HC Deb 17 March 2004 vol 419 cc125-31WH 3.30 pm
Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con)

For some time now, I have been concerned about what many people regard as inadequate police cover in my constituency. My mind really focused on the issue when I was called to an emergency meeting of Leigh crime prevention panel by Councillor John Lamb and Councillor Gwen Horrigan. That was when I learned first hand about the seriousness of the situation.

The Minister will be armed with facts and figures to knock me down after my speech. I am under no illusion about that, because that is the way it works here—the Minister has the last word. However, regardless of how often she says that there is more money, there are more police, and so on, the people whom I represent feel that the situation is serious and needs addressing. Leaving aside the facts and figures with which her brilliant civil servants will have armed her, I hope that she will reflect on the issues that I raise.

Members of the general public are overwhelmingly against crime, as are all Members of Parliament. There is nothing remarkable about that. If there were a magic solution for stopping crime, we can imagine how much money would be available for the health service, for education, and for fighting the terrible new threat of terrorism. Before he became Prime Minister in 1997, the leader of the Labour party made great play of his slogan,"Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime." Yet there has been a huge increase of 800,000 in instances of recorded crime, violent crime has soared, robberies and muggings have increased, and fewer than one in four crimes is detected. No doubt the Minister will have reasons for all those increases. It is interesting, however, that we were told in the 1997 Labour party manifesto—its so-called contract with the people—that more police would be on the beat, not pushing paper, and that there would be a crackdown on petty crimes and neighbourhood disorder. In the 2001 manifesto, the rhetoric changed. We were told that the Labour party would ensure that all families were safe in their communities by tackling crime and its causes, but tackling crime was no longer described as a priority, but as an ambition.

Like many others, I am absolutely fed up with gesture politics. Never a day goes by without the Home Secretary waking up with a new idea. What on earth is the point of making more and more laws if there is no one to enforce them? I was shocked and alarmed when, in response to my parliamentary questions about drug-related offences, the Home Office said that the number of defendants proceeded against for drug offences has dropped significantly since 1998, although we all know that drug abuse is rising rapidly. Furthermore, violence and robberies have more than doubled in four years.

When the only independent councillor in Southend, Councillor Martin Terry, decided to go out on a night patrol with the chief superintendent, he came back with some shocking facts and figures. The class A drug culture in Southend is not being dealt with owing to the lack of police officers. I have many friends who work for police forces in various parts of the country. All hon. Members would agree that the police do a wonderful job and that they are overworked and underpaid. The Government should be concerned about the fact that a great age gap has developed, because, for all sorts of reasons, too many older and more experienced policewomen and men take early retirement. Nice though it is to see young officers on the streets, there is a great need for more experience.

I make no complaint about the way in which motorists are treated. No one can complain about lack of enforcement of motoring laws—there are many speed cameras and traps and armies of officers detecting whether people have paid their car tax. However, the Minister will understand why the general public think it unfair that if they do something wrong as a motorist, they will be caught, but if they are burgled, attacked or have noisy neighbours, the situation will be somewhat different.

I recently spoke to Mr. and Mrs. Hawkins, who established the south Westcliff community group. They identified a number of problems in the constituency . Elsmere hotel has had to install closed circuit television cameras because youths are walking in from the street and helping themselves to property. Many residents are concerned about their safety around Westcliff station in the evening, but they sometimes have great difficulty in getting through to Southend police station unless they dial 999. Some people have waited more than 15 minutes to report a crime and given up on trying to get through. The Minister will have heard such complaints before. That must have something to do with the financial settlement for Southend—perhaps the amount of money that is allocated to our call centres. One of our local retail proprietors has had to put up with antisocial behaviour by youths. Recently, he reported that a group of five young people were drunk outside his shop; the police eventually came to see him three days later. That, too, must be something to do with funding. A common theme is emerging.

A local entrepreneur called Con Donovan runs the Choice discount store, which sells what are euphemistically called rejects of the Next retail outlet. Every customer needs a plastic carrier bag in which to take away their goods, and he decided to print on the bottom of his bags, "We support Crimestoppers" and a telephone number. That is a simple thing to do, and I am sure that the Minister would like to encourage similar activities.

