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The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): The Government are committed to improving support and services for victims of crime. We have already made good progress, and work is continuing to ensure that the needs of victims are given the priority they deserve.
Mr. Francois: Ministers will be aware that it is important for victims to feel that those who have committed crimes against them are likely to be caught and punished. To that end, what progress is being made with delayed Home Office IT projects such as the crime recording system and the custody and case preparation system, for which many police forces are still waiting?
Mr. Bradley: Clearly, the use of technology is essential in improving the efficiency of the court and sentencing processes and in ensuring public confidence in the criminal justice system. We have made great strides in supporting victims through the introduction of the witness
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Does my right hon. Friend accept that sometimes the numbers on victims of crime are largely inaccurate, especially on crimes such as antisocial behaviourthe "lesser" crimesbecause although people try to report crime, often the telephone is not answered promptly at police stations? Will my right hon. Friend undertake to examine that matter, so that police forces are set targets or are inspected to ensure that they respond quickly to members of the public? That would also help to restore confidence in local police forces.
Mr. Bradley: It is absolutely essential that there is public confidence in the whole criminal justice system, and I shall certainly undertake to look at the issue raised by my hon. Friend to see whether we can ensure the maintenance of a prompt response when the public contact the police.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): The concerns of victims are obviously central to the sentencing process and to reform of the criminal justice system, on both of which the Government have been or are holding consultations. Is the Minister minded to propose any further increases in the rights of victims or their representatives to take part in the court process? Can he confirm that the planned legislation on sentencing and the proposed review of the courts system will be introduced in the next Session and that neither of them will be introduced in the remaining part of this Session?
Mr. Bradley: The hon. Gentleman is right. We have just completed the review of the sentencing framework proposed by John Halliday, and the consultation on the Auld report on the courts system is currently under way. It is certainly our intention to introduce legislation on both matters in future.
We should not forget that we are already making progress to support victims. As the hon. Gentleman will know, in October this year, we brought in the personal victim statement, which allows victims to recount to the court the circumstances of the crime committed against them, so that the decision makers are aware of the views of victims at every stage of the criminal justice process.
Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the problems for victims of crime in south Lancashire when the police fail to answer the phones. Will he hold discussions with the chief constable on reversing the decision to answer phones centrally and ensure that calls from victims of crime are answered much faster?
Mr. Bradley: I shall certainly look into the issues raised by my hon. Friend. We want to ensure that there is a good response from the police so as to maintain public confidence in the service that is being provided. We shall
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield): While the Minister is thinking about the victims of crime, will he bear it in mind that the level of burglaries in Sutton Coldfield has risen during the past year alone by more than a thirdby 34 per cent? How long will it be before burglaries in Sutton Coldfield are back to the samelevel as when Conservative Members last sat on the Government Benches?
Mr. Bradley: Under the British crime survey, it is my understanding that burglary has fallen during the last period. As a former resident of Sutton Coldfield, I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns about any increases in particular areas. We need to address that as a matter of urgency.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley): What discussions has my right hon. Friend held with the Lord Chancellor's Department about communities which are victims of crimeespecially incidents of antisocial behaviour? I am concerned that often the courts do not take such issues seriously, and do not award penalties to the perpetrators which reflect the gravity of the impact of crimes that affect the wider community rather than an individual victim.
Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend is right. From my constituency experience, I know that the effect of antisocial behaviour has an impact not only on particular neighbourhoods or streets but on the whole community. It has a dramatic impact on the community's view of the criminal justice system. We have to ensure that measures such as antisocial behaviour orders not only tackle the problems in a particular vicinity but send a message throughout the area that we are not prepared to tolerate behaviour that undermines the integrity of our local communities.
The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): The Home Secretary regularly meets and corresponds with members of the magistracy to discuss a wide variety of issues, including sentencing.
Tim Loughton: That is very informative, but does the Minister endorse the new guidelines that are being given out by the Judicial Studies Board to youth courts to downgrade as many low seriousness offences as possible to a penalty of only conditional discharge, together with Lord Woolf's advice to consider halving the sentences that magistrates give to less serious criminals? What message does the Minister think that sends out to the 130,000 people arrested last year for offences of criminal damage, graffiti, shop lifting, car vandalism and making obscene phone callslet alone to their victims?
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): Is my right hon. Friend aware that one young person in my constituency has been arrested 76 times in a matter of months? Do not the courts very often let down such young people by not treating seriously those offences, which are repeated time and again? Is he awareI am sure that he isthat that causes real frustration to the public and to the police involved in serious cases such as that? Will he convey that message to magistrates when he next meets them?
Mr. Bradley: My hon. Friend makes a very powerful point. As John Halliday made clear in the report, we have to ensure that action is taken to try to stop persistent offenders reoffending. We need a sentencing framework that ensures not only that that can be the case, but that those people who are determined to flout the law in the way that my hon. Friend describes receive the punishment that they clearly deserve.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes): The Home Secretary has no immediate plans to meet the chief constable of the Thames Valley police. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that, since April this year, officers and rejoiners appointed to the Thames Valley police on or after 1 September 1994 and not in receipt of housing allowance have benefited from a new allowance of £2,000 per annum. In addition, the starter home initiative will help around 170 officers to buy first homes in the next three years. Both those measures will help not only recruitment but retention.
Tony Baldry: While I thank the Minister for that answer, may I ask a question of which I have given her notice? Are not Thames Valley police officers in the worst of all possible worlds: their cost of living, including housing, is high, yet they do not benefit from the allowances paid to Metropolitan police officers? Metropolitan police officers receive an annual London weighting of £1,773, an extra London allowance of £1,011 and a further London allowance of either £1,000 or £3,327, depending on when they join. In other words, a Metropolitan police officer, doing exactly the same job as a Thames Valley police officer, can be £6,111 a year
Beverley Hughes: As the hon. Gentleman says, the current differential between Thames Valley and the Met for recruits is about £4,000 a year. That reflects the different pressures that those forces face in terms of recruitment and retention as well as other factors. He will also know that the Police Negotiating Board set the pay differentials for recruits to those two forces and that the police arbitration panel rejected the claim by the staff side on the board for additional allowances for all forces. At the same time, the panel endorsed the two levels of allowance£2,000 and £1,000for the two groups of forces around London. In the tribunal's view, the respective allowances reflect the different circumstances and pressures that those forces face.
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): Does the Minister appreciate that people in Bracknell and elsewhere in the Thames valley will see her responses as hopelessly complacent and out of touch? Let me try to explain to her once more that the Thames valley is stuck between the Met, with its high salaries, and areas further awayfrom London where there are lower house prices. Consequently, we are not getting the right level of retention, and people in the Thames valley are suffering. Will she now answer the question properly?
Beverley Hughes: That is a bit rich from a member of the party that scrapped the housing allowance. As I told the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), the issues facing different forcesthe pressures on recruitment and retention and other factors such as the relative cost of livinghave been assessed by the Police Negotiating Board and reconsidered by the tribunal. The tribunal decided that the levels of the allowances were right, given those pressures. It is up to the Police Negotiating Body to consider any further changes.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): Does the Minister agree with the previous Minister with responsibility for the police, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)? He told the House:
Beverley Hughes: That point is true, to the extent that the wastage rate in Thames valley is somewhat higher than the national average. It is about 2.4 per cent. compared with a national figure of about 1.1 per cent. The wastage rate in the police service across the board is very