Building Safer Communities

[back to previous text]

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.

    ``Under the circumstances I believe there to be far too many officers in Newtown and we do not need more on the force. I think we need more on the beat.''

That is an important point, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will deal with it.

4.35 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.50 pm

On resuming—

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:

    ``Much of Wales is suffering a chronic shortage of special constables . . . Specials, once referred to as hobby bobbies, are now a much more professional back-up to regular officers and perform much the same duties when on shift. Yet numbers have dropped significantly over the past two years . . . South Wales Police should have a specials unit of 500 constables but, as of yesterday the official total was only 246, comprising 179 men and 67 women . . . This compares with January 1999 when the force had 365 specials, and 320 for the same time last year.

    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.''

We believe that the role of the specials can be enhanced, particularly in rural areas, where it would be possible to attach specials to specific villages and communities. The term ``parish constable'' has been used in the past. The Government should consider the matter, and I will be interested to hear the Under-Secretary's response.

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:

    ``The continued rise in the cost of police pensions is eating further into revenue budgets—we estimate that 14 per cent. of total revenue expenditure in 2000/01 will be spent on pensions. We urgently need an announcement from the Home Secretary on his proposals for dealing with the rising pension bill. We believe the only tenable solution in the long term is a funded pension scheme.''

Then there is the matter of efficiency. I shall share an interesting statistic with the Committee. The South Wales police website says that 12 minutes spent searching from the air in a helicopter is the equivalent of 400 man hours searching on foot. The air support unit has a vital role in dealing with incidents such as pursuits, recovering stolen vehicles and searching for missing people. I shall translate that comparison into money. An hour of helicopter service costs £2,000; 12 minutes costs £400; an hour's pay at the average rate for one police officer costs £13; and 400 hours therefore costs £5,200. That is a difference of £4,800. Will the Minister give us a clear idea of how those efficiency savings, particularly the use of helicopters, will be funded in future?

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:

    ``We have a problem with sickness. We cannot maintain this level of sickness and maintain our performance in relation to crime detection and reduction''.

We have heard much about attitudes to violent crime, including from my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). We know that crime fell in three of the four Welsh police forces last year, but those statistics show that Gwent remains among the most violent areas in England and Wales. The force recorded 25.5 violent crimes per 1,000 people—higher than any other area except inner London. The Minister should be dealing with that when winding up. We shall be looking for answers to some serious matters.

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 correct—I do not say that they are—the 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.

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 13 February 2001