HC Deb 27 October 1997 vol 299 cc563-5
1. Mr. Healey

What plans he has to increase the presence of community constables on the streets; and if he will make a statement. [11655]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

It is for individual chief constables and police authorities to determine the level of police presence on the streets in their area. The Government are working with the police to relieve them of unnecessary bureaucratic burdens, to allow chief constables to put more officers back on the beat. In the crime and disorder Bill, we shall give the police new powers to enable them to deal with street disorder.

Mr. Healey

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but does he agree that beat bobbies are often a unique source of local intelligence and play a special part in practical, preventive policing? Does he further agree that, although they are very highly valued by the people they serve, they are sometimes not as highly valued by the forces that employ them? What specific steps does he plan to reinforce the role of community police officers?

Mr. Straw

I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says. His point about the value of police officers on the beat was emphasised by the Audit Commission's report last year and, indeed, by evidence from the Police Federation. We are making quite clear to all police authorities and chief constables the emphasis that we place on the importance of community police officers, and in the crime and disorder Bill we shall give police and local authorities greater powers to deal with disorder generally.

Mrs. Laing

Will the Secretary of State join me in expressing the grief and sorrow of the House at the tragic death of young WPC Nina Mackay, who lived in my constituency, and in sending her family the condolences of all hon. Members? Is the Secretary of State aware that the person charged with her murder was, at the time of the murder, out on bail? Given those circumstances, will he order a review of the conditions on which bail is granted by magistrates courts?

Mr. Straw

I will indeed join the hon. Lady, who speaks for the whole House, in expressing our total revulsion at that vile crime against an unarmed WPC, Nina Mackay, who lived in the hon. Lady's constituency, my home town. That makes it all the more poignant for me. Of course I join the hon. Lady in that. The whole country is revolted by this crime against her family and against her whole community.

The hon. Lady asked whether I will look at the availability of bail conditions to magistrates courts. I understand her point, but she will appreciate that, since a number of judicial and semi-judicial inquiries have to take place, it would not be appropriate for me to comment on that until those have been completed; when they are, I shall certainly bear very thoroughly in mind the points that she made.

Mr. Sheerman

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we could transform the situation in the community if we made better use of the special constable? Is it not about time that we took special constables seriously, and paid them a proper amount to do the valuable job that they do in helping the community? Will my right hon. Friend note the experiment which has been such a success in my constituency in improving law keeping on the inner-urban estates?

Mr. Straw

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of special constables. I know that his view is shared throughout the House. It is an open question whether paying special constables would increase their number or availability, but of course we keep the matter under review.

Mr. Maginnis

May I, on behalf of my party, associate myself with what has been said about the death of the young police constable? We are fully aware of the dangers that our police face in carrying out their duties.

Is the Home Secretary not placing community constables at a disadvantage by expecting retailers—those who sell on the streets—to police the behaviour of young people, especially in connection with the sale of alcohol and cigarettes? Is it not time that he gave those retailers some statutory authority, for instance, by introducing identity cards, so that the community constable does not find himself at loggerheads with the retailer whom he is policing, unnecessarily and—it often seems to the retailer—unfairly?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question. No one knows better than someone who represents the north of Ireland the enormous danger in which police officers can be placed daily.

As for the hon. Gentleman's second point, we accept that retailers experience a severe problem when trying to check the ages of people attempting to buy drink or cigarettes. That is one of the reasons why we are supporting the proposals of the Portman Group, which wants "proof of age" cards to be introduced.