HC Deb 08 March 2002 vol 381 cc533-609

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.33 am
The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham)

I am very pleased to introduce this Adjournment debate on policing, which replaces the traditional annual debate on policing in London, the last of which took place in June 2000. It is right that the debate should now take a different format, because the creation of the Metropolitan police authority has brought the management and accountability of the Metropolitan police service very much into line with the rest of the police service in England and Wales. Indeed, I hope that this will be—subject to the usual channels—the first of an annual series of debates on policing in England and Wales.

As the House will know, it is our intention to develop an annual national policing plan, proposals for which are in the Police Reform Bill currently under discussion in another place. We hope that the plan—developed in partnership with a wide range of policing interests, including the representatives of victims and other organisations, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities—will provide the basis for future annual debates in Parliament, enabling the House not only to have a debate on a motion for the Adjournment but to discuss policing priorities, policing performance, and the strategic direction of policing in England and Wales against the background of a clear statement of Government policing priorities.

Much has happened since the last debate on policing. In an extraordinarily wide range of ways, the people of this country have had good reason to be grateful to the police service, its officers and its support staff. Just over a year ago, the Selby rail disaster reminded us of the vital role that the police and other services play in responding to civil emergencies. Over the summer, the disturbances in towns such as Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, saw the police forced to confront inexcusable violence and aggression. I know that, at the time, hon. Members on both sides of the House welcomed the firm and decisive support that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave to the police, who were in the front line.

The 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States brought new pressures and challenges to the police service, in reassuring the public as well as stepping up the fight against international terrorism in the UK. One of the most impressive, if little remarked on, events of the late summer was the way in which Londoners—perhaps those working in Canary Wharf, in particular—came to work on 12 September. That was a tribute to Londoners, but we should also acknowledge the importance of the rapid response of the Metropolitan police service and of the City of London police in putting large numbers of officers on the street in a very visible way to reassure the public and to get life back to normal.

The role of the police service did not end there. In the wake of the anthrax attacks in the USA, our police service had to respond to malicious hoaxes and legitimate fears. That work, which involved a rapid expansion of the police's ability to respond, meant that the disruption to business and personal post was very limited, despite the number of suspect packages identified over subsequent weeks. The police service has, therefore, faced many new challenges over the past year, and it has responded extremely well to them.

The British crime survey figures published in October 2001 confirmed the success of the police—with their partners in local and central Government, the voluntary sector and the business community—in bringing down crime rates over recent years. According to the survey, crime in the previous year fell by 12 per cent., and the chance of being a victim of crime in 2000 was the lowest since the survey began nearly 20 years ago. Across the survey, violent crime fell by 19 per cent., and, since 1997, crime fell overall by 21 per cent.

The House will want to acknowledge the vital contribution of the police service to those achievements and to recognise the importance of its work with other agencies in local crime and disorder reduction partnerships—set up by this Government—and initiatives such as the investment of several hundred million pounds in crime reduction, which has involved the largest ever closed circuit television programme and the introduction of neighbourhood and street wardens.

The background to this debate is, therefore, that a great deal that has been achieved. We were able to mark that in a small way by awarding the golden jubilee medal to experienced members of the police service. This is certainly no time for complacency or self-congratulation, however, because our society and our police service face major challenges. Although crime as a whole has fallen, some crimes—street robbery, in particular—have undoubtedly risen, sharply in some areas, over the past year. We must support the police in their efforts to tackle this problem.

As hon. Members will know, the Metropolitan police service has moved substantial resources into tackling street robbery through the safer streets initiative, which began on 4 February. I am told that in the period up to 28 February there were 485 arrests for robbery and more than 7,500 arrests for other offences in the nine target London boroughs. I understand that allegations in those nine boroughs have fallen by nearly a quarter, and that by the end of the third week of the operation, four of the boroughs had reduced street crime to below last year's level. We should acknowledge the Metropolitan police's substantial commitment and the real achievement of its officers over the last few weeks.

That underlines an important point. Effective policing can make a real difference. We want the Home Office and the police standards unit to work with other major metropolitan forces to identify and implement the most effective ways of tackling street robbery.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great concern in London about the rising tide of gun crime related to crack cocaine? That is a particular concern to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). Is he aware that the Metropolitan police would ask the Government to consider two specific actions: first, the introduction of legislation to ban imitation firearms; and, secondly, raising substantially the minimum sentence for being found in possession of a firearm to five years?

Mr. Denham

I am aware of my hon. Friend's close interest in this matter. She secured an Adjournment debate on the issue at the end of last week, to which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) replied. We keep all these matters under consideration. We recently received the report of the firearms consultative committee, which looked at the issue of imitation weapons. We are considering our response. I shall make some brief remarks about the crack cocaine and gun crime problem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns.

Communities in several of our major cities have witnessed new levels of gun and drug-related crime. Some sections of the media tend to focus on the black participants in some of this crime, but we must never forget that black communities are the prime victims of the crime and that they deserve our response. Police forces have responded by setting up specific operations to target the criminals, such as Trident in London, and are having success. However, more is needed, which is why our law enforcement agencies, through the concerted inter-agency drugs action group, are working together in this country and with authorities overseas in countries such as Jamaica to stem the flow of cocaine into the UK and to identify the gunmen. That is a real challenge and priority for us. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will speak later in the debate on this matter.

It is important that we work to ensure that the police are supported. We are working to tackle the problem of offending on bail. Hon. Members will be aware of our plans to extend the tagging of juvenile offenders. Through an initiative in London covering 10 boroughs, we are working on identifying those young people at risk of being drawn into street crime at an early age and taking measures to prevent them from becoming involved in serious crime.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

The Minister mentions young people and the stage at which they become involved in more serious crime. Will he comment on the statement made this week by the Metropolitan police commissioner, who feels that his officers are doing their best to bring alleged perpetrators of crime to justice, but that the system is not following that through? The perpetrators are released, to their glee and amusement, back on to the streets of London to commit further crimes. Rather than understanding and helping, the justice system is, in the eyes of the police and my constituents, exacerbating the problem. The Minister's words of support are welcome, but does he feel that the rest of the system joins him in that?

Mr. Denham

All elements of the system recognise the need to take action to make sure that we do not generate a sense of invulnerability among young people—to paraphrase the hon. Gentleman—whereby they feel that they can offend, be arrested and avoid action being taken against them. That is one of the reasons why this Government have halved the length of time that it takes to bring young offenders before a court. Labour Members will remember that, under the hon. Gentleman's party, it typically took more than 140 days to bring a young offender before a court. We have had success, but we need to do more. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced at the beginning of last week that we are bringing together in one taskforce all the agencies in London, including all the elements of the criminal justice system, to look specifically at youth crime in London and to make sure that the police, the court service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service are working effectively to tackle the problem.

We recognise the problem of young offenders offending while on bail, and we have introduced new initiatives. In a number of areas, including inner London, tagging for juvenile offenders will be available from the middle of April and will be rolled out nationally in June. Although there is not one single measure that needs to be taken, there is undoubtedly a series of measures, including those that I have mentioned, that need to be taken to make sure that young offenders are dealt with effectively.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster)

I appreciate why the Minister wishes to trade statistics going back to before 1997, but will he answer directly the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)? Does he agree with Sir John Stevens' statement in relation to the whole criminal justice system, or does he believe that Sir John Stevens got it wrong?

Mr. Denham

We recognise the commissioner's concerns, which have been expressed not only by him. I had discussions this week with the president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who is worried about elements of the criminal justice system. However, let us remember that we are dealing with different issues, not just one set of problems. There is the issue of what happens to young offenders. Another debate is about serious criminals and the way in which criminal courts conduct their hearings, and there are issues about disclosure of evidence and disclosure of defence. The Government are dealing with those issues by saying that we need to reform the whole criminal justice system. Therefore, as I shall say later in my remarks, reforms are needed in the police service.

We recognise that reforms are needed in the sentencing system, which is why my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, while he was Home Secretary, commissioned the Halliday report on sentencing, on which we have consulted recently. That is also why the report by Sir Robin Auld on the structure of the court system was commissioned. We are considering how to bring about changes as a result of the issues raised in those reports. However, we need to consider the matter as an end-to-end reform of the criminal justice system. That means reforms to sentences and court procedures, speeding up parts of the system and reforms to the police service. We acknowledge the debate that has taken place over some months, but we have led that debate by saying that we must discuss how the criminal justice system operates and how it can be made more effective in every part of its work.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I would tend naturally to agree with much of what the Minister has said. Having paid him that compliment, will he explain why, despite what he said about the need to reform, the Government have abandoned the criminal justice Bill that was due to be introduced in this Session of Parliament and that was heralded in the Queen's Speech? It was designed—I suspect that it would have had cross-party support—to address many of the shortcomings that Sir John Stevens and others have identified.

Mr. Denham

I know that the hon. Gentleman will recognise in private if not in public that my Department has undertaken a substantial programme of legislation this year, including a major Bill to take necessary and urgent measures to tackle terrorism, that was not and could not have been envisaged at the time of the Queen's Speech. However, we made it clear that we will publish a White Paper setting out the nature of our proposed reforms to the criminal justice system. That will be followed by legislation, although it has not been possible to present it to the House in this Session. There is no diminution of our commitment to introduce reforms of the criminal justice system. The hon. Gentleman will recognise why we are working to our current time scale.

We have touched on youth crime, but there is another challenge for the police service and others. Probably every hon. Member would tell me that antisocial, yobbish and loutish behaviour is a real difficulty for many of those whom we represent, whatever the nature of our constituency. In some areas at least, the police service has perhaps at times considered the issue to be beyond its remit. Responsibility for tackling antisocial behaviour cannot be laid entirely at the door of the police service, but good, high-profile, visible and accessible policing led by officers in the community who solve problems with the community undoubtedly has a major role to play.

Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

My right hon. Friend knows that 75 per cent. of people in prison were permanently excluded from school. He also knows that, from September, the Government are introducing the obligation on all excluded children permanently to attend a pupil referral unit. Does he agree that preventing such children from receiving only five hours of education, roaming the streets, getting into trouble with drugs, stealing mobile phones—

Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

And pagers.

Geraint Davies

Exactly. Such children are unable to get back into mainstream education and end up in jail, so the changes will have a major and lasting impact on reducing youth crime.

Mr. Denham

My hon. Friend is right. Money has been made available for the change, because the Government have a good record on investing in public services. We want to ensure proper education provision for those who are excluded full-time from school and to avoid contributing to crime problems, so we must make available what is necessary for the good management of schools. Providing a good education is one way to deal with those problems.

Despite real achievements over the past two years, we acknowledge that we still face real challenges. Before Christmas, we published the White Paper, which sets out how policing must develop in the 21st century. Key elements of it are being implemented and others, subject to the decision of Parliament, will be enacted in the Police Reform Bill.

Our proposed reforms have received a broad welcome, inside and outside the police service. They are the outcome of more than a year's work and consultation with the police service, its staff organisations and the Association of Police Authorities. The need for reform is not in doubt, nor is the real direction of reform, although elements will always be controversial with some people.

Reform is needed because, although crime has fallen, it is still too high. Fear of crime remains stubbornly high, although the chance of being a victim has fallen. Too few criminals, including serious criminals and persistent offenders, are brought effectively to justice. Antisocial behaviour must be tackled. As in almost every organisation we can think of, public or private, performance and achievement vary; some parts work better than others.

The aim of police reform is to support the police service in its key jobs of tackling crime and criminality, reducing crime and the fear of crime and tackling antisocial behaviour, and to raise the performance of all parts of the service to the standards of the best.

There are two main strands to that work. The first is making the most effective use of the record number of police officers in England and Wales. This Government reversed the long-term decline in the number of police officers. The Labour Government's crime fighting fund has made sure that we are now on track for record numbers of police officers this spring, and for more than 130,000 by April next year. That is by far the largest number of police officers ever in England and Wales.

The work has been backed by resources—a 10 per cent. increase this year and another 6 per cent. increase in the coming year. That is a substantial and growing investment in the police service. Of course, as we move towards 130,000 police, we must make the best use of every single officer.

Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

It is a great achievement to be able to return to the police officer levels that the Government inherited, having had five years in which to do it. In Sussex, whose constabulary has been the hardest hit in England and Wales, there have been 273 officers fewer than in 1997 for some time. When will we get back to the 1997 level?

Mr. Denham

The hon. Gentleman does not understand his history. The cut in police numbers began in the early 1990s under the Conservative Government and was pursued, allowed and encouraged for a lengthy period. We have invested in the crime fighting fund, so police officer numbers are going up across the country.

That significant achievement has been recorded because we reversed the previous Government's policy of taking no interest in police numbers and earmarked money, through the crime fighting fund, to ensure that officers were recruited. He would have done better to give us the credit for the significant change in direction that we have achieved.

Next year, we will have 130,000 police officers and we must make the best use of every single one. Last year, "Diary of a Police Officer", a report commissioned by Ministers, showed that 43 per cent. of an officer's time was spent in the police station. Of that, 41 per cent. was spent preparing prosecution files and paperwork.

The taskforce that we set up to tackle waste and bureaucracy, headed by the former chief inspector, Sir David O'Dowd, will report to Ministers, initially in March and then in July. Over the coming year, we shall want to drive forward that work to free up the largest number of officers that we can from red tape, bureaucracy and inefficient ways of working so that they can be in the community—visible, accessible, tackling crime, where the public want to see them.

One way to make better use of officers is to make better use of support staff. The number of civilian support staff has already grown under this Government—to 56,644 in September 2001, which is over 3,500 more than in March 1997. We will now give them new powers: to take on roles that do not need the full range of powers and responsibilities of a fully trained, professional, sworn police officer; to take on more custody and detention duties; to take more responsibility at the scene of crime; and to escort prisoners.

We want to enable the police service to bring in specialists—in information technology and finance, for example—as investigators with the necessary police powers of investigation, working alongside police officers. In the investigation of crime, we will be developing a more specialised, more experienced and more professional cadre of police investigators and bringing in new expertise that is not readily available to the service at present.

It is not only in those specialist roles that support staff can be used effectively. The public want to see people with authority in their communities. Above all, of course, they want to see police officers. That is why we are committed to record numbers and to making those officers more visible and accessible, and why we want to increase the number of specials. They not only provide a valuable addition to the strength of the police service, but represent, in an important way, the wider reality that we will never fully tackle crime unless ordinary men and women in every community are prepared to stand up and be counted. Specials are a particularly important expression of that.

As, for example, the Metropolitan police have argued strongly, not every patrolling duty, minor public nuisance and traffic duty needs to be carried out by a fully-fledged police officer. The development of community support officers will give the police service a new flexibility to meet new needs and to ensure that police officers can be deployed in the most effective way.

There are other people already working in the community, as neighbourhood and street wardens or as security staff in shopping malls and on industrial estates— people with whom the police already work. We shall strengthen that relationship, enabling them with—and, of course, only with—the approval of the police to exercise new powers as part of an extended police family.

Making best use of the time and commitment of police officers means supporting them at work through better IT and better working conditions. It means supporting them if they fall ill through the development, for the first time, of a truly national approach to occupational health. It means a better and fairer pay system.

At this point, I would not be surprised if hon. Members pointed out that Police Federation members, in a fairly substantial turnout, recently voted against an agreement that their national leadership reached with the official side of the police negotiating body in December—I thought that I would mention it before hon. Members did.

That result was disappointing, if not a surprise, but it is important to remember the outcomes that we and the employers' side seek. The police need a better pay package to make the vast majority of officers better off. That is why we are prepared to invest substantially in an agreement that brings real reforms.

Reforms, too, are needed to reward the experience, expertise and competence of the most experienced officers, and to recognise that not all jobs are the same and that years of service, rank and hours of overtime are not always the most satisfactory way to reward officers for the difficult and demanding jobs that they do. The reforms also recognise that a reliance on overtime for the income of officers and as a substitute for the best management of staff time is neither good for the service nor for officers themselves.

The pay agreement is now in conciliation, led by the independent chair of the PNB. Agreement will no doubt require flexibility on all sides, but I believe, as I hope the House does, that the aims that we have set out are right, and that we should seek an agreement that, whatever the detail, will achieve them.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

The Minister said just now, and in the letter that he sent to hon. Members, that the vast majority of officers would be better off under the proposal. A Home Office document gives examples of officers who would be better off. Will he give some illustrative examples of police officers who would be worse off? Who are the minority of officers who would be worse off?

Mr. Denham

With a service of 120,000 people, we could never make an absolute statement that no single officer would be or could be worse off because of their overtime pattern or whatever. If some would be worse off, it would be a very small number. The package is aimed at making the vast majority of officers better off, and the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers shows that. That has been recognised in the national negotiations with the Police Federation. Focus has been put on the proposed overtime changes, which has tended to obscure the fact that over a period younger officers would get to the top of their pay scale much more quickly, there would be potential for new earnings at the top of the pay scale, many officers would he eligible for additional payments, and there would be an across-the-board increase under the pay deal.

I want to concentrate on the aims of the reforms of the pay system. They are not only about achieving a better pay system, but about modernising the system and ensuring that we make the best use of officers in the service.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I commend the continuing effort to recruit and retain officers across the country, but does my right hon. Friend recognise that there continues to be a problem in London owing to the cost of the London economy and house prices? That is particularly important for civilian recruitment. Will he commend the example of the people of Pinner in my constituency, who have rallied to the concerns of the police about their capacity to keep open the front desk at Pinner police station? More than 80 volunteers have responded to that initiative.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)

Order. Interventions should be brief.

Mr. Denham

In the current financial year, it appears that the so-called wastage rate of officers in London, which is under 5 per cent., is pretty much in line with that in other areas of the country. That is good news, and it reflects the enhancements in the conditions and pay for officers in London over recent years.

Innovative experiments are being carried out in several parts of the country involving closer working between the police service and volunteers. I was interested to hear about the example in my hon. Friend's constituency.

Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Denham

I shall give way to the hon. Lady, but then I must make some progress.

Annabelle Ewing

If the proposed police pay and conditions package is such a good deal, why did 94 per cent. of police officers in Scotland reject it?

Mr. Denham

It is clear from the ballot that a substantial number of police officers believed that they would be worse off, although they were wrong about that. It is a matter of regret that the federation did not campaign vigorously for the deal. [Interruption.] It is all very well the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) muttering from a sedentary position, but the reality is that the package proposes a substantial investment of new money. He would be advising police officers in his area wrongly if he were to suggest that he genuinely thought that they would be worse off. It has been our intention to make the vast majority of officers better off, and the deal that was reached at Christmas would do so. Clearly, people were concerned that it would not have that effect. There were uncertainties about priority payments, about which officers want further information.

We are now in a conciliation process, and we shall try to get agreement with the federation. We want to make that investment, and we want to make officers better off. That is our intention, but we must also have reforms, which I hope will be supported on both sides of the House, to ensure that we make the best use of officers in the police service, because that is also important and part of the basis on which investment must be made. My responsibilities are for England and Wales, but the federation and the employer's side in Scotland are involved in the police negotiating body.

Pay reform is only one area in which we need to support officers. Too much police training has for a long time been poorly organised and delivered. We cannot yet ensure that every officer has properly planned training, even if they are called on to fill specialist roles. We need to make considerable progress over the coming years on improving the training system, which will include developing the potential of the most able officers and enabling them to get to senior positions rapidly.

We need to develop leadership skills at all levels. Given that the basic command unit is the critical building block of effective policing, we must ensure that BCU commanders are properly supported and trained. We will work with the service to establish how the devolution of responsibility to BCU commanders and the integration of BCUs within the wider force can best be balanced. We will also support officers through better use of science and IT, including the development of the airwave communications system, and the automated fingerprint identification system, which was made available last year. The number of DNA records on the national DNA database is rising every month, and is now about 1.5 million.

As we support the police service and make the best use of the record number of police officers, we must also identify the very best of policing practice and find the best ways of ensuring that it is implemented in every part of the police service of England and Wales.

Over the coming year, we will establish a new National Centre for Policing Excellence. Building on the work of the existing crime faculties, the national centre will develop codes of best practice—for example, on how to conduct murder investigations, or how to run effective reassurance strategies that will draw on the best and most successful policing practice.

For issues of national importance, we must ensure that all forces adopt best practice, such as the implementation of the national intelligence model, which can be used to underpin the targeting of local nuisance and persistent offenders who blight a community, and effective action against organised crime.

The police standards unit is already working with police forces on the best ways to fight street robbery. As we develop agreed methods of assessing police performance, it will identify why some forces and BCUs perform better than others, and will support those that are not doing so well.

All those measures will improve police performance where it needs to be improved. We will work with the police service and the police authorities to achieve that. We cannot sit back and say to a town, a city or a community that is being let down that nothing can be done. If part of a police service were persistently to fail and a chief constable and a police authority failed to act and take the measures that other forces would take, Ministers and the Home Secretary must be able to respond—not to direct operations or to require the arrest of individuals, but to ensure that effective action is taken and proven best practice adopted.

No one would expect or would sensibly want such a power to be used widely, and it certainly should not be used arbitrarily, but those who would hold us accountable must allow us the ability to respond. We need to work with the police and police authorities to ensure that we are effective in tackling crime and criminals, in reducing the fear of crime, and in tackling antisocial behaviour. That has to be the test for the police service and for the Government.

I have acknowledged outside and inside the House that no White Paper on policing ever caught a single criminal, deterred a single crime or made people feel safer. What we do as a result of those policies and the way in which we implement police reform over the years to come will achieve that. That must be the aim and the test of all that we do. We have the responsibility to work for that aim, and I hope that the Police Reform Bill will give us the powers to achieve it.

