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House of Commons
Session 2008 - 09
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General Committee Debates
Policing and Crime

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Hugh Bayley, † Sir Nicholas Winterton
Austin, Mr. Ian (Dudley, North) (Lab)
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta (City of Durham) (Lab)
Brokenshire, James (Hornchurch) (Con)
Burns, Mr. Simon (West Chelmsford) (Con)
Campbell, Mr. Alan (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department)
Cawsey, Mr. Ian (Brigg and Goole) (Lab)
Coaker, Mr. Vernon (Minister for Security, Counter-Terrorism, Crime and Policing)
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)
Fitzpatrick, Jim (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport)
Harris, Dr. Evan (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD)
Holmes, Paul (Chesterfield) (LD)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Ruffley, Mr. David (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Wilson, Phil (Sedgefield) (Lab)
Chris Shaw, Andrew Kennon, Committee Clerks
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 3 February 2009


[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Policing and Crime Bill

10.30 am
The Chairman: From the Chair, I welcome all those Members who are in the House of Commons. I congratulate those who have come some distance—there are one or two here, including myself—and have managed to cope with the severe weather, particularly on Sunday evening.
Today, we begin the meat of a Public Bill Committee, going through the Bill clause by clause, line by line and, almost, word by word. We start with clause 1, properly and inevitably.

