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5.18 pm

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I wish to raise a few points about Greater London policing, particularly about the ability to engage the public in local policing, which obviously applies to my borough of Southwark and my constituency.

We pay tribute to those who are engaged and do their jobs so well. The special constables are often mentioned; they are absolutely meritorious. We hope that many more people will become special constables. All the London boroughs have police and community consultative groups, many of which comprise members of the public
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who give up their time and energy to volunteer; they do a good job. There are also neighbourhood watch volunteers and many people in the voluntary sector who work in organisations that help to engage with the police. I shall return to some particular examples later, but many work with young people trying to ensure good relations between youth organisations, youth clubs and the police. Some youth workers are out on the street every evening, acting as an interface between a tense situation and the police’s dealing with it.

As I said to the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire) earlier, I have always taken the view that when people feel confident enough, they should be encouraged to get involved in public order incidents rather than pull back from them. Sometimes we need to be bold and we have to tell people that they should not do relatively minor things like putting their feet on the seats, breaking the rules in buses or trams or on the tube and so forth. If people see something going on that should not be, they should get involved. Many other Members have done that, as I have.

People who are willing to act often find that the incident is thereby defused. The other night—a Sunday night—there was a great fight going on in Bermondsey, with loads of people milling around and kicking each other, girls as well as boys. Other people were doing nothing. I did not consider that acceptable. I shouted at them all and pulled them apart, and in that way it was ended. Such action is quite easy if people are willing to take it. People must understand that we have a responsibility for policing our own communities alongside the police. The expectation that problems can be solved by a phone call and that the police will arrive in time is often na├»ve. In the case that I have described they arrived well after the event, blue lights blazing, with three or four squad cars. By that time it was all over—the incident had ended long before they arrived. People must be realistic in such circumstances.

Let me reinforce a strong point. There is no excuse, in my book, for a police officer who takes a call from someone reporting a crime not to return to that person within 24 hours, or immediately if need be. The telephone numbers that people are given must be numbers on which someone will answer, and the same applies to e-mail addresses. It is no good saying, “Your neighbourhood team have a mobile phone,” if the blessed thing is not answered, or if someone does not deal with the report that is made. The police say that they are receiving more calls. Well, we are all receiving more calls: that is life. We live in a busier world, and that is no excuse. Civilians work for the police, and the public do not mind if a civilian answers the telephone. The same applies to volunteers. If members of the public receive competent, up-to-date, timely, efficient replies, they will find that encouraging, and we need to ensure that it happens.

The introduction of safer neighbourhood teams was proposed by many of us, but was initiated by Ken Livingstone when he was Mayor of London. It is a good system, involving a sergeant, other police officers and community wardens. Far too often, however, we still see police officers patrolling in pairs when they could be patrolling on their own. The truth is that police officers do not talk to the public nearly as often if they are with a colleague; they talk to the colleague all the time. I understand the safety issues and I am not suggesting that police officers should go into dark alleys
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alone at night, but we need the police to engage with the public rather than talking to each other. I hope that that cultural change will come about.

I know that the Minister is sympathetic to my views on detached youth workers. Obviously they are not there principally to engage with the police. I believe that every borough in London—the area that I know best—would benefit hugely if the Government helped to finance the provision of enough detached youth workers for each ward, just as we now have police and community support officers in each ward. They are needed to be on the other side of the engagement, as it were—the side of young people rather than the side of the authorities. That money would be hugely well spent. The workers would not need to be statutorily employed—they would not need to be local authority youth workers. They could be employed by the voluntary sector, perhaps by the faith groups. I am convinced that they would add greatly to community safety and to public engagement on the streets of London and elsewhere.

When I last looked at policing in New York, I saw that the New York police department took effective action in engaging local residents to be their eyes and ears. On council estates in New York city, the concierges are residents of the tower blocks. Some are people who have retired early. They have walkie-talkies to link them with the police, and they know exactly who lives in their blocks. If someone comes out with a load of furniture, six television sets and lots of electronic equipment, the concierge will be able to tell immediately that that is not what they are meant to be doing and will get on the phone to the estate-based police. As a result of the work of that fantastic combination, the level of crime fell enormously in the areas of New York that were the most deprived and difficult to police.

