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Abandoned Cars

2. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North) (Lab): What plans his Department has to encourage the police to deal with abandoned cars. [171317]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): As part of our Together initiative on antisocial behaviour, which is one of the No. 1 issues for the people of this country, we have tackled abandoned cars by introducing stronger, tougher measures, including the opportunity to remove cars within 24 hours. We are working to improve that by supporting trailblazers to share best practice and show that the police, along with other agencies, have a key role to play.

Syd Rapson : I thank the Government for ensuring that, at last, we have good legislation that benefits areas
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such as mine, but there is a problem. Will the Minister consider giving the police extra powers to deal with cases where an unscrupulous driver abandons his vehicle in somebody's private driveway? The local authority ignores such vehicles because they are not on public land and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency will not get involved because they are not on the highway, so the police end up having to do something. The owner of the private driveway, who is innocent in all this, has to pay £30 to have the vehicle removed. The issue seems to be going round in circles. Can we close that loophole and make our good legislation better for everyone?

Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend makes a good point about some of the problems caused by vehicles being abandoned on private land. The first is establishing whether the vehicle has been abandoned. The local authority can put a notice on the car and if, after 15 days, it has not been claimed it can take action to remove it. Other measures are available if the car is claimed by the owner: it is possible to use powers provided by environmental and waste legislation and, in certain instances, antisocial behaviour legislation. I ask my hon. Friend to get in touch with me about the particular problem that he mentioned, and I will ask the antisocial behaviour unit to look into it. We are cracking down on such behaviour wherever it occurs, and we know that that is important because our people tell us so.

Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does it not depend on what one means by "abandoned" and "deal with"? Will the Minister call for a report from chief constables on a practice that is causing distress throughout the country? I refer to cases in which a vehicle is stolen and then abandoned many miles away, the police then telephone a company to remove the vehicle from the highway, and the company then charges the person from whom it was stolen. In normal circumstances, the police would phone up the owner, who would then go and get the vehicle, but in these cases many people are being treated very harshly by the police.

Caroline Flint: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. The police should be sensitive to these issues and we should investigate whether insurance would cover the costs. I think that he would acknowledge, however, that in dealing with abandoned or stolen vehicles and those without tax or insurance we are using antisocial behaviour powers from legislation that the Liberal Democrats voted against in its entirety—and we are investing money that the Conservative Opposition plan to take away. By using automatic number plate recognition and other measures we are making sure that the people who drive on our roads are safe and that they are legally entitled to do so.

Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware that action taken by a parish council in my constituency to remove abandoned vehicles was thwarted because a member of the local authority said that the land in question was public open space, not highway, so the parish council had to return the abandoned vehicles to the site. What advice is the Home Office giving to councils so that jobsworths cannot prevent the strong action that is required to deal with abandoned vehicles?
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Caroline Flint: We are providing local authorities with a number of powers to deal with that problem. We have extended their access to the DVLA registration database and we have given them powers, including wheel clamping, that were once the preserve of the DVLA. We are saying, "Here are the powers. It's a no-can-do situation. Get on with it."

Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet) (Con): Will the Minister make it plain to the police and local authorities which of them is responsible for removing abandoned vehicles? I have certainly had cases in my constituency in which the police say that it is the responsibility of the local authority and vice versa. I understand that, two years ago, local authorities removed almost 300,000 abandoned vehicles. Will the Minister give the House the latest figure and confirm that it is likely to rise considerably when the appropriate EU directive comes into force in, I think, 2006?

Caroline Flint: The responsibility lies with many agencies, which is why we have given powers to take action to local authorities as well. The Removal and Disposal of Vehicles Regulations 1986 give the police the power to remove any vehicle that is in breach of local traffic regulation orders, causes obstruction, is a danger to the public, is broken down or is abandoned. We have brought local authorities into the partnership and they, too, can take action. It is part of the national policing plan to ensure that police understand the issues surrounding antisocial behaviour, including graffiti, abandoned cars and the dispersal of groups of youths who are causing intimidation and harassment. That is all part and parcel of policing today, but we have a wider police family to help us to achieve the end results.

