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I praise Sussex police for the important work that they have done in dealing with the asylum abductions that I have mentioned. I also want to praise the Sussex police child protection team, which deals with more than 3,700 cases of physical, sexual and emotional child abuse or neglect; that equates to more than 78 investigations per officer per year.
I praise the team particularly for the work that it has carried out on the problems of joint enterprise, and on the case of John Smith, a four-year-old toddler who died after evidence of 57 different blows was detected on his body, inflicted at the hands of his prospective adoptive parents. Four hundred and ninety-two children in England and Wales have been either unlawfully killed or seriously injured by their carers or parents over the last four years; 239 of those were under the age of six months. Of the 366 cases in which investigations have been completed, 225 were not proceeded with by the police or the Crown Prosecution Service; 20 cases were dismissed; and only 99 resulted in successful prosecutions. That is a conviction rate of 27 per cent., compared with a national conviction rate for murder of around 90 per cent. These are crimes committed by parents or carers, and that is not acceptable.
Sussex police have done a lot of work on this issue. They are presenting a paper to the Home Office on it. The problem is one of joint enterprise. In the case of John Smith, it could not be proved which of the two prospective adoptive parents had dealt the lethal blow to the child. They were therefore given eight-year sentences for cruelty. We need a change in the law that will enable a sentence to be passed for causing death or serious injury by cruelty, which would allow a much higher sentence
There are many other issues that we could raise, and one that the Minister has not mentioned is that of the pensions time bomb. The news that the total liabilities for police pensions have leaped to between £34 billion and £36 billion is an enormous issue. That estimate represents an increase of some £10 billion in the last year. For once we cannot blame the incompetence of the Government's pension policy, because these are largely pay-as-you-go schemes funded by central budgets or local councils. Total expenditure on all schemes now amounts to 13.3 per cent. of total police budgets; some forces actually spend more on their pensions than on their forensic departments. Eighty per cent. of that cost is met by the Treasury, but the rest comes out of council tax, and that is having a big impact on operational resources.
There are a number of other issues that I shall not go into in detail, including the failure of antisocial behaviour orders and the problems of crowded jails. There is a record number of people in jail now, almost 70,000. Many are having to be released early to make way for others coming in. Of course, it will be the police who pick up the problems resulting from that. There are many problems for the police, and they are coping admirably in difficult circumstances.
The biggest problem of all has been that of declining morale, and the undermining of the role of the police by this Government and, particularly, by this Home Secretary. It really is not good enough to brag about just getting back to 1997 policing levels. Fred Broughton, the chairman of the Police Federation, expressed his frustration at the "politically drip-fed smear stories" and a rally next week will allow officers to register their anger. Graham Alexander, the chairman of the Sussex Police Federation, has said:
Mr. Chris Pond (Gravesham): The hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Derek Conway)who is no longer presentsaid earlier that politicians were rarely the victims of crime. That made me feel slightly edgy, as in the past three months my phone has been stolen, my house has been broken into, and the windscreen of my car has been deliberately smashed while my nine-year-old daughter sat screaming in the back.
That is not the only reason why I am pleased to contribute to this debate. I am a former member of the police parliamentary scheme, and over the past five years I have worked closely with my local force in north Kent, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Dartford (Dr. Stoate). Although he has been present throughout almost all this debate, I suspect that he will not be able to contribute. I am sure that, like me, he would wish to pay tribute to the work of Kent police, particularly those in north Kent, and welcome our new area commander, Superintendent David Pryer.
Crime and social disorder are a blight on the quality of life of my constituents. However, there have been significant improvements in the past five years. The overall level of crime has decreased, especially vehicle crime and burglaries, although there have been worrying increases in certain other forms of crime, particularly robberies and muggings, which are almost exclusively associated with the theft of mobile phones by and from young people. A worryingly sharp increase in domestic violence has taken place, and, in a population that has a significant and well-respected Sikh community, the number of racist incidents has increased, which is a cause for concern.
We have also seen the emergence of new forms of crime, which other hon. Members have mentioned, such as bogus calling. To give the most shocking example of that, in my area, and, I suspect, in those of other hon. Members, individuals are going around trying to identify and make lists of vulnerable households to sell them to other unscrupulous individuals who then operate as bogus callers. Police in my area are having to deal with ever-changing and increasingly ingenious attempts by certain individuals to extract resources from others.