10.9 am

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I welcome the opportunity to have a debate on the police. I welcome, too, the Minister's largely constructive tone, which is in stark contrast to the tone of his boss the Home Secretary on many policing issues; that is part of the problem that we face. On behalf of the Opposition, I entirely join in the tributes that the Minister, who rightly recounted the events of the past 12 months, paid to the police.

None of us in this House or in the other place can ignore the fact that we are here by courtesy of the excellence of the police in ensuring that we are secure, and can represent our constituents safely in the freedom in which we believe.

When the idea of a debate on the police was first mooted a couple of weeks ago—at least, that is when the Opposition first heard about it—it surprised me a little, not least because it is only a month since we had a debate on the police support grant, albeit that that was on one specific aspect of policing. Secondly, as the Minister rightly reminded us, the Police Reform Bill is in another place, and I expect that it will be here about the end of April—although the Minister may have a better idea about the timing than I do. Finally, the Police Federation has recently given the Home Secretary a bloody nose over the pay and conditions package.

Overall, therefore, despite what the Minister has said, the Government do not have a record of which to be proud. I do not want to be super-critical, but I shall now look back over the past few years before taking us forward to describe how the Opposition see policing developing.

There has been much debate about police numbers, and my hon. Friends have pointed out the reality of the situation, which differs from the twisted use of statistics in which the Minister would like us to believe. The fact is that police numbers fell by 3,000 in the Government's first three years in office, and that last year, when they had been in office for four years, police numbers were lower than at any stage in the past decade. That is not a record that any Minister should be prepared to defend.

Even the latest official figures, for last September, show the grand increase of 73 officers under this Government—hardly cause for acclaim. If the Minister can reach his target of 130,000 by next year we shall applaud him. It will be a welcome increase and I hope that it is achieved. [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) giggles too much—

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

May I remind the hon. Gentleman that Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, is on record as saying that the greatest single blow to police morale was the Sheehy report of 1993? Will he tell the House who commissioned and implemented that report?

Mr. Paice

Much of the Sheehy report was not implemented, because the Police Federation made it clear that much of it was unacceptable. The hon. Gentleman should get his facts right.

The statistics on police numbers are stark. They are Home Office official figures, so one assumes that they are indisputable—although the Government sometimes manage to argue against their own published figures.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Does my hon. Friend agree that if police numbers do rise in the next few years, it will not be thanks to the Government? Local council tax payers face huge increases in the precept, because they will be paying for the increases in police numbers that local communities want. Any achievement will be down to local communities, not to the Government.

Mr. Paice

I have not shown my hon. Friend my speech, but he presages my next passage remarkably well.

The figure of 130,000 officers that I mentioned is based on the assumption that the whole crime fighting fund will be taken up, and to achieve that, every force will have to meet the gateway criteria in order to access it and pay for its extra officers. There is a question mark over that. I am led to believe that this year, at least three significant police authorities will almost certainly pass budgets that will not meet the gateway criteria, so they will not be able to take up the officers allocated to them under the crime fighting fund. There is therefore a huge question mark over whether the target will be met.

The Government's record on funding to date is even worse than their record on police numbers. Between 1997–98 and 2000–01—their first term—the cash increase in Government expenditure on the police was 9.9 per cent., or 1.5 per cent. in real terms. Those are outturn figures. Let us compare that with the last period of Conservative Government: the cash figure then was 13.9 per cent., or 2.8 per cent. in real terms. This year, as was revealed in our debate only a month ago, the real increase in total standard spending was only 0.3 per cent.—not exactly largesse from the Government.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Mr. Luff) said, we must also consider council tax, and there we see a different story. Over the current three-year period—last year, this year, and next year's anticipated figures—the cumulative council tax increases for police authorities are 30 to 80 per cent. As he properly reminded us, any increase in police numbers will come not from the Government but from funding by council tax payers.

It now seems that the police authority with the second largest council tax increase this year will be my local police authority in Cambridgeshire. The consultation that the police authority had with the population of the county showed that the overwhelming majority, accounting for more than 50 per cent. of the responses, wanted to go for the highest increase, because people were fed up with having the fewest police officers per head of population in the country.

As for technology, the Minister referred to the Airwave project, which we all welcome—although I suspect that many hon. Members will have had complaints from constituents about the siting of the masts. None the less, it is right to go ahead with Airwave, and I hope that when the Minister responds to the debate he can answer a couple of questions. First, is the roll-out of Airwave for the remaining forces still on schedule? Can he assure the House that there will be no delays, and that BT can deliver? Secondly, will the administrative receivership of Simoco, which makes most of the handsets, have any implications for the roll-out?

The background to the crime figures is that under the Conservative Government there was a 17 per cent. fall in recorded crime, whereas under the present Government, although the basis for calculating the figures has been changed—

Martin Linton (Battersea)

Crime doubled under the Conservatives.

Mr. Paice

Crime did not double under the last Conservative Government. Crime doubled over 18 years—[Laughter.] Crime doubled in the whole western world. However, in the last five years of Conservative Government we reversed that trend. Crime was falling, and had fallen by 17 per cent. over those past five years.

We cannot draw a direct comparison, because the method of calculating the statistics changed shortly after the Labour Government took office. I do not mean that as a criticism, but it is a fact. It is also a fact that under the new method, in the first year in which the new statistics operated, crime rose by 3.8 per cent. That was followed by a welcome fall of 2.5 per cent., although crime did not fall back to its previous level.

As the Minister has reminded us, the British crime survey now shows a fall. He said that it was 19 per cent. I thought that it was 12 per cent. over two years, but we will not argue about that; the figures definitely show a fall. The Government seek plaudits for that, and if it heralds a return to the downward trend in crime, of course we will all welcome it. However, I urge him to be cautious about how he interprets the British crime survey. I would not be surprised if his own officials, too, were urging caution.

First, the survey published last autumn was not the full result: it was a sample of only 9,000 respondents, compared with the 40,000 needed for the full result to be published later this year. Secondly, the BCS measures only crime against adults, yet we know that some of the largest increases in crime recently have been against children. Indeed, the survey itself shows that the risk of phone theft or robbery is five times greater for children than for adults: more than 500,000 mobile phone thefts and robberies were from 11 to 15-year-olds, compared with more than 100,000 fewer from those over 16. The trend has been strongly towards crime against under-16s, who do not feature in the statistics.

The Minister should not parade the British crime survey results too strongly. The fact remains that the risk of being the victim of violent crime is five times greater in London than in New York.

Several of my hon. Friends have already questioned the Minister about criminal justice and the remarks of the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis the other day. Nowhere is it more obvious than in the criminal justice system that the police need help. As the Minister rightly said, the "Diary of a Police Officer" threw up some stark and staggering facts, including the three and a half hours on average of processing for every arrest made. In his speech, the commissioner spoke of one case in which it took an officer seven hours to process an arrest.

As the commissioner also said, it is no use catching criminals if they are then released on bail to commit more, and often more serious, crimes. I know that someone appeared in court only a fortnight ago charged with a murder committed while on bail for street robbery. That is demoralising for the police, the victims and all our communities.

Why, then, do we not have a Bill? The Minister said that it was because we had a terrorism Bill that took up so much time, and of course we understand that, but the Home Office has dropped two pieces of legislation scheduled for this Session, one of which was an anti-terrorism measure, on extradition.

The Home Secretary told us that there would be three major, urgent pieces of anti-terrorism legislation in the autumn, and he has dropped one of those, too. I do not go along with the argument that it is all to do with overwork. I strongly suspect that it is much more to do with the debate that we will have on Monday week, because the Government have had to throw a sop to their Back Benchers by debating hunting. We know that the parliamentary programme of the House of Lords is full and that, to get a hunting Bill in, other things have had to come out.

Norman Baker (Lewes)

Another flaw in the argument is that the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill contained many measures that were nothing whatever to do with terrorism—it was a cupboard-clearing exercise by the Home Office.

Mr. Paice

I entirely agree: the Bill contained measures relating to the British Transport police and the Ministry of Defence police that went way beyond anti-terrorism and should rightfully have been in the Police Reform Bill.

When it was announced that the two pieces of legislation were to be dropped, my hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), the shadow Home Secretary, wrote a private letter to the Home Secretary expressing concern, especially about the loss of the criminal justice Bill, which had considerable cross-party support. He offered the Opposition's support in achieving the reform of the criminal justice system that the Minister espouses. When can my hon. Friend expect a reply?

The Minister did not use the word, but he referred to the debacle that we have had over the pay and conditions package. Let me reaffirm clearly that the Opposition stand foursquare behind the need for a more modern and flexible pay and conditions structure—there is no doubt about that—but one does not go about achieving that by spending six months slagging off the police, which is exactly what the Home Secretary has done, accusing them of being inadequate, inefficient and "rife with Spanish practices". He condemned what he called the "police early retirement scam" and attacked the Police Federation for trying to make a monkey out of the service they are supposed to provide. He said: we want police on our streets, policing and securing them, not demonstrating on them".

Those are not terms that one should use about a body of people that one wants on one's side. If one wants to manage change, which is what the Police Reform Bill is about, one needs the people who are to implement that change to welcome it and to want to be part of it. Anyone who has managed a business knows that that is the case.

Mr. Denham

The hon. Gentleman said, among a whole list of things that he did not reference, that the Home Secretary said that the police service was "rife with Spanish practices". I invite him to give me a reference to establish that the Home Secretary or myself, or any spokesperson on behalf of the Home Office, has ever used that term about the police service.

Mr. Paice

I will happily provide it. I have it in front of me. One assumes that spin doctors still speak on behalf of the Government—if they are still in post. In this case, the quotation is: spin doctors branded the police service inadequate, inefficient and rife with Spanish practices. That was published in the New Statesman.

After the Home Secretary had upset the police, it is hardly surprising that they rejected his package, which even the Minister accepts was considerably vague, particularly over the special priority payments. If the Government had not been so headstrong in trying to push measures through so quickly and had got more detail on the table, perhaps police officers would have been better able to understand whether they would be better or worse off.

I have had countless e-mails from and conversations and correspondence with police officers, and I understand that the main reason why they were determined to vote against the package was that they were so angry about the way in which the Home Secretary had addressed them over the past few months that they felt hatred towards him.

Geraint Davies

Sir John Stevens recently suggested that more people should be denied bail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Bail Act 1976 should be changed automatically to deny bail?

Mr. Paice

I do not see how that is relevant to what we are discussing.

Geraint Davies

A moment ago, the hon. Gentleman spoke about people reoffending on bail, and now he is talking about the police. A top policeman has made some remarks about bail, and the subject is important for this debate.

Mr. Paice

There is certainly never a case for automatically changing any Act, to pick up on the hon. Gentleman's phrase. There may be a case for amending the Bail Acts. Bail policy, and sentencing policy, should not be governed by the capacity of the prison sector, which is what is happening currently. The prison population is now past the 70,000 mark, and that should concern us all, but we should not allow that to determine bail and sentencing policy. Magistrates in London, in particular, are letting people out on bail because there is nowhere to send them. That is not good news.

That is the point that I was making and, indeed, the point that the commissioner was making.

I turn to the Police Reform Bill, on which the Minister touched. I want to address the point with which he concluded concerning the powers of the Home Secretary to be involved—I use as non-pejorative a phrase as possible—in how the police operate. I have immense sympathy with the Home Secretary. Any of us who has sat in an office in Whitehall know, the frustration felt when decisions made at ministerial level seem to become diffuse by the time they appear on the ground. I have been there at a lower level and I understand that. There is a temptation to want to grab hold of things and make them happen. However, that does not mean that one should give in to such temptation.

The proposed methods in the Bill, particularly in clauses 5 to 7 and in part I generally, are wrong. This is what the Home Secretary recently said about the Metropolitan police—I should hasten to add, before the Minister picks me up on it, that the following is a direct quotation: We will give you the freedom to do the job but if you don't do it, I'll have to intervene. He told the Commissioner that he has six months to demonstrate a sharp fall in street robberies. One must ask the Minister who in the Home Office will do a better job. Is this the same Home Office that runs the Passport Agency, the prison service and the immigration and asylum system? Is there really anybody in the Home Office who thinks that they can run the police service better than the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis?

Historically, there has been a tripartite system of the Government—the Home Secretary—the police authorities and chief police officers. There is no evidence that there is anything fundamentally wrong with that system that needs changing. As debates in another place on the Bill have shown, part 1 is extremely unpopular, especially, as I have said, clauses 5 to 7, which give the Home Secretary powers to intervene in operational matters. The Minister is right that the Home Secretary cannot tell the chief constable to arrest Joe Bloggs because he does not like Joe Bloggs, but in every other aspect of operational matters, the Bill gives the Home Secretary immense powers.

That is not just the view of the Opposition and, I dare say, the Liberal Democrats—although the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will speak for himself. We have consulted on the matter, and the view is shared by every police organisation: the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Police Superintendents Association, the Police Federation and of course the Association of Police Authorities. It is also a cross-party view in the other place. The decision to take control is tempting, but the Home Secretary should resist it. If he persists in trying to take control, he will lose that part of the Bill. I therefore urge him to think again about the powers that he is seeking to take.

The second aspect of the Bill to which I wish to refer is what might be described as the provisions on non-police policemen—community support officers and those in accredited community safety organisations. Civilianisation is of course not new; it has existed for some decades. However, giving such people police powers is new.

We welcome support for the police from wherever it comes and strongly support the various street and neighbourhood warden schemes that are already up and running in many parts of the country. Indeed, we have no objection to giving police powers to civilians for special purposes, such as in custody suites or for fraud investigations.

If we consider what is proposed for community support officers, we find, first, that the only body of support for the proposal is in the Metropolitan police. That is based on the assumption that resources to fund such posts will be transferred to the Met from local authorities. Perhaps the Minister would like to comment on that. Everyone else in the police family is against granting such powers. Now is not the time to rehearse arguments against giving such officers those powers—and the absurdity of a 30–minute detention period with no idea of what happens after those 30 minutes—but I tell the Minister again that the provision is wrong.

Many accredited community safety organizations—employees of local authorities or, possibly, security firms—already exist. They do a very good job, but without the proposed title and the proposed powers. I have visited a number of such organisations, and they have all told me that they do not need and do not want police powers. A system of accreditation of those organisations will be fine. It will give them a badge of recognition and a certain public esteem, but they should not be given powers permed from a range of options that will vary from force to force and even within forces. That would be confusing to the public and lack accountability.

Mr. Mark Field

We all want a policing system—and in the broader sense, a security system—that works. There is concern that the Police Federation in particular has been obstructive over some of the initiatives that have been introduced. Only yesterday it was announced that in my constituency and that of the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) there would be a 40-strong force of uniformed city guardians who will have certain powers. Most residents will be very much in favour of that—

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman must bring his remarks to a conclusion.

Mr. Paice

I understand my hon. Friend's points. I am sure that most residents of London boroughs and throughout the country will welcome a significant increase in the number of people helping the police. However, there is a risk of immense confusion—I shall come in a minute to the wider reasons—if such people have police powers. Any study of the Bill reveals a range of powers from which the chief constable of any force, or the commissioner in the case of the Met, can choose, and their use will vary. Anybody who exercises police powers should be accountable to the chief officer and to the independent complaints commission. That is another omission of the Bill.

The major reason why we the Opposition oppose what I call pseudo-cops is the failure to recognise the importance of community policing in the true sense of the word. Indeed, it could be argued that the provision downgrades the importance of community policing. There has been a great deal of debate—it is ongoing—about the role of community policing, especially in the context of what happened in New York.

Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

I agree with the point about accountability; the issue of power should be closely scrutinised. I say in support of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) that community support or auxiliary officers have a role in relieving pressure on our police in areas such as the west end of London, where the community policing dimension is less relevant. It is precisely in freeing police officers to work in partnerships and to reduce crime that community support officers and auxiliaries will be most effective.

Mr. Paice

I understand that argument. The hon. Lady will not be surprised that I have had discussions on such matters with the commissioner and deputy commissioner of the Met. However, it is not right to give support officers such powers. Having people out there in some uniform assisting the forces is fine, but they should not be given police powers other than perhaps the barest minimum, such as the ability to issue fixed-penalty notices.

I want to develop that argument and lead on to how we in opposition see the development of policing. I want to go back to first principles—indeed, to Sir Robert Peel. He set out nine principles of policing when he founded what we know as the modern police force. The seventh principle states: Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.

His ninth principle was: The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it. Those principles stand as true today as they did when Sir Robert Peel enunciated them.

We need to consider community policing not simply as people walking about the streets in uniform but as having a much more rounded function as custodians of the neighbourhood. It should be seen as important and effective. It should be seen as important by the officers, who should have a sense of possession of the community in which they work. I was fortunate enough to have a discussion with a former community officer of the year, PC Sweeny, who is currently seconded to the Home Office. His sense of pride in the community in Leeds that he policed, and where he had been born and brought up—his sense of possession—came through. That is a crucial factor.

Community policing, in its truest sense, needs to be seen as important and effective by the force at all levels, by the people who live and work in the area and by the public bodies that serve it. If it is to work, the community officer must also be able to take charge. He or she must be able to require things to happen, such as streets to be cleaned after drugs users, vandals or graffiti artists. He or she needs to be able to ensure that abandoned vehicles are removed, that broken windows and pavements are repaired. The force must be behind him or her to respond when there is a need for more officers.

Community policing must be seen as a critical part of policing by the officers themselves. As the hon. Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) suggested, it needs to be seen not as something that they do reluctantly and happily pass to civilians but as something that they want to do. It needs to be seen as part and parcel of an important police career structure.

There are those who say that crime is not all that bad, that people are unnecessarily afraid of it. I believe that to be a false excuse. As we know, only a quarter of crime is recorded anyway, but crime is not only about the headline stuff—murder, rape, burglary, street robbery. It includes the more minor offences of graffiti, some aspects of drugs, vandalism, intimidation and the threat of violence to anyone who is not prepared to roll over in front of the gangs and thugs that roam parts of our country. How many people can deny that they have crossed the street to avoid a particularly unsavoury character or group of characters or to avoid foul language and drunken behaviour?

The fact is that very few major criminals did not start life as minor criminals. The most staggering statistic concerns the number of children under 10 who have already entered the world of crime. They come almost entirely from broken homes, often with a succession of different father figures—I use the term loosely—in the home. They have often been abused by parents and by other children. They become bullies and start to nick each other's things. They join gangs which become more important to them than their family. They move on through assault to robbery, rape and worse. In the meantime, the people who live in those areas become more fearful and tormented. They have to adjust their lives and accept their lot, but they should not have to.

There are those who say, "Forget all this. Just get tough and lock them all up.- Of course that has to play a part. Dealing with criminals—detecting, prosecuting, convicting and sentencing them—is critical. We have to remove criminals from society, but to do so exclusively achieves little. We know about the very high rates of recidivism. If we lock them up in prison, the majority turn back to crime. Amateurs become professionals. We must also reduce the flow of new criminals. It is like catching water in a bucket without adjusting the flow from the tap into the bucket. That is why I believe that there is a need for far more attention to be given to the holistic approach to community policing.

It has been said in other places that tolerance is a virtue, or so we would believe. When related to other people's views, race or religion, it is a virtue, and rightly so. However, we have allowed it to be extended to tolerating behaviour outside the norm and in doing so we have unwittingly contributed to the problem. By tolerating bad behaviour, we have given it licence to go further. The rundown housing estates did not start that way; disadvantaged communities were not always so. We have allowed the liberal view to prevail that children should be allowed to discover themselves and that families do not matter.

Geraint Davies

I have already said that 75 per cent. of people in prison were permanently excluded from school. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that putting those who are not achieving in school on the streets, where they are dislocated from education and society and end up in prison, is absurd? Surely the real issue is to provide intensive education for those people to get them back on track so that they do not overflow into our overpopulated jails and commit endless crimes on our streets.

Mr. Paice

Education is part of the solution but it is not the only solution. The problems facing these young kids are far wider than simply being excluded from school. Indeed, their behaviour in school and being excluded from it is probably a symptom rather than the fundamental cause. We must address education but we must also address the fundamental aspects of society that led to the problems that led to exclusion.

It is time we realised that we were wrong to have allowed these freedoms to prevail. All of us in our communities have a role to play—we must stop turning a blind eye. The role of the true community policeman is central to that. Working with local organizations—bringing together those dealing with education, social services and the other aspects of policing with local charities and the majority of good citizens—is the only way to reduce the flow, rather than simply addressing the stock of criminals.

Mr. Banks

Will the hon Gentleman give way?

Mr. Paice

No, I am about to finish.

That is the long-term way to address policing in this country. There is a long way to go. Many people say that it is too difficult and that we should not start, but unless we start we will never achieve it, and that bucketful of water will keep on overflowing and the problems that we face will increase day in, day out. As Sir Robert Peel said: the police are the public and the public are the police". They have to work together.

10.48 am
Ms Bridget Prentice (Lewisham, East)

Rather scarily, I agreed with virtually everything that the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said in his peroration about the role of the police in the community and the role of the community in supporting the police to outlaw the yobbish behaviour that is at first relatively minor but that can escalate into full-blown criminality.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in today's debate because this issue clearly concerns all our constituents. Crime and policing are consistently high priorities in all our constituencies. I want to talk about how crime is being tackled in my borough. I shall refer to some of the things that the commissioner has said recently and what he said to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in his response to the Police Reform Bill. Many people will have agreed, at least in spirit, with what Sir John had to say. His language may have been more colourful than some of us would have used, but he would receive much sympathy from people who feel that criminals go before the courts and often, for reasons usually incomprehensible to the rest of us, walk away again.

