Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Crime (South Somerset)

12.30 pm

Mr. David Laws (Yeovil): I am delighted to have an opportunity to raise an issue of the greatest importance to my constituents. I am glad that the Minister is present—as is my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), with whom I share the South Somerset district council boundary.

Although I am focusing on a restricted area, and only on crime, I expect we shall find that many of the issues that arise are common to areas well beyond not just South Somerset but Avon and Somerset. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome will speak about some of those issues, as well as the local issues.

My main reason for initiating the debate is the startling rise in the Somerset and South Somerset crime statistics that has taken place over the past year. In Avon and Somerset as a whole, crime has increased by more than 19 per cent. There have been even larger increases in particular categories: burglary from dwellings has risen by 22.5 per cent., robbery by some 63 per cent., and thefts from motor vehicles by 22.2 per cent.

The increase in crime has occurred not just in the traditional problem areas in Avon and Somerset such as Bristol, but in more rural parts such as the South Somerset district council area, the constituency of Yeovil and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome. Over the past year crime has risen by 29.6 per cent. in Chard—an astonishing figure—and by 33 to 34 per cent. in the sector covering Chard, in the west of my constituency. Those are dramatic increases, which must concern the Minister as well as all who live in that part of the country.

Much of the crime has fallen into economically related categories—for instance, car theft, burglary and robbery. There is also a significant amount of retail crime, and a strong feeling that the Government are not doing enough to deal with it in all parts of the country.

What can have happened over one year to bring about such dramatic increases? It is difficult to believe that criminals have become that much more effective, or the police that much more ineffective, during a single year. Senior local police officers to whom I have spoken in the past week tell me that there are two principal reasons for the increases in South Somerset and throughout Avon and Somerset. Their first and main worry is the increase in the amount of drugs entering the area and, indeed, the country—especially crack cocaine, which is arriving in large quantities from countries such as Jamaica. It is expensive and highly addictive, and seems to be increasing the amount of crime that is necessary to fund a habit in which more and more people are becoming involved.

The second problem must be of great concern to Ministers, and should be taken into account in the making of policy on crime. Over the past year there has been a shift to what local police describe as an ethical reporting approach, which means that more crime is now being recorded. That may be the reason for the apparent extraordinary increases in some economically

14 May 2002 : Column 222WH

related crimes such as vehicle interference and burglary from non-dwellings, which in the past might have been reported to police but not recorded as crime statistics.

That might, in a sense, make us feel more relaxed about the increase in crime. The police consider that about 10 per cent. of the 20 or 30 per cent. increase in parts of Avon and Somerset may be due to the changes in reporting practice. If the police are now able to present the full picture rather than the limited picture we saw before, however, we have reason to think about the crime levels and about what our response should be.

I want to say something about the concerns raised by the police, and how we should deal with them. The police say that drugs, particularly crack cocaine, are the most important issue for them. The Minister will have seen recent articles in national newspapers, including one that appeared in The Mirror about a week ago reporting the activities of the customs and immigration services in respect of flights from Jamaica. Recently two Air Jamaica planes were stopped and thoroughly searched as they arrived in the United Kingdom, and 27 of the 440 passengers were found to be carrying drugs. A large number were turned away because they had criminal records, or were travelling with false papers. The customs and immigration services are clearly overwhelmed by the sheer number of people who are trying to bring drugs into the country illegally, often for extremely large rewards.

The local police say that, although many of the drugs are coming into the London airports, they are rapidly spreading to areas such as Bristol, and thence to smaller market towns such as Yeovil, Chard and towns with even smaller populations. The police say that the Government should take tougher action, and give the customs and immigration services more resources.

Throughout Avon and Somerset, and probably throughout the country, we are doing far too little to give those who are involved in drugs-related crime, and who suffer from a serious addiction, a chance to overcome that addiction and return to non-offending behaviour, without relying on such substances as crack and heroin. There is a major addiction problem even in areas such as Yeovil and Chard, outside the main conurbations. I have recently talked to parents and young people with experience of the problem, who say that much more effort should be made to help people conquer their addictions so that we can stop them from offending for ever, rather than simply locking them up in prison at considerable cost.

