|Building Safer Communities
Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset): I shall try to be a little briefer than the hon. Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mrs. Lawrence). That may have been her last speech in a Welsh Grand Committee.
I am interested in the love affair in the Committee between Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The welcoming gestures from the Under-Secretary as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) spoke relate to the fact that no prospective Labour candidate has yet been adopted for that constituency. Obviously, Labour is going to give him a clear run. However, Labour Members expressed venom towards Plaid Cymru Members. One senses that the election campaign is somehow under way already. The jibes directed towards my party were predictable, and I shall not spend too much time dealing with them.
As has been pointed out, the debate is about more than police numbers and crime. I shall try to deal with those concerns throughout Wales, and to pose some questions for the Under-Secretary. Several issues must be dealt with, especially on crime and policing, whether Labour is re-elected or whether my party forms a Government after the election.
Community action in the form of neighbourhood watch schemes has been mentioned little. Will the Under-Secretary steer us through how he or the Home Office sees such schemes evolving in Wales? It is felt, especially in urban areas, that there should be some greater form of community action to deal with crime.
It is unfortunate that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire is not here, as I am going to quote one of his local county councillors, Mr. Bob Mills. He said in the Powys County Times and Express on 14 December that he wanted a fresh approach to policing in Newtown rather than more officers.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Mr. Walter: Yet again, a programme motion has eaten into debate on an important topic, as one did last week when the Under-Secretary and I were discussing something similar.
Another of our concerns on policing in Wales is special constables, who provide an essential back-up, especially in rural areas. On 31 January, the Western Mail said:
Dyfed-Powys Police, covering a huge rural area of Wales and traditionally reliant on a high number of specials, is also down on previous years.
At the end of December 1996 the total was 314. Just over 12 months later the number had dropped to 255 and by December 1999 the force was down to 220 specials.
Yesterday a spokesperson said there were now only 196 specials.
In North Wales, operational specials number around 200, a fall of 60 over two years, and well under the force establishment figure of 320 that was met in 1996.
Only in Gwent is the trend different . . . Howard Hughes, training co-ordinator for specials in South Wales, admitted their situation was desperate and said there was a need for far more publicity about the specials' role, how well they were trained and how much they were contributing to the fight against crime.''
All police authorities suffer from a pensions problem. Some forces have tried to develop a strategy to encourage officers to stay on after their notional 25 years of service, but a better pensions package for older officers needs to be created. The continued rise in police pensions is eating into revenue budgets. The Association of Police Authorities stated:
Then there is the question of sick leave. Lat year, the South Wales police force lost about £2.5 million on sick leave. The Western Mail of 21 November stated that sickness is expected to remain at similar levels this year. Among civilian support staff, the figure rose to 18.8 sick days last year, compared to the national average of 11.7 days, but it is expected to fall to 15.7 days. Will the Minister give us a clue as to how he is looking at that? Mike Lewis, assistant chief constable for south Wales said:
I shall widen the debate slightly; others have already done so, including the Secretary of State in his opening remarks. I want to talk about the relationship between family poverty and crime. I want to put the record straight. A typical working family pays £670 more a year in tax under this Government than under the previous Government. The changes in the taxes imposed on families are a contributory factor. We have seen changes in income tax rates and bands that have made the average family slightly better off, but the abolition of the married couples allowance, the abolition of MIRAS, the tax on pension with the abolition of dividend credits, the above-inflation increase on petrol tax, the increase in tobacco taxes and the above-inflation increases on council tax have all led to a net loss for the average family of £669 during the past three years.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. David Hanson): Presumably, if those figures were correctI do not say that they arethe hon. Gentleman would seek to reduce that tax burden in the next Parliament, should he be in government. If he did so, how would he make up the shortfall in public spending, given that he said that we do not spend enough on some key areas?
Mr. Walter: I said that we should spend our resources better and more efficiently on certain aspects of policing. Let us put the record straight again: the Conservative party is committed not to cut public spending in the next Parliament, but to match the Government's public spending commitments in health, education, the police service and transport. However, some savings would be made in the latter years of the next Parliament.
I was intrigued this morning when the hon. Member for Vale of Clwyd (Mr. Ruane) said that £24 million would be spent in his constituency. I hope that he will break that figure down. Over lunch, I worked out that £1.5 million of that would be savings from social security fraud.
Mr. Win Griffiths (Bridgend): That catalogue of misunderstandings shows how bad is the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of public finance. In the 18 years of the Conservative Government, what administrative and fraud savings were made in the social security budget? Will he remind us of the fact that, under his Government, local government taxes rose higher in Wales than elsewhere because of the reduction in the revenue support grant or its equivalent?
Mr. Walter: The revenue support grant is still in a parlous state in Wales, as a result of which we saw increases in council tax high above inflation across Wales last year. We are likely to see them again this year, when councils finish setting their budgets.
I am conscious of the fact that I said that I would try to be brief. Let us be clear about the simple truth, which is that Labour has failed to deliver on building safer communities. It promised so much, yet has delivered so little, and the evidence is building. We have seen the connections between health and crime. Our hospitals are becoming worse and hospital waiting lists are still up. As our debate has shown, crime is also up, and there are approximately 3,000 fewer police under Labour. Our schools are not improving. Teachers are leaving and class sizes in our secondary schools have increased under Labour.
|©Parliamentary copyright 2001||Prepared 13 February 2001|