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I am pleased to have the opportunity to open this debate on such an important subject. Over the past 10 years we have seen real progress in tackling crime—the British crime survey shows that overall crime is down 48 per cent. since 1995, and our streets are safer as a result—but crime is still a major concern for the public. The public are essential to tackling crime, as is confidence in the police and other criminal justice agencies. Louise Casey was commissioned by the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and others to carry out a review of the public’s experience of crime and how we can support them in the fight against it. The review findings show that 67 per cent. of people would not know whom to complain to if they were not happy with the way their local area was being policed. They also show that the public want more say on policing their neighbourhoods, and that 68 per cent. of people agree that someone in their local community should hold the police to account.

We listened to the public, who told us that they want a criminal justice system that meets the needs of victims. They also want to know about what happens to those who have committed a crime—in the review, 90 per cent. of people we asked said that they thought that they were not told enough about what happens to the perpetrators of crime when they are convicted. Notwithstanding the excellent progress that the police and other partners have made, we cannot ignore what the public tell us: bold leadership and action are needed. We are on the side of the public, but the findings show that the public want us to go even further.

In July, we published the policing Green Paper, “From the Neighbourhood to the National: Policing Our Communities Together”, which will put in place radical reforms to transform the relationship between the Government, the police and the public to provide a more consistent, visible and accessible service that is responsive, meets public needs and expectations, deals with local priorities and keeps people informed. A key commitment in the Green Paper was the policing pledge, which for the first time will give the public a clear minimum standard of service to which they are entitled. The pledge will deliver what the public want from the police, and, for the first time, the public will know the minimum standard of service that they will receive. The public will be told how they can contact the police, what response to expect, and how they will be kept informed if they become victims of crime. It commits to high-visibility neighbourhood policing teams and monthly public meetings, so that neighbourhoods can hold the police to account.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): One of the best ways in which police forces can become more visible is by recruiting and attracting special constables, but since this Government came to office the number of specials has, according to the Home Office’s own figures, fallen from 19,874 to 14,547. In my policing area in
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Northamptonshire, their numbers are down from 316 to 180. What is the Home Office doing to reverse that trend?

Mr. Coaker: I shall come on to that subject later in my remarks, but I should say that I went out with the specials in Nottingham last Friday as part of national specials week, which was not only about trying to encourage more people to become specials, but about highlighting the excellent work that they do. I am sure that the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), who is sat next to the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), will know even better than many of us the excellent work that specials do.

I have talked to my local police, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman has in Northamptonshire, and they say to me that, although they may not have on the books as many specials as they used to, they are far more active now. He should talk to the chief constable of Northamptonshire, as I speak to chief constables throughout the country. They tell me that the work that the specials do is greater now than it ever has been, and that more specials are involved in neighbourhood policing teams and in the various tasks that we would expect them to do. Of course it is important that we have more and more specials, but I want to see them not just as a number on a piece of paper, but as active police officers in the best sense of the word. Just to reinforce the point, if the hon. Gentleman looks into the issue, he will find that the number of specials who are active and out and about is greater now than it has been. However, we will always try to recruit more specials and get more involved.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): Does the Minister agree that another way of supporting the police locally is through effective neighbourhood watch schemes? May I draw to his attention the excellent work of Heather Shaw, the London borough of Sutton’s neighbourhood watch co-ordinator, and the concerns that she has raised with me about the level of support, in terms of information and literature, that is provided from the centre to neighbourhood watches throughout the country? Will he look into that matter?

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman is perfectly right to draw attention to the excellent work that neighbourhood watches do in his constituency and throughout the country, acting as the eyes and ears of the police. It involves active citizenship in the best sense of the word. There is always an issue about information and support, and we will always consider representations from local neighbourhood watches about how we can improve the websites that we operate and the information that we put out. If there is a problem in respect of a neighbourhood watch in his constituency, he can write to me and I shall look into it for him.

