Building Safer Communities

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Mrs. Lawrence: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walter: I am conscious of the fact that I have to wind up.

Although Labour will continue to hit Wales with higher taxes, we are committed to reducing them. We will cut taxes for hard-working families, pensioners and businesses. In that way, we shall improve our public services, and that will enable us to have safer communities in Wales.

Several hon. Members rose—

The Chairman: Order. At least five more Back Benchers are seeking to catch my eye.

5.4 pm

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I had better not comment about the previous contribution, except to say that it did not seem to relate much to my experience of living and working in Wales.

The subject of the debate is building safer communities in Wales, and I am fortunate to represent a constituency in west Wales that is part of the Dyfed Powys police force area. For decades, we have had the lowest incidence of crime in Britain, and the highest detection rate. Dyfed Powys is the safest police area in Britain. Since Labour has been in power, crime has continued to fall. The latest figures from the British crime survey, published last October, show that in Dyfed Powys there was a fall of 4.9 per cent. between September 1999 and September 2000. In total, there has been an 11 per cent. fall in crime since the 1997 general election. Those figures speak for themselves. As I said, we also have the highest detection rate in Britain. An article in the Western Mail of 12 January 2001 recorded that the Dyfed Powys force detected 64.2 per cent. of all crime. The England and Wales average is 29 per cent., so the Dyfed Powys rate is double the national average. Not only is there less crime, but the crime that occurs is detected.

On finance for the police force, the comprehensive spending review has given us a generous three-year settlement. For this year, the settlement is up 6 per cent. on last year. That includes an extra £1.3 million for rural policing. For several years, our former chief constable, Ray White, argued that police forces in rural areas across Britain were not being sufficiently compensated for the sparsity of the land mass that they had to cover. The Government have recognised that, and Dyfed Powys, of all areas, has done best out of the rural policing formula. In our period of government, the police numbers have risen, from 1,005 in March 1997, to 1,045 on 30 September last year. That is an increase of 40. Thanks to the increased budget, there will be an extra 79 police recruits over the next three years. Despite the problems, we are substantially increasing police numbers in Dyfed Powys.

We are also delivering on the pledges that we gave at the time of the last general election, one of which was that we would halve the time from arrest to sentencing for persistent young offenders. The national average period in 1997 was 142 days. In Dyfed Powys it was 124 days. That has fallen to 60 days, so that is a pledge achieved. Labour is delivering on all fronts in Dyfed Powys—in terms of law and order, and in terms of building safer communities.

Against this growth in the budget, and growth in the police numbers, the constabulary are aware of the demands being made, especially in rural areas, for a more visible presence. At the united county show in Carmarthen last year, I visited the police tent, and met some people involved in re-opening the police station in St. Clears. In St. Clears, the community wanted a police presence, so it found suitable premises for one. Many volunteers from the community are involved in staffing those premises on a nine-to-five basis, putting in extra hours whenever required. The police call in for few hours every day, so that there is a police presence there, responding to demand in the local community. I understand that roughly 20 such centres are to be opened across Carmarthenshire: St. Clears, Pencader and Llanybydder in the first phase, and later in Pontyates and Llangunnor in my constituency. In a sense, it brings back a village police station presence, which has pulled in more volunteers from the community—people involved in neighbourhood watch, pensioners associations and others who want to be involved in the unpaid but important work of supporting the police in their communities.

Of my two further points, the first is the proliferation of speed traps. It is important that our driving should be disciplined in built-up areas, but I have noticed, as have others, that now that the police are getting the money from fines, more drivers are being caught. I must plead guilty a small indiscretion; 18 months ago, I was caught driving at 41 mph in a built-up area. It is easy money for the police and I hope that our constabulary—indeed, all police forces—use speed traps only when the traffic layout requires it, in areas where traffic routinely goes too fast or where there are particular hazards.

My other point is about car crime. I have generally been lucky; I have never been a victim of crime, but I have suffered from car crime. My car was broken into in London, soon after I was elected to the House, and also at Port Talbot railway station. I routinely drive to Port Talbot, and take the train to London. My car has been stolen four times; twice it was driven away and twice some damage was caused. Those four incidents happened under the Conservative Government between 1987 and 1997. I am pleased to report that, since May 1997, I have not suffered another incident. We in Port Talbot are helping to build safer community.

Finally, I return to the British crime survey and the crime figures for the communities of Wales for the past three and a half years. Crime in Gwent has fallen by 3.1 per cent. In north Wales, it has fallen by 9.1 per cent. In Dyfed Powys, it has fallen by 11 per cent. In south Wales, it has fallen by 24.5 per cent. That gives an average fall of 12 per cent. across Wales since 1997. The Government are certainly sticking to the task; they are in the process of building those safer communities.

