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4.42 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I believe that it is the first time I have done so in my ministerial capacity. I wholeheartedly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Mr. Wright) on securing another debate about his constituency. I know from a visit to his constituency that I made not too long ago how much he involves himself in the local community and how he does his best to work with all the local organisations and people not only to tackle crime but to deal with a great many other issues as well.

Crimestoppers UK, the national charity, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, but, as my hon. Friend said, it all started in his constituency five years earlier, thanks to the innovation and public-spiritedness of two men. I pay tribute to them and thank them for what can only be described as pioneering work.

Visiting Peoria, Illinois, in 1982, Detective Inspector Mick Cole of Great Yarmouth police came across a scheme where a sergeant, sitting in a room on his own, took anonymous information from the public about crimes. When information led to an arrest, the callers put themselves in line for a reward from money donated by local businesses. Mick had the foresight to recognise the opportunity that that presented for policing in Great Yarmouth and, on his return, got his senior managers’ backing for a trial in the town. Crimestoppers is a tribute to him. Many of us often see lots of good, exciting ideas and we think, “That is a good idea,” but that is all we do about it. Great credit is due to him.

Jim Carter was managing the local Woolworths at the time. When he received a letter asking for support for the scheme, he thought it a brilliant idea, the sort of thing that businesses concerned about crime rates should support and a good way of getting the community involved in fighting crime.

From that pairing in Norfolk to the scheme’s adoption by the Metropolitan police five years later to its roll-out across the country, from the receptiveness of the police to radically new ideas to wholehearted support from newspapers and television companies, Crimestoppers over the past quarter of a century has been a story of success. The 25th anniversary of Crimestoppers in Great Yarmouth and the 20th anniversary of its force-wide introduction in London provide us with an opportunity to reflect on that success, praise the results that have been achieved and thank the many volunteers, including many of our constituents, who have been involved in mounting campaigns and fundraising locally.

This year, Crimestoppers will receive its millionth actionable call. Since its inception, intelligence given anonymously by members of the public has led to more than 84,000 arrests and charges, the recovery of goods worth £101 million and the seizure of more than £148 million-worth of drugs. Seventeen people are arrested every day as a result of information given to Crimestoppers, and, as my hon. Friend said, one person is charged with murder every seven days. When people reflect that that was made possible by the imagination of two men 25 years ago in Great Yarmouth, they will realise that it a phenomenal achievement, and one to be justifiably proud of. Many people looking at today’s agenda for our proceedings in Parliament will have looked at the
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title of this debate and wondered whether the subject was not a parochial one. But, when we reflect on it, we see that the impact of Crimestoppers in Great Yarmouth and in our country has been phenomenal. I hope that some of our hon. Friends take the opportunity to read some of the facts that we have laid out in this debate.

I pray for your indulgence for just half a minute, Mr. Chope, as I make my next point. Reaching abroad in support of SOCA last year, Crimestoppers UK’s campaigning led to the capture of 11 fugitives believed to be on the run in Spain. Indeed, as my hon. Friend said, Crimestoppers works closely with the child exploitation and online protection unit to catch many missing convicted sex offenders on the Most Wanted website.

The results speak for themselves. The potential that Mick Cole and Jim Carter saw 25 years ago in Great Yarmouth has certainly been realised. I also point out that, as a consequence of that scheme, among other things, Great Yarmouth has had significant achievements recently on crime. The Great Yarmouth crime and disorder reduction partnership was set a target of reducing British crime survey comparator crime by 18.9 per cent, but by the end of March this year, it had achieved a 28.5 per cent. reduction. That equates to a reduction of 2,045 crimes against a target of 1,376. Crimestoppers will clearly have played a real part in that. Since 2003-04, theft from a motor vehicle has fallen by 69 per cent., domestic burglary is down 56 per cent., robbery is down 44 per cent. and theft of a motor vehicle is down by one third. Violent crime has also dropped significantly.

The strong performance on crime in my hon. Friend’s constituency is reflected across Norfolk. Crimestoppers across Norfolk, including in Great Yarmouth, has clearly been of significant help in reducing the crime figures. Alongside that, there are now 114 more police officers in Norfolk than in March 1997 and some 230 community support officers.