I also noted that the police were very versatile. They had pedal bikes, and they were willing to abseil down the tower blocks if that was necessary. That much more flexible approach was combined with a knowledge of the local community eyes and ears: the people behind the curtains. Those people received a small amount of remuneration—some pocket money for helping out and benefiting their community.

The hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) made some good points about the complexity of all the consultation processes. I think that, along with the Mayor of London, the Minister should examine the organisational structure in London. Every borough has a police and community consultative group, which is a legacy of the Scarman inquiry. In addition, we have safer neighbourhood partnerships, and there are other links between boroughs and the police service. There are too many of them now; the same people go to all of them, and not enough people go to any of them. We need to streamline the process. In Southwark, we have eight community councils. It would be far more logical to have one overarching police and community consultative group, rather than lots of different organisations that are trying to be the link between the local authority, the police and all the other statutory voluntary agencies.

Comparable statistics are valuable, but it often takes a long time to get the police to run systems that are easily comparable ward by ward, local authority by local authority, and police area by police area. They are
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useful only if they allow comparisons between one authority and another and if they go back far enough, so that we can compare last year and two years ago with the current year.

On accountability, it would be good for the public—and we would have lots of people coming to meetings—if every quarter in every borough, the police commander, the senior judge or senior magistrate and the leader of the council or the councillor responsible for community safety came out and did a public accountability session. Often the council says it is the police’s responsibility, and the police say, “Tell the courts that, not me,” and the courts say, “It’s the police.” We need to get them all in the same place at the same time, so that they cannot pass the buck and the public can hold their elected and appointed senior people to account.

There is a debate in London about police station closures. I have always understood the need to keep the location of station houses up to date—people cannot always say that they are in the right place—but the police have to understand that if we are to close police stations with public consent, there must be a police presence where the public are. The best way to have police engagement with the public is to put a police point, shop or centre—or whatever it is called—at the tube station, outside the supermarket, in the shopping centre or on the main route where the buses pass, because the place where people can go and tell the police something needs to be the place where they naturally go on their daily trip to or from work, school or college. If the police can organise themselves so they have a presence where the largest numbers of people are, we will not have nearly as many concerns if a police station is being closed down elsewhere.

The Minister will know that two weeks ago a group of community organisations across the river launched, “Enough! Make Youth Violence History.” It was a successful launch, and I have referred to the campaign before. We are hoping that Government will respond positively to the idea of a local organisation saying, “We believe we can make a huge impact in bringing down gun and knife crime, not by having new structures and organisations, but by bringing in volunteers—extra people—to help the existing organisations.” There is a website: I hope people will volunteer and encourage others to do so, because the answer to these problems lies in the public taking their civic responsibilities seriously. If they do that, and if people with time on their hands volunteer a bit more, we will get public engagement with the police, to the benefit of both, which will lead to a reduction in crime, an increase in safer neighbourhoods and the creation of the better city and country we all wish for.

5.28 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): We have heard some eloquent and informative speeches from Members in all parts of the House on the important subject of public engagement in fighting crime, not least from my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Hornchurch (James Brokenshire). I am pleased to be able to conclude the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

When faced with tackling crime today, people will naturally turn to the police force, but in Britain there is a long history of community involvement—of people
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working together to combat crime. As Members will be aware, the police in the form we know them today are a relatively recent invention. It was the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 that created what we now see as a recognisable police force. Before that, policing was undertaken on a more ad hoc basis, with private individuals, groups and communities funding watchmen to patrol and protect their communities.