That said, Sir John did not perhaps hit all the right targets, and there may be something to say for examining what the Crown Prosecution Service is doing when it drops cases. Police officers find it frustrating to do all the paperwork in the station, send it to the CPS and, after months of delay, discover that the CPS has decided not to take the case forward. That is, of course, also most frustrating for the victims.

That is why the example of fast-tracking young offenders is so good. People see results more quickly, and the even greater benefit is that the young person is far less likely to commit crimes while waiting to come to trial or to commit second or third offences. I hope that the Minister can roll out that fast-tracking system for young offenders even more widely throughout the court system.

Lord Woolf's comments about discouraging magistrates and judges from sending people to prison because the prisons are overcrowded miss the point. The process needs to be speeded up, but we must ensure that those who commit crime are given the sentences that they deserve. Decisions on whether to send someone to prison should be based not on whether prisons are overcrowded but on whether the sentence is appropriate. I am much more inclined to agree on that with Sir John than I am with Lord Woolf.

I shall not go into arguments about figures on rising crime, except to say that as time passes the Opposition seem to forget how bad things were under their regime. When we point out that crime doubled under the Conservatives, they say that that does not apply if we look only at their last few years in office. Those of us who suffered 18 years of Conservative Government remember the pain from beginning to end.

Hon. Members who want crime to fall might want to examine some of the excellent initiatives that have been taken in Lewisham. People may be surprised to know that Lewisham is the safest borough in London. Crime has fallen by 6 per cent. over the past year, and one reason is the relationship between the local police, the borough council and the community at large. That partnership has worked extremely well in ensuring that the borough remains a safe place in which to live, work and learn.

The £1 million that the Government gave the borough for closed circuit television has helped. CCTV has been an outstanding success in the borough's shopping centres and elsewhere, and its use is being expanded. A local newspaper, News Shopper, has begun a campaign in which it publishes pictures from CCTV cameras to help the community to respond to incidents and give the police information to help them to catch the kind of yobbish criminals who begin with low-level crime and, if their activities are not nipped in the bud, go on to become serial criminals. That is a good example of how the local community can be encouraged to support the work of the police.

I praise the work of Lewisham police under the control of Borough Commander Mike Humphreys. The House may be interested in a couple of examples of that work, which may be of use in other parts of the country.

A joint police and probation visit system has been set up to help to curb active reoffenders when they come out of prison. As the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said, that is one problem that our criminal justice system must tackle. In Lewisham, probably for the first time, police and probation officers visit a person within a week or so of release from prison. They go through what is available to the person, and ensure that he or she is properly assessed. Information is passing between the police and the probation service on whether there is a high risk of the person reoffending. If there is, the person will be subject to further and extensive supervision. That is an excellent example of practical partnership between two parts of the criminal justice system which, in the past, often did not speak to each other because they were mutually wary and suspicious. I hope that that scheme can be expanded elsewhere.

Many hon. Members will be able to praise the work of their police community consultative groups. Lewisham has taken that further, thanks in part to the enthusiasm and commitment of the chair of the police consultative group, Asquith Gibbes. We have set up an independent advisory group, so successfully that Mike Humphreys has told me that he wonders how the police managed without it. The group is involved with the police on important decisions. For example, its members can read crime report entries at the police station, comment on the police force's investigations and report back. The group has been consulted on sensitive incidents such as a recent serial rape investigation across south London. The group was a useful forum for obtaining information that might not otherwise have reached the police because of the nature of both the crime and the people involved. That is a good way in which to use the local community to ensure that the police receive information without people fearing reprisal.

Hon. Members regularly raise with Ministers the problem of assaults on health service staff. We all know the dangers, particularly late at night and at the weekend, for health workers in our hospital accident and emergency units. A police office has been set up in Lewisham hospital so that health workers—doctors, nurses and auxiliaries—may know that an officer is on hand if they need extra support. That initiative has been hugely successful in reducing the number of assaults in the accident and emergency department.

Earlier this year, Lewisham and Hackney were fortunate enough to begin schemes running restorative justice initiatives. I went to the launch and was told what work would be done. I know that Ministers are keen to see how it will work. It is to be analysed by eminent researchers. Trained facilitators will bring victims and offenders together and, using appropriate methods, help offenders to understand and address their reasons for committing crimes and the effect on their victims. Our early information is that the scheme is particularly useful for victims and in dealing with those who have committed assaults. We shall be interested to see the results of the research.

Crime on buses and trains is another serious problem. Lewisham police have set up a scheme with bus companies using high-crime routes. It has worked so well that the Met has adopted it throughout London. It has helped to reduce the number of assaults and other crimes on buses, and I hope that it can be extended to trains, which I use regularly.

Another scheme in Lewisham, which is being revamped, is the ringmaster scheme, which, again, has been so successful that the Met has taken it on. Local police inform the community in areas where certain types of crime are being committed. The scheme is a great way of enabling the police to communicate with local people. It is particularly useful in dealing with deception crimes committed by bogus callers who go around telling people that they are from the gas board or the telephone company, and talk their way into houses—usually the houses of elderly people—to burgle them.

When the Lewisham police become aware of such activities, they can inform local people by telephone and warn them to be alert to bogus callers. Members of the community can then feed back information to the police so that they can catch the criminals.

Lewisham, along with Bromley, is one of the pathfinder boroughs. It will, we hope, be given more financial devolution to enable it to use its budget innovatively. I want the Minister to be enthusiastic about this. If the borough commander could give up 35 police officer posts and replace them with 35 civilian posts, the savings would allow him to put another 15 officers on the beat. I hope that the Minister will say that he considers that such an excellent idea that he would support devolved budgets throughout the Met area and, indeed, in police authorities throughout the country.

The Minister is aware of the need for civilians to be used to do administrative work in police stations and elsewhere so that police officers trained to do other jobs can do them. The quickest, most obvious way of reducing street crime is to put officers on the beat. That is how Lewisham did it in the past. Street crime increased when officers were moved to central London after 11 September; now that they are returning to the borough, it is falling again. There is a direct correlation between the number of officers on the beat and the level of street crime.

I want to mention some of the things that Sir John told the Select Committee about the Police Reform Bill. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire said that the Met was the only police authority that was interested in using auxiliaries, as it calls them—community support officers. There is a good reason for that. Sir John made it clear to the Select Committee that if he could have between 300 and 500 auxiliaries who would be the eyes and ears in central London, officers would become free to return to the boroughs and do the jobs for which they had been trained.

I was interested by the exchange between the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and my hon. Friend the Member for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck). The commissioner said that the lack of a London-wide auxiliary force could lead to what he described as the balkanisation of police work in London. Boroughs such as Westminster may be able to afford a borough community force, but boroughs such as mine, Hackney or Tower Hamlets, cannot. We strongly support the part of the Police Reform Bill that refers to community support officers.

Sir John—and many other people—would like to know more about another aspect of the Bill. The Minister said that the standards unit was currently in force, but there is still confusion about its role and that of Her Majesty's inspectorate. Perhaps in time the two will become one, but it would be interesting to hear whether the Minister thinks that they should have separate roles, overlap, or even merge.

The commissioner said that police officers' working hours should be more flexible. He was particularly unhappy that only 16 per cent. of his officers were women. He thought that if the hours were more flexible, women who had left after having their second child—as most do—would be encouraged to return. That is an aspect of general policing that the Minister may wish to consider.

I am very proud of what the Lewisham police service in particular is doing and of what has been achieved, but there is still much to be done. Great challenges face our police service. Street robberies are too frequent, the fear of crime is too great, and police performance is too variable. No matter how many police officers are on the streets, we must never become complacent about crime in general. That is why I support police reform, as do both my borough commander and the Metropolitan commissioner. I am pleased that the commissioner also supports the reforms suggested in the Auld report.

There is much to be done. I hope that the Minister will continue to listen and take note of some of the ideas and examples of good practice that will be cited throughout today's debate and make them a reality throughout the country. I am very proud of our police service in Lewisham, under the leadership of Mike Humphreys. It is a safe borough in London. We would be happy to share our knowledge with others but in the meantime, general reform must take place, so that not only crime but the fear of crime is reduced and people can have faith in our police service and the criminal justice system.

11.10 am
Norman Baker (Lewes)

I welcome the debate and thank the Government for their initiative in introducing it. I hope that it will become an annual event. It is certainly timely this year, given the progress of the Police Reform Bill and the recent vote of Police Federation members. I want to discuss the results of that vote first.

I was grateful that the Minister approached the matter with such an emollient tone, but he must recognise that, rightly or wrongly, there is a major problem, which the Government must deal with, in their relations with the Police Federation and police officers. The proposed package of pay, terms and conditions probably did not merit the 91 per cent. rejection, but 91 per cent. against and 9 per cent. in favour is a huge rejection. Every police force in the country and every policy authority area voted to reject the deal. In the Met, only 2 per cent. of officers voted in favour, and every rank voted to reject the deal. The best that the Government could manage was 29 per cent. among chief inspectors. A Police Federation briefing suggested that 37 per cent. said that the proposed reduction in overtime rates was the prime reason.

I do not want to say whether the deal was right or wrong; that is essentially a matter for police officers to decide in conjunction with the Government. I happen to think that it contains several good measures, although there are significant problems with the overtime package. Yesterday I spoke to a police officer in my part of the world, in Sussex—where I had a meeting with Police Federation representatives—who tells me that he has managed to have Christmas day off only twice in 20 years. Despite booking the day every year on 2 January or whenever, he is regularly called in to do mandatory overtime on Christmas day. Once or twice he was told almost on the chimes of 12 o'clock on Christmas eve that he was coming in to work the next day. If the Government are going to require that of police officers—as they do, and of course police officers must be called in when there are reasons for them to be—they must recognise that when there is mandatory overtime, cuts in overtime rates are likely to be a red rag to a bull.

Irrespective of whether the deal is fair, the Government have a small political problem with the Police Federation. I understand that the matter will now go to arbitration, but I should be interested to know how the Government intend to extricate themselves from the position that they have got themselves into.

The language used by police officers who write to me as a constituency MP is striking. It is far more confrontational than I have read in letters from police officers on any issue. I have received a letter from Graham Alexander of the Sussex Police Federation, a very long-serving police officer who is joint branch board chairman. He is quite a moderate person and I was surprised by the tone of his letter. He says that the service as a whole is outraged at the way in which this present reform process has been conducted. It is a singular pity that the pay element has not been separated from other reforms (many of which are welcomed by the service) and it is also regrettable that the chronology of the so called negotiations was conducted with such haste…We are sick and tired of remaining silent whilst various arms of the Government actively encourage selective and outrageous misinformation which does nothing to increase our standing in the local community.

It has been suggested that that position is not entirely justifiable; Labour Members may well say so when they speak. It is certainly strong language. Regardless of whether it is justified, there is a problem, which the Government must tackle.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

I too have been surprised by the vituperation and seething anger in the correspondence that I have received from serving police officers, and I cannot believe that all of it is synthetic.

Norman Baker

It is not synthetic, and it behoves all of us to try to find a way forward and to help the Government if we can. I am willing to do that in some shape or form if I can, and I am sure that the same applies to the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice), as spokesman for the official Opposition.

I believe that some of the conditions that the Government proposed were not understood. There is scepticism about whether some of the promises made will replace some of the definites that would be removed. The Police Federation told me yesterday that the deal contained proposals, welcome in principle, to reward good performance from officers, but I was told that there is something called the outstanding performance appraisal payment, which was part of the Sheehy package, but not one police officer in the country has received any such payment. I do not know whether that is true, but perhaps the Minister will look into that.

Mr. Denham

The hon. Gentleman is essentially correct. The Sheehy package theoretically opened up an additional point at the top of the pay scale but no mechanism was put in place at the time to enable an officer to get it. For the avoidance of doubt, our commitment to enabling that to happen is absolute.

Norman Baker

That is a helpful response. I am grateful to the Minister. Perhaps more definitive statements might be helpful in the debate. At the moment, police officers feel that they are being asked to lose certain quantifiable privileges and benefits but are being offered what they regard as vague, unquantifiable benefits in return. That is part of the problem.

When the Minister replies, will he say how he intends to take the matter forward, through arbitration? Is it the Government's intention to impose the deal ultimately, even if there is continued massive opposition from police officers?

The issue of pay and conditions is also important because it affects morale in the police service. I am sure that all hon. Members wish to have a substantial number of police officers who are well motivated and who stay in post for a long time and therefore build up experience and the ability to police even more effectively than they do when they leave training college.

Numbers recruited are up. Belatedly, the Government have taken steps in recent months to deal with the shortage of police officers and more police officers are now being recruited throughout the country. That is very welcome, but retention is a problem; it is falling. The Minister may remember that when we had the debate on the police plan, I drew attention to the fact that resignations from the Metropolitan police area were up 29 per cent. on the previous year, that there was a similar problem in Greater Manchester and that the number of officers transferred from the Met to other forces was up 63 per cent. I am not sure whether to go along with the bucket metaphor used by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but perhaps a colander metaphor might be more appropriate: water is poured in at one end and it comes out at the other.

Mr. Paice

That was on a different issue.

Norman Baker

It was a different issue, but it was related.

The 1997 Labour manifesto said that Labour wanted to get more officers back on the beat, which I take to mean two things: that people would not be stuck in offices doing paperwork and that the number of police officers would rise.

Mr. Denham

indicated assent.

Norman Baker

The Minister confirms that. In September 2001, there were 127,231 police officers. The Minister says that he wants to get that figure up to 130,000. However, the September figure was only 73 higher than that for March 1997, and in the meantime the trend has dipped and then gone back up. It has taken four-and-a-half years not to make much progress nationally, and 18 of 43 constabularies have fewer officers than they had in 1997; I believe that Sussex is among the 18.

Those figures are a major concern because there has been an increase in some forms of crime—although not all—and we have a raft of new laws that require the police to deal with and act upon them. Thus, the pressures on the police are increasing. There is also more technology to deal with. The lot of the average police officer becomes more and more weighed down with legislation. Under those circumstances, it is necessary to have an increase in officers almost to stand still.

Mr. Denham

Perhaps I may ask the hon. Gentleman for his views on a specific issue, which Sussex illustrates—Sussex was mentioned earlier. It is true that between 1997 and September 2001 the number of police officers fell by about 240. Over that same period, the number of civilian staff increased by 357. It is clear that, to a degree, Sussex police service made that choice. However, does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Government were probably right to tell the police service as a whole that the fall in numbers went further than was necessary or desirable? Ring-fencing the crime fighting fund to ensure that numbers increase is the right response nationally, and for local forces.

Norman Baker

I agree with the Minister in two respects. Civilianisation has a role. In Sussex, it has been useful to consider what posts can be civilianised, and crime fighting has not suffered as a consequence. Occasionally, some of us in opposition try to have it both ways, but I agree that it is difficult to blame the Government for falls in police numbers, and then to credit increases to local authorities and council tax payers. Either the Government are responsible or they are not. Of course, the reality is that they are not entirely responsible, but there are levers that they can pull and perhaps they should have pulled them slightly earlier and further. However, I agree with the essence of the Minister's comment. The number of civilians involved in police work must be taken into account, but civilians will not provide the extra police on the beat that constituents want, for all manner of reasons.

Many of the proposals in the Police Reform Bill will be welcomed by all Members of the House, the police and the public. For example, I agree entirely with the creation of information technology and fraud specialists. Many criminals are highly specialised, and they need to be dealt with through specialisation in return. The Proceeds of Crime Bill was one way of dealing with that issue, and specialists in the police force is another. It is entirely sensible to go down that road.

In principle, there can be no objection to the reasonably uncontroversial idea of civilianised escort officers. Indeed, the Prison Service has such officers. However, there are one or two very controversial matters in the Police Reform Bill to which I want to draw attention, the first of which is the role of community support officers. I am concerned that the Government's approach—which has perhaps been adopted with the best of intentions, and in the light of the comments of the Met's Sir John Stevens—will lead to a lack of clarity and a plethora of different people performing different roles in different parts of the country, which in turn will lead to confusion among the public. A CSO could say, "You have crossed the border into borough A, where I have a particular power, but in borough B, in which you live, your CSO does not have that power." That is not a satisfactory way to proceed.

If we have a plethora of people with different responsibilities who are accountable to different people, our collective objective of ensuring the proper public accountability of those who undertake police functions will be weakened. That serious point must be borne in mind if we are to ensure that the police remain accountable—as the Government doubtless intend—and that such accountability be strengthened as far as possible.

I have a problem with the idea that someone who is not a police officer should have the right to lay a hand on another person and to detain them for up to 30 minutes. That is a very dangerous road to go down, for all manner of reasons. Such a person is liable to command less respect, and therefore to engender greater resistance from certain elements of the community. Nor is it entirely clear what will happen after 30 minutes if a police officer has not arrived. Presumably, the person in question will be set free. Respect in general for law enforcement agencies might also be weakened if those who detain people are regarded as elevated park keepers. That would weaken the authority of the police, and to judge by representations made to me by the Association of Chief Police Officers and others, the police themselves are concerned about that serious point.

I ask the Government to ensure consistency in the powers given to CSOs throughout the country, and that those powers are limited and do not include the right to interfere with the free passage of individuals. The Liberal Democrats are happy with, and will support, the concept of CSOs—indeed, we included such a provision in our last manifesto. We believe that the role of traffic wardens could be integrated with that of CSOs, so that they share the same functions. I am sure that abolishing traffic wardens—if that proved necessary—would be a popular policy in some parts of the country, but in principle there is no reason why traffic wardens should not become CSOs and be given increased powers. Similarly, CSOs could take on certain powers currently enjoyed by traffic wardens. That clear and popular option would relieve the police of a number of duties that, frankly, they do not want to perform.

There is a particular problem in my constituency—it is doubtless mirrored elsewhere in the country—with untaxed vehicles. I receive many letters from constituents, saying, "There is an untaxed vehicle at the bottom of my road, but no one is interested." The council cannot tow such vehicles away because they are not officially abandoned. The Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which is a long way away in Swansea, has one officer in Brighton to deal with Sussex responses. The reality is that untaxed vehicles sit on streets for weeks and months, and no one does anything about them. In turn, that infuriates law-abiding constituents who say, "Why should I bother taxing my car, given that this abandoned one is not taxed and no one is doing anything about it?"

There is a clear and obvious need to create an enhanced tier of civil enforcement, under local authority control, to deal with such issues. However, that is very different from establishing a second-rate police force, which would not command respect and would lead us into dangerous territory.

Geraint Davies

The hon. Gentleman will be interested to know that the first traffic wardens in Britain were established in Croydon, which has always been a popular place. Police in Croydon meet local councils weekly to co-ordinate the activities of traffic wardens and the use of closed circuit television—the eyes and ears of the police. Does he agree that that partnership approach is the way forward in tackling crime locally?

Norman Baker

Yes, and the Government are on the right track in talking about crime and disorder partnerships. Good work is being done in my constituency by Lewes district council, East Sussex council and the police. A great deal can come from such partnerships, not least the provision of information on the ground that can help the police to detect serious crime. As the police themselves say, those involved in petty crime are often involved in serious crime. Such a partnership tier should not be neglected.

Part of the solution is more police. The bottom line is that we need more professional, paid police officers doing a proper job. We need better retention of those officers to ensure that the good work done in recruitment is not lost at the other end. Perhaps we need a retained force—such as that in fire service—to offer part-time police work to those of, or approaching, retirement age. That would enable specialisation and help us to build on experience. We also need more specials. I do not understand why we cannot attract more specials, and we must consider what can be done to increase numbers. We also need community support officers, who should be local authority employees and should rack up the powers of traffic wardens.

A more serious issue—in this regard, I share in large measure the views of the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire—is the powers in the Police Reform Bill relating to democracy and accountability. In essence, the Home Secretary will have far greater powers of intervention than any previous Home Secretary has enjoyed. That is worrying and dangerous, and I hope that the Government will not go down that road. In many ways, the police are accountable to their local police authority. That tripartite structure—as the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire described it—is essential. It works well, and ensures that operational control remains with the chief constable, who in turn is accountable to the local police authority. That is a better way to deal with matters, rather than through the Home Office legislating via Parliament.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

When Mayor Giuliani took office, he was told by the local police establishment that he should concentrate on important matters, rather than concerning himself with petty crime, but he did concern himself with such crime. He put the criminals inside, and in doing so solved the major crime as well. However, he had direct control, and was directly and democratically accountable. Does the hon. Gentleman think that we should learn from the American lesson?

Norman Baker

I am happy to learn lessons from anywhere in the world. We in this country are always keen to learn from America, but perhaps we should learn rather more frequently from our European Union colleagues. I am always surprised when we look to America for solutions. America prides itself on having the death penalty, but that is neither fair nor particularly effective in reducing crime. We can learn lessons from elsewhere in the world, but we should not assume that what works in America will necessarily work here.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we have an opportunity in London? The Mayor of London should take a real interest in the policing of the capital and liaise closely with the Metropolitan police authority. We have a chance of effective political direction for policing in London, but whether we will get it is another matter.

Norman Baker

The Mayor clearly has a role to play in the co-ordination of policing across London. The hon. Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) mentioned the danger of balkanisation unless a London-wide perspective is adopted, and I agree with that point.

I tell the Minister plainly that my party cannot live with clauses 5 to 7 of the Police Reform Bill, which would give unprecedented powers to the Home Secretary. He would be able to direct chief officers to submit action plans. He would also be able to make regulations to require police forces to adopt particular operational procedures or practices". That is unacceptable. We will not budge on that point and we will do all that we can, in conjunction with the Conservatives and others in this Chamber and in the Lords, to delete those provisions. That is a point of principle for us.

