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House of Commons

Monday 23 October 2006

The House met at half-past Two o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—


2. Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the relationships between community wardens, police community beat managers and police support officers in helping to combat crime and antisocial behaviour. [95419]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Police community support officers, community beat managers and neighbourhood wardens all have complementary roles in combating crime and tackling antisocial behaviour. In partnership and in isolation, each role is crucial to delivering the Government’s commitment to provide local, visible and responsive neighbourhood policing in all our communities.

Mr. Hoyle: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He obviously recognises the importance of not transferring the work of neighbourhood wardens across to the police support officers. Does he agree that we would be better off increasing the visible support in all areas, rather than reducing it? That is the best way to fight antisocial behaviour and crime. Does he agree that it is better to have a greater volume of visible support?

John Reid: Yes, indeed. Neighbourhood wardens—sometimes referred to as community wardens—are an important resource in the fight against crime. They are part of a neighbourhood policing team that includes beat managers, police constables and police community support officers as well as neighbourhood wardens, all of whom complement each other and provide a visible presence on the ground, which reassures people that this is helping to bring down crime and that the crime statistics—which show that crime is falling overall—are being borne out on the ground.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Con): Does the Home Secretary agree that we need the active support and co-operation of the community, and all the individuals within it, to make the neighbourhood policing teams work more effectively? Has he seen today’s report that individuals in this country are much less likely to get
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involved in tackling antisocial behaviour than people in other countries across Europe? Why does he think that that is the case, and what is he going to do to tackle the political correctness that is causing it?

John Reid: The hon. Gentleman’s points about the requirements for successful policing on the ground in our communities are partly correct. It is not only about the involvement of the local community, necessary thought that is, but about the support of central Government, who provide the resources. We have made about £220 million available, outside the normal police funding, to ensure that we could have neighbourhood policing teams. Quite how that kind of money—or the necessary resources on the ground—would be provided by a Government committed to cutting £21 billion from public expenditure is not obvious to me. It is obvious, however, that such cuts would deeply affect the presence of policing on the ground.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Last Thursday, an unholy alliance of Lib Dems and Tories on Wrexham council voted to scrap the neighbourhood warden scheme in Wrexham. Will my right hon. Friend advise me of whether he will consider the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, to determine whether it is possible for him to intervene to ensure that neighbourhood wardens are not removed from the policing family in boroughs across the country, and that their complementary role is reinforced? There is an increasing tendency for neighbourhood wardens to be left out by local government, even though they play a vital part in policing and are a true sign of the success of the Crime and Disorder Act.

John Reid: As I have already said, I regard neighbourhood wardens as a complementary element to police community support officers and the police themselves in the fight against crime. If what my hon. Friend says is true, it is deeply regrettable that an alliance of Conservatives and Liberals in his constituency has reduced the number of neighbourhood wardens, because they are important. That is what we have come to expect, however, from the Opposition parties, who talk tough but vote soft, and who back down on every major decision on fighting crime.

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): Will the Home Secretary give the House an absolute undertaking that the rumour that the Government are set to abandon their target of recruiting 24,000 police community support officers by March 2008 is without foundation? Will he explain how he proposes to recruit that number, given that he is only half way to meeting his target of 16,000 by next March?

John Reid: We fully accept that those targets are challenging; we have never said otherwise. However, we are committed to attaining those targets, including the very challenging one of recruiting 16,000 police community support officers by next April. To that end, we have made available an extra £220 million. I can give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that he will never attain anything like those targets if his party cuts public expenditure by £21 billion.

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Christine Russell (City of Chester) (Lab): The latest crime statistics for Cheshire show that neighbourhood policing is really working. There has been a 6 per cent. reduction in the crime level. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the city centre police and particular Chester Pubwatch? Working together in partnership, they have done a fantastic job to ensure the successful implementation of the new licensing laws.

John Reid: I agree with my hon. Friend on the first point and I join with her on the second point in congratulating the police. I know that there is a particularly successful scheme in that area to counter antisocial behaviour, and particularly drink-related behaviour, by ensuring that the clubs, as well as the pubs, in the local area join the police in taking action against those who are involved in antisocial behaviour after consuming alcohol. That is a good example of the way in which local communities, the police and local proprietors can work together.

3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West) (Con): What progress has been made in negotiations on police pay; and if he will make a statement. [95420]

6. Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): What stage negotiations on proposed increases to police officers' pay have reached. [95424]

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Mr. Tony McNulty): The 2006 police officer pay award is now subject to arbitration. The police arbitration tribunal is considering the matter following the hearing that it held on 18 October.

Mr. Swayne: If the official side wants to move away from the Edmund-Davies formula, why did it not announce that in September last year and seek to renegotiate a new formula? How was it that its members were unable to articulate their position at the meeting in July of the police negotiating board? They had a year’s notice of that meeting.

