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My first point is about alcohol-related crime, which the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds mentioned. I make no apology for repeating this point every time we
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have a debate on policing. The hon. Gentleman gave the figure: 45 per cent. of victims of violent crime have said that the perpetrator’s behaviour was either influenced by or had connections to the drinking of alcohol. If we talk to any police officer of any rank about what happens in town centres, especially on Friday and Saturday evenings, not only in big cities but in small towns, we will hear about the results of alcohol-related crime. Why on earth should we allow a situation to continue in which we know the cause of the crime and what is happening, and all we do is spend more and more taxpayers’ money on trying to address an issue that the Government can deal with?

I know that there have been a number of Government initiatives, and I welcome what the Home Secretary has said on many occasions about alcohol-related crime. However, the Government should go that little step further and try to do something more about the supermarkets. Why do I say that? The fact is that there is ample evidence to suggest that supermarkets are underselling. Pubs and clubs sell alcohol at a higher price. At this point, I am normally interrupted by my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan), who is chairman of the all-party beer group. He is not here, however, perhaps because it is lunch time and his group is meeting—I do not know. I am casting aspersions on him, and I did not tell him that I would mention him. Anyway, he jumps up and defends the pubs.

I want to ask what we are going to do about the very low prices for alcohol in supermarkets. That is a big problem. In its report, the Select Committee made specific reference to floor pricing, and we asked the Government to consider the issue. That may have been a recommendation; the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) has popped in and may remember precisely what we said. Nevertheless, we felt that floor pricing was the only way to stop people, especially young people, from going into supermarkets and getting tanked up on very cheap alcohol bought under the promotions that every single supermarket in the country is running at this very moment. If anyone leaves the Chamber now and goes to any supermarket anywhere in the vicinity of Westminster, they will see those promotions. Unless we deal with that issue, it will continue to be a major problem for this country.

Patrick Mercer (Newark) (Con): I am grateful to the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee. As he will remember, the supermarket spokesmen who gave evidence to the Committee were defensive on that point. The right hon. Gentleman and I both said that the undercutting and the loss-leading sale of alcohol were extremely injurious—particularly to young folk, including those in Leicester, East and Newark. Will he find out from the Minister exactly what has been done about the issue?

Keith Vaz: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I am sure that the Minister will have taken note and will respond. As yet, we have not received a full response from the Government on this issue; we hope that it will come shortly.

We hope that urgent action can be taken on this problem, as it can be solved. It will have an impact on the Minister’s budget. We have great sympathy with him; we know that he does not simply get up in the morning and think of a figure that he is going to
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allocate to local police authorities all over the country. We know that he has to bargain and negotiate with the Treasury. How better to do that than with an array of statistics and initiatives that show that the Home Office is seeking to bring down the cost of policing?

My second point is about police pay. I am pleased with how the Government have handled this issue over the past few months. I never again want to be part of a demonstration where thousands of police officers, who do not have the right to strike, are forced to demonstrate against a Government who have worked with them in such close partnership over so many years. That was a terrible situation. I am glad that over the past few months the Home Office has begun proper and appropriate negotiations with the police and has given them not only a pay settlement that they deserve but the framework for dealing with these issues in future.

On Saturday, I was present at a march with the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), when 100,000 British citizens marched through the centre of London. Police officers were there, although there were not a huge number. There was a moment during that demonstration when things nearly went wrong, when several young people, who are very passionate about the situation in Sri Lanka, decided to sit down on Westminster bridge and not move. The way in which the police handled that very difficult situation was absolutely superb. They persuaded the young people to get off the bridge and allow it to be reopened. That takes quality policing. In order to get quality policing, we have to pay police officers the amount of money that is appropriate to their skills. Please let us continue in that vein in future. Let us negotiate, so that we never reach a situation where they have to start demonstrating on the streets of London.

My final point concerns new technology. I hope that the Minister will tell us a little about the legal action that the Home Office has instituted against the company that provided the so-called police portal, which, of course, does not work. We all want the computerisation of the police to happen. We would love to see a situation whereby the police in Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire and the Metropolitan police were able to access one set of information through one police portal. I think that that was the intention of the National Police Improvement Agency, but it just did not happen. We have probably wasted a huge amount of money on this issue. I hope that the Minister will tell us what is happening, because it is important that we spend our money wisely, especially in the current economic climate.

