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When I intervened on the Minister, I mentioned that more than 40 per cent. of those who have had contact with the police have less confidence after their experience than before. Those are the worst figures in the public sector, which should worry the Government and chief constables. This Government have invested more money in fighting crime than any other—the Opposition will probably not accept that, but the statistics bear it out. The police are better resourced than ever before. However, when I try to intervene in cases and ring a police constable—yes, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee actually does this—to find out what is happening, often I am told that the police officer in charge of the case is either sick, out of the office or at lunch and will ring me back. Even I—an elected representative trying to intervene in a case—have found a lack of proper communication. That is the first thing that we need to consider.

Mr. Graham Stuart: What is the right hon. Gentleman’s analysis of our analysis of the problem, which is that there is a lack of accountability? We need to return police accountability to local people. There is cricked-neck management of the police, because they are for ever looking up to the Home Office. If they could only look down at their local population and be accountable to someone elected by that population, the chief constable would have a shield of protection from interfering Home Secretaries and would be able to police for local people and thus repair the divide about which the right hon. Gentleman speaks so powerfully.

Keith Vaz: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need better accountability, but I do not criticise the Home Office for intervening. The Home Secretary and other Ministers intervene not for the sheer hell of it but to try to make sure that the public’s demands are met.

Some sections of the Conservative party have proposed having elected chief constables, but I would not go that far—although the hon. Member for Hornchurch did not say that that proposal was still Opposition policy. I am not sure that that is the right way to proceed, but there needs to be a much more visible presence for elected police authorities.

I think that I can name just two members of Leicestershire police authority. Its chairman is Byron Rhodes, a Conservative councillor who does a very good job. The Labour representative on the authority is Piara Claire, a local councillor, but I cannot name any other members.

The visibility of police authorities is important, and that is why some of the things that Louise Casey has said should be taken to their logical conclusion. In one
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paper she has proposed that authorities should hold annual meetings and, if we are to have them, we should make sure that members of police committees are in the firing line. They, and not necessarily the chief constable, should be there to answer for what has been going on.

Similarly—and we could have a big debate about quangos—I cannot name one member of the local health trust in Leicestershire, apart from the chief executive. Who are these people? The fact is that those who dispense public money ought to be available to answer questions.

The hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) can take me all the way up to electing police committees, but not beyond that to electing chief constables. However, he has made a good point about accountability.

Mr. Stuart: For the elimination of doubt, the position of the Conservative party is that we need directly elected police commissioners who would work with chief constables. That is my personal belief too, but I want to make it clear that we are not talking about directly electing chief constables. Directly elected police commissioners would give us the visible figurehead that we need, as all the other methods that have been tried, however genuinely, have failed to deliver the accountability and public understanding that the right hon. Gentleman has just mentioned.

Keith Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Perhaps he should join his colleagues on the Front Bench, as he has given us the clearest analysis that I have heard of the Conservative party’s position. Meanwhile, the bad cops on the Opposition Front Bench were chattering to each other and missed what he said.

Simon Hughes: I want to descend to the mundane and respond to the right hon. Gentleman’s valid point about poor communications with the police. My constituents have a variable view of that, as some get good responses from the police, and some poor. Does he agree that it is imperative that the police understand that it does not really matter to people if they get a reply from a civilian, a volunteer or a police officer? What matters to them is that they get through to a real person when they phone, and that a real person phones them back with the answer that they need, and does so in a reasonable time, which is normally a day. That should not be beyond the wit of any police service in Britain. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in getting the message out that the police must understand that if they do not deliver that, they will be failing our public on a regular basis?

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman has got it absolutely right. People need to get a reply, and proper information. I did not use the case that I have just described to criticise individual officers but to show how frustrating it is even for Members of Parliament to use the system. How much more difficult must it be for our constituents? They come to our surgeries on a Friday, Saturday or Sunday and expect us to write to the local chief constable. I always do so, even though I never get a reply from my local chief constable, Matt Baggett. I do not expect to, because he is very busy, but I do expect to get a reply from somebody, at the very least. I can send that reply on to my constituents, who can pursue it for themselves.

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There is no point in the police giving out unique numbers or e-mail addresses unless someone is available to reply. Communication is very important: we do not need new laws, directives or guidelines from the Minister and the Home Secretary so much as better management and administration. Getting that message across will help to get the public on our side, and that is a very important matter.

My second point is about neighbourhood watch. In the past, it was not regarded as very important in the fight against crime, but we need to go back to praising those involved with it, and we must ensure that communities come together. That meets the point made by the hon. Member for Hornchurch: we cannot fight crime unless communities work together. We should give more support to neighbourhood watch. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington is not in the Chamber, because he raised the point when he intervened on the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing. The people involved are our local heroes and heroines. I know that some are criticised; there is an amused attitude to some because they peer from behind their net curtains to see what is happening in the road, but thank goodness that they do.

