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5.24 pm

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): This is definitely the debate that Londoners want us to have just one week ahead of the mayoral elections on 1 May. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), I am astounded to see that the one mayoral candidate who could be here to take part in this debate has not taken full advantage of the opportunity. I also wonder whether some of the more diligent Conservative Members of Parliament representing London, whom I see in the Chamber regularly, might not be feeling that the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson) is letting the side down very badly.

Like many hon. Members present, I was elected in 1997. At that time and for some years afterwards, there was a tendency among Liberal Democrat and Labour Members to blame the previous Administration for every fault that we encountered. We have moved on since then and it is now, rightly, this Labour Government’s responsibility if they have failed to tackle crime. However, it is also worth reminding hon. Members of a few salient facts, because we need to consider what the Conservative Opposition are saying alongside their track record when they were last in government and in a position to deliver an agenda of cutting crime.

Hon. Members will remember that in the five years of the last Conservative Parliament, police numbers fell throughout the country as a whole and even more dramatically in London. Hon. Members will know that John Major specifically promised to increase police numbers by 5,000, yet police numbers fell. It is perfectly legitimate to remind ourselves of those facts when we consider the pledges, plans and promises put forward by the Conservative party. The lesson that we have all learnt is that they need to be taken with a huge pinch of salt.

It is perhaps more legitimate to consider the credentials of the hon. Member for Henley, who has put himself forward as the Conservative mayoral candidate, and to examine in what respects his experience will be relevant to being the Mayor of London. I have here a helpful crib sheet, which is being sent out across London, that sets out the hon. Gentleman’s CV, which reads as follows:

We know that he was sacked from the Conservative Front Bench—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he think about the matters that we are debating today and how the points that he is making are relevant to the overall situation.

Tom Brake: Thank you for that intervention, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I had concluded those remarks. The hon. Member for Henley is putting himself forward as a
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candidate for Mayor, with responsibility for policing among other matters, but I will indeed move on. According to the hon. Gentleman’s manifesto—he has at least produced a manifesto—he will apparently use his influence to tear up red tape and needless form-filling. Presumably what he had in mind was needless P45 form-filling, of which he has some experience.

Let me move on to the Labour Mayor’s position. The incumbent, Ken Livingstone, is keen to distance himself from the Government when appropriate, but at other times he is keen to make himself known as the Labour Mayor. We have to take the two together. I am happy to put on record the fact that the combination of the Government and the Mayor has enjoyed some successes, the biggest example of which is the safer neighbourhood teams. Like probably all hon. Members present, I have been round with the safer neighbourhood teams in a number of my wards and seen their impact on the ground. I can see that they are delivering the reassurance that people need and are beginning to eat seriously into crime levels.

I am told that the biggest problem for the safer neighbourhood teams in some of the leafier suburbs—Government Members should please not quote me on this—is that there is no crime for them to deal with. If safer neighbourhood teams are telling me and other hon. Members, as I suspect they are, that there are times when things are relatively quiet and they would like some other challenges, we might need to consider giving them a more flexible structure.

Robert Neill: The hon. Gentleman has made an interesting point about safer neighbourhood teams. Perhaps he will be interested to learn that one of the teams in my borough, although it does excellent work, needs a safer neighbourhood base to patrol from. The Metropolitan police acquired suitable premises about six months ago and have been paying rent and rates on them ever since, but the premises remain empty because the bureaucrats at Scotland Yard made a muck-up of the procurement process and had to restart it. That money has therefore been wasted and the team does not have a base. Is not that a strong argument for a much more direct political drive and direction of the Metropolitan police service, as is being proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)?

Tom Brake: It is certainly a case for ensuring that the procurement process works correctly. I am sure that all hon. Members support the idea, which the Minister mentioned in our last topical debate on this subject, that the safer neighbourhood teams should have bases in their wards, so that they are more accessible and visible and do not have to travel so far. The hon. Gentleman was quite right to raise that point, and no doubt he will be issuing an appropriate press release to his local paper confirming that he has quite rightly raised the matter in Parliament.

There have been successes, but there are also some concerns. I was about to mention the estates strategy to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. That is clearly a programme that is going to last five or six years, so, although the comprehensive spending review has given visibility to what will happen in the next three years, there is a question mark over whether the remainder of the strategy will be able to be delivered in
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the following three years. I do not want to have to turn round and say to people in a few years’ time, “I know the Metropolitan police promised that your new police station would be opened before the old one closed, but actually they have run out of money so they have simply closed the old one and not opened the new one.” We need some certainty on that question.

Simon Hughes: All these things are important, but does my hon. Friend accept that what matters most to all our constituents is that there should be an effective and speedy response when crimes are committed? For example, I still get too many complaints from people who have been attacked, perhaps in a pub or in a house, and who have found that no one comes for many minutes and sometimes for half an hour or longer. Also, we must ensure that, when an investigation takes place, it is done well. Again, I have had far too many complaints that serious allegations—including allegations of rape—have been badly handled by the police and/or the Crown Prosecution Service, with the result that justice is not done and victims are not looked after.