Mr. McNulty: I simply repeat that the matter is now subject to arbitration. There was a hearing on 18 October and the outcome will be considered in due course.

Greg Clark: During the past two years, one in four police officers has been personally threatened by someone with a knife and one in 20 by someone with a gun. Does the Minister think that policing has become easier over the past 28 years; and will he consider whether this is the right time to move away from a clear, fair and transparent pay formula for the police?

Mr. McNulty: On the latter point, even the Police Federation agrees that greater simplicity and transparency may well be put into the whole negotiating system, to the benefit of all sides. On the first point on gun and knife crime, I simply say: “Look to the mote in your own eye and how you voted on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.” The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to correct that opinion as and when the Bill comes back to the House.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does the Minister recall that, the last time that there was a significant disagreement between the Government and the Police Federation about pay, as a consequence there was a serious shortage of police officers in areas on the boundaries of the Metropolitan police, such as mine? What can he do in the present circumstances to make sure that we do not repeat the migration from the relatively low pay of the Thames Valley police to the higher pay of the Met?

Mr. McNulty: I take my hon. Friend’s point that there is some migration from the home counties to the Met, but equally, each home county has a record level of police officers, so the effect has clearly not been that great. However, perhaps that should be considered within the wider parameters of the pay board.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): The current police magazine suggests that the problems arise from the Treasury-imposed efficiency savings and that chief constables face a stark choice between reducing the number of police officers and reducing the level of police pay. Will the Minister comment on that and reassure the House that any arbitration settlement will be backdated to 1 September?

Mr. McNulty: On my hon. Friend’s latter point, without pre-empting the outcome of the arbitration panel, there are set parameters in terms of time for the pay deal and any subsequent agreement will be suitably backdated. He will forgive me if I do not comment on his wider points because they relate, at least in part, to the matters before the arbitration panel at the moment. It is simply not my job to wax lyrical while the arbitration panel is still meeting and determining its outcome—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Once the panel has done so, I may.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Does the Minister agree that it is more difficult to argue for pay restraints in the police when 80 per cent. of senior officials in his Department, which has been declared unfit for purpose, have recently been given generous bonuses on top of their pay?

Mr. McNulty: I would have thought that, on a matter as serious as police pay and the future of policing, the hon. Gentleman would resist making such a fatuous statement, but I was wrong.

Alcohol Exclusion Zones

4. Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): What the impact has been of introducing alcohol exclusion zones. [95421]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): No research has been undertaken on the impact of designated public place orders—DPPOs—as they tend to form just one part of a wider local strategy for tackling alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. However, the fact that 184 local authority areas have adopted DPPOs—some of them have more than one DPPO in place—suggests that they are a useful tool in helping police deal with the problems of alcohol misuse behaviour.

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Clive Efford: Although DPPOs may be a useful tool in town centres and areas where there is a major problem, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the problem of small convenience stores, where young people under 18 get access to alcohol. Rather than the draconian measure of a DPPO, would not a better solution be to increase the on-the-spot fine when people are caught by the police or trading standards officers to approximately £1,000 or £2,000 if they admit guilt, and if not, to let them opt to go to a magistrates court, where they risk a higher fine under the new legislation?

Mr. Coaker: I know that my hon. Friend has worked hard to tackle the issue in his constituency and that several hon. Members suffer from the same problem. The fixed penalty notice is the first option that we would expect to be used when there is a problem. However, if it is persistent, the DPPO may be appropriate even in the sort of case that my hon. Friend mentions, and the local authority could introduce it. It increases the amount of the fine available when the case goes to court. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill introduces a new offence of persistent selling to children, because they are clearly getting their alcohol from somewhere. The new offence will increase the fines on stores such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned. Not only that, it will lead to the possibility of their being closed for up to three months. If he wishes to meet me, we can discuss the matter further, but I hope that those measures reassure him to some extent.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): On 22 September, Scarborough council extended its already successful alcohol exclusion zone to cover 150 streets, including the Falsgrave park area. At the same time, Conservative-controlled Scarborough, in conjunction with local company Electric Angel Design, rolled out a range of new, funky, lime green signs, which are hard to miss and designed to be eye catching for younger people. Will the Under-Secretary look at those signs, and if he agrees with me that they are not only well cool, but stand out from the morass of other street furniture, suggest that other local authorities adopt similar signs?

Mr. Coaker: My briefing does not cover that point so I do not know what to say about funky signs. We believe that DPPOs are an important measure that local authorities can introduce. One hundred and eighty-four local authorities throughout the country use them—that is 396 DPPOs. They increase the powers of the police, who can confiscate alcohol from people who are drinking inappropriately on the street. If they refuse to hand over the alcohol, the police can arrest them. The message is: use DPPOs because they can be appropriate in many areas.