It would be very dangerous to give any Home Secretary such powers. The present Home Secretary is an affable fellow, most of the time, but when we frame legislation we should think about the worst possible holder of that office. We need to consider how those powers might be used by a future Home Secretary. I do not wish to upset the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire, but I wonder whether the Minister has thought about what the worst sort of Conservative Home Secretary could do with the proposed powers. That is the test that we need to apply in deciding whether the powers are reasonable and sensible.

I am also concerned by the Home Secretary's tendency to intervene—most notably in the sacking by press release of the chief constable of Sussex. I do not claim that the chief constable of Sussex was perfect, but if he was not, it was a matter for the Sussex police authority to deal with, not the Home Secretary. If the Government wish to argue that greater powers are necessary in law to deal with chief constables who are not up to the job, I am willing to consider the issue and to determine what provision could be made to that end. However, such powers should rest not with the Home Secretary but with the police authority or some other independent mechanism. When the Home Secretary was the Education Secretary, his style was to intervene before breakfast, before lunch and before tea—although someone else might have said that. That was unpleasant and unwelcome in education, but it is positively dangerous when it happens with the police.

Another aspect of the reform package is the independent police complaints commission, which is a concept that I wholly welcome. However, the March issue of "Police" says that it was the Police Federation's understanding that the IPCC would undertake 1,000 investigations a year. There are some 32,000 complaints against the police every year, which means that the new commission would investigate only some 3 per cent. of complaints, leaving 97 per cent. to be investigated by police officers. If that is the case, it is a weakness in the provisions. The IPCC should be responsible for all investigations of complaints. It should be able to call for evidence in the same way as the parliamentary or local government ombudsman does and obtain the views of the police, and it should be responsible. I hope that the Police Federation is wrong on that point and I should be grateful if the Minister clarified the role of the IPCC and how many cases a year it will address.

The clear-up rate was 32 per cent. in 1990, according to an answer supplied to my hon. Friend the Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). That fell to 25 per cent. in 1999–2000, although the actual number of clear-ups rose, reflecting the increase in crime over that period. The public are concerned by those figures, but we must put them in perspective. The clear-up rate for serious crimes, such as murder, is much higher. That is right. If—horror of horrors—a child is murdered, the public want to know that the police will take it seriously and will not rest until the person responsible is apprehended, brought to justice and convicted, however long that takes. The performance indicators that the Government wish to introduce should not dilute that approach. The danger is that the performance indicators will dictate the police's approach. It would be easy to raise the clear-up rate by paying less attention to serious crimes and scooping up less serious crimes. That would be wrong.

People respond to performance indicators. The Minister had responsibility for the fire service at one point and he will know that it has often been argued that fire authorities get paid according to how many call-outs they receive. That means that they have no incentive to reduce the number of call-outs through education in schools. Sussex fire brigade tried that approach, the number of call-outs fell and it was penalised. Fire officers have suggested to me that they should ring up with false alarms to bring the number of calls up. We have to be careful that performance indicators, which are valuable in some ways, do not achieve a perverse result.

The point made by the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) is important and I hope that the Government will consider the issue of imitation and replica weapons, licences—eight-year-olds can qualify for shotgun licences—and the access that those under 18 have to weapons, including air guns, which are a major problem in terms of cruelty to animals.

The role of customs officers at ports is also important, because many guns and drugs enter the country. We now have a full ferry service again—thank goodness—at Newhaven, but the number of customs officers has fallen from 120 10 years ago to 15 today. We cannot hold back the guns and the drugs if there are no customs officers. A big green channel has opened up at Newhaven, but the red channel is very small. If we had more customs officers, they would pay for themselves, and I hope that the Government will make that calculation.

My final point concerns the fear of crime. Many areas, including my constituency, are not hotbeds of crime and are relatively safe, which is not the case everywhere. However, in my constituency, which I am proud to represent, there is a perverse fear of crime. One reason is that the police are not out on the beat as often as people would wish, so they do not feel reassured. I do not buy the argument that I hear sometimes from chief constables and others that having police on the beat is a waste of time. It reduces the fear of crime and people are certain that they can go about their business. For example, people in Seaford in my constituency can go out in the evening. Seaford does not have a particular problem with crime, but people's fear keeps them at home in the evening, with a consequent loss of their ability to enjoy life.

The hon. Member for Lewisham, East mentioned the Crown Prosecution Service and the prosecution of crimes, but people seem to get away with a whole range of petty crimes—such as vandalism, scratching cars and pulling up flower beds—because the police do not regard them as a priority, the CPS do not want to press charges and if those responsible are brought to justice they are given a fine or a warning. Such behaviour receives no proper sanction, but if people wake up to smashed milk bottles and windows, scratched cars and upturned flowers, they believe—often wrongly—that their area is unpoliced, not law-abiding and not safe. We must deal with those crimes if we are to make big inroads.

Overall, the Police Reform Bill has many good elements, although the Government have a problem with the Police Federation over the present pay and conditions package. The Minister will have to reconsider part 1 of the Bill because, as it is constructed, it will not wash.

11.40 am
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to participate in this important debate on the police.

Most of my comments relate to the White Paper, and I will also take this opportunity to advise hon. Members of my work in my capacity as the chair of the all-party group for abuse investigations. Members of Parliament established that group in October 2001. Members from both sides of the House and the other place receive correspondence from a growing number of constituents who are concerned about the efficacy of the processes used by the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in connection with their investigations following abuse allegations.

Many organisations and constituents who act on behalf of the falsely accused assert that individuals have been convicted of crimes that they did not commit and that vexatious complaints have been made against those individuals with the express purpose of receiving financial or other gain. The group has not been established to consider individual cases, but it uses indicative cases to illustrate the processes and practices used by the police authorities, the CPS and the magistrates courts in the pursuit of their investigations.

The group has received a number of reports from experts in abuse investigations. On behalf of members of the group, I have met and been in written dialogue with a number of individuals, agencies and authorities to discuss the concerns of group members. I am particularly grateful to, among others, Mr. Barrie Irving, the director of the Police Foundation, and Denis Bourne of the Kansai Business System. Mr. Irving and Mr. Bourne have recently submitted written evidence, which I commend to the House, to the Select Committee on Home Affairs in respect of the White Paper, and in my speech I shall reflect some of their words, which I wholly endorse, as they reinforce the results of my extensive research into the activity of the police.

The White Paper condemns a number of features of police performance. Variations in crime and detection rates across the country are criticised, and it is argued, through the quotation from the Audit Commission, that that variability exceeds what can be explained by environmental factors. Although it is acknowledged that the police do not have sole responsibility for that variability, the Government's intention to reduce the variability and generally improve police performance is clearly stated.

To that end, a variety of stratagems are outlined, including improved training, to which I shall refer later, making human resource management regulations more flexible, and subjecting chief officers to a standard assessment procedure. The nub of the new sanctions to be made available to the Home Secretary to back up requests for better police performance is the creation of a standards unit in the Home Office and a new power to impose management intervention from outside a force—presumably, from outside the service—on forces deemed to be failing by the measurement methods and the criteria then available.

I wish to concentrate on the seminal issue of improving operational policing performance at basic command unit level, to improve overall police efficiency and, inevitably, effectiveness. The White Paper makes it clear that that will also be the priority behind the drafting of the Police Reform Bill. I also wish to comment on the wisdom and efficacy of the strategy outlined in the White Paper. I concur wholeheartedly with the belief that many police operational units are currently operating below par, but wish to argue against the methodology that is likely to be used to identify failing forces and basic command units and the remedial strategy that the Government intend to deploy against them.

Thanks to very considerable innovative policing research in the United States and other parts of Europe during the 1970s and 1980s, there is a ready supply of plausible methodologies available to improve detection rates, provide more effective policing services and control certain kinds of crime. Although those methodologies have been available for many years in the form of original US research reports, policing handbooks and Home Office replications of original US work, it would appear that the mix of operational activities on the ground in UK basic command units remains much as it was in the late 1980s: and there are some key reasons why that is so.

It has proved difficult to deliver to police authorities the information technology systems necessary to implement more sophisticated strategies in the UK. The UK police attitude to information and information processing reflects the reality that most officers have to supply data that do not directly help them to do their jobs. The pressure on local officers to maintain a purely reactive, incident-chasing style of policing has been unrelenting, as public demand for services and the dictates of the criminal justice system appear to use up all available time.

The availability of officers over time continues to be a matter of feast or famine. Externally dictated demands, conditions of service and other cultural considerations often lead to human resource wastage, and patterns of deployment remain stubbornly misaligned with demand in many areas. The service has evolved a culture of conformity with complex sets of regulations and directives. The eyes of supervisors and supervised are therefore directed to demonstrating that what has been ordered to be done has been done. In such a culture it is easy, perhaps inevitable, for results—performance—to take a back seat.

A national statistics-driven centralised performance management regime has been grafted on top of that system. Because of the structure of that regime, it has become absorbed into the culture of directives, orders and local attitudes to improving outputs. Statistics used to describe outcomes rather than inform the user about the inefficiencies and ineffectiveness of the processes employed are an absolute waste of time and should not, in themselves, direct funding or activity programmes.

In a culture of conformity, confronting individuals about performance in the absence of direct evidence of dereliction of duty tends to be avoided. Individual performance issues are rarely addressed. In extreme cases where discipline procedures are inappropriate, they are dealt with in an arcane way that breeds resentment and distrust. Formal performance assessment is largely a discredited process.

As long as that conformity model holds sway, there can be no real pressure on the service to provide the management skills training necessary for proactive performance management. There appears to be no need for it simply because, if people are meeting their targets, there is no criticism, and hence no need to evaluate the procedures that they employ to achieve their targets. Those points are well illustrated by my review of the inspections undertaken by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary.

My thorough analysis of the reports produced by HMIC and the CPS from 1995 to 2001 indicates that there has been no systematic evaluation of the processes used by the police when they collect evidence and that there has been no review undertaken by the CPS into the effectiveness of the processes utilised by its own staff who scrutinise and evaluate evidence for credibility.

What follows is an objective assessment of the investigations undertaken by HMIC and the CPS to illustrate the nature and scope of their work. Hon. Members will know that HMIC is charged with helping to establish and enforce standards of efficiency, rather than effectiveness, for each police authority. To that end, it undertakes a series of reviews designed to assess the operations of each constabulary and, where it finds flaws, to provide remedial recommendations. As hon. Members will know, those inspections can take one of three forms: performance review inspections, primary inspections or thematic inspections. Performance reports are also produced for the police training facilities throughout the country.

Although those inspections are an effective tool for defining the management framework and the efficiency of general operational procedures—they check on targets met and objectives fulfilled—the reviews, in any of their incarnations, do little to assess the substantive, rather than procedural, value of the work being carried out by each constabulary. As a result, the reports provide information on how well procedures are being performed and targets met, but do nothing to examine the efficacy of the procedures themselves—how procedures and administration affect the quality and the credibility of the evidence collected. In that way, HMIC provides conformity audits, rather than effective performance analysis.

Although there has been no prescriptive model for performance review inspections, the topics covered in the reports are more or less universal. The issues assessed include long-term planning, budgetary and personnel policies, and questions raised by specific types of crime. In general, the reports will present a synopsis of the strategic ambitions of the force, which, far from providing a coherent vision of the purpose and substantive procedures involved in policing, read as little more than chronologies of meetings and publications and explanations of management styles.

In respect of the broader policy questions, the discussion is generally confined to how performance targets are set and the methods used to assess whether they are met. There appears to be a lack of concern for the choice of objectives and the selection of the methods employed to achieve them, despite the fact that, as resources become scarcer relative to demands, those decisions become more crucial.

The more specific sections of the reports that are designed to investigate performance and individual types of policing duties are similarly flawed. Methods of monitoring performance are again reduced to explanations of quality audit and "information package" distributions. Similarly, examinations of crime management constitute a list of target statistics and an evaluation of classification and recording procedures. Consequently, the recommendations that these investigations generate involve suggestions for more frequent publication of data, a shift in governing structure, the commissioning of independent studies into absenteeism and the like, and further reviews of whether practices are in accordance with strategy and produce the required statistics.

Although the statistics provided in the performance review inspections are certainly indicative of whether constabularies are effectively run and consistently meet performance targets, they, too, fail to assess whether the adoption of these structures and targets by the forces produces a high calibre of police work and helps to advance the larger goals of not only efficient, but constructive and just outcomes.

The primary inspections are similar in content and structure to the performance reviews, but are somewhat more detailed and provide further assessments of previous reviews and their effects. Although they delve more into specific facets of each area of analysis, the analysis itself is no more comprehensive than that observed in the performance reviews. Discussions of strategy and planning still amount to explanations of hierarchies and guidelines for establishing targets, while reviews of training are more focused on the logistics of the process than the efficacy of the methods and the skill sets that they are designed to impart. Similarly, the analysis of criminal justice performance concentrates on the efficiency of the methodologies rather than the quality of the product that these approaches are likely to produce.

I must touch on the performance and primary inspections of training facilities. The reviews of training facilities take the same form and occur on the same timetable as the inspections of individual constabularies. Like their counterparts, the training reports cover a wide range of topics, but are uniquely and disproportionately concerned with the status of the facilities and the equipment in the training establishment rather than the quality of the training provided. Generally, the reports concentrate on administrative matters and the suitability of training facilities, such as swimming pools, rather than the substantive purpose of the facilities.

National Police Training and its predecessors have, for good historical reasons, been structured as the institutions of further education within policing. Police officers have been treated by these institutions as students who, having received instruction, either pass or fail courses. Although such an approach can produce an educated elite, it does not, on the whole, generate pervasive behavioural competence and essential management skills. Raising the level of behavioural skills requires a coaching, mentoring approach, usually at the workplace. The accent is on demonstration and practice, not on the acquisition of information.

Trainers must be able to guarantee that they will, within broad limits, produce desired levels of competent behaviour. The trainee in such a regime is merely able to turn up and bring levels of intelligence, attention and motivation to the party. My analysis, which has been supported, suggests that such training produces the following skills deficits. Basic command units have not been trained on collaborative communication, and there is generally an inability and lack of opportunity to give or receive feedback on performance or the execution of cases. There is also—I have not been able to identify any suitable training—an inability to analyse effectively problems and, subsequently, design remedial action, in addition to defining simple work processes as a basis for assessing and improving performance. Although the inspections contain statements of what the training programme is designed to foster in students, the inspections do little to examine whether the goals are being achieved and whether the methods employed are appropriate to the goals set forth.

I also wish to reflect on thematic inspections. Because of their narrow scope, the thematic reviews are more likely to produce not only information on procedure, but an analysis of the value of the procedures themselves. However, in the context of sex abuse investigations that are currently being carried out in the United Kingdom, I wish to point out that there has been no thematic review from 1995 to date that relates specifically to the methods of investigation into cases of sexual abuse of children, even though new guidelines are simultaneously being prepared to assist in the investigation of such cases. In addition, it has proved impossible to obtain evidence from any individual police authority to show that it has undertaken research into the efficacy of the processes that it deploys in such cases.

What have I learned about the nature of the audit and assessment work that is carried out by HMIC? Its reports appear to be about the process that monitors the efficiency with which goals are achieved but not about the efficacy or the value of the methodologies employed by the police or the CPS during the course of their investigations or the value of the goals themselves.

I have a number of questions for my right hon. Friend the Minister. If there is manifest public anxiety about the quality of some aspects of policing—for instance, the choice of police goals and/or the methods of achieving them—how can the current tripartite system of police accountability engage constructively with this anxiety? Which part of the tripartite structure should take the lead, and how can the public interest best be represented? If the strict constitutional position is that HMIC provides an assessment of police authority efficiency, but not effectiveness, to the Home Secretary, what organisation should realistically undertake that task? Should the activity be better internalised? Should we not empower and require police authorities to review the efficacy of their procedures?

I am dismayed that the only way we appear to achieve significant change in the criminal justice system is as a consequence of royal commissions and departmental Committee inquiries. To use an engineering analogy, we must enable the providers of this crucial service to effect changes within their own company before they are declared bankrupt and sent into ritualistic receivership, only to be rebranded and relaunched essentially unchanged because the change has not arisen from the grass roots but been imposed.

I have to ask myself whether the police force in this country is currently the British Leyland of the public authorities, producing vast quantities of statistics that no longer appeal and are not indicative of the quality of the product coming off the line and into the street. To continue the engineering analogy to illustrate my point, every engineering company in the country had quality control departments 50 years ago to check that the production of the product was perfect. Where are the quality control departments in each police authority? Furthermore, British engineering companies found that, even if they had perfect products, that did not necessarily save them from liquidation. Companies that want to survive and develop must engage strategic and marketing departments that are specifically focused on the requirements of the public and shareholders, and must redefine their products to meet changing demands.

I cannot find these strategic product review activities in police authorities and I would argue that they need to be there. Management by consultant or, in this case, HMIC or the Home Office sometimes offers sinking ships a reprieve, but it cannot keep them afloat unless there is a serious redesign of the processes utilised and the products produced.

The involvement of junior officers in the reconfiguration of the service is essential. Bottom-up redesign processes can enable and have enabled organisations to transform themselves. However, I am aware that this proposal is currently counter-cultural, threatens established relationships with senior management and is usually sanctioned and supported only by the senior police managers who are confident in their ability to devolve power. Indeed, several successful schemes have been referred to in the debate and I am sure that this facet of bottom-up control has been a real element. Without coherent senior management support for the bottom-up philosophy, the results of such experiments quickly wither even though they are temporarily successful.

When junior officers are not involved in the process of change in the way that bottom-up techniques allow, there is a persistent tendency to keep street-level operations entirely isolated from senior managers and their schemes for change and improvement. It is into this cultural environment that the White Paper ventures. Its tone accurately mimics the hectoring tone of those campaigns for change about which junior officers are most cynical. The erection of a new superordinate source for this kind of rhetoric on the back of devices such as a "standards unit" and the formal assessment of ACPO-rank merely increases the vast chain-of-command distance between street level officers and the perceived source of ultimate power in the system. If the command structure already worked well, that might be an acceptable stratagem. In the face of the current evidence about the level of connection between senior and junior ranks, and in view of the length of the chain of command, the White Paper's approach threatens to reinforce the negative attitudes of junior officers and the dysfunctional management style of their superiors.

At a more prosaic level, the performance superstructure that is being planned by the Home Secretary is likely to create an even greater need for the collation of statistics and other information at basic command unit level. The average officer will not have a personal interest in the accuracy of that information. The top-down performance regime that is envisaged will merely reinforce the directives, regulations, report-up culture that officers on the ground can so easily identify as the source of their poor efficiency.

If the Police Reform Bill pours additional human resources into the system while doing nothing to change the management culture, there is a real danger that those resources will be mopped up by additional administrative burdens that are created at the same time. On the other hand, responsibility for additional officers, sworn and unsworn, will increase the need radically to overhaul junior and middle management training and performance procedures. If senior managers see themselves as being placed under threat by the invention of yet more superstructure at the Home Office, they will be liable to exaggerate their authoritarian style. That will actively hinder the process of management culture reform.

It is nevertheless right that the White Paper should target restrictive conditions of service, high levels of bureaucracy and inefficient information technology deployment as sources of poor police performance, but those key factors have been targeted to little effect for many years. As the complexity of social life and the rate of technological development increase, the leisurely pace of police adaptation becomes critical. The general approach of the White Paper was tried by Patrick Sheehy. Not only was there little visible implementation following his report, but the reduction of the rank structure that was achieved reverted more or less to normal after a polite interval. I understand the frustration of successive Ministers and their supporting teams of civil servants when faced with the police service's ability to fend off change. However, it is a well-established principle of clinical practice that losing patience with the patient does not increase the effectiveness of the treatment offered.

Local junior officers have a considerable degree of control over the figures that emerge so impressively from the mouth of the statistical machine that successive Governments have built at the Home Office. In important respects, those figures are a product of the culture. They are fairly accurate where officers feel the responsibility to make them so, but can be alarmingly inaccurate where those responsible for collecting them have no stake in their accuracy.

For geographical, demographic, historical and social reasons that are not under police control, basic command units face idiosyncratic performance advantages and disadvantages. If officers perceived that they were generating information to feed a remedial process in which they were critically involved, and which was presided over by a supportive management, they would quickly ensure that data quality and processing improved. Something akin to the opposite is happening. Distant statistical experts are meant to identify failing BCUs. The tables in the White Paper give a stark picture of the rough and ready statistical reasoning that will be employed. Those responsible for drafting the White Paper must imagine that the political force of the argument for change will be enhanced if police management is seen by the public to be responsible for a degree of failure that is clear, stark and considerable.

In that context, I support the Police Foundation's argument that successive generations of police managers have allowed a management culture and style to evolve that does not produce adaptive and performance-related responses to changes and increases in public demand. The first step towards improving that situation should be to encourage senior managers to take responsibility for it. The proper—indeed, constitutionally exact—role of the Home Secretary is to support and to give advice to chief officers so that police performance at a local level can be enhanced. Taking the responsibility for problem definition and the design of remedies out of the hands of chief officers disempowers them when they most need to act with assurance and flair.

Facile statistical definition of failure is a powerful symbol of what the Home Secretary intends as regards the relationship with, and future action on, ACPO and the Police Superintendents Association. The definitions are facile because they fail to take into account the true complexity of the available performance measures and their patterns of interconnectedness and correlation with geographic and demographic characteristics of basic command units, and hence forces. No doubt Ministers wish to impress the police service with the firmness of their reform intentions. The Cabinet is signed up to evidence-based policy. It therefore appears to be counterproductive in that case to resort to a meretricious use of statistics.