The Minister will not be surprised when I say that another problem is that of police numbers and investment in the police. No doubt he will say that, as a result of the crime fighting fund, Avon and Somerset is gaining some 200 additional officers over a three-year period; but between 1997 and the beginning of 2001 there was no increase at all in the area, and only in the past six months or so have we seen an increase of 51—51 officers to serve an area containing 1.5 million people. That is one extra officer per 30,000 inhabitants, even if we assume that all the officers are available at any one time. Given that they probably have to spread themselves across five shifts, it is likely that in practice one extra officer per 150,000 inhabitants is available at any one time.

14 May 2002 : Column 223WH

There has also been a dramatic reduction in the number of special constables—some 38 per cent., from 629 to 391, since 1997. No wonder the local police are struggling in terms of resources, and no wonder many of my constituents—and, no doubt, those of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome—feel that they cannot receive an adequate response, not just when they report crimes that can be dealt with over time rather than as emergencies but even when they report emergencies such as burglaries and violent crime in progress.

I welcome the new wardens, two of whom will come to Yeovil. I think they will help to deal with a fair amount of the lower-level crime and antisocial behaviour that take place in many parts of our constituencies. Nevertheless, we still need Government investment in more police numbers throughout the country. The Government should not rest on their laurels after their announcement of a 5,000 increase which, in practice, is not having the dramatic effect across the country for which the Minister may have hoped.

Since 11 September, many of our local police officers have had to be deployed at Bristol airport to deal with the potential terrorist threat. Police locally are concerned that that has taken out of circulation several officers who could have been deployed to bolster police numbers in areas such as Frome, Chard and other parts of South Somerset. The diversion of those resources means that the Government's extra allocation is not resulting in an increase in officer numbers in many parts of South Somerset. Can the Minister say—either today or in writing—whether it is possible to classify Bristol airport, and to discuss with the airport authority its contributing to policing costs, so that police resources can be released for areas such as Chard, Yeovil and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome, in which crime is increasing dramatically?

Before I finish, I want to mention two other issues of great importance, the first of which is sentencing policy. In Yeovil, a hugely disproportionate amount of crime is committed by a very small number of people, who are well known to the police. The introduction of the antisocial behaviour order has been immensely helpful in assisting the police in coming to terms with those individuals, and it has been used well in South Somerset and Somerset as a whole. However, those well-known individuals continue to commit many crimes, and they remain difficult to deal with—even through ASBOs—not least because of the problems associated with getting witnesses to make statements, given the serious intimidation that is often involved.

That draws attention to the need for the police to have the resources to carry out proactive work, so that they can gather the evidence necessary to take decisive action against the small number of people who commit a disproportionate amount of crime. If we can get 10 or 20 people who are well known to the police off the streets of towns such as Yeovil, we will contribute enormously to reducing actual crime and the fear of crime. As Yeovil's MP, I would therefore welcome any action that the Government can take to strengthen ASBOs, and I hope that they will continue to work closely with the police and local authorities to consider what further action can be taken.

14 May 2002 : Column 224WH

A few weeks' ago in the other place, Lord Rooker seemed to step slightly out of line when he commented on the Home Office's frustration with the Chancellor's unwillingness to release funds—given pressures on the Home Office's budget, including police pensions—not just for policing, but for long-term projects to tackle the causes of crime. Nobody in my constituency believes that the fundamental and underlying problems of crime can be tackled solely through measures such as rehabilitation. Assistance must also be given to those who are most at risk of getting involved in the world of crime at a very early age, and I should like the Home Office and the Department for Education and Skills to co-operate in trying to address that problem.

12.43 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): I want to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) not only on securing this debate, but on putting such a cogent and powerful case on his constituents' behalf. As was said, I represent the other part of South Somerset. I would love to be able to say that the problems that my hon. Friend described do not exist in Somerton and Frome, but that is undoubtedly not true. There has been a substantial increase in crime and the perception of crime in several small towns in my constituency—Somerton, Martock, Bruton, Wincanton—and across South Somerset. Empirically, the figures are undoubtedly less than for a large city, but as regular visits from my constituents have demonstrated, in rural areas such statistics often have a greater effect on perceived security. I have expressed those concerns to Chief Superintendent Shearer in Yeovil, and I am happy to say that he has arranged a meeting with my constituents in the near future.