All the community organisations with which I am in contact tell me that when they raise funding concerns, the police say that a lot of money is spent on CCTV. The feeling locally is that although CCTV is essential, it is not a sole deterrent. Funding a more visible police presence is the only way to deter the most hardened criminals.

I recently spoke to a local cab driver who told me that when a sum of money became available, the police issued cab drivers with a pager so that they could act as the eyes and ears of the local police. That appeared to be a good initiative—it had the support of the town's Cab Drivers Association—but drivers discovered that when they reported incidents, police assistance sometimes took up to 45 minutes to arrive. The initiative has now been abandoned.

When Councillor Martin Terry went out on his night patrol with the local chief superintendent to see what was going on, the funding situation was confirmed. There is a long-held view that the police are mainly concentrated in Southend town centre. It is good to have police in town centres, but that is not necessarily the case in my constituency. The residents of Leigh-on-Sea and Eastwood say that they suffer huge neglect, particularly on Friday and Saturday evenings. The councillor wrote to me to say: When the Police are telephoned residents are often told that there is not anyone available and the Police have to prioritise resources. Having experienced that on several occasions—which is worrying, given the increase in violent crime and class A drugs—he believes that some police stations have been downgraded. Leigh police station is now closed in the evening, Westcliff police station has been shut completely, and Eastwood police station is open only very infrequently. On Fridays and Saturdays, the police have to deal with 10,000 to 15,000 revellers coming into Southend from London and other parts of the area.

TheLeigh Times has highlighted our local traders' concerns about funding—for example, Sue Jeffs, who runs Vanilla hairdressers, is particularly worried about crime levels in Leigh—and theYellow Advertiser is doing all that it can to enter into the spirit of the Government's efforts to combat crime. The community wants to unite against what is unfortunately happening in the town, but people feel that we need more money.

The 2001 census data have been used as evidence that funding is satisfactory, but that model is flawed. It uses specific socio-demographic figures as the basis for estimating likely criminal activity, but the people concerned did not fill in the census forms. The Minister may not be aware of that matter, but we are pursuing it with various Government Departments.

I end with a plea. The Select Committee on Health, of which I am a member, is studying obesity. We recently visited Odense, where we were given a presentation in which we were told that the city has a successful car-free policy because nearly everyone rides bikes, especially the police. My hon. Friend the Member for West Chelmsford (Mr. Burns) and I were surprised about that, but Labour members of the Committee told us that it is happening in some parts of this country. It is certainly not happening in Essex. Last month, I wrote to the chief constable in the hope that he might consider adopting that policy in future.

The trouble is that cash is tight because of the terrible threat that we face from terrorism. I wish that we had an answer to that, but it is difficult for this or any Government to tackle the problem of terrorists who are prepared to take their own lives. If the general public saw more policewomen and men on bikes, as well as in cars, their support might help us in our fight against crime.

The Minister and I are united in our wish to defeat the criminals. Please, please, please can we have a little bit more financial help in Southend, West?

3.45 pm
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears)

I am delighted to congratulate the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) on securing this debate, which has given us a good chance to air some issues of local concern that also have a national impact. I am more than happy to give him the undertaking that he seeks. I will reflect on some of the matters that he raised. I will do so if he will get things in perspective.

I should like to lay out the funding situation nationally and, more relevantly, for Essex, in order to highlight some of the good practice in the county not just in the police but in crime reduction and prevention. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the role of his local councillors in that partnership, which is key to building safer communities. I should also like to highlight the work that we are doing on antisocial behaviour—those low-level issues that make people's lives a misery—which has not always been fully reflected in some of the national priorities, but is beginning to be so. I should like to give him some hope and optimism.

I am inevitably going to say to the hon. Gentleman that this Government are delivering on the various manifesto pledges that they made in 1997 and 2001. Since 1997, crime generally has fallen by about 25 per cent., burglary is down by 39 per cent., vehicle crime is down by 30 per cent., and robbery is down by 17 per cent. in the last year. Those are fully validated statistics. The hon. Gentleman has a point that, despite the fact that crime has decreased dramatically over the past six years, any polling reveals that two thirds of the public feel that crime is still increasing in their area. That is a serious issue, which I call the perception gap—the gap between reality and how people feel, either at home or in their working and social lives. One main reason for that gap is the antisocial behaviour in many of our communities. If people do not feel safe when they open their front door and walk down the street—when they see graffiti, fly-tipping and fly posting, broken bus shelters and groups of youths hanging about—and things are not addressed by the authorities, they do not have any sense that their community is safer.

