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12.20 pm

Martin Linton (Battersea): At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) said that we had had almost too much debate about the police recently. I welcome this debate, as do my constituents. We have had a horrendous couple of months in Battersea, which started with the murder of the estate agent Timothy Robinson, who was knifed as he got out of his car in the street. A few days later, a second knifepoint robbery took place just a few streets away. A few days after that, a yardie gun fight ended with a murdered man lying on the steps of Battersea police station.

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I have received many letters about these events, as colleagues can imagine, and many local residents have been in a state of shock. Women have written me to say that when they parked their car at night they ran from the car to the front door. A man wrote to me to say that his wife would not even go out at night in a car because she was so frightened by what was going on. All those who wrote to me said that they could not remember when they last saw a bobby in the street. They read nothing but crime stories in the local papers, and the yellow witness appeal boards that are intended to reassure them merely unnerved them. One constituent wrote:

In the days after those events, there were calls for extreme remedies. Some people called for vigilante squads, and criminals were talked of as "sub-humans". That must give us all pause to worry. Much anger was directed at police and politicians, exemplified in an Evening Standard headline, "In Battersea the police and the politicians have betrayed us".

As politicians, we are used to dealing with accusations of betrayal, and I am sure that we can cope with that. However, it is completely over the top to start accusing the police of betrayal. Nobody who knows the work of the police in Wandsworth could possibly doubt their dedication to the battle against crime, particularly under their present commander Martin Jauch. The debate should be about the most effective ways of policing. To accuse the police of betrayal is a symptom of paranoia and confirms my view that the author of that particular article, Dominic Prince, is something of a twat.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will think carefully in future about the words that he uses.

Martin Linton: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I shall adopt the suggestion of one of my hon. Friends and change the word to twit, which I am sure will be more acceptable.

The author of the article also claimed that there are police no-go areas in Battersea, and suggested that the estate just across the road from where he lives was one. I shall not mention the name of the estate because I do not want to contribute to an unmerited reputation. However, the assertion is a complete fantasy and overlooks the fact that the borough police headquarters is situated in that estate. He also said that the streets of Battersea were run by mobs, which again displays a talent for hyperbole that I am sure will ensure a continuing and successful career on the Evening Standard.

It is also an exaggeration—although, sadly, not much of an exaggeration—to say, as this journalist did, that Battersea is awash with street crime. There has been a very worrying increase. It has increased in the last few months from 5 per cent. to 7 per cent. of crime in the area. That may not sound much when expressed in that way, but it is a sharp increase. Sadly, many boroughs in London have an even worse problem, but that is little consolation for us.

Dominic Prince said something that I have seen repeated in many letters in which people complain that they never see policemen on the beat. That is an odd thing for him to say, as he lives about 100 yards from the

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borough police headquarters. It is interesting to look behind the comment, because it is made so frequently. It partly reflects modern lifestyles. People often drive to work: they drive back late, they are not at home during the day, and are often away at weekends. When they are at home, they expect to see a police officer strolling past, which is sometimes an unfair expectation.

At a public meeting held soon after the murders and attended by some 300 people, practically everyone was worried that they did not see policemen on the streets. The irony is that two of the best community policemen in the service operate in our area. In the ward where the murders took place, PC Charlie Baldwin is the organiser of the Battersea summer scheme, which is one of the most effective crime prevention summer schemes in the country. It was opened two or three years ago by the then Home Secretary and the then metropolitan commissioner, and their attendance was a tribute to the success of the scheme.

PC Baldwin was commended for saving the life of a man who recently threatened to throw himself off Battersea bridge by hauling him over the ledge by his trouser belt. He is an exceptionally good community policeman. In the neighbouring ward, where those other crimes took place, the community policeman is PC John Johnson, who has just won the Met's community constable of the year award for the second time, which I think is unprecedented.

Those community policemen would be the first to point out that there is a problem, which is partly to do with modern lifestyles and the fact that people are out all day and away at the weekend. There is no one to notice when a stranger is about. People often do not know whether someone is a stranger, because they spend so little time at home. People have far greater wealth, and they leave it unguarded for far longer periods. I think that the Minister can see where this argument is leading. Given the way that people live nowadays, a larger police force is required to look after them.

I welcome the extra 1,000 police officers that we have had in the Met area in the past year, and the commitment to provide another 1,500 by 2004, which will bring the Met up to the record figure of 28,000. That is in stark contrast to the last five years of the Conservative Government, whose crime figures the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire likes to quote. During that period the Met lost 2,000 officers: we lost 100 in Wandsworth alone. The figures for Wandsworth fell from 693 in 1993 to 596 in 1997. I grant that much of that reduction was due to amalgamations, and continued with the borough amalgamation in 1999.

I believe that that process went too far, as the Minister's opening comments suggested. We have now succeeded in reversing the trend. Police numbers in Wandsworth have risen in the past few months from 540 to 565, and we have succeeded in talking the Metropolitan police authority out of a proposal that would have cut the figure back to 550. As things stand, police numbers in Wandsworth are frozen for the foreseeable future at 565. I believe that, given recent events, far more police officers will be needed, and that is a common view in the area. More are needed in other boroughs, and more in London as a whole.

I do not seek to draw a false comparison with New York's 44,000 police officers, as they cover a much larger population, but we definitely need 30,000 officers in

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London, including 600 in Wandsworth, or we need new and higher targets for police officers and community support officers combined. This is an immediate problem in an area such as Battersea. We need police officers and community support officers. The idea of community police officers was pioneered by a former borough commander in Battersea, and it is a great concept, but it repeatedly breaks down because beat bobbies have to be called away to help on some other crime.

