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28 Jun 2001 : Column 890

Business of the House

Motion made, and Question proposed,

6.56 pm

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst): This is an important matter which--I am sure that you agree, Madam Deputy Speaker--signals an interesting departure from the long-established means of dealing with private Members' Bills. It will not have escaped the notice of the House that, unusually, this year it is proposed that the private Member's Bill cycle starts as early as 26 October and runs through November and January and on to July.

For some years, the precedent has been established that the final day for the consideration of private Members' Bills is on or about 19 July. In that sense, nothing new has been proposed, but there is a departure in the motion. I am rather disappointed but, frankly, unsurprised that nobody from the Government Front Bench has sought to catch your eye, Madam Deputy Speaker, to explain to the House why that change has been made. I do not want to read anything sinister or conspiratorial into that--[Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. If Members wish to remain in the Chamber, perhaps they could remain quiet while the right hon. Gentleman proceeds.

Mr. Forth: I should have thought that a change on that scale would require a certain amount of explanation. A small number of us take an interest in private Members' Bills. Indeed, if I remember rightly, when we last dealt with private Members' Bills just before Dissolution, as many as 26 Members were present, which gives an idea of the interest in such Bills in the House: out of 659 Members, 26 took the trouble to attend the House on a Friday although, regrettably, they witnessed a Bill fall because of the lack of a quorum.

At least 26 people, therefore, are potentially interested in the motion. I am glad that a few more are here today; perhaps we can engender greater interest in private Members' Bills. However, there is an interesting question to which as yet we have no answer--I hope that I will be able to elicit one from the Minister. We usually expect the cycle for private Members' Bills to start in January. That is a proper procedure which, once the ballot for such Bills has taken place, allows an appropriate period for the legitimate consultation that Members wish to undertake with outside interests--but not, I hope, with the Government. Far too many Government Bills are smuggled through via the process for private Members' Bills, although usually they are pretty obvious and few of them survive. Those Members who are fortunate enough to come high in the ballot may wish to have a legitimate consultation with outside interests and incorporate their suggestions in their Bill. My question is whether, given that someone--surprisingly and out of the blue--is suggesting that we accelerate the process and bring it forward to 26 October--

It being Seven o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

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Debate to be resumed on Monday 2 July.-- [Mr. Heppell.]


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.


Motion made,

Hon. Members: Object.

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Crime Reduction (Plymouth)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Heppell.]

7 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton): Plymouth is the largest city in the far south-west of England, and with its size and position as a major port come a variety of policing and safety challenges. Home to almost 260,000 people, my constituency of Plymouth, Sutton is part of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary area, geographically the largest policing area in England, with both rural and urban areas.

Between 1995 and 1998, young people in Plymouth rated crime and the fear of crime just behind poverty as the second worst thing about living in Plymouth. Young people were the most likely of any demographic group to be victims of crime. One in 15 young citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 was likely to be a victim of violence, and one in 14 was likely to the a victim of domestic burglary.

I am pleased to note that recent crime figures estimate that the national crime rate has declined by more than 6 per cent., and that this Government's anti-crime policies have contributed to a consistent decline in crime in the west country generally over the past few years. Home burglary, the handling of stolen goods, and fraud and forgery offences are all down by more than 15 per cent. in Plymouth.

In the 12 months to March 2001, even violent crime figures were going down in all but one of the eight wards in my constituency. However, after 30 years of relentlessly increasing crime rates, it will be some time before people feel a difference in their personal and community safety. In this debate, I want to draw to my hon. Friend's attention the achievement of our crime and disorder partnership, as well as to highlight some specific aspects of local crime fighting, in which the Government's further support will help to ensure that the outlook for Plymouth continues to improve.

The Government have a vital role to play in targeting resources and changing the law and criminal justice system to help communities in their fight against crime. However, active communities with statutory, voluntary and private organisations working in partnership are essential to achieving effective crime prevention and reduction.

Plymouth is an example of a can-do city that is creatively developing its own solutions in partnership with the guidance of supportive, prevention-focused Government policy. Such a partnership has operated in Plymouth longer than in most other parts of the country. With its mission statement to reduce crime and the fear of crime, the Plymouth community safety partnership consists of representatives from Plymouth city council, the police, the commercial and voluntary sectors, and the local health and fire departments.

