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13 Jan 2003 : Column 445—continued

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Mr. David Kidney (Stafford): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. and learned Member for Harborough (Mr. Garnier), who brings to the debate the perspective of today's sentencing judges. If he reflects judges' attitudes accurately, I would say gently to him that there is a little bit of complacency on the part of the Bench in relation to their role in assuring the public that everything is under control. The motion talks about the honest citizen's feeling of helplessness. It is fashionable to blame all woes on the Government, but as a constituency Member I hear complaints against the police, the prosecutors and, indeed, the judges. The feeling of helplessness has more than one source.

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Before I begin citing statistics, let me make it clear that I never lose sight of the human effect of crime. Clearly, in serious crimes such as homicide people lose their lives and families lose loved ones, and crimes involving guns, violence or sexual assault can create an enormous amount of misery. We should remember that when we consider the dry statistics.

Today's debate is based on figures from the Home Office statistical bulletin No. 2 of 2003. The hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) praised the accuracy and good work of the Home Office statistical unit. The figures show that the trend in overall crime continued to be flat up to September 2002, showing little difference from the year up to March 2002. That picture of crime neither going up nor down over 18 months or so is allied to the British crime survey picture of all crime having diminished by more than a quarter since 1997, which is a pretty happy picture, not a miserable one, even though we can all say that crime is still too high and more measures are needed to drive it down further. This is certainly not a crisis.

It is easy for people to pick out the statistics that show a worse picture than the others. That is what the media did last week and what the motion is based on.

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman, whose constituency is adjacent to mine, confirm that, according to the figures for 2001–02, sexual offences in the Stafford area have increased by 42.4 per cent., and burglary from dwellings by 16 per cent? That certainly does not sound very good to me.

Mr. Kidney: In the words of Ronald Reagan, there he goes again: the hon. Gentleman has picked out the statistics that show the worst picture. I pay great tribute to Staffordshire police and the agencies with which they have worked in partnership, because they have taken sexual offences and domestic violence very seriously and have encouraged the public to trust them and report such crimes in greater numbers. The increase in the statistics is partly the result of increased reporting of crime that was happening in any case, because people trust the police more.

That brings me to the reliability of one set of statistics. In April 2002, those police forces that were not already doing so agreed to adopt the national crime recording standard and started to record figures more accurately for the crimes that were reported to them. That is bound to create a difference, probably for a couple of years, and I warn people not to take too much account of one set of reported crime figures until they have bedded down correctly and accurately.

In support of that warning, I want to talk about the situation of Staffordshire police. While some reported crime has shown an increase in the quarter up to September 2002, Staffordshire police were able to announce, for the six months up to September 2002, that crime fell in their area by 8.8 per cent., putting Staffordshire at the top of the national crime reduction league table. In key priority areas, crime fell: burglaries dropped by 20 per cent.—the third biggest national reduction in this type of crime—and there was an overall decrease in vehicle crime of 24 per cent. There were also smaller falls in incidents of public disorder and nuisance complaints. In addition, the detection rate improved, jumping to 30 per cent., against a national average of 22 per cent.

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Those are startlingly good figures, and I expect Members to listen raptly as I tell them Staffordshire's secret so that they can duplicate it in their constituencies. The truth is that there is no secret: Staffordshire adopted the new Xethical", or victim-focused, method of crime recording two years earlier than the rest of the country. Because we recorded more crime, we experienced an apparently big increase in crime two years before everybody else, and the Staffordshire police force was panned for those big increases. We appeared in The Observer as the fifth worst performing police force in the country, and yet just 12 months later, everybody else has adopted that method of recording figures. We have worked through those figures and maintained a steady sea, as it were. Now, we are somewhere near the top of the best performing police authorities in the country.

That is not to belittle the efforts of all who have played their part in Staffordshire's good performance. The force is very well led by the chief constable John Giffard and his astute senior officers. All the officers are committed to their work, and they are supported by a large civilian work force that does dedicated work on their behalf. So everyone deserves credit for those figures, which show that the police are doing well.

Nor are the police sitting on their laurels. This year, we are introducing a system of 219 designated community beat officers, whose job is to be seen on the ground and to talk to local community members, thereby picking up the street intelligence to which the shadow Home Secretary referred. Staffordshire is also slightly ahead of the game in terms of changing shift patterns to try to match police numbers and police presence to the places and times at which crimes are known to be committed. Indeed, the Police Reform Act 2002 has tried to establish that principle across the whole country. So the police are doing all the right things, and when we are satisfied that that is so, our job as politicians is to call for the public to support them. For me, that is the message that we should be sending through this debate.

That is the statistical argument, and I am glad that other Members have accepted that, in statistical terms, more police officers are engaged in police work throughout the country than ever before in our history. That is a useful tool in the fight against crime, but there is more to that fight than policing. We should also consider the effectiveness of the prosecution service, and of the rest of the criminal justice system. That is why we are trying to make changes to ensure that every component of that system plays its part in reassuring the public about crime.

An announcement has recently been made concerning mandatory five-year sentences for gun crime, and I want to say something about the reporting of such announcements. When the British crime survey released its quarterly statistics on reported crime, the media picked out the worst parts. They are entitled to do so, but I did not hear many of them balance that by pointing out that crime was flat overall.

Mr. Grieve: Surely one problem is that the Government played exactly the same game in reverse in

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respect of street crime. They can hardly be surprised if people apply the same importance to quarterly statistics as Ministers apply to street crime statistics.

Mr. Kidney: I am not attempting to pick out the best statistics to enable Labour to justify the current situation; I am making a plea—the hon. Gentleman will have heard me make it a moment ago—for people to show patience over time, so that we can see how the trends develop rather than focusing on one set of statistics. I am not particularly interested in playing that game with the hon. Gentleman.

My point is that, just as the media picked out the dramatic aspects of last week's figures, so when the announcement was made that the Home Secretary intended to table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill—the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I are currently deliberating that Bill in Committee—the media reported that announcement as the Home Secretary's changing the law by introducing five-year mandatory sentences. That plainly was not right. When the judges responded the next day by saying that there should be exceptions so that they can continue to use their judicial discretion, and the Home Secretary agreed, the headlines were, XHome Secretary does U-turn and changes the law". The truth is that we have yet even to debate either of those propositions.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman highlights one of our precise criticisms of the Government. Even after the Home Secretary accepted that mandatory sentences for firearms offences were not really what had been proposed, last Wednesday the Prime Minister repeated at the Dispatch Box a reference to mandatory five-year sentences for firearms offences—presumably precisely because he wanted to see that copy in the newspaper the following day. So again, the Government can hardly complain about the way in which they are reported, because that is exactly the spin that they themselves have tried to engineer, in order to cover discussion of the true nature of the problem.

Mr. Kidney: I do not accept that it is spin; I regard it as inaccurate reporting of that announcement. There will be a discussion in Committee about an amendment to introduce mandatory sentences, and the hon. Gentleman and I will be among the first to have it.

The final important aspect that I want to mention is the effect on the mind of the public, and the reference in the Opposition motion to the

The British crime survey tells us that a majority of the public still feel that crime is rising, even though it is in fact stable and has fallen for five years or more. We need to deal with that by addressing the public's concerns. Despite the seriousness of homicide, gun crime, violence, sexual offending and so on, what affects people most in their day-to-day lives is antisocial behaviour. As we debate serious matters such as gun crime, we must not lose sight of the fact that day-to-day issues such as antisocial behaviour still need to be tackled, and that is what we are going to do in this Session.

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