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Mr. John MacDougall (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that this is not just about finance? It is equally important that organisations adopt a strategic approach and work together closely to achieve the objectives that he has expressed.

Mr. Austin: Absolutely. Just as the industry and the unions have worked together closely, so Government Departments must work closely with them to achieve those outcomes.

We must prevent cash point and ATM services from being withdrawn from some of our largest cities because such crimes have not been tackled. Machines would run out of cash and the liquidity in the economy would suffer. This is a civil contingency matter and I seek solutions from the Minister to protect CIT crews. The
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industry faces increases in violent crime committed by some of the country's most ruthless and violent criminal gangs, so thousands of brave men and women need to know that the Government, the police service and local councils are on their side.

10.53 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Andy Burnham): I congratulate my   hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North (Mr.   Austin) on securing this important debate and making some constructive and sensible proposals with which I shall attempt to deal. As a Greater Manchester MP, I know that the issues that he has raised are extremely serious. In recent years, I have looked at them closely, and I acknowledge that he speaks with authority and conviction. I thank colleagues who have stayed to hear our debate, as the level of attendance shows the importance of the issues.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, the recent rises in attacks on cash-in-transit deliveries are, indeed, a cause for concern, particularly given their effect on security staff and their families. That was brought into focus for a wider audience by the reports in February of the raid on the cash-handling depot in Tonbridge, Kent, and the distressing circumstances that staff and their families had to endure. My hon. Friend was right that we do not always think of staff in those sectors as front-line public servants, but they do indeed provide a valuable public service, as he said. We all expect cash machines to be full and the economy to function, and those individuals put themselves at personal risk to provide those services. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that we owe it to them to work to ensure that they have adequate protection in going about their business.

That concern is shared by the Government, so much so that the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety recently met representatives from the security industry, the GMB union and the British Security Industry Association. It is generally agreed by those who attended the meeting that it was a very productive one that set the foundations on which we can build a very solid response.

I should like at this point to pick up on the helpful comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) in saying that I, too, congratulate the GMB, Group 4 and the British Security Industry Association on bringing forward a positive partnership that we hope can deliver real, practical benefits for the people who provide this important service. The important point is that this is about partnership, and all the links in the chain doing their bit and working together to ensure that we have a system that functions well. I welcome the partnership, which I believe has a reception in the House on 27 June. I hope that colleagues here will be present to support it, and I shall certainly make every effort to attend.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, North mentioned our hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson), who has now left his place, and rightly said that our hon. Friend is adept at getting his point over, as he certainly has done with me; indeed, he has raised serious points, especially from a constituency point of view, and I shall take forward the issues that he has raised.
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The Government find any crime that involves violence or guns unacceptable, and we are sending a strong message that such crime has no place in the community or on the street, and that perpetrators can expect to receive considerable custodial sentences. In an age that is so often characterised as the age of plastic, it is remarkable that the need for cash is so high. Of course, it is that service that the workers about whom my hon. Friend has spoken so well are providing.

Some £1.4 billion in cash is moved daily around the country in approximately 4,500 vehicles. As my hon. Friend rightly said, in 2005, there were 836 attacks on couriers, and firearms were present in just over 26 per cent. of those attacks. Those figures represent a 10 per cent. increase on 2004 and a 20 per cent. increase on 2003. Perhaps that explains why we are here discussing the issue this evening.

To understand how we can respond effectively, we need to put the matter into some context. My hon. Friend has provided a comprehensive set of statistics that show how the incidence of cash-in-transit attacks has risen over the past few years, but if we look at the overall context of crime, we see that such crimes represent less than 1 per cent. of all recorded crime. However, that does not diminish our view of the problem.

As the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety stated at her recent meeting, we appreciate and understand the predicament of the security industry, the GMB union, and staff and members alike. The key point of my hon. Friend's debate is preventing attacks on cash-in-transit deliveries. To focus on that issue, we must understand some key features of this type of crime.

As my hon. Friend said, levels of violence during such attacks have, sadly, increased in recent years. Historically, such robberies have always been described by the public as armed robberies and a level of violence has generally been used in these attacks. However, that is not a position that we will tolerate, and we are determined to address it on a number of fronts. What available research there is suggests that perpetrators of cash-in-transit attacks are professional and organised in their approach, and have a higher status among the criminal fraternity. These are not opportunistic crimes; they are generally researched, planned and seen by criminals as lucrative.

There is a common misconception that such crimes are carried out against companies that can "afford" to suffer the losses, and they are often seen as victimless crimes, but as my hon. Friend has illustrated, there is a human effect, which the criminal ignores. Let me be clear, however, that that is not a misconception that the Government hold. We recognise the human element of the crime and we expect the criminal justice system to apply the appropriate sentence available.

Let me respond to some of the detailed points that my hon. Friend made. The security industry and the GMB union have been calling for reclassification of cash-in-transit attacks from business crime to crimes against a person. Their belief is that such reclassification of the crime would lead to greater penalties. The Government believe that such crimes are very much crimes against people, and the sentencing framework demonstrates how seriously they are regarded. The maximum
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sentence for robbery is life imprisonment. In cases in which a member of staff is seriously injured or killed in the course of a robbery, the sentence imposed would be life, with a recommendation that the minimum period served would be 30 years.

