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29 Jan 2001 : Column 81

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Lord): Order. I remind hon. Members that the 10-minute limit on Back-Bench speeches applies from now until 9.30.

7.10 pm

Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): As I have just caught the 10-minute limit, my contribution will be a little shorter than it would have been--but perhaps it will be the better for that.

Liverpool is one of the safest cities in the country. The fact that I can say that so confidently is a tribute to the people of the city, to Merseyside police and to the other partners in the local crime reduction partnerships. It is no surprise that the crime reduction partnerships are known as Citysafe, because we are proclaiming something of which we are all very proud.

Since the election of the Labour Government, there has been a 2.5 per cent. fall in recorded crime, with especially large falls in domestic burglary and robbery, although there have been increases in certain other crimes, and I want to concentrate on those. The city of Liverpool has pioneered the use of antisocial behaviour orders, with a concentration on youth disorder and low-level disruptive criminal behaviour.

For two and a half years, we have had a central antisocial behaviour unit in Liverpool, in which expertise has been gathered and through which cases have been taken to court. One of the first antisocial behaviour orders was made in Liverpool. When orders have been obtained, they have been relatively successful, in that serious problems of antisocial behaviour have been dealt with, but a difficulty has developed over the past couple of years, and in particular over the past six months, as the local authority has allowed staffing levels at the unit to fall, partly because it took its eye off the ball and froze the posts when staff left. That has now changed, and recruitment is going ahead.

The crime reduction partnerships, the city council and the police have established protocols that mean that all serious cases of antisocial behaviour have to be routed through the antisocial behaviour unit. The problem with that is the one that we had in Liverpool before the orders were available or the unit was set up: the local police and housing officers can pass the cases on to somebody else. It is not appropriate for every case to be passed to a central unit: serious cases should be dealt with at such a unit, where the expertise, the lawyers and the enforcement officers are available to deal with them, but I have always viewed the orders as a tool of early intervention rather than a weapon of last resort, and I am very much afraid that in Liverpool they are becoming a weapon of last resort.

In a recent article in the Liverpool Echo, the councillor responsible for the antisocial behaviour unit said:

To me, that is a misunderstanding of the nature and aim of the orders, and I have been doing my bit to try to persuade people that it is more appropriate in more minor cases--which are none the less serious to neighbours who are badly affected--for the local chief inspectors and housing officers to go to the magistrates court and obtain

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the orders, without having to bother the central unit. I would like the city council and the police to co-operate in making that a reality.

The Bill contains provisions for police training. It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) is no longer here, because she and I have been developing a dialogue about the importance of police numbers. In Liverpool, police numbers have gradually, gently fallen over the past 10 years--the fall has now stabilised, and there is a planned increase--yet over that period, and especially over the past three or four years, crime has fallen. Increased police numbers do not necessarily reduce crime. I want to discuss why that is, and what the police can do to make themselves more effective.

In the Merseyside police area, in an experiment in Knowsley--it is not in my constituency, but it is close by--a reorganisation of community policing has led to a 71 per cent. fall in youth nuisance. The experiment was dreamed up by a superintendent and a local chief inspector. There is a permanent police presence. The local officers stay in the area and get to be known by everyone there; there is a response team for emergencies; and a problem-solving approach is taken. It has been remarkably successful. In April, Merseyside police plan to reorganise all their community policing in that way. I think that that will be tremendously effective, and I congratulate them.

There are still problems in Merseyside police, however, that mean that a lot of resources are wasted that could be used to deal with low-level disorder and youth crime, which is the type of crime that upsets my constituents the most and adds to the impression that crime is increasing, when in fact it is decreasing.

Over the previous year, the wages of suspended officers cost the Merseyside police £320,000. The police cannot always deal with the cases of suspended officers as quickly as they might like--because of court cases, for instance--but two of the suspended officers had been on suspension for more than two years.

