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14 July 2008 : Column 8

Meg Hillier: I cannot quite believe the torrent of misinformation from the hon. Gentleman. Let us be clear: more than 87 per cent. of under-18s who had their DNA taken were charged, convicted, cautioned or given a final warning, and only 12.8 per cent. were not. That reflects the reality with regard to under-18s. Other countries are looking closely at Britain’s protocols and processes. The US Department of Justice has conducted research into the British system and speaks of the “success of this strategy”. The hon. Gentleman massively twisted my words about costs. It is right that we balance cost, but there is no Government policy for a compulsory DNA database.

Domestic Violence Courts

7. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West) (Lab): If she will make a statement on the introduction of specialist domestic violence courts. [218093]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The tackling violence action plan committed the Government to doubling the number of specialist domestic violence courts to 128 by 2011. In April this year, the number accredited by the cross-government criminal justice system national programme had increased to 98, with further expansion planned later this year.

Dr. Starkey: I am pleased that one of the special courts is in Milton Keynes, because dealing with domestic violence is a high priority for the community safety partnership in Milton Keynes. However, I should like to deal with what is available for individuals who may have committed acts of domestic violence, but have not been charged by the police or convicted, and who may wish to undergo voluntary counselling or training to help them deal with their offending behaviour. Relate Milton Keynes is developing such courses. Does my hon. Friend think that the community safety partnerships should consider funding such courses?

Mr. Coaker: The idea of perpetrators voluntarily coming forward to seek help for their problem is an excellent one, and I would certainly encourage the CSP in Milton Keynes to support that initiative. My hon. Friend might also like to know that the Home Office part-funds the Respect phone line, which gives perpetrators the opportunity to phone in and seek advice prior to any charging or conviction that may occur. That is an important area of work, and we would encourage local authorities and voluntary organisations, not only in Milton Keynes but throughout the country, to look at it.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South) (LD): I welcome the suggestion that further work be done on domestic violence courts, but will the Minister also consider a domestic violence court for those dealing with immigration matters? A number of women who have come to this country for partnership and marriage, but who have been subjected to domestic violence and other abuse, have subsequently had their appeals turned down, yet without the domestic violence element being taken into consideration. Such women are simply abandoned to
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the system, which takes no account whatever of the abuse that they have suffered during their time in this country.

Mr. Coaker: If that is a serious problem, I will look into it, but my understanding from the sorts of comments that the hon. Gentleman has made was that it would be taken into account. However, I will have a look at the point that he makes and ensure that if there is a problem with respect to it, it is taken into account.

Mrs. Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): We know that a woman who suffers from domestic violence will often have been abused more than 30 times before she makes a complaint or the problem ever reaches court. Under the policy in Tasmania, as soon as the police are notified of an incident of domestic violence, the perpetrator is removed from the home until the case reaches court, and there is training and provision for anger management. Is that something that my hon. Friend has looked at?

Mr. Coaker: We have looked at a range of measures that we should adopt with respect to perpetrators, in order to try to remove them from the scene of their domestic violence and protect the victim. Of course, the most important thing is to try to ensure that victims come forward, because we know that domestic violence is a crime that takes place behind closed doors. One of the most significant problems is giving victims the confidence to come forward and report incident to the police, and to believe that they will be sympathetically dealt with. However, the suggestion that my hon. Friend makes is another one that we can look at.

Community Police Officers (Halifax)

8. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): How many community police officers there are in Halifax; and if she will make a statement. [218094]

The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing (Mr. Tony McNulty): There are 381 police officers working in the Calderdale basic command unit, which covers Halifax. Of those, 12 police sergeants, 68 police constables and 52 police community support officers operate in the four neighbourhood policing teams that serve the same area.

Mrs. Riordan: I congratulate my local police force on its ambitious initiatives to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour by rotating the officers’ shift patterns to increase the amount of time available to serve the local community. However, will the Minister tell me what plans are in place to increase the number of officers, as opposed to the time that they work?

Mr. McNulty: As I have said on many other occasions, we think that the settled number of around 140,000 police officers and 16,000 PCSOs is about right for England and Wales. Our task now, as others have intimated during these questions, is to get those officers, supported by the PCSOs, out on the streets and policing far more readily than they have up to now. That is what drives me and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary.

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Police Service (Public Accountability)

9. Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): What recent representations she has received on improving the public accountability of the police service. [218095]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith): Following the reviews of policing and community safety by Sir Ronnie Flanagan and Louise Casey, I have received representations from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities, among others, on many issues, including police accountability. I intend to publish a Green Paper that will set out, among other reforms, proposals to provide the public with a clear and powerful voice in police decision making through directly elected members of police authorities.

