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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 450: debated on Monday 23 October 2006

Home Department

The Secretary of State was asked—


2. If he will make a statement on the relationships between community wardens, police community beat managers and police support officers in helping to combat crime and antisocial behaviour. (95419)

Police community support officers, community beat managers and neighbourhood wardens all have complementary roles in combating crime and tackling antisocial behaviour. In partnership and in isolation, each role is crucial to delivering the Government’s commitment to provide local, visible and responsive neighbourhood policing in all our communities.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. He obviously recognises the importance of not transferring the work of neighbourhood wardens across to the police support officers. Does he agree that we would be better off increasing the visible support in all areas, rather than reducing it? That is the best way to fight antisocial behaviour and crime. Does he agree that it is better to have a greater volume of visible support?

Yes, indeed. Neighbourhood wardens—sometimes referred to as community wardens—are an important resource in the fight against crime. They are part of a neighbourhood policing team that includes beat managers, police constables and police community support officers as well as neighbourhood wardens, all of whom complement each other and provide a visible presence on the ground, which reassures people that this is helping to bring down crime and that the crime statistics—which show that crime is falling overall—are being borne out on the ground.

Does the Home Secretary agree that we need the active support and co-operation of the community, and all the individuals within it, to make the neighbourhood policing teams work more effectively? Has he seen today’s report that individuals in this country are much less likely to get involved in tackling antisocial behaviour than people in other countries across Europe? Why does he think that that is the case, and what is he going to do to tackle the political correctness that is causing it?

The hon. Gentleman’s points about the requirements for successful policing on the ground in our communities are partly correct. It is not only about the involvement of the local community, necessary thought that is, but about the support of central Government, who provide the resources. We have made about £220 million available, outside the normal police funding, to ensure that we could have neighbourhood policing teams. Quite how that kind of money—or the necessary resources on the ground—would be provided by a Government committed to cutting £21 billion from public expenditure is not obvious to me. It is obvious, however, that such cuts would deeply affect the presence of policing on the ground.

Last Thursday, an unholy alliance of Lib Dems and Tories on Wrexham council voted to scrap the neighbourhood warden scheme in Wrexham. Will my right hon. Friend advise me of whether he will consider the provisions of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, to determine whether it is possible for him to intervene to ensure that neighbourhood wardens are not removed from the policing family in boroughs across the country, and that their complementary role is reinforced? There is an increasing tendency for neighbourhood wardens to be left out by local government, even though they play a vital part in policing and are a true sign of the success of the Crime and Disorder Act.

As I have already said, I regard neighbourhood wardens as a complementary element to police community support officers and the police themselves in the fight against crime. If what my hon. Friend says is true, it is deeply regrettable that an alliance of Conservatives and Liberals in his constituency has reduced the number of neighbourhood wardens, because they are important. That is what we have come to expect, however, from the Opposition parties, who talk tough but vote soft, and who back down on every major decision on fighting crime.

Will the Home Secretary give the House an absolute undertaking that the rumour that the Government are set to abandon their target of recruiting 24,000 police community support officers by March 2008 is without foundation? Will he explain how he proposes to recruit that number, given that he is only half way to meeting his target of 16,000 by next March?

We fully accept that those targets are challenging; we have never said otherwise. However, we are committed to attaining those targets, including the very challenging one of recruiting 16,000 police community support officers by next April. To that end, we have made available an extra £220 million. I can give the hon. Gentleman the absolute assurance that he will never attain anything like those targets if his party cuts public expenditure by £21 billion.

The latest crime statistics for Cheshire show that neighbourhood policing is really working. There has been a 6 per cent. reduction in the crime level. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating the city centre police and particular Chester Pubwatch? Working together in partnership, they have done a fantastic job to ensure the successful implementation of the new licensing laws.

I agree with my hon. Friend on the first point and I join with her on the second point in congratulating the police. I know that there is a particularly successful scheme in that area to counter antisocial behaviour, and particularly drink-related behaviour, by ensuring that the clubs, as well as the pubs, in the local area join the police in taking action against those who are involved in antisocial behaviour after consuming alcohol. That is a good example of the way in which local communities, the police and local proprietors can work together.

The 2006 police officer pay award is now subject to arbitration. The police arbitration tribunal is considering the matter following the hearing that it held on 18 October.

If the official side wants to move away from the Edmund-Davies formula, why did it not announce that in September last year and seek to renegotiate a new formula? How was it that its members were unable to articulate their position at the meeting in July of the police negotiating board? They had a year’s notice of that meeting.