Margaret Moran (Luton, South) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend know that the Government are investing more than £3 million in regenerating St. George’s square in the centre of Luton in my constituency? Does he also know that Liberal-Tory-controlled Luton council refuses to reapply for an alcohol dispersal order zone, forcing the police to do that? Will he examine councils such as Liberal-Tory Luton to ensure that they do not waste Government resources but improve our constituents’ quality of life?

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Mr. Coaker: I thank my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to that. Clearly, Liberal-controlled Luton council should learn from examples throughout the country, where DPPOs are successfully tackling the alcohol-related disorder in our streets. My message to all local authorities is to consider using those measures if they have a problem.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The exclusion zones are clearly effective because a neighbouring town to my constituency introduced one, thus shunting the problem into three villages in my constituency. They then also introduced exclusion zones, but there was clearly a problem this summer when I visited one of my villages because many constituents told me that they were experiencing problems. We do not have funky signs—maybe they are the answer—but does the Under-Secretary agree that policing the exclusion zones must be effective and equal throughout the relevant areas, including rural areas? Will he ensure that the guidelines are sufficient to meet the task?

Mr. Coaker: When a local authority chooses to set up a DPPO, it has to take account of the impact on neighbouring areas. The answer is that people should talk to each other. However, the DPPO is only one answer to the problem of alcohol-related disorder—for example, fixed penalty notices can be used alongside it. If under-age drinking is a problem, it means that off-licences, supermarkets, pubs or clubs are selling inappropriately to children. In those circumstances, other measures should be used to tackle the problem.

Offending Reduction

5. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South) (Lab): What steps he is taking to reduce offending; and if he will make a statement. [95423]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): The criminal justice review, “Rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”, published in July this year, sets out how we will improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system to cut crime and reduce reoffending. Our aim is to reduce reoffending by 10 per cent. by 2010 through rolling out a new system of managing offenders to protect the public, and helping ex-offenders to reintegrate successfully into society.

Helen Southworth: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. There is strong evidence that children who run away from home or from care are targeted by predatory adults who are trying to groom them into criminal activity. Will he work with the Department for Education and Skills and with other agencies to ensure that those children have a safe place to go to and a safe person to talk to, and that they do not become perpetrators or victims of crime?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, and I offer her, as chair of the all-party group on runaway children, my congratulations on the excellent work that the group does on this matter. She is quite right that we need to work with the DFES and
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across Government to ensure that we support young people. That is what we are trying to do with the introduction of systems, working with Education and Skills and other Departments, to ensure that we deliver for young people so that they feel safe and secure in their environment and that there is a friendly voice to speak to if they have any problems.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): During my time with West Yorkshire police on the parliamentary police scheme this summer, local police officers in Keighley division told me that if the top 10 persistent offenders were in jail, they would cut crime by about 50 per cent. straight away, and that if the top 20 were in jail, they would cut it by more than 90 per cent. Does the Minister agree with that sentiment, and will he therefore ensure that those people serve their sentences in full and are not let out on licence?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on attending the police scheme in West Yorkshire, which I read about in our local newspaper just recently, but he has to speak to his Front Benchers, rather than to me. He talks about being tough on persistent offenders, and his Front Benchers have the opportunity to vote on that. He is right that it is important that dangerous and persistent offenders should be kept in prison—that is what we need to do—but we also have to manage the whole prison population. He needs to speak to his Front Benchers: they talk tough but vote soft.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): During the summer, I was able to attend the pre-release fair at Parc prison in my Bridgend constituency. The fair brings together voluntary organisations, statutory organisations and local authorities to give advice, information and guidance on housing, jobs and benefits prior to release, in an effort to reduce reoffending. Sadly, the one organisation that did not attend is my local authority, which is a Conservative/Liberal Democrat organisation. Will the Minister join me in encouraging Bridgend county borough council to aid the work of that fair so that offenders can receive appropriate guidance?

Mr. Sutcliffe: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks, and there seems to be a consistent theme running through today’s Question Time in terms of Conservative and Liberal local authorities failing to be tough and failing to take the tough decisions. I pay tribute to her, because she is quite right that we need to get alliances together—whether they be faith groups, the voluntary sector or the business alliances—to work to reduce reoffending, which costs the economy a large amount of money. It is important that we get together, so I would encourage Bridgend county borough council to work with my hon. Friend to try to cut reoffending.

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary claimed that the reoffending rate for home detention curfew was 4 per cent., and the Minister implied on Radio 4 that that was a massive improvement in reoffending rates from prison. Professor Sheila Bird, the vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, said that

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