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1.54 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I am conscious that time is short, so I shall keep my comments brief. Thank you for allowing me to contribute to this important debate, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The debate is important because there can be little doubt that the public are rightly concerned about rising crime, especially violent crime. That is happening at a time when morale in the police force is at an all-time low. People look to politicians for leadership on the issue.

In recent months, and since being elected in June last year, I have taken extensive soundings in my constituency on law and order and the public's view on whether we are

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tackling crime adequately. The soundings have included a constituency-wide survey, delivered to every household, asking my constituents to respond to a detailed series of questions. Although I do not claim that any such survey is scientific, I believe that the number of responses and the size of the results send out some clear messages, to which I shall refer briefly.

In addition to the survey, during a two-week period just before Christmas, 5,500 of my constituents signed a petition that requested that the Home Secretary make available more resources to Essex police to get more bobbies on the beat. That also illustrates the strength of feeling about the issue. I presented the petition to the House just before Christmas.

It will come as no surprise to the House to learn that people are very concerned about rising crime, especially that involving young offenders, and want action from politicians that must include more police on our streets. The latest crime figures reveal what the public already know: crime is increasing. Figures for the past couple of years show that crime, particularly violent crime, has risen. For example, the number of cases of violence against the person was up by around 20,000 last year alone. Crime figures in Essex show an even worse picture, with recorded crime rising by 11.5 per cent. and violence against the person rising by a staggering 33 per cent. since 1998.

It came as no surprise, therefore, to learn from our survey that 90 per cent. of respondents believe that crime is on the increase in our local area and are very concerned about it. Recent incidents have included a man's throat being slashed during the Christmas period outside Billericay railway station, and a vicious attack by a gang on a man from whom a laptop computer and his wedding ring were stolen.

What are the solutions? Items at the top of the list must include a substantial increase in police numbers. We need a step change in policing levels, with as many as 25,000 to 30,000 extra police on the country's streets as soon as they can be recruited. According to the House of Commons Library, if all training and running costs and pensions were included, an extra 30,000 police officers would cost £1.5 billion. That is a large sum of money but not impossible to find if there is the political will to get much tougher with the criminal.

There can be no doubt that more police officers on the beat would make a difference. That was confirmed by information on trends in police officer strength and recorded crime in New York during Mr. Giuliani's time as mayor between 1994 and 2001. Research by the Police Federation of England and Wales suggests that, in 1992, New York and London both had approximately 28,500 officers. By 2000, the number of officers in New York had risen to 40,500 compared with a fall in London to 25,400. Between 1993 and 2001, recorded crime in New York fell by approximately 270,000 offences—a fall of 62 per cent. across all offence groups. By contrast, crime in London continued to rise.

Despite evidence of rising crime in this country, police numbers in recent years have hardly changed. Indeed, in Essex, total police strength is down since 1997, and, more worryingly, the number of constables—those who patrol our streets—has steeply declined. There has been a drop of something like 35 constables since March 1997.

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Meanwhile, there has been a 30 per cent. drop in the number of special constables in Essex. That is not good enough and the public know it.

In the survey that I undertook, 99.5 per cent. of my constituents who responded said that they believed that there were not enough police officers on the streets. Of particular concern to many are the gangs of youths who terrorise local communities and against whom the police often cannot take appropriate action. Many lives, especially elderly people's, are blighted by such incidents, and they cannot understand why society appears to let them happen.

It is important to stress that I am not critical of the local police, as I have made clear many times. They do a very good job, considering the resources available to them, but they deserve more resources to do the job for which they have been trained: to reduce crime and protect the public.

The police are fully aware of their predicament. Last year, the Police Federation made the point in its paper entitled "Rising Street Crime Linked to Cops Shortage" that

In my view, integral to a greater police presence on the ground is a commitment to keeping police stations open. Since 1997, in Essex alone, 62 police stations have been closed, with only five opening. I am fortunate that we have four police stations serving my constituency, and their presence is greatly appreciated. However, a growing concern among my constituents is that our police stations are often closed when they are most needed. The main comment in the analysis following the survey was that local police stations should be manned 24 hours a day. We must do what we can to stop further closure of police stations. That is particularly the case in rural areas, for a local police station is often at the heart of the relationship between the police and the local community. When the station is closed, the relationship can suffer.

Despite the need for more police officers and more resources generally, crime is too important an issue to be left to the police alone. We must provide them with greater support, and that support must come from the courts and politicians generally. It has been said in the House that it appears that the courts are not supporting the police as they should, and sentences are proving too lenient. Earlier this week, we even had the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, urging magistrates to jail as few law-breakers as possible because our jails were already full. What nonsense is this? No wonder that two days ago, Sir John Stevens, Britain's top police officer, accused the courts of contributing to the surge in robberies, rapes and violent attacks by allowing the guilty to walk free. He made the point that it was not uncommon for muggers to be freed on bail eight or nine times for separate offences before facing trial for their first.

It is no surprise that the majority of my constituents believe that criminals are not given tough enough sentences, as revealed in the survey. We must have tougher sentencing so that criminals, especially violent criminals, are taken off the streets to protect the public.

It is not only the courts that should better support the police but the politicians. We can better support the police in a number of ways, but perhaps most important is the

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issue of too much red tape and performance measurement in the system, which keeps police officers pinned to their desks when they should be out on the streets. More than 50 performance criteria, the best-value regime and a raft of arrest paperwork give credence to the view that, in the words of one police constable, there existed more performance targets than personnel.

Mention has been made of the "Diary of a Police Officer", and lessons must be learned from it. We must allow the police to do the job they want to do—to fight crime, not push paper. We can also better support the police by working with them to introduce reform and fight crime and not against them, as appears to be the case. Unfortunately, the public relationship between the Home Office and the police has deteriorated noticeably over bitter disagreements about police reform and the Government's pay package. The Home Secretary has failed to carry the police with him on his proposals to reform working practices, pay and conditions. In a situation like this, that serves only as an unhelpful distraction and plays into the hands of the criminals. The price will be paid by the law-abiding majority. Anger is running at such a level that there is even talk of legal action against the restriction preventing police officers from striking. That cannot be right.

The pendulum has swung too far in favour of the criminal at the expense of the victim and the time has come to redress the balance. We have a situation where violent crime is rising particularly fast while police numbers remain, at best, static; where the police have one hand tied behind their back because of too much interference from the Government through red tape and performance criteria; where the courts are proving too lenient in their sentencing and are not supporting the police; and where the Government have instigated a public fight with the police at a time when police morale is at an all-time low. In such a situation, only the criminal will gain. The public are fast becoming disillusioned. As with so many of their promises, the Government have failed to deliver and are trying to deceive. Before the 1997 election, Labour employed strong rhetoric, promising to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime. Instead, the Government have proved to be tough on crime fighters and soft on criminals.

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