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7.54 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): I agree with the sentiments expressed by the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). I well remember that wonderful actress, Thora Hird, making a marvellous speech to the Stroke Association in the Members' Dining Room some years ago. Indeed, the House will be sad to learn that my predecessor, Ivor Stanbrook, whom some hon. Members will recall, has suffered a stroke that has left him speechless and paralysed down one side.

As the hon. Gentleman also said, hon. Members have exercised remarkable self-discipline this evening, which is unusual given that this is normally a season for a lack of restraint, but that self-discipline reflects well on all hon. Members. I shall continue that discipline and confine myself, despite many temptations, to one subject: policing in the outer London suburbs. Of course, the issue applies more generally, but I want to focus on Bromley, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait) will want to be associated with my remarks.

The fact is that the residents of Bromley feel that they are suffering not a double whammy, but a triple whammy, because crime and antisocial behaviour are increasing and police resources are being cut, yet they are paying more in council tax and general taxation. Like many other boroughs, Bromley has a community safety partnership, which recently went through the audit procedure for the previous three years, culminating in July 2001. The audit is, therefore, up to date and shows that crime and disorder and the fear of crime are soaring, even in a leafy outer-London suburb such as Bromley.

Overall crime has increased by 9 per cent. on the previous three years. Vehicle crime has increased by 34 per cent., despite a target to cut it by 5 per cent. Robbery has risen by 35 per cent., despite another 5 per cent. target cut. The Parliamentary Secretary is looking for positive points this evening, so I gladly make one. Only residential burglary has decreased—by 5 per cent., but even in Bromley, the detection rate is only two thirds of the average. Some 52 per cent. of people felt under a medium threat of crime, and 10 per cent. felt highly threatened. Worst of all in many respects, the detection rate has fallen from 20 to 13 per cent. during those three years. So 87 per cent. of crimes go undetected, and a dire proportion of criminals are punished.

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Moreover, although I am anxious not to be excessively negative, I have to tell the Parliamentary Secretary that things have got worse since 11 September. For reasons that people understand, lots of police have been taken from areas such as Bromley to the centre of London. I entirely understand those reasons, but the result is that street crime in Bromley increased by 131 per cent. in October, and the residents are extremely concerned about the situation.

I have a high regard, as do most hon. Members, for the efforts of the local police. The chief superintendent in charge, Chief Superintendent Howlett, has been promoted and is undertaking a six-month strategic command course, and he obviously hopes to be promoted to assistant chief constable in another area. We are losing a good man, who has done a good job in Bromley, especially in putting more of the policemen at his command on the beat. The fact is that he cannot go on for ever getting a quart out of a pint pot, and I am concerned about the resources that he receives to do his job.

There are two aspects to the problem: first, the money given by the Government to London as a whole, which is the Government's responsibility; and, secondly, the allocations within London. In the previous Parliament, I was a critic of the previous Home Secretary, whom I never felt got a satisfactory deal out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer for policing, crime and law and order. As the House can confirm, the resources to fight crime decreased in real terms during the previous Parliament.

The current Home Secretary—I am trying to make another positive point—is, however, doing rather better than his predecessor in getting resources for the police, but even so the Parliamentary Secretary will be interested to know that the £22 million that the Home Secretary has recently said is being allocated for the extra costs of policing in London, following the events of 11 September and all that flows from them, is really a spit in the bucket. It has been consumed in the costs of extra policing that have already been incurred, so there is no extra element for what must be faced until the end of the financial year. In effect, we have had no increment.

Although I fully accept that this is not the responsibility of the Government, another problem is the allocation of the money within London. However, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will make the Home Secretary and Home Office Ministers aware of what is happening in London as a result of the powers that are now in the hands of the Metropolitan police authority, which is responsible for the allocation of resources within the metropolitan area. The authority is chaired by Lord Harris of Haringey and, for the whole of this financial year, it has been reviewing the formula that settles what each individual borough receives. The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) will be interested to learn that the chair of the review board is Lord Tope, a distinguished Liberal Democrat. I imagine that he has been the force behind the board's decisions.

In 1997, there were 464 police officers in Bromley, but the target figure or aspiration under Labour has been reduced to 458. The present figure is 437, but Lord Tope's review board has reduced it to 425, the lowest figure ever. The board has reduced the figure to 425 because that is how many police officers there were in the six months

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before the slight surge in recruitment—I make another positive point—that the Government have been able to announce in the last few days.

By comparison, Haringey—which is the biggest gainer—has gained 110 policemen. There is no rhyme or reason why Bromley should lose police officers while Haringey gains 110. Bromley has 63.5 crimes per police officer while Haringey has 63.2 crimes per officer. There is hardly any difference between the resources per crime in each of the two boroughs, but one borough will lose 12 officers from its already inadequate number while another borough will gain 110.

This package was voted through the Metropolitan police authority by the combined votes of the Liberal Democrats and Labour. It was, of course, opposed by the Conservatives led by Councillor Bob Neill, the Member for Bexley and Bromley in the Greater London Assembly and my representative. He is also leader of the Conservatives on the GLA and he is doing an excellent job in opposing such nonsense.

Needless to say, the precept set by the Metropolitan police authority for all Londoners will rise. It has risen twice in the past two years and it will, no doubt, rise again next year. We will face higher bills for fewer police and more crime and antisocial behaviour.

The Government must accept responsibility for the net effect on my constituency. The changes that they have made—the reorganisation of the police structure in London—have led, first, to a more complicated system with a Metropolitan police authority and a commissioner deciding how to allocate resources. Secondly, the system costs a lot more and, thirdly, we have fewer police and less police support to deal with crime. The incidence of crime and antisocial behaviour is therefore rising. That is wholly unsatisfactory. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey my strong feelings to the Home Office.

