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I agree with the right hon. Member for Leicester, East that it would be profoundly desirable if there were a genuine political consensus about policing. The police, above all, would like that, because they do not want their professional status to be brought into question by what they see as a political debate that sometimes does not so much shed light as generate heat. We all seem able to agree on the need for public accountability of the police force at local level. We should get rid of
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national targets, because they are past their sell-by date. I agree with what the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) said about accountability to local people. Local people know what their priorities are and what their service is, and if they are given the power to elect a body that will in turn hold the chief constable to account we will have the beginnings of an answer to this problem, which we all want to be solved.

Keith Vaz: What is the Liberal Democrats’ position on the election of commissioners? Do they favour that, or not?

Chris Huhne: I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman asked me that, because I was coming to that point. All three parties in this House are now in favour of some decentralised model. We go a little further than other parties in wanting to give police authorities stronger powers to hire and fire and to set priorities and budgets. However, we have been getting into trouble with our local councillors about this. We all need to say clearly that if we are to have genuine decentralisation—if we are to give real power locally to hire and fire a chief constable and to set a budget—then there is a quid pro quo, which is that voters must be able to hold to account the people who are exercising those powers. The indirect form of election does not work. For example, we do not have in Eastleigh a representative on Hampshire’s police authority. If Hampshire’s police authority is to have the power to sack a chief constable of whom it does not approve or to put up the council tax precept—in our case, of course, we would prefer it to be a local income tax—I want to be able to tell the people in my constituency that they have a buy-in, because they have been able to vote for somebody who has such powers, but at the moment they do not have that buy-in. We have to be united in telling local councils that the indirect system does not have adequate accountability to make the new devolved powers work.

That brings me to the point that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East asked about. We do not approve of the Conservative proposal for a single, directly elected commissioner. If one person is elected to represent a complete and complex force area, such as the west midlands, London, Merseyside or Greater Manchester, where there are substantial minorities who each have their own view, we will not get the sort of accountability that will take care of the important and sometimes fragile relationship between the police and minority communities. That is a recipe for situations such as the Brixton riots and the sort of problems we saw in Bristol. We must not go back there.

Although I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Hornchurch about the need to decentralise, for heaven’s sake we need to be careful how we decentralise. We need to ensure that the system that decentralises represents the whole community, which will be policed in a natural way, and we need to ensure that the police know that they have a sounding board for their ideas and where the community’s views will be genuinely represented.

Mr. Graham Stuart: I am persuaded that in order to get the accountability we need one figure as police commissioner—I am not saying that there are not other arguments or analyses. Without that, even if we have elections to the police authority, they will probably end
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up not engaging the public imagination, and it is likely that people will carry on not knowing who their elected police commissioners are. It is clear that the hon. Gentleman feels powerfully that minorities will not be represented. We in this Chamber represent varied areas with, in some cases, large ethnic minorities, and we seek to represent all those people. I have never heard that our form of representation is seen to be failing. I do not understand quite why the hon. Gentleman feels the way he does.

Chris Huhne: I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman, who is a very intelligent Member, feels that this is a representative Chamber. I do not know whether he realises how many women there are in the Chamber today, or how many members of ethnic minorities there are, but this is not a representative assembly of this nation. The academic evidence is clear: if we elect someone for a single constituency under a first-past-the-post system, we will end up with parties, through the natural operation of their own self-interest, putting forward middle-aged, white, middle-class men in suits. That is a fair description of the people here.

Mr. Graham Stuart rose—

Jeremy Wright rose—

Chris Huhne: I will give way to anyone who is not a middle-aged, middle-class man in a suit. Are there any?

Angela Watkinson rose—

Chris Huhne: Yes! I give way to the hon. Lady.

Angela Watkinson: Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the whole point of equality is that everybody is treated the same? Dividing people into sub-groups and treating them differently is counter-productive.

Chris Huhne: I am delighted to reassure the hon. Lady that I have no intention of dividing anybody into a sub-group or treating them differently. I am merely making the point that the international evidence, which is peer-reviewed and academically respected beyond challenge, is that proportional representation systems lead to a much greater balance in terms of gender and ethnicity than first past the post. The system that we propose has two enormous advantages in comparison with the one proposed by the Conservatives. It represents everyone in the community, so that, if it is a complex community, such as London or Greater Manchester, the police genuinely know that every minority will be represented because every party will have an interest in putting forward candidates who represent those groups. Those candidates will be able to hold the police to account fairly. That is a natural process that comes out of the system of election. It is not something that has to be rigged, or for which fair rules have to be introduced, and it is very clear.