Clause 1

Duty of police authorities in relation to public accountability
Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds) (Con): I beg to move amendment 76, in clause 1, page 1, line 7, after ‘people’, insert
‘, local authorities, the business sector and voluntary sector’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 48, in clause 1, page 1, line 10, leave out from ‘insert’ to end of line 11 and insert
‘the requirement to have regard to the views of people and the business sector and the voluntary sector in its area about policing in that area (to be measured by independently conducted local attitudinal surveys of public satisfaction) and its compliance with’.
Amendment 77, in clause 1, page 1, line 11, after ‘people’, insert
‘, local authorities, the business sector and voluntary sector’.
Mr. Ruffley: It is always a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, and you are correct that this sitting marks the beginning of the meaty scrutiny of the Bill.
I would like to place something on record—and I am sure that these are sentiments that the Minister shares—because the part of the Bill to which the amendments relate is entitled “Police reform”. It would be wrong of me not to begin scrutiny of the Bill without bearing testimony to the hard work that policemen and women of all ranks do up and down the land. It is a dangerous and demanding job, and the office of constable imposes on those men and women constraints that many ordinary employees are not under, such as restrictions on what they can do when they are off duty. I wish to begin on that positive note. Clauses in this part 1, on police reform, are important to me as the shadow Police Minister. My hon. Friends and I wish to conduct the debate in the spirit of instructive scrutiny, particularly in relation to the police.
Amendments 76, 48 and 77, standing in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch, go to the very heart of the accountability debate. Sir Ronnie Flanagan, in his final report on policing in spring last year, which was instigated by the Home Secretary’s predecessor but accepted and welcomed by the current Home Secretary, said at paragraph 7.12, page 81:
“If a body of citizens is dissatisfied with the service they receive or the scrutiny of it, they have little means of redress.”
He went on to talk about the need for more accountability in the scrutiny of the performance of the police service in England and Wales.
We all agree on that. Later in our proceedings, the Liberal Democrats will explore their view, with their alleged enhancement of police accountability. We have our own view, which is for a single directly elected police commissioner. In the clause stand part debate, we shall talk about the Government’s initial position in the Bill and their position now. My hon. Friend and I have sought an amendment to put a duty on police authorities to consult not just with people but with certain bodies. We are not confident that the views of local businesses, or even local authorities, are being taken account of by police authorities, and we think that the clause as drafted does nothing to redress that problem.
There is a reference in the amendment to seeking the views of the “business sector”. Why the business sector? The Federation of Small Businesses has—over many years, not just recently—worked long and hard to point out that crimes targeted against business are not, in the experience of its members, given due attention by some police forces. In short, businesses do not believe that they are listened to when it comes to reporting crime. That is not a new point in any shape or form. The business sector, particularly in this dire economic climate, should be listened to in many forums. Press reports show that as long ago as last August, Her Majesty’s Government and the Cabinet Office were predicting an increase in acquisitive, or property, crime as a result of the economic downturn. If acquisitive crime is on the increase, we need to pay more attention to the views of the business sector than we would do in boom times.
Let us look at some facts. Figures presented to me by the Federation of Small Businesses show that crimes against business make up a fifth of all recorded crime in the United Kingdom. According to the federation, only 45 per cent. of businesses report crime, because—rightly or wrongly—of their lack of faith in the system of police response. I think that that is too much of a blanket criticism, but it is certainly the case that in some police force areas, businesses do not report crime even through they have experienced it. They are not sure that it is worth the time and trouble to get what will perhaps be an inadequate response from the local force.
James Brokenshire (Hornchurch) (Con): My hon. Friend makes a good point about the interconnection between business, policing and enforcement. Does he agree that the Government have not helped the situation by telegraphing a message through the policing Green Paper that implied that the police do not have to worry about targets, in particular those relating to shoplifting? Shoplifting was mentioned specifically in the Green Paper as something that the police almost did not need to bother about.
Mr. Ruffley: With typical perspicacity, my hon. Friend has focused on something that is a live issue, now more than ever, given the dire economic climate faced by the country. We face an increase in acquisitive crime and the question—it is only a question, which my hon. Friend and I have been pondering over the last few days—is whether it is always an adequate response for the public, or indeed retailers, to see repeat shoplifters only ever receive a fixed penalty notice. The allegation—much of it anecdotal, but no doubt the Minister will give a view—is that there is no likelihood of magistrates court proceedings for the mythical theft of a Mars bar, for example, a couple of times from a corner shop.
The question is whether there should be harder interventions for high-volume crime of a low-level nature. What should be the response of the police in that situation? Should they exercise discretion as the crime is low-level or, where there is a pattern of persistent shoplifting by an individual, should they throw the book at them? I would be grateful to hear the Minister’s response, as we are talking about how, through this clause, the business community will be able to seek greater accountability from local police. That is the purpose of the amendments.
To continue with some salient facts, according to the FSB, 45 per cent. of businesses fail to report crime because of their apparent lack of faith in the system. Over two thirds of businesses are not even aware of the neighbourhood policing units that have been rolled out across this country. The Home Secretary and the Minister are proud of saying that neighbourhood policing units—the teams that have been rolled out across the country—are an initiative that is working. Her Majesty’s Opposition support it, although we think that it can work better. I have seen work to the effect that neighbourhood policing budgets are going to be ring-fenced for an extra year. That is a good thing but, according to those statistics, over two thirds of businesses are not even aware of their existence. It is clear that any accountability body, whether a police authority—or under the Conservative model, an elected police commissioner—which is a democratic, lay representative, overseeing police performance, should actively seek the views of the business community. If those views are taken on board, that should be better reflected in the distribution of resources and the crime-fighting priorities of a chief constable and his officers.
The scale of the problem should not be underestimated. The FSB indicates that the average cost of crime per annum is against them. Averages do not mean much to the typical business because the problem is widespread, but the cost is £13,000 a year, which affects profitability and staff morale. If people consider the FSB unrepresentative of the business community of England and Wales, I would pray in aid the views of the British Chambers of Commerce, whose 2008 crime survey provided data that supports the FSB’s view. There was a worrying decline in the confidence that businesses have in work to tackle crime against business in their community. The survey, which formed part of the representations for the Green Paper last year, said:
