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2 Dec 2002 : Column 602—continued

Alcohol-related Crime

9. Mr. John Grogan (Selby): If he will ensure that all crime and disorder partnerships include measures to combat alcohol-related crime as part of their strategies. [82311]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): Initial analysis of the crime and disorder partnerships shows that some 53 per cent. of them have included prioritisation of alcohol abuse in their policies for reducing crime.

Mr. Grogan : Given that the aims of the Government's Licensing Bill include allowing more flexible hours for pubs and creating a more civilised atmosphere late at night in our town and city centres—making them attractive not just to the young, but to those who are young at heart, such as my right hon. Friend and me—does he agree that it is more important than ever that crime and disorder partnerships prioritise by trying to make the night-time economy as safe as possible?

Mr. Blunkett: I would encourage all crime and disorder partnerships to take a further look at their strategies in view of the real problems of binge drinking. More than half of those who commit crime are seen to have been involved in drink or drugs, and we know that that causes devastation.

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On a slightly facetious note, may I congratulate my hon. Friend on his dedicated work for the all-party beer group, which includes getting people to drink sensibly?

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Given that the Government have had it trailed in the press this week that we are about to have the relaunch of the drugs strategy and that it is widely known that the most recent British crime survey showed that 40 per cent. of violent crimes are fuelled by alcohol, can the Home Secretary tell us when we will get the Government's alcohol strategy, which is hugely important and was trailed nearly five years ago? When will they give crimes fuelled by alcohol equal priority with crimes fuelled by other dangerous drugs?

Mr. Blunkett: The Department of Health and the Home Office are working with the forward strategy unit on developing a proper programme that is integrated with and related to the updated drugs strategy that we will publish this week. I do not disagree with the need to tackle this problem, and I do not think that anyone would, given that a high percentage of stranger violence is committed by people who are under the influence of drink.

Liz Blackman (Erewash): Is my right hon. Friend aware how effective exclusion orders are in banning perpetrators of violent crime from licensed premises, particularly where partnerships exist between the police, the local authority, magistrates and landlords? Unfortunately, their application is patchy. Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to point out again to local crime and disorder partnerships how effective exclusion orders can be and ask them to reconsider using them in their armoury to combat violent alcohol-related crime?

Mr. Blunkett: I should very much like to do that, in conjunction with the proposals in the Licensing Bill. Not least, I commend those alcohol outlets, particularly in city and town centres, which have made an agreement with the police, often using radiocommunications, and are prepared to contribute a little towards making those outlets more attractive. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and I are looking at how to strengthen that.

Accommodation Centres

10. Tony Baldry (Banbury): When he expects to appoint the independent monitor of accommodation centres. [82312]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): We intend to ensure that the monitor is appointed in good time for him or her to be able to monitor the operation of accommodation centres from the date at which the first centre is open.

Tony Baldry : Would it not be sensible for the monitor to be able to advise on whether a location is suitable to meet the needs of asylum seekers before hundreds of

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pounds are spent on a public inquiry and millions are spent on building an accommodation centre rather than after?

Beverley Hughes: The role of the monitor was discussed here and in the House of Lords during the passage of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Bill, including the implications of the late amendment on location. The hon. Gentleman has put that point before. Lord Filkin wrote to him on 15 November, making it clear that the monitor is not an adjudicator or an arbiter of whether a location would be suitable for an accommodation centre and that decisions about where to locate the centres will be made by the Secretary of State subject to the planning process. The monitor will not be involved in selecting sites.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): Does the Minister accept that there is sufficient ambiguity in the drafting of the last-minute concession in the Bill to allow plenty of argument about the right time to appoint the monitor for him or her to be able to advise on whether all the services can be provided to residents in a particular locality? If she remains so confident that she is right and all the interest groups are wrong when she says that all the services can be provided in remote rural areas, why will she not take the generous interpretation, appoint the monitor soon and allow him or her to comment on the policy of putting all these people in very remote rural places?

Beverley Hughes: I have already said that that is not the role of the monitor—he or she will be monitoring the operation of the centre. I think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman believes that some areas of the country, including his own, are not suitable for asylum seekers and accommodation centres, but we do not take that view. In the annual report to the Secretary of State, the monitor will be able to comment on whether a need of residents is not being adequately met in a particular location. We can then take action to ensure that that need is met properly.

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking): We support the concepts of accommodation centres and of an independent monitor, but will the Minister tell us what impact they will have, first on the current record number of applications for asylum—29,000 plus in the last quarter; secondly, on her collapsed policy of removing failed asylum seekers; and, finally, on the backlog of claims, 16,000 of which have been outstanding for more than a year?

Beverley Hughes: The accommodation centres themselves are part of an end-to-end strategy for keeping in much closer contact with asylum seekers so that we are able to remove people if their claim is refused. The hon. Gentleman will also know that the Act was implemented only three weeks ago. We had to fight tooth and nail with the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the House of Lords for many of the most important provisions in that Act, and when we are able to implement them, as we shall be doing during the next few months, they will have the impact on the intake of asylum claims that we anticipate.

