Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Graham Stuart: I could not help hearing the Minister say, from a sedentary position, that the jury would throw it out. Surely that misses the point entirely. The point is that today the House, and Ministers in particular, must send the public the message that the
6 Nov 2008 : Column 411
prosecuting authorities should not take action against people when any sensible jury will dismiss the charges. It is not enough to say that a jury will protect people; we need to know that we have a prosecuting system that will protect those who do the right thing.

James Brokenshire: I entirely agree. How appalling it would be if we said “Let us leave it to the members of the jury. Let them be the people to decide, exercising their discretion at the time. Let us leave everything hanging over this individual for six months until a conclusion is reached.” That is why the Crown prosecutors must have clarification of what is in the public interest. I am surprised that the Minister does not seem to grasp the point.

There are other ways in which people can become involved: through neighbourhood watch schemes, about which we have already heard this afternoon, through participation in community police beat panels, and by holding those responsible for community safety to account. We strongly believe in giving better information to the public through crime mapping, which allows people to assess crime levels in their areas and hold the police to account.

In cities all over America, police forces regularly publish information about crimes in their areas: the type of crime, when it took place and where. Anyone can take the information and overlay it on an online map. It is a way of giving people unprecedented information about crimes in their areas and enabling social entrepreneurs, drugs charities and a host of other organisations to pick out the hot spots, see what needs to be done, and transform neighbourhoods.

Crime mapping has revolutionised the way in which crimes are fought in American cities, and it could do the same here. We would be able to map a large number of offences at street level for the first time, while being sensitive to issues of victim protection and privacy. I welcome the lead taken by Mayor Boris Johnson on this important innovation in London. I also welcome the Home Office’s late conversion to our way of thinking. At the same time as mandating every force to release local crime statistics each month, we would ensure that quarterly beat meetings were held in every neighbourhood. That would give local people an opportunity to assess the preceding three months’ crime figures and make the police responsible for taking action.

We would cut the bureaucracy and targets to get the police out on to the streets to engage the public day in day out, week in week out. The Government, however, have opted for a much more cumbersome and bureaucratic approach. Their latest supposed new idea is the “councillor call to action”—an idea so cutting-edge that it first appeared in the White Paper “Building Communities, Beating Crime”, published in November 2004, which has been languishing on the statute book shelf gathering dust since Royal Assent was given to the Police and Justice Act 2006. It creates a statutory duty for councillors to respond to complaints made to them within a specified time, with the ability to escalate the matter to an overview and scrutiny committee, which can then take written reports and call police officers and other agencies into meetings to explain what they are doing. Given more paperwork, more reports, more police time off the street and less action, it is hardly surprising that when it
6 Nov 2008 : Column 412
was debated during proceedings on the Police and Justice Bill, it was considered to be a last-ditch measure. We begin to wonder for whom!

Then there is what is described as “participatory budgeting”, a further bureaucratic process to engage the public in budget-setting and priorities. Described as a key activity in the Government’s entertainingly entitled White Paper “Communities in control: real people, real power”, the national consultation on participatory budgeting was so successful in engaging the public that it received a massive 14 responses from individuals. Yet again, it looks more like ticking the boxes than tackling the problem—mistaking meaningless public-sector posturing for meaningful public engagement.

The latest initiative, announced this week, is the creation of neighbourhood crime and justice co-ordinators in what have been described as “pioneer areas” in the brave new world that the Government are trying to conquer. The problem is that it is a world entirely of their own making. These council co-ordinators will largely have little more than a public relations role of telling the public about a policing pledge that has largely been implemented by forces in any case—the policing pledge criticised by the TaxPayers Alliance as wasting time and public money on “stating the blindingly obvious”. It will amount to more publicity and less proactivity.

Instead, we need to promote active partnerships on the ground, working within communities. Cutting antisocial behaviour and underage drinking can be achieved by co-ordinated practical steps, such as initiatives like the community alcohol project in St. Neots in Cambridgeshire, bringing together parents, pupils, businesses, police and council trading standards, and by giving councils a much stronger say over licensing and the terms attached to alcohol licences. Rather than focusing on more rules, regulations and procedures, we need to focus on how we can give greater power and authority to communities.

Part of this local engagement will come through greater local accountability. We believe that effective policing is neighbourhood policing—the closer to the community, the better. For that reason, we believe it is necessary to reform the governance arrangements for the police force as a whole. Instead of being directed by, and accountable to, the Home Secretary, police forces should be directed by, and accountable to, the communities they serve.

We would make each police force accountable to an individual directly elected by the citizens of the police force area. Police commissioners would be responsible for setting the budget, appointing and dismissing the chief constable, setting local priorities, monitoring how well the police perform against local targets and ensuring best value from the local police budget. Chief constables would remain in place, free to make decisions in accordance with their professional judgment and oath, and accountable to the elected commissioner in terms of explaining their decisions and how their force is run. The operational independence of police forces will be strengthened, not weakened, as ministerial micro-management is scaled back.