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): The Minister is generous in giving way three times in rapid succession. I, too, went out with the specials—in Chesterfield last Friday night as part of national specials week. I spent seven hours on the beat with Section Officer Mick Bagshaw and a number of other specials. That night, 11 specials were on duty, and that doubled the police presence in Chesterfield—it was Halloween, and a lot more low-level mischief calls and so on were expected. The specials were very effective.

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However, because Derbyshire is the fourth worst funded police authority in the country, it cannot afford enough vehicles to ensure that the specials have the mobility that vehicles provide. The specials do a lot of beat work as well, of course, but the shortage of vehicles is a big problem. The Government themselves say that Derbyshire needs £5 million more a year, but will not give it the money. Can that problem not be resolved, so that more specials, more police community support officers, which whom I shall be going out on the beat shortly, and more regular officers—I have already been out on the beat with some of them—get back on patrol?

Mr. Coaker: If I could find the figures in my folder quickly enough, I would be able to demonstrate to the hon. Gentleman the significant increase in funding to Derbyshire police and the historic policing levels in Derbyshire and across the country in terms of police officers, PCSOs—which did not exist a few years ago—and police staff.

The hon. Gentleman claims that a lack of vehicles has affected the operational capacity of specials; no doubt, he will take the matter up with the chief constable. Let me just say that I agree very much with him about the important role played by specials. Having 11 specials in Chesterfield is an excellent tribute to the specials in his area. The fact that many Members of Parliament have been out with specials as part of national specials week shows the importance that MPs on both sides of the House attach to specials’ work in communities up and down the country.

At local level, the pledge declares that the police will be with the public within an hour in response to calls about agreed neighbourhood priorities for which police attendance is required. The pledge gives people the right to meet their local team and others in the community at least once a month to agree priorities and action to tackle them. It also says that neighbourhood policing teams will spend at least 80 per cent. of their time visibly working on behalf of the public in their neighbourhood. Essex police force is the first in the country to meet fully the national standards and commitments in the policing pledge, but by the end of the year all 43 police forces will be delivering the policing pledge for their communities.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I welcome the Minister to his new position at the Home Office. On the policing pledge, there is concern about how the police inform victims about the progress of cases. That is a real worry for people. Ian Johnston recently said that 40 per cent. of the public felt that, following dealings with the police, they were less likely to have confidence in them. Will the Minister assure the House that the pledge will include communication with the public about their cases, which is a matter of real concern?

Mr. Coaker: I thank my right hon. Friend for his warm welcome, for which I am particularly grateful as he is Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. He makes an important point. Communication will be a hugely important part of the pledge. As I have said, one of the things that undermines the confidence of local communities is their not knowing what has happened in relation to a crime that they have been the victim of. It is
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also important to remember that the pledge is not only national; there will also be a local aspect to it, negotiated at local level.

I have always felt that that one issue can undermine policing in an area. Sometimes there is a problem with a young person or a serial offender and their victims complain to the police. A few weeks later, people meet the victims and ask them how things are and they say, “Oh, it’s a lot better. By the way, what’s happened to so and so?” They do not know that the offender has been arrested, been charged and is in custody. Although they end up being informed of that, knowing that something has been done about somebody who has caused problems is reassuring for the victim and the community. My right hon. Friend has raised a real issue, and we will make sure that it plays an important part in the work that we are doing.

To help to ensure that the police are accountable for their pledge, we propose that crime and policing representatives be elected by each community to chair the district’s crime and disorder reduction partnership and sit on the police authority. They will be one of the main voices of the community and provide a much needed point of contact for those around them. More on that will be announced in due course.

The Home Secretary recently announced an investment of £5 million to establish a community crime fighter programme to help local people to tackle crime in their neighbourhood. By the end of next year, more than 3,600 local people will be trained as community crime fighters—that represents one person for each of the neighbourhood policing teams. The Home Secretary also announced this week the 60 pioneer areas, covering almost 15 million people—more than one in four of the population of England and Wales—that have committed to work with the Government and push their local services further and faster, to get more effectively on their local public’s side in the fight against crime, thus taking forward some of the key recommendations in Louise Casey’s review.

