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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The Government published a consultation paper on road traffic penalties on 19 December last year. Both before then and subsequently, we have received a large number of representations from members of the public, Members of Parliament--including the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton), whom I met to discuss the matter--and a wide range of organisations. We shall take all those representations into account before reaching final views based on the consultation paper.
Mr. Loughton: As he said, the Minister is aware of my concern about the inadequacy of penalties for causing death by dangerous driving following the tragic killing of PC Jeff Tooley in my constituency. Yet in the year of his death, only 13 of 152 people convicted of causing death by dangerous driving were given sentences of five years or more.
Why, in the document to which he referred, has the Minister ducked living up to his own tough words about making life sentences available for the worst cases of causing death by dangerous driving, rather than the current woefully inadequate 10-year maximum? What message does that send to the families of victims, and to perpetrators, when 190 killer drivers have been let out on the Government's early release scheme having served, on average, 42 per cent. of their time?
The hon. Gentleman's general point about life sentences is legitimate. No doubt he and others will continue to advance that argument as we decide what action to take, on the basis of responses to our consultation paper.
Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I implore my hon. Friend to have regard for the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service has a large part to play in sentencing. The offences of dangerous driving and careless driving must be divorced, as they carry different sentences. Will my hon. Friend assure us that magistrates who hear evidence about such offences will be backed up? They listen to all the evidence before making decisions, and it would be wrong to undermine their work.
Mr. Clarke: I can give my hon. Friend the assurances that he seeks. I can also tell him that the average sentence for the causing of death by dangerous driving, for instance, has been rising rather than falling; but the Government feel that that is not enough, which is why we published the consultation paper and why we intend to take action once we know what responses have been received.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley): I am extremely concerned about the number of accidents caused by drivers who have taken illegal substances. Would the Minister consider organising an education programme involving leaflets for those who apply for driving licences or to renew their tax discs? It should be explained to people that certain drugs stay in the bloodstream far longer than alcohol, and that, while they should not take such drugs in the first place, they certainly should not drive if they have been taking them.
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct in all that he says. We already have a substantial education programme on drug and alcohol abuse and driving, but I shall be happy to consider his specific proposals. This is a serious problem, and it needs to be addressed seriously.
Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): My hon. Friend will know that the best way in which to murder anyone in this country is to kill them with a motor car. The problem has been with us not for a short time, but for a very long time. Will my hon. Friend please give us an undertaking that decisions will be made as a matter of urgency? The agony of families who lose someone in this way is almost unbearable, and it is terribly important for us to show them that we take the matter seriously.
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right in every respect. The consultation paper was a major step forward. It is one of which I am personally proud and it advances significantly the argument on penalties. In my role as a Home Office Minister, I have met many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham, and families who have been bereaved as a
8. Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): What measures he has taken to reduce and remove unnecessary administrative burdens on the police service and to ensure that police officers spend more time on operational duties. 
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): We are implementing proposals from the recent report entitled "Making a Difference: Reducing Police Paperwork" and, last November, we issued police forces in England and Wales with a revised manual of guidance for the preparation, processing and submission of files. That will reduce considerably the number of forms that officers have to complete when they pass cases to the Crown Prosecution Service. We are also investing in a wide range of new communications technology to minimise the paperwork that officers are required to process.
Ms Kelly: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. Will he assure me that he will continue to move resources from bureaucracy to front-line officers? My constituents in Bolton, West, whose communities are being scarred by a very small minority of young hooligans, feel strongly that more bobbies on the beat are needed to crack down on yobbish behaviour.
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right. May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Bolton Evening News and Labour Members for Bolton, who have campaigned energetically on precisely the points that she has raised?