The debate has included some discussion, although not a great deal, about the causes of crime. Crime has declined generally and in my constituency in the past five years. I suspect that that is directly related not to policing but to what has been happening to the economy as a whole. Prosperity has been rising in my area and unemployment has fallen by half. However, I am not among those who subscribe to the notion that unemployment and poverty are causes of crime. In the 1930s, there were far higher levels of poverty and unemployment than in the 1980s, but levels of crime were much lower. Evidence from the United States and the United Kingdom clearly shows that there is a strong link not between poverty and crime but between inequality and crime. It is no coincidence that during the 1980s, when inequality increased very sharply, there was also a fast increase in levels of crime. However, I accept the point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice) that that occurred in the 1980s and tailed off in the last period under the previous Government.
Investment, not only in CCTV, which has been very effective in my constituency, but in more police officers is one factor involved in reducing crime. In north Kent, there has been a 25 per cent. increase in officers in the past two years alone. What matters is not only the size of the police establishment, but, if you will forgive me, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what you do with it. Consultations by Kent police authority show that people want to see more officers on the streets and greater visibility, which is why the Government's emphasis on the visibility of the service and of the extended police family, which I welcome, is so important.
I prefer the description "community support officers" to those used by others, such as "pseudo-cops" from the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire and "elevated park keepers" from the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). Those people have an important role in the service, not in replicating or replacing what professional police officers do, but in allowing those officers to do their job more effectively and in achieving greater visibility. As a member of the police parliamentary scheme, I saw how street wardens work effectively in the Netherlands, providing a sense of genuine security to local communities.
We have the investment, but that in itself is insufficient without reform, just as reform is insufficient without the investment, as we saw from the attempt to introduce Sheehy. The modernisation agenda is essential in ensuring better and more effective policing.
In my area, the police have adopted innovative measures to deal with the underlying problems of crime, intervening directly on people in the cells, particularly young offenders, with drug and debt counselling, which has been successful in helping to break the cycle of crime among a few persistent offenders. The multi-agency approach is used to steer young people away from crime and to ensure that we do not get the continued flow into the bucket to which the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire referred.
We have achieved much in north Kent. There, as elsewhere in the country, and despite my own experience, the chance of becoming a victim is the lowest for at least 20 years. As other hon. Members have said, however, the fear of crime persists, and I shall suggest reasons for that. The first is the growth in youth crime and disorder, to which the Minister referred. That disorder may be at a low level, but it nevertheless creates a climate of fear and insecurity.
Last November in the House, I raised the case of a young constituent who was arrested 76 times in a few months. No real sanctions were applied. In the process, we let down that youngster just as we let down the rest of the community. In north Kent, the police believe that just 10 young offenders between the ages of 13 and 17 are responsible for up to 40 per cent. of crime in some areas.
Antisocial behaviour orders are important in trying to deal with that and I am pleased that Gravesham has started to use them more effectively, but we need to address the underlying causes of the problem of youth crime. Sometimes, simple intimidation may be involved. Recently, friends of mine witnessed an elderly Sikh gentleman being jostled by a group of children. For them, the incident was a laugh. For that elderly gentleman, it was a cause of fear and humiliation.
The police face difficulties and I share their frustration. Although we have been more than successful in reaching the Government target of halving the time before young offenders are sentenced, the question is: what happens to those young people once they reach court? Magistrates in my area say that they have problems in knowing how to deal with such youngsters, some of whom begin their criminal career at the age of 10. By the age of 17, they are old lags and rather experienced at crime. Perhaps we should consider whether the youth court should deal with offenders of that age.
The police in Gravesham are concerned about the treatment of adult offenders. Last year, a case went to court that involved four offenders who were found with stolen goods worth no less than £250,000. After taking up considerable police time, the case was not treated seriously by the courts and the offenders received merely a suspended sentence.
I should like to refer to the comments of Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, on the treatment of victims. I have had regular contact with an organisation called Victims Voice, which was initially set up by the Marchioness Action Group and represents 15 member organisations. In a recent survey, it pointed out the consequences of being a victim of crime, which include loss of a job, financial hardship, physical and mental ill health, attempted suicide, alcoholism, divorce and loss of a home. It is not merely the fear of crime, but the consequences of crime that people face.
I welcome the fact that the Government, as part of their reform agenda, are ensuring that the criminal justice system takes more account of the needs of victims and witnesses. I also welcome the fact that ensuring visibility of the police is a priority. I am pleased that we are beginning to reduce crime levels. The bigger challenge now is to reduce the fear of crime.