We believe that this governance arrangement with police commissioners working with the local delivery partners of the crime and disorder reduction partnerships
6 Nov 2008 : Column 413
provides a much clearer and more effective mechanism for bridging the accountability gap and ensuring that services to fight crime meet the needs of the local community and engage the public.

Chris Huhne: I am delighted that there is now agreement among Members of all parties that we need the benefits derived from decentralisation that the hon. Gentleman describes. However, as he will be aware, the policing community is anxious that the proposal to elect one person for an entire force area could cause tremendous politicisation of policing, which would not be helpful. In particular, they fear that such a proposal would fail to represent many of the minority communities that exist in areas such as Greater Manchester, Merseyside, the west midlands or that covered by the Metropolitan police. How can the hon. Gentleman assure people that the system he proposes would adequately represent minorities, so that their voice would be heard?

James Brokenshire: I think that can be achieved through the police commissioner working with crime and disorder reduction partnerships, which are at the community level. They represent the varied communities in the area, and they are the delivery partner to crack down on crime and to deliver on the crime prevention initiatives, which are a key aspect in the creation of the safer communities we all want.

However, I disagree with the Government approach to accountability in that I take issue with their proposal for crime and policing representatives, and with the Liberal Democrats’ approach in their apparent proposal for a two thirds elected, one third councillors, plus a top-up, arrangement. Under the Government’s plans, elected people would sit alongside other elected representatives on police authorities and, importantly, would chair crime and disorder reduction partnerships. If the Government think this solution will provide clarity to the public and bridge the accountability gap, they are fooling themselves—as are the Liberal Democrats in terms of their proposals—and they also risk undermining the effectiveness of CDRPs.

The Government are right that local councils should provide the primary leadership behind CDRPs as the mechanism to deliver local community engagement and crime reduction. The problem is that at the moment many are police led rather than council led. Police officers are effectively taking the lead and running the initiatives. When so many of the services come through local councils, primary care trusts and other such agencies, that cannot be the most effective way to deliver on the ground the initiatives that can help make a difference in those communities. If the crime and policing representatives are intended to chair the CDRPs, it is difficult to see how that structure could possibly encourage councils to take a leading role, as the Government appear to be suggesting. It looks more like a recipe for confusion, chaos and division.

Rather than yet another cosmetic exercise, we believe that we need a fundamental change of thinking. We need active citizens, not overactive Government. We need stronger communities, not stronger central control. We need Government to be on our side, not on our
6 Nov 2008 : Column 414
backs. The public have an essential role in the fight against crime, that is without doubt, and to return to Peel’s nine points of policing,

Policing and the public go hand in hand.

Angela Watkinson: Does my hon. Friend agree that an essential part of public engagement is the accessibility of the police, and that an essential part of running a police station is to ensure that enough staff are available to answer the phones when the public are trying to get in touch and give information?

James Brokenshire: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and whatever pledges may be made, written on a card or written down in a Government document, accessibility is key. People need to know that if they contact the police, someone will actually respond. I know that my hon. Friend has had some interesting local difficulties in getting responses to her own inquiries.

Trust and confidence are essential, and policing and the public go hand in hand: if we are to engage the public in the fight against crime, as the Government claim, that is absolutely essential. The problem with this Government is that they just cannot stop being the thick insulating glove that keeps the two apart.

3.2 pm

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). I served with him for more than two years on the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee. He was then very quiet and studious, intervening in a most helpful way in the surroundings of a Select Committee. He has turned into a veritable Rottweiler since joining the Front-Bench team. I do not know whether it was the influence of the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), who is sitting on his right, that made him find his proper bearings. I am sorry that the shadow Home Secretary has just left. It used to be good cop, bad cop; we now have bad cop, bad cop: two very strong local PCs, with the divisional commander, the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve), who has just left the Chamber, as a benign chief superintendent looking after the two PCs.

The Opposition used to quote Rudy Giuliani as their model for dealing with crime; it is now Cherie Blair and Louise Casey. How things have changed. At least they have not quoted President-elect Obama. This must be the first debate since Tuesday in which nobody has mentioned him—so I thought I would anyway, just in case people felt that I was not being supportive of him.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) on his promotion in the Home Office to the role of Minister of State; it is a very worthy promotion and he will be a superb police Minister. He is of course the son of a police officer himself. I am not sure whether he arrived at his first meeting saying, in the words of “Dixon of Dock Green”, “Evening all”, but we certainly have someone in the job with enormous ability and an understanding of the police force, and we are very proud of what he has done so far. We in the east midlands are extremely proud to have him as our
6 Nov 2008 : Column 415
local Minister. Anyone who can go out on Halloween with the specials in Nottingham deserves our respect and thanks.

I am sure that we will also hear from the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), who has taken over the old job of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling. We welcome him to his new position. I am sure that, as a former Whip, he has been preparing to be junior police Minister for the past four years or so.

