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10 Jan 2008 : Column 161WH—continued

3.49 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) on his contribution today and on the very welcome news that, in February, he will begin what sounds like a groundbreaking inquiry on police reform and the future of the police service in the 21st century—something that is long-overdue in the House. I am sure that with his usual enthusiasm, energy and intelligence, he will drive forward a debate that is vital for our constituents and police officers.

How we fund the police is the subject of the report before us today, and it is part of the wider debate about police reform that my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) opened two years ago, when he created the Opposition’s police reform taskforce, which I am privileged to chair. It is an interesting time to be discussing police funding and reform, because of the imminent report by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, whose investigation kicked off last spring. He will report to the Home Secretary and will focus on many of the issues
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chewed over in this report—red tape, how local accountability can drive up police performance and so on.

I should like to place on the record again what other hon. Members have said today and in the debate yesterday on police pay: the police officers of this country work with distinction, dedication and tirelessly to protect the public. They take risks daily from which many of us would shrink. They have restrictions placed on their working conditions that do not apply to almost any other job that one could think of, such as a no-strike requirement. Furthermore, they have to put up with restrictions on their personal lives when off duty, which others do not have to do. Above all, they are trusted and respected by the British public.

It seems to me that the task of all those engaged in police reform, of which the report is a part, is to work out how we can help the police to do their job better. We should not be kicking them or carping at their performance, but saying, “We can do better; we are in this together; we can tackle crime better and help the police to detect more crime.”

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): In my short period as a Member of Parliament—since 2005—no issue has led so many of my constituents, including dozens or police officers, to contact me in such a state of anger in such a short period. Furthermore, 509 people have signed a petition on my website, which I wish was better known. That shows the level of local concern, and it is a sign of the Government’s ineptitude: of all the people to pick a fight with, they have chosen hard-working police officers, who put their lives on the line for us every day of the week.

Mr. Ruffley: I am grateful for that typically powerful and punchy contribution from my hon. Friend. I am sure that his constituency experiences are echoed in every single constituency across the length and breadth of the land.

We need to understand one thing in particular. The report talks about the need for better police performance. It does not pull its punches on a central proposition, which is that crime is still too high for the public. Given the amount of resources that have been invested in the police service over the past 10 years, crime should be lower. I shall first tackle the problem of the level of crime as it relates to police funding.

According to a 2006 paper from the Prime Minister’s strategy unit, Great Britain spends more on law and order as a percentage of GDP—approximately 2.5 per cent.—than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. The majority of law and order spending is, of course, attributable to the police—a total budget of just over £12 billion, which equates to £550 for each household in England and Wales.

Despite those figures, the European Commission’s 2007 crime and safety survey—I do not often turn to that organisation, any more than you do, Lady Winterton, I am sure—named the UK as a high-crime country. Victimisation rates—the probability of being a victim of crime—in the UK are higher than in all but one of the 17 other European countries subject to the survey. The UK is the most burgled country in the EU and has
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the highest levels of assault crimes, and our citizens suffer the highest victimisation rates from vehicle-related crime. Only Ireland has higher levels of personal theft.

Crime in England and Wales is not only too high, as I think that those figures illustrate, compared with other European countries, but it is high compared with other industrialised countries around the world. According to the 2000 international crime victims survey—the latest version of the most comprehensive international crime survey, which compares crime across 17 industrialised countries—the risk of being a victim of crime is higher in England and Wales than anywhere else, apart from Australia. I do not mean those to be scaremongering tactics or statistics; they are an indication that this country can do better in reducing the fear of crime and actual crime.

Over the past decade, Government grants to the police have increased by about 50 per cent., in the wake of which the Government applauded themselves for achieving some of their targets on reducing vehicle crime and robbery. They always point to the British crime survey as an indication that overall crime is falling. It is not for me to rehearse the usual arguments about the flaws in the British crime survey, compared with recorded crime statistics: drug possession, murder and crimes involving adolescents are not scored under the BCS, and so on. We do not for a minute accept the BCS as the last word on the crime that is taking place on our streets and in our homes in this country. However, the Government talk about having met some of their targets.

Justine Greening: Does my hon. Friend agree that we also need to look at the statistics in a more sophisticated manner? We often hear that people have a one-in-x-hundred chance of being mugged, but, in reality, many crimes are now more age-related. Let us consider my own borough and the number of muggings of 11 to 16-year-olds in 2006, compared with the number of 11 to 16-year-olds. A typical secondary school child had a one-in-20 chance of being mugged, but at the borough level that figure was more like one in 163. Clearly, not all the statistics are accurate.

Mr. Ruffley: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for an excellent point. It is beholden on all who speak on this subject to disaggregate some of the global figures. In disaggregating the figures in her own borough, she makes a very powerful point. It depends on whom one is looking at. She is entirely right to draw to our attention the fact that some crimes disproportionately affect younger people.

