HC Deb 05 March 1991 vol 187 cc258-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

11.42 pm
Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)

I welcome this opportunity to discuss crime prevention in Norwich, and I am grateful to the Minister of State, Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), for being present at this late hour to reply to the Adjournment debate.

I was in touch recently with the crime prevention panel in Norwich and with the chief constable of Norfolk to ensure that my remarks are completely up to date.

The fight against crime in any part of the country is an on-going struggle. It involves the public just as much as it involves the Government, Parliament, the police and the courts. We all agree on the need to deter potential criminals, on the duty of catching those responsible for crime and on the need for appropriate punishment. There is a continuing debate in Norwich about how to achieve those objectives.

The 1989–90 crime statistics for the county of Norfolk reveal a worrying upward trend. There are particularly marked increases in the figures for burglaries from dwellings which are up 29.5 per cent. Thefts from motor vehicles are up 45 per cent. and criminal damage is up 41 per cent. By contrast, crimes of violence are stabilising and were up only 3 per cent. over that period. Crime statistics in Norfolk show a deterioration in the record. In 1980, the figure was only 35.3 recorded crimes per 1,000 population, but in 1990 it was 71.7. The average national annual increase in the crime rate in the 1980s was 5.2 per cent., but in Norfolk it was higher than that average at 8 per cent.

Norfolk is steadily falling down in the league table of crime. I am informed that Norfolk is the second lowest funded of all the 31 non-metropolitan forces in terms of gross revenue expenditure and lowest of all in terms of capital expenditure per 1,000 population. My right hon. Friend may wish to comment on those facts later.

There is great pressure on uniformed police officers and on the CID in Norfolk. My attention was drawn yesterday to an article in the Eastern Daily Press by Canon David Sharpe of St. Peter Mancroft church in the centre of Norwich. He referred to the increasing problem of vandalism. Almost two dozen insurance claims have been made by his church in the past two years, and in the past fortnight his stained glass windows have been damaged on three occasions at a cost of more than £1,000. It is no wonder that he is worried.

I am aware that the Government have responded positively to calls from Norfolk for extra resources to fight crime. An additional 155 police posts have been authorised since 1979 and 67 police officers have been released through civilianisation since then. An extra 12 police posts were authorised last December, with effect from 1 October 1991. However, the rise in police manpower is significantly less than that sought by the police authority in Norfolk. Only 102 of 188 posts sought since 1988 have been granted and I gather that the decision on 25 additional officers requested for 1992–93 may still be some way off.

I ask my right hon. Friend whether his Department realises that the special needs for policing of the rural areas are greater than is recognised when compared with the metropolitan areas. From my studies, it seems that the metropolitan areas are treated more generously in terms of the number of police officers. That case is put to me regularly and I should be grateful if my right hon. Friend could respond to that point.

There has been a concerted effort to win the support of the Norwich public through the establishment of the Norwich Crime Stoppers in 1987. Crime Stoppers began in 1983 in Great Yarmouth and since then it has been a great success. It offers direct telephone access to Norwich CID for members of the public with information on serious crimes. Callers are able to remain anonymous and they are given a code number. If a criminal is convicted by the courts on their information, they become eligible for a reward. The success of the Crime Stoppers scheme is clear from the figures. In 1987–89, 145 serious crimes were publicised in local newspapers. Some 191 calls from informants were received by Norwich CID and 35 arrests were made. Attacks on six elderly ladies, a bank robbery, cases of robberies from business premises and arson and burglary at a Norwich school, advertised through Crime Stoppers, have all recently ended in arrests.

The value of the scheme is clear but, unfortunately, the flow of donations from local businesses is drying up. I am not sure whether more direct Home Office support is available to Crime Stoppers campaigns. Again, I am thinking of the metropolitan areas and of London, where such support is forthcoming. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this excellent scheme needs support not only from the local community, but perhaps from the Government? There is no doubt of the success of the Crime Stoppers campaign in crime prevention and detection in Norwich.

Better intelligence on crime and detection are only part of the struggle. There is considerable concern in Norwich about the lack of secure facilities for young offenders, about the policies of the courts on bailing accused persons and the apparently lax punishment of those convicted.