Mr. Harper: I am grateful to the Home Secretary for that answer. I was dispirited to see from leaks in the papers about the forthcoming Green Paper that the Government were once again trying to put police force mergers back on the agenda. We battled hard in the south-west to see them off last year and we were ably led by our chief constable, Tim Brain. I hope that the Home Secretary will take the opportunity today to say that the Government have no intention, whether directly or through funding mechanisms, to force such proposals through. She might also take the opportunity to congratulate our chief constable in Gloucestershire on the recent award of his OBE.

Jacqui Smith: I certainly accept the hon. Gentleman’s invitation to congratulate Chief Constable Brain on the award of his OBE. I am sure that it is well deserved, not least because the chief constable struggled extremely effectively with the impact of the floods a year ago. He also serves us well as a very effective lead on finance at the Association of Chief Police Officers.

I think that I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance that he is looking for with respect to mergers. It is not our intention—in the Green Paper or anywhere else—to force through mergers. Of course, that does not, as my right hon. Friend the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing said, mean that we would not support forces that came to us with plans for voluntary mergers.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be well aware of the work done by people such as Inspector Ian Coxhead in Tamworth in leading neighbourhood teams. Inspector Coxhead regularly meets members of the public at the police and community trust partnerships and he takes accountability very seriously, because it meets real people’s real concerns on a day-to-day basis. Is not that model of police accountability not the one that we should adopt? It takes these issues upwards, in contrast to the downward model, which has failed for so many years.

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend makes an important point, and I pay tribute to the police officer he was talking about. Increasingly, as we have neighbourhood policing teams in every community, we also have regular Police and Communities Together meetings. There are also other ways in which local people can feed their
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priorities into the work of local policing teams, and the success of that can be reflected back to them. I want us to build on that approach even further. We will also want to say more in the policing Green Paper about the good practice that my hon. Friend referred to.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Is it not clear that only directly elected police commissioners can give us the transparency and accountability that policing in this country needs? Is it not also clear that police authorities—beefed up and given additional resources, including perhaps a couple of elected members—will not provide the transparency that people in the East Riding and throughout the country demand from their police forces?

Jacqui Smith: No, I do not believe that it is clear that one elected representative who is distant from their local community is the best way to achieve the visible and responsive policing that we want.

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): Will my right hon. Friend reject the policy of making police into politicians? Some Opposition Members love calling unnecessary and expensive by-elections, but does she agree that public accountability is much better served by seeing police on the beat, with good funding and leadership from the Government, not by gimmicks?

Jacqui Smith: I agree with my hon. Friend, although I look forward to welcoming back friends who have been absent over the past month or so. My hon. Friend makes an important point. Answerability and accountability start at the neighbourhood; they start with the investment that the Government have put in and the reform that police forces have introduced to deliver neighbourhood policing teams in every community that have the ability, through local meetings and talking directly to members of the public, to allow local people’s priorities to be fed into what happens locally. That is supported by the proposals that we will put forward in the Green Paper to enable directly elected voices on police authorities to make sure that local priorities can also be reflected at a strategic level in each police force.

Mr. Edward Timpson (Crewe and Nantwich) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that the recent experience of one of my constituents in Crewe, whose complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission has been bounced from one case officer to another and has suffocated under the weight of bureaucracy, is a cause for concern? Would it not be sensible to assign any complaint to one office and one case officer to ensure that such things are not repeated and such cases are not lost under the weight of bureaucracy? If we did that, the process would become more democratic and the police would become more accountable.

Jacqui Smith: If I understand the hon. Gentleman rightly, he is talking about a complaint to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. If he has not already taken up his concern with the chief executive, I would be perfectly willing to do so for him.

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10. Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): What recent consideration she has given to granting leave to remain in the UK to former Gurkha soldiers who left the British Army before 1997. [218096]

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government fully recognise the proud tradition of loyal service that the Gurkhas have given over the past 200 years. Any Gurkha who has completed at least four years’ service in the British Army and was discharged on or after 1 July 1997 is able to apply for permanent residence within two years of their discharge. Applications from Gurkhas discharged before 1 July 1997 are considered on a case-by-case basis.

Bob Russell: The Government, having accepted the principle that former Gurkhas who left after 1997 should be allowed to remain in the UK, should take this small further step, which would be a giant step for the Gurkhas concerned. There is a lot of affection for the Gurkhas, so a small gesture, with support across the House and across the country, would be greatly appreciated by many people.

Mr. Byrne: I think the whole House would empathise with the sentiments underlying the hon. Gentleman’s question. As I said, however, after 1997 any Gurkha who has served for four years is able to apply for permanent residence, but the year of 1997 remains central to the debate. It was, of course, after the handover of Hong Kong in 1997 that Gurkhas could anticipate a period of service in the UK; before 1997, that was extremely unlikely, so the difference in approach remains important. We are using 1997 as a dividing line, but we are taking a more nuanced approach, involving consideration of individual circumstances—including ties to the UK, but also the contribution to this country—in respect of Gurkhas who retired from the armed forces before the handover of Hong Kong.