To set the record straight, the variation tables quoted in the White Paper should be more properly used to set out a number of null hypotheses for which there are wel-established test procedures. That has already been tried out by several experts, and I believe that Home Office statisticians have also undertaken the task. The results of that exercise tend to give the lie to the idea that performance statistics show the kind of unexplained and unacceptable variation that the White Paper claims. Certainly, there is great variation, but much of it can be explained. Indeed, that is the point of the well-known and respected statistical technique known as analysis of variance.

It is far from clear that the figures accurately identify poor police management as a substantial cause. As I have been at pains to point out, there is poor police management, and it is the cause of poor performance, but the hot spots cannot be found by using the simplistic method that is adopted in the White Paper.

Mr. Wilkinson

May I interrupt the hon. Lady's filibuster for a moment to ask her to identify some of those hot spots?

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas

Taking as an example cases in which I am closely involved, the statistics for the number of sex abuse offences that are being perpetrated on Merseyside would lead one to believe that the people of Merseyside are genetically predisposed to sex abuse. Statistics for other parts of the country show that very few sex abuse cases are being pursued, which implies that Merseyside is a hot spot for sex abuse activities and inquiries. However, there is nothing at all to support that view, unless one accepts that argument for genetic predisposition. I should be pleased if the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) were able to give me any research corroborating that theory.

An effective compromise is to present the simple league tables as no more than the beginning of an exploratory process. If it is to be successful, the process requires the good faith of the Government and the constructive participation of ACPO, the Police Superintendents Association and the Police Federation.

Ultimately, I would argue that diagnosis of management failure that is accurate enough to use as the basis for remedial action, and which will be accepted by all interested parties as the basis for change, requires a bottom-up, organisation-led approach. Where legislation supports such cultural reform processes, they can be said to have serious positive potential; otherwise, they are likely to suffer the fate of their predecessors.

I share the Police Foundation's view that the White Paper has set out on a well-worn path with insufficient insight into the nature of the problem that it seeks to tackle. To my knowledge, there has never been an example of a Government producing a revolution in management culture and style by legislative diktat. Nearly all the most effective catalysts for change were applied at middle and junior management levels, with directors supporting but not directing the process. Technological change is one universal means by which to power rapid and radical adaptation. No such radical technological change is on the horizon for policing, and innovations that might have had an effect—command and control, computer-assisted detection and crime pattern analysis—have mostly been folded into the existing culture without causing much disturbance. The Home Secretary and the Government may well argue that even during the Thatcher Administration and at the time of Sir Patrick Sheehy's report, concern over police performance and political will and power never coalesced as they do now; and that historical precedents should therefore be ignored in favour of a full-frontal assault.

ACPO and the Police Superintendents Association have already given their first reactions to the White Paper and I am pleased to say that it seems to have provoked a lively new interest in performance management. There is no intrinsic reason why, after a period of turbulence, the institutions outlined in the White Paper cannot be adapted to a reasonable and reputable process of management reform. However, the immediate intention to reform police conditions of service poses a taxing dilemma. The proposals have been roundly condemned and rejected by the Police Federation, as all involved could have predicted.

I acknowledge that conditions of service as regards shift working, overtime, salary scales, special payments, sickness, absenteeism, and so on must change. That much has been apparent since the Sheehy report in 1993. However, the way in which the list is approached will affect the progress of the rest of the reform agenda. So far, the auguries in that respect are not good, and my conclusion is that if negotiation with the federation remains on its current combative course, ACPO and the Police Superintendents Association will be seriously disadvantaged in trying to work behind the rhetoric of the White Paper, and with the impositions and injunctions of the Police Reform Bill, to achieve genuine reform in the management culture.

It should be clearly recognised that much could be offered to the federation arising from the reform agenda. The federation's considerable interest in the professional development of its members, and the introduction of warden and non-sworn officer schemes, will create opportunities for junior officers to take on management roles. New pay scales and reward systems are mooted; they would be welcomed at local level if there was trust that the spirit of these innovations would be honoured in their implementation. The recent federation vote against the reforms was a measure of its confidence in the service's management, just as the tone and content of the White Paper symbolise politicians' trust in the service. This is an elegant stand-off.

In conclusion, I believe that the political scene is too well set to be substantially redrawn at this juncture. If the Government have to keep on the present course, the most useful contribution that they can make to the reform of police performance management will be to invest heavily in three crucial areas. First, every effort must be made to empower, not weaken, the leadership potential of ACPO and the Police Superintendents Association. Secondly, a viable working relationship has to be created through the federation with sergeants and inspectors to deliver reform. Thirdly—most importantly, in my view—there must be a radical reappraisal of management training for junior officers. Only when these recommendations have been implemented will I have confidence in the product coming off the justice production line in the UK today.

Several hon. Members


Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. A number of hon. Members are hoping to catch my eye, so I urge Members to make brief contributions. More may then be successful.

12.11 pm
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

This has been a most reassuring debate. First, the Minister told us that there were no Spanish practices in the police, and now we know from the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) that there are no time-watchers in the House of Commons.

The contribution of the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) was to demonstrate by its loquacity that the Liberal party is at least the measure of the Conservatives. The difference, of course, is that my hon. Friend the Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) has his natural fenlander reassurance. I do not think that he ever gets rushes of blood to the head. He is someone on whom we can instinctively rely, and the police service want that kind of interest from those who are likely to be Ministers of the Crown in the near future. We were most impressed by what he had to say.

Without going down memory lane, I have detected that people's attitude to crime has greatly changed during the time that I have been in this place, from the early 1970s when I was a Member in Bradford, and from the late 1970s when I started representing Ruislip-Northwood. When I first became involved in inner-city politics in Bradford, and in outer-city politics in London, crime was not the overwhelming preoccupation for our constituents that it is now. Perhaps that is because, in those early days, there was not the drug culture that we have today. Muggings and street crime were not prevalent, youth was not so alienated, antisocial and violent, and there was not such a high incidence of racially motivated offences. The availability and use of firearms was much less, and—as a background—the family unit was not in the process of disintegration that it is in to a large extent today.

Any Government, therefore, will have a very difficult background against which to evolve imaginative policing policies. Her Majesty's Opposition are correct to emphasise—as I am sure they will on Tuesday, when we debate the quality of life in London and the south-east—that the breakdown of law and order in the capital and the prevalent culture of violence that exists in many of our big cities in the south-east and elsewhere have to be addressed as an urgent priority by Her Majesty's Government. They have not done so effectively to date.

There are useful initiatives. It is true that the crime fighting fund will provide extra moneys to recruit new officers—although retention has been more of a problem than recruitment—and the resource allocation formula will make it likely that outer London boroughs such as mine will have a higher proportion of officers than in recent years.

The effort that the Government are making to address the pay and remuneration of officers is crucial, and they must get it right. They will have to sit down with the representatives of the police service and work out a pay and conditions structure that will motivate and retain officers for at least the next decade. That may need some fairly radical measures, but it must be done.

I found something that the Minister said particularly important. He stressed the need to improve the training system, and said that the police needed enhanced leadership skills and a faster promotion structure. I endorse all those sentiments. I am not against the idea of a national centre for police excellence, or against the concept that the Home Secretary should more actively monitor the performance of chief officers.

In putting the tackling of crime at the centre of the Government's priorities, we could perhaps look at the model in many other countries, where the police service has an equal status to the three armed forces of the realm. I hope that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis could be given right of access, if necessary, to the Prime Minister. That would be a measure of great imagination, and would have a lot to commend it.

The strategic aims that the Commissioner has set are wise. They include the increased security of the capital, in which regard the intelligence service within the police force must work more effectively with MI5 to tackle terrorism; the creation of safer communities for Londoners—all our constituents want more beat officers; and an improved police response to vulnerable victims. Here, too, our constituents often complain that the 999 system does not work well and that the police respond ineffectively and slowly.

A further aim is to tackle youth offending. I suggest that the Government reintroduce the borstal system. I believe that placing young offenders who have become alienated from society and repeatedly commit crime in an institution where they could learn new skills in a controlled environment in which discipline and better values were inculcated would he a great step forward.

Other measures are also possible. I would re-institute officer cadet entry into the Metropolitan force, and have a Trenchard-style police academy in which the best standards of leadership could be inculcated, and where the high fliers could receive the in-depth training and career-enhancing measures that are needed in their formative years.

Instead of having the problem of community support officers, I would transform the specials and have an auxiliary police service, rather like the Royal Auxiliary Air Force. It would operate to exactly the same standards as the regular force and be paid exactly the same rates of pay when on duty. It would be engaged in regular duty for two weeks every year and have a proper bounty. It should be a force to which retiring officers could aspire. They would receive an enhanced terminal grant if, on leaving the regular force, they joined the auxiliaries.

Lastly, there should be a much more flexible retirement age in the police force as a whole. Many of our police officers retire after 30 years' service when they still have a great deal to offer to the community. A flexible retirement age should be introduced, offering a full career even up to the age of 65. Clearly, officers who opted for such service would engage in more sedentary but nevertheless worthwhile duties, which are currently performed by civilians.

The Metropolitan police authority and the Government have exciting opportunities at present. The Government will have to show leadership and an interest in careers in the police service, which they have not done hitherto. If they can do that, they can start to address the problems that vex our constituents and that urgently need to be addressed.

12.20 pm
Martin Linton (Battersea)

At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that we had had almost too much debate about the police recently. I welcome this debate, as do my constituents. We have had a horrendous couple of months in Battersea, which started with the murder of the estate agent Timothy Robinson, who was knifed as he got out of his car in the street. A few days later, a second knifepoint robbery took place just a few streets away. A few days after that, a yardie gun fight ended with a murdered man lying on the steps of Battersea police station.

I have received many letters about these events, as colleagues can imagine, and many local residents have been in a state of shock. Women have written me to say that when they parked their car at night they ran from the car to the front door. A man wrote to me to say that his wife would not even go out at night in a car because she was so frightened by what was going on. All those who wrote to me said that they could not remember when they last saw a bobby in the street. They read nothing but crime stories in the local papers, and the yellow witness appeal boards that are intended to reassure them merely unnerved them. One constituent wrote: What was once a quiet and peaceful corner of London, is now a threatening environment. In the days after those events, there were calls for extreme remedies. Some people called for vigilante squads, and criminals were talked of as "sub-humans". That must give us all pause to worry. Much anger was directed at police and politicians, exemplified in an Evening Standard headline, "In Battersea the police and the politicians have betrayed us".

As politicians, we are used to dealing with accusations of betrayal, and I am sure that we can cope with that. However, it is completely over the top to start accusing the police of betrayal. Nobody who knows the work of the police in Wandsworth could possibly doubt their dedication to the battle against crime, particularly under their present commander Martin Jauch. The debate should be about the most effective ways of policing. To accuse the police of betrayal is a symptom of paranoia and confirms my view that the author of that particular article, Dominic Prince, is something of a twat.

Madam Deputy Speaker

Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will think carefully in future about the words that he uses.

Martin Linton

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall adopt the suggestion of one of my hon. Friends and change the word to twit, which I am sure will be more acceptable.

The author of the article also claimed that there are police no-go areas in Battersea, and suggested that the estate just across the road from where he lives was one. I shall not mention the name of the estate because I do not want to contribute to an unmerited reputation. However, the assertion is a complete fantasy and overlooks the fact that the borough police headquarters is situated in that estate. He also said that the streets of Battersea were run by mobs, which again displays a talent for hyperbole that I am sure will ensure a continuing and successful career on the Evening Standard.

It is also an exaggeration—although, sadly, not much of an exaggeration—to say, as this journalist did, that Battersea is awash with street crime. There has been a very worrying increase. It has increased in the last few months from 5 per cent. to 7 per cent. of crime in the area. That may not sound much when expressed in that way, but it is a sharp increase. Sadly, many boroughs in London have an even worse problem, but that is little consolation for us.

Dominic Prince said something that I have seen repeated in many letters in which people complain that they never see policemen on the beat. That is an odd thing for him to say, as he lives about 100 yards from the borough police headquarters. It is interesting to look behind the comment, because it is made so frequently. It partly reflects modern lifestyles. People often drive to work: they drive back late, they are not at home during the day, and are often away at weekends. When they are at home, they expect to see a police officer strolling past, which is sometimes an unfair expectation.

At a public meeting held soon after the murders and attended by some 300 people, practically everyone was worried that they did not see policemen on the streets. The irony is that two of the best community policemen in the service operate in our area. In the ward where the murders took place, PC Charlie Baldwin is the organiser of the Battersea summer scheme, which is one of the most effective crime prevention summer schemes in the country. It was opened two or three years ago by the then Home Secretary and the then metropolitan commissioner, and their attendance was a tribute to the success of the scheme.

PC Baldwin was commended for saving the life of a man who recently threatened to throw himself off Battersea bridge by hauling him over the ledge by his trouser belt. He is an exceptionally good community policeman. In the neighbouring ward, where those other crimes took place, the community policeman is PC John Johnson, who has just won the Met's community constable of the year award for the second time, which I think is unprecedented.

Those community policemen would be the first to point out that there is a problem, which is partly to do with modern lifestyles and the fact that people are out all day and away at the weekend. There is no one to notice when a stranger is about. People often do not know whether someone is a stranger, because they spend so little time at home. People have far greater wealth, and they leave it unguarded for far longer periods. I think that the Minister can see where this argument is leading. Given the way that people live nowadays, a larger police force is required to look after them.

I welcome the extra 1,000 police officers that we have had in the Met area in the past year, and the commitment to provide another 1,500 by 2004, which will bring the Met up to the record figure of 28,000. That is in stark contrast to the last five years of the Conservative Government, whose crime figures the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire likes to quote. During that period the Met lost 2,000 officers: we lost 100 in Wandsworth alone. The figures for Wandsworth fell from 693 in 1993 to 596 in 1997. I grant that much of that reduction was due to amalgamations, and continued with the borough amalgamation in 1999.

I believe that that process went too far, as the Minister's opening comments suggested. We have now succeeded in reversing the trend. Police numbers in Wandsworth have risen in the past few months from 540 to 565, and we have succeeded in talking the Metropolitan police authority out of a proposal that would have cut the figure back to 550. As things stand, police numbers in Wandsworth are frozen for the foreseeable future at 565. I believe that, given recent events, far more police officers will be needed, and that is a common view in the area. More are needed in other boroughs, and more in London as a whole.

I do not seek to draw a false comparison with New York's 44,000 police officers, as they cover a much larger population, but we definitely need 30,000 officers in London, including 600 in Wandsworth, or we need new and higher targets for police officers and community support officers combined. This is an immediate problem in an area such as Battersea. We need police officers and community support officers. The idea of community police officers was pioneered by a former borough commander in Battersea, and it is a great concept, but it repeatedly breaks down because beat bobbies have to be called away to help on some other crime.

Given the choice between catching a real robber in Balham and patrolling a street in Battersea where there just might be a robbery, the superintendent is always going to go for catching the robber, so community beat officers are often called away rather than being left to patrol their own patch. The only answer is to have people whose job it is to patrol, who cannot be called away. That is why I welcome the idea of police auxiliaries. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) suggests that we should call them royal auxiliaries, but if we use the phrase in the Police Reform Bill we will call them community support officers.

I welcome the neighbourhood patrol that will start in Clapham Junction on 1 April. It is galling that in an area such as Clapham Junction that is known to have a high crime rate, one can see the street robbers and shoplifters in action at the CCTV control room in the town hall, but there cannot always be somebody on patrol ready to nab them. That is why it is important that community support officers should have the powers suggested, and be able to detain people for up to 30 minutes or accompany them to a police station.

The Police Federation is worried that community support officers will take its members' jobs, but £25,000 a year—I believe that under the new proposals that will rise to more than £26,000—is a very good starting salary for an 18-year-old, even in London, and people must recognise that police officers require certain skills, which is what they are being paid for. However, some aspects of traditional police work, such as providing a visible presence in the community, combating lower-level disorder, and escort duties, do not require those skills. Those are the activities that, under the Bill, community support officers would carry out.

The same was said in the 1960s when traffic wardens were introduced—in Croydon first, as we now know. I dare say that there were police officers who opposed the idea then, but which of them would now say that police officers should claim back the work that traffic wardens do?

Crime becomes more and more sophisticated, and police officers have to become more skilled, specialist and highly trained. The 18-week training that Metropolitan police officers have is too short. I am not sure about the police academy that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood suggested, but I think that they should have a full year's training—and rather than their spending all that time in a police college, they should go to universities and colleges and study with probation officers, social workers and community workers. Trainee police would then be in contact with all the other professions that they will work with.

Making a reality of the problem-solving intelligence-led approach to police work requires greater analytical and planning skills, and the emphasis on the "order" part of law and order makes policing not easier but harder. As the American criminologist George Kelling pointed out, dealing with order raises issues of police discretion, so we need police with more training and maturity to deal with order issues as well as straightforward matters of law.

I am not saying that a university education makes people better police officers, but the figures in Warwickshire constabulary, for example, are worrying: only 8 per cent. of its probationers are graduates. The police career structure is fundamental to the problem. It was created when only 7 per cent. of each age group went to university, but that proportion is now well over 30 per cent. The career structure was created to provide an excellent career for school leavers, but nowadays anyone who stays on at school until the age of 18 will almost certainly go on to university, so there is no longer a group of people leaving school at 18 with A-levels who would naturally go into the police force. The natural recruiting ground for the police service should now be among graduates.

The danger is that the police service will be stranded in a time warp, designed for a world that no longer exists. It really needs to change and to become much more like a profession, with higher salaries and more skilled work. If it does that, and lets go of some of the jobs that do not require so much skill, we can fashion the kind of police force that we need.

Higher police numbers are not the full story and will not cut crime by themselves. We need greater effectiveness in the police service, and some of the operations currently under way in the Met police are wonderful examples of that. Operation Trident, led by former Battersea police commander Mike Fuller, is tackling the enormous problem of gang warfare and gun crime on our streets.

Operation Safer Streets is using covert cars, cameras and decoy officers to trap and arrest street robbers. As the Minister said, it is having enormous success and in four boroughs it has already reduced street crime. It is now being extended to other boroughs, and I am glad to say that Wandsworth is one of them. I very much hope that it will also be extended beyond 31 March.

The effectiveness of the police service, however, is not enough in itself: we have to consider the criminal justice system in its entirety. I agree with Sir John Stevens about the attitude to victims—it may be a bit strong to say that they are treated with "utter contempt", but they certainly often meet with indifference, and the courts do not take their responsibilities seriously enough. However, in my view, neither do the police.

The problem in the criminal justice system, as Sir Robin Auld pointed out, is that it is not a system: the police do their bit and then blame the Crown Prosecution Service; the CPS does its bit and then blames the courts; the courts sentence criminals and then hand all the problems to the prison service; and the prison system is concerned with ensuring that people do not escape, but does not do anything like enough to ensure that they do not reoffend: the reoffending rate among adult young males stands at 78 per cent.

A culture of buck-passing pervades the whole system. In the end, we have to get beyond that. The buck, clearly, stops at the Home Office, in the sense that that is the only organisation in a position to make all those different agencies work together. It can influence the police, the CPS, the courts, the magistrates, the judges and the prisons, ensuring that they all work as a single system.

It is unfair to put all the blame on agencies of Government, because responsibility for cutting crime rests not only with Government but with the community. There were hopeful signs in my area in the immediate aftermath of the spate of crime, when people discovered for the first time that there was a very active neighbourhood watch scheme in the area, and a Battersea crime prevention panel, which is one of the most successful at fundraising in London, and that Battersea summer scheme is right on their doorstep. We had meetings that produced a lot of new volunteers for neighbourhood watch and all the other schemes. I hope that the Minister will find time to meet some of them.

Clearly, nothing will comfort the girlfriend or the relatives of Timothy Robinson, but if one good thing can come from these horrific events, it will be a more active and crime-conscious community. That does not guarantee that we will be able to protect ourselves from such crimes, which can come out of the blue and affect anyone at any time, but it will help the police to reduce crime.

12.39 pm
Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup)

I am grateful for your giving me an opportunity to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the House for my dulcet tones. I have a dreadful head cold, for which, like youth crime, there is apparently yet no cure.

It is interesting to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who made a number of thoughtful points on which it will pay to reflect on reading Hansard. I am not sure that I agree with all his assertions, but much of his speech would find resonance outside the Chamber as well as within it.

The Bexley division of the Metropolitan police service, which serves my constituency and three others, is commanded by a very effective officer, Chief Superintendent Chris Cerroni. In the time that I have represented the constituency, I have been surprised by how much time senior police officers have been prepared to give Members of Parliament, local councillors and consultative bodies. There has been a significant change in the police service's attitude to the community, but there remains a degree of frustration and confusion among people in the area about what they get for their bucks.

There has been talk in this morning's debate of balkanisation of the police service. In the light of the scale and size of the Met's operation, it is fair to say that there is a feeling—certainly in some of the outer-London boroughs, if not the inner-London boroughs—that far too much emphasis is being placed on shifting manpower to the centre. The problem is not the fear of balkanisation espoused on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner by Members this morning but the disproportionate resources that are being deployed elsewhere.

Indeed, I have a letter from a correspondent called Mr. Blair, who is not the Prime Minister of our country but the Deputy Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and no relation. Mr. Ian Blair, who as far as I can tell is a very effective officer, wrote in a letter about my constituency dated 23 January: However, my research has shown that Bexley has been adversely affected by supplying officers on a temporary basis to other operations. In view of this, I have directed our Central Operations Department to use them as little as possible in the future to offset this imbalance. That is welcome news in our area because it has been obvious to those who live there that more and more Metropolitan police officers have been taken from outer London boroughs and put on central London duties, which are undoubtedly necessary but perhaps should not be performed at the expense of suburban areas.

