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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The only nationally required targets for the police service are those relating to burglary, vehicle crime and, for five major metropolitan areas, robbery. However, next year, all chief constables have agreed that they will report to their constituencies the measures that they are taking to increase visibility and accessibility in every ward and every parish in their police authority area.
Mr. Flight: Why have the Government neglected at least to provide guidance on targets for community policing over the past four years? The lack of police visibility and of community policing is perhaps the greatest concern of citizens in urban and rural areas. Why have the Government ignored that issue when they are only too willing to give guidance and directives on virtually every other?
Mr. Clarke: As the House knows, the Government significantly reduced the amount of guidance and performance indicators for the current year at the request of the police, and for precisely the reason that the hon. Gentleman suggests. To identify as we did the key crimes--burglary, vehicle crime and violent crime--was the right way to proceed. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman listened to my earlier answer, but I said that we have had a new departure in that chief constables have agreed with us that they all will report every year on the levels of visibility and reassurance that they offer to every parish and every ward in their police authority area. That is significant.
The hon. Gentleman's authority receives about £500,000 of the rural policing money every year and it will report every year on how that money is used to increase visibility and community policing. Later this year, we shall publish detailed advice and a toolkit of precise measures that can be used to develop that. That is a positive approach that is bearing very strong fruit already.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The idea of retained police officers is one of those that is being considered to increase visibility and reassurance in the current police reform discussions. Constables who serve probationary periods and sergeants may already work part-time, and the Police Negotiating
Mr. Heath: I am grateful to the Minister for his response. Is it not the case that people in villages and small towns in rural areas across the country want sufficient police numbers so that there is a greater visible police presence? They want those police officers to be fully trained, fully equipped, in proper uniform and acting in the office of constable. Retained officers play a large part in providing rural firefighting services, and I am glad that the Minister is considering further the possibility of having retained police officers. Will he consider the matter with a degree of urgency to see what can be done for rural areas?
Mr. Clarke: We are considering the issue with a degree of urgency. As the hon. Gentleman knows, crime in Avon and Somerset has gone down by about 15 per cent. since 1997, but there is a great deal further to go. The types of measures that he has described that would develop an increased uniformed police presence--through specials, retained officers, targeted policing, patrols, different types of police station and so on--in every community are all part of the range of issues that we are actively discussing. We are already taking a number of different measures to encourage that approach.
There has been a significant increase in the number of police officers in Lancashire, and that is good. However, there has been a reduction in the number of special officers, and that is bad. About a fifth of special officers go on to become full-time police officers but, in recent years, the number of specials in Lancashire has fallen by about 150. What do we need to do to get good, public-spirited people--who do not want to be full-time police officers but who would like to do the job part-time--to join the specials? The specials have a role in bolstering police numbers when the police are overstretched, and we must do everything that we can to increase their numbers.
Mr. Clarke: My hon. Friend is right about specials, and he gave the answer to the problem in his question. His figures reflect the fact that many people who have joined that force see it as a route to recruitment as a full-time police officer. The harmonisation of health and safety regulations several years ago encouraged that process and we are considering whether it is the right way to proceed. Parish specials, who are located in their local parishes or wards, do not have the same obstructions or responsibilities as the police and we are actively considering whether that might be a better approach.
For my hon. Friend's information, special constables are different from retained constables because they get no basic pay for performing that role. Retained specials would get paid, although at a different rate to the regular
Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The Minister has emphasised the importance that he attaches to increasing the number of special constables, and I agree with him. However, as I have told his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on previous occasions, I believe that it is proper to pay them, and that would be a useful way of increasing the numbers. There is a parallel with the retained fire service in rural areas, which is paid. There is no reason of principle why special constables should not be paid an allowance.
Mr. Clarke: First, the right hon. and learned Gentleman will be glad to note that crime has decreased by 20 per cent. in Lincolnshire since the election. I know that he will celebrate that fact with the Government. Secondly, he is right to say that there are issues relating to how we could pay retained officers in the way that he describes and that there might be parallels with the retained firefighters.
Mr. Clarke: I know that, but the right hon. and learned Gentleman also referred to retained officers. Whether we are considering volunteers, specials, part-time or full-time police officers or retained officers, we need to develop a new approach to maximise police presence in every community in Britain. That is precisely what we are discussing in the police reform process.
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): As part of the reform, will my hon. Friend reflect on the experience of the Wandsworth and Greenwich parks police, which was established under a Greater London council provision to allow every London borough to have such a force for their open spaces and parks? Will he consider extending that power to all local authorities in England and Wales? In addition, will he consider extending the scope of the force so that it is not confined to municipally owned and controlled parks, but relates to other open spaces where the force could complement and supplement the work of a Home Office force?
Mr. Clarke: There is a range of different approaches, including park wardens. Local authorities can pay for police officers, which they do in some circumstances to help to encourage the policing of their parks. We encourage that in certain regards. However, I am slightly wary of encouraging the growth of a parks police force that is separate from the official office of constable. I was in Merseyside the other day and people asked me why they had a ports police and a Mersey tunnel police.
My hon. Friend's proposal raises some issues. It is important that there is co-ordination and organisation. Our crime and disorder partnership, which is a departure from the Opposition's approach when they were in government, attempts to establish the relationships that will encourage such a development.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The British crime survey reported a 4 per cent. fall in violent crime between 1997 and the end of 1999, but violent crime is still too high and street robberies have increased. Our comprehensive strategy for dealing with violent crime is set out in "Fighting violent crime together: an action plan", which we published on 10 January. Violent crime encompasses a wide range of offences that differ from each other greatly in terms of both type and seriousness. Our overall strategic approach is based on improving support for victims, better policing, more effective punishment, dealing with the causes of violent crime and tackling the conditions that breed violence.
Mr. Fabricant: The Home Secretary says that violent crime is still too high, and I agree with him. Is he aware that violent crime in Staffordshire has increased by 43 per cent? Is he further aware that, according to a parliamentary answer that he gave, we have lost more than 240 police officers from the beat since 1997? Does he not see a connection? Is it not the case that the Home Secretary, who has presided over the Hinduja passports- for-money affair is not only seeing a breakdown of law and order in the country as a whole, but in his own Department as well?
Mr. Straw: I am aware that although crime in Staffordshire has increased by 4 per cent. overall in the last four years, that compares with an increase of 154 per cent. in the preceding 18 years of Conservative government. I am the first to accept that crime is too high, but I point out that crime levels throughout the country have decreased, and that includes overall violent crime as measured by the British crime survey. It does not include robbery, and we are concerned about that. We are taking action to ensure that robberies go down as well.
Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman may say that, but in 1994 chief constables were given the power to decide the number of constables that they needed, as opposed to civilian staff and equipment. The chief constable of Staffordshire chose significantly to increase the number of civilians. In 1997, there were 2,974 civilians and officers in Staffordshire, but at the last count, in September, there were 3,054 officers and civilians--an increase of 80. It is for the chief constable to decide how resources should be used. We have ensured that crime has fallen throughout the country and that the number of police officers is rising, and that is a significantly better record than that achieved by the Conservatives.