Jeremy Wright: The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) made was not about whether the Chamber was representative. He asked whether the hon. Gentleman believed that it
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was impossible for a single individual to represent a varied group of people, as we do. If he believes that, perhaps he should tell the electors of Eastleigh.

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman may not realise that I favour a change in the electoral system for the House—and I think that my electors in Eastleigh know that. If I had my way, my constituents would have the opportunity of electing a Conservative Member and a Labour Member as well as a Liberal Democrat Member in a multi-Member constituency. I believe that that would help re-engage people in our national politics, but Mr. Deputy Speaker will pull me up for making irrelevant remarks, so I will revert to the subject of the debate.

The police in this country have an extraordinary, honourable tradition of being non-political. We have a fantastically good and successful police force. I do not want the professionalism of police services throughout the country to be tarnished by the sort of yah-boo politics, which, I fear, would ensue if we accepted what the Conservatives advocate and had one person, after election by first past the post, in which the issues would be polarised as much as possible to clarify support for one person against another. That is a recipe for polarising the debate about policing and leading to much worse police outcomes in many parts of the country. Senior police officers, who have thought about the matter, are worried about the proposal. They buy the argument about local accountability because they rightly want national targets to be abolished. It has taken some time—11 years—for Labour Members to reach that view, but, thank heavens, having exhausted all the alternatives, the Government seem to be stumbling into the right policy area.

The method whereby we hold people to account is crucial. We need a system that represents fairly all the groups in the police authorities that will not only act as a sounding board for the chief constable, but will, by virtue of representing all those groups, including the party groups, have to work together through co-operation and consensus rather than confrontation. That is much more likely to guarantee a continuation of the tradition that we all support—professional, non-political policing—than the proposals that Conservative Members have made or those that appear in the Government’s Green Paper. Using first past the post to elect one person for each crime and disorder reduction partnership will have a similar effect to that which I have outlined. On analysis of the likely outcome of the proposals in the Government Green Paper, police authorities will probably be unrepresentative.

Let us go back to the drawing board, agree that we need a decentralised system, with real power for local people, and ensure that the system of accountability genuinely engages local people by drawing everybody in, and does not attempt to polarise and make more confrontational a debate that does not need to be confrontational.

3.48 pm

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): Public engagement in fighting crime is crucial. We all know that we cannot have a civilised society without a consensus approach to
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fighting crime, and that we need 99 per cent. of the people on our side to implement the laws that we want for our society.

How do we improve matters? Crime has decreased in the past 11 years, funding for forces has increased hugely, we have police community support officers as well as regular police officers, and many other improvements have been made, yet a tremendous fear of crime persists. People remain convinced that there is more crime than actually occurs and that they will be victims of crime. They also still have a negative view of some of their encounters with the police. Clearly, a huge amount of work remains to be done to improve communication between communities and their local police forces.

That approach seems to be working successfully at the local level. The neighbourhood policing scheme seems to have taken off well in the urban areas of my constituency, particularly the Communities First areas, where there is quite a high-visibility approach, with pictures put up, phone numbers and so forth, so that local people can get in touch. Nevertheless, there are still some issues that people feel quite strongly about—although perhaps I am biased and have a more negative view than I should because people come to me when things go wrong. We have a new chief inspector in the Dyfed-Powys force, Ian Arundale, who is determined to look into practices in the force and see what we can do better. We have to be prepared for change, both as communities and in the police force.

One issue that seems to come up again and again is the police not getting back to people. As busy Members of Parliament, we all know how difficult it can be sometimes be to explain to a constituent that they are the 127th person to contact the office in the past few days and that they cannot have an answer immediately. However, it is a worry when people report something in their locality and are told that they will receive a response, but then do not receive one. There seem to be so many small, practical ways of overcoming that problem, such as better logging of promises to ensure that people are kept informed. Where there is progress on a case but that is not communicated to the community, that can leave a negative impression, even though something positive has happened.

There are certainly some positive aspects: we have good meetings with local people, we have boxes in post offices into which people can put their ideas, and we have a generally high profile. We in Dyfed-Powys are lucky not to be plagued by serious crime very often. However, we have our fair share of antisocial and quite unpleasant minor criminal activity, which can be a blight on communities and individual’s lives. We need to think what the best ways are of getting people fully involved. However, we must remember that the police and the average citizens are not the only ones who have a say or who can do something. Local councils, too, have quite a considerable role to play in certain areas, such as licensing.

Too often, when people make applications for licences, they try to turn the current law against us by saying, “You can’t possibly turn us down, because of X, Y and Z.” They say that because they are demanding a licence and employing people specifically to make their case. However, local councils have discretion and can invoke the provisions about not increasing the likelihood of more criminal activity to turn applications down. We
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were pleased in Llanelli in a few weeks ago when the county council’s licensing committee turned down an application. The committee listened to local residents’ concerns and said that 4 am was too late and would create problems, and so limited the licence to 1 am.