My hon. Friend asked me directly to address whether we should reclassify the crime in order to bring out more accurately its true cost and have police forces focus on it. We will examine that issue, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety will continue to give the matter extremely careful consideration in taking forward the dialogue that she is having with the groups involved in the campaign. However, I assure my hon. Friend that that matter is under active consideration.

My hon. Friend raised the need to make cash-in-transit attacks a police priority. Policing priorities are made at force level in conjunction with police authorities. If targeting cash-in-transit attacks is seen by forces as being an important contributor to achieving a reduction in overall crime, local forces will make them a priority. We will be encouraging forces with higher rates of CIT crime to look at how they are tackling the problem and making them aware, in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers, of the best approaches and tactics.

As my hon. Friend has said, there are several examples of tactics to address CIT crime that can be effectively applied by police forces, and we will look at how we can make sure that that knowledge is available to all police forces and crime and disorder reduction partnerships. My hon. Friend has mentioned the example of Merseyside, and I, too, pay tribute to that approach, which has been extremely successful in reducing such attacks. I refer him to a successful operation in my police force area, Operation Hawkeye, which involved the surveillance of cash deliveries and successfully disrupted the activities of gangs that engage in such attacks. I am aware that other examples exist, and we need to build on good practice. With the move to larger, more strategic police forces, we believe that the police will have the resources to go after that kind of crime. They will be able to focus on the pattern of crime and understand the networks behind it, which will be another reason for the police force to move in that particular area.

My hon. Friend has asked whether I am prepared to attend a stakeholder conference. It may be better for my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety to undertake that task, but I assure him that we will engage with that suggestion at a ministerial level, and I assure him that a Home Office Minister will attend the conference and give the initiative the importance that it deserves.

Although the level of gun crime in England and Wales is relatively low, we recognise the terrible effect that such offences have on families and communities. Gun crime remains concentrated largely in three areas, and around two thirds of firearms offences occur in the areas covered by just three metropolitan police forces—the Metropolitan police area, the Greater Manchester police area and, as we have heard, the west midlands—and perhaps it is no coincidence that those areas have the highest incidence of
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cash-in-transit attacks. There is no room for complacency, but the measures that we have introduced to tackle gun crime have been effective. We will continue to maintain a close eye on developments to see whether we need to introduce further measures.

My hon. Friend has mentioned the need to design out crime, which relates to the role that town planning can play in minimising the scope for such attacks. Again, that illustrates the need for the widest possible partnership in that area to ensure that every link in the chain is thinking about the potential problems. Section 17 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 requires all local authorities to exercise their functions with due regard to the likely effect on crime and disorder and do all that they reasonably can to prevent crime and disorder. Designing out crime should therefore be central to the planning and delivery of new developments, which is a key message in the joint Office of the Deputy Prime Minister-Home Office publication "Safer Places: The Planning System and Crime Prevention", which provides guidance on the layout of all buildings and spaces to reduce the risk of crime and urges planners, designers, crime prevention practitioners and police to work together to develop solutions from an early stage in the design process.

It is not just a question of big issues such as designing out crime—it is also about the practical things. Are we helping the teams who deliver to our town centres the cash on which local economies depend? As my hon. Friend said, that is a civil contingency matter. Are we making it as easy as possible for them? Are we giving them access to the pedestrianised zones of our town centres? When they arrive at a location with cash, are we speeding it through the branch? Are we doing all that we can to minimise delays in the system so that we minimise the scope for attack? We can all look again at those aspects to see whether we can bear down further.
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CCTV has a major role to play. The Government have made a major investment in CCTV. A total of £170 million of Home Office capital funding was made available to crime and disorder reduction partnerships. As a direct result of that funding, more than 680 CCTV schemes, which are a known deterrent to cash-in-transit attacks, were installed in town centres. I am pleased to report that progress to my hon. Friend, but of course there is always more that we can do to take matters forward.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Serious Organised Crime Agency. He is right to mention the link with serious and organised crime. SOCA was set up with effect from 1 April. Its initial priorities, as set by the Home Secretary, are to tackle class A drugs trafficking and people-smuggling. However, there is clearly a link with such crimes, and I am sure that as SOCA develops its role and becomes more established, there will be efforts to bear down on the gangs and networks perpetrating them. I am sure that what my hon. Friend has said will be heard by those working in SOCA and that we will see some progress soon.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the profile of these issues—not before time, I might say. I congratulate the GMB union, which, in conjunction with the industry, has launched a valuable and constructive partnership. My hon. Friend was right to draw attention to that in raising the issues that directly affect men and women working on the streets of Britain day in, day out. I hope that I have been successful in demonstrating that the Government take those issues seriously. We have put in place a range of measures to deal with the problem, but more can be done. I am sure that by working in partnership with all the relevant players, we can reduce these violent attacks.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

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