Given the choice between catching a real robber in Balham and patrolling a street in Battersea where there just might be a robbery, the superintendent is always going to go for catching the robber, so community beat officers are often called away rather than being left to patrol their own patch. The only answer is to have people whose job it is to patrol, who cannot be called away. That is why I welcome the idea of police auxiliaries. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) suggests that we should call them royal auxiliaries, but if we use the phrase in the Police Reform Bill we will call them community support officers.

I welcome the neighbourhood patrol that will start in Clapham Junction on 1 April. It is galling that in an area such as Clapham Junction that is known to have a high crime rate, one can see the street robbers and shoplifters in action at the CCTV control room in the town hall, but there cannot always be somebody on patrol ready to nab them. That is why it is important that community support officers should have the powers suggested, and be able to detain people for up to 30 minutes or accompany them to a police station.

The Police Federation is worried that community support officers will take its members' jobs, but £25,000 a year—I believe that under the new proposals that will rise to more than £26,000—is a very good starting salary for an 18-year-old, even in London, and people must recognise that police officers require certain skills, which is what they are being paid for. However, some aspects of traditional police work, such as providing a visible presence in the community, combating lower-level disorder, and escort duties, do not require those skills. Those are the activities that, under the Bill, community support officers would carry out.

The same was said in the 1960s when traffic wardens were introduced—in Croydon first, as we now know. I dare say that there were police officers who opposed the idea then, but which of them would now say that police officers should claim back the work that traffic wardens do?

Crime becomes more and more sophisticated, and police officers have to become more skilled, specialist and highly trained. The 18-week training that Metropolitan police officers have is too short. I am not sure about the police academy that the hon. Member for Ruislip–Northwood suggested, but I think that they should have a full year's training—and rather than their spending all that time in a police college, they should go to universities and colleges and study with probation officers, social workers and community workers. Trainee police would then be in contact with all the other professions that they will work with.

Making a reality of the problem-solving intelligence-led approach to police work requires greater analytical and planning skills, and the emphasis on the "order" part of law and order makes policing not easier

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but harder. As the American criminologist George Kelling pointed out, dealing with order raises issues of police discretion, so we need police with more training and maturity to deal with order issues as well as straightforward matters of law.

I am not saying that a university education makes people better police officers, but the figures in Warwickshire constabulary, for example, are worrying: only 8 per cent. of its probationers are graduates. The police career structure is fundamental to the problem. It was created when only 7 per cent. of each age group went to university, but that proportion is now well over 30 per cent. The career structure was created to provide an excellent career for school leavers, but nowadays anyone who stays on at school until the age of 18 will almost certainly go on to university, so there is no longer a group of people leaving school at 18 with A-levels who would naturally go into the police force. The natural recruiting ground for the police service should now be among graduates.

The danger is that the police service will be stranded in a time warp, designed for a world that no longer exists. It really needs to change and to become much more like a profession, with higher salaries and more skilled work. If it does that, and lets go of some of the jobs that do not require so much skill, we can fashion the kind of police force that we need.

Higher police numbers are not the full story and will not cut crime by themselves. We need greater effectiveness in the police service, and some of the operations currently under way in the Met police are wonderful examples of that. Operation Trident, led by former Battersea police commander Mike Fuller, is tackling the enormous problem of gang warfare and gun crime on our streets.

Operation Safer Streets is using covert cars, cameras and decoy officers to trap and arrest street robbers. As the Minister said, it is having enormous success and in four boroughs it has already reduced street crime. It is now being extended to other boroughs, and I am glad to say that Wandsworth is one of them. I very much hope that it will also be extended beyond 31 March.

The effectiveness of the police service, however, is not enough in itself: we have to consider the criminal justice system in its entirety. I agree with Sir John Stevens about the attitude to victims—it may be a bit strong to say that they are treated with "utter contempt", but they certainly often meet with indifference, and the courts do not take their responsibilities seriously enough. However, in my view, neither do the police.

The problem in the criminal justice system, as Sir Robin Auld pointed out, is that it is not a system: the police do their bit and then blame the Crown Prosecution Service; the CPS does its bit and then blames the courts; the courts sentence criminals and then hand all the problems to the prison service; and the prison system is concerned with ensuring that people do not escape, but does not do anything like enough to ensure that they do not reoffend: the reoffending rate among adult young males stands at 78 per cent.

A culture of buck-passing pervades the whole system. In the end, we have to get beyond that. The buck, clearly, stops at the Home Office, in the sense that that is the

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only organisation in a position to make all those different agencies work together. It can influence the police, the CPS, the courts, the magistrates, the judges and the prisons, ensuring that they all work as a single system.

It is unfair to put all the blame on agencies of Government, because responsibility for cutting crime rests not only with Government but with the community. There were hopeful signs in my area in the immediate aftermath of the spate of crime, when people discovered for the first time that there was a very active neighbourhood watch scheme in the area, and a Battersea crime prevention panel, which is one of the most successful at fundraising in London, and that Battersea summer scheme is right on their doorstep. We had meetings that produced a lot of new volunteers for neighbourhood watch and all the other schemes. I hope that the Minister will find time to meet some of them.

Clearly, nothing will comfort the girlfriend or the relatives of Timothy Robinson, but if one good thing can come from these horrific events, it will be a more active and crime-conscious community. That does not guarantee that we will be able to protect ourselves from such crimes, which can come out of the blue and affect anyone at any time, but it will help the police to reduce crime.

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