Domestic Violence

3. Vera Baird (Redcar) (Lab): What his plans are to tackle domestic violence and to bring more perpetrators to justice. [171318]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): Domestic violence is an horrific crime, which affects one in four women and causes the death of two women each week. The Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Bill is the biggest overhaul of domestic violence legislation for 30 years. It includes a range of measures that will provide additional protection and support for victims and help to bring perpetrators to justice.

Vera Baird : I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and congratulate him on the Bill. Is he aware of the work of local domestic violence advocacy services, which attach a worker to every domestic violence sufferer who rings the police to help that person through benefit changes and all that can follow a complaint, and to support that person through the justice system, upping the courts' success rate quite significantly and very cheaply? Will he consider piloting such services more widely?

Paul Goggins: I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her positive welcome for the Bill. I congratulate her and other members of the all-party group on domestic
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violence on the tremendous work that they have done to bring such issues to the attention of the House. Following February's joint inspection report, we are looking closely at the role of local advocates: we see that the idea has merit, and we want to assess it further. I fully endorse her comment about the need to support victims of domestic violence through the whole process. The practice and philosophy of the Crown Prosecution Service and the police has been transformed in recent years, so that victims of domestic violence are much better supported than they used to be.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): How many convictions were there last year and the year before, and how many does the Minister think there will be once the legislation is in place?

Paul Goggins: The hon. Gentleman needs to be slightly more precise about which charges he is inquiring about. We will implement a range of measures under the Bill, including extending the availability of restraining orders and non-molestation orders and making common assault an arrestable offence. Such measures will bear down on domestic violence and make sure that its perpetrators are dealt with severely. I hope that those on both sides of the House will support that approach.

Community Support Officers

4. Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): How many community support officers there are. [171319]

16. Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab): How many community support officers are operating.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Blunkett): At the end of April this year, we had more than 3,500 community support officers in 38 police force areas. They provide complementary support with the uniformed police, whose number has risen by 6,000 in the past year alone. They concentrate on the low-level violence, antisocial behaviour and nuisance behaviour that blight the lives of so many of our constituents. They make a vital contribution to the provision of high-visibility and high-accessibility patrols, free police officers for other duties and give reassurance to communities.

That record flies in the face of the claims that the policy would be a failure, that forces would not take it up, that the police would not welcome it and that local communities would reject it. Those claims were simply untrue and the Opposition parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats, were entirely wrong—as they usually are.

Siobhain McDonagh : I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer. I concur with him on the benefits provided by police community support officers in my constituency and, I am sure, in every constituency that is lucky enough to have them. Lucy Heddon, chair of Glebe Court tenant management organisation, said today that, in the short time that they have been in post, her local PCSOs, Mick and Terry, have transformed her life and that of other people on her estate because they
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are available at night, they are a high-visibility presence, and they are there to tackle the small misdemeanours that were ignored in the past.

The problem in outer-London, however, is that PCSOs are paid outer-London weighting, while just up the road, they receive £1,500 more for inner-London weighting. Those rules do not apply to ordinary police officers. Surely that could be extended to our PCSOs, because we need to retain the likes of Mick and Terry currently working in Mitcham.

Mr. Blunkett: I concur strongly with my hon. Friend's example. There must be a boundary in terms of outer and inner zones and payments, and although an additional £1,350 is paid to officers in Merton, that does not compare with what is paid in the inner boroughs. I appreciate that that is a real challenge. The good news for my hon. Friend and her constituents is that another 10 community support officers are coming out of training at Hendon and will be employed in Merton in two weeks' time. That will be a considerable improvement and a great tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned vigorously on this matter and against antisocial behaviour in Mitcham and Morden.

