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Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): May I tell my right hon. Friend that people in communities in my constituency are deeply unimpressed by slanging matches on crime between those on the respective Front Benches? They are much more confident about what the Government have done in the Kingstanding area of my constituency, for example, to reduce domestic burglary by about one quarter in the past three years--although none of us takes any satisfaction from the contribution to the overall increase in crime made by villains in the west midlands.

Given that the Home Secretary said that crime rates have fallen in 18 of 43 police areas, what work is being done by either the Home Office or the police service itself to learn lessons from those areas and to identify best practice that can be applied elsewhere? Although it is a little early, can he also say what conclusions he draws from the first year of operation of the community safety partnerships and the good work that they are doing in their areas to respond to community demands on how local police should behave?

Mr. Straw: As to how we use best practice of one force area to raise performance in other areas, huge work is being done--partly in the context of best value, and partly, in the wider context, led by the inspectorate of constabulary--to draw forces' attention to best practice and to get them to apply it.

We shall shortly be publishing the very important report of the inspectorate of constabulary on the performance of basic command units. That report shows that similar basic command units, in similar areas and with similar resources, perform very differently. It is at that level--just as it is at the school or hospital level, where the health and education services are improving performance--that real improvements can be made.

The community safety partnerships, which have been operating for just over one year now, are working well. In those areas where they are working particularly well, district councils, police and other agencies, including the health and education services, are making a major contribution to the reduction in levels of crime and disorder. That is shown, for example, in the increasing use of anti-social behaviour orders. Major reforms in the youth justice system are also helping to drive down offending and re-offending by young offenders.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe): Will the Home Secretary acknowledge that in the last four years of the previous Government crime fell by nearly 20 per cent. and the number of police constables increased in every single year? Two months ago, the chairman of the Police Federation told the Home Secretary,

Does the Home Secretary absolve himself from responsibility for that sense of despair?

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Mr. Straw: If the right hon. and learned Gentleman looks back at what representatives of the Police Federation say each year, he will see that they said much worse things of his stewardship.

Mr. Howard indicated dissent.

Mr. Straw: Oh yes, they did, especially around the time that he implemented the ill-advised Sheehy report, which has been the main cause of the recruitment and retention crisis, especially in the metropolitan areas, and which it has taken me to readjust. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman wants to trade police numbers, the simple truth is that when he came into office as Home Secretary in spring 1993 police numbers stood at 128,300. By the time he left office, under the budget that he established--which, he should remember, he promised would lead to an increase of 5,000 extra officers--the number of officers had fallen by 1,400. The current settlement represents the best increase in the funding of the police service to achieve record numbers of police officers that this country has ever seen.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): When my right hon. Friend comes to my constituency to discuss law and order, as he has kindly promised to do, will he explain to my constituents why the Liberal Democrats ask him to be tough on the causes of crime but voted against the financing of the new deal, which has reduced youth unemployment in my constituency by 61 per cent.? While my constituents welcome the projected increase in police numbers in Greater Manchester, and also the reduction in burglary in the C division by 34 per cent., will my right hon. Friend accept that they are still deeply worried by disruptive behaviour and would like to see the greater invocation of anti-social behaviour orders and curfews and an increase in the age of curfew applications to teenagers? Will my right hon. Friend consider how he can augment the triggering of those welcome actions that were included in the Crime and Disorder Act 1998?

Mr. Straw: When I come to my right hon. Friend's constituency on Saturday, I will discuss with him and, as importantly, his constituents what has been done in the area to bring burglary down and what still needs to be done to get on top of the long-term trend in crime. He is right to tease the Liberal Democrats who, as always, want things both ways. They want us to be tough on the causes of crime, but they do not want to be tough in the methods by which we bear down on those causes. I remember my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer saying that the welfare-to-work programme was as much an anti-crime programme as it was an economic policy. Putting 1 million people back into work and bearing down on the scourge of long-term unemployment, especially among the young, is profoundly important in securing a decent civic society and binding people into a common set of values. It is without that common set of values, including a sense of responsibility, that an environment develops in which crime breeds.

I can tell my right hon. Friend that we want to see local districts and the police service making better use of the powers that we gave to local authorities and the police, as they requested--although we did not direct them to use the powers--where they feel appropriate. There is not the least doubt that in those areas where the authorities are

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using those powers, especially anti-social behaviour orders, big differences have been recorded in levels of crime and disorder. I hope that a good debate will develop in Greater Manchester that compares levels of performance in the local districts with comparable districts elsewhere, so that where burglary, vehicle and other crime rates appear to be significantly higher, the police and local authority can discuss and determine what actions they will take to reduce those levels.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. May I appeal to hon. Members to up the tempo? Short questions and short answers enable me to call more hon. Members than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Is the Home Secretary aware that on 1 May 1997 the Lincolnshire police force had 1,221 officers, and only 1,145 on 1 May this year? That reduction, of 76 officers or just over 6 per cent., is the second largest in England and Wales. When can the Lincolnshire force reasonably expect to have the same number of officers that it had when the right hon. Gentleman came to office? Will the Home Secretary guarantee that the next settlement will incorporate the sparsity factor recommended by his own external consultants?

Mr. Straw: On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's final point, we are announcing tomorrow the allocation of the £15 million for rural police force areas that is additional to the current standard spending assessment. That will help rural areas. Longer-term reform of the SSA will be announced in due course, but the Government fully accept that rural areas have special needs. We have taken them into account in the settlement.

The figures in the crimefighting fund provide for increases for Lincolnshire this year, next year and the year after. However, between 1998-99 and 1999-2000, the Lincolnshire force has enjoyed budget increases that are among the largest--of 4.5 per cent., compared with an average across the country of 3.1 per cent. Ultimately, the allocation of cash to officers, equipment and other expenditure is, by law, a matter for the chief constable and not the Home Office.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham): I also welcome my right hon. Friend announcements, but the biggest complaint at my surgeries in the villages around my constituency has to do with youngsters' disorderly and unruly behaviour. At a recent meeting, the divisional commander for my area put that problem down to a lack of policemen and to the huge amount of paperwork needed to bring those responsible to court. He was very complimentary about the fast-track system that the Government have introduced for young criminals, and said that youths were now being brought to court very quickly. However, he said that the big problem was that there was nowhere to send the ones who were found guilty, with the result that they were soon back on the streets.

Do my right hon. Friend's announcements today mean that the problems that I have described will be solved, in my constituency and elsewhere?

Mr. Straw: I must advise my hon. Friend not to take at face value suggestions by the officers of any public

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authority that the only reason for their failure to perform at a certain level is the lack of resources. He ought to compare the relative performance of his police district with that of other, similar, forces. The detailed statistics show that otherwise similar areas perform very differently. I do not think that Durham's police problems are worse than those in my own constituency of Blackburn. However, excellent policing in my constituency--where resources are lower than in most areas--and good partnership work with the Blackburn and Darwen district council has meant that virtually every category of crime has fallen. The force in my area makes full use of the powers available.

On youth justice, the Government are now giving the Youth Justice Board an annual budget of £230 million, including £190 million for the juvenile secure estate. The previous Administration did not properly organise the juvenile secure estate and did not implement powers to allow magistrates to remand into secure custody the so-called bail bandits--people who are arrested one day, charged the next, taken into court the next and then let out on bail. This Government have given the courts clear powers to remand young criminals directly into secure custody. Since June, the Youth Justice Board has had the power, duty and money to ensure that those places are available--in Durham as elsewhere.

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