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6 Nov 2008 : Column 443

My impression is that funding of organisations such as Smart CJS is something of a lottery, probably due largely to Whitehall problems of how spending is allocated. Does money spent on drug and alcohol abuse come from the budget of the Department of Health, or is it money that will help to reduce reoffending and should therefore come from the Home Office budget? Wherever it comes from, in terms of the effectiveness of public spending overall it must make sense to try to reduce reoffending. We will not reduce the volume of reoffending by those with drug and alcohol problems unless we help them to resolve those problems.

Another thing that struck me during my time on shifts with the police in Cowley was that a small but growing number of persistent young offenders are committing a disproportionately large number of offences. One young teenager in Oxford seemed to commit burglaries in the city on a daily basis. We should bear in mind all the associated stress that is caused by such offences. For people such as that teenager, antisocial behaviour orders and community sentences appear not to be working.

I recognise that over the years there was much criticism of detention centres and borstals, but there are few fundamental principles involved. The community is entitled to be protected against persistent offenders irrespective of their age. Persistent young offenders need to understand that continuing to offend will result in punishment, which must ultimately mean curtailment of their liberty. Given that these youngsters have a whole range of other problems at home and elsewhere, it may well be in their interests to put them in an environment where they can get some decent schooling and learn some life skills. The present system of youth justice is not dealing with persistent young offenders, of whom there are a worryingly growing number, on any statistical analysis. I am not sure whether that is dealt with by the youth crime action plan.

I also noticed the growing and worrying trend of youth-on-youth violence, which usually involves a gang of youngsters preying on other youngsters for their mobile telephones, cash, watches, and so on. These are really nasty offences, with youngsters often being attacked in public parks where they have gone to play. That is very distressing for the youngsters and for their parents. Increasingly, an element of violence is used in these crimes. They are classified as robberies, so statistically the number of robberies in areas such as Oxford go up, although much of it is youth-on-youth crime. Tragically, for far too many young people, particularly in cities such as Oxford and other urban areas, violence or the fear of violence is becoming an everyday occurrence. That is wholly unacceptable.

In Oxford there is the added dimension of groups of local youths attacking foreign students, which can only be very damaging to the reputation of Oxford as a place of learning and to Britain’s reputation abroad. Such crimes are difficult to detect. Even if the police react immediately to allegations of robbery, by the time they get to the park or street concerned, those involved will have run off. I would have thought that neighbourhood action groups, schools, communities and local police working together would have an interest in identifying ringleaders and making it clear that such behaviour will not be tolerated.

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If I had not seen the paperwork that the police have to deal with, I would not have believed it. I am no stranger to the criminal justice system: like my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), I began my practice at the Bar, some 35 years ago on the midland and Oxford circuit, both prosecuting and defending. We have got ourselves into an Alice in Wonderland situation where police officers, particularly beat officers, feel under pressure to meet certain targets, but to do so they need to spend a disproportionate amount of time completing paperwork. In this target-driven culture, issuing a fixed penalty ticket for antisocial behaviour in Bonn square, in the centre of Oxford, gives a police officer as many points as detecting and making a successful arrest of someone who has committed an offence such as grievous bodily harm. An offence that almost certainly would be taken into consideration involves as much paperwork as one that would be the subject of a contested case in the Crown court. All sense of proportion seems to have gone out of the window.

There is a great risk of looking at the years of one’s youth through somewhat rose-tinted spectacles, but my recollection is that in the days when Thames Valley police officers prosecuted cases in the magistrates court those courts were run efficiently, and the prosecution quite rightly secured a significant number of convictions without an ever-increasing mountain of paperwork. It is difficult to find anyone who can explain how this collective insanity started, or what public mischief it was meant to tackle, but I cannot believe that any objective observer thinks that it has improved the efficiency or the effectiveness of the police. I hope that on day one of any new Administration it will be possible for an incoming Home Secretary to announce the setting up of an inquiry under the leadership of someone such as Lord Stevens on how seriously to reduce police paperwork.

