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13 Mar 2007 : Column 266

Moreover, offences on London’s buses need to be seen in the context of crime levels as a whole. Crime in London is falling. The Met reported a fall of 6.8 per cent. in overall crime between January 2005 and January 2006. Over the same period, criminal assaults in London fell by more than 7 per cent. Of those incidents, only a very small proportion related to buses. That is not to play down the seriousness of crime on the buses, but we need to avoid being drawn in by attention-grabbing headlines that do not reflect the facts.

Robert Neill: I understand and take on board what the Minister says. However, does she accept that, as the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) said, there is genuine concern in my part of south-east London that the figures there are higher than the London average and that many incidents go unreported? For example, people sometimes do not bother to report instances of antisocial behaviour disturbance. I am particularly worried about the evidence that I have heard from bus drivers on route 161 concerning repeated threats to which they eventually become so inured that they do not feel they are worth reporting. There may be much more of a problem than we think.

Gillian Merron: I have already placed on record, but am happy to reiterate, that such crime is unacceptable, whether it is towards bus staff or bus passengers. Any figures will show differences across London. As my hon. Friend said in his contribution, however, there is a difference between perception and reality.

Lembit Öpik: Does the Minister recognise that some allegations made about members of the public using the bus service—for example, by the police—may turn out to be unsubstantiated? Without expecting her to know the details of the case of Mr. Hendry from my county—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There is little time left for the Minister to reply to a debate about London buses. The hon. Gentleman was not here at the start of the debate, and he should allow the Minister to complete her remarks.

Gillian Merron: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

As a former bus conductor, my hon. Friend will know only too well that crime will always be a challenge for public transport operators. Public transport brings together large numbers of people, often in constrained spaces. That presents a particular temptation to thieves. Moreover, the transport network is an ever-evolving and hugely complex system—and just as transport develops, so do patterns of transport crime. That makes policing the network extremely challenging.

While such crime may be challenging, it is being combated. The Metropolitan police transport operational command unit, to which my hon. Friend has referred, has been key to that endeavour. Funded by Transport for London and jointly staffed, it brings together transport and policing professionals to target crime on specific bus routes and corridors where crime has been identified as a particular problem. I hope that that will reassure hon. Members and their constituents. The command unit deploys over 1,200 uniformed staff across the transport
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network as a whole. Their deployment is intelligence-led and focuses resource where it can be most effective.

As well as targeting serious crime directly, Transport for London is also working hard to tackle fare evasion, as research shows that fare evaders are often involved in other forms of crime. Transport for London has significantly increased the number of revenue protection inspectors on the bus network: by the end of March, there will be more than 300. They present a visible, uniformed presence to reassure passengers and assist drivers and the police when criminal behaviour is observed.

Government funding has also enabled Transport for London to ensure that all of London’s buses—more than 8,000—are fitted with CCTV. That not only provides much-needed evidence but deters would-be criminals and reassures passengers. Importantly, it is allowing more and more successful prosecutions when staff or passengers are assaulted, giving greater confidence to both staff and passengers.

Transport for London is ensuring that drivers are encouraged to report any crime or antisocial behaviour, however minor. I very much support that. That allows Transport for London and the Metropolitan police to identify priority areas. The introduction of code red calls to report emergencies gives drivers direct contact with the central control room, and has made it easier for drivers to report incidents when they happen. Again, I hope that that will reassure hon. Members.

Transport for London is not resting on its laurels. It has just finished consultation on its draft crime and disorder reduction strategy. That new initiative sets out its vision for tackling crime and antisocial behaviour
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and improving the public’s perception of safety and security, about which my hon. Friend is particularly concerned.

On youth crime, there has been some recent, and unfortunate, media coverage alleging increasing levels of yobbish behaviour on buses in London as a result of the Mayor’s decision to extend free travel to under-18s in full-time education. It is important to get some perspective on the matter. Very few young people getting free travel in London cause difficulties on buses, and we must not forget that many young people are themselves victims of crime. While there have been anecdotal reports of higher rates of antisocial behaviour, the reality is that there has not been a notable increase in youth crime on London buses. Where youths are persistently causing trouble, the Home Office gave Transport for London, in September 2006, powers to employ antisocial behaviour orders against persistent offenders. That sets out the reality of free travel for the under-18s. I hope that it will be continued in London. I am aware from my hon. Friend and others that it is under threat from Conservative Members of the Greater London authority who think that it should be terminated or changed. That would be a sad day.

The Government are determined to reduce crime and the fear of crime on our vital public transport services. People in London and across the UK have the absolute right to bus travel that is safe and unintimidating. The Government will continue to work closely with Transport for London and operators to ensure that that happens.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o’clock.

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