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5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): What plans he has for changing penalties for shoplifting. [197733]

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): None. We are satisfied that the range of penalties available for dealing with shoplifting—prosecution, caution, warning and fixed penalty—is sufficient.
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Mr. Bellingham: Does the Minister agree that any form of stealing—whether from a shop, a large corporation or an individual—is very serious crime indeed? Does she feel that it is the Government's duty to ensure that all crimes that involve stealing and dishonesty are deal with equally harshly? Surely, any other approach would not only send quite the wrong signal to the criminal fraternity, but undermine the credibility of a criminal justice system.

Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman is correct on one point—retail theft is an extremely important matter—but I am afraid that he is wrong in almost every other respect. We have given the police a range of options: prosecution, caution and fixed penalty notices. The introduction of fixed penalty notices has been universally welcomed by the police because it enables them to do their job quickly and get back out patrolling the streets, which is what the public want them to do.

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that deterring shoplifting also involves quickly and effectively dealing with offenders? In that light, will she welcome the street bail pilot scheme introduced in the west midlands in line with Government initiatives, whereby people are arrested and immediately bailed so that the police do not have to take them back to the police station or wait for responsible adults to arrive, but can get straight back on patrol to deal with other offenders?

Ms Blears: I am delighted to endorse my hon. and learned Friend's support for the street bail scheme, which is yet another example of the way in which we are changing the service to try to free up police officers to do the front-line work that the public want them to do. I am also delighted that in Lancashire the police have already started to use fixed penalty notices for shoplifting—they have issued 22 fixed penalty notices in the first week. Where police forces really feel that they have a "can do" attitude, they can make a big difference.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath) (Con): Does the Minister recognise the fact that her astonishingly complacent answer to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) will cause huge anger among the law-abiding public? Are the Government aware that former professional shoplifters have been interviewed and have said that if fixed penalty notices had existed in their time, all that they would have done is shoplift more to enable them to pay the fixed penalties? This is a nonsensical introduction of a new system that will do huge harm. The Government must take such serious dishonesty much more seriously.

Ms Blears: I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is talking absolute nonsense. People who would have previously received perhaps no punishment at all, or perhaps just an informal ticking-off, will now get an £80 on-the-spot fine. With the fixed penalty notices for disorder, we have found that almost 50 per cent. more people have been punished than previously. Not only the police, but shopkeepers will welcome the
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introduction of fixed penalty notices because they will see people being punished on the spot for shoplifting in their premises.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab): Does not the instant fixed penalty system cover a crime that all of us pay for at the end of the day because the cost of the stuff that is stolen from shops must be met by other consumers? In addition, the system involves a quick penalty, which must surely be a bigger deterrent to the petty shoplifter than having to go through the legal system, given that such cases are often not proceeded with and those involved just receive a warning. Is it not a better system than we have had before?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We have made it clear in the guidance, which we are about to issue, that fixed penalty notices will not be used for persistent shoplifters. They are very much a warning to those people who might be tempted to shoplift that doing so will cost them a great deal of money, so perhaps they had better think twice about it.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): To bring the Minister back to her responses to my hon. Friends the Members for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), she gave it away when she intimated that half the fixed penalty notices issued in the pilot schemes replaced criminal action. [Hon. Members: "No, she did not.] Yes, she did. Does she not see that it is intrinsically wrong for someone to be fined only £80 for stealing £100, let alone the £200 that she originally intended? The real terms of trade are even worse. The average shoplifter gets prosecuted once every 20 offences, so they can steal £2,000 for every £80 fixed penalty. Does she not realise that in the longer term this policy will lead to a large increase in shoplifting?

Ms Blears: Not at all. In fact, the position will be absolutely the opposite. People who were not prosecuted previously will find that there is a sanction on their behaviour, which is exactly what the Government want. We want to make sure that the police have the tools and the powers to do the job properly. That means not only that they can prosecute and caution, but that they can now issue fixed penalty notices. As I said in an earlier reply, the number of those punished for offences under the public order provisions has increased by 50 per cent. as a result of the introduction of fixed-penalty notices. That means that more offenders are being brought to justice; something that the Government are determined to see happen.

David Davis: Perhaps the Minister should read her own pilot studies. Is she aware, however, that more than half of shoplifting is done by drug addicts to pay for their addiction? Shoplifting provides a large part of the funds flow for the drug trade. Does she not realise that decriminalising the first and, as is discussed on her internet site, second and, perhaps, third shoplifting offence could lead to a significant increase in the problems of drug-dependent petty criminals? Does she really think that this is being tough on the causes of crime?
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Ms Blears: The right hon. Gentleman really ought to know that fixed-penalty notices for shoplifting will not be used where people have problems with drugs or other substance misuse. They are not intended for use with persistent offenders. They are intended for first-time or perhaps second-time low-level offenders. The average fine in the courts is about £78. Now, people will get an on-the-spot fine of £80. That will be significant deterrent. Indeed, the Association of Convenience Stores, the British Retail Consortium and the Rural Shops Alliance have welcomed this additional disposal, which will now be available to our police services to deal with a very important crime.