Violent Crime

11. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many violent crimes were recorded in England in (a) 1987, (b) 1997 and (c) 2007. [218098]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The figures are not directly comparable as there have been major changes in the way violent crime is recorded. The term “violence against the person” rather than “violent crime” is now used. There were 132,942 offences recorded by the police in England in 1987; 233,441 offences in 1997; and 976,638 offences in 2006-07.

David Taylor: Despite the disgraceful and dishonest millionaire-funded Tory leaflets going out in marginal seats stating that violent crime has doubled under Labour, the British crime survey suggests that it has come down by a third since 1997 and that knives were used in an unchanged 8 per cent. of cases. Will the Minister tell us what he plans to do with teenagers in the soulless wastes of this city who carry knives out of fear and desperation
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or because they believe that it generates respect, when all that it produces is a tragic reduction in the average age of homicide victims?

Mr. Coaker: My hon. Friend is right to point to the British crime survey figures, which show a reduction in violent crime of more than a third. Notwithstanding that fact, what we are doing in respect of violent crime in London and elsewhere is to ensure that we have a tough enforcement approach in which we support the police and that we have prevention and diversion schemes alongside it. We know that if we are going to solve this problem, it is not just a matter of increasing the sentences available to the authorities and tough enforcement of the law, but of working with communities. As my hon. Friend points out, it is also about trying to change the culture among some young people who seem to find knife-carrying acceptable.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (UKIP): Does the Minister recall the “knives or lives” petition signed by 25,000 people and calling for tougher sentences, which I presented to the House last year? Will he accept the congratulations of the mothers who organised that petition on the action that his Government are going to take to toughen sentences?

Mr. Coaker: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. I remember the petition that he presented, and he is quite right to highlight the tougher sentences made available to the courts. The maximum sentence available for possession has increased from two to four years and changes in the presumption to prosecute have been made, as it has been extended to 16 and 17-year-olds. It is quite right to say that tough enforcement of the law is one part of the solution to the problem of knife and other violent crimes, as people have to be made to realise that there will be consequences to their actions.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): If three people violently assaulted someone and one of them then pulled a knife, stabbed the person and killed him or her, that person might be found guilty of murder. Because of the rules on complicity, however, the accomplices would almost certainly get away with much lower sentences and a lower-ranking crime. Is it not time we changed the law on homicide and adopted a much tougher approach to complicity?

Mr. Coaker: Of course we must always keep the various laws under review, including those relating to homicide. I am sure that Justice Ministers will give careful consideration to what my hon. Friend has said. Our most important task at the moment is to reduce the rate at which knife crime and other homicides are occurring, which includes tough enforcement of the law, prevention and diversion; but, as I have said, we must also review the existing laws to establish whether they are still appropriate.

Alcohol-related Disorder (Young People)

12. John Mann (Bassetlaw) (Lab): What plans she has for improving engagement with the parents of young people involved in alcohol-related disorder. [218099]

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): The Government recently published their youth alcohol action plan, which sets out a new tiered approach to tackle young people consuming alcohol in public places. All tiers will closely involve parents to prevent an escalation of problems. However, when young people are creating serious problems for their communities, we will also address the behaviour of parents through parenting contracts and parenting orders.

John Mann: I hope that the Minister will pay particular attention to the recommendation of the Bassetlaw young people’s alcohol panel, which was presented to the Home Secretary last week. Does he agree that it is vital to take account of the views of young people themselves about how problems such as alcohol and, indeed, knife crime can be solved?

Mr. Coaker: I know that, along with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, my hon. Friend has met young people to present his findings. I also had the privilege of meeting young people in his constituency a few months ago to discuss the issues with them. He is right to stress the importance of involving young people in the search for solutions to alcohol-linked and other crimes. The Government are already considering some of the points that they have made, and intend to deal with others. For instance, we strongly support the idea of making parents take more responsibility for their children when they act in antisocial and, indeed, criminal ways. We will take account of the reports from my hon. Friend and the young people in his constituency in determining our policy.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): My constituency is experiencing significant problems involving young people drinking alcohol in public places, often hidden in drinks such as orange juice. They obtain their alcohol from small shops and off-licences. Will the Home Secretary consider much tougher penalties for those who dispense alcohol to young people, and bear in mind the fact that the “pile it high, sell it cheap” method of selling alcohol, rather than the existence of licensed premises, is the root of the problem?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Lady has made an important point. As she will know, we have conducted a number of campaigns against the sale of alcohol to the under-age, involving action against retailers. She will have noted that over the years the proportion of small retailers who fail the test has fallen from about 50 to 15 per cent. However, we are aware that we need to take further action against retailers, and I want all local authorities to use the powers that are available to them.

No doubt the hon. Lady will support the change in the law to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred recently when we announced the youth alcohol action plan, which includes a new offence of persistent possession of alcohol in public by young people.

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