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16 Jul 2002 : Column 260

That the draft Fixed-term Employees (Prevention of Less Favourable Treatment) Regulations 2002, which were laid before this House on 9th July, be approved.

Question agreed to.

Parliamentary Pensions


Traffic Congestion

10.33 pm

Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): The petition, which has been signed by more than 25,000 local residents, states:

To lie upon the Table.

International Trade

10.36 pm

Valerie Davey (Bristol, West): I am pleased to present this petition, signed by 500 people, and I give them my support. The petition reads:

16 Jul 2002 : Column 261

To lie upon the Table.

Driving Offences

10.37 pm

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North): I support the petition and the 14,520 people who signed it. It states:

To lie upon the Table.

16 Jul 2002 : Column 262

Policing (Merseyside)

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

10.38 pm

Dr. John Pugh (Southport): When I was standing at the taxi rank at Euston following my arrival in London on Monday, I noticed a sign saying, "You are safer in Merseyside than you are in London". I do not know what effect that sign is supposed to have—whether it is meant to make one get back on the train to Merseyside or to make people look over their shoulder while they stand at the taxi rank—but it is none the less a fact.

I want to engage the Minister in what I hope will be a constructive and thought-provoking dialogue about the position of Merseyside police. I apologise to him and to you, Mr. Speaker, for keeping us up so late, but I want to present a reasoned case for increased resources for Merseyside. I know that the Minister will probably say that under the comprehensive spending review, everyone will get increased resources. Increased resources are the order of the day. The Government's coffers are now open and largesse is pouring out.

There has, however, been a systematic failure by the Home Office to appreciate what policing Merseyside means. Historically, there has been a stand-off between the Home Office on the one hand and Merseyside police authority and the Merseyside police on the other. Merseyside police authority and the Merseyside police have repeatedly said that they want more resources, but the Home Office has remained firmly indifferent. I am a veteran of that process. Many years ago, I was a member of the Merseyside police authority when it was a truly democratic body, and went down to London with an all-party delegation to the Home Office. I saw the then Home Secretary—to give the House an idea of how long ago that was, the post was held by the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). We complained about the cuts facing us, our problems and the lack of police manpower. We were given sympathy and, I think, tea, but not very much money. Part of the problem was that the Home Office was persuaded that demographic factors were against the Merseyside area. The population was falling so why, in the circumstances, should more police be required? Logically, I suppose, the Home Office could have argued that fewer police were required. I dare say that it was encouraged when subsequently some crime figures in the Merseyside conurbation went down, particularly in connection with burglary. When they did not go down, they did not necessarily go up at the same rate as in other conurbations.

The Home Office said one thing, the police authority another, and Merseyside police reiterated the views of the authority—that scenario has been repeated year after year. I want to dwell for a second on the reaction of Merseyside police, which is constructive, rather than negative. The force has progressed civilianisation throughout the force, so that front line officers are doing front line duties, and ancillary tasks not related to policing are taken on by civilians. That is commendable and desirable, and in line with Home Office policy.

Decriminalisation of parking offences has taken place in at least two authorities in the Merseyside police area. Consequently, the police are less preoccupied with those

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chores. The business of school crossings has been transferred to local authorities. The police have therefore done what they can to cope with diminishing resources. There has also been much concentration on target hardening, making it difficult for burglars to gain access to domestic and business premises. Operation Bumblebee was successful in reducing substantially opportunities for burglars and the burglary figures on Merseyside. There has been a plethora of community partnerships, including the safer Merseyside partnership and satellite partnerships. The public has been consulted on ways of addressing the causes, effects and incidence of crime. There has been wholesale encouragement of home watch schemes and bids, successful and unsuccessful, for closed circuit television. All of that has made calls on the police less necessary because the causes of crime have been addressed.

