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Andrew George rose—

Dr. Fox rose—

Mr. Wright: I shall give way first to the hon. Member for St. Ives and then to the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox).

Andrew George: The Minister mentioned the debate on 25 June, which I secured. He said—and this confirms what my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon said earlier:

That continued throughout the whole process. At what stage will the Minister be unconstrained? When can we have the debate? When will there ever be the parliamentary scrutiny that he says has been promised?

Mr. Wright: I shall respond directly to that point after I have given way to the hon. Member for Woodspring, but I give due notice to the House that, with regards that issue and the quasi-judicial nature of the process, I am going to disappoint Members again.

Dr. Fox: What is the point of scrutiny when the Government absolutely disregard the views of those who represent the region? In this room today, more than 20 MPs, representing all parties and all parts of the region, have unanimously decried the Government’s strategy. What conclusion does the Minister draw from the debate? And what change of policy will come about as a result?

Mr. Wright: Let me get to the very heart of my response. As the House is aware, owing to the quasi-judicial role of the Secretary of State in this matter, I am very limited in what I can say. The House, and certainly hon. Members present today, will be aware that, in taking quasi-judicial decisions under the various Planning Acts, there is clear guidance for Ministers, based on advice from the Law Officers and first Treasury counsel. A copy of the guidance can be found on the Department for Communities and Local Government website and is snappily titled “Guidance on propriety issues in handling planning casework in Communities and Local Government”. I am more than happy to provide copies of it to hon. Members. The guidance states that Ministers should not enter into discussions with interested parties on the changes that might be made to a draft regional spatial strategy. This is to ensure that the process is fair and transparent, and that representations to the Secretary of State are channelled through the proper statutory consultation process. It would therefore be entirely wrong if I were to say in this debate or in others, “Well, actually, I agree with so-and-so on that particular point, and I disagree fundamentally with that approach on that point.” It would be wrong because of the quasi-judicial process.

Steve Webb: The Minister seems to contend that, on the one hand, there has been lots of parliamentary scrutiny in the debate, but that, on the other, at no point since Christmas has he been allowed to say anything. That is a funny concept of debate, but to assist us in
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responding to the consultation, surely he can at least tell us what the document means. That must be allowable. Does the document mean that we have to say yes to the first application on the most sensitive site, or can we be sequential? Surely he can tell us what the document means so that we can respond to it.

Mr. Wright: I shall come on to that point. First, I shall try to respond as best and as fully as I can to the four or five points that were made.

I have just mentioned process, so it might be useful if I outline the process that has been used. As I have said on previous occasions, the function of regional spatial strategies is to determine first, how much housing is needed and the general location where it should be built; secondly, the priorities for new infrastructure and economic development; thirdly, the strategy for protecting countryside and biodiversity; and finally, the policy for reducing carbon emissions and safeguarding natural resources, whether they are, for example, water or minerals.

As the House is aware, responsibility for the initial drafting of the strategy for the south-west rested with the South West regional assembly, which submitted its draft to the Government on 24 April 2006. A 12-week public consultation gave the public the opportunity to put comments to an independent panel, which was appointed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to test the soundness of the draft RSS. Following that, an examination in public—an EiP—was held between April and July 2007 to discuss and test the draft RSS that was put before the panel. The length of the EiP reflected the level of interest in the draft RSS, and the panel reviewed comments from almost 2,000 different parties. Some 191 organisations and individuals took part in public hearings, which were held in Exeter.

The panel’s report was submitted to the Government on 10 December 2007, and published for information on 10 January 2008. It contained recommendations to the Secretary of State on all aspects of the draft RSS, but representations on those recommendations were not invited. Following the publication of the panel report, the recommendations were considered, and proposed changes on behalf of the Secretary of State were published for consultation in July. As the House is aware, we are now making progress through a further consultation period, which will end on 24 October.

What I can tell the House is that the Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to a decent home at a price that they can afford and in a place where they want to live and work. There is strong evidence to suggest that more homes are needed in the south-west to make that possible over the next 15 to 20 years. Consequently, the proposed changes set out higher levels of housing because, as hon. Members from all parts of the House have said, the south-west has a serious housing problem. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda) for the excellent work he did as a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government. As he pointed out in his contribution, the south-west is the only region in the country with above-average house prices and below-average incomes, which is why the independent panel concluded that more than 28,000 homes would be
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needed each year. We considered that carefully and concluded that slightly higher increases will be needed if the region is to make real progress in tackling affordability and housing supply issues and ensure that housing supply is closely aligned with the likely location of employment opportunities. I shall expand on that point in a moment.

A key point is the current financial, economic and banking difficulties that Members have mentioned. In light of those difficulties, which are extremely turbulent and traumatic, it is important to focus on the long term as well. For the past generation or so, there has been a huge imbalance between the demand for, and supply of, housing. As a population, we are ageing, and that problem is not going to go away, regardless of the current difficulties in stock markets throughout the world. We need to address the issue through housing supply, and one way in which we can do so is through the regional spatial strategy.