Councillors can use their discretionary powers and must not let themselves be bullied by applicants who say that the law says that they cannot. Councillors should retaliate by saying, “The law gives us full discretion and we as councillors will choose to do what the people of the area want.” There is therefore a role for invoking the laws that we already have and for using them effectively to make our communities safer and more pleasant places to live, where people can be confident that they can go about their business without being confronted by antisocial behaviour.

I am currently working with the mayor of Llanelli to look into the possibility of creating an alcohol-free zone in the town. We are obviously proceeding on the basis of full consultation with stakeholders, local residents and the police on whether such a zone might be an effective tool in the fight against antisocial behaviour. That would not mean that licensed premises would not be able to continue serving alcohol, that they could not use their beer gardens or that, if they have an appropriate licence for tables in the street, they could not continue to serve people there, but it might offer another tool to cut down on reckless and thoughtless antisocial behaviour, which is often fuelled by alcohol, particularly on the lighter summer evenings.

There are a number of stakeholders in the community who have a part to play. It is sometimes easy for us to pass the buck. On the issue of traffic, for example, the police control the double yellow lines and the county council looks after the residents’ parking schemes, and all these things get very confused in people’s minds. It is therefore crucial that we make it clear who can do what, and that the various agencies communicate with each other, so that members of the public do not necessarily have to know who to approach, as long as their problem is passed on to the appropriate person. There is an antisocial behaviour officer in the county, and there should be direct communication between the police and that person. The same applies to the public protection people who clamp down on the shops that sell alcohol to under-age customers.

There has to be direct communication, because members of the public do not always know whom they should go to, and they can sometimes get frustrated if they are passed from pillar to post. All our services should automatically communicate with each other to provide a better service for the public. If a member of the public has made one phone call, they do not want to have to make several more in order to get something done. They often end up in our surgeries, because they feel so frustrated that nothing is being done.

The Green Paper provides us with food for thought, and contains some excellent ideas on possible ways forward. Certainly, anything that we can do to improve communication from the police to the community telling the community what they are doing, and from the community telling the police what they would like to be done, will be welcome.

I am concerned, however, about the idea to scrap the local authority representatives on the police authorities and to have new crime and policing representatives
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instead. Although I do not always agree with all my local councillors, they are, in general, genuine representatives of the community. They have been elected on a broad slate of issues and they take an interest in all aspects of people’s lives. The councils in the Dyfed-Powys area each select two or three councillors to represent the county on the Dyfed-Powys police authority. Those councillors automatically have a network of people whom they can consult. They know each other, they have meetings and they are able to represent what people across the county are feeling. In a county that measures roughly 45 miles from north to south and 45 miles east to west, how would a crime and policing representative get feedback from the public in order to represent such a large rural area? I do not know how anybody could feel genuinely representative of the whole of the Dyfed-Powys area. As far as I can see, they would not have a mechanism to provide them with the necessary input from their local communities.

I am also worried that this proposal could give rise to some kind of extremist infiltration. We all know that it is not easy to get voters out to take part in elections, but we are now proposing to hold yet another election on a single issue. One can imagine candidates who might be over-the-top, over-enthusiastic vigilante types. One can also imagine some of the more extremist groups trying to get hold of that particular position of power, perhaps even as a knee-jerk reaction to some dreadful crime that has been committed in the community. I wonder whether such people would be representative of all the issues affecting the community.

Our local councillors are also very aware of the other services that link in from the county council to the police authority. I have already mentioned public protection and the antisocial behaviour units. Councillors are also aware of the pressures on funding. They realise that for the police, like everyone else, funds are not limitless, and that they have to make difficult decisions. They probably have a much broader outlook on the issues affecting their communities. I worry that a system of crime and policing representatives that had no representation at all from locally elected members will not be the right way to go about creating a truly democratically representative group of people to advise on the work of the police authority in their area.

Having said that, I welcome the Green Paper in broad terms, particularly its focus on trying to get greater involvement. I have to say that the problem will not be solved overnight; it is going to need continuous work. We are always going to have to find better ways of getting our message across, better ways of communicating with the public and better ways for them, in turn, to communicate with us. Although we all like to have a little moan, members of the public are aware that they cannot be at the forefront of deciding how things are done in every single service. People often say to me, “This is something that the professionals will need to sort out,” so we need to be cautious about believing that everything can automatically be devolved to and decided by communities. We need their input—there must be good consultation—but they also have elected representatives. They have us to change policies at the national level and they have their local councillors to change things at the local level. That is the right way to proceed.

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