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House of Commons

Monday 8 January 2001

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

Antisocial Behaviour

1. Maria Eagle (Liverpool, Garston): What plans he has to reduce the incidence of antisocial behaviour in British cities. [142642]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): The Government have taken a series of initiatives to tackle antisocial behaviour. The Crime and Disorder Act 1998 introduced crime and disorder partnerships, antisocial behaviour orders, important changes to the youth justice system and other measures and new offences, including those of racial harassment and violence. More than 140 antisocial behaviour orders have now been made by the courts. Since they were implemented nationally in June, in excess of 243 parenting orders have been made. In the first year of operation, there were more than 1,500 successful prosecutions for racial harassment and violence. The forthcoming criminal justice and police Bill will include further initiatives to tackle behaviour that undermines community life, including strengthened bans on on-street drinking, and powers enabling the police promptly to close licensed premises and to issue fixed-penalty notices.

Maria Eagle: Does my right hon. Friend agree that organisations such as Liverpool city council's antisocial behaviour unit can be an effective spearhead in tackling antisocial behaviour? Is he surprised, therefore, to learn that the Liberal Democrat-controlled city council has allowed the staffing of that unit to decline to less than half its proper establishment? Will he join me in urging the council to recruit quickly to the antisocial behaviour unit to make it effective again?

Mr. Straw: There is no doubt that properly directed antisocial behaviour units in local councils can make a very significant difference in tackling antisocial behaviour in our communities. I share my hon. Friend's concern that Liverpool city council has apparently decided to cut the staffing of that unit, and I very much hope that it will restore the number of staff to the previous level.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): If the Home Secretary wants to reduce antisocial behaviour in Flitwick,

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Ampthill or Shefford--towns in my constituency--will he ensure that they receive the funding that they require for closed circuit television?

Mr. Straw: We have allocated £150 million for CCTV schemes over three years. That represents a huge increase on the amounts allocated by the previous Administration--about £15 million a year. We invite bids from towns across the country, and if towns in the hon. Gentleman's constituency put in bids, they will be considered carefully.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead): Does my right hon. Friend share my frustration that a large number of councils do nothing about the Crime and Disorder Act 1998? When I received a call from the distressed mother of a girl who had been attacked in my constituency, I asked my local council to take out an antisocial behaviour order against her attacker. That was 18 months ago. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that local authorities do not fall down in their duties in that way?

Mr. Straw: Happily, the number of councils that are derelict in their duties to members of the community is decreasing, but some remain, as my hon. Friend has said. That is frustrating because the experience of local authorities and police services that have used antisocial behaviour orders is extremely good. That point was made just two days ago in the Daily Mirror in respect of an antisocial behaviour order issued against a drug dealer in the Bristol area. The order restricted the number of visitors to the drug dealer's house and imposed other restrictions on her behaviour. There is no doubt that antisocial behaviour orders are working. In many cases, even the threat of such an order acts as a serious discipline on those who cause a nuisance, especially when they know that the threat will be followed through if it does not work.

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury): Was it not the Home Secretary who gave an early pledge that he would deter antisocial behaviour by halving the time taken to get youth cases to court? Who will accept responsibility now that the Government have broken that early pledge and failed to keep their word? When the chairman of the Youth Justice Board said last Friday that

was it not Ministers whom he was accurately describing?

Mr. Straw: The record shows that it was not Ministers whom the chairman of the Youth Justice Board was describing. Neither is it true that the pledge has been broken; we are on track to deliver the pledge in the time scale clearly set out in the manifesto and we shall do so. We have already managed to cut the time taken to get persistent young offenders into court by seven whole weeks.

That contrasts with the astonishing complacency of the Conservatives when they were in government. Not only did they refuse to do anything about the scandalous state of the youth justice system as it then was, but they described the pledge as "undeliverable". [Interruption.] They were going to do nothing about it. We have already delivered a significant part of the pledge in many parts of the country and--[Interruption.] It is no good

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Conservative Members laughing, because the pledge has already been delivered in many parts of the country and it will be delivered in the time scale set out.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West): In Horwich in my constituency, a retired firefighter recently collapsed after chasing youths outside his home, and he later died. He had been the subject of a sustained campaign of victimisation lasting many months. Last month, the youths involved walked free from court. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the only ways to combat such loutish behaviour, which can terrorise families and communities, is for the police, the local authority and the community to work in partnership to deliver safer streets for everyone and for the anti-crime measures that the Government are enacting to be implemented in full at a local level?