The police have therefore done what they can to keep their house in order against a background of what they believe to be insubstantial resources. In turn, they have addressed some of their internal problems. In the early stages of the police authority's existence, there was a distinct tendency to save money by forcing expensive, highly paid officers into early retirement. That saved money one year but, of course, cost money in subsequent years. The police authority backed away from that strategy, and has since taken an intelligent approach to managing its resources. To be perfectly honest, absenteeism figures for Merseyside have not been the best in England. The police have paid attention to that and brought the figures down. They have done their best to resolve their problems against the background of the resources that they have, but the fundamental problem is that on Merseyside there is still a manifest fear of crime and a perceived and real shortage of police.

That registers as public concern, especially about public order offences—youths creating annoyance in local streets, and more substantial annoyance in town centres, where crime occurs. There is general public concern throughout the whole Merseyside area, and certainly in my constituency.

Something that worries, excites and energises the public is the reaction time of the police when dealing with crime. The fact is, if there are not enough police, few of them can reach the scene quickly.

Clearly, the public want the police not just to deal with crimes when they occur, but to be there so that crimes do not occur. They want a more visible and effective police presence. The entire Merseyside community wants a greater degree of neighbourhood security. That can be provided only by a proper number of uniformed, trained police. Although other strategies have been tried, such as community wardens—I do not in any way denigrate such a scheme—it is a fact that only a uniformed, trained bobby can have the impact on a scene of disorder that the public expect, want and legitimately look to the police force to provide.

Merseyside police have recognised the need for proper neighbourhood policing schemes and the need to be properly embodied in their community. They have done all they can to involve themselves in their community, to involve themselves with youth and to involve themselves in various sporting occasions where people who may be

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thought to cause annoyance can be occupied profitably. I pay due respect to those in the police force who have done their best along those lines.

That is all very good. It is entirely desirable and in line with Home Office policy, as I am sure the Minister would agree. However, it is against a background of a perceived fall of 500 in the police force in Merseyside. That is not a fabricated figure that I have produced for the occasion. It has been repeated by the chief constable on several occasions. He believes that there has been a historic fall in police numbers, and Merseyside has to live with that.

Last year, for the council tax payer of Merseyside, the facts were stark and not too encouraging. The precept for the police last year went up by 11 per cent. It would have gone up more, had it not been for the fact that £1.6 million of balances were used. It could conceivably be more next year. For that sum, there were no extra police. There was no contribution to the increasing number of police who are required by the Government across England. Worse still—this is a point on which I will press the Minister—there is the spectre of matters getting worse.

Last year Merseyside police managed by virtue of having a damping grant. The expectation is that that damping grant may not be there in future under the comprehensive spending review. Simply to make ends meet next year, therefore, there may need to be a higher rise in the council tax or a bigger problem for the police budget.

Other problems, which I am sure the Minister would recognise, although he is not prepared to do anything about them, because in a sense they are historic, are the substantial problems created by the burden of police pensions on the police budget. It may interest the Minister to know that last year it was calculated that more retired policemen were funded out of the police budget than active policemen. That is why the leader of the local city council, Councillor Mike Storey, asked for an investigation into how Merseyside was being policed.

I believe that the Home Office has not appreciated the reality of the situation facing Merseyside police, and I should like the Minister to comment on that. It is not just a matter of how many people there are to police; it is a matter of the policing task that the force has to perform. Merseyside police are doing not just a local job, but a national job, and some would say an international job. Liverpool is a port, it has an airport and it has all the problems associated with that.

I am reliably informed—the source is the Scottish Drug Enforcement Agency—that 60 per cent. of all drugs consumed in Scotland, which I imagine to be a considerable amount, are routed through Merseyside. Fifty per cent. of all Customs and Excise seizures have Merseyside links. Merseyside is identified by criminal intelligence as the main distribution centre for class controlled drugs and increasingly is a major centre for black market cigarettes.

