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The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): The Home Office has an ongoing research programme focused on improving policing effectiveness. Studies published in 2004 covered a wide range of topics, including neighbourhood policing and tackling organised crime.
Mr. Gibb: That is all very good, but does the Minister agree with the criticism of the police made by the chief inspector of constabulary, Sir Keith Povey, that too many police constables still patrol in pairs and rarely get out of their cars to walk the beat?
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman will know that we agree absolutely that we need to drive up the amount of time that police officers spend on front-line policing. That is a very important measure to us this year. I am keen to see not only police officers, but community support officers, of whom there are a number in his own forceI think that he has 149 CSOs at the moment out there on patrolbecause it is important for the public that police officers and CSOs are out there reassuring them and being visible, accessible and in touch.
Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): On that point, will my hon. Friend not only issue a guidance table, but make it a requirement that every uniformed officer, irrespective of rank, spends at least two hours per shift on highly visual policing duties on the beat?
I recognise my hon. Friend's concern that all police officers should be on the front line reassuring their communities. I cannot remember which force was involved, but I understand that, in a recent experiment, every officer from the chief constable down went out on to the streets and, on that day, no crimes were
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committed at all. I am keen to ensure that police officers do that. That is why we are asking the police to tell us how they spend their time so that we can drive up the number of police officers on the front line from the current average of about 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. That will free up an extra 12,000 officers and make a significant difference.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole) (LD): Dorset is the second lowest funded police authority in the country, yet massive resources are allocated to Bournemouth at weekends to cope with the influx of binge drinkers from far and wide. What action will the Minister take to support Dorset police in maintaining effective policing for all Dorset residents throughout the county? Many are missing out because there are not as many community beat officers in all our communities as we would like.
Ms Blears: The hon. Lady will acknowledge that this year's police funding settlement is one of the best that we have seen in recent years. Extra money for the police ranges from 3.75 to 6.8 per cent. and, together with our record number of police officers140,000we also have 4,000 CSOs. It is important that those police officers provide a service throughout their communities. That is why we have introduced measures to tackle binge drinking in particular and to ensure that officers are not abstracted from those problems in future. I hope that the hon. Lady will welcome the proposals that we have recently issued for consultation.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that Essex police authority has received accolades for maximising its scarce resources and keeping costs down. The authority spends £137 per resident compared with an average in the shire counties of £151. What incentive is there for Essex police authority to keep down costs, given that there is no recognition of its effectiveness compared with the awards to other comparable police authorities, such as Kent? Is it not unfair discrimination that those who maximise scarce resources and increase operational effectiveness receive a pat on the shoulder but no bonus in the form of additional resources to encourage them?
Ms Blears: My hon. Friend will recognise that this year's police settlement is a generous one. I am aware of the excellent work that is being done by Essex police authority, particularly in tackling bureaucracy. I have just seen a photograph of the chief constable of Essex with his staff burning forms representing the bureaucracy in their force. I am delighted about that, and we are encouraging them to do so.
We are developing a system in which we will grade forces as excellent, good, weak or poor. We want to give the excellent forces more freedom and flexibility, particularly from inspection, to give them an incentive to carry on being excellent forces.
Mr. Andrew Mitchell (Sutton Coldfield)
(Con): Is the Minister aware that reported violent crime has increased by nearly 100 per cent. under this Government, with yet further increases admitted in figures announced last week by the Home Office? Yet over the same period, detection rates for those awful crimes fell from
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nearly 80 per cent. before 1997 to only 50 per cent. today. That is the record of the past eight years. When do the Government plan to do something about it?
Ms Blears: As usual, the hon. Gentleman is selective in the statistics that he chooses to use. He did not mention that the British crime surveythe most authoritative survey during the past 20 yearsshows that all crime is down by 11 per cent., or that recorded crime is down by 6 per cent. Those two measuresBCS and recorded crimeare both down, but he did not mention that.
The hon. Gentleman referred to violent crime. That is an important and serious issue, but he did not say that there has been a 35 per cent. drop in violent crime in the past 10 years and that it is now remarkably stable.
Detection rates have started to increase again because we recognise that the public want more crime to be detected. If the hon. Gentleman examines the figures for the past 12 months, he will see a significant increase in detection. He should be a bit more honest and acknowledge that he intends to cut the Home Office by £1.6 billion. How many cuts in the number of police officers will his financial projections mean?
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Residents in Wrexham have noticed a massive increase in the effectiveness of policing, thanks to the introduction of a community-based beat manager system. Is not the introduction of more neighbourhood wardens the way to improve effectiveness even further? I am delighted to say that we have community support officers at last in north Wales.
Ms Blears: Like my hon. Friend, I am delighted to welcome the community support officers in Wales. I am convinced that good teams of neighbourhood police officers, community support officers and wardens, who are in touch with their communities, can drive down crime. The interim evaluation of CSOs that we conducted recently showed that, when they were introduced in Leeds city centre, vehicle theft fell by 49 per cent. and personal robbery dropped by 47 per cent. That is not all due to CSOs, but I am sure that they made a significant contribution.