The partnership evolved from joint agency work originally led by the Plymouth crime prevention panel in the late 1980s. In 1994, the Plymouth community safety strategy group was established. Inspired by the Morgan report, the chief constable, Sir John Evans, invited local authorities in his area to look at partnership as a way to build on the community policing principles for which the

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Devon and Cornwall constabulary are well known. Plymouth was therefore well placed to meet the requirements of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, to carry out a crime and disorder audit and to draw up a strategy to tackle the priorities identified by that audit.

If the Minister is not already aware of Plymouth's reputation for partnership work, I am sure he will soon become familiar with it. That audit showed significant achievements already arising from successful partnering and problem-solving policing. Domestic burglaries had declined by 54 per cent., and there had also been a substantial increase in detected drug crimes. Detection of possession was up 20 per cent., and trafficking detection was up 40 per cent. over the three-year period. There was, unfortunately, an overall 8.9 per cent. increase in reported violent crime during the review period. Not surprisingly, the audit also revealed a correlation between the wards with the highest social and economic deprivation and those with the greatest numbers of violent offenders and offences.

Eighty-four per cent. of students excluded from school were reported to be associated with crime. There was a strong correlation between alcohol excesses and disorder. The greatest public disorder occurred in the city centre and Plymouth's clubland areas.

Some of the partnership's additional primary findings were as follows: offenders per capita are young--predominantly 10 to 24 years old; one in 12 burgled homes has been burgled previously; and vehicle crime remains the largest category of crime in Plymouth.

Repeat offenders put disproportionate stresses on a range of Plymouth city agencies and account for a disproportionate amount of the city's crimes. For example, although drug-related crime accounts for only 2 per cent. of Plymouth's overall crime, more than 80 per cent. of acquisitive crime is related to drugs. That represents £1 million a week.

I strongly support our commitment to make Britain the toughest place in the western world for drug dealers. That is an ambitious challenge, which many constituents whom I met during the election campaign wanted realised. I shall work to support those in my constituency who are dedicated to tackling the mayhem that drug addiction causes.

I feel most strongly for the innocent bystanders. A feature of drug dealing in Plymouth appears to be that it is carried out in houses rather than on street corners. The lives of the people who live next door become a nightmare which they seem powerless to end. The police and the local authority are using the new powers that we introduced in the previous Parliament to implement antisocial behaviour orders.

We have new resources of approximately £220,000 over three years from the community action drugs fund. That will help to broaden and deepen the resources in the city for preventing and treating drug addiction. The successful bid for additional funds to enhance and extend the CCTV resources in the city centre will also help. I am pleased that the Government and the police authority have made funding available for recruiting 275 additional police officers in the west country. Forty-one will be based in Plymouth. Those additional resources are vital to help us to bear down on crime in our community.

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The Minister can be confident that they will be well used, as the achievements of the community safety partnership show.

Since the partnership was formed in 1994, vehicle theft has decreased by 50 per cent. and burglary has dropped by 60 per cent. Since 1998, burglary in multi-let properties has been targeted and has decreased by 44 per cent. A project to tackle the 20 streets with the most burglaries has exceeded the 20 per cent. reduction target for the past year. Last year's target for reduction in theft of and from cars has been exceeded.

However, the Minister knows that as targets are achieved and exceeded each year, bearing down further on crime becomes ever more challenging. I have already referred to the most important reduction, which is that in violent crime. Last year's target was to contain the increase to 8 per cent. The outcome is a reduction of 8 per cent.

I want to consider some subjects that merit further attention. Bearing down further on violent crime means tackling domestic violence. The domestic violence strategy for the city will be launched next week, on 5 July, after extensive consultations between the partners. Although our city has done well from its applications for various funds, we were not lucky in the initial distribution of funding for domestic violence projects.

Domestic violence is an aspect of crime that perhaps lends itself less than others to targeted funding for targeted outcomes. One of the aims of work in the area is to ensure that incidents are reported. Policing that is targeted at reducing numbers can sometimes be subject to conflicting pressures because initial work may increase crime figures. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell the House about any future plans for enabling crime and disorder partnerships to do new work on domestic violence and whether there may be further rounds of funding for such work.

Plymouth would like to do some new work on proposals for a restorative justice programme for women. Women, often with young children, end up with a custodial sentence in proportionately greater numbers than their male counterparts. The Plymouth project builds on the good experience of the youth offending team in developing reparation schemes with young people. That may involve a meeting with a victim, or, when more appropriate, writing a letter, or work on a damaged community building. A similar approach for female criminals as an extra option for the courts to consider would often be better for the victims as well as being more successful in re-integrating the woman and her family.