My right hon. Friend may know of criticisms of the social services department of Norfolk county council expressed by the senior Crown prosecutor, Mr. Nicholas Methold, at Yarmouth magistrates court last August about the department's failure to provide secure accommodation for two juveniles remanded to the council's care. The county's social services department had to telephone other authorities across the country to find places for the boys, but that problem is likely to end when the secure accommodation unit at Kerrison school in Eye, Suffolk, opens next October. But that unit has only 10 beds to serve the whole of Norfolk, Suffolk and Cambridgeshire, so I hope to hear soon from the authorities that an expansion to a total of 30 beds will follow rapidly.

I realise that the absence of suitable secure accommodation is a partial explanation for the bailing practices of the courts. I appreciate that, under the provisions of the Bail Act 1976, a decision on the release of accused persons is a matter for the courts alone. Presumption in favour of bail, unless there are reasons to fear absconding, interference with witnesses or further crimes, is right. However, my doubts are raised by the current position in Norfolk where four people accused of murder, two of attempted murder and one of armed robbery of a bank are currently on bail. By any standards, those are serious and violent crimes, and there need to be good reasons to justify bail in those cases.

There is also concern about some of the courts' sentencing policies. It is sensible for those guilty of minor crimes against property and, in some cases, against persons to be kept out of gaol. I welcome the Government's recent initiatives ensuring that mentally ill people are not unnecessarily kept in prison. I think that it is true—my right hon. Friend can correct me if I am wrong—that one fifth of sentenced prisoners are, at present, mentally ill. I am sure that it it right to try to reduce the numbers of some categories of prisoners. But in more serious cases, criminals should go to prison, where they can be contained and the public protected.

Without the intervention of the Court of Appeal in January, brothers who lured pizza delivery boys into traps for the purpose of robbing them would have escaped with a suspended prison sentence of 21 months and community service of 180 hours but now, as a result of the appeal, they are doing three years in gaol and 18 months in a young offenders institution.

Serious questions are being asked about these matters, and serious questions have to be asked about the supervision that probation officers can give to offenders under community service orders. Doubts about the value of community service were expressed by a former senior probation officer, Peter Coad, in the February edition of the police magazine. Those doubts are shared by some police officers in Norwich and by the crime prevention panel chairman, Mr. Norman Potter.

It is all too easy for persistent minor offenders to regard community service as an easy alternative to prison and to fund payment of fines through further criminal activities. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will in the near future be willing to meet representatives of the organisations interested in crime prevention and detection in Norwich to discuss the issues further.

For the reasons I have explained, there is a need in Norwich to enlarge support for the Crime Stoppers scheme, increase the numbers of police in Norwich and the more vulnerable rural districts, ensure that courts are more careful in their operation of bailing procedures and send those convicted of serious crimes to prison to protect the public. I support the general Home Office policy of reducing the overall number of prisoners. But I have made clear where the problems are arising, and I have outlined the points raised by my constituents and others in Norwich.

I have drawn my right hon. Friend's attention to some of the issues of concern among responsible people in Norwich. I hope that he will respond positively, bearing in mind the commitment of all those involved in the local community and the police force.

11.53 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) on taking this opportunity to raise the issue of crime prevention, particularly in Norwich. It is good to see the debate so well supported in the House tonight. I am particularly pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Norris), the chairman of Crime Concern Trust, is present to show, not only his interest as a Member of Parliament, but the interest of that important voluntary organisation in trying to promote crime prevention.

My hon. Friend's speech was very eloquent, but very sad. I have visited Norwich on a number of occasions, and I have to say that it is a very beautiful city. To hear of St. Peter Mancroft church—that great medieval edifice in the centre of the city—being vandalised, and some pieces of historic glass attacked, fills me with sadness. But I am saddened not just by the damage to the historic fabric of that church but also by the damage that must have been done by the young criminals—I guess that they were young —who indulged in the vandalism. We have to do more to encourage such people to grow straight rather than crooked, and they must be punished when they are caught —and I am sure that the Norfolk police are trying to catch them.

Of course I shall meet my hon. Friend and any representatives from Norfolk that he wants to bring to talk about crime prevention. My door in the Home Office is always open. I shall do my best to meet people's concerns. For the purposes of the reply to my hon. Friend, may I say that much of the Home Office has been turned over this week to looking at what goes on in Norwich. In crime prevention, many good things are happening in the city.

Norfolk is a predominantly rural county. It is not comparable with the large conurbations, and it certainly does not have the same priorities and problems as the inner city areas. I realise that in rural areas distance is a problem. Some villages suffer from isolation. On the other hand, many towns, such as Great Yarmouth, with a lively night life experience trouble. I am certainly not saying that the county is an ocean of peace and quiet. However, Norwich has a great deal going for it in the development of safer communities. That is because in recent years people in Norwich have not turned a blind eye to what they can do to work with the police towards the prevention of crime. I pay tribute to them for that. The city is to be congratulated on what it has done in this respect—far more than many other provincial towns and cities. That co-operation is critically important.