The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): The capacity of each prison is limited to numbers that minimise the risk to safety and security. There are currently 74,100 people in prison and 77,168 usable places. A new 840-place prison will open in Peterborough in March to add to the 17,000 extra places that have been built since 1997.
Sir Teddy Taylor:
Do not the Government face a specific problem in housing women prisoners? The latest figures that I have show that, although the number of men in prison has increased by 50 per cent. in the past 10 years, the number of women has increased by 173 per cent. Is the Minister satisfied with the care that is given
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to women prisoners, given that many of them come from the most terrible backgrounds and deserve a great deal of sympathy?
Ms Blears: The hon. Gentleman has a good record on raising those important issues in the House. I am pleased to tell him that, last Friday, the women's prison population was 4,261down by 3 per cent. from last year. Contrary to previous trends, the women's prison population is beginning to decrease. In the past 10 years, the number of women in prison tripled yet last year, for the first time, it started to reduce. That constitutes a success but I do not dispute that many women in prison suffer from a range of problems, as he said, and targeting our support at them is therefore especially important.
Mr. Neil Gerrard (Walthamstow) (Lab): Is my hon. Friend aware of the anxieties that have been expressed that pressures on the Prison Service mean that some accommodation is mothballed and that that contributes to overcrowding in the places that are used?
Ms Blears: I am not aware of any specific instances. If my hon. Friend wants to send me details, I will be happy to look into the matter. I am sure that he acknowledges that, since 1997, we have increased prison places by 17,000. A further 3,000 are on their way. They are real prison places, unlike the promises that the Conservative party makes.
Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester) (LD): Does the Minister acknowledge that overcrowding leads to other problems in prisons and that that is why 74 per cent. of young prisoners leave and reoffend? Last year, 17,000 prisoners self-harmed and 95 committed suicide. Two thirds of our prisoners have the reading skills of an 11-year-old and, last year, 10,000 drug-related crimes took place in prison. Do not those figures suggest a shambles in our Prison Service?
Ms Blears: No. I reject the contention that it is a shambles. The hon. Gentleman raises important issues. We have said that prison must be there for dangerous and serious offenders but that we need a system of more rigorous community penalties for those who are serving sometimes fairly futile short sentences. We are beginning to rebalance matters. The projections are lower than they were initially, so the new sentences are beginning to kick in. There is a huge programme of work to examine suicide in prison because that is a matter of great concern. There are also plans to ensure that we provide sufficient places for prisoners so that the courts are not influenced by that factor in their sentencing decisions. When they need to send people to prison, we will ensure that they are accommodated. Providing useful activityfor example, literacy, numeracy or information technologyfor people in prison is a top priority to try to ensure that we break the cycle of reoffending when people are released from custody.
Mr. Hilton Dawson (Lancaster and Wyre)
(Lab): I am ashamed to have been a Member of Parliament over the past eight years, during which 16 children have died in prison. That is coupled with the ghastly fact that we
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have closed down 24 places in local authority secure children's homes, where those children could have been kept safe. Is it not time for the Home Office entirely to review the position of children in prison to ensure that there are no more deaths?
Ms Blears: I understand my hon. Friend's concern, and every Member of the House will agree that the death of any young person in custody is a terrible tragedy. It is important to have appropriate accommodation for young people, but I am afraid that, in some circumstanceswhen they could present a serious threat to the community, for exampleit is appropriate for them to be held in custody.
This is a matter that we take very seriously and my hon. Friend is right to say that we need adequate secure accommodation. Indeed, many young people are held in local authority secure accommodation. I understand the depth of his personal feelings on this issue, but it is important that young people, as well as adults, are held in the right accommodation and that we get the balance absolutely correct.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): I am surprised that the Minister should come to the Dispatch Box so ill informed. Last week, the chief inspector of prisons said that our prisons were still 24 per cent. overcrowded and operating perilously close to capacity. Money has been taken from the Prison Service's budget to resolve the financial crisis in other parts of the Home Office, which has led to a four-month recruitment freeze and the mothballing of more than 1,000 prison places. Will the Minister confirm that the service is now considering reducing the number of offending behaviour programmes for prisoners and, in the words of the director general of the Prison Service, merely sustaining
Ms Blears: The hon. Lady shakes her head, but these are real places for real prisoners. A brand-new prison will open in Peterborough in March, providing an extra 360 places, particularly for womenan issue raised by the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor)and there will be 450 places at the Bronzefield prison. This Government have taken the issue seriously by ensuring that we have the right capacity and by developing modern, purpose-built premises, with proper facilities for education and useful work, to house our prisoners. The hon. Lady should ask the shadow Chancellor how many cuts in prison places would result from his budget proposals.
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