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6 Apr 2010 : Column 280WH—continued

It was awarded for

The new Oneplace area assessment of local public services says that Plymouth is a safe place for most people and concludes:

That is reflected in the day-to-day work that has resulted in a drop in our crime figures. In the year to September 2009, crime was down by 9.6 per cent. compared with the previous year and in the first quarter of 2010, it was down by 11.7 per cent. compared with the same period in 2009. There are still challenges aplenty. Although there is a well established downward trajectory in crime over a number of years according to police recorded crime and the British crime survey, it does not always feel that way and certainly not to the victims of the crime that remains.

The fear of crime remains stubbornly high, although people rate their local situation better than their perception of the country as a whole. Such fear is partly rooted in a belief that the steps to tackle crime are not travelling in
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the right direction, even though they clearly are. The police and the criminal justice system are not the only public services that face such perceptions. There is a wide disparity in the answers people give about the health service. When asked about their last experience of using the health service, most people say it was good, but when asked how the health service is doing generally, people usually think that it is travelling in the wrong direction, which it clearly is not.

Lagging perceptions are not new. When I worked at the Gas Consumers Council in the 1990s, people commonly referred to the gas boards even though they had been done away with 25 years previously. That is perhaps not good news for the police, who have a target of enabling the public to feel confident and safe in their communities. Against the background of negative reporting, that is difficult to achieve. However, those involved are determined to do it in a realistic way by engaging people with what the police are doing to bring safety to local communities.

Important in achieving that are the new tools being developed by neighbourhood police teams, which Plymouth has had for some time. Police and communities together, or PACT meetings are one good way of ensuring that the things that people in the community rate as important are tackled. Some neighbourhood police teams have gone further. The team that covers Stonehouse has gone from house to house in the last year to find out proactively what matters to people in the neighbourhood.

That was part of and complemented by Operation Glendale, which was designed to roll back an upsurge in drug-related crime in the waterfront area of my constituency. It was a great success and all the more so for engaging with other partners in the strategic partnership. It helped to meet one of the key stretch targets in the work plan. It also led to a fall in acquisitive crimes because bearing down on drug-related crime has an impact on theft to fund drug use. Compared with the previous year, domestic burglaries were down 32.6 per cent., theft from motor vehicles 37.7 per cent. and the theft of vehicles 28.1 per cent.

Although there has been an increase in serious violent crime, violent crime is down. Homicides have gone down from four in the previous year to one. Chief Inspector Andy Bickley stated that a change in the recording practice accounted for most of the increase in serious violent crime and offered the reassurance that it was not an indication that Plymouth was becoming a more violent place.

At the last strategic partnership meeting I attended, the stretch target for the number of domestic violence incidents recorded by police was being discussed because it was not high enough. More active engagement was planned to ensure that more domestic incidents were reached. That is sensible because detection, along with seeing cases through to conviction, is a key factor in preventing crime. Of course, such work may have an adverse impact on the police recorded crime figures in the interim.

The point of this debate is to acknowledge the success of what has been done and to look forward and consider what further tools could maintain the downward trend in crime. That becomes more difficult the more successful we are. I want to raise three points. First, there is a need to maintain front-line staff, including police community
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support officers. Secondly, there needs to be a whole community answer to alcohol abuse and related crime. Thirdly, I want to mention the Talents programme, which was developed in Plymouth and is a cost-effective way of producing results.

On front-line staff and PCSOs, there used to be a big argument about getting officers out of cars and having bobbies back on the beat. We still discuss how to ensure that police officers and PCSOs are out and about for a high percentage of their time, but I have not heard the either/or argument about panda cars versus the beat for some time. That is thanks largely to the advent of PCSOs, who have become the eyes and ears of the neighbourhood team and trusted allies to people in communities who want to see change for the better. With the advent of neighbourhood policing, of which PCSOs are an important part, we have both/and, not either/or.

My constituents and I worry that the pressures facing police authorities, including the added pressures arising from the pension obligation, will weaken what has been so recently established to such good effect. What measures does the Minister think are needed to ensure that police authorities are required to make administrative efficiency savings, while protecting front-line services? Police forces such as Devon and Cornwall have done some of that work effectively to ensure that front-line services can be developed. I hope that that will be recognised. A blend of carrots and sticks will be required to focus minds on the difficult times that lie ahead. I hope that he will give some pointers on how he thinks that will happen.

I was pleased to hear that partners in our local strategic partnership are planning to share back-office and procurement costs on a scale that would not have been possible before we had the strategic partnerships that are now well embedded. That can and must be scaled up through multi-area agreements across local authorities, PCTs and police authority areas if our precious front-line services are to be protected.