Jeremy Wright: I wonder whether my hon. Friend would agree, based on his experience of criminal practice—and I ask him this based on my experience—that the mystifying thing about paperwork is that there are seven, eight, nine or 10 forms for a police officer to fill in, but no more than one or two find their way to the criminal prosecutor whose job it is to secure a conviction. Does he wonder, as I do, what happens to the rest of them?

Tony Baldry: There seems to be a collective insanity, and no one knows where it started, its purpose or what it is achieving. Police officers feel increasingly that their integrity, effectiveness and efficiency is somehow being challenged and questioned for reasons they know not what. Understandably, they feel frustrated that their discretion has been taken away.

It is no longer possible for police officers to decide whether a crime has been committed. I shall give the House one example. A new word has entered the English dictionary—something has been “crimed”. People get pretty savvy and they have worked out that if they telephone and complain that their neighbour is playing their television too loudly, the police are likely to refer them to the environmental health department of the local authority. However, if they telephone and allege that their neighbours are involved in a serious domestic incident, the police respond immediately.

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One evening, we went to a house in Oxford where it was alleged that the husband was attacking his wife. That had been “crimed” as a domestic attack; the controller, or someone else, had already determined that a crime had taken place. When we got to the house, it was perfectly plain that no crime had been committed. The wife was downstairs and the husband, sadly, was upstairs watching Manchester United playing football. Even sadder, he was wearing his Manchester United strip. The only noise was him cheering loudly at the television. Clearly, that was not a domestic violence incident, but it took the police officers almost as much time and paperwork to get it “de-crimed” as it would have taken if they had arrested someone and taken them to St. Aldate’s police station for committing an offence. It is crazy when police officers do not have the discretion to determine whether an offence has been committed.

If we have policing by consent and the overwhelming majority of the public trust the integrity of police officers, as I believe they do, then it is clear that people are willing to trust police officers’ ability to exercise their discretion rather than having policing controlled by Home Office-driven targets. Moreover, having spent 20 days with Thames Valley police and seen how things are “crimed” or not “crimed”, one’s confidence in police statistics is undermined. One feels that the controllers are often obliged to “crime” things to tick boxes rather than because crimes have been committed. What confidence can one place in national crime statistics?

I was grateful to the Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing for kindly coming to my constituency to see neighbourhood policing in Bicester. It is an excellent example of neighbourhood policing, with sworn officers, PCSOs and street wardens working together. As I have made clear in debates in Westminster Hall, neighbourhood policing, especially in my part of the world, is impressive. However, it largely depends on police officers who are allocated to neighbourhood policing teams not being taken away for other duties or having to cover shifts in their local police stations. It is understandably frustrating for local residents to have the benefit of a neighbourhood police officer for some time, only for him or her to disappear because they are taken away for other duties.

Neighbourhood policing also requires good leadership and grip to ensure the maximum synergy between sworn officers, PCSOs and street wardens.

Keith Vaz: I am sorry to have missed the beginning of the hon. Gentleman’s remarks and he may have covered the point already, but does he agree that visibility is important? Not only synergy between the beat officer and the local community but seeing police officers and PCSOs out and about is important. People can then see that something is happening locally.

Tony Baldry: Absolutely. Police officers and PCSOs visibly out and about together is reassuring and good news. However, it is frustrating for local communities if the sworn officer gets taken away to do other things. For a while, local residents see neighbourhood police officers, but then they disappear. That is confusing. Neighbourhood police officers should be ring-fenced for that activity and not extracted for other purposes.

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I am worried about whether local councillors and local people have sufficiently bought in to neighbourhood action groups. We have heard much about the involvement of local people in electing those who might be responsible for holding chief constables and others to account. However, we now have neighbourhood action groups, and I visited those in my constituency, as I am sure other hon. Members have done in their constituencies. They work well and bring all the statutory agencies together. However, although there were some good and dedicated volunteers and members of the local community, there were not as many as I had hoped, and not enough to make one feel that it was a genuine neighbourhood body.