Historically, under Anglo-Saxon law it was up to the community to regulate itself—to hold, arrest and often punish criminals. Although we have rightly moved on from that, one can still glean positive elements from that system. After all, at the heart of our laws are the public: laws are made to protect and to be used by the public. Such public involvement needs to be a key feature of how we approach our battle against crime. It is surely right that the public still have a pivotal role to play in helping to protect society and uphold the rule of law. If that is true, it is worrying that recent surveys point to the fact that British citizens are the least likely in Europe to intervene to stop crime. A report by the think-tank Reform concluded that only four in 10 British people would intervene if they saw a group of teenagers committing vandalism.

Why has our nation of have-a-go heroes become so reluctant to intervene on another citizen’s behalf? One of the biggest fears is not that they will get hurt, which must be noted—it is still a serious concern—but that they will end up being arrested themselves. Clearly, that is not right. This is obviously a significant obstacle to encouraging the public to become more involved, and the Government need to address it. Although each and every citizen has the right to make a citizen’s arrest, there is often confusion about this, particularly over exactly how the whole process works in practice. Many people fail to understand when, how or whether they should attempt such interventions. With better public information and encouragement, they could be used as a key part of our crime-fighting strategy throughout the United Kingdom. The public need to know that if they take legitimate and justifiable action to stop crime and catch criminals, they will be given the support that they deserve and have every right to expect from the Government, the police and the courts.

Although the results of surveys such as that carried out by Reform are worrying, they should not and cannot detract from the many heroes who go about their daily business and do their best to reduce crime. Only last week, we heard the story of world war two veteran William Grove, who single-handedly intervened in an attempted robbery of a jewellery store. With no weapon and no assistance from any other onlookers, Mr. Grove threw himself into tackling a sledgehammer-wielding assailant. Stunned by his intervention, the two attackers turned and fled. That is a prime example of how the public can make an important difference and be a key weapon in the fight against crime. However, apart from these have-a-go heroes—they include among their illustrious ranks my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve)—there are many other ways in which we as a community can work together to fight crime throughout the United Kingdom.

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There have been some very useful and interesting speeches this afternoon, and I will refer to some of them, if I may. The Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing referred to police neighbourhood teams, which have been of great advantage to all of us where they have been introduced. However, they should be based on proper communities and genuine neighbourhoods. Their being based on electoral wards makes no sense whatsoever. We all know that electoral boundaries divide communities, so if we want true neighbourhood policing based on community, it needs to be based on just that—the communities, and not on electoral wards alone.

My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron) made an important point about the early release scheme when he said that up to 800 crimes have been committed by people who had been released early. That is clearly a great concern to all our constituents, and the scheme should be reviewed, if not scrapped altogether.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch made a series of relevant points. All Members of Parliament have constituents who are deeply unhappy about the way in which crime is tackled in this country by the police and feel that a lot more needs to be done, and he said that the people of this country feel left out of the loop and have concerns about intervening. There has been a breakdown in the relationship between the police and the public. [Interruption.] There has been. People no longer believe that the police will carry out what they should be doing, and I can cite many examples of that from my constituency. Few people have any real belief in the crime figures that are published, and the Government must address this lack of public confidence, because it will deter people from getting involved. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Tynemouth (Mr. Campbell), will refer to that when he replies to the debate.

Mr. Coaker: Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on his comment that there has been a breakdown in the relationships between the police and the public? There are issues to address with respect to the police and the public, and we all want greater public involvement, but will he reflect as to whether he would choose a more careful word than “breakdown”?

Andrew Rosindell: What there has been is a failure of confidence; there has been a breakdown in confidence in certain areas. How many times have we heard people say, “We are not going to ring the police”? People ask, “What’s the point of ringing the police, because they won’t come?” The people to whom I speak say those things, and the Minister must have noticed the same reaction in his constituency. Only two weeks ago, a member of my family phoned the police only to get no reaction. Much concern has been expressed about this matter. The police are held in great regard, but on many occasions they have not come up with the goods that people expect. That must be addressed by the Government, and I hope that the Minister will take that on board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) highlighted that matter too, because she said that when people phone their local police station they often receive no answer. The hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) made the same point in respect of mobile phones. This
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is another example of how confidence is lost. When someone phones their local neighbourhood team and gets no response, and when someone phones their local police station and nobody comes round or even calls back, that causes a breakdown in confidence.