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I do not want to give the impression that everything is functioning well. We have all had examples of constituents who have been the victim of a crime and who have, unfortunately, had to wait a considerable length of time for a response. Sometimes that response has not been forthcoming at all and, ultimately, it has been the safer neighbourhood team that has had to respond a few days later. There is still a need to ensure that the response is timely.

There have been some failures—

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Before the hon. Gentleman moved on to the failures, he was talking about some successes. Does he agree that there has been another significant success in the past eight years, namely the radical transformation of the relationship between the police in London and the black and minority ethnic communities and, for that matter, the lesbian and gay community in London? This has resulted in many more people having a strong relationship with the police, which the police have been able to use in ensuring our security. Does the hon. Gentleman think that that might be threatened if the new person in charge of the police in London was someone who had referred to “picaninnies” and “watermelon smiles”—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I think that that is probably sufficient.

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. Londoners, who live in a very diverse community, will be looking very carefully at what the different mayoral candidates have said, and I think that they will draw their own conclusions from the comments that have been made in the past. Our candidate, Brian Paddick, has certainly done his best to support the work that the hon. Gentleman describes and to ensure that those relationships with the black and minority ethnic communities and the lesbian and gay communities are enhanced and strengthened.

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I am afraid that I was about to come on to some failures. We had a pledge in 2005 to increase the number of community support officers to up to 24,000—a pledge that has been reduced to 16,000, with a direct impact in London of a reduction from 6,400 to 5,600 such officers. Serious concerns were raised by Sir Norman Bettison of the Association of Chief Police Officers when he gave evidence to the Home Affairs Committee a couple of days ago. He spoke about a funding gap, particularly for tackling serious and organised crime.

Members have referred to another significant problem—that of gun and knife crime. I take the Minister’s point and I am not going to say that it is all down to police numbers, but clearly the problem is increasing and it is particularly significant for young people, whether as perpetrators or victims. It may not all be due to police numbers, but it is a problem that needs to be resolved, whether by the Government, local authorities, communities or, indeed, individuals.

Harry Cohen: I would like to raise with the hon. Gentleman the issue that I raised with the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley): the matter of the Mayor’s London youth offer of £79 million. I praise the Mayor for that, as it was greatly needed. The Conservative Front-Bench spokesman said that the Conservatives would not cap it, but does the hon. Gentleman feel that there is a real risk of their redistributing it away from the deprived areas where there is youth gun and knife crime into the more leafy suburbs where it would not have the same effect?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I am afraid, however, that it is not really appropriate for me to respond to a point about what a future Conservative Mayor—if, indeed, there ever is one—intends to do with funding. The hon. Gentleman has, however, reminded me that the Home Office needs to address one particular aspect of tackling gun and knife crime—the research carried out into the effectiveness of different projects. The range of projects currently runs from perhaps a single ex-offender who has taken it on his or herself to organise something at a very local level through to much larger funded projects. On the basis of a conversation with a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority, I know that not much research has been done into which of those projects really deliver and which deliver value for money. I hope that when the Minister responds, he will be able to say a little about what research the Home Office is either carrying out now without my knowledge, or intends to carry out to assess which projects deliver the best value in tackling this very serious problem.

Mr. Love: This is, indeed, an incredibly serious problem. I want sincerely to ask the hon. Gentleman whether there are any shortcomings in what the authorities are doing—I mean the Metropolitan police or the Government through their violent crime action plan or various other initiatives, including those talked about by the Mayor and others—to take young people off the streets and give them an alternative to the gang culture. Are there any other things that we should be doing to try to address what is an extremely serious problem for London?

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Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very helpful intervention. I have just highlighted one thing that we should be doing—looking at the different projects and assessing which are the most effective in tackling the problem. Another proposal that I would put to the hon. Gentleman is the idea of giving one of the officers in the safer neighbourhood teams specific training in youth issues in order to provide the link with young people. If it were needed to deal with disadvantaged youths or others outside the system, an officer would then have the necessary training to make contact and perhaps forge a more positive relationship with them. Those are two proposals that I would put to the hon. Gentleman.

Angela Watkinson: In my constituency and, I am sure, those of most other London Members, there is a range of activities in which young people can involve themselves, such as clubs run by the council, young people’s uniformed organisations such as the scouts and guides, art, sport, music and drama. The problem is not a lack of facilities, but the fact that a hard core of young people do not want to participate.