According to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies—a respected body at King’s College London—the targets that the Government boast about hitting are

That point was supported by a leaked draft of the Prime Minister’s strategy unit’s crime, justice and cohesion policy review—required bedtime reading—which revealed that the Government themselves estimated that 80 per cent. of the decrease in volume crime, which refers to property and theft and so on, was due to economic factors and the UK’s economic cycle. That assessment also goes some way to
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explaining the Home Affairs Committee report that we are discussing. In the report, the Committee makes the observation that

Justine Greening: I wonder whether I can provide what I believe might be an explanatory factor. The British crime survey is also quite clear in saying that the biggest correlating factor to a reduction in crime is, in fact, reductions coming from property crime and the biggest correlating factor in property crime is steps that individual people are taking to make their cars and homes much safer. I must say that, when I went out and bought my window locks, I do not remember a Home Secretary being beside me.

Mr. Ruffley: I am most grateful to my hon. Friend again for making an important point that partly anticipates what I am going to say next.

Mr. McNulty: It is all right; we have heard it all before.

Mr. Ruffley: I do not think that the Minister has heard all this before, because I only wrote it this morning, so he has probably got that wrong and not, I stress, for the first time.

The BCS measure on volume crime has fallen, largely due to wider trends. My hon. Friend has just alluded to them: individuals taking more personal responsibility, and car manufacturers understanding that people want to buy cars that cannot be nicked, which is to do with technology and very little to do with Government exhortation, I fancy. However, the fact remains that knife crime has doubled in the past two years alone and gun crime has increased fourfold on the recorded measure.

The global statistics show that less than a quarter of recorded crimes in the UK are detected and receive a sanction. In straight numerical terms, that equates as 4.3 million crimes not being brought to justice. So, contrary to ministerial spin and claims, the public do not feel safer when there are so many undetected crimes and the fear of crime is not less than it was in 1997, when this Government came into office.

One of the themes of the report that we are discussing is police bureaucracy; there is too much of it. Indeed, too much paperwork is one of the reasons why police productivity is not as high as it should be.

Mr. Graham Stuart: In fear of anticipating the next part of my hon. Friend’s speech, as my hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Justine Greening) has done before, I should like to say that, when I have worked shifts with my local police and seen the bureaucracy that front-line officers must put up with daily, the cause of that inefficiency is quite clear. It is not a lack of zeal on the part of front-line officers, not least those in my local force in Beverley and Holderness, to whom I pay tribute, but the endless tinkering and imposition of targets and other bureaucratic interventions from the centre and from ministerial desks that has led so many police officers to a state of low morale and a failure to be out on the streets when that is where they would devoutly like to be.

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Mr. Ruffley: Although my hon. Friend brilliantly anticipates what I am about to say, he is right to draw attention to the fact that police bureaucracy is not the fault of police officers, whether in Beverley and Holderness or any other constituency. They just want to get on with the job, but they are demoralised, in extreme cases, by the amount of paperwork that they have to fill in.

At this point, I think that it is worth plagiarising the metaphor used by Sir Ronnie Flanagan in his interim report on 11 September, when he said that paperwork is like cholesterol and that there is good cholesterol and bad cholesterol. The problem is that there is too much pointless paperwork. It is idle for politicians to pretend that all paperwork can be abolished. No one believes that; indeed, the police would not want it. However, there has not been sufficient focus in the last 10 years on the fact that a lot of double-keying and treble-keying of basic information still goes on because of insufficient investment in IT, poor direction from Ministers at the centre and a risk-adverse culture that Ministers do everything they can to support instead of hacking it back.

The response from the Government to recommendations 1 and 2 in the report states:

Well, I suppose that Ministers would say that. However, that response does not meet the charge that the police spend too much time back in the station, which is not their fault.

Police officers want to be crime fighters not form-fillers, and it is incumbent on all of us to help them; I particularly look forward to discussing the work that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East does from February onwards on this issue. We need more time-and-motion studies to bring to the attention of the public, as much as we can, how much pointless activity is being shuffled on to officers in the course of their doing routine paperwork, including the recording of very basic crimes.

Keith Vaz: I agree with the point that the hon. Gentleman is making. Regarding the metaphor of good cholesterol and bad cholesterol, it is a question of getting that good cholesterol into new technology, if we can extend the metaphor a little further. If we use new technology effectively, it could enormously help the police to get on with the front-line services that we want them to provide.

Mr. Ruffley: The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, he will know, as I do, that there is now a patchwork quilt of IT systems right across the country, not just between police forces but quite often within forces. There is a legacy of systems, and to junk them on day one in some big bang approach would be, frankly, fiscally unsustainable. That is something that the Minister and I would agree on; there is no magic wand to be waved in terms of IT solutions cutting police paperwork. Would that there were a silver bullet, and even if there were, it would come at a significant cost.

