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6 Nov 2008 : Column 430
4.1 pm

Jeremy Wright (Rugby and Kenilworth) (Con): It has been clear throughout the debate that the proposition we are discussing is not only about public engagement in fighting crime, but, linked to it, whether public confidence is sufficient to enable them to engage in an enthusiastic manner. I want to focus on two particular aspects of the process that is followed by all those who have engaged with the police and the criminal justice system.

Let me start with the police and with the point at which people first make contact with them, which is hugely important. First contact may be made by phone. As my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) mentioned earlier, it can be difficult getting through to the police by phone, and when that happens the public’s perception of the police does not start on the right footing. Sometimes, too, the public do not receive a visit when they expect or as quickly as they would like. I was pleased to see that the Green Paper made reference to that in respect of the new national standards on how quickly people should be responded to.

In order for that process to make sense, there must be a reasonable way in which to assess police priorities in terms of response times. We all understand that the police cannot be everywhere at once and cannot respond quickly to everything, so there must be a reasonable method according to which the police may determine which cases are a priority and which are not. I cannot be the only Member who has had long arguments with their local police forces about how that process is carried out.

If the public are to have confidence in the system and remain engaged with it, they must also have confidence in how police priorities are assessed and implemented. It seems perfectly right, as the Green Paper says, that we should look at the vulnerability of the person who makes the phone call and expects the police visit when determining whether the request for such a visit should be viewed as a priority. It is also important to look in a wider sense at how we define vulnerability. Of course, in many cases, it is not a priority to respond to an incident of domestic violence or harassment, but if that violence and harassment occurs in the context of a long-running saga, repeated events or perhaps when a violent partner returns from a period in custody, it should be viewed as a priority. At first sight, such a case might not seem like a matter of high priority, but with a fuller investigation of the background facts, it most certainly can become one. Neither the Minister nor the House will need any reminder that nearly every murder case that the courts have to deal with is effectively a domestic incident that has become extremely serious.

My second point is about accountability. As the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) made clear, there is a measure of agreement across the House on the need for better accountability in respect of setting policing priorities.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) raised the question whether we are talking about directly elected police chief constables—and it was made clear to him that we are not. There is an important distinction between those who set strategic priorities for a police force and those who take operational decisions. I do not believe that anyone is suggesting that such
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operational decisions should be taken by anyone who is elected; in my view, however, strategic decisions most certainly should be.

The point about direct election is that it is all well and good telling the public, as they have often heard on so many subjects, “Your views are very important to us; consultation is vital”, but that will not work unless there is a mechanism that not only allows the public’s views to be taken into account but, if those views are roundly and widely ignored by the body concerned, allows the public to act to remedy the problem. The most obvious way of doing that is to ensure that, if someone is elected to a position to set particular policing priorities which are not to the public’s liking, the public can get rid of that person. Establishing such a mechanism is vital to supporting public confidence, and public willingness to engage with the policing and criminal justice system.

Confidence is also based on the flow of good information, not just from the public to the police—important though that is—but from the police to the public. As Louise Casey rightly points out in her report, it is important for the public to know when the information that they have given to the police has a positive effect. When they have supplied information—sometimes, as we know, at considerable risk to themselves—they need to be aware that it has resulted in a positive outcome: that arrests have been made or investigations carried out, and that that has had positive consequences.

Confidence can exist only if information is trusted and reliable. The public must be able to believe that what they are being told is accurate and comprehensive. We need not go back too many days or weeks to see that the public’s confidence in crime statistics has been severely dented, although it could be questioned whether it was ever very high in the first place. As has already been said, it is important for crime statistics to come from a trusted, independent source, so that we can all have confidence in them.

Confidence in crime statistics is also linked to a more general confidence in the policing and criminal justice system. That is demonstrated by the vicious downward spiral that sometimes results when those who do not trust the crime statistics do not report offences because they do not believe that their reports will be acted on effectively, and then, of course, trust the statistics even less: because they know from personal experience that some crimes are not reported, they conclude that the statistics cannot possibly be an accurate and comprehensive reflection of the level of crime in their communities.

Public confidence is not just about the way in which the police respond to crime; it is also about the way in which the criminal justice system responds to crime and those who commit it. If we are discussing public engagement in fighting crime, we must take account of ways in which the public engage with the criminal justice system as well as ways in which they engage with the police.