A series of factors contributes to more bobbies on the beat. One is the number of police themselves; the second is operational levels; the third is the proper use of technology; the fourth is a more effective criminal justice system than the current one to ensure that police officers are not constantly obstructed in a wasteful way; and the fifth is effective partnerships between the police and other social institutions such as local authorities. The measures that we have already put in place and which we are introducing in current legislation will make an impact on the issues that my hon. Friend, her constituents and local newspaper have forcefully raised.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): Does the Minister realise that front-line officers in my constituency welcome the reopening of the East Molesey police station, soon to be followed by Cobham police station, by volunteers? Last week, in a written answer, he gave me a bland reply in relation to support for volunteers. At the Dispatch Box, will he stiffen his sinews and say that the Government not only welcome volunteers, but will find extra ways to
Mr. Clarke: I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurances that he seeks and apologise if my earlier reply was bland. That was certainly not my intention. I investigated that matter soon after I took up the post of Minister. One of the things that surprised me was the wide range of volunteering initiatives in different forces throughout the country, which are treated extremely positively both by the police and by the communities that they serve. We are positively looking at ways of extending such initiatives. I am happy to confirm that that is one of the issues that we are addressing with the police in relation to measures to increase visibility and to reassure communities. Those initiatives can be set up in both isolated and non-isolated communities and are often constructive.
Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): My hon. Friend will know that the Pennine division in the Lancashire force and indeed the Lancashire force as a whole have effectively ensured that the police are out on the beat doing the job and are doing less administration work. They have made excellent progress, but does he agree that one other concern is that far too much police time is taken up attending court merely for the deferment of a case?
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is entirely right. Some of the changes that we have already put in place--for example, the Narey changes--are already helping, but much more needs to be done. That is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked Lord Justice Robin Auld to conduct a review of the whole criminal justice process. The inefficiencies that hit police also hit many other parts of the community. Substantial reforms are needed.
A good range of evidence has been presented to the review. I hope that, when the report is published in a month or so, we will have an agenda on which we can make progress. The changes for which my hon. Friend is looking will have the impact of increasing the police presence locally, which I am sure the whole House would welcome.
Mr. Nicholas Winterton: The hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ms Kelly) is absolutely right when she talks about bobbies on the beat. Time and again, my own constituents in Macclesfield talk to me about the need for police to be visible in the community. Does the Minister--who has given very rational and responsible replies to the initial question and to the supplementary ones--accept that police officers on the beat in the community, building relationships, can genuinely lead not only to a reduction in crime, but to greater information for the police force so that it can prevent crime?
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman is entirely correct. I should like to add just one measure to the list of those that I think are important to improving the situation. Recently, new guidance has been issued on tenure for police officers, which has ensured a less rapid turnaround of community officers. That rapid turnaround had made it necessary, every couple of years or so, for new community officers to renew relationships, which was a very time-consuming process.
It is precisely the type of personal relationship that the hon. Gentleman has described which has made the difference in many communities across the country, as individual community beat officers have thrown their own energy into building relationships with, for example, housing organisations, schools and doctors. We want to do everything that we can to encourage that.
Mr. Lawrie Quinn (Scarborough and Whitby): I congratulate my hon. Friend on recognising the particular needs of rural police forces, such as North Yorkshire, in maintaining contact with the public. May I invite him to make an early visit to the experimental police station in the East division in my constituency, which is focusing particularly on making that contact with rural constituents and ensuring that law and order is ever-present in rural areas such as mine?
Mr. Clarke: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I should also like to take up that invitation when next I am able to do so. I was delighted that, only a couple of weeks ago, on 26 January, the North Yorkshire police force chief constable and the chairman of the police authority announced:
Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): But is not the Minister aware that matters are getting worse, not better? Has he heard of the comments of the chief constable of Lincolnshire, who talks of his force being
Mr. Clarke: I meet the chief constable of Lincolnshire very often; he is a member of the national crime reduction taskforce which I chair. He is not an unhappy man, but a very happy one, and I hope to see him later in the week. The hon. Gentleman can be as rhetorical as he likes, but the facts are that crime levels are falling, as they have been doing throughout this Parliament; police numbers are increasing, for the first time since 1993; police morale is increasing, contrary to what he has to say; and the various measures that we have implemented to deal with particular aspects of crime, both nationally and in specific geographical localities, are improving the situation. I do