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The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): At the end of January, police numbers stood at the record level of 128,748. We are on track to reach our target of 130,000 officers by spring 2003.
The Government's crime fighting fund has played a major part in driving up officer numbers. It is enabling forces to take on 9,000 recruits, over and above previous plans, in the three years to March 2003.
Mrs. Humble: I welcome the additional police numbers that my right hon. Friend has announced. Will he join me in congratulating Blackpool police force on using its additional 45 police officers not only actively to reduce crime, but to reduce the fear of crime through high-visibility policing? Does he agree that the best way to further that aim is to reduce the level of paperwork that keeps so many police officers at their station desks?
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell): The Minister will be aware that areas such as Berkshire, which have very high housing costs and are very close to the Met, are having serious recruitment and retention problems. What does the right hon. Gentleman propose to do about that, particular bearing in mind the fact that his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has increased national insurance contributions, which will make it even harder for hard-pressed police officers to buy or rent property in our area?
Mr. Denham: We are working closely with the very small number of forces that have not done as well as the vast majority of forces in the past few years in delivering the extra 4,500 police officers across the country to whom my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred earlier. I am confident that the problems that have affected recruitment in each of those areas are being identified and that they, too, will benefit from the growth in police numbers that the police service as a whole will experience.
Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Although I accept everything that my right hon. Friend sayswe have done a lot to improve policing throughout the countryI am sure that he will recognise that people are always saying that we need more police in the communities. Does he believe that community wardenssuch as those we have in Burnley, working together with the policehelp to give communities the better standard of life that we want them to have?
Mr. Denham: I agree with my hon. Friend. As he knows, I recently visited Burnley and was able to hear at first hand how popular has been the police's decision to develop more fully the community beat officer role and the very important links between police officers and the extended police family provided by community wardens. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to draw attention to that.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset): Have not the questions and the answers this afternoon demonstrated that policing is not just a matter of numbers and that the main question is how the police are managed and deployed and what they have to spend their time doing? I am genuinely puzzled by the messages that Ministers seem to be giving us. Half the time they seem to deny that they are centralising and bureaucratising the police, whereas the rest of the time they appear to be justifying doing so. The Home Secretary
Mr. Denham: We are working with the police service to deliver the type of police service that we, the policeand, more important, the public want to see in local communities: more police officers, with more time to play a visible role in the community. The hon. Gentleman asks about policing in the Netherlands. I can tell him that one of the things that the Dutch do is to deploy people very similar to the community support officers that the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis wishes to deploy in Londonsomething which the Government will make possible, but which the Conservative party and the Liberal Democrats want to deny to the people of London.
Mr. Letwin: I am delighted to hear that the Minister is so knowledgeable, but it is odd that that is not the way officials and policemen in the Netherlands and Belgium describe the situation. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, in the Netherlands and more recently in Belgium, neighbourhood police officersthe bobbies on the beat, who become the custodians of the neighbourhoodare described by large numbers of officers who have spoken to us as the elite force, because that is what people demand locally?
Is the Minister also aware that, in the Netherlands and more recently in Belgium, increased and increasingly effective control over street crime has been brought about by decreasing central bureaucracy and decentralising control over the police? Is he aware that by international standards his efforts and those of the Home Secretary to centralise control over the police in this country under clause 5 of the Police Reform Bill are a retrograde eccentricity?
Mr. Denham: The hon. Gentleman is about as wrong as it is possible to be. He is wrong in his characterisation of the Government's proposals and in his suggestion that we are opposed to developing the role of community beat officersmy right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and many others have been advocates of that essential role of police officers in the community. The hon. Gentleman is also wrong to oppose the types of reform that, according to the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, would enable him to free the time of police officers from the routine but necessary patrolling duties that have been seen since 11 September. The Commissioner would like to be able to free those officers to join the fight against street crime. That fight has already had a big impact on street crime, yet the hon. Gentleman opposes it. He is wrong to oppose those changes.
Mr. John Denham): There have been three meetings of the cross-Government street action group, which is chaired by the Prime Minister and involves ministerial colleagues, the police and local government. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced last Wednesday that £180 million in new money and a further £100 million from the criminal justice system reserve is to be made available to the Home Office.
Mr. Khabra: I have received a number of letters from constituents complaining about crime, especially street crime, in my constituency. Recent cases in my constituency include an arson attack in which two people were burned to death, and a person killed by stabbing. Muggings are on the increase, and two cases of murder remain unsolved. Police capabilities have been stretched to the limit by the fact that the police have had to deal with a large number of marches of a religious or political nature. A large number of such events take place in my constituency, which is unique. Ours is a multicultural society, and many people would like to come and settle in my constituency.
Mr. Denham: I am sure that, like me, my hon. Friend acknowledges the considerable work that the Metropolitan police have done in constituencies such as his, which contain members of many different minority communities who have been fearful of racism and misjudged reprisals following the events of 11 September. The policing operation has been considerable and, I believe, successful. My hon. Friend is right to say that it has imposed on police time, but it was necessary.