I very much appreciated the comments made by the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), as did my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, because it was a compliment for him to have been described as a rottweiler. Perhaps that is exactly what we need to tackle crime in this country today. The British people are renowned for their bulldog spirit, and we need a bit of that if we are to tackle crime, violence and antisocial behaviour in this country. Perhaps we need less political correctness. The references to “Dixon of Dock Green” are relevant, because many of our constituents like the idea of a Dixon of Dock Green character—I hope that community policing is meant to be about that approach. We need more community-based policing, but we must have firmness as well as fairness—without the firmness, people believe that the police are not being effective.

Political correctness is a poison in fighting crime—it does not help. Sadly, we have seen political correctness in the police and we have heard it from the Liberal Democrat Front Benchers today. The hon. Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne) seemed to be more concerned about getting the balance right between one section of society and another and about introducing proportional representation for police authority elections than he was about fighting crime. That will be viewed dimly by people across the country.

I commend the hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith), who made a thoughtful speech, with many relevant points about her constituency. It is a pity that more Labour Members have not spoken—only the right hon. Member for Leicester, East and the hon. Lady have chosen to do so.

Keith Vaz: The reason that more Labour Members have not spoken is that we all agree so fundamentally with what Ministers say.

Andrew Rosindell: My hon. Friends the Members for Rugby and Kenilworth (Jeremy Wright), for Monmouth (David T.C. Davies) and for Banbury (Tony Baldry) all made interesting and useful points. My hon. Friend the Member for Rugby and Kenilworth spoke about youth clubs and how CRB checks can be detrimental in encouraging people to get involved. Of course, that has been raised on many occasions before, but no action has been taken by the Government. We need sensible checks, but the current process is a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

My hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth speaks from considerable experience as a special constable, and I commend him on his work in that role. The hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Mr. Donohoe) is also a special constable, and he and my hon. Friend, in spending their free time—I did not know that MPs had much free time—providing such a valuable service to our community, are great examples for other Members of Parliament.

My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury made points about mental health and drugs, and their impact on crime. Much more needs to be done to address those issues.

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It is vital to use modern technology in the fight against crime. Facebook is a site used by millions of youngsters across the world, and is now being used to tackle crime in certain respects. The Minister referred to a similar internet site earlier, and we should use those opportunities to connect with younger people.

We must also work with local groups. I have had the privilege of witnessing the work of the Romford street pastors. We have many nightclubs in the area and there are often disturbances on the streets late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. The street pastors do a magnificent job in defusing situations and calming things down. They talk to young people so that they do not feel threatened, creating a much better atmosphere in the town centre. The pastors work closely with Havering council and have had great support from the Conservative administration and the leader of the council, Councillor Michael White. It is important that councils work with the local community, and we should encourage street pastor schemes to be set up across the country. In Romford, our scheme has been very helpful.

It is also important to encourage neighbourhood watch schemes, which have—sadly—been neglected in some areas. They still have many activists and do a fantastic job, but more needs to be done to support and revive them where they have failed. I have already mentioned special constables, and we should do more to encourage people to join that scheme and play a key role in serving their local community.

Churches, schools, families, Members of Parliament and councillors all have a role to play. If we work together, we can do so much to restore order to our streets and clamp down on criminals who do so much harm to our society. We need to encourage and support all attempts by the public to engage in the national fight against crime. Community schemes and projects make a real difference. There are only so many police able to patrol our streets, so everyone must take responsibility for the protection of their local area and their neighbourhoods. Walking by on the other side must never replace the true British spirit of public involvement. Community groups and individuals can be strong assets in assisting the police to protect society. We must put in place the right projects, funding and support to encourage people to take on more of that responsibility.

Together, as one community, we can make a difference in fighting crime and make our country safer for everyone.

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