Martin Horwood: I am tempted to challenge those numbers on the basis that first, they are unreliable, as many academics and Select Committees have pointed out, and secondly, they are profoundly outdated, since they are based on growth rates of 2.8 per cent. to 3.2 per cent. over 20 years, which are now fantasy. In the closing minutes of the Minister’s response, will he answer the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon has just put to him? In the absence of a sequential test, the impact of those numbers in a housing downturn means that developers are going straight for the greenfield sites first. My hon. Friend therefore asked what we should say at those public inquiries to developers who want to build first on the most sensitive sites.

Mr. Wright: Let me address that direct point now. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Northavon for providing prior notice of the question, which I know is of concern to him. He knows about planning policy statement 3, which puts local authorities in the driving seat in respect of development in their area. All hon. Members agree that a plan-led development system is the right approach, as opposed to something with a short-term, speculative and ad hoc nature. Having said that, I do not think that a sequential test is the right approach, because it would be rigid and old-fashioned, and it would say, “It would be wrong to provide that site for development before that site.” If we can be as flexible as possible, certainly during the current economic difficulties, that is the approach to take.

Let me elaborate on that point. The key test, which must be established, is whether a site is suitable for development. [Hon. Members: “No!”] Let me finish. Part of the test is whether the development is on green belt, which is not usually suitable, because in the planning system there is a very strict presumption against development on green belt; whether it is on greenfield, which could be suitable; or whether it is on brownfield, which, for the past 10 years, has been our preferred option. We had a policy—a target—whereby 60 per cent. of all developments would be on brownfield sites, and we have comfortably exceeded it. That is a major achievement, and something like 75 per cent. of all new development is on brownfield sites. That is the continuing policy of this Government; it is something that we continue to see.

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Mr. Laurence Robertson: I know that the Minister has limited time, but he has not even mentioned the flooding issue, whereby the building of thousands of houses is proposed in flood-risk areas. The House will remember that in Tewkesbury last year, three people died and hundreds were kept out of their homes for more than a year because of the flooding. Building thousands of houses in that area will be disastrous.

Mr. Wright: I shall come on to that point, but first, I want to respond the point about green belt, because it has been mentioned several times in the debate. As hon. Members have said, from the Prime Minister downwards, we remain absolutely committed to preserving, enhancing and increasing the proportion of land that is accorded green belt status. The regional spatial strategy simply states that any partial review of the RSS should include a green belt review, with a particular view to determining whether additional land should be designated as green belt at all of the region’s three green belts.

I shall respond very quickly to the point that the hon. Gentleman made about flooding. I recall a similar discussion during the Adjournment debate before the summer recess. I think that we have a very strong policy on flood protection. It has been increased and enhanced by planning policy statement 25, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester not only for what he did as a Minister, but for his hard work as a constituency MP. I think that—

Robert Key (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate. [Interruption.] Will Members and the public leave the room quietly?

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Persistent and Youth Offenders (Northamptonshire)

12.30 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I should like to thank Mr. Speaker for giving me permission to open this debate on policing persistent and youth offenders in Northamptonshire. I also welcome the Minister to his new post. I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone), who is in the neighbouring constituency to mine, and I will have many such occasions[Interruption.]

Robert Key (in the Chair): Order. Will the members of the public leaving the room stop talking and leave quietly and quickly?

Mr. Hollobone: I very much hope that my hon. Friend and I will have many occasions on which we can challenge the Minister about Home Office issues, because crime and the criminal justice system are very important issues for ourselves and our constituents in Kettering and Wellingborough.

Our local policemen and women in Northamptonshire do a great job and I should like to thank them publicly for their efforts. Crime is a major issue for local residents and Northamptonshire police does a good job of catching the relatively small number of persistent and prolific offenders who commit the bulk of serious crime in our local community. However, all too often the courts fail to take those offenders’ crimes as seriously as they might, all too often the offenders are released on bail, despite being repeat offenders, and nowadays those offenders never serve their time in jail in full.

The second part of the debate is about youth offending. With regard to youth offenders, there are far too many 14 and 15-year-olds committing antisocial nuisance and lower-level crimes, such as criminal damage. Dealing with them is taking up far too much police time when the police have better things to do, especially with regard to the more serious crimes that are being committed.

At the moment in Northamptonshire, the police force is not able to issue fixed penalty notices or penalty notices for disorder to those offenders, despite the fact that it is technically possible for it to do so under the law. My argument is that this policy should be changed and Northamptonshire police should be empowered to issue those penalty notices, so that younger troublemakers, especially the ringleaders, can receive stiff fines for their behaviour, and my view is that if they cannot afford to pay those fines, their parents should be made to cough up. Maybe then the parents would take far more interest in what their children are up to.

This debate is really in two parts. First, it is about prolific and other priority offenders, and secondly, it is about youth offending. With regard to prolific and other priority offenders, who are known in the Home Office and elsewhere as PPOs, it is estimated by the Government themselves that approximately 10 per cent. of the active offender population in this country are responsible for half of all crime and that a very small proportion of offenders, about 0.5 per cent., are responsible for one in 10 offences.

