HL Deb 15 October 2002 vol 639 cc696-8

2.53 p.m.

Earl Attlee asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the police have any discretion in applying the laws relating to theft; particularly in relation to the handling and receipt of stolen goods.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

My Lords, the enforcement of the law is an operational matter for chief constables. A police officer will need to interpret and assess the particular circumstances of any one incident and apply his or her discretion in considering whether an offence has been committed and what action to take.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he satisfied by the ability of the police to recover stolen vehicles and equipment that they know to be held at a travellers' encampment?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, if a vehicle is identifiably stolen, the police have entirely adequate powers to go in and recover that material, subject to the proper steps being taken. As to whether there are difficulties in relation to particular encampments of an operational sort, it is plainly a matter for individual chief constables in each police authority area to determine the appropriate steps, but they certainly have the powers to do so.

Lord Bradshaw

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, although the police have powers, in the counties around London in particular they do not have the manpower to follow up very many cases of theft and misappropriation? What is being done in Surrey, Thames Valley and Hertfordshire to overcome this great shortage of manpower as people transfer to other forces, including the Metropolitan Police? What is being done about the recruitment and payment of Specials, which the Government have been considering for as long as they have been in office?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, on the first question about the size of the police force, as the noble Lord, Lord Bradshaw, knows, the number of operational members of the police force is the highest that it has been since 1921 at just under 130,000. As the noble Lord also knows, we have committed ourselves to a further 2,500, which obviously will increase the figure yet further. The noble Lord will also know that we have committed ourselves to funding community support officers to whom the police will be able to leave certain tasks so that they can concentrate on mainstream policing activity. The noble Lord will also know that local authorities are funding significant numbers of street wardens, which will also help to reduce the burden on the police. Those are the steps that we are taking. It is plainly right that individual police constables must prioritise what goes on in their area. The Government are providing them with the support, money and manpower that they need to do the best job possible.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the police do not treat travellers' encampments as no-go areas, that it would be wrong for them to do so, and that if it is necessary to enter such encampments in furtherance of detecting crime they do not hesitate to do so?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, of course there are no no-go areas for law enforcement in this country. As to how individual encampments are approached and treated in the context of individual crimes, I must make it clear that it is a matter for individual chief constables to determine how best to deal with the matter. It is not for central Government to give direction in that respect.

Viscount Bridgeman

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Construction Plant-hire Association estimates that thefts of plant throughout the United Kingdom amount to about £600 million per annum, that frequently these are the work of organised crime through the theft to order of high-value equipment, and that the police recover only around 10 per cent of it? Does he agree with the public perception, as outlined by my noble friends Lord Attlee and Lord Waddington, that there is a lack of motivation by certain police forces to pursue this type of stolen equipment? Will he encourage chief officers to devote more resources to addressing this substantial problem?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, I was not aware of the precise figure until the noble Viscount said it. I am aware of the problem of plant theft. In different police force areas it is for the chief constable to determine priorities and how best to deploy manpower. The problem is serious, and its seriousness will vary between police areas. Again, I emphasise that it is for chief constables to determine their priorities.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, if the Government can lay down priorities for street crime, why cannot they do so for this sort of crime?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in relation to street crime the Government identified that there was a significant increase in that type of crime and brought together those, including chief constables, who could best advise on how to deal with it. That led to greater co-operation. In the 10 areas where street crime was at its worst there was a 16 per cent drop, comparing the six months to the end of September 2002 with the previous parallel six-month period.

Lord Elton

My Lords, the Minister introduced the figures for 1921, stating that we have the same number of police as we had in 1921. What was the population of this country in 1921, and what is it now?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, the number in the police force is the highest since 1921. Unfortunately, I do not have the population figures available. But I anticipate from the wily way in which the question was asked that the population might have been lower then.

Lord McNally

My Lords, does the Minister believe that sufficient powers are now in place and that there is sufficient co-operation from banks, solicitors, accountants and other professions to provide a necessary response to enable the police to pursue money laundering and other white-collar crime involving the handling of stolen goods?

Lord Falconer of Thoroton

My Lords, in the Proceeds of Crime Act that was passed in the last Session, significant powers were given. We need to look to see how those powers work out before we answer the question of whether more powers are required. It is an incredibly important area of law enforcement that needs real concentration.