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The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): My ministerial colleagues and I have regular meetings with the police to discuss a wide range of issues, including the Government's fixed penalty proposals. My officials have also met representatives of the Association of Chief Police Officers to develop those ideas in detail. All police forces and authorities in England and Wales were invited to respond to the consultation paper "Reducing Public Disorder: The Role of Fixed Penalty Notices", which was published in September. Responses were received from 28.
Mr. Pond: Is my hon. Friend aware that the police in my area consider fixed penalties a useful addition to their armoury in the fight against yobbish and loutish behaviour? Is he further aware that, in the one in six cases of disorderly behaviour in which it is very difficult for the police to act, because such cases are not serious enough to undergo the process of arrest and court action, fixed penalties could be particularly helpful? When I meet the chief constable of Kent next week, can I tell him that the Government are determined to press ahead with their proposal?
Mr. Clarke: Yes, my hon. Friend can certainly tell him that. As a result of the discussions that I have had with chief constables and other officers, I agree that such penalties are an additional resource and a valuable weapon, which I hope and believe will be of widespread benefit.
Sir Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet): The Minister will recall that he described as "a metaphor" the Prime Minister's remarkable, memorable, on-the-hoof suggestion that those guilty of disorderly behaviour should, if necessary, be marched to the nearest cashpoint to pay an on-the-spot fine. Does he intend to upgrade or relegate the metaphor? Will there be on-the-spot fines in reality? Does he agree that an effective on-the-spot fines system requires
Mr. Clarke: As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has just said, in the six months to September this year, there was an increase of 444 police officers. The number has been increasing even since then. The fixed-penalty notice is the best way to proceed, because that is how the police want to operate. Such notices are an additional weapon in their armoury, which they welcome.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): The most recently published recorded crime figures show that, in the year ending 31 March 2000, the number of offences in Gwent was 2 per cent. higher than in the year ending 31 March 1997, taking into account the change in counting rules for recorded crime. However, domestic burglary was down by 18 per cent. and vehicle crime was down by 11 per cent.
The police authority has set a budget for this year of £76.1 million, which is an increase of 6.6 per cent. on the previous year and of 21 per cent. on 1996-97. That led to a rise in the total number of police officers in Gwent in September 2000 of 28 since March 1997.
Mr. Edwards: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply and for the resources that will go to Gwent. May I remind him that the proposed settlement for 2001 is below the national average, especially in view of the rural nature of much of the Gwent police area in my constituency and the high levels of social deprivation in other parts of Gwent? I remind my hon. Friend of Gwent's high detection rate of 53 per cent., and that it has seen a decrease in crime this year. Gwent police deserve to be rewarded for their improved performance.
Mr. Clarke: I discussed those matters a month or two before Christmas with the chief constable of Gwent and the chairman of the police authority at the police headquarters there. I can testify that my hon. Friend is expressing a view with which they strongly agree. We are examining the overall position. However, the force has received an extra £0.2 million for rural policing and more than an extra £1 million for the recruitment of officers under the crimefighting fund. As I said, the number of police officers is increasing, and I pay tribute to the force for that.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): Crime reduction in Gwent is greatly to be welcomed, but does the Minister agree that increased use of closed circuit television would assist in reducing crime levels in Gwent and elsewhere? Does the hon. Gentleman recall that the Home Secretary gave a favourable response to my suggestion that it should be made a condition that shops and other premises that
Mr. Clarke: The hon. Gentleman will be interested to learn that the number of police officers in Hampshire increased by eight over the six months concerned. I am considering the CCTV questions that have been raised. We have specifically highlighted in our most recent guidance the use of CCTV in rural areas, which will help constituents such as those that the hon. Gentleman represents, and along parades of shops in out-of-town estates where much crime takes place for the reason that he has indicated. His proposal to make it a condition of trading out of hours that CCTV should be installed is one that we are considering, and we shall continue to do so. As he knows, however, significant problems are associated with the proposal.
Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): Does my hon. Friend realise that, following the allocation, there has been almost universal dismay in Gwent, even after his meeting with the chief constable? I believe that all Gwent Members of Parliament have written to my hon. Friend to say that they do not understand why an area with a fine police force with a fine detection level should be punished in such an extraordinary way. Why should those parts of Gwent and of Wales where crime rates are twice as high as they are in north and west Wales have a 35 per cent. lower allocation? The proposal for next year is a 35 per cent. lower increase. It cannot make sense. My hon. Friend has seen the chief constable, but will he agree to meet Gwent Members to discuss those matters and, if he can, to justify his position?
Mr. Clarke: I am always prepared to meet colleagues to discuss financing. My hon. Friend will know that I have received representations from him and other colleagues in Gwent, and from many other Members representing other police authorities, who also have issues to raise. I will happily discuss their representations. As I have said, the Gwent police authority's budget has increased by a significant 21 per cent. since 1997. I am sure that more resources could be used, and I am happy to join my hon. Friend in paying tribute to the work of the Gwent constabulary in using its resources efficiently. We shall consider that in full detail, as we shall in respect of other forces throughout the country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Effective policing depends on the community working together in partnership with the police to fight crime. In two thematic inspections in 1997 and 1999 Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary endorsed the importance of community beat officers. Progress on implementing the recommendations made in the reports will be assessed in a further thematic inspection report to be published in January.