The “good neighbour” policy should be the bedrock of our fight against crime. If one sees a neighbour’s house being burgled, one does not just go back to the sitting room, watch telly and have a cup of tea. One picks up the phone and rings the police. I am not sure that I am with the hon. Member for Hornchurch; if I saw my neighbour’s house being burgled—I am not often at my house, being a Member of this House—I am not sure whether I would be prepared to rush out and challenge the burglar. I am not sure whether I have that kind of confidence, or whether I would qualify, on age grounds, as being able to do that. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) talked about a robust citizen; that may apply to anyone of any age. If a burglary is taking place, people should at the very least pick up a phone and ring the police.

James Brokenshire: The right hon. Gentleman described me as a Rottweiler, but I hope that he will take on board the fact that my point was not that someone should automatically rush out in the circumstances that he described, but that they should not actively feel that they are prohibited or prevented from doing so by the structure or operation of the law.

Keith Vaz: I was only teasing the hon. Gentleman a little, and trying to do his career some good by saying how right wing he is on policing matters. I have now completely forgotten what I was going to say.

Mr. Coaker: Burglary.

Keith Vaz: I thank the Minister for that prompt. We must value good neighbours. The good neighbour is one of the building blocks of a successful local community policing scheme. The other building block is the beat police officer. I have been to numerous residents’ meetings at which residents have nothing good to say about the police and their response time, but at which they praise the beat officer as if he were the new messiah. That is because they see the beat officer regularly. They do not hold the beat officer responsible for anything that goes
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wrong with the criminal justice system. They see that beat officer, and are very grateful. The system has somehow become detached from the person who is seen as the local bobby. We need to make sure that the system is re-engaged; what people see should somehow be fed into a system, so that there is a network to inform people that crime is occurring.

Again, I do not wish to stray into what the Home Affairs Committee will say in our report next week, but empowering citizens is important. Police should be given the confidence to realise that when people ring regularly, they are not a nuisance; they are there to help them. Sometimes, we get feedback suggesting that if people ring regularly, the attitude towards them is, “Why do they keep ringing us? We can’t do anything about it.”

We have a problem with quad bikes in Hamilton in my constituency. The quad bikes are out every weekend, and the residents ring the police station every Monday. The police feel very upset about that, because there is nothing that they can do other than rush out and arrest the young people, but they feel that they do not have the resources to do so. A partnership is needed, and that is the basis of how we can proceed.

My final point in this very important debate is that it is absolutely crucial that the Government try to build a better consensus with the Opposition parties on this issue. As to whether we need a forum in which to do that, I do not know. There are clever people in the Home Office—some of them are here today—who, I am sure, will work up some initiatives for the Minister. Somehow, we need to raise the issue above party politics, and if we can do that and pool the good ideas that exist in all parts of the House, we can fashion a new era of policing for our country. I think that we have the best police officers in the world, actually. They are brave and hard-working, but we must understand that we need to re-engage them positively with the rest of the community. Somehow, we need to involve everyone in that process, and I know that the Minister, who is consensual not confrontational, will want to think about the ways in which he can build on all the ideas that we have put forward today.

There is not a huge attendance in the House, and it may be something to do with the fact that something is happening in Scotland later this evening, but we can build on this consensus and take up these new ideas. If the Minister were to return to the House with these new ideas, we could debate them again and try to fashion a programme that was acceptable to the whole country and to all the political parties.

3.25 pm

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): I am delighted to follow, as I often do, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), but I am slightly frustrated that he was unable to give us more of the contents of his forthcoming report, which I certainly look forward to reading. He is obviously unaware that there is nothing quite so secret as a speech made in this House, particularly on a Thursday afternoon. Looking at the Press Gallery, I am afraid that there was certainly no risk of his breaking an embargo.

Public engagement in fighting crime is absolutely crucial, but unfortunately the problem is rather more deep-seated than that mentioned by the hon. Member
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for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) and importantly clarified by my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes)—the issue of have-a-go heroes. I was shocked by the survey evidence about Britain when compared with other major European countries. British residents, for example, are far less likely to challenge antisocial behaviour. In the UK, six out of 10 people said that they would be unlikely to challenge a group of 14-year-olds vandalising a bus shelter—a higher number than in any country surveyed by Laycock in research for the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science. In Germany, for example, the position is the reverse: six out of 10 people said that they would challenge the group.

We have to realise that policing by consent is a two-way process in which the public have to support the police. The police cannot operate in a void or a vacuum where the public are not prepared to come forward. The public do not have to get involved in the have-a-go hero model but, as the right hon. Member for Leicester, East said, they must report issues to the police, be prepared to give witness statements and go to court, and provide leads and intelligence for the police. It is crucial that we try to rebuild the public’s trust—although perhaps it never existed in this country. We have to stop seeing the police as a branch of a supermarket, where we spend our money, get them to do something, delegate all the effort to them and tell them to get on with it because, beyond that, we do not have any public responsibility. That is the wrong attitude.

