HC Deb 20 November 2000 vol 357 cc7-9
3. Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

What recent discussions he has had with chief constables concerning greater protection for elderly people against attacks; and if he will make a statement. [137446]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I have regular discussions with chief constables on all aspects of crime. We are working with the police and other agencies to reduce all violent crime, including the despicable offence of attacks on the elderly. We have provided up to £12 million for locks for pensioners—part of a two-year scheme that will allow low-income pensioners to be provided with proper locks for their homes. We are also taking action against the despicable crime of distraction burglary, when bogus callers deceive the vulnerable and elderly to gain entry to their homes. At present, 21 projects are working across the country to support older residents within their communities.

Mr. O'Brien

I thank my hon. Friend for his response. Does he share my concern about the number of elderly and disabled people who are attacked in their own homes with a view to robbery, and agree that we must do more to help these unfortunate people? In the areas which have police and public partnerships, because there is no significant increase in the number of attacks on old people, this is not regarded as an emergency cause. That must be reviewed, because one old or disabled person who is attacked at home merits further investigation. Will my hon. Friend assure me that his Department will review the situation to protect our old people, particularly in their own homes?

Mr. Clarke

I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The most serious crime in this regard is often called distraction burglary, and 16,500 cases of that were reported last year. In those cases, old people often let into their homes strangers who purport to be from the utilities, local government or other agencies. A taskforce was set up a year ago to work with local authorities and utility companies—gas, water and electricity—to target this appalling crime, which hits the most vulnerable and oldest. I can give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

How many attacks on the elderly have been perpetrated by convicted criminals who are on early release under the Government's scheme?

Mr. Clarke

I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any figures, but can say that more prisoners were released under the previous Government, whom he supported.

Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney)

Does my hon. Friend agree that when elderly people are attacked, the work done by Victim Support is vital? The victim's charter contains an obligation to make victim support available for those who require it, and there is a growing expectation that local victim support organisations will be involved in partnerships. Given those facts, is my hon. Friend willing to reconsider core funding for local groups? 1 know that the Government have made more money available for development work, but some groups are running on a shoestring.

Mr. Clarke

I entirely commend the excellent work of Victim Support and other organisations. We have increased funding significantly and are currently reviewing ways to extend our support to a wide range of different victim organisations. Indeed, we intend that support for victims should be a much more central part of the criminal justice system, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has announced measures whereby the views of victims can be taken much more fully into account by the criminal justice system. Victims of crime are the greatest sufferers from the malfunctions of our current system, and they deserve and need more support. We are reviewing funding in the way my hon. Friend suggested.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Does the Minister agree that the greatest reassurance for elderly people would come from an increase in the number of officers on the streets? The New Forest area, which has a high proportion of elderly people living in it, has suffered a reduction of 60 officers over the past four years, despite the fact that Hampshire police underspent their recruitment budget last year because insufficient officers of the proper quality could be found. When will the Minister do something about police morale so that we can recruit the officers we require?

Mr. Clarke

The hon. Gentleman's force, Hampshire, predicts an increase in numbers that will meet the points that he has made. I must emphasise that for old people and others the question of local police presence—bobbies on the beat—relies both on police numbers and on how officers are deployed and the leadership shown in using them. I have seen a variety of projects—I am sure that there are some in Hampshire, and perhaps in New Forest, West—which suggest that using police well and targeting their deployment makes it possible to offer the kind of reassurance that the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights. That target is at least as important as that of increasing police numbers, to which we have referred many times before.