Having an alcohol policy is simply a no-brainer. I do not mean that in the sense that some people consider it a good thing to get drunk out of their skull at a weekend; I mean it in the sense of having effective policies to reduce demands on the health service, the police authority and much other public service spending. There is also, of course, a quality of life issue. A great deal of work has been undertaken by organisations and individuals in Plymouth to prevent and alleviate harm resulting from the use and abuse of alcohol. The challenge set out in the Government's "Safe. Sensible. Social. The Next Steps in the National Alcohol Strategy," which was published in 2007, is to minimise health harms, violence and the antisocial behaviour associated with alcohol, while ensuring that people are still able to enjoy alcohol safely and responsibly, as many people, of course, do.

I have a sense that, despite the strategy, there is a need to give greater impetus to what is being done locally and nationally. If we are to bear down further on crime, it is important to deal with the matter correctly and, from what I know, it should not be rocket science to do so. We need to create cities and communities in which people who want to enjoy themselves can do so without damaging their own health or damaging the communities that suffer from antisocial behaviour. We also need to ensure that the health of individuals whom such people
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come across is not damaged. That includes far too many shop workers and public sector workers in the health and police services. I am a great admirer of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers "Freedom from Fear" campaign. However, we still need to get to grips with alcohol, because it is at the root of so much antisocial behaviour against public sector workers. Dealing with crime has to be as much about changing the culture of things as it is about conventional policing. As I said, doing so is not rocket science, but it requires the sort of joined-up national, regional and local approach that is essential if we are to preserve front-line services and meet the challenges that lie ahead.

I would like to offer a solution to some of the taxing problems that we will face in the coming years, which will perhaps be part of the answer to the things that I have mentioned above and to many other things as well. Mr. James Webster, who until recently was Plymouth's police commander, looked to the Gospel according to St. Matthew to find inspiration from the parable of the talents-you will be familiar with that parable, Dr. McCrea. The landowner gave money to each of his servants, and urged them to make good use of it. Those who invested it made bigger returns and in turn earned more.

Chief Superintendent Webster gave £500 to each of Plymouth's 11 neighbourhood sergeants to develop initiatives that would help to address crime and disorder priorities identified by local residents at PACT meetings. As with the landowner's servants, each sergeant had to account for what they had done with the money. The range of ideas was extraordinary-from a simple TV and video set-up showing policing information at two of the city's biggest supermarkets, to a fireworks scheme in an area of Devonport with an arson problem. There was also a street dance initiative, a boxing club, a football coaching scheme and a project that funded students themselves to develop community ideas.

In a follow-on from the first Talents programme, neighbourhood teams linked with some of the Co-operative Society stores in the city to tackle the youth crime and disorder often associated with hanging around the communities' eight-til-late-type stores. That programme is in its 13th round. It has brought a whole new approach to policing and has released the full potential of some very talented people. When Mr. Webster was interviewed about the programme by Carl Eve, a reporter for The Herald in Plymouth, he said:

He said that policing procedures "strangled innovation" at street level and that officers complained that, if they could only get funding for an idea, they could achieve better results. Just like in the parable, Mr. Webster gave them that opportunity. He allowed them to be creative, but insisted that there should be a return. Officers have in fact turned £500 into £20,000 or £30,000 projects. They have created long-term community assets and generated good will from members of the community involved.

The Home Office has supported the initiative, and £55,000 of the national partnership improvement fund money has been awarded to the city's strategic partnership,
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to develop the idea across the entire partnership. In the difficult times that lie ahead, we should perhaps take heed of what the programme's author says about it:

The Talents model gives a structure to seek funding, and to create leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship in the fight against crime in Plymouth. Indeed, it is a practical working model for partnerships for and with other public services that deliver at a community level. Our further education provider-the City college-is now delivering a course designed to empower front-line staff in public services to use the model. Public services, including the fire service, are indeed using the model.

I am pleased to have had the chance to talk about some positive things in relation to tackling crime in Plymouth. I hope that the Minister, as well as joining me in acknowledging some of the good work being done and thanking those who work so hard to deliver good public services, will point the way to how we can go even further in bearing down on crime in Plymouth and elsewhere.

1.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Alan Campbell): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea, and to listen to the wise words of my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy). I congratulate her on securing this important debate and on her long-standing commitment to the issue, which has been shown outside our short debate today. She has been a strong local champion for the people whom she represents. We share her concern and commitment to ensuring that we maintain reductions in crime and antisocial behaviour. We take the issue very seriously.

I am pleased to note from my hon. Friend's comments that Plymouth reflects the continued national downward trend in crime and disorder. As she said, overall crime is down nationally by 36 per cent. and there have been bigger reductions in burglary and vehicle crime and violent crime. The south-west is a relatively low-crime area and overall crime is lower in Plymouth than in many similar areas nationally. However, given that Plymouth is an urban centre, the figures are, of course, slightly higher than those for the surrounding areas. Many types of crime are declining, such as theft of vehicles, burglary, criminal damage and violence, and they are continuing to fall even during a recession. The accepted wisdom was that there would be a big increase in crime during a recession, but that has not happened. Part of the reason for that is the proactive response from not just the Government, but all agencies on the ground, including those in Plymouth.

