Michael Brown: Where are parliament or our politicians in this crisis of confidence in the police?

The truth is that Parliament has had no say in the methods employed by police forces
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The Independent Online

Something tells me that most of our politicians have seriously underestimated the growing public anger at the recent behaviour of the Metropolitan Police and its Commissioner. It may simply be that the foreign holiday sun-lounger has spared them from reading the domestic media coverage surrounding the killing of the Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes. But, even when they return, I suspect most will run for cover into the long grass conveniently provided by the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

There have been no opinion polls so far, but a hunch suggests to me that there is more than an underlying disquiet about the current methods and attitudes of our police forces. Politicians probably assume that, seen through their own prism of public opinion, terrorist attacks justify whatever actions the police deem necessary. I am not so sure.

Already there are signs that fewer of us are confident that police methods will beat terrorism. Indeed, there is an air of public resignation that no amount of reduction in our civil liberties will make a blind bit of difference in apprehending terrorists. If there is public sympathy for the police, it is more likely to be for their difficulties in accurately anticipating terrorist attacks than it is for their mistakes in killing innocent people.

Until the events in London last month, I still lived under the vague impression that we had an unarmed police. The notion that there has been, for some time, a "shoot to kill" policy was news to me. Now it may be that I have been singularly bad at keeping abreast of current affairs. True, I am no longer an elected representative but even as an observer from the sidelines I think I would have been vaguely aware if there had been any recent parliamentary debates relating to new legislation altering policing operations.

And it was surely news to most MPs that "shoot to kill" was a parliamentary approved policy. I doubt that a single one of them can recollect a day when they debated, voted and approved any such change in legislation. "By what authority and under what statute does the Metropolitan Police Commissioner allow his officers to carry and use firearms?" is an obvious parliamentary question no one seems to have asked.

The truth is that Parliament has had no say or debate in the methods employed by police forces in the conduct of their business. These are quaintly described by Charles Clarke as "operational matters" for the Commissioner and his fellow chief constables. But there is no way Parliament should allow either the arming of police or the "shoot to kill" policy to be delegated to unelected police chiefs.

Walking regularly in and out of the Palace of Westminster, I am of course aware of a heavy police presence - complete with rifles and other security paraphernalia. Parliament, as a royal palace, is able to exempt itself at random from many of the laws it passes. For years, it was not even subject to the licensing laws or health and safety legislation. So we do not particularly raise an eyebrow at any new arbitrary arrangements relating to that building's security. Yet so conditioned have our legislators become to their own day to day security imperatives that they have failed to understand how dramatically changed policing arrangements have become for the rest of us.

Politicians and police authorities used to speak of the need to police by consent. When Robert Peel originally created the police in the middle of the 19th century, they were supposed to be civilians, in uniform, patrolling our streets with the aim of protecting the citizen from criminals. If a crime was committed - or about to be committed - powers were given, by authority of Parliament, to apprehend and detain the offender until tried by his peers.

Never, though, was it the original intention that the police should be seen as enforcers of the state. Such behaviour was seen to be the preserve of foreign dictatorships. Somehow, with no parliamentary approval, the policeman has been turned from protector of the citizen into the enforcer of the state at the expense of the law-abiding citizen.

At the start of Tony Blair's extended holiday, there was much talk about the need for Parliament to be recalled. To be fair, an early recall of Parliament to pass yet more draconian laws is not justified. Mr Blair, who broke cover in Barbados at the weekend to attend a public ceremony for Barbadian war veterans, is entitled to continue his break - the location of which we are now officially permitted to reveal. So much for Downing Street's bizarre concerns for his safety, should he be sighted. His feverish weekend support for Sir Ian Blair from his Caribbean sun-lounger suggests that even he may be getting wind of an imminent public and media backlash against indiscriminate repression.

But where is the urgent clamour for Parliament to discuss the de Menezes affair? So far, most opposition official party spokesmen - including the Liberal Democrats - are content to hide behind the Independent Police Complaints Commission.

Full marks, therefore, to Ann Cryer, a newly appointed Labour member of the Home Affairs Select Committee, for the courage to speak out and for saying publicly what many of us - including Tories - are thinking. Mrs Cryer is right to say that an independent commission, recruited from the usual suspects of the establishment quangocracy is no substitute for proper, old-fashioned, parliamentary accountability.

Part of this failure of Parliament to represent the public concern stems from the desire to achieve "unity" and "consensus" in the wake of the original terrorist attacks. Nothing apparently makes the public despair of politicians more than petty quarrelling and point scoring.

But nothing makes my heart sink more than, after some gruesome terrorist outrage, when Parliament sinks into the unanimous, sloppy, "shoulder to shoulder" platitudes which then seduce opposition spokesmen into standing po-faced, in front of the cameras, outside Downing Street scared to disagree with whatever knee-jerk response has been cooked up inside.

There was much to commend Michael Foot's decision, during the Falklands War in 1982, to refuse to be drawn into off-the-record, "Privy Council terms", briefings that would have compromised his legitimate right to ask searching questions.

In the past, the Metropolitan Commissioner was directly responsible to the home secretary who, in turn, had to answer directly to Parliament for the Met's inadequacies. Willie Whitelaw even felt obliged to offer his own resignation as home secretary when an intruder ended up in the Queen's bedroom at Buckingham Palace. Though Whitelaw's resignation was refused, there was then a real sense of direct parliamentary accountability.