May I congratulate the Government? I feel that I must do so in order to redress what has been said by Conservative Members, even though, as Chair of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, I try not to be a Government patsy. I thank the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing for ensuring that one of his first acts in post was to settle the police pay dispute for this year by giving them a settlement lasting three years at 2.6 per cent. That was the best and the right thing to do in the circumstances. Like me, he and the Prime Minister, along with many right hon. and hon. Members of the House, attended the Police Dependants Trust event only yesterday, when the Prime Minister rightly paid tribute to the work of the police and the exceptional nature of their job. I am so glad that this year I will not need to spend the period before Christmas joining the police on a big march through London saying to the Government, “Please pay up on the police award.”

The Government did the right thing. We must never be in a situation where the Government and the police fall out over pay, and the Government should always abide by the decision of any independent arbitration, rather than leave officers, who have no ability to strike, to take to the streets to demonstrate. Perhaps that is all in the past, so I say to the Government, “Well done. Thank you for doing that. It is a good thing to get out of your in-tray.”

The shadow police Minister mentioned the appointment of Jan Berry. It is another case of the Government’s appointments being used against them, but the Home Secretary was right to appoint her to her position. She is not quite poacher turned gamekeeper, but I hope that her vast experience will mean that she will be able to assist the Government in their difficult task. Everyone on both sides of the House agrees—I have heard this so many times in debates on crime and policing over the past two years—on the need to cut police bureaucracy. Someone said that we should have a bonfire of targets. We should do that, so I think that Jan Berry’s appointment is a very good thing, and I hope that the Government will be able to listen to her sensible suggestions.

At midnight on Monday, the Home Affairs Committee will publish its long report into policing in the 21st century. We began our inquiry in February, and it has taken a great deal of time. One member of the Committee is in his place, the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies), and another, the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake), has just left the Chamber—he will doubtless pop back in during this debate. They will attest to the fact that the Committee took a great deal of time over the report, listening to a large number of witnesses and travelling the country—we visited Reading, Monmouth, Staffordshire and Manchester to take evidence. I hope that the House will be pleased with the report. I have to be careful that I do not inadvertently tell the
6 Nov 2008 : Column 416
House what is in it, because it has been embargoed and we must not allow leaks, even to the House itself. I hope that everyone will be waiting outside Her Majesty’s Stationery Office on Monday to receive their copy at one minute past midnight.

The hon. Member for Hornchurch takes public engagement in fighting crime literally, in his new guise as Mr. Nasty. That public engagement does not necessarily mean that the public have to fight crime themselves, although I understand the circumstances in which he and others feel it is necessary to do so. He should acknowledge the copyright of the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), another member of the Home Affairs Committee, who originally put through this House a private Member’s Bill on so-called have-a-go heroes as a result of the situation in his constituency. Of course, there are circumstances in which such an approach is necessary and important.

More importantly, however, we need to get the public on side. Fighting crime should be above party politics; and I am surprised that after so many years it still is not. Unless we engage the public in fighting crime, we cannot fulfil the lofty ambitions of Sir Robert Peel quoted by the hon. Member for Hornchurch. I know that that sounds like centuries ago—certainly longer ago than “Dixon of Dock Green”—but core values are extremely important to tackling crime. Everyone acknowledges that the nature of crime has changed since the days of Robert Peel—for example, we have internet crime, which of course was not possible then—but those core values remain important.

To borrow a phrase from new Labour, we need core values in a modern setting. We must make them relevant to the lives of ordinary people. That is why, on 17 November, with the help of the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) and the deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, the Select Committee will launch another inquiry into knife crime. We felt that it was important to involve all political parties, hence the involvement of the hon. Gentleman, the deputy Mayor and others—although, sadly, the leader of the Conservative party could not attend because of diary commitments.

It is important to reach a consensus on how to deal with issues such as knife crime, and crime in general. That is what the public want; they do not want to see us squabbling—not that we have been squabbling today; we have to put forward our different ideological views. However, on crime, the public expect us to be above party politics. Crime affects every member of the public—men, women and children—from birth to death. Everyone, at some point, will be involved in the criminal justice system, whether individually or through a family member, either as the perpetrator—of course, that does not apply to anyone in this House—or, more likely, as a victim, or as somebody who knows a victim, observes a crime or reads a newspaper. The responsibility for everyone to rise above politics is extremely important.

I also praise Louise Casey—we are all quoting her like mad, even though she is not here—who has done a pretty good job. She has been allowed to do some “blue-sky thinking”—as it is called—on the Government’s crime policy. She is right to mention the public’s worry that crime is rising, although statistics tell us that it is falling—that is what the British crime survey has told us
6 Nov 2008 : Column 417
for the past 11 years. We must overcome that difference in perception, which has been identified by the Opposition and acknowledged by the Government.

We must have faith in the organisation and the individuals fighting crime for us—the police. They need to be well paid, well resourced and well respected. Ian Johnston, the head of the Police Superintendents Association, told his conference:

Next Section Index Home Page