Part of the problem is that neighbourhood policing areas have to cover quite large areas, by definition. For example, one neighbourhood policing area in Banbury covers three wards of the town. The reality, however, is that councillors and local residents tend to think of neighbourhoods as much smaller areas. Indeed, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East, said that the key was for people to be neighbours to one another. However, I am quite sure that people in Leicester do not consider their neighbourhood to be the equivalent of three wards of the city. They consider their neighbourhood to be, if I may use a parliamentary term, their local polling district equivalent or part of their housing estate at most. The neighbourhood action group areas are perhaps too large. If neighbourhood action groups are to mean more than the local representation of local statutory agencies, they will need to engage a lot more local people in their running.

That leads me to my final point, which is about partnerships more broadly. I can see obvious strengths in partnerships. Many issues, such as alcohol and drug dependency, to which I have already referred, involve a number of different Departments and agencies. The work done by the safer community partnership in Oxfordshire, in bringing together the county council, district councils, the Thames Valley police and a number of agencies, is impressive and worth while. However, I have two concerns about partnerships. The first is a somewhat cynical, world-weary concern that Whitehall can use them as a device to blur which Department is responsible for the cost of delivering various public services. If we are not careful, the default position is for such costs to fall on local authorities. Partnerships then become a way for central Government to shift financial burdens on to local government and local taxpayers, but without any compensating mechanisms.

I am also not sure that there is sufficient political buy-in to all partnership arrangements. In other words, I am not convinced that local councillors and local people are always fully aware of all the partnership arrangements. If I had not spent a day with the Oxford safer community partnership, I would have known little of its workings, and I suspect that the same goes for other parliamentary colleagues. My neighbour, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), might be more up to speed than me, but there can be a tendency for such initiatives to become officer-led. We are therefore talking about “touch on the tiller” stuff, to do with how we keep local councillors and local people briefed and involved in what is happening in such partnerships. I found my experience with the Thames
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Valley police very valuable, however, as it brought to my awareness certain things that I did not expect I would see.

My last point—we still have plenty of time, although I promise my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) that it really will be my last point—is about hearing from the police. The Police Federation and police officers generally are quite shy about approaching Members of Parliament if they have concerns. They come and tell us about police pay, which is understandable, but they feel constrained about talking to us about operational issues, even though the police parliamentary scheme has given them licence to do that.

Police officers talk to the Police Federation, but the only time that the Police Federation comes and talks to colleagues is to discuss pay and rations. However, there are all sorts of useful operational issues about which the Police Federation can talk to Members of Parliament. I hope that it will do so more, because policing is an incredibly important part of all our constituents’ lives. Members of Parliament want it to work successfully and we are all supportive of our local police forces, but we cannot help to sort things out if we do not know when there is a problem. I therefore hope that more police officers will, through the Police Federation, come and talk to Members of Parliament about their concerns.

5.9 pm

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): It is a pleasure for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry). I have not taken part in the police parliamentary scheme, but I regularly go out on patrol with members of the Hertfordshire constabulary. I would like to place on record my admiration for the professionalism, skill and bravery of the police in that county, particularly in the Dacorum area.

On Halloween, last Friday night, I patrolled with the special constables in my constituency. The specials are the heart of community policing in this country. They are unpaid, yet dedicated to their community. The special with whom I was serving on Friday night had done 28 years unbroken service as a special in Hertfordshire. We should all try to inspire our constituents to become specials in their communities.

One of the fascinating things about being out on patrol with a special with such experience of his own community was that he did not have a satellite navigation system in his patrol car—he did not need one. He did not need a map, either. He knew the topography of his area—my constituency—like the back of his hand. It was also fantastic that he wanted to get out of his car and walk. He wanted to talk to the young people in particular, on Halloween of all nights, to find out exactly what was going on in the community. I pay tribute this afternoon to the specials. I know that all Members of Parliament were written to by the then Minister of State, asking them to go out with the specials during this time, and I hope that many colleagues from across the House have done so.

I also pay tribute to the many members of the police force in my constituency who are not actually members of the Hertfordshire constabulary, but Metropolitan police officers. My hon. Friend mentioned a particular problem earlier. We train quite a few members of the Metropolitan police in Hertfordshire. We pay for that
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training, they stay with us for a while, then they disappear because the pay and rations are so much better in the Metropolitan police. I do not blame the constables and sergeants who do that. Some of those who are protecting us here in the House today were formerly community officers in my constituency. That is quite a heavy burden for a small constabulary such as Hertfordshire to bear, however, because it results in our having disproportionately young or short-serving constables in the constituency.