Police Deployment

6. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What estimate he has made of the percentage of a police officer's average working day spent (a) processing arrests to charging inside police stations and (b) out on the streets; and if he will make a statement. [197734]

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): The data requested by the hon. Gentleman are not centrally available. We know from the publication on 22 September of the police performance monitoring reports for 2003–04 that the average time spent by all police officers on front-line duties is 63.6 per cent., and we expect that the police service as a whole can improve on that to something nearer 73 per cent. by 2008.

Mr. Allen: The people of Nottinghamshire know that we have a record number of police officers in post in Nottinghamshire, but they also ask, "Where are those police officers?" Rather than give senior officers the temptation to backfill the absence of front-line officers who are in station by using police community support officers or neighbourhood wardens, would not it be more sensible to have specialist grades, retired officers or civilians to progress from arrest to charge? Will my hon. Friend look at that? If she does, will she give us some idea of how many extra police officers will be on the streets without a single extra officer needing to be employed?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and I am aware of his personal interest in the matter; indeed, he had an Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall just last week. I am also aware of his hands-on experience, and I know that he has been out with his own force in Nottinghamshire to look at these issues. It is important to involve the police and the Crown Prosecution Service in looking jointly at charging, but we are increasingly seeing more and more civilian staff building cases, taking over roles that were previously carried out by police officers. For example, in Surrey, we now have civilian staff completing case preparation, releasing a whole number of detectives to do the jobs that only they can do.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): Perhaps I can assist the Minister from personal experience. From arrest to charge, it probably takes the average police officer about five hours to process a case. In towns such as Herne Bay or Margate in Kent, where police officers
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have, of course, to work in pairs on Friday and Saturday nights, there do not need to be many arrests before there is no cover whatever. How many forms does the police officer on the beat have to carry? How much time is spent filling those forms in on the beat, and why are the Government so intent on increasing it?

Ms Blears: We are absolutely intent on doing the reverse. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that nearly 8,000 forms have been made obsolete since we cracked down on the bureaucracy in the system. We are ensuring that more civilian staff are taking over the custody function so that officers are not tied up with unnecessary bureaucracy. I wonder whether he is aware that we have introduced video ID parades, which are freeing up officers. We have also introduced automatic number plate recognition and much better access to fingerprint data, and fixed penalty notices are being issued. I am sure that he will join me in welcoming the fact that a range of measures has been designed with the intention of freeing up our police officers so that they can fight crime on the front line. Once we push up the proportion of officers in front-line policing, we should be able to release an extra 12,000 officers over the next three years to do their jobs on behalf of the public.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I appreciate what my hon. Friend says, but does she not realise that outside the Chamber there is a perception of a police force that is good at paperwork but poor at catching criminals? Surely our assessment of police forces reinforces that, so what are the public to make of that situation?

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend is right; the public want not only a more visible and reassuring presence on their streets, but forces to catch and convict criminals. The best police forces are doing both. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published our White Paper "Building Communities, Beating Crime" last week, which is exactly what we mean to do.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): Even if overall statistics are not available, as the Minister claims, surely she must know how much time a beat officer in a typical police station or police authority spends filling in forms. How much is that, and what is she doing to reduce it?

Ms Blears: The right hon. Gentleman will know that we introduced the "Diary of a Police Officer" scheme a couple of years ago to find out exactly how time was spent. We have also introduced activity-based costing to determine how police officers spend their time. For the very first time, we have started the process of compiling data about exactly what police officers do. The previous Government did not do that; they did not seem to care what police officers did. They took officers off the streets, put them into cars and got them away from the public. We are determined to get police officers out of their cars and police stations and on to the streets so that they can reassure the public who pay their wages.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I do not know when my hon. Friend last had to provide a statement to the police as either a witness to or a victim of crime, but the
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process is often phenomenally laborious. It involves a police officer writing a statement in pencil, writing it in pen and then getting it typed up before it can finally be signed.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman have personal experience?

Chris Bryant: I do, as a victim of crime. Will the Minister guarantee that in the near future she will examine ways of speeding up the process so that police officers may work faster? That would make things easier for victims and allow us to get police officers out on the beat again.

Ms Blears: My hon. Friend is right that freeing up our police officers must be a priority. Many police forces are introducing a system of mobile data so that officers can key data into portable computers straight away without necessarily going back to the police station. Civilian staff are taking statements in many cases; some are better at doing that than police officers themselves. We are absolutely determined to get the right people in the right place at the right time, doing the right job.

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