Mr. O'Brien: In "Winning the Race Revisited" in 1999, Her Majesty's inspectorate gave credit to forces that included provision of community beat officers in their policing plans and stated that they should not be abstracted from their primary tasks. It also found that the effectiveness of community beat officers could be undermined when their role was combined with other duties. Chief constables will no doubt know the strongly expressed views of the inspectorate and will, I am sure, take close account of them in making decisions on allocation of resources. My hon. Friend should be congratulated as the community beat officer of the year award for 2000 went to PC Tony Sweeney, who operates in his constituency.
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Given the widespread concern in London and elsewhere about the reduction in community policing--I guess that Ministers would agree with everybody else that losing nearly 2,000 police from the Met over two and a half years and 2,500 across England and Wales means that the position is desperate--will the Minister and the Home Secretary consider additional measures to retain police officers on the ground? First, those coming up to retirement should be encouraged to stay on for an extra five years.
Secondly, good police officers who have retired since the election should be encouraged to return for up to five years. Thirdly, local authorities should establish a new level of policing to deal with low-level crime and disorder on the beat as a new form of supplementary police service in which they could easily participate.
Mr. O'Brien: The Government are, indeed, considering a number of measures to ensure that we retain and increase the number of police officers. By 2003-04, funding for policing will have increased by almost £1.6 billion against the provision for this year, which is a rise of nearly 21 per cent., and more than £1.3 billion of that sum is new money. That is the biggest boost to police funding in a generation. The settlement has been strongly welcomed by many police authorities. It represents great support for the police, but a lot more needs to be done. The large-scale recruitment campaign that we are undertaking is producing substantial results and we are anxious to consider not only new recruitment, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, the retention of those good officers who may wish to stay longer in the police. We are studying those issues, and he and I would both want them to be studied, but I cannot give him any guarantees on how our discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers will turn out.
Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the most important aims of community policing is to reduce burglary? May I draw to his attention the Kirkley shield initiative in Lowestoft in my constituency, which is achieving considerable success by improving home security, clearing away abandoned
Mr. O'Brien: We will certainly consider that idea, and I congratulate the police in the Lowestoft area on the hard work that they are doing to deal with burglary and, in particular, on the work being done to improve home security. Self-evidently, if we can improve the quality of home security, we can reduce the chances available to opportunist burglars in particular. Therefore, we want to keep a close eye on the work being done in Lowestoft. In the long term, we want it to be sustained.
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough): If a political party that promised in its election manifesto to increase the number of policemen on the streets has in fact presided over a decline in those numbers, is it fair to describe that manifesto--in the words made famous by the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke)--as a metaphor? To avoid virtual reality manifestos in future, can some practical solutions be proposed? Perhaps the Minister will tell us what he will do to stem the catastrophic decline in the number of special constables, for example.
Mr. O'Brien: In the hon. Gentleman's area, police numbers have risen by 47 from March last year. The Government have put extra resources into policing to increase police recruits by 9,000 through the crime fighting fund. The decline in police numbers began under the Conservatives in 1993. This Government are reversing it. The Conservatives abolished the police housing allowance in 1994, which the Police Federation has identified as the principal reason for the decline in police numbers. The Conservatives promised 5,000 more police in 1993 and delivered 1,500 fewer police. If they ever got into power, they would promise more and deliver less. The Conservatives are committed to £16 billion worth of public spending cuts. They have avoided matching our commitments to spend on the police. We will deliver increased numbers of police officers where the Opposition failed.
Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy): Everyone agrees that community policing can be very effective indeed, but it is probably the most expensive form of policing. Adverting to the remarks of the hon. Member for Leeds, Central (Mr. Benn), will the Home Office consider ring-fencing an additional amount of money for this purpose, so that police forces that wish to do so will be able to put officers on the beat?
Mr. O'Brien: The objective of the crime fighting fund is to ensure that forces that have plans to increase police numbers can bid for the extra resources to do that. Our objective is to target the increase in police numbers. Through the financial opportunities available to the Home Office, we are trying to find mechanisms to encourage an increase in the numbers of police officers. Under the Police and Magistrates Courts Act 1994 passed by the previous Government, responsibility for police numbers
Helen Jones (Warrington, North): When my hon. Friend next discusses the matter with chief constables, will he encourage them to consider particularly the needs of some of our new towns, parts of which have been badly designed, with the result that police cars can go only along the main roads? That is almost a charter for crime and antisocial behaviour in some of the closes where police cars cannot go. Will my hon. Friend encourage chief constables to consider the provision of community policing in those areas? Most of the crimes can be solved through information from the public, but that requires a good relationship between the public and local police officers.
Mr. O'Brien: My hon. Friend is entirely right. During the 1970s and before that, the design of some of our new towns did not properly take into account the implications for dealing with crime and disorder. We have therefore sought to encourage new design in towns where that is possible, to recognise issues of crime and disorder. What is particularly important is the way in which the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 has brought together the police and local authorities in partnership, so that in future, when they are dealing with issues that affect them both, they will have at the forefront of their minds issues of crime and disorder, and the design of properties such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend will take that into account.