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House of Commons

Monday 14 July 2008

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—

Police Patrols

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): What plans she has to increase the proportion of working time that police officers spend on patrol. [218087]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Since April, there has been a neighbourhood policing team in every area. Investment in more officers and police community support officers and in new technology such as mobile data devices, and the implementation of Sir Ronnie Flanagan’s recommendations to reduce bureaucracy further, are ensuring an even more visible and reassuring police presence across the country.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that reply. Is she aware that last year police officers spent the equivalent of 25 years filling in controversial stop forms? I hope that she will comment on that statistic. Is she also aware that the latest figures show that patrol officers are so burdened by form filling and paperwork that they are forced to spend exactly the same amount of time on paperwork in an office as they do out on patrol? Should that not be stopped? We want the police on the beat, doing the job that the public expect them to do.

Jacqui Smith: I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman’s last comment. I am sure that he will be pleased to know that the most recent figures suggest that officer time on front-line duties has increased in Cheshire. He referred to the stop and account form; as he knows, I have agreed with Sir Ronnie Flanagan that that form will be scrapped.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that those driving on to the main roundabout at Rotherham can see a big sign saying “1,200 fewer crimes than last year”? I do not know whether the police or the council put it up, but that is cheerful news. There are a lot more police uniforms on the street and there is a dynamic, younger leadership in the town. As the leader in The Times said well today, such news contrasts with the depiction of Britain as a broken, crime-ridden society where nobody dare walk the streets. The Leader of the Opposition is doing grave damage to our nation.

Jacqui Smith: I agree with my right hon. Friend. Police forces and their partners throughout the country are doing sterling work in helping to bring down crime. That work needs to be recognised, to build confidence in our communities. He is right on another point. Those who say such things about Britain do a disservice to this country and to the efforts of the many police officers, community organisations and others who are working hard to bring crime down even further.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): Among other things, we need more police patrols to detect knife crime. However, do not police patrols and detection need to be backed up by effective penalties? On 4 August, new magistrates courts sentencing guidelines will deem
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that a fine is an adequate sentence for possessing a knife. Will Ministers seek the withdrawal of those flawed and inadequate guidelines? If Ministers themselves express no confidence in the guidelines, how can the public have any confidence in—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Jacqui Smith: The sentencing guidelines make it clear, as just the new Lord Chief Justice Sir Igor Judge has done, that knife crime is a serious crime that in many cases should result in custody. Of course, someone who is convicted is now three times more likely to end up in custody for possession of a knife and more likely to receive a longer custodial sentence. We are taking tougher action, both on sentences and on making sure that people are caught for possession or use of knives in the first place.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend have further discussions with the Secretary of State for Transport with a view to ending the disparity of provision between Home Office forces and the British Transport police? There is a disparity of provision among railway lines and stations. Sometimes, the Home Office forces cover railway stations but the British Transport police do not. There is not a comprehensive, coherent approach to the issue. I urge her to look at it again and probe, and not to be fobbed off by chief constables. The provision is inadequate and patchy.

Jacqui Smith: We certainly talk frequently, and we talk to ministerial colleagues. The BTP are working hard—particularly, as my hon. Friend says, in London, alongside the Metropolitan police—to make sure that there is proper coverage and security in our transport system. My hon. Friend is right to say that we always need to keep the issue under review. We need to make sure that police forces talk to each other about how they can best keep the travelling public safe.

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): Home Office figures show that in the past three years the proportion of officer time spent on patrol has fallen from the already low 19.1 per cent. to 17.1 per cent. Does the Secretary of State think that that has in any way contributed to rising knife crime?

Jacqui Smith: No, I do not. As I emphasised to the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), the figures have identified a reduction in the time being spent on paperwork. There is investment in new technology—for example, the £50 million that is being turned into 10,000 mobile data devices to enable police officers to stay out on the streets instead of having to return to the police station. The additional number of police officers, supported by police community support officers and other staff, means that we have a more visible, more reassuring police force than we have had before and that police officers are able to spend their time doing the things that make a difference to the public. I commend them for their efforts in doing that.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): The Home Secretary said that some police forces are now making use of hand-held devices to keep bobbies on the beat. What impact are those trials having on the issue?

