1918 – women obtained it in 1928 – there was a complete change of tune on the part of the ruling class of this country. It arose not out of a fear of the aristocrats, who had served their purpose and no longer posed a threat, but out of a fear of the growing strength of the Labour movement.

The myth of neutrality

At the end of the first world war Labour councillors were elected, and in some areas there were Labour-controlled local authorities. The attempt by the state to take control out of local hands and to centralise it was made even more urgent after the police strikes of 1918 and 1919, which were a reflection of what was taking place in society.

After the strikes, the Desborough report made recommendations for the overhaul of the structure of the police force. It made recommendations on appointments, promotions and discipline within police forces.

There was an attempt to take those responsibilities out of the hands of watch committees and to give them to chief constables to interpret, which was resisted in the House until 1964.

During that period, the powers of chief constables were strengthened and the element of democratic control through watch committees was strangled. The demand for democracy brought about a Royal Commission in 1960 which identified the main problem as the control of chief constables.

The Royal Commission’s idea of resolving the problem was to make chief constables more accountable to central Government and not to the watch committees made up of local people with an interest in their localities. Despite all that, the local authorities still had to pay 50 per cent of the cost.

At that time, we saw the establishment by chief constables of the principle that operational matters were beyond the purview and outside the scope of police committees. The new police committees that were set up were not even made up of local councils and councillors but were independent statutory bodies divorced from local councils and local affairs.

Chief constables have consistently resisted attempts at democratic control by local authorities and councillors. In so doing, they have suggested that such accountability would make them subject to political pressure and control.

In effect, they are perpetuating the myth – which is important for them to gain public acceptance of their role in the past – that the police are an arm of a neutral state, above politics and removed from the everyday events in society.

Let us look at the reality of that so-called neutrality, in the stormy events of the 1970s and since. We saw a new decade of crisis which brought real and significant changes in planning and the training of our police.

If we look at the events of 1971, with the government of the right hon. member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr Heath) and his Industrial Relations Act, we see that the police came into sharp conflict with the trade union movement.

That was brought to a sharp point in 1972 with the miners’ strike and the battles at Saltley gate where the police were defeated and forced to retreat by miners with the support of the trade union movement.

It is with no great pleasure that we talk about the defeat of a group of workers. We identify the police as workers, subject to the same economic pressures as any of us, our families and others in society. Such a defeat of workers gives us no pleasure.

More important, the defeat of the police and the Heath government was a crushing blow to the Tories. It demonstrated the weakness of the capitalist state when faced with an organised and mobilised labour movement.

It brought about an immediate review of security policies. We had the police on the streets to deal with insurrection, a national security committee was set up and in 1977 we saw riot shields on our streets for the first time.

To protect the working class? Certainly not. It was to protect Fascists in Lewisham. Anti-Fascist demonstrators were subjected to oppression by the police and there were deaths on the streets.

Also during that period, we saw the army supporting the police in their repressive attitudes towards the working class and the general public. Of course, not only the outlook of hard-line police chiefs is involved.

The events of the 1970s opened a new perspective to the ruling class. They saw that social peace and the post-war boom were over, and they saw the onset of crisis in our society, which is endemic in the system.

They foresaw a catastrophic decline in our economic base, the inevitable erosion of living standards of ordinary people, and a headlong clash with organised workers and the labour movement.

The fears of the ruling class

In August this year the Liverpool Echo carried an exclusive article revealing that the ruling class – people like Basil de Ferranti, Sir Hector Laing and the Duke of Kent – have regular meetings with the Duke of Edinburgh in Buckingham Palace.

They are worried about what is happening in the inner city areas such as Liverpool and they fear what will come about because of unemployment and social unrest. Those statements were made not by me but by the Liverpool Echo.

The article added that the police and the armed forces were prepared to go on to the streets when industrial or civil unrest took place. No attempt has been made to hide their views.

We must look at the myths and realities of the present situation. On one side we have the law and order lobby, the so-called supporters of peace and democracy, and on the other we have us scallywags on the Labour benches.

Any criticism of the excesses of police constables are attacked as an attempt to undermine the fight against crime. The previous Home Secretary told the Tory Party conference in 1977 that it was a Left-wing mythology that there was something despicable, almost immoral, in discussing the prevention of crime at all.

We are not opposed to the police taking action to catch criminals and to protect people’s safety and property. Working people are naturally worried about crime and increasing violence, but the Conservative benches and Tory Party spokesmen elevate moral issues and abstractions of law and legality and seek to turn attention away from the social roots of crime.

We are not just do-gooders. We live the experience of people in inner cities. We do not pass through in our cars occasionally and get lifted by the bobbies.