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Child Abduction

12. Tim Loughton (East Worthing and Shoreham): What support he has given to Sussex police to operate the amber alert pilot scheme to help counter child abduction. [82314]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Hilary Benn): We are very interested in the lead being taken by Sussex police and the Association of Chief Police Officers' homicide working group in piloting the child rescue project. We wish it success and will closely monitor its progress over the coming months.

Tim Loughton : I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. May I draw his attention to early-day motion 70, which has been signed by me and 84 hon. Members and praises the amber alert scheme as it operates in the United States and wishes the Sussex police well in their pilot? However, as Sussex has only a limited amount of motorway, and as the scheme relies on breaking into media broadcasts and on broadcasting on motorway and other traffic signs, will he monitor it closely and give us an undertaking that, if it goes well, it will be piloted more extensively in other constabularies throughout the country, so that at least something positive might come from the horrific murders and abductions that have occurred during this and previous years to deter other such tragedies in the future?

Hilary Benn: I agree wholeheartedly. The scheme is imaginative and is aimed at using all the resources of the community to try to intervene quickly when a child abduction appears to have taken place. We know that those early hours are crucial if we are to find a child who has been abducted. I gladly undertake to monitor carefully the success of the scheme. I am sure that other forces will be looking with great interest at the work that Sussex is doing and I should be happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and officers from the Sussex force when the pilot period is over so that we can consider how to spread that good idea elsewhere.

Police

13. Mr. John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): What plans he has to improve the rate of recruitment and retention of police officers. [82315]

15. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East): What plans he has to improve the rate of recruitment and retention of police officers. [82317]

The Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety (Mr. John Denham): The police service in England and Wales is recruiting very successfully; 10,215 officers joined it in the year to March 2002—38 per cent. more than the previous year and the highest number of recruits since 1975. The number of police officers leaving the service annually remains low at about 5 per cent. of strength. However there are variations between forces, and we are working

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with chief constables and others to identify measures that can be taken where there are local retention problems.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. He will be well aware that, early next year, the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 becomes law and will allow the police to seize the assets of the drug barons and Mr. Bigs of the criminal world. What talks has my right hon. Friend held with the Scottish Executive on police staffing on both sides of the border, especially in relation to cross-border co-operation?

Mr. Denham: The Scottish Executive have been closely involved in all stages of the development of the policy and the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) has taken a close personal interest in the implementation of the Act, as has the Minister for Justice in Scotland, Jim Wallace. The operation of the Act is a devolved matter, but the Scottish Executive have recently appointed the heads of the new criminal confiscation and civil recovery units. The Scottish police college is delivering comprehensive financial investigation training to police officers in Scotland and that is being developed in consultation with the police service in London.

Brian White: I welcome the measures that the Minister has announced for retaining police officers, particularly in the south-east, but is he aware that the same pressures apply to civilians working in the police force, and those who work alongside the police, such as the new neighbourhood wardens being piloted in my constituency? Will he ensure that the measures do not create unintended or artificial barriers for those who support the police in their duties?

Mr. Denham: Of course I am keen to ensure that nothing we do to support police officer retention has an adverse effect on those who fulfil an important role as police staff. I am pleased to say that there has been good and strong recruitment of civilian staff in my hon. Friend's local police service and all the police services in the south-east.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Special constables are by definition police officers, and we have already heard that there has been a serious collapse in their numbers. Would the Minister consider paying them, invoking the precedent of paying retained firemen and the Territorial Army?

Mr. Denham: We recently invited the current deputy chief constable of Surrey, soon to be the chief constable of Cheshire, Peter Fahy, to act as the leader of a new project to investigate the recruitment, retention, training and deployment of specials in an endeavour to increase their numbers. The question of payment is controversial among specials. I recently approved a pilot project in Workington in Cumbria that, subject to changes in parliamentary regulations, would enable modest local payment to specials in the area. I anticipate, as part of the specials project, that that may happen in a few other areas, too, but we need to be careful not to upset the essentially voluntary nature of

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the special constabulary, which I know from experience is highly valued by many specials. I accept in principle the question that the right hon. and learned Gentleman raises, but we must proceed with due caution with some pilot projects, to see how it works out.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Is there not a distinction between paying specials and introducing a new status of retained officer, an omnicompetent officer working part-time, which would help to retain experienced officers? Ministers have said repeatedly over the years that they are considering the case for such retained officers. When will they reach a conclusion?

Mr. Denham: We have been considering not a salary but a bonus payment or modest enhancement in allowances. We have no active plans to introduce other types of working for specials, save that, as part of the pay negotiating body agreement last year, we are making the use of part-time paid police officers more flexible than in the past, by allowing engagement for less than 16 hours a week.

Kate Hoey (Vauxhall): Does the Minister share my concern about the effect of congestion charging on the retention of police officers in inner London? Is he aware that many of the officers in my constituency have to travel by car because of their shift hours? Is anyone likely to provide the extra £1,000 that they will have to pay?

Mr. Denham: That is the responsibility of the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan police service, as the officers' employers. [Hon. Members: XAha."] I know how much the Conservative party would resist any suggestion that the Home Secretary or I should interfere in these matters. The issues are under active consideration by the Metropolitan police service, and were touched on in recent discussions that I had with the deputy assistant commissioner.


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