Mr. Straw: Yes, I share my hon. Friend's opinions on this matter and express my great sympathy for the relatives and friends of the poor man who collapsed and died. We have set out a very clear agenda of powers available to the police, local authorities and the courts to deal with such behaviour and we look to the police, local authorities and, specifically, the courts properly to enforce the will of Parliament.

Without going into the details of the case that my hon. Friend mentioned, there is no question but that, when Parliament agreed to the idea of antisocial behaviour orders, it was clear that it expected that, in normal circumstances, there should be an immediate custodial sentence for the breach of such an order.

Police Recruitment

2. Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): If he will make a statement on police recruitment (a) in Devon and Cornwall and (b) nationally. [142643]

5. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury): If he will make a statement on police recruitment. [142647]

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw): We have made available £454 million for this financial year and for the next three years to bring police numbers to their highest ever level by 2003-04. To back that, the first ever national police recruitment advertising campaign was launched in the summer. I am pleased to tell the House that those measures are already proving successful. Police numbers at the end of September last year were 444 higher than in March 2000, reversing the decline that began in 1993. Recruitment continues at a high level.

Between March and September 2000, 84 new officers were recruited in Devon and Cornwall, increasing total officer strength by 32. Funds for 235 extra recruits have been allocated to the constabulary for the period 2000-01 to 2002-03.

To deal with specific recruitment problems in the London area, the pay of all post-1994 officers in the Metropolitan police was increased by more than £3,300 a year from July last year. An offer to increase the pay to

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home counties officers working within a 30-mile and 40-mile radius of Charing Cross by £2,000 and £1,000 a year respectively has been made by the employers.

Mr. Tyler: Bearing in mind the Prime Minister's pledge yesterday that the number of police officers will rise dramatically, does the Home Secretary anticipate that there will be more police on the beat in Devon and Cornwall and nationally after the next general election than there were after the previous general election?

Will the Home Secretary particularly consider the problem of retention? He has already implied in the figures that he gave for Devon and Cornwall that recruitment and retention have to go together if we are to build the strength of our force. Will he particularly consider the costs in Devon and Cornwall of losing officers and examine the considerable pension costs that that entails? Will he meet a deputation to discuss that issue?

Mr. Straw: I am delighted to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that police numbers in Devon and Cornwall, as at 31 September last year, were higher than they were in March 1997. Police numbers nationally are likely to be greater than they were in March 1997 at some time in 2002-03, but they are already greater in quite a number of police force areas.

We have allocated substantial additional funds for rural forces. I think that Devon and Cornwall will receive about £1.6 million in addition to the best ever real-terms settlement for the police service, which also covers Devon and Cornwall. The overall result will be a well-funded police service. I am pleased to say that the British crime survey already shows that crime levels across the country were down by 10 per cent. at the end of 1999 compared with 1997, proving that even though money was tight in the first three years of this Government--for reasons that everyone understands--our overall crime and disorder policy has been working successfully.

Mr. Rendel: Welcome though the crimefighting fund and extra money for police recruitment are, is the Home Secretary aware that, according to a report that will shortly be sent to the Thames Valley police authority, only eight recruitment applications have been received by Thames Valley police? Is he also aware that, in spite of the crimefighting fund, none of the money will be used by Thames Valley this year because the rate of loss is as high as the rate of recruitment, and the net increase in officers is therefore likely to be zero? Given that the high price of housing is the main reason for that problem, what does he intend to do about it? Will he introduce a housing allowance or an innovative shared ownership scheme in west Berkshire, which is outside the area that receives extra funding?

Mr. Straw: I am happy to look closely at the hon. Gentleman's figures, but the official figures published at the end of last month show that by September last year, police numbers in the Thames Valley and, for example, in Devon and Cornwall, were higher than in March 1997. As for the pay of officers who work close to London--this is not relevant to all officers in the Thames Valley police force because it covers a huge geographical area of three counties--not only do we understand the problem, but we have ensured that funds are available to increase

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the pay of officers who work outside the Met area but within a 30-mile radius of London by £2,000, and the pay of those who work in the 30 to 40-mile radius by £1,000.

I regret that that offer is stalled in the Police Negotiating Board, just as the previous and very welcome offer to increase the pay of Metropolitan police officers by £3,300--which is at long last being paid--was also stalled in the PNB because the staff insisted on going to arbitration. I very much hope that common sense will prevail and that the PNB, which is not directly controlled, will agree the money so that it can be paid to Thames Valley officers.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): We in the west midlands have paid our taxes and there were 156 extra police officers in the West Midlands force by the end of last September. That number is still rising. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it is best left to chief police officers and police authorities to set the number of police officers, against the background of extra resources, that they consider appropriate for their area, rather than the Home Secretary of the day taking a wild stab at it and making a decision on what must be an arbitrary basis?

