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The Minister need not take just my humble advice. The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor himself backed my call. During Justice questions in the House on 29 April 2008, in response to a question that I put to him, he said that he would

fixed penalty notices—

The Lord High Chancellor of England himself is saying that the system works.

On behalf of my constituents in Kettering, I ask the Home Office Minister, please, let us have this system in Northamptonshire. It would be a valuable weapon for our local police officers, who would be able to deal far more effectively with troublesome youths. Parents will get stung in the pocket with fines if the youngsters themselves are not made to pay. We badly need this effective weapon.

12.43 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I appreciate the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) giving their consent. My hon. Friend has on many occasions led debates on policing in Northamptonshire. He does an extraordinary job on behalf of his constituents and the whole of north Northamptonshire. In case the Minister has not had enough of Northamptonshire police after today, I am sure that he will be back tomorrow for my debate on the performance of Northamptonshire police. I am not saying that this debate is the warm-up, but that he should come back tomorrow for the conclusion. I will be brief so that the Minister has a chance to reply.

I agree entirely with the analysis of my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering, but the problem is that there are 35 prolific and priority offenders but only two of them are getting full-time, in-the-face supervision by the police. It works, but of course 33 others are getting away.

The problem is a lack of police on the streets. If the Minister thinks that that is just a wishful expression, may I give him some Home Office figures that were provided in answer to a written question to the Home Secretary? In 2004-05, 15 per cent. of Northamptonshire police officers’ time was spent on patrol. That figure is extraordinarily low, but it was actually close to the national average of 15.3 per cent. However, if we turn to the figures for 2007-08—the latest available—we see that the national figure has, unfortunately, gone down to 13.8 per cent., and just over 10 per cent. of Northamptonshire police officers’ time is now spent out on the beat catching criminals and deterring crime. If we are ever to tackle this problem and really get to grips with it, we must have more police officers on the street. It is no good saying that we are going to deal with PPOs if we do not have the officers out there to do it.

In Wellingborough and Rushton surveys, crime is consistently the No. 1 issue. The reason it is the No. 1 issue on my patch is not because of burglaries or knife or gun crime but because of the antisocial behaviour of what I rather like to call yobs, thugs, vandals and
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arsonists. They are on the street causing problems to my constituents. This is not minor crime; it is real crime, and unless we get more police officers on the streets, we will never deal with it.

12.47 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Key. As a preface, I warn hon. Members that this is the first time in three years that I have said anything other than, “I beg to move that this House do now adjourn.” I have been in my post for 24 hours, so I hope that hon. Members will understand that as I make my remarks.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this debate about policing persistent and youth offenders in Northamptonshire. I am pleased that he welcomes the Government’s approach to fixed penalty notices. The Government are keen to see fixed penalty notices used and rolled out; we believe that they will save police time, but most importantly we believe that they will be effective in bringing about the changes that the hon. Gentleman, and all of us, wish to see.

On Northamptonshire’s position regarding fixed penalty notices, I will take it away and look at it. I have listened carefully to the strong case that the hon. Gentleman has made this morning and I will correspond with him in future.

Tackling persistent offenders—those who cause havoc to the communities in which they live—remains a real priority for this Government and it will be a priority for me as a new Minister. That is why this matter features explicitly in the Government’s crime strategy and in the current public service agreements that we have set out. The hon. Gentleman has a proven track record on raising issues about persistent offenders in his constituency on previous occasions. The Government’s position is clear. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s welcoming the Government’s approach on prolific and priority offenders.

In 2004, we set up the prolific and other priority offender programme, as a successor to the persistent offender programme, to enable local areas to target those offenders who cause most harm to their local communities: the very offenders the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. In the wider context in which we discuss this matter—I am sure that we will come back to it tomorrow in the debate secured by the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone)—there has been an increase in police funding in Northamptonshire, which has benefited from an increase in total Government grants from £52.7 million in 1997-98 to £88.3 million in 2008-09, which is a 67 per cent. increase in cash terms and a 27 per cent. increase in real terms. I have listened to what hon. Members have said. However, there has been an increase in police numbers during the time I am talking about. At the end of March this year, Northamptonshire had 1,264 police officers—an increase of 87 officers from March 1997—as well as 159 police community support officers.

The police are at the forefront of tackling crime and offending. I am sure that the hon. Member would want to join me in recognising all that they do to drive down crime and increase public safety. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary said of Northamptonshire in September
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this year that the force had made considerable progress in delivering both neighbourhood policing and the wider citizen focus agenda. Again, we should congratulate the force on that.