I should like to describe some of the ways in which the police are working on crime prevention in Norwich and the rest of the county of Norfolk. First, let me give some details of the size of the force. I can confirm that the authorised establishment of officers in the Norfolk constabulary is 1,408—an increase of 143 on the 1979 figure. An additional 12 police officer posts have been approved, with effect from 1 October 1991, making a total of 1,420. But raw figures do not tell the whole story. Training and specialism are very important. More than 200 uniformed and CID officers in the county are trained in crime prevention techniques. More than 270 officers throughout the county, including Norwich, are designated as schools liaison officers to carry out programmes in primary schools. It is very good to have that intensity of police presence in schools. Let us face it: in my hon. Friend's constituency, like mine, teachers, doctors, health workers and vicars together could probably identify most of the potential criminals when those people are between the ages of four and seven. In this regard, the Norfolk police are on to a very good thing.

The police plan and organise a number of activity schemes in Norwich during the school summer holidays, under the banner of SPLASH—schools and police liaison activities for summer holidays. Last year, 700 youngsters in the 11 to 15 age group took up places on this scheme —a take-up rate of 96 per cent. What a popular and successful scheme it has been. It has taken children, some of whom may be at risk of offending, off street corners, out of pubs, and out of areas where they might get into trouble, and has put them to useful activities. That is very constructive policing, and we want to see more of it in the country. Staffordshire has it, Humberside has it, Avon has it and Norfolk has it. I should like to see every county force in the country model its programme on the successful summer diversionary schemes. That is the kind of preventive activity that stops children getting into offending habits at an early age. Plans are being made to rerun the scheme this summer on an even bigger scale. I hope that my hon. Friend will do all that he can to encourage local people in that endeavour.

The police have also established a new schools liaison scheme in Norwich and elsewhere for primary schools. Those schemes and activities help to reduce crime in the target age groups. They also play a vital part in promoting understanding and better relations between the police and young people. I wish the police in Norwich every future success with them.

There is another advantage of the summer schemes: neither my hon. Friend nor I want the pressure to be taken off parents to face up to their own responsibilities. The Criminal Justice Bill, now in another place, puts emphasis on parental responsibility.

I said at the beginning of my remarks that we need to promote the safest possible community in Norwich. My hon. Friend, as an active and persuasive constituency Member, has taken a leading part in that respect in recent years. Perhaps it is partly due to his endeavours that we have seen an explosive growth recently in neighbourhood watch in Norwich. From inquiries I have made in the Home Office this week, I find that in the Norwich police division there are now nearly 400 homewatch schemes. Local schemes are increasing at the rate of two per week. That is remarkable. Of course, neighbourhood watch and homewatch are being promoted very much by Crime Concern, which acts as a liaison and link organisation for neighbourhood watch across the country.

I am also very pleased that the probation service is taking a tough attitude with young offenders. It is getting some of them on to the streets to put up neighbourhood watch signs. That is visible evidence of community service. My hon. Friend wondered whether community service was a tough enough penalty. It can be tough going out to do manual labour. It demonstrates to the community that young offenders are putting something back by putting up these signs.

Much crime prevention work involving other agencies is being done in Norwich. I pay tribute to the local crime prevention panel, a great organisation. I think that it is one of the most active in the south of England. I will be happy to see its representatives when my hon. Friend leads a delegation to see me.

The crime prevention panel has set up a pub watch and night club liaison scheme to try to deal with the problems of getting young people who have had a good evening away from the streets outside night clubs. Very often that is when trouble happens, when they are waiting for public transport.

The panel has also worked hard to set up the Crime Stoppers initiative, the confidential telephone line which has been successful in Norwich and also in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Carttiss). The scheme has been funded not from public resources but from resources raised by a charity and from local sources. That is the way in which we should like to see it continue to develop.

Something which has also concerned people in Norwich, as in other parts of the country, is burglary. My hon. Friend quoted burglary statistics. Last year, Norfolk police, with the co-operation of local authority departments and other agencies, organised an anti-burglary campaign throughout Norwich and the county. What happened? There were different laudable initiatives. Property-marking kits were made available in libraries in the county. Housing departments issued leaflets on door security to sheltered homes. The social services department also arranged for home care assistants to distribute them. The planning department issued good advice to would-be developers about how to make their property more secure. Finally, the Association of British Insurers lent a hand by distributing large numbers of leaflets on home security, free of charge, I believe. It is always good to get such help from business. Those are good examples of co-operation between the public and private sectors.