Although I do not blame the Minister personally for a completely shambolic IT procurement strategy since 1997, the fact remains that the problem has been growing over the past 10 years, rather than being improved.
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[Interruption.]I hope that the Minister will not be too churlish from a sedentary position. I have said that it is not his fault that police IT is a complete shambles; I am merely saying that his predecessors have contributed to a complete shambles on police IT since 1997.

Mr. McNulty: I will stop chuntering from a sedentary position and chunter when I stand up. I merely mentioned 1957, not 1997; I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the problem has arisen, but it has done so since the inception of IT in policing, rather than over the past 10 years. I hope that he agrees.

Mr. Ruffley: It is Thursday afternoon in Westminster Hall and I am happy gracefully to take the Minister’s point: the problem has been going on for longer than the past 10 years; equally, there has been very little evidence in the past 10 years—certainly I have been given very little evidence by serving officers, from senior ranks and below—that things have got better. There have been lots of good intentions, but not enough action.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Before Christmas, I was fortunate enough to spend a shift working with the traffic police who cover the East Riding of Yorkshire. One sergeant, Martyn Moore, is one of just four traffic police sergeants who cover 933 square miles of the East Riding. The fact that so much money is spent on unnecessary bureaucracy undermines the funds that are available for that type of traffic policing. In rural areas, such as the one that I represent, affording the local priority of visible, local traffic policing, to reduce accidents and encourage public safety, appears not to be happening in an appropriate way. Officers such as Martyn Moore attend a fatal accident in the East Riding every 12 days. They are there, picking up the pieces—often literally—from the highway of people who have lost their lives because we have not managed to put our resources where they are most needed according to local, not nationally set, needs.

Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend gives a graphic—almost too graphic—example of why too much paperwork takes officers away from the job that they want to do, which is being out on the street preventing and detecting crime, rather than at the station filling in too many forms.

The Government state in their response to recommendation 22 of the report:

Again, that is a noble aim, but I am afraid that many of us who have recently drilled down into the subject remain unconvinced about the Government’s record. Various Home Office Ministers have said that, under the current Administration, 9,000 forms have been abolished. I have received that information in response to a written question. I have asked the Home Secretary whether she would be good enough to publish a list of those forms, not the forms themselves, because that would be too onerous. Surely, such a list much exist, otherwise she or her officials could not have calculated that 9,000 forms had been abolished.

On behalf of the many officers to whom I have spoken in the past few months during my inquiries into police bureaucracy, I ask the Minister, in the spirit of
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transparency and generosity for which he is well renowned, to publish the list of 9,000 forms. If he cannot give an undertaking today to place a copy in the Library within the next month, why not? If he knows that there are 9,000 forms, he must know what they are called and what they are.

The amount of time that patrol officers spend on incident-related paperwork has risen by 1.1 percentage points, from 8.1 per cent. in 2004-05 to 9.2 per cent. in 2006-07, the last year for which figures are available. The amount of time that they have spent on patrol has fallen by 2 percentage points, from 19.1 per cent. in 2004-05 to 17.1 per cent. in 2006-07. In short, patrol officers are spending barely one fifth of their available time on patrol, as we—the public—would understand it, and things appear to have got worse in the past 12 months. The Minister has published extensive written responses to the questions that I and other hon. Members have put down on the subject, and he engages with his officials in rather arcane definitions of front-line policing, to bamboozle us and confuse the simple-minded layman. But it will not wash. The public understand patrol to be what it is, and patrol officers—not all police officers—spend less than one hour in five on it, which is not good enough.

I do not wish to give a long disquisition on what I think about police bureaucracy. That will have to wait for another day, and I shall talk at great length in another forum about it during my activities as shadow Minister with responsibility for police reform. Before I give an example of pointless paperwork, however, I shall again give way to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Graham Stuart: Local police officers have raised an issue with me that is well known, just like the amount of bureaucracy that the Government have imposed. The problem is associated with the nature of the criminal justice system and the amount of time that police officers, when they are not filling in forms, hang around courts, having courtroom days adjourned. The Government have made promises over the years, but from listening to front-line police officers, I know that they feel that far too much time is spent on those negative pursuits. If the Minister were able to demonstrate a sense of missionary zeal for tackling that aspect of the system, I am sure that we would all be grateful, not least local police officers.

Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, on which I have reflected when speaking to Sir Ronnie Flanagan about his views on the police spending time outside the station unnecessarily. He points to time at court, and I understand that he is mulling over the idea of virtual courts, but we will come to know about that in detail later. It is essentially a teleconferencing proposition, whereby an officer could be in the station saying what he needed to say to a magistrate down a video link.

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