That is a national and an international problem. It draws substantial sums out of the mainstream budget available for ordinary policing in Liverpool. The police calculate that the figure could be about £14 million. That excludes any contribution to the national crime squad. In addition, following any attempt that the police make to address the issues of well organised crime, costs are incurred by schemes such as witness protection. There is some very high profile, very expensive crime in Liverpool, and my

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message to the Minister is that that is drawing resources from other budgets. There is, however, no apparent awareness of that reflected in the performance indicators presented to the Home Office.

To be fair, crime has fallen in Merseyside, which could now be said to be safer than other conurbations. I have seen statistics that appear to suggest that, and perhaps the claim on the poster outside Euston station is not too far from the truth. The invisible crime, however, is serious, and it is never far away. Last month, in my own constituency of Southport, which people might consider to be a safe, law-abiding place, two individuals were beaten to death with baseball bats in a drug-related crime. That crime, undoubtedly horrific in itself, will also be very costly to clear up, as all such crimes are.

On a parochial note, both my own constituency and Liverpool are developing tourist industries involving substantial amounts of European, private, Government and local government funding. That investment is pouring in, but with it come tens of thousands of extra visitors, who appear on a seasonal, nightly or occasional basis. No adjustment is made for the extra policing needs that that provokes. I hope that the Minister will give some thought to how the expansion of the tourist industry creates additional policing needs and requirements.

A big event in one part of the Merseyside conurbation seems to take resources from another. Even a simple event such as Liverpool playing at home can draw policemen out of Southport, St. Helens and other parts of the conurbation, because manpower is spread very thinly. That is particularly manifest at night, and Liverpool and Southport both have a thriving night life. There is clearly a need to control that environment and to provide a safe and secure environment in which young people—not just young people, all people—can enjoy themselves without fear of crime. That is not easy in a conurbation in which the police recognise that one third of security firms have criminal connections.

Correlated with the thriving night life must be a vast amount of unreported crime—some minor, some major, but an awful lot of it preventable. If I had a few extra policemen in Southport to stand at a taxi rank at pub closing or club closing time, I could almost certainly guarantee a significant reduction in incidents and a safer environment for all and sundry.

I am making a plea to the Minister to consider Merseyside a special case with regard to police resources and manpower. I have read with interest the comprehensive spending review, and I note that it speaks of technology. It is, however fairly unspecific—perhaps the Minister can be more specific—about people, bodies and police. That is what we require: human beings to staff the force. I have nothing against technology; it makes an important contribution to the fight against crime, but, so far as we are concerned, there is no substitute for manpower. In fact, any attempt to make it a substitute for manpower would really ruin matters.

To keep a presence on the streets, Merseyside police have been driven at times to evacuating the police stations. At such times, people call the police only to find that they are not there, or to be confronted by an exotic call-waiting system. The call-waiting system that the Merseyside police have is bizarre in the extreme; it seems to have been built for business, not for the needs of people who urgently require the police. I have genuinely been

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put in a calling queue after dialling 999, and I am told that, on certain such occasions, one can listen to Vivaldi. That is fair enough for people with only a trivial inquiry, but for people with a serious problem that they want immediately addressed, such as a burglar in their house, perhaps listening to Vivaldi is not altogether the right outcome.

I understand—perhaps the Minister can confirm this—that the police force on Merseyside is soon to be inspected. I welcome that, and I hope that there is nothing to hide. I know what we want, and I think I know what the Minister wants, namely a peaceable, active, economically vibrant Merseyside. That is what I want, too, and I hope that we agree on the ends and the means. The comprehensive spending review needs to offer some hope for the area's long-standing ambition to have more police. Does he accept that Merseyside has peculiar features that may require additional policing?

If earned autonomy is the Government's theme of the moment, we in Merseyside have surely earned something. We are hampered by organised crime and challenged by commercial expansion, and we have been discouraged by successive Home Secretaries, but still people have tried their best to make do with what resources we have, trying actively to develop a strategy of neighbourhood policing. I am sure that the population devoutly wishes that it will work, but we really need the police numbers to deliver, and I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some hope that we will get them.

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