Public engagement is vital in the context of the criminal justice system. The most obvious example is when members of the public serve as jurors in criminal trials. I declare an interest, as one who practised as a criminal barrister for some years in the west midlands. I saw a great number of juries during that time, and gained a huge amount of respect both for the institution and for the people who served as jurors in the criminal
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cases that I tried. It seems to me that the jury system is the practical and direct application of common sense in the criminal justice system.

One would hope that all those who have served as jurors have slightly more confidence in the criminal justice system, and are slightly more reassured that it operates to defend their interests. That confidence should not be undermined by anything that we do, or by anything that the Government do. The Government talk of cases that it is not suitable for a jury to try: cases that are beyond the capacity of jurors, such as serious fraud cases. I have tried such cases with juries who have reached conclusions identical to those that the judge has said that he would have reached on each and every count.

If we proceed down the Government’s line, we cannot be surprised when the public say “In that case, you do not have as much confidence in the jury system as you say you do.” The jury system is the right way in which to try criminal cases. If a jury has difficulty in understanding a case, that is probably the fault of the advocates and not the fault of the jury. It is important that we maintain our confidence in the system, so that the public can engage with it and have confidence in it themselves. Once the jury has done its job, however, and there is a conviction where appropriate, we must move on to consider sentencing, which is crucial to public confidence in the system. It is perfectly true that the public do not often believe that sentencing decisions are right, but the Minister was also correct to say that in many instances the public have not seen the whole of the case—how could they have done? Public interest in sentencing is always legitimate, but, given that they will not have heard all the evidence and mitigation, public outrage—often aided and abetted by the tabloid press—is not always appropriate. We must draw that distinction.

Judges have a difficult job to do in every case. They have to weigh up different factors on both sides of the argument and make a sensible decision as to what appropriate sentence should result. I appreciate that the Government will not take up every recommendation in Louise Casey’s report, but may I counsel the Minister against proposal 17? It refers to situations in which a judge who wishes to pass a community punishment order first asks for a pre-sentence report to assess suitability to carry out such work. Louise Casey’s concern is that such a delay is very seldom necessary, and that the judge should be able to say straight away, “A community punishment order is what is necessary, so let’s have one; we don’t need a report.” The only cautionary note I would sound on that is that pre-sentence reports are used for a variety of purposes, and it is right that judges should have all the facts available to them before they pass sentence. One of those facts may be whether it is unsuitable for the defendant to carry out community punishment because of a physical disability or illness, but pre-sentence reports also address many other considerations, and I hope the Government would do nothing to restrict the amount of information the judge has before passing an appropriate sentence.

If the public are to have confidence in the system, it is right for them to expect the judge to take everything of relevance into account, including the views of the victim and the victim’s family, but while I support that concept, there is, again, something that troubles me. That information is gathered from a victim impact statement, which allows
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the victim—or their family where, sadly, they are no longer available to give their views—to explain to the judge the impact the offence has had on them, the wider community, and their friends and family. Although I commend the intention, I do not believe that sentencing should be carried out on the basis of how much a particular offence has affected those who remain behind, because let us consider the most extreme cases. The family of a murder victim may well put forward a very cogent, coherent, moving, emotional response on how a murder has affected them—and they should be able to do so—but we cannot, just because the family have put forward that case, assess that murder as being more serious than a murder where there is no family, and there are no friends and no wider community who came into contact with the victim, and therefore there is no victim impact statement. While I entirely understand the necessity of the public, and the subset of the public most directly affected by a criminal offence, engaging with the process in this way, I am concerned that by doing this we will start to move away from the vital principle that what is most important is not the public’s reaction to the offence, but the criminality of the offender, along with that offender’s particular circumstances and the circumstances of the offence.

The Government must also be careful about their intervention in sentencing. Yes, the public will expect the Government to set a sentencing framework, but they will have confidence in the Government’s ability to help fight crime and run a sensible and responsive criminal justice system only if the Government set an adequate sentencing framework. However, there is a difference between setting a framework and appearing to intervene in individual sentencing decisions. Public confidence in the system is undermined if what appears to be happening is that the Home Secretary or the Lord Chancellor is writing to judges saying, “Because we’ve got a problem with prison capacity, I don’t think you ought to be sending too many people to prison.” That is precisely the kind of intervention that undermines public confidence in the system and leads the public to say, “I am not engaging with this at all. If the Government cannot respond to a need for prison places, when, frankly, they were told a long time ago that there was a need for them, I do not have confidence in that system”. Governments, of whatever political colour, have got to be careful to set the proper sentencing framework, but not to appear to intervene in individual sentencing decisions.