Tackling reoffending is not a matter for the police alone. Clearly, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service and the courts together have a clear role in bringing all offenders, not just prolific offenders, to justice and to ensure that they receive appropriate and proportionate court sentences.

The hon. Member for Kettering mentioned the status of offenders as prolific and other priority offenders when in court, which he has mentioned previously. As he knows, the view of the judiciary is clear: it is not the label of prolific and priority offender that is important to the court when it sentences an offender but the defendant’s full offending history and the risk of reoffending that are critical, and those matters can and should be laid before the court in the pre-sentence report. The same principle applies to court processes for deciding bail. It is the factors that have led the police and their partner agencies to select the individual offender as a prolific offender, rather than the label itself, that should be used by the police in support of a remand application. That can include details of previous convictions that it is proper, fair and relevant to put before the court. I take seriously the hon. Gentleman’s point about closing that gap to ensure that the agencies work together, so that the courts come to the conclusion that we want them to reach. I understand the frustration of some of his constituents when they do not see that happening.

Research and evidence tell us what all or most hon. Members of this House will know. Within the overall population of people who may commit a criminal offence, some do so more often than others and some do so more seriously than others. There is inevitably a small hard core of offenders who commit a disproportionate amount of crime. That is why the Government launched the prolific and other priority offender programme in 2004, which is intended to identify that small hard core, to deal with them effectively through the criminal justice system, to bring them to justice for the crimes that they commit, but also—we need to consider a slightly different approach to that advocated by the hon. Gentleman—to provide the interventions required to change their criminal lifestyles and reduce the continuing revolving door of criminality and punishment.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned persistent criminals who are sentenced, sometimes, to terms of less than 12 months and who come out and reoffend. In all honesty, we have to look at that issue to see whether that is the appropriate way to address their behaviour: if they are going to offend again, even if they are locked up for a longer period the next time, is that the appropriate way to address their behaviour, or are other options available?

Since the end of 2004, prolific and other priority offender schemes have been running in every crime and disorder reduction partnership area in England and in every community safety partnership area in Wales. This is about the police working in partnership, but I pay tribute to everyone involved, including police officers, probation officers, local authority partners and others, who are making a real difference to their local community.
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These schemes can and do work, which is why, for example, Northamptonshire police and the relevant crime reduction partnership support delivery of the programme in Northamptonshire.

Nationally, we know from our performance data that, in the year from April 2007, more than 1,600 offenders were taken off the prolific offender programme because they had stopped or significantly reduced their offending. The national evaluation of the prolific offender programme, published in 2007, suggested a significant impact on reoffending among those first targeted by the programme: a 62 per cent. reduction in convictions over their first 17 months.

I should hate anyone listening to this debate to go away with the idea that it is a custodial sentence or nothing, or to get the idea that if prolific offenders are not specifically targeted by the police—many of them are when they are back on the streets—they are somehow outside the system altogether. In fact, they may be the subject of all sorts of other conditions. Hopefully, some of them are not being targeted because they are not committing crimes and are not going on to commit crimes, although perhaps that is hope over experience.

Often, custody is the appropriate response, but it is most important to ensure that the offender receives the sentence that balances both the need for punishment with appropriate conditions to tackle their reoffending behaviour. The probation service makes informed recommendations to the court through the pre-sentence report and some prolific offenders will receive community sentences, but with the right conditions to ensure that they are effectively managed in the community and with the right interventions to tackle the risk of reoffending. This is not a soft option; the statistics demonstrate that this approach works.

To enable local areas to continue to benefit from this work, we included the prolific offender programme specifically as one of the Government’s 198 national indicators. Those indicators, collectively, reflect the Government’s national priority outcomes for local authorities working alone or in partnership. They were announced as part of the 2007 comprehensive spending review, following the local government White Paper “Strong and Prosperous Communities”. The inclusion of the prolific and other priority offender programme as one of those indicators is a clear demonstration of the Government’s continued support for the programme and the priority that we attach to its delivery.

Local areas select their own priorities in consultation with regional government offices. These priorities, as the hon. Gentleman knows, are set out in the area’s local area agreement. With every local authority area selecting up to 35 indicators, I am sure that, as he has said, we all welcome the fact that Northamptonshire has included the prolific offender programme indicator in its agreement. What that means for Northamptonshire, in practical terms, is that it has signed up to an improvement target to reduce reoffending among those offenders that the local agencies classify as prolific or other priority offenders by 19 per cent. in the course of the current year.

