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2.19 pm

Dr. Andrew Murrison (Westbury): I am grateful to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) and to my hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) for keeping their remarks brief so that I could contribute.

Senior policemen have pointed out that, however good policing is, their efforts are wasted if the necessary structures do not exist. As Sir John Stevens said, the criminal justice system is in crisis. It is not just senior police officers who tell us such things; the same is said by the bobby on the beat. One policeman recently expressed concern to me about the impending closure of our local magistrates court, in Trowbridge. That pattern is being repeated throughout the country. In fact, 114 magistrates courts have closed since September 1995. Such closures strike at the heart of our criminal justice system.

All hon. Members will support the principle that everybody, regardless of socio-economic position, should have equal access to justice. It is easy to get to an urban courthouse, particularly if one is relatively well off and owns a car, but if one lives in the country or does not have a lot of money, it is difficult to access justice in that way. We must recognise that the bulk of people who use our courthouses are perhaps not particularly prosperous. For them, the closure of magistrates courts is a real problem.

The rural White Paper made a big play of inclusiveness, service delivery, tackling deprivation and so on, but we need action to follow those fine words. I want Ministers to offer a commitment to preserving rural and smaller

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courthouses. The Lord Chancellor recently spent £600,000 on updating his Westminster accommodation. About £100,000 needs to be spent on the magistrates court in Trowbridge to preserve accessible local justice in that part of Wiltshire. I urge Ministers and the Government to support provision of that funding, so that we can continue the important principle of local justice in west Wiltshire.

2.21 pm

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to those hon. Members who had to foreshorten their remarks, and I apologise to those who were unable to speak. I shall take just a few minutes to wind up.

This has been a good debate, in which a wide range of interesting views was expressed. On hearing the proposal of my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Mr. Banks) for paramilitary troops on the underground, my first thought was that that could be done only if one introduced conscription. He did not let me down, however, as he went on to advocate that himself.

My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Martin Linton) rightly appreciated and stressed the complementary role of community support officers in conjunction with the police, and he recognised their potential value in London and elsewhere. The hon. Members for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway) and for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) referred to various local and national issues affecting their communities. The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson) had an interesting idea about auxiliary reserves. Volunteer specials should be strengthened in various ways, but rather than reserve officers, we need a number of community support officers working year round alongside the police. That is certainly what the Met wants, and that is how we wish to support it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) made a thoughtful, if somewhat misplaced, speech. We do not intend that performance assessment will be a crude basket of statistical indicators. As she said, such assessment is merely a pointer to enable the examination of performance. Much more is happening in terms of revising training and leadership development than her speech perhaps allowed for.

My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Ms Prentice) stressed the very important role played by the partnership between police, local authorities and local communities in bringing down crime. Perhaps this debate did not deal with that point sufficiently. As I have said, the role of the police is essential, but they cannot be expected to carry the entire burden of crime reduction.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Mr. Pond) rightly linked persistently high fear of crime to the wider spread of antisocial behaviour, particularly by young people. The hon. Member for Perth (Annabelle Ewing) distinguished herself by being the only Member to argue that no reform of the police service is necessary. I do not speak on matters north of the border, but I should point out that every other contributor to the debate recognised in one way or another that change is needed.

My hon. Friends the Members for Regent's Park and Kensington, North (Ms Buck) and for Bethnal Green and Bow (Ms King) mentioned another important theme that was not developed in the debate: dealing with young

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people themselves. We must tackle the problem of young offenders, particularly persistent offenders, from whom the community must be protected. However, it is important to deal with a wider group of young people, through the youth inclusion programme and other means, to minimise the numbers who become offenders.

The hon. Members for Billericay (Mr. Baron) and for Tatton (Mr. Osborne), my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (John Cryer) and many others called for more police officers. Apparently, my hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Bow is actually getting more. Hon. Members will pleased to learn that there will be a significant increase in her local force. At the end of the debate, the hon. Member for Westbury (Dr. Murrison) also touched on reform issues in the criminal justice system.

We have had a wide-ranging debate, and I shall attempt to draw together the key themes and settle one or two issues. The myth that the Home Secretary and other Ministers have, in some way, attacked the integrity of individual police officers or the role that they play has been propagated once again in the debate. However, when we talk about public services, we must be able to talk about the overall performance of a service and where it can be improved, without that being interpreted as an attack on the individuals in the service. If we cannot draw that distinction, reform of any public service will be difficult. We support the front-line officers in the police service and the support staff. That is why we want to ensure that they get a better pay deal, but—like hon. Members on both sides of the House—we recognise the need for reform.

Many hon. Members mentioned police numbers. The decline in police numbers in London was set in train under the previous Administration in 1991-92 and across the service in England and Wales in 1993. We could not reverse that immediately on coming to power because we had to sort out the economy and the public finances first. We have now reversed that decline and, from everything that has been said in the debate, hon. Members on both sides recognise that we were right to establish the crime fighting fund and to earmark resources for increases in the number of police officers. It is clear that hon. Members wish us to continue that work, through the right mechanisms, in the future.

It is understandable that people want us to continue to build on the increases in the number of officers that we have already announced, but we should also remember that next year we will have 130,000 officers. If, over the next few years, 43 per cent. of their time is still spent in the police station—much of it on unnecessary paperwork and bureaucracy—we will be wasting the opportunity to have more officers out on the streets delivering the service that the public want to see. They want officers patrolling the community and to see intelligently led, intelligently tasked and problem-solving community policing. That is why reform must go ahead. It will be a big investment to have 130,000 police officers, as we will have next year in England and Wales, and we must make the best use of the time of every single one so that they can be where the public want to see them.

I was struck by how much consensus was expressed in the debate about the nature and direction of reform. However, hon. Members raised several issues of concern. It is worth saying that the Police Federation supports the new intervention powers in clause 5 of the Police Reform

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Bill—in contradiction of the comments by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)—so even within the police service there are different views. To hear some hon. Members today one might think that I was personally responsible for shutting their local police stations. Such decisions are operational decisions for chief constables and the new powers will not mean that Ministers will take individual responsibility for police stations. The fact is that when all other methods of ensuring that a good police service is delivered have failed, we need to have the power to act. That power will be exercised at the end of all the other chains of responsibility, including the chief constable and the police authority. However, in such circumstances we would be expected to act and we need to have the power to do so.

The hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) mentioned clause 7. We need to have in place, in every police service, key parts of policing such as the national intelligence model. We can consider how the legislation is framed, but it does not make sense to have the collective policing effort undermined by a handful of forces that decide to take a different direction.

We have had a good debate, with great consensus about the need for reform and its direction, the need for more officers and the need to see more police officers and community support officers in local communities. That is what the Government are delivering.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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