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Jacqui Smith: We are in relatively early days in terms of spending the £50 million and translating it into the 10,000 hand-held devices. When I speak to police officers who are using the devices, they say that they are helping them to get information more quickly about people whom they are stopping. Information can be entered there and then, which means that they do not have to return to the station. That means that there is more efficiency in catching and tracking people whom the police might be stopping in the streets and gives more time for them to be visibly out on patrol. That is why the devices are being welcomed. This is investment that the Government have been willing to put into ensuring that our police services have all the tools that they need to protect the public.

Alcohol-induced Crime

2. Mr. Adam Holloway (Gravesham) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of measures to combat alcohol-induced crime. [218088]

5. Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of measures to combat alcohol-induced crime. [218091]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The Government have made a number of such assessments, most recently the assessment of the impact of the Licensing Act 2003 on levels of crime and disorder, which shows that the overall volume of incidents involving crime and disorder remains unchanged, while there were signs that crimes involving serious violence may have reduced.

Mr. Holloway: What difference do these measures make if so-called low-level antisocial behaviour, including children drinking, is often now under the police radar?

Mr. Coaker: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, if one looks at what police forces across the country are doing, one cannot say that tackling under-age drinking is below the police radar. In fact, many police forces are working with local authorities and others and taking relavent action to combat the serious issue of children drinking in public. Indeed, he will have seen the youth alcohol action plan, which details further measures that the Government intend to take with regard to this issue.

Mr. Evennett: The Government argued in 2005 that the Licensing Act 2003 gave police

Given that the Home Office figures show that alcohol-related violence has increased by a quarter during the hours between 3 am and 6 am, does the Minister believe that the Act is failing in one of its key objectives?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman selects the statistics that he uses very carefully. In quoting from that report, I wonder why he did not quote the fact that serious violent crime fell by 10 per cent. at all times and by 5 per cent. between 6 pm and 6 am. If he is asking me whether I want the powers in the Act to be used more robustly and widely, I agree with that view. The powers are there to shut places that are selling to the under-aged
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or are associated with disorder, and it is fair to say that we would all like them to be used more than they are at the present time.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Will my hon. Friend give an assurance that he will not consider the proposal that is being discussed in the north of Scotland whereby people under the age of 21 should not be allowed to buy alcohol from grocers? Surely the answer to the question is that if soldiers were able to come back from a war but unable to buy a drink in a grocer’s shop, that would be absolutely outrageous. This should be dealt with by the existing licensing boards, which should ensure that no one is allowed to buy drink under age and that those who make such sales should have their licences taken away.

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have no intention anywhere where we have powers of changing anything to do with the age at which people are entitled to drink, namely 18. He makes that point that we would all make: we want the people who break the law to be targeted, whether it be the retailers who sell to the under-aged or individuals who use alcohol as an excuse for violence or disorder. The priority for all of us should be to target the issue, not to try to come up with other laws that impact on the law-abiding majority as well.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will remember that when we debated this matter in Westminster Hall, we touched on the role of the major supermarkets and other retailers in selling discounted alcohol. While the police in Warrington are taking a proactive stance in cracking down on alcohol-related crime, many people are drunk before they go out for the evening on cheap alcohol obtained from supermarkets. Has he had any further discussions with the supermarkets on the matter?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend raises an important point. We have had discussions with supermarkets and with colleagues across Government on what we do about the issue of “pre-loading”—using cheap beer and spirits from supermarkets to avoid the expense of going out. It is a serious issue, and we are having discussions on what to do about it. We are waiting for a review led by the Department of Health on prices and promotions; when it comes forward, we will take the appropriate action.

Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was a great new Labour slogan, but it does not seem that the Government have been very tough on alcohol-fuelled crime. Has the Minister seen the comments of Sir Alan Steer, Government adviser and headmaster, who said today that alcohol is more of a problem in schools than drugs, and that alcohol is driving the increase in knife crime? What has the Minister got to say to that, and could he explain the shambolic position of the Government, announced today and yesterday, on knife crime?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman quoted Sir Alan Steer, so he should have found that Sir Alan also said that the vast majority of young people in our schools are well behaved. That gives me the chance to say that
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whatever we say about the minority of young people who cause disorder on our streets, the majority of young people are decent. The hon. Gentleman talks about what happens in schools, and alcohol is an issue there. As someone who taught adult education in school, I say to him that we should ask not why alcohol education does not take place in schools, because it does, but what effective alcohol education is. In other words, what sort of education could take place in schools that would make a real difference? As to his remarks about—

Mr. Speaker: Order.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Has my hon. Friend looked at stricter controls on alcohol consumption in other countries, and the effects of those controls? In the United States of America, the minimum age for drinking is much higher than in Britain, and street disorder is much lower. Would he look seriously at that possibility?

