Five years ago, when I was Shadow Secretary of State for Defence, I enrolled into the Armed Forces Parliamentary Scheme, spending some 30 days as a soldier. And a valuable insight into life in the Armed Forces it gave me, as I spent time in the trenches with the heroes and heroines who compose today’s Army. It has enabled me to speak on defence related matters with added credibility and commitment.
With Law and Order going up the political agenda, and much argument about how the country should be policed, I have now subscribed to a sister project – the Police Parliamentary Scheme. I am grateful to Hampshire’s Chief Constable, Paul Kernaghan, and to Inspector Laurie Rickwood for putting together an instructive programme, embracing Cowes Week, a Southampton home game, and, less glamorously, a substantial amount of time on the beat, in Inner City Southampton.
My conclusions must await the completion of the scheme, which I am about halfway through. But the programme has already had its moments of drama and humour.
I spent a morning at the Firearms Unit at Netley, where Police Officers are trained to carry firearms. They are confronted with a number of challenging scenarios and their reactions to them are carefully monitored. I was handed a rifle which was wired to a computer, asked to watch the video and aim the rifle at the suspect; and invited to squeeze the trigger if and when the appropriate moment presented itself.
My mission was to rescue a child who had been kidnapped by a man who had taken the child to a shopping centre. I was told that he had a gun in his belt and given a description of his clothes. The video started and it all happened frigthfully quickly.
I was shot no less than three times by the kidnapper before I fired back, hitting, as the computer tactlessly revealed, some cereals in a passerby’s trolley. Shoot too soon, and there is an inquiry and a possible prison sentence. Shoot too late and you’re dead. I left, full of admiration for those who go on the course, pass it and then have to handle these critical incidents.
I have also been on the beat in the small hours of the morning with the Licensing Unit in Southampton. We called on a large number of nightclubs, checked that the CCTV’s were working, and that the bouncers were accredited and had signed the register. We went into one popular nightclub where there was a large hen party. Seeing the two uniformed officers, a cheer went up. “Hoorah, the strippers have arrived…”