My constituents have just received an additional £2 million bill—about £91 for each council tax payer—to provide for an extra 10 police constables under Mayor Livingstone's latest supplement. It was supposed to provide 20 officers; I do not know what happened to the missing 10. Given the problems of timings of shifts, sickness, training, appearances in court and so on, we will be lucky if we see for our £2 million an extra two police officers patrolling the streets of the borough of Bexley.

That is simply not acceptable and people are absolutely fed up with it. They are angry at politicians because they feel that we do not understand and that, on the whole, we are not burgled or mugged too often and do not live in at-risk areas. They see us as increasingly out of touch with what they say. [Interruption.] I realise that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is smiling at me because I am dressed in the Tory MP's traditional pinstripe suit. Before too many Labour Members refer to sociology traits, I should tell them that I was brought up on a Tyneside council estate, so I will not take too many lectures about what it is like to live in an inner-city area. Even in the north-east of England, people have bought the occasional pinstripe suit.

There is a belief that those who operate the criminal justice system—judges, senior police officers, Members of Parliament, Home Office Ministers or whoever—are a little removed from the fear and concern that people encounter at street level when going about their business. I dealt with a case a month ago of a mother whose 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son went to the local Blockbuster on Sidcup high street and a gang of youths pulled a knife on them. That is not the sort of thing that one expects to happen to children in Sidcup at teatime on a Saturday.

The leader of Bexley council, Councillor Mike Slaughter, has been prominent in pressing Mayor Livingstone, and especially the commissioner, to try to redress the balance. The borough council has rightly been very active, as have the Members of Parliament, in trying to explain the frustration in the area over the level of police power.

One irritating thing for the police officers concerned is that there is often so little that they can do. There has been a tremendous furore locally about the conversion of an old ABC cinema into a night club. The planning authority could do nothing because the class of use was the same. People could shout at their local councillor, but the local councillor could do nothing about it. Inevitably, they turned to the licensing magistrates who have a say in whether the conversion takes place—fortunately, it is not now going ahead. However, licensing magistrates can judge only whether the applicant is a fit person as an individual. They cannot turn down the licence on the basis that people may not want to deal with the consequences of having clubbers pouring out into a residential neighbourhood throughout the night.

Mr. Mark Field

Is not one of the concerns about licensing that the Government are proposing to take many powers out of the hands of locally elected representatives and put them in the hands of magistrates courts or other unelected bodies?

Derek Conway

My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that the Minister and my own Front Benchers will take note of it. There is growing frustration that institutions are no longer accountable to public pressure. Constituents often ask why magistrates let so-and-so go, as they are not lawyers or judges but are supposed to be ordinary men and women who have been chosen to exercise justice in the name of the community. Yet the community often believes that local benches do not necessarily reflect the depth of their concern about the sentences that are imposed. I realise that this is broad-brush stuff, but it reflects the strength of feeling outside the Chamber.

Sadly, I think that the job of a police officer, which has become increasingly difficult and complex, must at times be very challenging from the point of view of morale. In my borough there is great concern that, when the police eventually gather enough evidence to bring a perpetrator to justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, in its often interesting and arcane way of making decisions on prosecution, gets to the point of doing something, the perpetrator is taken to court and the trial is about to commence, the defence lawyers have interesting ways of helping their clients. We all understand that that is what they are there for, but the consequence is that witnesses in particular get fed up. They hang around in court all day, trials are delayed and a witness might be called one night, only to have to come back days later. Eventually, although the police know that there is a good case to answer, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a witness to come to court and see it through. I am dealing with a case at the moment in which a young male witness was prepared to go the distance, at some considerable personal risk, only to find himself sat in the court anteroom opposite the accused. When crimes involve neighbours, that exacerbates the problem.

I am glad that this morning's debate has not involved bandying about figures of who locked up how many when they were in government, how many are being locked up under Labour and the trade-off of statistics, as that makes our constituents roll over with boredom. The House had better realise that the public, whether they are Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or completely indifferent to the political process, are fed up with the level of crime.

Some Members mentioned the need for prisons to educate more. The hon. Member for Battersea spoke about increasing the involvement of social workers and the probation service. Although we must look at that aspect of dealing with young criminals in particular, the House would be unwise to lose sight of the need for deterrence, because that is what our constituents want. They do not want to see effective police work in catching criminals—they would rather have the criminal deterred from committing a crime in the first place. Where that has not happened and the system has so broken down that deterrence does not work, I do not believe that they are wrong to want an element of retribution.

We have said that people cannot defend themselves and their family by force of arms, and that in a civilised society they should do so by observing the laws of Parliament and through the officers of the Crown acting in their name. It is incumbent on this House, therefore, to make sure that they have the protection that deterrence and an element of retribution bring. It must be frustrating when people who have been diligent and law abiding all their lives, especially the elderly, are assaulted and robbed, only for the perpetrators to see it as a big joke because they think that they are invulnerable—perhaps we all did at that age; perhaps it is a male thing. They must not be allowed to get away with it, but our constituents believe that they are. It is time that the House took notice, stopped being partisan and realised that it is in the interests of all voters, no matter whom they support, to have a police service whose morale is high enough to lead to convictions and proper punishments.

12.50 pm
Mr. Tony Banks (West Ham)

I am reassured to see the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) attired in traditional Conservative suiting—that helps people like me who become confused by all the new Members. It used to be that if someone walked by me wearing a red tie, I could safely say, if I did not know him, "Good morning, comrade". Equally, if someone came by in a suit like the hon. Gentleman's, I could hiss "Capitalist lackey" and know that the insult had been well directed. I am grateful to him for preserving that tradition.

I welcome the debate. Last Friday, at Newham town hall, I attended the chief superintendent's awards for officers of the borough who had conducted themselves exceptionally in the line of duty. I have attended the ceremony before and it is an eye-opener. It reminds us of the bravery continually exhibited by many police officers. I was alarmed by how many awards related to crimes committed in West Ham, but the ceremony drove home the point that the police have one of the most crucial roles in society—the preservation of order.

If the police are to fulfil that role, they need to retain the respect of the overwhelming majority of our citizens. Anything that imperils the respect in which they are held imperils us all. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) talked about changes of attitude in society, and he was absolutely right. Far more unites than divides the House on the policing of our society. As the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup said, the exchange of "yah-boo, we-did-more-than-you" remarks neither advances us nor gives confidence to those whom we represent. I hope that we can continue in our present mode of putting forward ideas and exploring means of dealing with what we all agree are high and unacceptable levels of crime.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood talked about attitudes. I was brought up in Brixton in the 1950s. We played on the streets, and there was no street crime that I can remember. There was certainly no fear of such crime. Attitudes were entirely different. One was never cheeky to a police officer. There was mutual respect in the local community and there was respect for the law and the police. In exchange, policing was non-intrusive and non-aggressive. In many ways, police officers were more like "Dixon of Dock Green" than those in "The Bill".

I do not want to sound like some rheumy-eyed old fart—

Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)


Mr. Banks

My hon. Friend can say that, but he should wait until I have finished before he rushes to judgment.

There was more respect in those days, not just for the law and the police, but among people for each other and for the communities in which they lived. I can illustrate that in several small ways, and I do not mean to be flippant. I used to ride my bike all over the place and would not have dreamed of doing so without lights. I certainly would not have jumped traffic lights or ridden a full-sized bike on the pavement. Those things happen all around us today. They are not very important in themselves, but they are symptomatic of changing attitudes.

Graffiti were hardly known in those days. The only sort of graffiti that I recall were slogans such as "No to German rearmament" or "Marples must go". We did not see the kind of mindless stuff that appears on our trains and walls now. I beg someone to say that I am wrong, but I seem to remember that the streets were not strewn with litter as they are now. All that sort of thing begins to add up.

There used not to be any football violence. Last week I spoke to the Metropolitan police about football hooliganism, and the way in which it is being forced away from the grounds and into surrounding communities. The police support the Football (Disorder) Act 2000 and say that it is working, but they are concerned about the fact that magistrates are still not ready to impose the banning orders that the Act allows them to impose. That must be considered now, in the run-up to the World cup. I hope that those in the Home Office and the Lord Chancellor's Department will remind the magistracy of its power to impose such orders, because they are important to the maintenance of decent behaviour both here and abroad.

The examples that I have given may not be significant individually, but when we put them together we can see how things have changed. The root causes of the changes in the nature and size of crime statistics are too profound for me to attempt a detailed analysis in this speech, but inter alia there has been a decline in respect and concern for others, and a more permissive attitude to violence. Our shock threshold has been lowered, in terms of violent crimes and violence generally, which is all around us on television and in the rest of the media.

We have also seen the emergence of a dependency culture—the feeling that a living is owed to people, rather than having to be earned. Undoubtedly the most significant contribution to the rise in crime is the phenomenal increase in drug abuse, although there are other factors. I think that Sir John Stevens missed the target the other day when he seemed to single out the criminal justice system. Judges are no more responsible for the activities of thugs and criminals than local authorities are responsible for litter on the streets. Lawmakers—us, and judges—do not criminalise people; people criminalise themselves when they take it on themselves to break the law. Having said that, I tend to agree with the hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who has shot off—to change his suit, I hope—that judges and magistrates are too soft and too disconnected from street-level reality. Nevertheless, they are not responsible for criminal activity any more than the police are responsible by not arresting enough people.

Along with a number of others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), the hon. Gentleman spoke of the blame culture that tends to predominate nowadays. Every morning on the "Today" programme someone is whingeing on: "Why doesn't so-and-so do something? Why has this or that not been done?" Perhaps I say this because I am now a member of the party that is in government, but it always ends up being the fault of the Government and their Ministers. Why do people not say, "What are you doing about it?" [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] Please; not too much.

I feel like that. I hope it is not because I am going soft or getting old—perhaps it is—but I feel that people are always coming along saying "What are you going to do for me?" One wants to say "What the hell are you doing for yourself? You start doing something for yourself, and then maybe we can do something for you."

There is far more talk about rights in society today, and not enough about responsibilities. I believe passionately in the rights of citizens, but the supreme right of all of us is the right to lead our lives free of fear and violence. That is the supreme and fundamental right of the law-abiding citizen in this country, to which all other rights are subservient.

As a number of Members have said, we have seen the steady rise of the law-and-order issue on the political agenda, not just since the life I remember in 1950s Brixton but in the time—nearly 20 years—during which I have represented a constituency in the east end. There is now more fear on our streets than I can remember. The Government—any Government, but I hope that it will be a Labour Government—who reclaim the streets for the law-abiding majority will not only gain enormous political support but, far more important, create a more civilised community for all of us.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) rightly pointed to the need for community involvement, but communities need encouragement to get involved. Very often, people do not get involved because they feel isolated, intimidated and frightened of the possibility of reprisals if they identify themselves with the forces of law and order as opposed to the criminals in their local community.

The hon. Gentleman and others identified the areas of concern, but to deal with them we must contemplate measures that many might consider draconian. The Prime Minister was once wont to use the expression, "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime". In order for that approach to work, it first requires us to be tough on the symptoms so that we may build the confidence to eliminate the causes. I shall now shut up and rattle through my own personal programme for being tough on crime.

The Minister said that we shall have 130,000 police in England and Wales; I welcome that. At times I think that we need 130,000 for my street, but let us be in no doubt: 130,000 in England and Wales is good, but not good enough. We need at least another 10,000 in London alone. As a regular user of public transport, I believe that we need far more police on the transport system, especially at night.

I was fortunate enough to be in Athens fairly recently, looking at the new metro system that is up and running for the 2004 Olympic games, and I saw armed paramilitaries on the system. I was slightly surprised. I asked various Athenians, and my friends out there, of which I am glad to say I have a large number—I may not have many here, but I have many in Athens—what they thought, and they were very supportive of that measure. Why cannot we think about using the military in support of the civilian authorities in this country?

Before hon. Members say that that is a bit extreme, I remind them that paramilitaries have been stationed at Heathrow and Gatwick in the past. We consider public safety to be important enough at airports to merit such measures, and there is not that much petty crime and violence in airports. Why do we not station paramilitaries at our railway stations, such as Liverpool street, or at Euston, where there is a hell of a lot of trouble at night, and particularly at weekends when football supporters are criss-crossing the country and passing through? That is the sort of thing that we should be thinking about.

Mr. George Osborne

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Banks

I was trying to get out of this as quickly as possible, but go on.

Mr. Osborne

I am very much enjoying the hon. Gentleman's speech; it sounds like the type of thing that Conservative Members hear from members of their Conservative association when they visit supper clubs on a Friday night. However, does he agree that there are real lessons to be learned from New York? We have bandied around the term "zero tolerance" to such an extent that it is now completely devalued, but there are lessons for London and the rest of the country in what was done in New York—increasing police numbers, tackling low-level crime and so on.

Mr. Banks

I agree entirely. I do not want to sound like one of the more robust members of the hon. Gentleman's Conservative association, but I think that zero tolerance—an idea that is much abused—is something that we understand. I have no difficulties with that. The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup, who considers that people do not feel at risk, has gone, but I live in an area where the fear of street crime is palpable. It is out there, on the street. People will feel much more encouraged and feel safer if we crack down on street crime.

I remind Ministers that that policy is also politically popular. I am not suggesting that we should crack down on street crime for short-term political gain, because the long-term benefits to the community are obvious, but there is also political gain to be had. If any Government managed to secure safe streets, they would be extremely popular in an election, as Mayor Giuliani clearly demonstrated in New York.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) mentioned the growing problem of gun crime in London, and I take her point. I was woken up at two o'clock in the morning a few months ago by police officers who said, "Sorry to disturb you, but did you hear any gunshots?" I asked why, and they told me that someone sitting in a car two doors down had been assassinated. It was not a random crime but a yardie crime, and the Trident officers were involved. The guy who was shot had been involved in previous drug-related offences and murders himself. Such shootings are happening more and more and people feel that they can get away with them. Many do, and indeed the persons who perpetrated the crime in my example have not been caught.

We should now contemplate the routine arming of all police officers. Officers are not necessarily in favour of that approach, but it works on the continent. It would not be an original or unusual idea. People argue that we have always had an unarmed police force, but that was because they were dealing with a different sort of criminal and a different society. Criminals and society have changed, and when that happens, we should contemplate changing too.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire mentioned community policing. I am a great supporter of that approach. As the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood implied, we should set up a system of mobile community watches, under the direction of the local police. That would involve citizens directly in policing their own areas and give them a greater sense of self-confidence in their communities.

Mr. Mark Field

Does the hon. Gentleman realise that one of the main obstacles to the system of mobile watches that he suggests is the Police Federation? Experiments have taken place in Kensington, but the Police Federation has been up in arms about the role of the police as professionals being undermined and policing on the cheap. The fundamental reforms that the Minister mentioned would need to be put in place before we could even think in the terms that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Banks

I am trying to explore further down the road than most hon. Members would wish to go. Mobile community watches are not about policing on the cheap but about more actively involving our communities in policing their own areas. In the end, that is the best form of policing, because it leads to the exertion of peer pressure within a community. It is not a question of vigilantes and would not involve people with baseball bats taking out people that they did not like. It would be organised properly, under the direction of a civilian authority. In case hon. Members are wondering, I should say that organised activity would not include knocking people over the head with baseball bats—even I have not got that far.

The decline in mutual respect and a lack of shared values in our society, especially among the young, is extremely worrying. I have a controversial proposal to address that. We should set up a compulsory national system of community service—not national service—for all 16 to 17-year-olds. I have not got time to expand on that now, but I hope to have the opportunity to propose it in a ten-minute Bill and hon. Members may reserve judgment until then. If we are to reduce crime, we must address the causes where that matters most—among the young. We learned respect and we must ensure that our young people are encouraged to acquire it.

The fifth element of my six-point manifesto concerns drugs, which are the cause of so much street crime—no one can deny that. At least half the prison population are inside for drug-related crimes. The so-called war against drugs is being lost and, as some hon. Members will know, I have long believed that it is an intrusion on personal liberties. I have advocated for many years in the House the legalisation of drugs because I believe that such a measure would reduce crime and enable more effective education and reduction programmes to be put in place.

I have changed my mind on one issue: identity cards. We should have compulsory identity cards. I used to oppose them, but I now believe that they would be a valuable law enforcement tool, provided that the necessary safeguards were put in place.

I also think that we should have a compulsory DNA register in this country. It would not be intrusive; it would be part of the registration process at birth. It would enable the police more effectively to deal with a number of very unpleasant and violent crimes, and it would be an invaluable tool in the event of a cataclysmic accident, where orthodox identification was very difficult, if not impossible—the twin towers is an obvious case.

In conclusion, I suppose that some of my colleagues and, indeed, others outside might think that I have turned into a neo-fascist—[Interruption]—or indeed into a fascist, but I would entirely refute that. I still consider myself, with some justification, to he that unfashionable creature, a socialist, because socialism is about social justice, mutual respect, personal responsibility, discipline and order. That is how I understand socialism. Regrettably, many of those virtues have been badly weakened or are totally absent from society, and it is up to the House and the Government to try to establish them during our period in office.

1.11 pm
Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham)

It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks), and I am pleased to be able to pander to the sartorial apartheid that he advocated earlier. His was an alarming and refreshing speech. According to my list, he wants to arm the police, restore national service and introduce compulsory DNA testing and compulsory ID cards. I am exceedingly grateful to him—I have been taking many notes for my Conservative women's club, which I shall speak to later this evening, because that is all interesting stuff. Perhaps he would like the name of my tailor, whom I share with his comrade the Chancellor of the Exchequer, so he can get kitted out as he expects Conservative Members to be kitted out, because I fear that next time he refers to some of his comrades who still wear their red ties he may get a poke in the eye in return, given what he has just said.

May I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I have done to your predecessor in the Chair, for the fact that I may have to leave before this afternoon's winding-up speeches for a constituency engagement?

The Minister has been very brave to hold a debate on the police at this stage—just a month after 84,205 police officers have given a vote of no confidence in the Home Secretary and his proposals and just a matter of a couple of weeks after the Home Secretary was caricatured in the Police magazine as some sort of Del Boy character; its editorial says that the police: have lost confidence in political masters who have spent more time criticising the police than encouraging it. He is also brave to hold this debate less than a week before a mass lobby of Parliament by police officers who are far from happy.

I should like to talk briefly about some Sussex policing matters, as one of the few Members to have spoken today who does not represent a London constituency. Sussex is not some idyllic, crime-free rural county in England; it has many problems. Indeed, the part of Worthing that I represent is not just a sleepy, crime-free area. Sussex is a large county with many communications and strategic problems. Last year, there was a long series of murders in Worthing, which took up a great deal of police officers' time. Of course, the Sarah Payne murder inquiry took a lot of resources. In just nine weeks, there were 20 armed raids on post offices and other small businesses in Worthing. A sub-postmaster in my constituency was held up three times in two weeks—twice at knifepoint and once at gunpoint.

Near my constituency, Brighton and Hove has an awful lot of drugs problems and a big increase in crack cocaine, and outlying towns are now used as havens for dealers, where they hide with their ill-gotten business. However, the drug problem in the area has not been recognised and Sussex police receive no extra funding to deal with the influx of crack cocaine, in particular.

Gatwick airport, with all the extra police resources that it requires, is in the Sussex police area. We face the enormous problems of unaccompanied—and under-age—girls coming from Nigeria, claiming asylum and then being abducted in very nasty circumstances to end up in the sex trade in northern Italy. A great deal of police time has been taken up in dealing with that problem, and I congratulate them on the successes that they have had. Policing the party conferences also takes up an awful lot of police resources.

Despite all that, Sussex police has one of the lowest—if not the lowest, in certain areas—ratios of police to residents of any constabulary in the whole of England. I pointed out earlier that the number of police officers is down on the 1997 level and, at its worst, the number of vacancies was 273. Sussex is one of the several police authority areas that are still well down on 1997 numbers, and council tax payers are having to stump up large sums of money, because of the 19 per cent. increase in the Sussex police precept, to recruit the officers that we desperately need.

Despite that, natural wastage in the police force is high. We always hear from the Government about trying to recruit new officers, but we still face a big problem because of the number of senior and experienced police officers who leave the force early. Over the past eight months in Sussex, the total natural wastage of police officers has amounted to 182. Some 87 left to retire, and many of them retired early; 44 resigned; and 16 took medical retirement. The figures are even worse for support staff: 248 left in that eight-month period; and 219 have resigned, with only 13 taking retirement.

I repeat a question that I asked the Minister's predecessor almost a year ago to the day. When I asked when Sussex could return to its 1997 numbers, his predecessor, now the Minister without Portfolio, said: More than one third of forces in the country now have more police officers than they had in 1997, and that will happen in Sussex as well."—[Official Report, 12 March 2001; Vol. 364, c. 612.] I would like to know when it will happen in Sussex, because there is precious little sign of its doing so.

Another problem results from the fact that we receive very little help from the key worker scheme. The assistant chief constable has written to local councils asking them to apply for funds for officers. As with other constabularies, much of the police organisation in Sussex is not entitled to money from the starter home initiative, and we are losing officers who are commuting from Sussex to London because of the better rates that are now being offered there.

Sussex has also had to deal with the highly damaging and long-running saga surrounding the shooting of James Ashley in Hastings a few years ago. As a result of that, the deputy chief constable remained suspended for a long time, before taking early retirement. As the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) pointed out, last year, the Home Secretary gave us an early example of his macho tendency to flex his muscles in his new job and tried to override the democratically appointed Sussex police authority. He got rid of the chief constable, Paul Whitehouse. Whatever one thought of the chief constable's record, that was not the way to approach the matter. It was however a sign of times to come and of political interference in local policing and the way in which we run it. If the Government are happy to take the credit for any successes that there have been and if they are going to interfere in operational matters as much as they seem to want to, they must also take the blame for the shortcomings and failings that we see every day.