The public want the police to be visible in their local streets. There are 13,500 police sergeants and constables supported by 16,000 police community support officers, the specials and police staff. We now have a network of teams and officers dedicated to their local communities. To answer specifically the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering, I should say that we will have 6,000 new special constables over the next three years, and that we are also investing £2.25 million that will see 20,000 special constables working alongside police community support officers.

As I said, last Friday—Halloween evening—I was out with special constables in my area. It was particularly reassuring to see how they were integrated with the neighbourhood policing team, rather than being a bolt-on or add-on service that just turned up. They were an integral part of what was happening to tackle crime in the area. I am sure that the Members who have mentioned specials and been out with them will have seen that for themselves in their own areas. It would be remiss of me not to thank the specials for the sometimes dangerous work that they do, and I also thank all our police officers, PCSOs and police staff very publicly for what they do on our behalf.

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This year, more than 400 local agencies took part in “Not in my neighbourhood” week, which provides local partners—including crime and disorder reduction partnerships, local police, neighbourhood watch schemes and community organisations—with a national banner under which they can publicise the work being done to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour. However, successful neighbourhood policing is not about telling the police what needs to be done and then sitting back on our laurels. We need to establish dialogue. The neighbourhood policing approach needs people to get involved and to work with the police and other local agencies in taking back some of the ground lost to antisocial behaviour and, where necessary, reclaiming the streets, parks, buses and other public spaces for the law-abiding majority. I am pleased that that is happening in communities throughout England and Wales.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Does the Minister understand that if we are to encourage greater public engagement in helping to fight crime, the public must have confidence that when criminals are caught they will be appropriately dealt with? There is growing disillusionment with the Government’s early release scheme, which, since it was introduced last year, has allowed some 800 crimes to be committed by people who should have been in prison. What are the Government going to do to put that right?

Mr. Coaker: We are trying to build confidence in the criminal justice system. People will often debate, often without the full facts, what sentences should be given for crimes committed in a particular area. I am told—although this is where neighbourhood policing partnerships provide reassurance—that one of the things that most undermines the public’s confidence in the police, in the criminal justice system and in Governments is their feeling that there is not a proper chance of people being apprehended for a crime. Of course we want people who commit crimes to be properly dealt with by the courts, and by and large they are. When people feel that police are working in their area and dealing with problems that are brought to their attention, their confidence will rise. No doubt that is what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in constituencies around the country.

Let me give one or two good examples of the things that are happening in communities. A local co-ordinator for the neighbourhood watch group on an estate in the Wirral assisted the neighbourhood policing team to gather intelligence on a family in her road who were the main cause of antisocial behaviour in the area. The road was highlighted at a tasking and co-ordinating meeting as the source of more than 50 per cent. of the police’s antisocial behaviour calls. The community problem-solving, multi-agency approach has reduced these calls to zero, reducing the fear of crime and antisocial behaviour. That is a powerful example of what can be achieved. I know that Members on both sides of the House will have their own examples of what has happened in their constituencies when people have worked together to overcome problems.

There is a lot of debate about us as a society doing the “right thing”, and what that is. There are many ways for people to do this—not necessarily putting themselves in harm’s way, but taking steps such as engaging with
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the neighbourhood policing team, reporting a crime, or even just dialling 999 and not turning a blind eye. Public engagement is not just about seeking people’s views on what we are doing, or even their support, although of course both those things are important. We want to involve the public directly in what we are trying to achieve, delivering community-led solutions to matters of concern.

That can be seen clearly in many aspects of our work, including on preventing violent extremism—one of the most important challenges that the Government are facing. A key element of our counter-terrorism strategy aims to stop people becoming or supporting terrorists or violent extremists in the first place and to draw back those who are already involved. We will support local leaders who want to stand up to violent extremism and racism, and increase their capacity to shape the future of their communities.