8.3 pm

Ross Cranston (Dudley, North): I want to hang my brief remarks on three pegs. The first is marked work in progress; the second lost opportunities; and the third institutional failure.

On work in progress, I wish to refer to the example of the public services and improving their delivery. It is part of a mantra that the price of additional money for public services is reform in service delivery. That is perfectly justifiable. The lesson from, at least, the 1960s is that just throwing money at social problems will not necessarily go any way to resolving them. Therefore, the Government are engaged in a set of necessary restructurings.

I want to spend a couple of minutes considering the restructuring of the police service, a matter that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) has just raised. Effective policing—in particular, the effective policing of antisocial behaviour—is also high on my constituents' wish list. I have presented several petitions to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the matter, and the first from Councillor Wilson in the Coseley area contained 3,000 signatures. Another 3,000 signatures appeared on other petitions collected by councillors in Gornal and Sedgley.

The first point to make about effective policing is the truism that it depends on community support. Indeed, we as a society bear much of the blame for the wider problem

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of antisocial behaviour. There is a thin line between the promotion of laddish culture in the media, including the BBC, and yobbish behaviour. There is also the unscrupulous marketing of alcohol to young people by the drinks industry and the laxness in the sale of fireworks that my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) mentioned.

Since the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 came into force, local support for policing has been institutionalised in local partnerships. Dudley council has been able to obtain nine antisocial behaviour orders, and that is a considerable achievement. However, that is only the tip of the iceberg and that number could be squared.

The second point about effective policing is that we need more human resources. In other words, we need more police. The Government should be congratulated because police numbers are now at a six-year high, but there is a great deal more to be done. In the West Midlands force, the number has gone up but the increase is relatively low compared with that in other forces. Moreover, I have raised with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary the problem of the high attrition rate in the West Midlands force. Along with other hon. Members, I have pushed the barrow of more special constables. Indeed, I see no objection to others, such as neighbourhood and street wardens, contributing to the policing effort.

That leads me to a third point, which relates to my first theme on the reform of public services. Police forces cannot be exempted from the need to modernise. Those who take a contrary view have their heads in the sand. I cannot see my constituents continuing to tolerate a situation in which average sick leave for each officer in the West Midlands force is 13 days compared with eight days in other forces, such as Humberside and Northumbria. I cannot see my constituents continuing to tolerate a situation in which the average police officer spends only 17 per cent. of his or her time out on patrol. I cannot see my constituents continuing to tolerate a situation in which financial rewards are based on a series of archaic, historically won concessions rather than flowing to those shouldering the most difficult and demanding policing tasks.

I support the efforts of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary at police reform. The police need and deserve our support and I have great admiration for my local chief superintendent, Dennis Hodson, and his officers. However, I hope that the Police Federation will embrace the changes set out in the White Paper and so do service to those that it represents and to my constituents.

My second theme is lost opportunities. This Parliament had the opportunity to adopt an offence of inciting religious hatred, but that opportunity was lost because the Government were defeated in another place by an unholy alliance of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. I shall return to their respective roles shortly, but let me first rehearse the arguments for the creation of such an offence.

An offence of inciting religious hatred is overdue and the need has become particularly acute since 11 September when those of us with substantial minority ethnic communities in our constituencies have seen the British National party become more active and an increase in religious harassment, especially against Muslims. The legal problem arises because of the special application of the law of blasphemy to Christianity. It was accentuated

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by a decision of the House of Lords in 1983—the Mandla case—which held that Sikhs, and by analogy Jews, are protected as a racial group. They therefore fall under legislation such as the Race Relations Act 1976, but Muslims are not covered because they do not have a clear geographic origin or common descent. The upshot is that Muslims do not have the same level of protection as others in our community.

An offence of inciting religious hatred, parallel to the existing offence of inciting racial hatred, would have created a more level playing field in the legal sense. As we recognise religious freedom in the common law, and in light of the European convention on human rights, the corollary is that we have to take steps to protect those who exercise that freedom.

The Conservative opposition to the offence was based on the ground of free speech. It was the Conservatives' view that the offence would be too broad and its application uncertain. As such, they believed that it would catch robust criticism and satire, or even the declaration of one's own faith. I do not accept those arguments given that experience has demonstrated that the parallel offence of inciting racial hatred as set out in the Public Order Act 1986 is relatively rarely invoked. The threshold for prosecution is quite high. The offence is to produce threatening, abusive or insulting material with the intention of stirring up hatred, or such hatred being likely, not just reasonably foreseeable.

Moreover, there is a narrow construction, which the courts always adopt with criminal offences, and the additional hurdle of the Attorney-General's consent. Theoretically, restrictions on free speech are justified in the light of serious secondary effects. In the case of religious hate speech, those are fear, insecurity, psychological distress and, in some cases, physical danger and injury.

Be that as it may, the Conservatives took a principled stance against the offence, but not so the Liberal Democrats. They said that they were in favour of some sort of religious hatred offence, but not in the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Bill, and not yet. They know the realities of parliamentary time. They know that the Home Office, with all its Bills, has no chance of getting time for a Bill that covers all religious matters in the foreseeable future. Typically, instead of settling for second best, the upshot is that we have no offence of inciting religious hatred. Over the next couple of years, I shall remind my faith communities that they have the Liberal Democrats to thank for that lost opportunity.

On institutional failings, I shall focus on the House. The difficulty with parliamentary standards is that rational public discussion is almost impossible given the perception fostered in some parts of the media that we all somehow have our snouts in public and private troughs. In some ways, we do not help ourselves. Trivial complaints are still being raised with the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, and I am looking directly at the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), for supposed party political advantage. If only hon. Members realised how corrosive that is to the standing of Parliament.

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As Peter Riddell, that wise and immensely knowledgeable commentator on our affairs wrote—

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