My hon. Friend's key point concerns police numbers. I, too, congratulate the Government on their determination to increase numbers, but we should be absolutely clear about this. As former chairman, in 1996, of the Avon and Somerset police authority, I know that police numbers in Avon and Somerset have only just returned to their 1996 level. There has been no net increase. The problem for rural areas is that cities inevitably act as a magnet for resources, because they are where most crimes are committed. Chief constables have no choice in the matter—they must deploy constables to areas where crime levels are greatest. As a result, rural areas are denuded of police officers, and patrol activity, which is sometimes regarded as marginal but which I consider crucial, is reduced.

My plea to the Minister is to recognise that we still need extra police officers. I take a very old-fashioned view on this matter. I believe that extra police officers are an effective deterrent against crime; they certainly encourage a feeling of well-being among the population. We need extra resources—civilian support and equipment—to assist those officers, and a criminal justice system that complements the police force's efforts without distancing itself from the daily problems of our constituents. A current example of such distancing is the closure of local magistrates courts.

Has the Minister given further consideration to the case—for which I have argued with his predecessors for many years—for retained police officers in rural areas, which would assist in the recruitment of extra police officers? They are analogous to the retained firefighters

14 May 2002 : Column 225WH

who do such a good job in Somerset and elsewhere. The Home Office seemed to be considering the idea, but we have heard little about it lately. Is the Home Office still actively considering it?

12.47 pm

The Minister for Criminal Justice, Sentencing and Law Reform (Mr. Keith Bradley): I congratulate the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws) on securing this debate. Nothing is more important to all our communities than policing, crime levels and confidence in the criminal justice system in general. The hon. Gentleman expressed the concerns of his constituents extremely well, and I hope in the brief time available to address some of the issues raised by him and by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). If there are any points that I cannot consider properly today, I shall write to the hon. Member for Yeovil giving further explanation.

Modernising the criminal justice system, to ensure that the end-to-end process has the confidence of local communities and the public, is absolutely essential. We should not view parts of that system in isolation. The public, who are often the victims and witnesses of crime, have to understand the entire process—from detection, to court, to sentencing. They must be kept informed of that process and be supported through it, so that they can participate in it. That way, we can restore confidence in the criminal justice system and ensure that we bring more offenders to justice.

On sentencing, I agree with the hon. Member for Yeovil that a relatively small number of persistent offenders are responsible for the overwhelming amount of crime in our communities. The Government intend to target them and to bring them to justice. They have a disproportionate impact on our local communities, not only through crime itself, but through the fear of crime that they engender in local people. If we can bring more persistent offenders to justice, the impact on the number of offences committed will be dramatic.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman's offer of clear support for antisocial behaviour orders, the more effective and efficient use of which the House is currently considering. I know from the experience of my own Manchester constituency that the well-practised implementation of an antisocial behaviour order by the various agencies involved can have a dramatic impact on a community. Its effects can range much wider than just the individual family involved or the street where it is targeted, and it can prove much more beneficial than many other current measures.

I take the point that we have to look more closely at how we can stop people getting into crime in the first place. Interventions at the earliest possible stage, with families and schools—and using our communities to support families and young people—are the way to bear down on that issue and that has to be a priority.

I turn to some of the specific points raised by the hon. Member for Yeovil. The first is the issue of Bristol airport and drugs. According to the chief inspector of North Somerset police, one sergeant and nine police officers were seconded to Bristol Airport Authority from September 2001. From 31 March 2002, that

14 May 2002 : Column 226WH

number was reduced to one sergeant and five police officers, who will stay until the end of June 2002 when their position will be reviewed.

As the hon. Gentleman will know, Bristol airport is a non-designated airport, so it is not obliged to pay for any policing arrangements but only for its own security. It is apparently reluctant to pay for policing, as it will have to pass on the costs to the airline industry. The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions and the Association of Chief Police Officers are currently in negotiations with UK airport authorities about policing. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will wish to link into those discussions to see what impact they will have on Bristol airport.