I have a vested interest in trying to ensure that we tackle what have been called low-level incidents, but which I think are important to people. That is why we passed the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003; why the Home Secretary, the Prime Minister and I launched the antisocial behaviour action plan in November; and why we have taken a different approach to the legislation—instead of as normal passing an Act, issuing a circular and a bit of guidance and perhaps leaving it at that. We knew that if we introduced a new range of powers, we would need to follow them up.

As well as the action plan, we have launched the "Together" campaign, which is trying to unite the police, local authorities and local businesses. I am delighted by the hon. Gentleman's example of the local entrepreneur and the Crimestoppers carrier bag. That is an excellent idea. Businesses have often been the empty seat at the table of partnerships. We must work harder to engage them. Local residents must also take action in the "Together" campaign.

We now have what we call the Together academy, which is a big training programme for all those involved on how to use the powers available. It is pointless the Government putting such powers on the statute book unless everybody is confident about how to use antisocial behaviour orders, acceptable behaviour contracts, the new housing powers, parenting orders, and powers for schools to get involved in combating truancy. The academy has been launched throughout the country. There will be an event near the hon. Gentleman, which his local workers can attend. It will provide free training by expert practitioners. Instead of there being a top-down approach, the academy has people who work on such issues day to day.

We have just launched an action line so that people can get help at the end of a telephone if they have a crack house nearby. I know that there is an increasing problem of crack cocaine in Southend. I understand that there has been a big tactical operation and that some 30 arrests of crack dealers have been made in recent weeks. We now have new powers to close crack houses. They were first used in Eastbourne—down on the south coast. I was delighted about that; I expected the first place to be Hackney, but Eastbourne was ahead of the game. I hope that the new powers will be useful.

The hon. Gentleman will know that details of the police funding settlement were finalised on 5 February. We had a full debate on it in the House. I met various people from police authorities. I received written representations from Essex Members, which were taken into account when determining the settlement. Overall, we are providing grant that supports police spending of £10.1 billion for the coming year—an increase of £400 million, or 4.2 per cent. That builds on a £2.3 billion increase since 2000.

Resources provided for the police have gone up by about 30 per cent.—17 per cent. in real terms. That is a significant real-terms investment in the police. We now have record numbers of police officers—138,386 at the last count, as far as I can remember. Moreover, some 3,243 community support officers now patrol the streets full time, giving a high-visibility uniform presence, which, as the hon. Gentleman says, is what local people increasingly want to see in their communities.

Essex has also benefited from those extra police officers. There are 149 more police officers than in March 1997, and 483 extra staff doing some of the administrative tasks, freeing up the police to do much more work on the front line. There are 91 community support officers. I am delighted that Southend council has volunteered to part-fund some of the community support officers because it sees the value of their patrolling shopping areas and estates, and assuring people. We are encouraging other areas to take a similar attitude. So, well done Southend council for coming up with some of the match funding.

Essex also has 371 special constables. I am keen to encourage more people to volunteer to become members of the special constabulary. Local people do a fantastic job on neighbourhood watch, on home watch and increasingly on pub watch, farm watch and all kinds of volunteer activity. If we can get them to take that extra step and give us four hours a week of their time, we will give them excellent training. They will have full police powers and will make a real contribution to the community.

Essex has done extremely well this year in the funding that it has received compared with other forces. We had a pretty tight settlement and so we decided, exceptionally, to provide a 3.25 per cent. increase across the board. So, we did not apply the formula this year. The hon. Gentleman said that he takes issue with the way in which the formula is calculated. He is in a minority because the formula has been subject to agreement by the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and the Home Office. So, all the parties have been brought into the process.