We have put measures in place for the longer term-for example, more effective action is being taken to tackle domestic abuse and families are safer as a result. I join my hon. Friend in congratulating Plymouth on being awarded a green flag in 2009 through the comprehensive area assessment for protecting the public during large-scale emergencies. I agree with the central theme of her
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speech, which is the importance of good local working. In order to tackle crime and disorder successfully, it is vital that key local stakeholders work in partnership together.

Crime is being tackled locally by Plymouth's community safety partnership, which combines the previous crime and reduction disorder partnership with the stronger communities group of the local strategic partnership. A range of public, third sector and business agencies are working well together to keep the city safe, and that provides an inclusive, integrated approach to tackling the city's safety issues. That is important because tackling crime and disorder is not just a matter for the police, the local authority or, indeed, the Government; it is a matter for the whole community. The key to tackling crime and antisocial behaviour is for good local partnerships to work together.

My hon. Friend drew attention to Operation Talents, which is a highly innovative and successful way in which local groups can work together to consider how things can be done more effectively. The key is to trust local people and local partnerships. It is about not only sharing responsibilities but focusing on problem solving. We need to understand what is happening in an area and who is causing the problems so that we can target resources on those who blight our local communities, because that will reassure the majority of residents. I am sure that other areas will want to look at Operation Talents and its underlying principles, because it is very much the direction in which we want local partnerships to go. Opting for such a scheme is a matter for local areas, but we, at the Home Office, are very pleased to do everything that we can to support them.

When we talk about crime and disorder, people want to know about the local police. Plymouth follows a well recognised neighbourhood policing model. Teams are present in all 43 neighbourhoods in the city's three policing areas. All neighbourhoods have three top priorities agreed through a community engagement and they benefit from a person first, problem solving approach.

Nationally, police numbers are at an historic level, and they are supported by 16,000 police and community support officers. I want to reassure my hon. Friend that the Government have guaranteed the funding for warranted officers and PCSOs who do such an important job in her community, and in all our communities. It is about not just numbers but how the police work in an area. Neighbourhood police teams are transforming policing in our local communities, with 80 per cent. of their time being spent on front-line policing. Moreover, they are governed locally by the terms of the policing pledge, which is partly designed locally. They are measured by the confidence that local people have in the police and in their partners.

Let me say something about police funding. Given that we live in a changed set of financial circumstances, my hon. Friend has raised some understandable concerns. We have guaranteed that the money will be there for warranted officers and PCSOs into the future. We have already announced a £259 million increase in overall police funding for 2011. None the less, in the longer term, it will be necessary for the police to continue to look for more savings.

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As my hon. Friend acknowledged, the police in her area are already embarked on such a process. The police service delivered value-for-money improvements of £500 million in 2008-09, and is on track to deliver £1.3 billion per annum by March 2011.

Linda Gilroy: Does the Minister understand the concern that a successful authority has when it has already achieved its target? In being expected to go further, it will be benchmarked against authorities that have not gone quite so far. Will the Minister consider how the formula could be worked to take account of that?

Mr. Campbell: I will certainly bear that point in mind and also talk to my colleague, the Minister for Policing, Crime and Counter-Terrorism. Changing the police formula is very difficult. If we change it in one area, it has a knock-on effect in others. Generally, we expect police forces to make savings in, for example, ICT and the procurement of goods and services. Moreover, we expect them to work together better to procure not just vehicles and equipment but the services that they need. Whatever concerns individual police forces have, it is incumbent on all police authorities and forces to do everything that they can to save money in such difficult times.

My hon. Friend raised the idea of the whole community coming together to tackle the problem of alcohol, and I agree with her. Many areas have problems with alcohol and crime and disorder, but, again, it is a matter of public perception. The reality is that alcohol-related crime has fallen in many areas in recent years, but it is still too high, and it can have a huge and damaging effect on local communities. Our aim is to minimise the violent antisocial behaviour and the health harms associated with alcohol, but we also want to ensure that people can enjoy alcohol safely and responsibly. There is an array of powers that partnerships can use, and I urge them to do so. When such powers are used, people's behaviour changes.

The Government understand the need to tackle the irresponsible premises that contribute to alcohol-related crime and disorder, which is why we introduced the new mandatory code that comes into force today. The code bans irresponsible promotions such as, "All you can drink for £10", "Women drink free" deals and speed-drinking competitions. Moreover, we are committed to improving the management of the night-time economy, and we have invested in a major programme of training for front-line practitioners to ensure that existing powers are being used effectively.

We have also invested in regular enforcement campaigns-such as the £1.5 million partnership support programme from the Home Office-in the top 50 alcohol priority areas specifically to target public perceptions of drunk and rowdy behaviour. Plymouth has been identified as a priority area for 2010-11, and, as such, will receive additional support to tackle alcohol-related crime and disorder. We are currently in the process of planning the next phase of support for our priority areas.

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