Louise Casey, in her report, says:

She is right about that, and there was much in the report to welcome, although we thought that there were some gimmicks, too. I am not sure that I want to bring back tabards with “Community Payback” written on them. Public humiliation as part of a criminal justice strategy went out with the village stocks, and it is not likely to cut reoffending. We must concentrate on that issue.

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Hon. Members: Bring back the stocks!

Chris Huhne: I am very happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

David T.C. Davies: I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman, but for very different reasons. I do not think that these people would feel any sense of shame whatever; some of them would be quite proud to be seen out having committed a load of crimes. It is for that reason that it would not work, and not because there is anything wrong with publicly humiliating people. These people just do not care.

Chris Huhne: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, certainly about the advisability of publicly humiliating people. These things go in fashions, but when I had responsibility for a group of employees, the one thing that was always stressed to managers was that praise should be public and admonishment private. If somebody decided to humiliate one of their team, they would be
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guaranteed to lose that person’s trust and commitment. We have to be careful. The key focus of any criminal justice policy ought to be to stop reoffending and cut crime. We are not there to make somebody feel better because of punishment or humiliation, and we should always remember the key objective of cutting crime. Humiliation may not be the best way of achieving that.

Jeremy Wright: I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s latter point. Far be it from me to defend the Government, but is not Louise Casey’s point rather different from what he suggested? It is that people need to understand what is being done in community punishment, and therefore the visible exercise of such punishment is good, because it restores faith that real punishment is taking place.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman is right; that was exactly Louise Casey’s point. However, I am afraid that there would be a lot of collateral damage of the sort that I have described. There are other, more effective, ways of achieving the objective—not least, putting more resources into the probation service and making sure that community sentences are done properly. In that way, magistrates and Crown court judges will have confidence that their non-custodial sentences will be carried out effectively. That will have the effect that the hon. Gentleman and I want.

Time is marching on, and I am sure that many other Members want to speak, but I give way.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam) (LD): My hon. Friend has talked about the need for robust citizens, as has my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes). In the small hours of Halloween, I met one group of robust citizens in the high street of Sutton town centre. They were street pastors. Does my hon. Friend agree that street pastors, such as those led in Sutton by Mark Tomlinson, are one way of providing greater safety in our town centres late at night?

Chris Huhne: I very much agree; my constituency also has a street pastors scheme and the pastors do extremely good work. Unfortunately, a lot of the areas where street pastors would be most beneficial are not those where it is easiest to find volunteers for that work. There is a slight mismatch. If we could bus street pastors to areas where they were most needed, there might be a real advantage.

Simon Hughes: My hon. Friend probably thinks that Southwark is one of those areas of need, but it has a fantastic network of street pastors and others. The inner city is doing its bit and the pastors and others are very effective.

Chris Huhne: I am delighted to hear that. The provision is slightly patchy; in south Hampshire, there are active street pastor schemes that do extremely good work and I certainly praise them for that. However, there are not yet such schemes in some of the areas most at risk.

Obviously, the Liberal Democrats say yes to neighbourhood policing, involvement and policing by consent. The success of neighbourhood policing in London is very clear—it raises visibility and gives
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reassurance, and the public can see the policing take place. That is not just a cosmetic effect; it results in more intelligence leads for the police and greater witness willingness. Both those things are very good.

We also say yes to public information such as ward-level crime and detection data. Like the hon. Member for Hornchurch, I am very much in favour of crime mapping. Like all good ideas, it has many parents; failure is always an orphan. I was recently sitting next to the chairman of the West Yorkshire police authority, and he said that his authority was the first to come up with crime mapping. By all means, let us make it happen. Let us add in not only crime data, but detection data. As far as I know, my force in Hampshire is the only one that produces detection data as well as crime data at ward level. That is necessary to inform the public debate and ensure that the public can hold their local police force to account.

James Brokenshire: The hon. Gentleman refers to mapping detection rates, but several police officers have told me that those figures are very much open to manipulation and fiddling. Does he acknowledge that that is the case, and if so how would they better inform the public?

Chris Huhne: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising my next point: how we provide the public with greater reassurance about the crime figures. In categories where the statistics are politically charged, we have had periods when their credibility has been completely destroyed by a Government misusing them or an Opposition attempting to undermine them. I give the hon. Gentleman the example of the unemployment figures under the Conservative Governments of 1979 and onwards, when there were so many changes that in the end people did not believe them. There is only one solution, although he did not spell it out. We must give the Office for National Statistics a much clearer and more hands-on role in ensuring that the publication of the crime statistics, whether on a British crime survey basis or a recorded basis, is correct and that the public can have confidence in them.

To what extent is there a match-up between neighbourhood watch and the Government’s proposed community champions? It sounds like the same sort of idea branded in a slightly different way.

We have rightly discussed the important role of special constables and the need to boost them. The Minister mentioned the possibility of having fewer special constables who are more active in terms of the days that they spend with their local force. It would be interesting to have the data on that to see whether it is the right approach. All Members, on both sides of the House, want special constables to play an important role. It is the best and one of the oldest examples of drawing the community in through voluntary work.

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