What is absolutely legitimate in the context of this debate is for the public to expect that sentencing, of whatever type, constitutes proper punishment. We have talked a little about community punishment orders. As I said in an intervention on the hon. Member for Eastleigh, it is entirely appropriate that the public should understand clearly what is done as part and parcel of a community punishment order, that they should see that it is real punishment, and that they should have some understanding of the result of it—of what has been achieved on behalf of the community receiving some form of recompense from the offender.

I support a great deal of what is in Louise Casey’s report and in the Green Paper, which is designed to achieve that effect. However, on prison sentences there
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are important points to be made about the balance between punishment and rehabilitation, and whether the two need to be mutually exclusive. In my view, they do not. I think it right that the first objective of a prison sentence is to protect the public; it is neither punishment nor rehabilitation. The point of a prison sentence—the first objective—is to take someone whom a judge believes to be dangerous to the public out of the public’s way and put them behind bars, so that they can do no harm for the duration of their imprisonment. The second objective is certainly to punish, and to deter others from committing a similar offence, but there is also an objective of rehabilitation—of preventing that offender from leaving prison and committing further offences. That is absolutely necessary, and most people in this country would say that that is a proper objective for a prison sentence.

What I have never understood is why it appears to some to be mutually exclusive to punish and to rehabilitate. In my view, both can be done at once. One of the best examples of this is an area in which we need to improve our prison system: the effort of educating and training those in prison with inadequate skills and qualifications, to make absolutely sure that when they come out, they have no excuse for not earning a law-abiding living. Why can we not educate and train those people better? If we do do that, let us remember that for a lot of these individuals, the one part of their life that they hated most was when they had to go to school and learn, so it will be punishment for them to have to learn, be educated and gain skills. No one should imagine that a properly run system of educating offenders is anything other than punishment, as well as rehabilitation.

In many ways, what I have been talking about in the context of public engagement in and confidence in fighting crime—engagement with the police and with the criminal justice system—is all far too late. The best type of public engagement in fighting crime happens before either of those two stages, and well before the offender knows that he is an offender. The best type of public engagement in fighting crime is that which takes place when educating people in school, be it a parent, a teacher, a governor of a school or a local education authority. We know about the well-trodden path from truancy to crime. If people can be kept in education and engaged, they are less likely to become criminals. So if we want the public to engage in the fight against crime, we should not wait until we have to call the police. We should encourage such people in what they do in education and in the voluntary sector.

I return to the point that I made in intervening on the Minister. If we want to fight crime effectively, we have got to allow people to work in youth clubs and to encourage them to help with young people’s clubs of all kinds. The people who do such work, and are good at it, are also good at lots of other things, and their time is limited. They do not want to spend a large proportion of that time wading through paperwork; they want to spend it helping young people. What the Government can do, but have not yet done to my satisfaction or, I am sure, to theirs, is ensure that such people face no barriers to helping young people in that way.

That means that we must cut back on the amount of paperwork. I understand that paperwork is necessary on one level—to keep our children safe—but it is becoming overly burdensome and repetitive. I do not want any more of my constituents to say to me, “I am employed
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at a young offenders institution and, thus, have a high level of clearance for working with young people, but I have to get a separate Criminal Records Bureau check to help the scouts on a Thursday night.” Such a situation is ridiculous. It means that fewer and fewer people will come forward to do this valuable work, and thus our efforts at fighting crime and engaging the public in fighting crime will be impeded. My final plea to the Minister is to ensure that members of the public who are keen to fight crime and engage in that process are encouraged to do so, not only when they contact the police or serve on a jury, but before that, when they help to ensure that there is not a problem in the first place.

4.21 pm

David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): I am delighted to take on the role of nice cop this afternoon, as it is a Thursday and the political mantle of Bodie and Doyle has been taken by my colleagues on the Front Bench; I have had to opt for being Dixon of Dock Green instead, just for this afternoon.