Our report mentioned several examples of where Government investment in new technology would make a huge difference not only to the overall cost of policing in future but, more importantly, to the efficiency of local police officers. That means investment in hand-held computers. At the moment, there are 20,000 such devices in the country, and the Government have committed £75 million for another 30,000. However, the Committee says that there is no reason why every single police officer in the country should not have a hand-held device. The time savings are huge. When Bedfordshire police authority bought these devices for its police officers, the amount of time that they spent outside the police station increased, and the time that they spent filling in forms and doing paperwork decreased. The amount of time that they spent processing cases increased
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as well. BlackBerry has told us—I am not suggesting for one moment that we should go out and buy BlackBerry just because it has given us this information—that its research, which it presented to the Committee during our inquiry, suggests that if every police officer had a BlackBerry, it would give them an extra full hour of time outside the police station.

A lot has been said about the report by Sir Ronnie Flanagan, which is excellent; that is why the Committee adopted most of its recommendations. He talks about new technology and saving time by cutting red tape. Of course, Ministers always tell us that there is going to be a bonfire of red tape. Jan Berry has been appointed as the “cutting of red tape” tsar—whatever her title is; bureaucracy tsar, perhaps. The Committee looks forward to examining her in the near future. The fact is that we need real progress on cutting bureaucracy. That is evident if one goes to any police station in the country and talks to any custody sergeant, as I did when the hon. Member for Newark invited me to visit Newark police station. I pay tribute to all the police officers there. Unfortunately, there was a minor mishap when I thought that a fridge was the place where they kept their lunch, but it was in fact the fridge for DNA samples. Even Back-Bench MPs make gaffes, not just Ministers and Mayors of London. We pay tribute to all that police officers have done and say to them, “We want to increase your time outside the police station doing policing work.”

I urge the Minister to take the plunge and invest in new technology. When the Government make that decision, please could we have central procurement, so that Lincolnshire police buy the same equipment as the police in Staffordshire, and the police in Staffordshire buy the same equipment as the police in Bristol or London? That would mean that we would not have problems about whether people are speaking to each other properly and appropriately, and passing on information. In many high-profile cases, especially concerning children, people talk about sharing information after the event inquiries have taken place.

Patrick Mercer rose—

David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. Mr. Davis, I think that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) was giving way. I call Patrick Mercer.

Patrick Mercer: Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am most grateful to both right hon. Gentlemen.

The right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) makes an astute point. Is there not now clearly a case for a central procurement agency not only for police forces, but for security elements inside the policing apparatus? If we can do it for defence, surely we can do it for security and policing.

Keith Vaz: The hon. Gentleman is this House’s expert on these matters, so I am not going to challenge his judgment in any way. He is absolutely right. There is a need to look at those processes to see whether we can create what he alluded to.

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In conclusion—to allow the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) to raise his point of order—I thank the Minister for his allocation so far. We know that things are going to be tough. We may not be thanking him next year, especially in Leicestershire if a cap is put on us, but there are ways in which we can cut costs and invest in the future. Please let us do this and make better what we know we already have—a really world-class police service.

David Davis: On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the debate, but it is on a matter of the utmost national importance.

I would like to raise the issue of a judgment made at 1.45 pm today by Lord Justice Thomas in the case of Binyam Mohamed, a British resident currently being held at Guantanamo Bay who has made an accusation of British involvement in torture inflicted on him while being held in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Morocco. The ruling implies that torture has taken place in the Mohamed case and that British agencies may have been complicit—but, most important of all, that the United States Government have threatened our High Court that if it releases this information the US Government will withdraw their intelligence co-operation with the United Kingdom on matters of security. The judge has ruled that there is a strong public interest in this information being put in the public domain even though it is politically embarrassing.

To quote directly from the judgment—I will make this as brief as possible, Madam Deputy Speaker—

Another part of the report goes on to say that the Foreign Secretary has confirmed that this threat will still remain under President Obama’s new Government.

Madam Deputy Speaker, may I request that you make representations, preferably to the Foreign Secretary, or to the Home Secretary, to come to this House today to make an urgent statement on the involvement of British agencies in torture overseas, and on the right of the United States Government to block a British court from disclosing information given to it?

Patrick Mercer: Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. On this alleged piece of bribery, bullying or whatever it is that has just been discussed, at the same time as a statement is made by a Cabinet Minister, may we also have a thorough understanding of what the American regime would like us to do with non-British detainees in the former Guantanamo Bay prison?

Madam Deputy Speaker: I have to inform the House that those are not points of order for the Chair.