In an article, not written by a left-wing lunatic or a Marxist, the Boston police commissioner, Robert Di Grazia, said:

“We are not letting the public in on our era’s dirty little secret, that those who commit the crime that worries citizens most – violent street crime – are, for the most part, the products of poverty, unemployment, broken homes, rotten education, drug addiction and alcoholism, and other social ills about which the police can do little, if anything.”

The same applies in Britain. After the Brixton disturbances, the Prime Minister talked about the breakdown of respect for the law, and the erosion of moral values. She and her Government cannot accept that their economic policies have had a shattering effect especially on youths and have helped to create the conditions for conflict on the streets.

If there has been a breakdown of previously accepted social norms of behaviour and of traditional morality, the Government have failed to see that the terrible alienation of young people, created by the profit system, has been a powerful contributory factor.

We will not solve such problems by arming the police, or by providing them with riot gear, better water cannon, more CS gas and plastic bullets. I am supported in that proposition by ex-Chief Constable Alderson of Devon and Cornwall, who is perhaps persona non grata with some other chief constables. He said: “One thing is certain, it is no answer to resort to brute force to control people.”

He may be in the minority and considered to be a do-gooder or a liberal, but nevertheless his view is supported in our society. The emphasis should be on crime prevention, and unless the police have the confidence and support of the people whom they protect, there is no hope of fighting crime.

Recent events do not show that the public support the police massively. Some chief constables are coming to grips with the fact that society cannot put the emphasis on social welfare, and are preoccupied with the task of defending the status quo and of upholding authority, which they define as law and order.

They are not concerned with the protection of ordinary people from violent assault, burglaries and so on.

I emphasise the fact that it is not Labour members or people such as myself who make such statements. On the BBC Question Time programme on 16 October 1979 the following statement was made:

“I think that from the police point of view that my task in the future ... that basic crime as such – theft, burglary, even violent crime – will not be the predominant police feature.
“What will be the matter of greatest concern to me will be the covert and ultimately overt attempt to overthrow democracy, to subvert the authority of the state, and, in fact, to involve themselves in acts of sedition designed to destroy our parliamentary system and the democratic government in this country.”

Chief Constable Anderton of the Greater Manchester police force said that. That is the real role and perspective of some chief police officers. In reality, to the police sedition and subversion mean attempts by working people to use their democratic and trade union rights to defend themselves, their interests and the interests of those whom they represent.

Recently, chief constables have resorted to the blanket use under the Public Order Act 1936 of bans on demonstrations and general street activity by trade unionists and the Labour movement. They have done that on the pretext of attacking and banning fascist organisations that have come on to the streets.

But there are similar bans against democratic organisations of the Labour movement which have a far more serious effect on democracy. However, on several occasions we have seen enormous numbers of police officers being used to escort those Fascists, marching in small numbers through the streets. Again, that is done in the name of so-called democracy.

While chief constables and others pretend that everything is hunky dory and that we have no problems, the police are being tooled up and geared up to take on the working class in later events.

Recruits are advised to:

“Watch out for people who, although not dishonest in the ordinary sense, may, owing to extreme political views, intend to harm the community you have sworn to protect.”

The manual also states: “While there are subtle differences between these type of extremists and thieves, it is difficult to put one’s finger on the material distinction.” That is routine policy in some sections of the police.

Some time ago, while travelling from Preston to London, I overheard a conversation that perhaps I should not have heard between a cadet at Hendon police academy and one of his friends.

He informed his friend that during one of their lectures a police sergeant had told them that since the Americans had intervened in Afghanistan, the working class of Britain would be out demonstrating on the streets.

He said that the cadets were the protectors of law and order, that there would be battles on the streets, and that the police should prepare themselves for it. That is an example of the education in our police establishments, which is preparing the democratic police for events that will unfurl as time goes by.

Accountability and control will lead to the strengthening not the diminution of democracy in Britain.

The nature of society and the motives of the Tories and the ruling class are clearly characterised and put to the front in this Bill. The Bill contains draconian measures to stop, search and arrest; it provides for detention for four days without charge; it provides powers to search and fingerprint; and it provides for access to personal files.

The Labour movement does not condone violence, but it condemns the appalling counter-violence fostered by business interests through films, television and the media.

Nor does the movement, while understanding the causes for crime, support robbery as an individual way out of the problems that face workers. We have no sympathy with the vicious criminals who are as much a menace to the workers as are the big property owners, and whose activities provide the state with excuses for strengthening repressive powers.

However, the need to counter criminal activity does not give the guardians of law the right to act as though they were above that law. Fighting crime does not justify the harassment and ill-treatment of suspects, or the denial of legal defence or the fabrication of evidence against them.

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Last updated: 11 February 2017