I shall touch on a number of points today. Some might think that the early ones are quite trivial, but, as I get to the end of my short speech, I hope that colleagues will realise just how serious they are. I shall talk first about speed cameras. In a previous life, I was a fireman and I had the honour of being a driver on a rescue tender, so I know that speed kills. I have been all across Essex on the motorways and roads—particularly the minor roads—and I have seen the carnage that can result when young men, in particular, get behind the wheel of a car. It is very sad that there should be such a disproportionately high number of deaths among intelligent young men between the ages of 17 and 25. I am sure that the Minister has looked at the figures. I do not know what happens to young men when they get behind the wheel of a car, although I am sure that I was similar when I was 17. It is frightening to think of the lives that are being wasted.

I praise the projects that have been set up around the country, especially Drive to Survive in the Cheshire area. It is run by the Cheshire fire and rescue service, the other emergency services and the Cheshire education service. It is a wonderful scheme, and it has been driven forward by people who have lost loved ones in this way. That sort of scheme needs to be rolled out across the country.

Speed cameras work only in areas where there is an accident blackspot. That is where they should be. They should not be cash cows. All too often, our constituents make this point is to us. I have been out on patrol with the police when they have said to me, “Why is that camera there, Mr. Penning? Don’t you think it should be in another part of your constituency, where we know there are likely to be problems?” I should like to be quite radical. I do not want to get rid of speed cameras altogether but, speaking from experience, I should like to see more cameras at traffic light junctions, particularly in the big cities. More accidents and deaths involving pedestrians, motor cyclists, cyclists and drivers occur at traffic lights these days than in front of most of the speed cameras in this country, although speed cameras have a role to play in preventing such accidents.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is making not a trivial point, but a very important one. The Home Affairs Select Committee published a report at the end of last year entitled “A surveillance society?”, which pointed to the need for cameras, but said that they need to be in the right place. The number of prosecutions resulting from evidence that comes from cameras is actually quite limited. The hon. Gentleman is right to pursue that point, and I hope that those who have responsibility in these matters will understand it.

Mike Penning: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for those comments; I know that his Committee is looking further into the matter. If cameras are to be placed,
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they must be there for a purpose, and that purpose should not be to raise money, but to prevent accidents. The accidents that take place at traffic lights are commonly known as “unprotected accidents”, when someone is not at all ready for the impact that is going to happen. It is a serious matter and we have only to set foot outside this place and into Parliament square to see traffic lights regularly being jumped. It is not just one particular sort of driver who does it; it is an almost accepted occurrence nowadays. We have to prevent that.

I also want to speak briefly about the Criminal Records Bureau, and I hope that the Minister will give me some of his time in future to discuss how it operates. I have constituents who have not been convicted of any offence, but malicious allegations have been made against them. When looked into, these people are found to be completely innocent, yet when an advanced check is done, it is found that the accusation sits on their record. It cannot be right in a democracy that completely innocent people against whom no accusations have been proved, no charges brought and no criminal prosecution has taken place, should have their lives blighted through a mechanism that is supposed to be there to protect them. I understand why it is there, but it is being abused.

I believe that the abuse comes from chief constables, who have the power to remove these sorts of record, but do not do so. Perhaps they do not remove them because an element of doubt remains—I guess it is obvious that Huntley provides a good example of what people are so frightened about. I will not mention my constituent’s name, but a malicious accusation was made against him, as I said. He moved to another part of the country, found a job in a bus company, but was later told that he would lose his job because of a CRB check that showed he had been accused of an offence. That cannot be right.

I met the chief executive of the Criminal Records Bureau, who told me that he did not have the power to remove items from the checklist. Apparently, the Information Commissioner is the only authority to which people can appeal. That seems ludicrous, when this is happening as a result of legislation brought in by the Home Office to protect people. We MPs have no way of protecting our constituents from it. I understand that the Home Office is currently conducting a review, but I wanted to raise the matter this afternoon as a very important issue that is affecting people’s lives. The legislation was designed to protect, but it is actually hindering some people who are entirely innocent.

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