However, real challenges remain to be faced. Not only must we continue to cut crime and make communities safer, but we need to secure the confidence of communities in doing so. Crimestoppers in Great Yarmouth and elsewhere is crucial to that. We are serving a public who, quite rightly, expect and deserve better information, improved accountability and timely and effective solutions across our public services.

In tackling crime, one of our greatest challenges is meeting the needs and expectations of the public, winning their confidence and bringing them in as part of the solution. Crimestoppers helps us do that. From its origins in Great Yarmouth, a network of 39 regional boards has grown across the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. More than 400 people are now involved, donating their spare time to the fight against crime. The campaigns that they mount, using funds that they raise locally themselves, target messages directly to members of the public to inform them about particular incidents where the police need help or to raise the community’s awareness of a more general issue.

It is incumbent on all of us to report crime that we witness or know something about, so that offenders may be brought to justice. By providing a mechanism to pass information to the police and others reliably but anonymously, Crimestoppers helps people in communities to fulfil this citizen duty, even where they are in difficult, vulnerable or dangerous circumstances. I pay tribute to those people—it would be remiss of us not to—who,
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through Crimestoppers or in other ways, try to support the police, often in difficult circumstances, to bring to justice offenders who are sometimes dangerous. As well as providing a means for people to report crime, Crimestoppers makes an important statement in every community in this country, effectively saying that we will do something about those who seek to undermine us and gain from their criminal behaviour.

As Mike Cole saw on his visit to Illinois 25 years ago, Crimestoppers enables information to come to light that the police would simply not be able to get through traditional routes. For that reason, the Crimestoppers Trust charity has received Government funding in recent years as a strategic partner in our work to reduce crime. This year, that money is part of £4 million provided by the Home Office to third sector partners involved in crime reduction, crime prevention and victim support work, with the Crimestoppers Trust being the largest recipient. Most recently, it has benefited from £50,000 to pilot a new service aimed at young people to allow them to contact Crimestoppers anonymously by sending an SMS text message—an innovative approach that is already showing results, just as an anonymous phone line in Great Yarmouth first did 25 years ago.

It is important to remember that Crimestoppers started in the communication age that existed 25 years ago and it was appropriate then. I hope that the example that I have just given demonstrates that Crimestoppers has to be an evolving concept, which remains true to its principles, but responds all the way along the line to the new communication age in which we live. Certainly, we should bear in mind the principle of people’s being able to report crime anonymously and do their public duty in the way that Crimestoppers makes possible. We can now do that through SMS text messaging, and who knows where we go with this in future? The continuing development of Crimestoppers is important. As Mike Cole and Jim Carter reflect on that now, I wonder whether they would have thought 25 years ago that young people with mobile telephones would be able to report crime anonymously to the police through text messages. Sometimes, I wonder where we will be in 25 years with Crimestoppers and what the appropriate mechanism will be then.

Since 1997, the Government have been successful in bringing down crime. The excellent results seen in Great Yarmouth in the last few years are an example of what can be achieved when efforts are properly targeted. For the future, it is right that we focus on working in partnership and building public confidence, both of which are at the core of the Government's plans to reduce crime and increase community safety. They were also at the core of what Mick Cole and Jim Carter set out to achieve 25 years ago when they brought the idea of Crimestoppers back from Peoria and set it up in Great Yarmouth. They foresaw its potential for the town, but I wonder whether they could have imagined just how it would take off and expand, thanks to the hard work, generosity and commitment of numerous others.

As I said earlier, I am glad that we have had the opportunity in this debate to pay tribute to two men whose foresight has made each and every one of our communities safer. I am also pleased to pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth for supporting that work and for introducing this debate
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today, the importance of which is not necessarily reflected in its short title. However, when people read the debate’s content and see the impact that Crimestoppers has had in bringing people to justice and leading to arrests—not just for small crimes, important as those are, but for murders, too—they will reflect on the brilliance of Mike Cole and Jim Carter in having the imagination to pick
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an idea up, seeing its potential and, above that, having the confidence to drive it forward.

I congratulate Mike Cole and Jim Carter and my hon. Friend. I hope that in 25 years, on the 50th anniversary of Crimestoppers, we shall reflect on a further 25 years of massive achievements and advancement.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Five o’clock.

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