The Chairman: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for allowing others the time to contribute to the debate.

5.13 pm

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): I, too, shall be brief. I want to expand a little on the comprehensive and detailed analysis that my hon. Friend the Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy (Mr. Llwyd) made at the start of the debate, but I shall concentrate on the supply side of criminal justice—how the court system is working in rural areas. If I have time, I may also ``do a little drugs''.

It is a delight to address the Welsh Grand Committee again—it is a baby grand at the moment, but I am sure that other hon. Members will avail themselves of the opportunity to attend later. As those hon. Members who represent constituencies in Dyfed Powys have recently contributed to the debate, I want to put on record my brief thanks to the force in Dyfed Powys for making that area one of the safest in western Europe. Much of that is due to the members of the police force, to the previous chief constable and to the fairly new chief constable, Mr. Dennis Grange. All hon. Members who represent constituencies in that area would want to put it on record that we are personally as well as politically thankful for that. It reflects well on the police force but it also reflects well on the communities that we represent here. It underlines the need for a wider context of protecting those communities.

I want to refer to the problems and lack of moral that exists within the lay magistracy. I have met with the magistrates in Aberystwyth and representatives of magistrates throughout the Ceredigion part of Dyfed Powys. They are uncertain about the Government's plans. The Government have sent out uncertain signals. We have heard of the possibility of greater use of stipendiary magistrates—in other words, of salaried local magistrates. I want to emphasise to the Minister how important it is in an area such as Ceredigion, and in rural areas generally, that lay magistrates are seen to dispense local justice. They can take on board the local circumstances. They may even look kindly on the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) when he goes a little too fast along a rural lane, because they realise that in rural areas certain ways of driving must be followed, or one does not get from A to B.The lay magistracy can reflect local needs. It is seen to work effectively. There is a lot of trust in magistrates courts in rural areas. People have an association with magistrates. They see their local court as part of their local system of justice; they support it, and want to see it continuing.

The long-term aim within Dyfed Powys is alarming. Labour Members who represent areas of Dyfed Powys will be aware of this and, I hope, be as alarmed as I am that there is a financial imperative to work towards one court centre per area within Dyfed Powys. That has been set out in black and white in one of the forward plans for the magistrates courts. It has not yet been enacted, but as a result of the closure of Lampeter magistrates court, there has been a threat to some of the Narey cases, which were working well in Cardigan. That threat has been lifted, but in west Wales we are questioning just how court justice will be delivered in a rural area in the long term.

I can provide an example of how a magistrates court closure can affect constituents. A constituent of the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr who needed to attend court in my constituency had to walk from his home to the court. He left home in Talley in Talyllychau at 5 am, to try hitch a lift in to his court case in Aberystwyth. He arrived at 4.30 pm, after the warrant for his arrest had been issued because he had not turned up for court. The magistrates took pity on him, but such incidents show that local justice is not being delivered locally. We must reappraise the need for strategic courts such as Lampeter.

I had an Adjournment debate recently and the Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department replied to it. He claimed—I want to put this on the record because I have proof positive from the magistrates courts committee—that there had been a 6.54 per cent. increase in magistrates courts funding for Dyfed Powys. I have the letter from the magistrates courts here, and it tells me that 6.54 per cent. is in reality 3.46 per cent.

If we are to deliver justice locally, we need to think about the cost of it, and consider how it might be achieved. An uplift of 3 per cent. is making it very difficult to deliver justice in rural areas and meet the requirements of the Human Rights Act 1998. That is the killer. We need to bring old court houses up to the required standards, and I do not deny that that is a problem. The Government are saying that the local magistrates courts committee makes the decisions, but the Government give 80 per cent. of the funding, so a lot of thought needs to go into that aspect.

The Government's response to the recent Police Foundation report on drugs was late in coming; it came a year after the Runciman report. I would like to express a different view on the way in which the Government have responded to the report, and the way forward for Wales and the UK on this issue. Before I do so, I want to make it clear that my party consistently supports the need for a royal commission on drugs.

My view is that we have run up against a difficulty, particularly with cannabis. There is little evidence to show that the increase in drugs is being thwarted or met by the present use of resources. In other words, the deterrent effect that we have gone for in the UK does not seem to be working. Possession offences are dominating most of the time that the criminal justice system is taking up to deal with drugs. I argue that we need to free up that time to deal with the more substantial matters of drug dealing and drugs that have a more injurious effect on communities.

 
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Prepared 13 February 2001