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2.1 pm

Paul Holmes (Chesterfield) (LD): This police grant statement comes in the second year of a three-year settlement, and in that sense it does not contain any surprises. It remains, however, as was pointed out last year, the tightest police grant settlement for a decade, and as the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities pointed out last year, there is a danger of an overall £1 billion shortfall in police funding by 2011. One of the things that they referred to was not just the proportion of money coming from the Government, but the effect of the Government’s constant rate-capping and direction on levels of council tax. The Minister and I debated that issue yesterday in a Public Bill Committee. A MORI opinion poll last year found that 87 per cent. of respondents said that they would be willing to pay more if it went towards direct local policing. Whether we would get quite the same response now that the recession is starting to build up is another matter, but, as we argued yesterday in Committee, that choice should be left to the local community and local police authorities under a directly elected system, rather than being decided by diktat by a Minister in London.

All the points made in last year’s debate remain accurate today, and I will not rehearse most of them in detail because they remain exactly the same. Last year, we discussed the amount of police time spent on paperwork, the increase in violent crime, the lack of adequate technology and the constant creation of new offences—more than 3,500 since 1997. A number of those points have already been touched on in today’s debate. On technology, the issue of hand-held devices that would save police time has already been raised. It surprises me that the staff who work for the council housing department in Chesterfield who do electrical repairs, plumbing and so on are all equipped with such devices, and they are all linked to the central control office through them. The logistics of everything they carry on their vehicles to repair council houses are logged and are readable in the central office in Chesterfield, so that when a call comes in for a repair it is not the nearest vehicle that is sent but the one with the right parts. If the staff of the council housing department can have that sort of technology, which makes them so much more efficient, flexible and cost-effective, it seems incredible that the police in Chesterfield cannot have the same.

The Minister may well say later that pilot schemes are rolling out and developing that technology in various parts of the country, but as with so many experiments with pilot schemes, we have to ask when that process will become universal. It is proven technology, the benefits of which can be seen even in a council housing repair department. Why has it not been rolled out throughout police forces in the UK?

As a side issue, the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who chairs the Select Committee, mentioned central purchasing. Contrary to our debate in Committee yesterday, I do see an argument for a degree of central collaboration or direction in that case. One police officer whom I talked to in Chesterfield told me that many police forces buy a variety of motor vehicles because there is no custom-built standard for the British police, whereas American police forces tend to have a standard police cruiser. He told me that some of the computer devices provided for use in cars cannot
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be mounted on the dashboard because there is such a mish-mash of purchasing policy. Vehicles are often too small and not suitable for such new technology. The delivery of technology raises some issues that need be considered, but it is such a basic process in this day and age, it is hard to understand why the technology has not been rolled out across all 43 police authorities.

Mr. Coaker: To nail this point about mobile information devices, I say to the hon. Gentleman that all Home Office-funded police forces in England and Wales, and all police forces in Scotland, have now received funding. We expect 30,000 hand-held devices to be in use by front-line officers in April 2010. Although the technology was originally being rolled out in phase 1, phase 2 is now online. Millions of pounds are being spent to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Paul Holmes: I thank the Minister for that clarification. It would be churlish to say better late than never—but none the less, that is now on the record.

On the constant creation of new offences—3,500 or more in 10 years—we are in the process of discussing the 66th Home Office Bill in this area, with the Public Bill Committee considering it starting last week, and it will create a variety of new offences. One proposal that was debated on Second Reading, and which I mentioned in Committee last week, is the fine of up to £500 that is available for people found drinking alcohol in a public place where drinking is prohibited. The current Bill proposes to increase that figure to £2,500, but as we clarified in Committee and on Second Reading, although the maximum fine is £500 no one has ever been fined more than £250, and very few have been fined more than £100. That is symptomatic of a process where legislation is constantly used to grandstand—to send messages in pursuit of media headlines—but has no practical benefit for the front-line police officer. In fact, it can be quite the reverse if it is simply throwing extra regulation and paperwork at police officers on the beat, who have far better things on which to spend their time.

Legislation on cut-price alcohol sales in supermarkets, however, which the Chair of the Select Committee referred to earlier, would be a much more beneficial and effective process. Regrettably, however, such provisions are missing from the Bill that we are discussing in Committee. I have been on patrol with front-line officers and seen them dealing with the public effects of alcohol, and they would welcome the effects of such legislation far more than a measure that the Minister said was simply intended to send a message—effectively, to get a headline instead of having a direct, practical effect.

All of last year’s debate remains relevant, although we do not need to return to two parts of it. The current Minister has not had to announce a cut in the numbers of police community support officers from 24,000 to 16,000, as was announced last year, and he has not had to take the flak for refusing to implement in full a police pay award. That happened last year, although officers remain demoralised and angry about it to this day.

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