I have a specific question for the Minister. Sussex constabulary has been the subject of an inspection by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, so when will we see the report that was promised for the spring?

Sussex police have had a hard time, but I want to take this opportunity to praise the force. It works in difficult circumstances and I want to put on record—I am sure that the hon. Member for Lewes and other colleagues from Sussex will agree—my congratulations to the deputy chief constable, Maria Wallace, who held the fort during the difficult time when Paul Whitehouse went. She was rightly awarded the Queen's police medal in the new year's honours.

At last, we welcome Ken Jones from Avon and Somerset, the new chief constable. I am glad to say that, even at this early stage, he has been making all the right noises about high-profile, uniformed community policemen being at the front of his whole approach to policing.

I also want to congratulate—as many other hon. Members have done—some local policemen, such as Superintendent Graham Walter, who runs the Worthing division, and Inspector Chris Drew at Shoreham, on bringing a degree of stability back to our part of Sussex and on realising that nothing beats high-visibility, uniformed bobbies on the beat.

Chris Drew, in particular, has worked closely with local communities through the police consultative community group—which I praise. I have another point to raise with the Minister. I gather that the policy of the Sussex police authority—which may be a directive from the Home Office—is that PCCGs are to be chaired by nominees from the police authority rather than from the community members who form the groups. That sends out all the wrong signals.

Local police in Shoreham, Adur and my local area have worked with local councillors—Councillor Blunden, Councillor Julie Searle and Councillor Paul Graysmark on Adur council—to produce a video about graffiti. The video was made by pupils in local schools and includes comments from local police officers, councillors and community leaders and shows how wasteful and destructive graffiti and vandalism are, the cost of cleaning it up and making repairs, and how that money could more constructively be spent on sports, leisure and youth facilities for the young people who cause such damage. That is an excellent initiative. With the co-operation and help of the local council—Adur council—and Shoreham police, peer group pressure is being applied to the negative forces that create graffiti.

Most of all, I congratulate the local police. They go on and on pointing out that nothing is better than uniformed officers on the beat. There is no substitute for that. It is not merely a question of numbers: uniformed bobbies bring reassurance to the people who see them. When people do not see the police, they feel that they are being ignored and that no one is watching out for them. That may or may not be true, but a real presence is a great reassurance, especially for elderly people—largely the sort of people whom I represent.

The presence of police officers also brings people out more. If they see something suspicious—such as a white van or someone acting suspiciously—they are more likely to report it if they know that their local police officer takes an interest. If they know the name of the local community police officer, they will take the trouble to ring the station and ask for that officer or will try to nab them when they are on their rounds in the area. Such advance intelligence is exceedingly valuable. It does not happen when there is no interaction between uniformed police officers and the local community.

I take issue with some of the comments made by Labour Members about the new community safety officers and street wardens. The Times published an interesting letter from the chief constable of the West Midlands police. He wrote: The service I lead has grown faster than any other in the country over the past five years, and we deploy a greater proportion of police officers on uniform patrol duties…than anywhere else. The effect has been twofold: a substantial increase in the number of people arrested for crime (including robbery) and an increase in reports of minor offences. It seems to me that if you deploy street wardens, you will certainly achieve the latter without achieving the former. There is a good deal of truth in that.

The police themselves have said: The Bill creates the potential for the introduction of differing tiers of policing with different powers across different parts of the country. We believe that this is a recipe for public confusion and could undermine the accountability and authority that front-line police officers must have if they are to be effective…This raises important constitutional questions about individual liberties. Members of the public arrested by police officers are fully aware that the police are acting within their powers. But there would be no such certainty in the minds of the public about the powers of CSOs. This would lead to confusion and an increase in the number of arrests affected forcibly. That is absolutely right.

I agree with the good idea of my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who proposed an auxiliary police force. There is a great deal of merit in returning to that type of professionalised body, and the Minister should consider that proposal in detail.

An important factor in my constituency is that local residents see policing as a one-way street. They have seen their police stations closed, or at least closed during anything other than normal nine-to-five working hours; five police stations a month have closed under this Government. My constituents have also seen patrol cars taken away from local police stations to bigger centres and, as I mentioned, less bobbies on the beat.

Norman Baker


Tim Loughton

Fewer bobbies on the beat; the hon. Gentleman is right.

The vice-chairman of the Police Federation in London has said: No one buys the idea that it is good to close police stations, whatever the Government or senior police officers say about new technology or rapid response. People like a local station that is open all hours. I think that we have all heard of cases of people being mugged, attacked or robbed outside police stations that were closed during the hours of darkness. Those people cannot get through to a police officer, even using the automatic phone outside the station.

I praise Sussex police for the important work that they have done in dealing with the asylum abductions that I have mentioned. I also want to praise the Sussex police child protection team, which deals with more than 3,700 cases of physical, sexual and emotional child abuse or neglect; that equates to more than 78 investigations per officer per year.

I praise the team particularly for the work that it has carried out on the problems of joint enterprise, and on the case of John Smith, a four-year-old toddler who died after evidence of 57 different blows was detected on his body, inflicted at the hands of his prospective adoptive parents. Four hundred and ninety-two children in England and Wales have been either unlawfully killed or seriously injured by their carers or parents over the last four years; 239 of those were under the age of six months. Of the 366 cases in which investigations have been completed, 225 were not proceeded with by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service; 20 cases were dismissed; and only 99 resulted in successful prosecutions. That is a conviction rate of 27 per cent., compared with a national conviction rate for murder of around 90 per cent. These are crimes committed by parents or carers, and that is not acceptable.

Sussex police have done a lot of work on this issue. They are presenting a paper to the Home Office on it. The problem is one of joint enterprise. In the case of John Smith, it could not be proved which of the two prospective adoptive parents had dealt the lethal blow to the child. They were therefore given eight-year sentences for cruelty. We need a change in the law that will enable a sentence to be passed for causing death or serious injury by cruelty, which would allow a much higher sentence without the onus of proof as to which parent had dealt the fatal blow. That is the kind of recommendation that Sussex police want to make. They have done a lot of unappreciated, hidden work that has not often been acknowledged, and I would like to acknowledge it now.

There are many other issues that we could raise, and one that the Minister has not mentioned is that of the pensions time bomb. The news that the total liabilities for police pensions have leaped to between £34 billion and £36 billion is an enormous issue. That estimate represents an increase of some £10 billion in the last year. For once we cannot blame the incompetence of the Government's pension policy, because these are largely pay-as-you-go schemes funded by central budgets or local councils. Total expenditure on all schemes now amounts to 13.3 per cent. of total police budgets; some forces actually spend more on their pensions than on their forensic departments. Eighty per cent. of that cost is met by the Treasury, but the rest comes out of council tax, and that is having a big impact on operational resources.

There are a number of other issues that I shall not go into in detail, including the failure of antisocial behaviour orders and the problems of crowded jails. There is a record number of people in jail now, almost 70,000. Many are having to be released early to make way for others coming in. Of course, it will be the police who pick up the problems resulting from that. There are many problems for the police, and they are coping admirably in difficult circumstances.

The biggest problem of all has been that of declining morale, and the undermining of the role of the police by this Government and, particularly, by this Home Secretary. It really is not good enough to brag about just getting back to 1997 policing levels. Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, expressed his frustration at the "politically drip-fed smear stories" and a rally next week will allow officers to register their anger. Graham Alexander, the chairman of the Sussex Police Federation, has said: We are sick and tired of remaining silent whilst various arms of the Government actively encourage selective and outrageous misinformation which does nothing to increase our standing in the local community.

It is therefore hardly surprising that we saw headlines relating to Sir John Stevens earlier in the week.

I shall end with the editorial comments in Police magazine in response to the enormous vote of no confidence by ordinary policemen: What should Mr. Blunkett do next? For a start, he could show some humility and lower a profile that has become a cross between Batman and Super Mouse. He should acknowledge that if he genuinely seeks the confidence of the police service he needs to stop giving interviews and signing articles that decry our efforts and denigrate individuals who dare to take a different view. What the service and the public need now is enlightened leadership, unswerving support, and perhaps what a great Labour leader, Clem Attlee, once asked of a pestilential critic—a period of silence. I wholly agree with that, as, I am sure, do all my constituents. It is a disgrace that this Government have driven our hard-working and over-stretched policemen to such desperate and vociferous measures just so that they can be allowed to get on with the job that they and we all want them to do.

1.31 pm
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham)

The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)—who is no longer present—said earlier that politicians were rarely the victims of crime. That made me feel slightly edgy, as in the past three months my phone has been stolen, my house has been broken into, and the windscreen of my car has been deliberately smashed while my nine-year-old daughter sat screaming in the back.

That is not the only reason why I am pleased to contribute to this debate. I am a former member of the police parliamentary scheme, and over the past five years I have worked closely with my local force in north Kent, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). Although he has been present throughout almost all this debate, I suspect that he will not be able to contribute. I am sure that, like me, he would wish to pay tribute to the work of Kent police, particularly those in north Kent, and welcome our new area commander, Superintendent David Pryer.

Crime and social disorder are a blight on the quality of life of my constituents. However, there have been significant improvements in the past five years. The overall level of crime has decreased, especially vehicle crime and burglaries, although there have been worrying increases in certain other forms of crime, particularly robberies and muggings, which are almost exclusively associated with the theft of mobile phones by and from young people. A worryingly sharp increase in domestic violence has taken place, and, in a population that has a significant and well-respected Sikh community, the number of racist incidents has increased, which is a cause for concern.

We have also seen the emergence of new forms of crime, which other hon. Members have mentioned, such as bogus calling. To give the most shocking example of that, in my area, and, I suspect, in those of other hon. Members, individuals are going around trying to identify and make lists of vulnerable households to sell them to other unscrupulous individuals who then operate as bogus callers. Police in my area are having to deal with ever-changing and increasingly ingenious attempts by certain individuals to extract resources from others.

The debate has included some discussion, although not a great deal, about the causes of crime. Crime has declined generally and in my constituency in the past five years. I suspect that that is directly related not to policing but to what has been happening to the economy as a whole. Prosperity has been rising in my area and unemployment has fallen by half. However, I am not among those who subscribe to the notion that unemployment and poverty are causes of crime. In the 1930s, there were far higher levels of poverty and unemployment than in the 1980s, but levels of crime were much lower. Evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom clearly shows that there is a strong link not between poverty and crime but between inequality and crime. It is no coincidence that during the 1980s, when inequality increased very sharply, there was also a fast increase in levels of crime. However, I accept the point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that that occurred in the 1980s and tailed off in the last period under the previous Government.

Investment, not only in CCTV, which has been very effective in my constituency, but in more police officers is one factor involved in reducing crime. In north Kent, there has been a 25 per cent. increase in officers in the past two years alone. What matters is not only the size of the police establishment, but, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what you do with it. Consultations by Kent police authority show that people want to see more officers on the streets and greater visibility, which is why the Government's emphasis on the visibility of the service and of the extended police family, which I welcome, is so important.

I prefer the description "community support officers" to those used by others, such as "pseudo-cops" from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and "elevated park keepers" from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). Those people have an important role in the service, not in replicating or replacing what professional police officers do, but in allowing those officers to do their job more effectively and in achieving greater visibility. As a member of the police parliamentary scheme, I saw how street wardens work effectively in the Netherlands, providing a sense of genuine security to local communities.

We have the investment, but that in itself is insufficient without reform, just as reform is insufficient without the investment, as we saw from the attempt to introduce Sheehy. The modernisation agenda is essential in ensuring better and more effective policing.

In my area, the police have adopted innovative measures to deal with the underlying problems of crime, intervening directly on people in the cells, particularly young offenders, with drug and debt counselling, which has been successful in helping to break the cycle of crime among a few persistent offenders. The multi-agency approach is used to steer young people away from crime and to ensure that we do not get the continued flow into the bucket to which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred.

We have achieved much in north Kent. There, as elsewhere in the country, and despite my own experience, the chance of becoming a victim is the lowest for at least 20 years. As other hon. Members have said, however, the fear of crime persists, and I shall suggest reasons for that. The first is the growth in youth crime and disorder, to which the Minister referred. That disorder may be at a low level, but it nevertheless creates a climate of fear and insecurity.

Last November in the House, I raised the case of a young constituent who was arrested 76 times in a few months. No real sanctions were applied. In the process, we let down that youngster just as we let down the rest of the community. In north Kent, the police believe that just 10 young offenders between the ages of 13 and 17 are responsible for up to 40 per cent. of crime in some areas.

Antisocial behaviour orders are important in trying to deal with that and I am pleased that Gravesham has started to use them more effectively, but we need to address the underlying causes of the problem of youth crime. Sometimes, simple intimidation may be involved. Recently, friends of mine witnessed an elderly Sikh gentleman being jostled by a group of children. For them, the incident was a laugh. For that elderly gentleman, it was a cause of fear and humiliation.

The police face difficulties and I share their frustration. Although we have been more than successful in reaching the Government target of halving the time before young offenders are sentenced, the question is: what happens to those young people once they reach court? Magistrates in my area say that they have problems in knowing how to deal with such youngsters, some of whom begin their criminal career at the age of 10. By the age of 17, they are old lags and rather experienced at crime. Perhaps we should consider whether the youth court should deal with offenders of that age.

The police in Gravesham are concerned about the treatment of adult offenders. Last year, a case went to court that involved four offenders who were found with stolen goods worth no less than £250,000. After taking up considerable police time, the case was not treated seriously by the courts and the offenders received merely a suspended sentence.

I should like to refer to the comments of Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, on the treatment of victims. I have had regular contact with an organisation called Victims Voice, which was initially set up by the Marchioness Action Group and represents 15 member organisations. In a recent survey, it pointed out the consequences of being a victim of crime, which include loss of a job, financial hardship, physical and mental ill health, attempted suicide, alcoholism, divorce and loss of a home. It is not merely the fear of crime, but the consequences of crime that people face.

I welcome the fact that the Government, as part of their reform agenda, are ensuring that the criminal justice system takes more account of the needs of victims and witnesses. I also welcome the fact that ensuring visibility of the police is a priority. I am pleased that we are beginning to reduce crime levels. The bigger challenge now is to reduce the fear of crime.

1.41 pm
Annabelle Ewing (Perth)

Like many hon. Members, I welcome the opportunity to speak. Those Members who hope to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will be pleased to hear that I shall keep my remarks fairly brief. Some hon. Members may be wondering why I, as a Scottish Nationalist Member, want to speak in a debate about police and policing primarily in England and Wales, but as the Minister will be aware, given our earlier exchange, the important issue of police pay and conditions has an impact on police in Scotland. Negotiations continue to be conducted on police pay and conditions at a United Kingdom level. Happily, other policing matters are now devolved to the Scottish Parliament.

I am surprised and disappointed that no Member from any other party in Scotland representing a Scottish constituency has sought to play an active role in the debate. On pay and conditions, the police force in Scotland is seeking someone to enable their voice to he heard in Westminster.

Mr. Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Annabelle Ewing

I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, because he has hardly been present in the Chamber for the debate. That is a fair reason not to give way.

As I mentioned to the Minister in my intervention during his opening remarks, 94 per cent. of police officers in Scotland voted against the pay and conditions package on a turnout of 82 per cent. Tayside police force serves Perth constituency, and the vote there against the package was 94 per cent. It is regrettable that such an overwhelming rejection of the package was ascribed to policemen and policewomen in Scotland, and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, not understanding what they were doing or being misled by their federation. That is patronising and has been refuted by the Scottish Police Federation, whose general secretary, Douglas Keil, said: If the Home Secretary and his advisors really think that the Federations could persuade police officers to vote against a 'good deal' then they really know very little about the police!

That comment says a lot about how the negotiations were conducted.

It should also be recalled that the Home Office sent out 95,000 leaflets to police officers and took out adverts in the national press. The United Kingdom Government cannot set much store by their information campaign. It is not clear—perhaps the Minister could clarify it during his closing remarks—what the cost of that information campaign has been to date, but the Government do not seem to feel that it has been tremendous value for money.

The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) suggested that the overwhelming no vote might have been something to do with the enmity of the police throughout the United Kingdom towards the Home Secretary. Certainly police officers in Scotland are disgusted by the way in which the negotiation process has been conducted and are—rightly, in my view—extremely angry with the Home Secretary.

However, I believe that the overwhelming rejection in Scotland happened simply because police officers there did not accept that the package was a good deal but regarded it as insulting and unworkable.

Mr. Lazarowicz

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Annabelle Ewing

I will not give way, for the reasons that I have already stated.

The concerns have been well documented in today's debate, and I do not need to delay the House unduly.

Mr. Denham

If the package is so insulting and unworkable, why did the leadership of the Scottish Police Federation support the agreement reached in December? Surely if that was their view, it would have been better for them not to support it.

Annabelle Ewing

It was the police officers who regarded the deal as insulting and unworkable, and it was they who were consulted in a ballot and voted—about 94 per cent. of them, in Scotland—against the Home Office package.

The concerns have been dealt with already in the debate: the changes to ill-health provision, the alteration and abolition of police allowances, the overtime regulations and so on.

We have talked about police morale. The suggestion that the police are not flexible has been deeply damaging to morale, and therefore to recruitment and retention. In Scotland, the police are extremely flexible. The police in Tayside and elsewhere in Scotland do a tremendous amount of work on the basis of good will, and if that were withdrawn it would provoke a crisis in policing. It is in no one's interest to provoke that.

Will the Minister answer two questions in his reply? First, as the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) said, what will happen if the conciliation breaks down without agreement? Will the Home Secretary impose the package on the police in Scotland and elsewhere? Secondly, what new money will be available for the package in Scotland, if it is agreed in some form in due course? New money is expressly referred to on page 1 of the heads of agreement.

The police work tirelessly for us and put their lives on the line. They deserve better than the approach that the Home Office has adopted so far.

1.48 pm
Ms Karen Buck (Regent's Park and Kensington, North)

For the second year running, when asked what was the worst thing about living in London, Londoners rated crime and safety as their second greatest concern, after the cost of living. For reasons that have been explained by many other hon. Members, that is partly because of the recent upsurge in street crime and partly because of a number of high-profile tragic incidents.

In my area, a 20-year-old youth was stabbed to death on the Maida Vale estate, and six days later his grief-stricken father died of heart failure. A bus driver was stabbed in a road rage incident in Paddington. Such events get publicity and increase the fear of crime.

There has also been an explosion of antisocial behaviour on many of our estates, which causes great grief. That does not always involve serious crime, but consists of the kind of activities that make the quality of life so poor on those estates.

It was right for us to spend some time focusing on police numbers. London is getting some additional police, and that is very welcome. I believe that next year we will be up to about 28,000. As I said in the Adjournment debate of the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) a few weeks ago, we do not feel that police levels in Kensington or Westminster, which were frozen under the resource allocation formula, are adequate. Many colleagues have spoken about the need for high-visibility policing, and we need to make further progress on that.

I strongly welcome the auxiliaries or community support officers, who will make a real contribution. It is right that they should be scrutinised in practice, but there are variations in need in different communities, and areas such as the west end, with high concentrations of licensed establishments, require more policing support and enforcement than can necessarily be supplied by professional police officers.

Street crime has also been a focus for this debate. The hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) talked about child-on-child crime, which has constituted a large proportion of the increase in street crime. That must be taken seriously, because the damage done to young people's confidence when they are the victims of such crime will be paid back, and not in a happy way, over the years. I hope that the Minister will at least mention the priority that should be given to the police working in schools, and to preventive measures, especially in relation to mobile phone crime. What has been the outcome of discussions between the Government and the mobile phone companies about preventive action?

I pay tribute to the work of the youth offending teams, and the youth inclusion project in north Kensington. Mentoring and the community referral orders have been very successful in preventing recidivism. How does the Minister see the future of the youth inclusion programmes, and will they be expanded? The intensive work with young people at risk—particularly those on bail and others who will be tagged under the new experimental scheme—is clearly an effective alternative to custody. We should all support that.

It is also right to talk about the broader issue of youth crime prevention. I understand why we talk about a yob culture and why people perceive young people as so threatening, especially on some of the estates that I have described, but we must never forget how appallingly damaged some of those young people are: they are the alcoholic children of alcoholic parents, the children of drug addicts and the products of abusive families. They deserve high levels of support, as do many of their vulnerable parents. Good work has been done through sure start, the Children Fund and Connexions, but there is a case for doubling or trebling the intensity of support that we offer, especially in inner-city communities with high social mobility and ethnic diversity.

Relationships between the police and the community remain crucial. I pay tribute to the project run in my constituency by the Black Police Association, working to develop and improve relations between black young people and the police. The Youth Parliament is also doing good work to improve the dialogue between the police and young people. There is considerable alienation among both black and white young people that must be overcome. Such dialogue and community relations are not only good in themselves but essential for intelligence-led policing, which we need to reverse the decline in detection rates.

Kensington and Chelsea police have successfully turned the tide of crime in the borough. I commend to the Minister the work being done by that force. There are many individuals who deserve credit: people working in the teams, as mentors and on the lay panels for community referral schemes, and police who are working on the front line doing a difficult and dangerous job. Unfortunately, there are too many to list now. They are working under the leadership of Moir Stewart and Andy Trotter in my two divisions. Such work, along with the many good reforms in policing legislation, will pay off and allow us, in the long term, to reverse the tide of crime.