Mr. Straw: The previous Conservative Administration changed the law in 1994-95 and took the power to set the establishment of each police force away from the Home Secretary and allocated it to chief police officers. Although money has been tight in the past three years, some forces have done reasonably well. There is no correlation whatever between the forces that have received above-average increases in their budgets and those that have maintained officer numbers.

I commend Sir Ted Crew, chief constable of the West Midlands police, on his work and that of all his officers in getting ahead with the money allocated under the crimefighting fund and recruiting those net 156 officers. I am pleased to say that the positive results of such energetic efforts in the recruitment campaign have been repeated in other police force areas, including Greater Manchester, which recently had the largest intake of police recruits in the history of that service.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): We welcome today's news from the Home Secretary, but I am concerned about Lancashire. We hear about inner cities, but can we have an assurance that police numbers will be increased in Lancashire and particularly in the southern division?

Mr. Straw: My hon. Friend will know that one area in Lancashire is slightly more important than Chorley, and selfless though Blackburn always is, it deserves a fair share of the cake. The allocation of officers within a force is a matter for the chief constable in consultation with the police authority. However, I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that, in the six months between March and September last year, the net number of officers in Lancashire increased by 36. That enables that excellent constabulary to build on its good record of cutting crime very significantly over the past three years.

Mr. Nick Gibb (Bognor Regis and Littlehampton): The Home Secretary will know that, in Littlehampton in the early hours of 15 December, a 13-year-old boy, Danny Herbert, was stabbed repeatedly and left in a critical condition. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that,

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when people in my constituency and throughout the country hear of such incidents, many feel strongly that such criminal behaviour would be deterred if more policemen were patrolling the streets of our towns and cities?

Mr. Straw: I express my great sympathy to the victim of that terrible crime and to his family. We all understand the huge distress caused by such crimes. People feel reassured by the visible presence of police officers patrolling the streets on foot or in vehicles, and we want their number to be greatly increased. Much of the current police operation is designed to increase the visibility of the police service, which varies significantly throughout the country, as Audit Commission figures to be published on Wednesday will show. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not attempting to use a specific, tragic example to make a partisan point about police spending, because that would be extremely regrettable.

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon): I welcome the news that, for the first time in 10 years, the Metropolitan police now has more recruits joining than officers leaving. Will my right hon. Friend consider the nationality qualification for joining the police service, which in London excludes 13 per cent. of the working-age population--more than 250,000 people? Some of those people may not want to join the police or may not be suitable, but many could be recruited. That would greatly ease the recruitment problem in London and increase the number of ethnic minority officers in the Metropolitan police.

Mr. Straw: I understand my hon. Friend's concern and, without making any guarantees about the result, I can tell him that the matter is under consideration in the Home Office and by the Commissioner and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Commonwealth citizens, which includes many potential recruits from the black and Asian communities, can join the police service. For the first time, the number of black and Asian officers in the Metropolitan police service exceeds 1,000, which is more than 5 per cent. of the total. There has been a good drive within the Metropolitan police to increase the number of black and Asian officers in line with the recommendations of the Macpherson report.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): Does the Home Secretary agree that there has been a one-off recruitment boost because rejected applicants have been allowed to join police forces, but that that process will soon have run its course? How does he assess the future given that police officer resignations have risen by 60 per cent. since the previous general election and the national recruitment campaign is obviously failing?

The report of the recently knighted Sir Charles Pollard to his police committee, to which the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) referred, says:

With resignations up by 60 per cent. and the national recruitment campaign failing, is not recruitment about to fall again? It is already down by 2,500. What will the Home Secretary do about that? Will he be as complacent as he has been today?

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Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman asks me for my assessment of the future. If the Labour party continues in government, by 2003-04 we shall have the largest ever police service in England and Wales. All our successful efforts over the past three and a half years--to cut crime by 10 per cent., to get violent crime down by 4 per cent., to reduce vehicle crime by getting on for 20 per cent. and to cut domestic burglaries by 15 per cent.--will continue; so, too, will high levels of recruitment to the police service.

On the other hand, the past is the best guide to the future when it comes to the Conservatives, so if a Conservative Government were elected, very significant increases in crime and, on the promises already made by the shadow Chancellor, cuts in police spending and recruitment would be likely.

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