Mr. Laws: Can the Minister say a little more about the designation criteria? What prospects are there for a change in the designation of Bristol so that the policing costs fall on the airport and air travellers—with some reason, perhaps—rather than on the communities in Avon and Somerset?

Mr. Bradley: The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the designation of airports is not in the direct remit of the Home Office. On the hon. Gentleman's behalf, I shall refer that query to the relevant Minister at the DTLR and ensure that he or she contacts him, so that the discussions on that issue may be progressed on behalf of his constituents.

I fully support the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman about the amount of trafficking in drugs through our airports. We have to be more diligent on that point, and as a Manchester MP I am well aware of the problem because of my local airport. However, I am told by officials at Customs and Excise that there is no intelligence to indicate that Bristol airport is a significant entry point for class A drugs into the UK. Several cash detections have been made in excess of £10,000. However, after investigation, none of those were found to be drug-related.

Mr. Laws: I should have clarified the point in my speech, but the local police do not suggest that drugs are coming directly into Bristol airport. They are coming into other major national airports and being moved to the south-west. In the article last week in The Mirror that recounted the story about two planes from Jamaica being prevented from entering the country, it was found that of 11 passengers carrying cocaine in their bodies—acting as "mules"—six had destinations in Bristol, even though they were caught in London.

Mr. Bradley: I understood the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, but I wished to give him some assurance that the information I have been given is that direct entry through Bristol airport is not the problem. I entirely accept that once drugs have been landed in this country they can be moved anywhere, including to his area. We need a more robust system in place to track those movements and to alleviate the problem.

Customs and Excise drug dogs are regularly deployed at Bristol airport to screen passengers and their baggage, and are supported by an anti-smuggling team who arrive unannounced and in sufficient numbers to conduct in-depth checks almost every day. I hope that the hon. Gentleman appreciates the level of security provided in that respect.

14 May 2002 : Column 227WH

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned crime levels in Avon and Somerset. I accept that numbers for particular offences have risen, but I hope that he will accept that overall levels of crime in Avon and Somerset have fallen by 13 per cent. since 1997. I accept that the area has seen an increase in street crime—robbery and muggings. In response, the Government have launched the street crime initiative to target particular problems in hotspot areas. Avon and Somerset is one of the 10 areas in which that initiative has been launched.

The initiative builds new measures on top of plans that were already in progress to ensure co-ordinated action across all parts of Government to bring street robbers to swift and effective justice. As the hon. Gentleman will know, street crime is a predominantly urban phenomenon and is concentrated in relatively small areas within force areas. While Avon and Somerset are part of the drive to tackle street crime, it should be noted that the levels of robbery and street crime in the area of Yeovil and South Somerset are relatively low.

Mr. Laws: While I appreciate that in the past two years crime has fallen in Avon and Somerset, my concern is that in the past year we have seen a dramatic rise of 20 per cent. in Avon and Somerset as a whole, and of 30 per cent. in many areas. Has the Minister carried out any analysis of that increase and does he share the view of the chief constable that it is because of the extraordinary increase in the incidence of crack cocaine across the south-west, as well as reporting changes?

Mr. Bradley: I am aware of the concern about drug-related crime in the area and the Government wish to ensure that young drug users get the help they need. The crucial aspect of the issue is the need to support young people so that they do not get into the drug culture and, subsequently, crime. Working closely with the substance misuse worker on the youth offending team, a new young people's service, "On the Level", provides specialist services for young people experiencing problems with their drug use.

Both hon. Gentleman raised the issue of police numbers. At the end of January this year, Avon and Somerset constabulary had 3,086 officers—92 more than in March 2001. Between March 2000, when numbers were at a low of 2,934, and January 2002, police strength increased by more than 5 per cent., or 152 more officers. Liberal Democrats regularly call for additional resources for more police officers on top of the money that the Government are already putting in through the crime fighting fund, but they also want more teachers and hospital workers. Let us see their sums and whether they add up.

I will write to the hon. Member for Yeovil on the other matters. We have had a brief but worthwhile debate, and I look forward to further debates on the issue in the future.

Next Section

IndexHome Page