Before I turn to the more difficult area of the bad news, one final bit of good news about Norwich relates to crime prevention week in April. I should like to report what will happen in the Norwich area so that my hon. Friend can make his constituents better aware. Norwich will be playing a full part in crime prevention week—the first ever in this country. Up and down the land, in places as far apart as Dawlish in the south—west to Derby in the east midlands, people will be playing an active part in promoting crime prevention week. In common with the rest of the country, car crime is a major concern in Norwich. In the six weeks leading up to crime prevention week, a car alarm discount scheme, involving many local companies, has been arranged. I advise people who can afford it and who wish to have that equipment fitted to their cars to do so. I know that this has always been of great concern to my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest.

In conjunction with the probation service and young offenders on community service, the police in Norwich have also arranged a cycle coding scheme in local schools. In other words, local offenders on community service will go out to schools where the fact that they are offenders will be known and where they will code the bicycles. They will have to do that work themselves. They will be undertaking preventive work while undergoing punishment in the community. That is an important way of driving home to them the fact that they have offended, of making them face up to the consequences of their offending behaviour, and of doing some good in the community. That is the right way to proceed.

The Wednesday of crime prevention week will be a training day for shop staff on the subject of shop theft and credit card fraud, which is a major problem. Friday will be a "stay safe" day concentrating on homewatch schemes and road and home safety in Norwich. Once the Home Office began to look, we found an enormous amount going on in Norwich, which is commendable, and certainly much more than in many other areas.

I doubt whether I shall be able to deal tonight with all my hon. Friend's points about the criminal justice system, but I guess that I shall get the chance to discuss them at greater length when he and his friends and colleagues from Norwich and the Norfolk area come to see me in the Home Office.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to sentencing, in which the Government's role is to provide an adequate framework of powers within which the courts may act. My hon. Friend is probably aware of the fundamental and significant changes made in the Criminal Justice Act 1988 which allow my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to refer to the Court of Appeal sentences that are allegedly over-lenient. If my hon. Friend's constituents say to him, "It is a disgrace; that person should have got more"—that may be right or it may be wrong—he can tell them that we have armed the Attorney-General with the power to go back to the Court of Appeal. He has done so on 25 occasions, on 22 of which the Court of Appeal increased the sentence. That should be of some recompense to those people who have suffered from injury or loss, and is important for public confidence.

There is also the issue of bail. I cannot and must not attempt to comment even in broad categorisations on the particular cases that my hon. Friend raised. Suffice it to say two things: we regard the Bail Act 1976 as finely balanced between making sure that no one who has not been convicted is denied his or her liberty before trial unless that is really necessary. Let us imagine how any of us would feel if we were denied our liberty when innocent and were on remand for a long time. On the other hand, we are also convinced that the Bail Act gets the balance right in the other way, in ensuring that those people who are a danger, or a potential danger, to the community are remanded in custody.

I have heard the sort of complaints made by my hon. Friend about this issue consistently since I went to the Home Office in 1987 and that is why, during the passage of the Criminal Justice Act 1988, I took the opportunity to suggest to the House, and the House agreed, that we should toughen up some aspects of the working of bail by requiring learned judges who give bail in the face of police advice to the contrary to give their reasons for so doing in open court. That is an important safeguard.

It is also important that we advise ourselves of the full facts of each case. I am not one of those who criticise the media easily, but it is important that the local or national media should report the full facts when someone is bailed. Sometimes, on examination, they are less serious than one might have thought.

Bail decisions are often the most difficult that magistrates and Crown court judges have to take, and I accept that there is a legitimate public concern from time to time when people are granted bail, particularly when serious offences are involved such as those referred to by my hon. Friend. But it is for exactly that reason that the House decided that section 153 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 should stand.

Whether penalties in the community are tough enough is a matter for sentencers, the probation service and those who work with it. It is for them to deliver that tough caring authority that is necessary not just to punish people but to make them face up to the effects of their offending behaviour.

A number of points have been left unanswered by me because of lack of time. I look forward to discussing them further with my hon. Friend when he comes to see me in the Home Office. I congratulate him warmly on initiating this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes past Twelve o'clock.