That is very much the situation in Northamptonshire. The other day I was talking to the excellent chief superintendent for north Northamptonshire, Mr. Paul
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Fell, and he confirmed to me that there are about 35 PPOs in the north of the county, who commit the bulk of the crime in Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and east Northamptonshire. The police know who those people are. They know their name, address, date of birth—they know everything about those people and they know that they are committing the bulk of acquisitive crime. However, although the local police are encouraged by the Home Office to target their efforts on those individuals, when they catch them and present them before the courts, all too often the label of “prolific and other priority offender” is not recognised by the judicial system in the same way as it is recognised by the police. It is amazing that even now those PPOs, when they are brought before the courts, are all too often being given bail, only to commit further offences while they are on bail.

I like the Government’s PPO programme, which the then Prime Minister launched in March 2004 as a cross-government initiative to tackle those offenders who have been locally identified as committing the most crime and causing the most harm to their communities. It is a crime reduction programme with an emphasis on reducing reoffending.

Across England and Wales, there are now 10,000 individuals who are identified as PPOs and a further 4,000 young offenders who are deemed to be most at risk of becoming tomorrow’s PPOs. The Government’s PPO programme is split into three strands: prevent and deter, catch and convict, and rehabilitate and resettle. I am delighted that in Northamptonshire Mr. Fell and his colleagues are being extremely assertive in the way that they approach the policing of those PPOs. For example, in Kettering I believe that there are at the moment two PPOs who the police are literally following around all day, every day. That is quite right and it has my whole support. The message to those offenders is, “We know that you are a criminal, we know that you want to commit further crime and we are literally going to walk behind you or drive behind you until you stop your criminal activity”.

Also, Northamptonshire police is very good in its efforts at rehabilitation and resettlement. There is an excellent country-leading initiative in Northamptonshire called the Rose project. It has had huge success in getting repeat offenders out of their criminal lifestyle. That programme needs to be expanded and supported, but it is still extremely successful.

I have previously drawn attention to the fact that too many PPOs are let off on bail. I raised it with the Solicitor-General on the Floor of the House on 19 July 2007 and on other occasions, and I very much hope that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice can achieve greater co-ordination about the pursuit of PPOs, not only through the Home Office side of the equation—that is, the policing of them—but through the court system and the justice that is applied to them. At the moment, it is fair to say that there is a gap there, when those offenders get to court and in the way that they are treated.

Mr. Fell, the chief superintendent of north Northamptonshire, has confirmed to me that in north Northamptonshire it is that relatively small number of PPOs who are committing a significant level of what he
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called “serious acquisitive crime”. In other words, they are the people in Kettering, Wellingborough, Corby and east Northamptonshire who are committing the burglary of dwellings, vehicle crime, theft of motor vehicles, theft from motor vehicles and robbery offences. If those 35 individuals were banged up and kept in jail, the number of such crimes in Kettering and in the local area would decrease dramatically.

Mr. Fell has also told me that he is concerned that many of the PPOs who are dealt with under the justice system receive sentences of less than 12 months. Therefore, even when those PPOs are convicted, they are not put behind bars for long enough and if they are sentenced to less than 12 months, on many occasions they are not subject to mandatory licence conditions upon release from custody. That can make it more difficult for agencies other than the police to engage with them in a meaningful way upon their release from custody.

There is also concern locally that, with the current overcrowding situation in prisons, it is increasingly evident that not as many PPOs are being sent to jail as ought to be the case. There are two recent examples of this in north Northamptonshire in the basic command unit area, where offenders have been charged on multiple occasions and received multiple sets of bail for acquisitive crime, including robbery, shoplifting and house burglary.

The second part of this debate is about youth offending. My argument here is that basically the Government have the weapon that the local police in Northamptonshire need to tackle youth offending effectively. That weapon is penalty notices for disorder, or PNDs. The Home Office introduced pilot schemes in four police force areas between August 2002 and September 2003. The pilots, which were for issuing PNDs to people aged 16 or over, were evaluated and two reports were produced. The pilots were generally regarded as a success, so the scheme was rolled out progressively during 2003-04 to all police forces in England and Wales.

In legislation passed in the House in September 2004, the scheme was further extended to 10 to 15-year-olds, but pilots of PNDs for 10 to 15-year-olds are now operating in only seven police force areas: the British Transport police Birmingham division, Essex, Lancashire, Merseyside, the Kingston division of the Metropolitan police, Nottinghamshire and West Midlands. Under the juvenile PND trials, the penalty is £40 for higher-tier offences and £30 for lower-tier offences, and the parent or guardian is liable for the penalty if the youngster cannot pay. Upper-tier offences include throwing fireworks; destroying or damaging property; behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress; and making false alarm calls. Lower-tier penalties apply to offences such as being drunk in the highway, public place or licensed premises, throwing stones, and leaving and depositing litter.

My message to the Home Office is that I would very much like the pilots to be concluded and extended across England and Wales. Please, may we have that system in Northamptonshire? Every Northamptonshire police community support officer and police constable I have ever spoken to says, “Yes, Philip, we would love to be able to issue penalty notices to troublesome 14 and 15-year-olds.” They are frustrated that they cannot do that. The system works, and, especially if it can be applied to the ringleaders of small groups of offending youths, the message really will get home.

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