“Two thirds of businesses did not display confidence that police were dealing with these issues.”
Rather than listen to me list businesses’ concerns, it might be useful for the Committee to understand why there is a systemic problem. It is not just the business community having a go and wanting things to be better. It is a structural problem, which goes to the heart of how we measure business crime. As many Committee members will be aware, the British Crime Survey, on which the Home Secretary relies a great deal, measures the victimisation experience of households and individuals over and above recorded crime, but it does not measure the victimisation of commercial businesses or industrial concerns. The last commercial victimisation survey, which is not part of the annual BCS, was conducted in 2002. These are one-off, ad-hoc surveys of the victimisation experience of businesses. They are not in the annual British crime survey, which covers the experiences of individuals and households rather than of businesses. In 2002, it was estimated that there were 14.6 million offences which would not be included in the annual British crime survey. A fuller picture of crime in this country should include, on a more regular basis, what happens to businesses and industrial concerns.
Should we have regular surveys of crimes against businesses, as judged by surveys of the victimisation experience of businesses? The Minister will no doubt say that such surveys are expensive to carry out. Having considered the matter, my view is that the sample size and the attendant costs of a proper business survey in this country should at least be considered every two years, so that we had useful trend evidence of what the business community is complaining about. By reference to statistics and research, I have set out those concerns in detail.
10.45 am
The amendments in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch refer to the voluntary sector because voluntary sector bodies and charities also have offices and are not comprehensively covered in the annual British crime survey. Like businesses, their offices can be broken into and office equipment can be stolen, and fraud can be committed against them. Voluntary bodies are concerned about crime and whether it is always worth reporting it to the police. The views of the voluntary sector need to be understood better.
The third category in the amendments is local authorities. Let me say at the outset that I do not agree with everything that local authorities say about making the police accountability arrangements more modern and more focused, but on this matter, I and my hon. Friends agree with the Local Government Association. In connection with the original Green Paper arrangements, which we will get to on clause stand part, the LGA said that the police and the crime and disorder reduction partnerships need a much closer working relationship and that the police authorities need to do more to consult district and borough councils. It asks, quite rightly:
“Who, after all, are the partners with the police in CDRPs”
Whether we pursue the model of policing authorities as allegedly modernised by the Bill or the model of a directly elected commissioner as proposed by Her Majesty’s Opposition, we can all agree that local authorities will continue to have budgetary control over some crime-fighting moneys and resources and that CDRPs, under the Government’s model or ours, will continue to work collaboratively. As I never cease to repeat in public forums, the police cannot fight crime on their own and we should not expect them to try.
The world has moved on: the police have a critical role, but not without strategic advice and the local authorities’ work on the ground, especially on antisocial behaviour, primary care trusts, drug action teams and such. Partnership working is essential right across the board, as it would be under any future Conservative Administration. What is in the clause to give comfort to local authorities? What is there to show them that their hard work and efforts will be recognised when, under the current regime, police authorities set priorities with chief constables? What is there to show them that police authorities will take account of the views of local authorities when those priorities are set with the chief constable? That is the purpose of the amendment, which refers not only to the business and voluntary sector, but to local authorities.
I shall conclude my remarks on the amendments by observing that the clause as drafted appears to place a new requirement over and above what is in the Police Act 1996. The Act will be amended to include the requirement to take into account
“the views of people in the authority’s area about policing in that area”.
In the Bill, upgrading the 1996 Act, that is coupled with an extra responsibility for Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to carry out an inspection and report to the Secretary of State on the new requirement under clause 1 as drafted. Does it make a significant, practical change to the 1996 Act? That Act already gives police authorities a duty to make arrangements for knowing the views of local people on matters concerning their policing area, and obtaining co-operation and preventing crime under section 96. As a lawyer in a former life, albeit I did not practise for long before becoming an MP, it seems to my tired, legal brain that there is not a significant or notable difference between the clause and the precursor legislation in the 1996 Act.
Will the Minister reflect on what Liberty said about the clause and the part of it to which the amendments refer? Liberty takes a different view from Opposition and Government Members. It thinks that the idea of greater lay accountability is bad, but it is surely right of Liberty to make an interesting drafting point by querying how people are to be defined and asking
“If just one or two people in the area express their opinion must the PA take that into account in discharging its function?”
How many people? Can we put a number on it? Liberty observes that the community
“may in reality consist of a number of communities”
and different communities that are judged by
“ethnicity, gender and socio-economic status.”
It would be useful if the Minister explained whether he is relying on a common-sense meaning of the words, or whether he has an idea of the number—the quantum—of people or communities that he anticipates would be caught by the clause. The part of the clause to which the amendments relate is designed to enhance accountability, but my first problem arises from how it differs from the 1996 Act in a material sense.
My second and final question is about important information to enable the Committee to understand about where the Government are coming from on accountability generally. That question is in order for reasons that I hope will become clear in a minute. At the time it was passed, the Government made much of the Police and Justice Act 2006. That Act places on local councillors a duty to respond to what it calls a “community call for action” from anybody living or working in an area on a matter concerning crime and disorder, including antisocial behaviour and behaviour adversely affecting the environment or substance abuse in that area. Such matters are covered by section 19 of the 2006 Act.
It was suggested that the response of the councillor in the ward must show what, if any, action that councillor proposed to take to resolve the subject of the complaint by the individual citizen in the area. Because that goes to the heart of accountability—the key to that part of the clause—can the Minister say whether that provision is in operation and, if so, on how many occasions it has been utilised? If we do not have an answer to how the existing legislation on local democratic accountability is being utilised, we cannot get to the heart of why the amendments—or indeed the whole clause—are important.
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Prepared 4 February 2009