Mr. Coaker: We are looking at the possibility of raising the legal age for drinkers, but we very much agree with the points of my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Hamilton). The issue is to tackle associated problems with respect to alcohol, whether they involve retailers selling to those who are under age, or those who use alcohol as an excuse for violence or disorder. We need to tackle those problems. I think that the law is right; we need to ensure that we do better on the implementation of the law.

James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): Increasingly, drunk and disorderly offences are being dealt with by fixed penalty tickets, with the pilot to extend penalty notices to children aged between 10 and 15 having been completed, according to the Government, in July 2006. But despite the fact that it was said that this scheme would not be adopted until the pilot had been evaluated, three of the police forces involved are still issuing penalty tickets to children because, in the words of one of them,

Can the Minister confirm whether this pilot has finished, and whether the 6,000 tickets given to children in the past two years have been issued validly?

Mr. Coaker: Yes, they have been issued validly, and we are currently evaluating the pilots that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The use of penalty tickets is an effective, low-level and considered way of dealing with the sorts of disorder—alcohol-related or not—that he mentions. Far from being bureaucratic, it saves police time and keeps them on the streets.

Compulsory DNA Database

4. Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): If she will estimate the cost of setting up a compulsory DNA database with samples taken from every UK resident. [218090]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): Taking DNA from all permanent residents of the UK would mean sampling at least 56 million people. The laboratory costs of processing that alone would be more than £1 billion,
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without even adding the costs to the police of running a larger database. The Home Office and the Government have no plans to introduce a compulsory DNA database.

Mr. Prentice: That is cheaper than ID cards. Am I the only Labour Member who thinks it is scandalous that the DNA of innocent people can be held on the DNA database? Why do not Ministers follow the logic of their position, regardless of the cost, and ask for swabs from every individual in the land and see what reaction it generates?

Meg Hillier: I would not want to characterise my hon. Friend’s contributions in the House, but the phrase “regardless of cost” says quite a great deal. Ministers have to balance cost with practical reality. I stress that the fact that someone is on the database does not mean that they have a criminal record and does not confer any disadvantage or slight on the individual. The fact that someone is on the database comes to light only if a DNA sample is recovered from a crime scene.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): May I support what the hon. Member for Pendle (Gordon Prentice) just said? As one who practises in the criminal courts I know that DNA is one of the most important deterrents as well as being one of the detective instruments. It is perfectly true that there are serious issues about cost and practicality, and they must be reflected upon, as must the civil liberties argument, but I hope that the Minister will not automatically shut down the argument; there is more merit in it than she allows.

Meg Hillier: One of the groups established shortly after I began this job just over a year ago was the DNA ethics group. It will publish its annual report next week and I look forward to using it and other issues, including questions in the House, to have a further debate about the importance of DNA in our criminal justice system.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): Can the Minister tell the House how many crimes would have gone unsolved if the DNA of those arrested but not charged had not been retained on the database?

Meg Hillier: There would have been a number of cases where people were arrested but not proceeded against. Matches in crime scenes since December 2005 alone reveal more than 3,000 offences, including 37 murders, 16 attempted murders and 90 rapes.

Damian Green (Ashford) (Con): It is significant that the Minister’s first defence of this policy was based on cost, suggesting that, in principle, she would be quite happy to take DNA swabs from everyone in this country. The problem with the DNA database is that thousands of completely innocent people are on it, including 100,000 under-18s, yet thousands more who have committed serious crimes are not on it. Will she commit the Government to doing much better to ensure that the DNA of those most likely to commit crimes is captured? Otherwise it will continue to appear that the Government are interested more in blanket surveillance than in protecting the public.

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