Containing the behaviour of problematic offenders will have a positive impact on the quality of life for the hon. Gentleman’s constituents. Additionally, reducing reoffending by prolific and other priority offenders
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is a key partnership outcome identified in the Northamptonshire local policing and performance plan for 2008 to 2011.

This is not the end of the story. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the problem of young offenders in his constituency and I understand the issues that he raised. However, there is a wider issue to consider. Tackling today’s prolific offenders may have, and does have, an immediate and positive impact that cannot be underestimated. But if we are to sustain that impact, we need to identify the next generation of prolific offenders, wherever possible before they begin offending, and certainly before offending has become a way of life for them. This is very much the focus of the youth crime action plan that the Government published in July.

I will not run through all the specifics of the youth crime action plan, but as I have been talking about the prolific and other priority offender programme, I will just mention that this programme includes a strand of activity intended to prevent and deter the next generation of young people from becoming tomorrow’s prolific offenders. Youth offending teams play a key part in delivering the prevent and deter strand of the prolific offender programme and that is fully aligned with work being undertaken by the Youth Justice Board to deliver a new risk-based approach, which will ensure that interventions for young offenders are tailored to the individual and based on an assessment of their risks and needs. I know that this approach chimes with the work already being done in Northamptonshire, and it is a key part of what is done in working with the police, housing providers, education providers and the youth offending service.

Tackling today’s prolific offenders can have immediate impact, but if we can successfully intervene now and prevent the next generation from following in their footsteps, then the benefits to the community are probably inestimable.

National programmes and initiatives are only ever as good as the willingness, ability and capacity of local partnerships to deliver. There is a clear role for central Government in helping to facilitate partnership delivery against clear outcomes set out in an area’s local area agreement. We will continue to do that.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Kettering for securing this debate and I hope that we can continue the dialogue that we have started today. My door is open in the same way as my predecessor’s door was open. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will join me—should I be joining him?—in praising the work of his local police and partnerships for all the work that they have done and all the work that they will go on doing in the future.

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Local Government Standards Boards

1 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): You will be aware, Mr. Key, that I applied for this debate before the recess, so I had a chance to prepare a Castro-like peroration, which I have had to condense to a mere 20 minutes or so.

How we handle complaints about councillors—their reputation and integrity—is a big subject. I think we all agree that there was probably never a time when there were no complaints, every elected representative was considered to be a pillar of the community and integrity was presupposed, but there have been eras with less scrutiny and transparency than today. In Southport, we had our own council for many decades, but even that council had unfortunate episodes featuring a certain Mr. Poulson and prominent councillors, some of whom I am sad to say were Liberals and got themselves into trouble. Some of them went to jail.

I was a councillor for 13 years, party leader and eventually council leader. I can honestly say that during my time on Sefton council, which now covers Southport, I detected no corruption and was genuinely impressed by the rigorous checks and balances, particularly when finance and contracts were involved. During that period there were plenty of development and contestable planning applications, but that may not have been the pattern elsewhere, although I believe that it was the general pattern throughout the UK. It was probably less obviously the pattern where councils were a one-party state, and decisions were not necessarily made in the open, and transfers of political power were not seriously contested or were a foregone conclusion.

I do not deny that during that period there was a litany of sad cases in journals such as Private Eye, which detailed some of the things that went wrong, but my view was that councillors are genuinely people of integrity by and large, and that councils are generally free of corruption. Notwithstanding that, I have encountered—and still encounter—members of the public who assure me that corruption is the norm and seem not to think it insulting to say so volubly, even in the presence of public servants who administer public affairs.

The reality for most councillors is that there is not much glory or respect at the moment, but a lot of hard work, many complaints and sometimes little recognition for addressing those complaints and dealing with them. They accept, by and large, that the ultimate judge of their worth is the electorate, who hire and fire them. For years, that assessment has been thought to be sufficient. Councillors have been subject to criminal, constitutional, civil and administrative law, and ultimately the electorate’s verdict. For many years, that recipe stood councillors in good stead and ensured that they were good citizens and that councils were run openly, transparently and legitimately. However, it was thought, as much by the Labour Government as anyone else, not to work too well when elections were uncontested or a foregone conclusion. Some people believed that the Labour Government did not do enough in such circumstances to raise the standards and calibre of councillors. Without being too blunt about it, it was thought that drunks, thugs and venal people were sometimes elected notwithstanding the system.

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