Suspensions are not the only problem: there are sickness and disciplinary matters. I was approached by a constituent who is a female detective constable who joined the force in January 1978. After 20 years of exemplary service, she was forced to go sick in August 1997, following what can only be described as bullying, sex discrimination and harassment. The grievance that she registered shortly thereafter was resolved only late last year.

The investigating officers retired, witnesses suddenly found that they themselves were under investigation, and there were medical retirements--all of which cost money and made the case drag on for three years. My constituent is unlikely to be able to return to work, while the officers who subjected her to bullying and intimidation have not even received words of advice. That is not acceptable in the modern police service.

In a 1999 Merseyside police staff survey, 17 per cent. of police officers said that they had been bullied in the previous year; 59 per cent. had experienced some form of harassment; 4 per cent. had considered leaving the service as a result of sexual, racial or homophobic harassment; and a further 18 per cent. had considered leaving as a result of another form of harassment.

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Those figures are shocking. They show that good forces such as Merseyside police have serious internal management problems and problems of dealing with bullying and harassment that are costing the police, and therefore the taxpayer, hundreds of thousands of pounds a year that could be better directed to dealing with antisocial behaviour on our streets.

That is why I sometimes disagree with the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald that increasing police numbers is the answer. I would like more police to be recruited in Liverpool, but I want them to do a job for the people of Liverpool, not to spend their time bullying each other, being suspended or being off sick because of what other officers have done, and not being able to provide the service that they should.

Merseyside police are changing in a good way. They are seriously considering changing the way in which they police our communities. That is necessary, but there is more to do and I hope that they will do it. I want Liverpool city council and the local police to be more proactive in implementing antisocial behaviour orders, taking such cases to court and dealing with those matters as soon as possible.

7.20 pm

Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke): I shall be brief because I want to make only two points, either of which could have been made in an intervention. Although the Home Secretary was generous with his time, he obviously wished to proceed with his speech and I was unable to intervene on him. I hope that the Minister will consider the two points in his winding-up speech.

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friends on the Front Bench have decided not to vote against Second Reading, but my first point is that any good in the Bill is likely to be negated in my county of Hampshire. The Minister will be familiar with the argument about that, but I want briefly to bring it to his attention again.

The chief constable of Hampshire readily talks about a crisis in police numbers in the county. It arises from peculiar circumstances. The Government have provided funding for extra police in Hampshire this year, next year and the following year, but our problem is difficulty in recruiting. The crisis is such that the 62 places for which we hoped to recruit this year remain unfilled, and the police authority has approached the Home Office for permission to defer recruiting for those numbers until next year.

If we take normal wastage into account, Hampshire faces the problem of trying to recruit 300 officers. We fear that that cannot be achieved, and that any merits in the Bill and other comparable measures will be negated by the shortage of police numbers. The root of the problem is that police forces in counties such as Hampshire are simply uncompetitive. In places of high employment, high housing costs and relatively high salaries, the starting conditions in the police force are uncompetitive. I urge the Minister to consider that seriously.

Attention has already been drawn to the harassment and intimidation by animal rights extremists of scientists and others involved in medical tests. I welcome the Government's intention to introduce new powers to tackle

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that serious problem. I want to make one point that relates to an intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major). I hope that the Government's intentions will be framed in measures that are not selective. Immediate attention is focused on the harassment and intimidation of those involved in medical tests on animals, but they are by no means the only people who are targeted. If I remember correctly, the hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) referred to the intimidation of scientists whose work relates to nuclear energy or genetically modified food. I hope that the Government will ensure that the measures are not selective and that they will apply to all those who may be affected.

I appreciate that the subject is controversial, but I want to refer to one specific category--the organised harassment and intimidation of those involved in the fur trade and fur retailing. The Home Office knows about the problem through correspondence and meetings with the victims of animal terrorists. The Minister has had several meetings and corresponded with representatives of the British Fur Trade Association, whose anxieties are real. Every act of violence and harassment that is perpetrated against those who work in animal testing laboratories has also been suffered by those who work in the fur trade. I hope that the Minister will consider that long-running problem and ensure that the Government's measures will also be effective for the fur trade.

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