Tom Brake: I agree. Provision varies from one local authority to another, but many provide a variety of options for young people, for instance through youth centres or uniformed organisations. As the hon. Lady says, there is a group who will not take advantage of such services, but we might be able to find ways of providing diversionary activities in which they do want to participate. If that means giving them authorisation to do parkour running around an estate, perhaps we should facilitate the process. We need to ensure that the range of options offered to young people allows them all to access activities that interest them.

Simon Hughes: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Tom Brake: I will give way once more; then I think I should make some progress.

Simon Hughes: I wanted to respond to the last three interventions. I know that the Government are considering whether, rather than change the membership of a safer neighbourhood team, they should enable someone who has the skills to target characters who need work to carry out detached youth operations in each ward. That person would focus particularly on young people between 15 and 21 who are not employed, studying, training or in an apprenticeship, because they are the ones who give the grief: they can afford to be out all night causing trouble because they have nothing to do in the daytime.

Tom Brake: I agree. That echoes what was said by the hon. Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson) about the hard-core group who are not in the system and do not want to be, but with whom it might be possible to engage if they were offered appropriate activities. Perhaps the Minister will be able to update us on what is happening to dormant accounts. I assumed that they would start to provide a level of funding that is not in the system at present, and might create opportunities for engagement with that group of people.

I have described some Government successes and some areas of concern and failures. Regrettably, there are also some areas of spin. I am afraid that the only
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reason why we shall not be able to support the Government amendment is a phrase to which other Members have referred, suggesting that the House

police officers. We cannot support that proposition, because we know that it is not the Mayor who will be doing that. It is the boroughs and the Home Office. We need some honesty about who will provide funds. The Mayor will not be providing those 1,000 extra officers, and I think that credit should be given where it is due.

Justine Greening: Might not another piece of honesty have appeared in the amendment—the admission that band D taxpayers in London who were paying around £55 a year in precept to fund the Met in 1996 and 1997 paid £224 in 2007-08? My part of town, Wandsworth, has fewer warranted officers patrolling the streets than it had a decade ago, and we do not think that we have been given value for money.

Tom Brake: I recall that the hon. Lady made the same point during a topical debate a few weeks ago. There is clearly an issue over the gearing of the precept—how much it contributes in real terms, and how much is contributed by the Home Office. But we need a visible police presence on the streets, and the hon. Lady is right to argue on behalf of her constituents that there should be more visible deterrence.

Mr. Andy Slaughter (Ealing, Acton and Shepherd's Bush) (Lab): While we are at it, could we have a third piece of honesty? Should not the Conservative party admit that it opposed funding increases? Conservative councils—and probably Liberal Democrat councils as well—consistently take credit for the falls in crime for which they opposed funding, and continue to claim that tax rises are unnecessary when they are exactly what paid for those extra police officers.

Tom Brake: I seem to be playing piggy-in-the-middle, trying to act as a third party and defend a policy that is not ours. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will find an opportunity to intervene on a Conservative Member and make a similar point.

We do require honesty in the debate and in how the figures are produced. My hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey made the valid point that we need to agree which statistics are firm and fair, and reflect the changes that have been made to how crimes are counted, so that the debate is not about the statistics but about how officers are deployed or whether they are doing too much administration. That would be better than a rather sterile debate about the statistics.

I hope that Members on both sides of the House would agree that the British crime survey figures provide us with a consistent level of reporting for crime and may therefore be much more accurate than other figures. They are not dependent on a change to the way in which the offences are calculated. Regrettably, it is clear from those figures that London as a region is doing very badly compared with other regions, whether on violent crime, vehicle crime or burglary. There is an issue as to how London compares with other parts of the country, even if the background is that crime is falling. London still has more than its fair share.

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On 1 May, Londoners will choose whom they want to put in charge of the police, to cut crime and to tackle antisocial behaviour in our capital city. They could choose the hon. Member for Henley, who in his first six years in Parliament expressed no interest in London. We looked at all the parliamentary questions that he had tabled and not one of them—

Clive Efford: Just one.

Tom Brake: I apologise. The hon. Gentleman tabled one question about London in six years, but Londoners will not be taken in by that. He seems to have more experience of flouting the law than of imposing it. If anyone wants to challenge me on that point, I refer back to the leaflet that I mentioned earlier, which shows the hon. Gentleman riding his bike while making a mobile phone call.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has been coruscating about the mayoral pitch by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson). Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could say how he would advise Liberal Democrats to use their second preference vote.

Tom Brake: It will come as no surprise to the hon. Gentleman that I shall not express a second preference.

Then we have the Labour Mayor, who four years ago promised to cut crime by 50 per cent., but who, at the last count, had delivered only an 18.5 per cent. reduction in crime. Or we have the ex-policeman Liberal Democrat candidate, Brian Paddick, who has 30 years of experience in tackling crime, from the Brixton riots to cracking down on hard drugs dealers. Even Conservative and Labour Members will realise that the choice is a no-brainer. Brian Paddick has the serious solutions for London and that is who people will vote for on 1 May.

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