The formula is pretty complex. It seeks to recognise not just socio-economic factors, but the number of temporary visitors to a place. It therefore takes tourists and temporary residents into account. It is supposed to direct funds to the areas of greatest need. We did not apply it this year because we did not have a huge amount to spend and we wanted to ensure that everyone got a settlement above inflation to meet the pay claims and other pressures in the system. If we had applied the formula to the Essex police force, it would have received £15 million less than it did. In comparison with some of the large metropolitan forces, the hon. Gentleman might feel that his force has been generously treated.

The Metropolitan police in London made a net contribution of £56 million, because we did not apply the formula; it has put £56 million back into the pot to support forces such as the hon. Gentleman's. The West Midlands police put nearly £27 million back into the pot, and so it feels very hard done by. My police force up in Greater Manchester put £6 million back into the pot to ensure that forces such as the hon. Gentleman's did not fall below the floor in the police formula settlement.

The hon. Gentleman should recognise that Essex has had a fairly generous settlement this year. As well as its general grant, it has received a range of specific grants: £6 million from the crime fighting fund, £500,000 from the rural policing fund, nearly £500,000 for the Airwave radio system and £1 million of basic command unit funding—£125,000 of that specifically for Southend. It also benefits from £2.5 million of south-east allowance payments, which recognise that police officers in the south-east have problems meeting high housing charges and that there are retention issues. We have tried to address that. It also receives a fair amount of capital provision; this year there has been a premises improvement programme to provide better facilities for vulnerable witnesses in the area, making sure that they can be interviewed in private and with dignity.

I am also aware that this year the police precept increase in Essex was 6.7 per cent.—the second lowest percentage increase in police precept across England and Wales, and equal to an extra 12p per week. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, as the local MP, and his constituents feel that paying for extra police officers and the community support officers and crime prevention measures is worth an extra 12p per week.

The distribution of those funds in the force area is a matter for the force. It has a resource allocation model. I am told that under that model, Southend gets the absolute maximum to which it is entitled. However, if the hon. Gentleman has issues about Leigh-on-Sea and other areas not being policed, particularly at the weekend, it is for him to take them up with the local chief constable and his borough commanders.

I am well seized of the problems in the night-time economy at the moment. On Monday, I launched the alcohol harm reduction strategy, which is designed to ensure that the police use their powers to prosecute licensees who sell to under-age drinkers and people who are already drunk. We are encouraging the police to use antisocial behaviour orders, exclusion orders and the powers that they now have to close down disorderly night clubs and pubs. So, there is a big drive on enforcement.

However, the industry should also play its part. Many people make a significant amount of money from pubs and clubs. In the best partnerships—in Manchester, Cardiff, York, Leicester—the police, the local authority, licensing officers and the industry work together to try to make our night-time economy much safer. The best pubs and clubs are happy to do that; if they offer a safe night out, young people will go back week after week, enjoy themselves and contribute towards profits. So, it is a win-win for everyone.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of drugs, which are a huge driver for the acquisitive crime—the burglary, the robbery—that goes on in our society. We are massively increasing the money that we are spending on that: from £1 billion a couple of years ago to nearly £1.5 billion from next April. That has gone not just on prosecuting drug dealers, but on prevention work with young people and on getting many more of our serious drug users into drug treatment. If we can get them into treatment and break the link between drugs and crime, we should see a massive impact on the acquisitive crimes that make people's lives such a misery.

Through our criminal justice intervention programme we are using every bit of the criminal justice system to get people into treatment—from the point at which they are arrested, whether or not they are on a drug treatment order. We are also ensuring that we get them into education, training and housing afterwards. After they have given up the drugs, the big challenge is to change their lives for the long term and the future.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of pensions. He is right; they can be a drain on police authority funds. Some years there is a large spike in the number of people retiring, which puts the budget under pressure. I have just issued a consultation document that considers pensions for the future in order to establish whether there is a way to encourage people with skills to stay in the force and not simply retire after 30 years. We want to keep their skills. The document should also establish whether we can take some of the pension responsibilities to the centre, and even out the pressures on police authorities.

I hope that I have addressed many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. As I said, I will reflect on what he said, provided that he acknowledges this year's extremely good comparative funding position for Essex. I am sure that he will work with his communities to make his neighbourhoods much safer and better places.