1.54 pm
Mr. John Baron (Billericay)

I am conscious that time is short, so I shall keep my comments brief. Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The debate is important because there can be little doubt that the public are rightly concerned about rising crime, especially violent crime. That is happening at a time when morale in the police force is at an all-time low. People look to politicians for leadership on the issue.

In recent months, and since being elected in June last year, I have taken extensive soundings in my constituency on law and order and the public's view on whether we are tackling crime adequately. The soundings have included a constituency-wide survey, delivered to every household, asking my constituents to respond to a detailed series of questions. Although I do not claim that any such survey is scientific, I believe that the number of responses and the size of the results send out some clear messages, to which I shall refer briefly.

In addition to the survey, during a two-week period just before Christmas, 5,500 of my constituents signed a petition that requested that the Home Secretary make available more resources to Essex police to get more bobbies on the beat. That also illustrates the strength of feeling about the issue. I presented the petition to the House just before Christmas.

It will come as no surprise to the House to learn that people are very concerned about rising crime, especially that involving young offenders, and want action from politicians that must include more police on our streets. The latest crime figures reveal what the public already know: crime is increasing. Figures for the past couple of years show that crime, particularly violent crime, has risen. For example, the number of cases of violence against the person was up by around 20,000 last year alone. Crime figures in Essex show an even worse picture, with recorded crime rising by 11.5 per cent. and violence against the person rising by a staggering 33 per cent. since 1998.

It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn from our survey that 90 per cent. of respondents believe that crime is on the increase in our local area and are very concerned about it. Recent incidents have included a man's throat being slashed during the Christmas period outside Billericay railway station, and a vicious attack by a gang on a man from whom a laptop computer and his wedding ring were stolen.

What are the solutions? Items at the top of the list must include a substantial increase in police numbers. We need a step change in policing levels, with as many as 25,000 to 30,000 extra police on the country's streets as soon as they can be recruited. According to the House of Commons Library, if all training and running costs and pensions were included, an extra 30,000 police officers would cost £1.5 billion. That is a large sum of money but not impossible to find if there is the political will to get much tougher with the criminal.

There can be no doubt that more police officers on the beat would make a difference. That was confirmed by information on trends in police officer strength and recorded crime in New York during Mr. Giuliani's time as mayor between 1994 and 2001. Research by the Police Federation of England and Wales suggests that, in 1992. New York and London both had approximately 28,500 officers. By 2000, the number of officers in New York had risen to 40,500 compared with a fall in London to 25,400. Between 1993 and 2001, recorded crime in New York fell by approximately 270,000 offences—a fall of 62 per cent. across all offence groups. By contrast, crime in London continued to rise.

Despite evidence of rising crime in this country, police numbers in recent years have hardly changed. Indeed, in Essex, total police strength is down since 1997, and, more worryingly, the number of constables—those who patrol our streets—has steeply declined. There has been a drop of something like 35 constables since March 1997. Meanwhile, there has been a 30 per cent. drop in the number of special constables in Essex. That is not good enough and the public know it.

In the survey that I undertook, 99.5 per cent. of my constituents who responded said that they believed that there were not enough police officers on the streets. Of particular concern to many are the gangs of youths who terrorise local communities and against whom the police often cannot take appropriate action. Many lives, especially elderly people's, are blighted by such incidents, and they cannot understand why society appears to let them happen.

It is important to stress that I am not critical of the local police, as I have made clear many times. They do a very good job, considering the resources available to them, but they deserve more resources to do the job for which they have been trained: to reduce crime and protect the public.

The police are fully aware of their predicament. Last year, the Police Federation made the point in its paper entitled "Rising Street Crime Linked to Cops Shortage" that The visible presence, and consequential deterrent of police patrolling our neighbourhoods is falling at the same time street crime is rising … we are as concerned as the public about rising violent crime and will continue to work hard to combat this but we cannot expect results over night when police numbers are so low. In my view, integral to a greater police presence on the ground is a commitment to keeping police stations open. Since 1997, in Essex alone, 62 police stations have been closed, with only five opening. I am fortunate that we have four police stations serving my constituency, and their presence is greatly appreciated. However, a growing concern among my constituents is that our police stations are often closed when they are most needed. The main comment in the analysis following the survey was that local police stations should be manned 24 hours a day. We must do what we can to stop further closure of police stations. That is particularly the case in rural areas, for a local police station is often at the heart of the relationship between the police and the local community. When the station is closed, the relationship can suffer.

Despite the need for more police officers and more resources generally, crime is too important an issue to be left to the police alone. We must provide them with greater support, and that support must come from the courts and politicians generally. It has been said in the House that it appears that the courts are not supporting the police as they should, and sentences are proving too lenient. Earlier this week, we even had the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, urging magistrates to jail as few law-breakers as possible because our jails were already full. What nonsense is this? No wonder that two days ago, Sir John Stevens, Britain's top police officer, accused the courts of contributing to the surge in robberies, rapes and violent attacks by allowing the guilty to walk free. He made the point that it was not uncommon for muggers to be freed on bail eight or nine times for separate offences before facing trial for their first.

It is no surprise that the majority of my constituents believe that criminals are not given tough enough sentences, as revealed in the survey. We must have tougher sentencing so that criminals, especially violent criminals, are taken off the streets to protect the public.

It is not only the courts that should better support the police but the politicians. We can better support the police in a number of ways, but perhaps most important is the issue of too much red tape and performance measurement in the system, which keeps police officers pinned to their desks when they should be out on the streets. More than 50 performance criteria, the best-value regime and a raft of arrest paperwork give credence to the view that, in the words of one police constable, there existed more performance targets than personnel.

Mention has been made of the "Diary of a Police Officer", and lessons must be learned from it. We must allow the police to do the job they want to do—to fight crime, not push paper. We can also better support the police by working with them to introduce reform and fight crime and not against them, as appears to be the case. Unfortunately, the public relationship between the Home Office and the police has deteriorated noticeably over bitter disagreements about police reform and the Government's pay package. The Home Secretary has failed to carry the police with him on his proposals to reform working practices, pay and conditions. In a situation like this, that serves only as an unhelpful distraction and plays into the hands of the criminals. The price will be paid by the law-abiding majority. Anger is running at such a level that there is even talk of legal action against the restriction preventing police officers from striking. That cannot be right.

The pendulum has swung too far in favour of the criminal at the expense of the victim and the time has come to redress the balance. We have a situation where violent crime is rising particularly fast while police numbers remain, at best, static; where the police have one hand tied behind their back because of too much interference from the Government through red tape and performance criteria; where the courts are proving too lenient in their sentencing and are not supporting the police; and where the Government have instigated a public fight with the police at a time when police morale is at an all-time low. In such a situation, only the criminal will gain. The public are fast becoming disillusioned. As with so many of their promises, the Government have failed to deliver and are trying to deceive. Before the 1997 election, Labour employed strong rhetoric, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Instead, the Government have proved to be tough on crime fighters and soft on criminals.

2.5 pm

John Cryer (Hornchurch)

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) said that the resource allocation formula introduced by the Metropolitan police authority had benefited London boroughs that had previously suffered a loss of officers. It has indeed benefited certain outer-London boroughs, but Havering does not happen to be one of them. We have had a small increase in the number of officers—from 326 to 334—but it is nowhere near what we need.

Havering has unique characteristics. It is the second biggest borough in London and has more green belt than the other 31. Its rural nature creates specific policing problems, but it simultaneously has urban characteristics such as the nightclub capacity—between 10,000 and 12,000—of Romford, which is the biggest in the south-east of England outside the west end of London. Romford is not in my constituency, but it is in my borough, and the problems that it presents can be easily imagined.

On a recent Friday evening, I went out until between 3 am and 4 am with police officers who tour the borough, taking in Hornchurch, Rainham and Romford itself. It was a quiet night according to the officers, who did a good job. It was a cold and damp night, and as many officers say, the weather can be a good copper. Even so, there were a lot of arrests, and at one point there were almost not enough officers available to respond if an incident had occurred outside a nearby nightclub.

Like many hon. Members, I have worked closely with community officers over the past four or five years. Those officers, particularly the sector sergeant, say that they simply do not have the numbers to deal with a rising tide of yobbishness and antisocial behaviour. I have been Member of Parliament for Hornchurch for only five years, but even in that time the tide has risen, and the average age of the perpetrators of antisocial behaviour is getting younger.

It did my heart good to hear the peroration of "Bomber" Banks earlier. Such an inspiring speech should be set to the music of Elgar, and I have a lot of sympathy with much of what my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) said. My constituency has to deal week in and week out with the consequences of the yobbishness that he talked about. People in my surgery, or in letters or phone calls—many of them elderly, women and living alone—are often reduced to tears by their experiences.

A couple of weeks ago an elderly woman came to my surgery in tears, desperate about the vandalism and yobbishness that she experiences every night. If that is happening now when it is cold and damp, it will just get worse in the summer. Many hon. Members have detailed the experiences that they hear about every week. Things are at least as bad in Havering, and the bottom line is that we need more coppers on the beat. There is no doubt that the number is increasing—for the first time since 1993. The Sheehy report did a lot of damage to the police, but the numbers of officers are rising again. Unfortunately, we are not seeing them in Havering.

2.9 pm

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton)

I have been struck by the quality of most of the speeches in this excellent debate, and I hope that the Minister will bear them in mind. Like others, I particularly enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks). I was waiting for him to tell us about the clack of the clogs in the Lancashire mill town and the old maids cycling home from the church and so on, but in fact he voiced a feeling that is widespread about the growing disorder in society.

Many Members have drawn on their personal experiences. Two recent constituency experiences of mine illustrate the current problem. The first involves a home watch, or neighbourhood watch, group whom I met on Saturday. Although the area concerned is a quiet residential part of Wilmslow, everyone is terrified of crime, everyone has recently had personal experience of it, and everyone says that police are not seen on the streets any more.

My other experience was similar to that of the hon. Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer). Like every other Member who has gone on patrol with the local police force, when I did so I was struck by the courage of those who jump out of police cars without knowing what they will face, but I was also struck by how overstretched the force was. My constituency is quite rural, and contains sparsely populated towns that are quite far from each other. The police had to drive from one town to another to respond to calls. It occurred to me that, in the event of a couple of incidents in different towns taking place at the same time, the police simply would not be able to cope.

There is a gulf between a public who want more visible policing and a police force that cannot provide it because it does not have the necessary resources. Moreover, many of the Home Office incentives, targets and so on that the police are asked to observe do not encourage them to put officers on the streets.

I am very disappointed with the police package produced by the Home Secretary. I refer to both the heads of agreement and the Bill. I think that when the Home Secretary first arrived and started talking about police reform many Members in all parts of the House felt encouraged, thinking that we would actually have a Home Secretary who would have the courage to tackle some of the issues that his predecessors had had trouble tackling. Unfortunately, however, we have ended up with a pay dispute with the police service and a Bill that, in my view, has dangerous tendencies.

Last week, I received a letter from my local chief constable and the head of Cheshire police authority. I am sure that other Members have received similar letters. It says: We believe…that the cumulative impact of the Government's proposals, and the provisions of the Police Bill, would radically shift the current balance of responsibility for policing away from local people and local accountability, towards greater central direction and control by the Home Secretary. Such a step would in our view damage local policing and make policing more remote from the local communities it serves. Any Member who receives a letter from both the chief constable and the head of the local police authority that says such things should be very concerned about the Bill with which we shall be dealing.

One of the main flaws in the package is the absence of a vision of what policing in the 21st century should be about. In an earlier intervention, I mentioned policing in New York. For the last four or five years, politicians have bandied talk of zero tolerance, but I do not think we have really examined what happens in New York. What did Mayor Giuliani and his police chief do when New York had a similar problem of rising disorder and low morale among police who had retreated from the streets into their patrol cars? First, they implemented the "broken windows" theory, which states that tackling low-level social disorder helps to create a climate in which more serious crime does not take place. Secondly, they took the police out of the patrol cars and the precincts and put them on the streets, defying conventional police thinking that that was not the best way in which to fight crime. A visible police presence proved to be an important preventive measure, as well as improving the rate of detection.

Thirdly—this was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron)—the New York police dramatically increased police numbers. I am not making a party political point; I think that both major parties should consider whether we need a step change in the number of police whom we provide and for whom we pay. Neither party has done that in government, which is a source of much disappointment. As long as we go on failing to give the police the resources they need, the public will continue to lack confidence in our police service.

2.14 pm
Ms Oona King (Bethnal Green and Bow)

I thank the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for shortening his speech to allow me to contribute to this important debate on policing. I will devote my remarks to the good news, the bad news, the root causes and the solutions, and I have about 40 seconds for each.

The good news is that Tower Hamlets has less crime than other inner-city boroughs with less deprivation. The best news is that Tower Hamlets has been allocated an extra 147 police officers. That is an increase of 25 per cent., which reflects the fact that ours was the most under-resourced borough in London. Other elements of good news include estate wardens and the reduction in reported crimes related to drugs, criminal damage and residential burglary.

The bad news is that street crime has surged throughout London and street crime in Tower Hamlets is 50 per cent. higher than the London average. In the most recent year for which we have data, the police and the council between them received approximately 30,000 calls about street disorder, noise nuisance and abandoned cars, much of it gang-related.

I wish to apologise to the residents of Pevensey house, Harvey house, Pelican wharf, Alliston house, Gascoigne place, Gun place and Roman road, among others, who have written to me in great detail about the gang behaviour that is causing them continual suffering and unacceptable harassment, which I will not go into now.

One of the biggest casualties has been police response time, owing to the fact that the police have been so overstretched. A local councillor set out a familiar story: At 9.00 pm…I reported that a group of people were drug dealing openly around Valiance Road …I was told an officer would come around to investigate and take details. At 12.45 am I telephoned again…again at 1.15 am arid yet again at 1.45 am, by which time I had waited nearly five hours for an officer to get to the scene", and he eventually went to bed. He added: These same people are always dealing here and this was not an isolated incident.

Mr. Brian Boag writes that when he reported gangs vandalising cars, he was informed that there was a five to six-hour wait for police that evening. They were dealing with serious calls. He says: I am a senior nurse in the health service and have seen the changes and improvements in health care provision. I recognise that these have resulted as a consequence of new Labour's action. I know there is more to come in relation to public services, but situations similar to the one I have outlined above cannot be allowed to continue.

The last resident whom I shall quote, Mr. Uddin from London E14, said: I could not get police to help. I telephoned five times and waited 1; hours. Then they told me they could not come. Please tell us how are we going to live in this borough without police help? Thankfully, we are getting that police help; a 25 per cent. increase will have a huge impact. However, we must look at the root causes of crime.

As we have heard, permanent exclusions of primary and secondary school pupils have increased. In Tower Hamlets they have increased by almost a quarter—24 per cent.—since 1998–99. That is why education services in Tower Hamlets will now be working with the community partnership to track what problem young people are doing inside and outside school. Our approach must be targeted. It is an astonishing fact that a quarter of the offences committed by young people are the work of just 3 per cent. of that group. We must nail that 3 per cent. of offenders, but we must help the other 97 per cent. of offenders, most of whom come from the poorest households.

Finally, and briefly, I come to the solutions. One solution is more police. We have them, but demographic trends in Tower Hamlets, with growing numbers in the age cohort that commits most crime, means that we will need more. We need more consistent sentencing. Inconsistent sentencing causes much distress not only to the victims but to the police. We need an effective multi-agency approach to crime reduction, more tightly linking the police, local authorities, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service, the emergency services, drug action teams, health authorities and the local community and voluntary sector. We also need to improve our action and record in the battle against drugs.

Finally, I wish to welcome the new borough commander in Tower Hamlets, Mark Simmons. It is a challenge; I know that he is equal to it. Let us work together to ensure that the 25 per cent. increase in police numbers helps to ease the distress of so many residents in Tower Hamlets.

2.19 pm
Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for keeping their remarks brief so that I could contribute.

Senior policemen have pointed out that, however good policing is, their efforts are wasted if the necessary structures do not exist. As Sir John Stevens said, the criminal justice system is in crisis. It is not just senior police officers who tell us such things; the same is said by the bobby on the beat. One policeman recently expressed concern to me about the impending closure of our local magistrates court, in Trowbridge. That pattern is being repeated throughout the country. In fact, 114 magistrates courts have closed since September 1995. Such closures strike at the heart of our criminal justice system.

All hon. Members will support the principle that everybody, regardless of socio-economic position, should have equal access to justice. It is easy to get to an urban courthouse, particularly if one is relatively well off and owns a car, but if one lives in the country or does not have a lot of money, it is difficult to access justice in that way. We must recognise that the bulk of people who use our courthouses are perhaps not particularly prosperous. For them, the closure of magistrates courts is a real problem.

The rural White Paper made a big play of inclusiveness, service delivery, tackling deprivation and so on, but we need action to follow those fine words. I want Ministers to offer a commitment to preserving rural and smaller courthouses. The Lord Chancellor recently spent £600,000 on updating his Westminster accommodation. About £100,000 needs to be spent on the magistrates court in Trowbridge to preserve accessible local justice in that part of Wiltshire. I urge Ministers and the Government to support provision of that funding, so that we can continue the important principle of local justice in west Wiltshire.

2.21 pm
Mr. Denham

I am grateful to those hon. Members who had to foreshorten their remarks, and I apologise to those who were unable to speak. I shall take just a few minutes to wind up.

This has been a good debate, in which a wide range of interesting views was expressed. On hearing the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) for paramilitary troops on the underground, my first thought was that that could be done only if one introduced conscription. He did not let me down, however, as he went on to advocate that himself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) rightly appreciated and stressed the complementary role of community support officers in conjunction with the police, and he recognised their potential value in London and elsewhere. The hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred to various local and national issues affecting their communities. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) had an interesting idea about auxiliary reserves. Volunteer specials should be strengthened in various ways, but rather than reserve officers, we need a number of community support officers working year round alongside the police. That is certainly what the Met wants, and that is how we wish to support it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) made a thoughtful, if somewhat misplaced, speech. We do not intend that performance assessment will be a crude basket of statistical indicators. As she said, such assessment is merely a pointer to enable the examination of performance. Much more is happening in terms of revising training and leadership development than her speech perhaps allowed for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) stressed the very important role played by the partnership between police, local authorities and local communities in bringing down crime. Perhaps this debate did not deal with that point sufficiently. As I have said, the role of the police is essential, but they cannot be expected to carry the entire burden of crime reduction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) rightly linked persistently high fear of crime to the wider spread of antisocial behaviour, particularly by young people. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) distinguished herself by being the only Member to argue that no reform of the police service is necessary. I do not speak on matters north of the border, but I should point out that every other contributor to the debate recognised in one way or another that change is needed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) mentioned another important theme that was not developed in the debate: dealing with young people themselves. We must tackle the problem of young offenders, particularly persistent offenders, from whom the community must be protected. However, it is important to deal with a wider group of young people, through the youth inclusion programme and other means, to minimise the numbers who become offenders.

The hon. Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and many others called for more police officers. Apparently, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow is actually getting more. Hon. Members will pleased to learn that there will be a significant increase in her local force. At the end of the debate, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) also touched on reform issues in the criminal justice system.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, and I shall attempt to draw together the key themes and settle one or two issues. The myth that the Home Secretary and other Ministers have, in some way, attacked the integrity of individual police officers or the role that they play has been propagated once again in the debate. However, when we talk about public services, we must be able to talk about the overall performance of a service and where it can be improved, without that being interpreted as an attack on the individuals in the service. If we cannot draw that distinction, reform of any public service will be difficult. We support the front-line officers in the police service and the support staff. That is why we want to ensure that they get a better pay deal, but—like hon. Members on both sides of the House—we recognise the need for reform.

Many hon. Members mentioned police numbers. The decline in police numbers in London was set in train under the previous Administration in 1991–92 and across the service in England and Wales in 1993. We could not reverse that immediately on coming to power because we had to sort out the economy and the public finances first. We have now reversed that decline and, from everything that has been said in the debate, hon. Members on both sides recognise that we were right to establish the crime fighting fund and to earmark resources for increases in the number of police officers. It is clear that hon. Members wish us to continue that work, through the right mechanisms, in the future.

It is understandable that people want us to continue to build on the increases in the number of officers that we have already announced, but we should also remember that next year we will have 130,000 officers. If, over the next few years, 43 per cent. of their time is still spent in the police station—much of it on unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy—we will be wasting the opportunity to have more officers out on the streets delivering the service that the public want to see. They want officers patrolling the community and to see intelligently led, intelligently tasked and problem-solving community policing. That is why reform must go ahead. It will be a big investment to have 130,000 police officers, as we will have next year in England and Wales, and we must make the best use of the time of every single one so that they can be where the public want to see them.

I was struck by how much consensus was expressed in the debate about the nature and direction of reform. However, hon. Members raised several issues of concern. It is worth saying that the Police Federation supports the new intervention powers in clause 5 of the Police Reform Bill—in contradiction of the comments by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)—so even within the police service there are different views. To hear some hon. Members today one might think that I was personally responsible for shutting their local police stations. Such decisions are operational decisions for chief constables and the new powers will not mean that Ministers will take individual responsibility for police stations. The fact is that when all other methods of ensuring that a good police service is delivered have failed, we need to have the power to act. That power will be exercised at the end of all the other chains of responsibility, including the chief constable and the police authority. However, in such circumstances we would be expected to act and we need to have the power to do so.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned clause 7. We need to have in place, in every police service, key parts of policing such as the national intelligence model. We can consider how the legislation is framed, but it does not make sense to have the collective policing effort undermined by a handful of forces that decide to take a different direction.

We have had a good debate, with great consensus about the need for reform and its direction, the need for more officers and the need to see more police officers and community support officers in local communities. That is what the Government are delivering.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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