In that mode, I thank the Government for highlighting special constables week. I do not know whether I need to declare an interest as a special constable, because I do not claim any expenses for that work, but I make it clear that I am one and have served for 16 hours a month for the past two years. The letter that came from the Home Office asking us to support specials this week was timely and apt, so I offer my support. In keeping with the general tone that we have adopted this Thursday afternoon, I shall say the words that will probably strike fear into the Minister’s heart: I have a wonderful idea. Those words always strike fear into my heart when someone comes to my surgery and says them.

In fact, I have three wonderful ideas for the Minister. They should not cost a lot, and I offer them in the spirit of general bipartisanship. The first relates to the special constabulary, which is a great story; it is a win for all concerned, because the special constables provide cost-effective policing—it is not policing on the cheap. That is a good thing for Ministers and for the public. When a special constable gets their warrant card, he or she is a police officer for 24 hours a day, rather than just for the eight hours a fortnight to which they sign up. Every special constable, like every police officer, will be able to relate anecdotes of when they have put that card to good use as they were out and about as members of the public.

The arrangement is also very good for the reservists themselves. We do not make enough of the skills that people develop, which are very useful for whatever they do in their careers. One such skill is dealing with very angry people. All of us encounter such people in our surgeries, and sometimes even in the Whips Office—that does not apply to me, because the person in charge of whipping me is sitting close by and I have never, as yet, had to use my policing skills to defuse an angry situation with him.

There is a great deal to be gained from the special constabulary for all concerned. My concern is that we do not do enough to promote special constables or to encourage people to join and then to stay. That brings me to the slightly thorny issue of pay, which has been discussed. Even among the police forces and special constables there are mixed feelings about it. I wish to
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make a suggestion to the Minister, because I do not think there is any point paying special constables until they have gained independent patrol status.

As the Minister will know, the usual process is that one undertakes about eight weekends of training—16 days—and is then given a warrant card, but one is not then allowed to patrol on one’s own; instead, one goes out with an experienced officer, usually a regular police officer or a trainer. The process of gaining independence usually takes about one to two years. I have gone through that process, and I did not feel that I was that much use to the police until I had gained independent patrol status. Obviously, there were occasions when I was useful, but at all times the police force had to ensure that there was a regular constable with me when I was a probationer. To a certain extent, therefore, I question how useful I was.

When special constables gain independent patrol status, which took me about a year, they have various experiences and realise that there is some excitement to the job—special constables do some front-line policing—but that there is also a lot of paperwork, boredom and so on. As the Minister knows, one problem is that many people leave after about two years—just as they become useful. At that point, therefore, we ought to consider payment.

Special constables welcome the flexibility of being a special constable. If there is a one-line Whip, I can, and very often do, go and police my area for four to six hours. However, how much value do I add when I decide, on the spur of the moment, to go and patrol a couple of areas? Sometimes it can be a great deal, but other times not—it depends on what happens. Any system of payment should be based around whether an inspector or senior officer needs extra officers on a particular day. For example, if an inspector knows that a big football match, carnival or something else is coming up that requires large numbers of police officers, they should send e-mails to those concerned and have the flexibility to pay anyone who has gained independent status. That would work for both special constables and the police force.

The Minister might be aware of something called employment support and policing, which is a brilliant idea being pioneered in the Metropolitan police by two unsung heroes, Neil Barrett and Adam Hunter. They looked at what happens in the Territorial Army, where often major employers support their employees in signing up as TA soldiers and pay them while they do their soldiering. Neil Barrett and Adam Hunter decided to pioneer something similar in the Metropolitan police. However, they have taken it further: for example, major shopping chains can allow their employees to do their two days a month to earn their warrant card, after which they tend to police shopping centres.

Bus companies are doing the same with bus drivers: while people are being paid as bus drivers, they can work two shifts a month as police officers. In effect, therefore, they get paid for doing something different from their normal job. They have their warrant card with them 24 hours a day—even when doing their normal job—and can use it if they wish, although obviously that it is up to them. They can use it to intervene directly in a situation or to make a telephone call, and act as an expert witness later. I am sure that Ministers are aware of that very good idea. Will they consider rolling it out more widely?

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