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12.39 pm

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): I am grateful for your giving me an opportunity to speak, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the House for my dulcet tones. I have a dreadful head cold, for which, like youth crime, there is apparently yet no cure.

It is interesting to follow the speech of the hon. Member for Battersea (Martin Linton), who made a number of thoughtful points on which it will pay to reflect on reading Hansard. I am not sure that I agree with all his assertions, but much of his speech would find resonance outside the Chamber as well as within it.

The Bexley division of the Metropolitan police service, which serves my constituency and three others, is commanded by a very effective officer, Chief Superintendent Chris Cerroni. In the time that I have represented the constituency, I have been surprised by how much time senior police officers have been prepared to give Members of Parliament, local councillors and consultative bodies. There has been a significant change in the police service's attitude to the community, but there remains a degree of frustration and confusion among people in the area about what they get for their bucks.

There has been talk in this morning's debate of balkanisation of the police service. In the light of the scale and size of the Met's operation, it is fair to say that there is a feeling—certainly in some of the outer-London boroughs, if not the inner-London boroughs—that far too much emphasis is being placed on shifting manpower to the centre. The problem is not the fear of balkanisation espoused on behalf of the Metropolitan Police Commissioner by Members this morning but the disproportionate resources that are being deployed elsewhere.

Indeed, I have a letter from a correspondent called Mr. Blair, who is not the Prime Minister of our country but the Deputy Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, and no relation. Mr. Ian Blair, who as far as I can tell is

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a very effective officer, wrote in a letter about my constituency dated 23 January:

That is welcome news in our area because it has been obvious to those who live there that more and more Metropolitan police officers have been taken from outer London boroughs and put on central London duties, which are undoubtedly necessary but perhaps should not be performed at the expense of suburban areas.

My constituents have just received an additional £2 million bill—about £91 for each council tax payer—to provide for an extra 10 police constables under Mayor Livingstone's latest supplement. It was supposed to provide 20 officers; I do not know what happened to the missing 10. Given the problems of timings of shifts, sickness, training, appearances in court and so on, we will be lucky if we see for our £2 million an extra two police officers patrolling the streets of the borough of Bexley.

That is simply not acceptable and people are absolutely fed up with it. They are angry at politicians because they feel that we do not understand and that, on the whole, we are not burgled or mugged too often and do not live in at-risk areas. They see us as increasingly out of touch with what they say. [Interruption.] I realise that the hon. Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) is smiling at me because I am dressed in the Tory MP's traditional pinstripe suit. Before too many Labour Members refer to sociology traits, I should tell them that I was brought up on a Tyneside council estate, so I will not take too many lectures about what it is like to live in an inner-city area. Even in the north-east of England, people have bought the occasional pinstripe suit.

There is a belief that those who operate the criminal justice system—judges, senior police officers, Members of Parliament, Home Office Ministers or whoever—are a little removed from the fear and concern that people encounter at street level when going about their business. I dealt with a case a month ago of a mother whose 11-year-old daughter and 13-year-old son went to the local Blockbuster on Sidcup high street and a gang of youths pulled a knife on them. That is not the sort of thing that one expects to happen to children in Sidcup at teatime on a Saturday.

The leader of Bexley council, Councillor Mike Slaughter, has been prominent in pressing Mayor Livingstone, and especially the commissioner, to try to redress the balance. The borough council has rightly been very active, as have the Members of Parliament, in trying to explain the frustration in the area over the level of police power.

One irritating thing for the police officers concerned is that there is often so little that they can do. There has been a tremendous furore locally about the conversion of an old ABC cinema into a night club. The planning authority could do nothing because the class of use was the same. People could shout at their local councillor, but the local councillor could do nothing about it. Inevitably, they turned to the licensing magistrates who have a say in whether the conversion takes place—fortunately, it is not now going ahead. However, licensing magistrates can judge only whether the applicant is a fit person as an

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individual. They cannot turn down the licence on the basis that people may not want to deal with the consequences of having clubbers pouring out into a residential neighbourhood throughout the night.

Mr. Mark Field: Is not one of the concerns about licensing that the Government are proposing to take many powers out of the hands of locally elected representatives and put them in the hands of magistrates courts or other unelected bodies?

Derek Conway: My hon. Friend makes a good point, and I hope that the Minister and my own Front Benchers will take note of it. There is growing frustration that institutions are no longer accountable to public pressure. Constituents often ask why magistrates let so-and-so go, as they are not lawyers or judges but are supposed to be ordinary men and women who have been chosen to exercise justice in the name of the community. Yet the community often believes that local benches do not necessarily reflect the depth of their concern about the sentences that are imposed. I realise that this is broad-brush stuff, but it reflects the strength of feeling outside the Chamber.

Sadly, I think that the job of a police officer, which has become increasingly difficult and complex, must at times be very challenging from the point of view of morale. In my borough there is great concern that, when the police eventually gather enough evidence to bring a perpetrator to justice, the Crown Prosecution Service, in its often interesting and arcane way of making decisions on prosecution, gets to the point of doing something, the perpetrator is taken to court and the trial is about to commence, the defence lawyers have interesting ways of helping their clients. We all understand that that is what they are there for, but the consequence is that witnesses in particular get fed up. They hang around in court all day, trials are delayed and a witness might be called one night, only to have to come back days later. Eventually, although the police know that there is a good case to answer, it becomes increasingly difficult to get a witness to come to court and see it through. I am dealing with a case at the moment in which a young male witness was prepared to go the distance, at some considerable personal risk, only to find himself sat in the court anteroom opposite the accused. When crimes involve neighbours, that exacerbates the problem.

I am glad that this morning's debate has not involved bandying about figures of who locked up how many when they were in government, how many are being locked up under Labour and the trade-off of statistics, as that makes our constituents roll over with boredom. The House had better realise that the public, whether they are Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat or completely indifferent to the political process, are fed up with the level of crime.

Some Members mentioned the need for prisons to educate more. The hon. Member for Battersea spoke about increasing the involvement of social workers and the probation service. Although we must look at that aspect of dealing with young criminals in particular, the House would be unwise to lose sight of the need for deterrence, because that is what our constituents want. They do not want to see effective police work in catching criminals—they would rather have the criminal deterred from committing a crime in the first place. Where that has

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not happened and the system has so broken down that deterrence does not work, I do not believe that they are wrong to want an element of retribution.

We have said that people cannot defend themselves and their family by force of arms, and that in a civilised society they should do so by observing the laws of Parliament and through the officers of the Crown acting in their name. It is incumbent on this House, therefore, to make sure that they have the protection that deterrence and an element of retribution bring. It must be frustrating when people who have been diligent and law abiding all their lives, especially the elderly, are assaulted and robbed, only for the perpetrators to see it as a big joke because they think that they are invulnerable—perhaps we all did at that age; perhaps it is a male thing. They must not be allowed to get away with it, but our constituents believe that they are. It is time that the House took notice, stopped being partisan and realised that it is in the interests of all voters, no matter whom they support, to have a police service whose morale is high enough to lead to convictions and proper punishments.

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