Now, in response to street crime, the safer streets initiative has been started in London. That has shown everyone how having high-profile policing on the streets, well directed and concentrated on a certain area, can have a real impact. In the eighth week of the safer streets campaign, street crime in London was 14 per cent. below its level a year previously, and in the target boroughs the reduction was 21 per cent.
My hon. Friend asks about resources. First, we need to support the Metropolitan Police Commissioner in terms of powers for community support officers so that he can free up officer time to help in the battle against street crime. Secondly, it is clear that part of the allocation of resources made by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will have to go to the fight against street crime, and we hope to announce details of that as soon as possible.
Police in Lancashire take the robbery reduction initiative extremely seriously, but they have not yet had any extra resources following notification by the Home Secretary of their inclusion in the initiative. Further to that, are more resources to be made available to the probation service in
Mr. Denham: The first point to make is that the right hon. Gentleman is wrong about Lambeth. The truth is that street robbery offences fell from 916 in October 2001 to 513 in March 2002. That is a 12-month low and a 17 per cent. reduction on robbery figures for March 2001. During the eight weeks of the safer streets initiative, the number of robberies in Lambeth fell by 6.4 per cent., ahead of the trend across the rest of the capital.
On resources, the big question for the right hon. Gentleman is whether to back the decisions by the Chancellor that have enabled us to say that we will invest more money to tackle street crime. We shall see what he has decided to do in the next day or two. If he is not here voting in favour of the Chancellor's decisions, he is in no position to start asking questions about extra resources for Lancashire.
Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): In my right hon. Friend's discussions with his colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department, will he give particular emphasis to the approaches taken by magistrates, especially in relation to new initiatives? Last year, I was involved with the first case in my constituency arising from an antisocial behaviour order. When it eventually went to the magistrates court to be enforced, the magistrates gave the person concerned a conditional discharge. I was subsequently advised by the Home Office that they did not have the power to do that. Lo and behold, a few weeks ago the same individual was taken to the magistrates court in Chorley in connection with a similar order, when a conditional discharge was again given. Will my right hon. Friend ask his colleagues in the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that those who advise magistrates courts understand what the law is and are able to enforce it correctly?
Mr. Denham: My hon. Friend raises an important point, and I shall certainly refer his remarks to the Lord Chancellor's Department. Antisocial behaviour orders work best where there is clear understanding and support from every single part of the criminal justice system, as well as the youth service, social services and so on. I shall see what we can do to address the matter that he raises.
We are working closely with the Lord Chancellor's Department to ensure that appropriately restrictive bail conditions, or indeed the refusal of bail, are used when tackling persistent offenders, especially street robbers.
Mr. John Horam (Orpington): Is the Minister aware that in the London borough of Bromley street crime has risen by 150 per cent. over the past 12 months? Is he also aware that the number of police officers in Bromley has fallen from 464 in 1997 to fewer than 430 today, as a result not only of his decisions, but of the decisions of the Liberal Democrat and Labour majorities on the Metropolitan police authority? Can he tell the residents of Bromley why they should pay more and more for fewer and fewer police as crime gets worse and worse?
Mr. Denham: I am tempted to refer the hon. Gentleman to the shadow Home Secretary, who clearly would not want anybody to be able to do anything about anywhere that did not have enough police officers.
The good news for the hon. Gentleman's constituents and for the people of London as a whole is that the number of Metropolitan police officers rose by 1,000 in the 10 months to January this year and will rise again next year. That is evidence of our commitment to ensuring that the number of police officers in London increases. It is of course for the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis to decide how those officers are allocated across the London boroughs.
Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): In my constituency last week there was a particularly ugly incident in Trealaw following the death of a young boy in a drug-related incident. A riot took place when the dealer involved turned up at the funeral. Will my right hon. Friend address the coincidence of drug-related crime and violent crimeespecially in the south Wales valleys, where it is prevalentwith a view to providing additional resources for the police in the area?
Mr. Denham: There is a relationship between drug abuse, especially of class A drugs such as heroin and crack, and violent crime. The chief constable of south Wales recently expressed concern about the impact of heroin. We intend to enable the police to concentrate their time on the class A drugs which do the most damage to our communities. We also intend to work across government to ensure the availability of treatment services so that people who get hooked on serious drugs receive treatment and support to enable them to overcome their addiction. That is critical if we are to break the cycle of acquisitive and violent crime.
Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I am sure that the public are genuinely relieved that, after five years of Labour in government, police numbers have increased from those under the Conservative Government. People were pleased that the Chancellor allocated£180 million of new money for Home Office priorities in last Wednesday's Budget. However, when will there be additional resources to make up the extra cost to the police authorities of the employers' national insurance contribution, which takes money away from front-line policing? When will all parish and local councils that want them get funding for as many neighbourhood or community support wardens as they need? Will Home Office Ministers join those from other Departments in a campaign for many more youth, community and sports workers to provide genuine alternative, constructive activities to divert young people from crime?
Mr. Denham: That was quite a shopping list. The resources that the Chancellor has made available to the police and other Home Office services will be announced shortly, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said. The spending review will deal with longer-term issues. It is also important to ensure that every one of the record number of police officers is used effectively. We therefore support the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolisin introducing community support officers. I cannot understand why the Liberal Democrats, who originally