My hon. Friend the Minister knows that Plymouth was one of the areas to pioneer arrest referral schemes for drug offences. It has also designed a project that takes a similar approach to offences committed under the influence of alcohol. The idea, drawn up by the Plymouth team, has attracted funding and is being used in other parts of Devon. Given the role that alcohol plays in disturbances in our very lively city, I hope that it will not be long before we see this scheme, which was invented in Plymouth, in action in Plymouth.

Having pioneered such work in relation to drugs, the partnership is now working even further upstream of the arrest referral point of intervention. The police are now working with other agencies to focus on drug users, when

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it is believed that they are funding their habit--usually of fairly chaotic drug use--by theft or burglary. Getting them into early treatment prevents all the crimes that they might have committed before the evidence existed to arrest them. That saves individual people the cost of suffering those crimes and represents a saving on escalating costs to the public purse in terms of health, tackling crime and other public service budgets. It also reduces crime.

Earlier, I acknowledged the significant investment that has been made in CCTV, and the effective role that CCTV has played in reducing crime in the city. There will shortly be further investment in North Stonehouse and in upgrading the control room facilities, as a result of additional funding announced earlier this year. However, this will still leave a key area of the centre of Plymouth unmonitored. Emma place and the surrounding streets are part of a longstanding red-light area in which residents are keen to see some improvement to the quality of their lives. A bid for CCTV there was unfortunately not one of the successful bids earlier this year.

Small pockets of money are available from the Communities against Drugs funding and the CCTV bids granted earlier this year, which could contribute to the project but which do not quite add up to enough to give it an early start. I ask the Minister to be vigilant in monitoring whether there is any scope for finding money for the project, perhaps by re-allocating money from other projects that may be underspent. The project would complete CCTV oversight of the main trouble spots in the city centre. It would also mean a great deal to some of my constituents, who have been working to improve their area for some time.

Finally, I want to mention another innovative project which is not looking so much for money as for support to do something that has the potential to have a significant impact on young people way beyond the bounds of Plymouth. Since becoming the Plymouth coroner in 1998, Mr. Nigel Meadows has campaigned for more open court hearings and made history by inviting schoolchildren to attend inquests into the deaths of drug users. When a case ends, the children are invited back in into court for a one-to-one session with Mr. Meadows and allowed to ask any questions they like. He has been trying to persuade the authorities to allow cameras into his court, so that many more people can see what goes on. He has approached the Home Office, been referred to the Lord Chief Justice and then been referred back to the Home Office. In desperation, he is now writing to our colleague the Attorney-General to tell him of his wish to open his court to cameras.

I appreciate that this may not be within the Minister's remit, but the problem appears to be that no one is willing to own the issue. Mr. Meadows also has plans to engage convicted drug users in attendance at his court as part of our innovative local rehabilitation programmes. As part of my former employment, I had to read the transcripts of coroner's inquests. They made grim reading and I can easily understand that hearing in court about the stark reality of how the life of a drug user--normally a young drug user--can end is a good way of achieving effective prevention and rehabilitation.

Five deaths from drugs in Plymouth have come to the coroner's attention during the past 10 days. I hope my hon. Friend will, as a matter of urgency, ensure that the Plymouth coroner's idea is given serious consideration.

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Interpretation of section 41 of the Criminal Justice Act 1925 seems to be the sticking point. If the law needs to be changed to clarify the position, perhaps that could be considered.

My hon. Friend will forgive me for raising so many issues. I realise, of course, that an Adjournment debate is not the place for announcements to be made about such issues, but I hope that he will understand my enthusiasm to celebrate the creativity, innovation and, best of all, results that stem from Plymouth's community safety partnership experience.

Having learned of Plymouth's good track record in partnership and problem solving, I hope that the Minister will look at Plymouth as a good place to support the piloting of new schemes. A second audit is planned for this year, and the results will be useful to determine which of the measures that we have used will continue to work, further to bear down on crime in Plymouth. We have achieved good results thus far, but we have more work to do before our citizens, young and old alike, will feel a quantum difference in their personal safety.

I believe that Plymouth is at the cutting edge of partnership community safety and policing. Minister, please continue with legislation that supports Plymouth and other communities in bearing down on crime and pilot more problem-solving approaches in Plymouth. We make good use of funds and can help the Government to meet their targets. Come and visit Plymouth, celebrate our successes with us and ensure that we continue to have the chance to show how we can positively transform the quality of life of our constituents.

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