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House of Commons

Friday 8 March 2002

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jim Fitzpatrick.]

9.33 am

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham): I am very pleased to introduce this Adjournment debate on policing, which replaces the traditional annual debate on policing in London, the last of which took place in June 2000. It is right that the debate should now take a different format, because the creation of the Metropolitan police authority has brought the management and accountability of the Metropolitan police service very much into line with the rest of the police service in England and Wales. Indeed, I hope that this will be—subject to the usual channels—the first of an annual series of debates on policing in England and Wales.

As the House will know, it is our intention to develop an annual national policing plan, proposals for which are in the Police Reform Bill currently under discussion in another place. We hope that the plan—developed in partnership with a wide range of policing interests, including the representatives of victims and other organisations, the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities—will provide the basis for future annual debates in Parliament, enabling the House not only to have a debate on a motion for the Adjournment but to discuss policing priorities, policing performance, and the strategic direction of policing in England and Wales against the background of a clear statement of Government policing priorities.

Much has happened since the last debate on policing. In an extraordinarily wide range of ways, the people of this country have had good reason to be grateful to the police service, its officers and its support staff. Just over a year ago, the Selby rail disaster reminded us of the vital role that the police and other services play in responding to civil emergencies. Over the summer, the disturbances in towns such as Bradford, Burnley and Oldham, saw the police forced to confront inexcusable violence and aggression. I know that, at the time, hon. Members on both sides of the House welcomed the firm and decisive support that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave to the police, who were in the front line.

The 11 September terrorist attacks on the United States brought new pressures and challenges to the police service, in reassuring the public as well as stepping up the fight against international terrorism in the UK. One of the most impressive, if little remarked on, events of the late summer was the way in which Londoners—perhaps those working in Canary Wharf, in particular—came to work

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on 12 September. That was a tribute to Londoners, but we should also acknowledge the importance of the rapid response of the Metropolitan police service and of the City of London police in putting large numbers of officers on the street in a very visible way to reassure the public and to get life back to normal.

The role of the police service did not end there. In the wake of the anthrax attacks in the USA, our police service had to respond to malicious hoaxes and legitimate fears. That work, which involved a rapid expansion of the police's ability to respond, meant that the disruption to business and personal post was very limited, despite the number of suspect packages identified over subsequent weeks. The police service has, therefore, faced many new challenges over the past year, and it has responded extremely well to them.

The British crime survey figures published in October 2001 confirmed the success of the police—with their partners in local and central Government, the voluntary sector and the business community—in bringing down crime rates over recent years. According to the survey, crime in the previous year fell by 12 per cent., and the chance of being a victim of crime in 2000 was the lowest since the survey began nearly 20 years ago. Across the survey, violent crime fell by 19 per cent., and, since 1997, crime fell overall by 21 per cent.

The House will want to acknowledge the vital contribution of the police service to those achievements and to recognise the importance of its work with other agencies in local crime and disorder reduction partnerships—set up by this Government—and initiatives such as the investment of several hundred million pounds in crime reduction, which has involved the largest ever closed circuit television programme and the introduction of neighbourhood and street wardens.

The background to this debate is, therefore, that a great deal that has been achieved. We were able to mark that in a small way by awarding the golden jubilee medal to experienced members of the police service. This is certainly no time for complacency or self-congratulation, however, because our society and our police service face major challenges. Although crime as a whole has fallen, some crimes—street robbery, in particular—have undoubtedly risen, sharply in some areas, over the past year. We must support the police in their efforts to tackle this problem.

As hon. Members will know, the Metropolitan police service has moved substantial resources into tackling street robbery through the safer streets initiative, which began on 4 February. I am told that in the period up to 28 February there were 485 arrests for robbery and more than 7,500 arrests for other offences in the nine target London boroughs. I understand that allegations in those nine boroughs have fallen by nearly a quarter, and that by the end of the third week of the operation, four of the boroughs had reduced street crime to below last year's level. We should acknowledge the Metropolitan police's substantial commitment and the real achievement of its officers over the last few weeks.

That underlines an important point. Effective policing can make a real difference. We want the Home Office and the police standards unit to work with other major metropolitan forces to identify and implement the most effective ways of tackling street robbery.

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the great

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concern in London about the rising tide of gun crime related to crack cocaine? That is a particular concern to me and my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy). Is he aware that the Metropolitan police would ask the Government to consider two specific actions: first, the introduction of legislation to ban imitation firearms; and, secondly, raising substantially the minimum sentence for being found in possession of a firearm to five years?

Mr. Denham: I am aware of my hon. Friend's close interest in this matter. She secured an Adjournment debate on the issue at the end of last week, to which the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North-East (Mr. Ainsworth) replied. We keep all these matters under consideration. We recently received the report of the firearms consultative committee, which looked at the issue of imitation weapons. We are considering our response. I shall make some brief remarks about the crack cocaine and gun crime problem, and my hon. Friend is right to raise those concerns.

Communities in several of our major cities have witnessed new levels of gun and drug-related crime. Some sections of the media tend to focus on the black participants in some of this crime, but we must never forget that black communities are the prime victims of the crime and that they deserve our response. Police forces have responded by setting up specific operations to target the criminals, such as Trident in London, and are having success. However, more is needed, which is why our law enforcement agencies, through the concerted inter-agency drugs action group, are working together in this country and with authorities overseas in countries such as Jamaica to stem the flow of cocaine into the UK and to identify the gunmen. That is a real challenge and priority for us. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) will speak later in the debate on this matter.

It is important that we work to ensure that the police are supported. We are working to tackle the problem of offending on bail. Hon. Members will be aware of our plans to extend the tagging of juvenile offenders. Through an initiative in London covering 10 boroughs, we are working on identifying those young people at risk of being drawn into street crime at an early age and taking measures to prevent them from becoming involved in serious crime.

Derek Conway (Old Bexley and Sidcup): The Minister mentions young people and the stage at which they become involved in more serious crime. Will he comment on the statement made this week by the Metropolitan police commissioner, who feels that his officers are doing their best to bring alleged perpetrators of crime to justice, but that the system is not following that through? The perpetrators are released, to their glee and amusement, back on to the streets of London to commit further crimes. Rather than understanding and helping, the justice system is, in the eyes of the police and my constituents,

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exacerbating the problem. The Minister's words of support are welcome, but does he feel that the rest of the system joins him in that?

Mr. Denham: All elements of the system recognise the need to take action to make sure that we do not generate a sense of invulnerability among young people—to paraphrase the hon. Gentleman—whereby they feel that they can offend, be arrested and avoid action being taken against them. That is one of the reasons why this Government have halved the length of time that it takes to bring young offenders before a court. Labour Members will remember that, under the hon. Gentleman's party, it typically took more than 140 days to bring a young offender before a court. We have had success, but we need to do more. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced at the beginning of last week that we are bringing together in one taskforce all the agencies in London, including all the elements of the criminal justice system, to look specifically at youth crime in London and to make sure that the police, the court service, the Crown Prosecution Service and the probation service are working effectively to tackle the problem.

We recognise the problem of young offenders offending while on bail, and we have introduced new initiatives. In a number of areas, including inner London, tagging for juvenile offenders will be available from the middle of April and will be rolled out nationally in June. Although there is not one single measure that needs to be taken, there is undoubtedly a series of measures, including those that I have mentioned, that need to be taken to make sure that young offenders are dealt with effectively.

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