I am sure that many Members are concerned about violent crime in their constituencies. We are determined to tackle that problem. We know that there are areas that have greater problems with knives, and that is why we are targeting 10 police force areas, just as we did four areas last year, to bring down gun and gang crime, which has since decreased by more than 50 per cent. In those areas, we did what the public asked us to do. They wanted to see tough enforcement of the law and to ensure that perpetrators or those who sought to use violence in their communities were dealt with robustly by the police. However, they also told us that as well as the robust action that had to lead the work that we were doing, it was important to try to prevent violence happening in the first place by diverting young people in particular away from a life of crime. By listening to the public, we identified how we would tackle those problems.

We spent a long time talking not only to the police and to local authorities but to faith organisations, voluntary organisations and residents’ associations about what we should be doing as a Government to try to tackle these issues. Part of the problem in these debates is that one can sometimes be seen as somebody who talks about the need for tough enforcement or, on the other hand, as somebody who believes only in prevention and diversion, whereas in reality, as we all know, we have to bring all those things together. The public told us not to engage in sterile debates about who is tougher than whom, because although tough enforcement is necessary we must also ensure that we do all the other things that are necessary.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): The Minister is describing the crime profile in various areas, but there are enormous variations. Does he agree that borough commanders and chief constables know the crime profile of their own area better than anyone because they have local knowledge, and that they should have control over their personnel budgets in deciding on, for example, the proportion of police community support officers and fully trained constables who have more policing power?

Mr. Coaker: We want chief constables to be operationally independent. Just over a year ago, we removed the ring-fencing fom some of the money that was going to the police so that chief constables would have more discretion in how they spend it and how they allocate their budgets. That is important.

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If we are talking about operational independence, the Home Office will have a single confidence target, under which people will be asked whether they think the police and their partners are effective in reducing crime in their area. That is the target we need and the way in which we can see whether chief constables and others are doing an effective job in their area. It will allow chief constables to have the operational independence that they need to identify the crime profile in their area and to task their officers, police staff and PCSOs accordingly. They will then be judged on the single target of whether people in their area believe that the police have been effective in reducing crime and have confidence in what they are doing about it. I agree with the hon. Lady and I hope that some of the things we are doing will deal with her point.

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): I agree with the Minister that one of the best ways of dealing with crime is to intervene early, before any unlawful behaviour has even been thought about. In the responses that the public have given, has he found that people raised the subject of the Criminal Records Bureau and the complications that face those who wish to work in a voluntary capacity to assist in preventing unlawful behaviour before it is even thought about? If they have said that, can he update us on the progress that is being made to ensure that the process is simpler and not repetitive?

Mr. Coaker: We are trying to ensure that all of our systems are effective and simple. We keep the matter of the Criminal Records Bureau under review, and we will act as necessary when it is appropriate to do so.

Investment in the youth of the UK is an investment in our future—something with which I know we all agree. We are allocating money to help to prevent young people from becoming involved in crime and antisocial behaviour. We will tackle youth crime through early intervention—a point just made by the hon. Gentleman—non-negotiable support and tough enforcement. This summer, that commitment was proved by the publication of the youth crime action plan and the youth alcohol action plan. We are trying to reach young people by using new technologies. The youth knife crime campaign recently allowed us to include an “It Doesn’t Have To Happen” page on Bebo, the social networking site which is the hub of the campaign. To date, it has 6,143 friends, and has received more than 66,000 visits and 1,320 wall posts. It also uses two viral adverts showing the physical and emotional consequences of carrying a knife. We developed those campaigns in co-operation with young people.

We talk about the involvement of the public in tackling crime, and the involvement of young people is an important part of that. The Government need to reflect—as all of us do, sometimes—on the fact that young people have asked us not to communicate with them in the way that we have always communicated with the public. We need to think about the new ways of communicating, such as the internet, and the use of radio stations, TV advertising and digital communication. Those methods will get to young people in a way that more traditional ways of communicating do not. That is what we tried to do through the campaign that I mentioned.

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