Dr. Palmer : Does my right hon. Friend accept that in Broxtowe we are extremely enthusiastic about our CSOs and we hope that the application for further CSOs made by Nottinghamshire police will be successful? Does he share my concern that other parties might seek to abolish this post? Will he consider creating a good long-term career structure for police community support officers, because those to whom I talk hope in the long term to work in the police force? I am a little concerned that the best people in the CSO force will be promoted to the point at which they are no longer working on the beat. Will he try to ensure that we provide a good career structure so that that does not happen?

Mr. Blunkett: I, too, hope that we can add to the 62 CSOs currently employed in the Nottinghamshire force, and the third round is being evaluated at this moment. I share the challenge to ensure that people who are recruited can have a long-term career path. Many choose to become uniformed officers, which is good in terms of diversity because the number of people of ethnic minority origin and women coming through from the CSOs is much greater than in recruitment to the police service as a whole. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that it would be a terrible tragedy if, for instance, a party cut more than £660 million out of the Home Office budget, and if community support officers were done away with as a result.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): The Home Secretary, of course, repeats an oft-quoted error by suggesting that any such cuts will be made by the Conservative party when it comes into government in about a year from now. Will he comment on the funding of community support officers? I am the first to support the community support officer who is doing good work in Chippenham, and I hope that the chief constable will recruit the second one for whom she is currently advertising. However, is not the difficulty that the funding from the Home Office lasts for a total of only four years, and after that contributions from town
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councils and parish councils across the patch will be required? The cost of community support officers will be transferred from the Home Office to the unfortunate council tax payer, who is already screaming.

Mr. Blunkett: Let us be absolutely clear: a whole range of individuals and organisations have joined together to supplement the amount that has been provided, both through direct funding for CSOs and through the general police grant. We cannot have two different versions of the same budget from the Opposition. Either the Treasury spokespeople for the Conservative party are right or they are wrong when they say that there will be necessary pain in reducing budgets. When that budget is applied across the board, other than to schools and the NHS, it is inevitable that there will be cuts. Under our proposals, however, and under the forthcoming spending review, there will be additional resources to pay both for additional CSOs and for the continuing rise in the police service, which has shown an increase of 6,000 in the past year alone. With a Conservative budget, cuts would be bound to occur in every part of our service and every part of our country.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Home Secretary knows full well that a Conservative Government will add 40,000 police officers. What is more, we will tell police authorities that they can choose whether to spend the money on CSOs or on real police officers. That is real local accountability.

Can the Home Secretary tell us about training for CSOs and how much they have had? Can he confirm that the length of training can vary from just one week to five weeks or more, whereas basic training for real police officers is being cut from 15 weeks to 12? Is it any wonder that people suspect that the Government have a hidden agenda to de-skill policing and use CSOs on our streets to replace real police officers?

Mr. Blunkett: I am very happy to let the hon. Gentleman into a secret: we do have a hidden agenda. It involves providing thousands more CSOs and thousands more police officers at the same time, and decentralising training from the current residential arrangements so that people can be nearer to home and get more into the three months' training for uniformed officers. That is being welcomed by the Police Federation and the Association of Chief Police Officers.

We have heard the comments of the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis), on the budget for the 40,000 extra police officers. That was to come from the abolition of the immigration and nationality directorate, but when we announced a month ago that we were going to reduce headquarters costs, the right hon. Gentleman said that that was an outrage and a disgrace. He will not even help us to reduce the administration costs, let alone switch the whole budget into paying for the police force.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West) (Lab): The Home Secretary will know that the Police Federation objected vehemently to the introduction of community support officers. Wherever I go, I hear police officers saying what a valuable task CSOs perform on the streets of their
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areas. Has the federation formally withdrawn its objection, or has it eaten a little bit of humble pie recently?

Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend will forgive me: as I am to visit the federation in two weeks, I shall not ask it to eat anything. I shall, however, ask its members to join us in welcoming the extra police officers, the extra CSOs, the extra powers against antisocial behaviour, the introduction of the Criminal Courts (Sentencing) Act 2000—all the elements that we are putting into a jigsaw to provide the powers, legislative backing, resources, and manpower and womanpower to make it possible to clean up our streets and give people safety in their homes.

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