I simply repeat that the matter is now subject to arbitration. There was a hearing on 18 October and the outcome will be considered in due course.

During the past two years, one in four police officers has been personally threatened by someone with a knife and one in 20 by someone with a gun. Does the Minister think that policing has become easier over the past 28 years; and will he consider whether this is the right time to move away from a clear, fair and transparent pay formula for the police?

On the latter point, even the Police Federation agrees that greater simplicity and transparency may well be put into the whole negotiating system, to the benefit of all sides. On the first point on gun and knife crime, I simply say: “Look to the mote in your own eye and how you voted on the Violent Crime Reduction Bill.” The hon. Gentleman will have a chance to correct that opinion as and when the Bill comes back to the House.

Does the Minister recall that, the last time that there was a significant disagreement between the Government and the Police Federation about pay, as a consequence there was a serious shortage of police officers in areas on the boundaries of the Metropolitan police, such as mine? What can he do in the present circumstances to make sure that we do not repeat the migration from the relatively low pay of the Thames Valley police to the higher pay of the Met?

I take my hon. Friend’s point that there is some migration from the home counties to the Met, but equally, each home county has a record level of police officers, so the effect has clearly not been that great. However, perhaps that should be considered within the wider parameters of the pay board.

The current police magazine suggests that the problems arise from the Treasury-imposed efficiency savings and that chief constables face a stark choice between reducing the number of police officers and reducing the level of police pay. Will the Minister comment on that and reassure the House that any arbitration settlement will be backdated to 1 September?

On my hon. Friend’s latter point, without pre-empting the outcome of the arbitration panel, there are set parameters in terms of time for the pay deal and any subsequent agreement will be suitably backdated. He will forgive me if I do not comment on his wider points because they relate, at least in part, to the matters before the arbitration panel at the moment. It is simply not my job to wax lyrical while the arbitration panel is still meeting and determining its outcome—[Hon. Members: “Go on!”] Once the panel has done so, I may.

Does the Minister agree that it is more difficult to argue for pay restraints in the police when 80 per cent. of senior officials in his Department, which has been declared unfit for purpose, have recently been given generous bonuses on top of their pay?

I would have thought that, on a matter as serious as police pay and the future of policing, the hon. Gentleman would resist making such a fatuous statement, but I was wrong.

Alcohol Exclusion Zones

No research has been undertaken on the impact of designated public place orders—DPPOs—as they tend to form just one part of a wider local strategy for tackling alcohol-related antisocial behaviour. However, the fact that 184 local authority areas have adopted DPPOs—some of them have more than one DPPO in place—suggests that they are a useful tool in helping police deal with the problems of alcohol misuse behaviour.

Although DPPOs may be a useful tool in town centres and areas where there is a major problem, I draw my hon. Friend’s attention to the problem of small convenience stores, where young people under 18 get access to alcohol. Rather than the draconian measure of a DPPO, would not a better solution be to increase the on-the-spot fine when people are caught by the police or trading standards officers to approximately £1,000 or £2,000 if they admit guilt, and if not, to let them opt to go to a magistrates court, where they risk a higher fine under the new legislation?

I know that my hon. Friend has worked hard to tackle the issue in his constituency and that several hon. Members suffer from the same problem. The fixed penalty notice is the first option that we would expect to be used when there is a problem. However, if it is persistent, the DPPO may be appropriate even in the sort of case that my hon. Friend mentions, and the local authority could introduce it. It increases the amount of the fine available when the case goes to court. The Violent Crime Reduction Bill introduces a new offence of persistent selling to children, because they are clearly getting their alcohol from somewhere. The new offence will increase the fines on stores such as those that my hon. Friend mentioned. Not only that, it will lead to the possibility of their being closed for up to three months. If he wishes to meet me, we can discuss the matter further, but I hope that those measures reassure him to some extent.

On 22 September, Scarborough council extended its already successful alcohol exclusion zone to cover 150 streets, including the Falsgrave park area. At the same time, Conservative-controlled Scarborough, in conjunction with local company Electric Angel Design, rolled out a range of new, funky, lime green signs, which are hard to miss and designed to be eye catching for younger people. Will the Under-Secretary look at those signs, and if he agrees with me that they are not only well cool, but stand out from the morass of other street furniture, suggest that other local authorities adopt similar signs?

My briefing does not cover that point so I do not know what to say about funky signs. We believe that DPPOs are an important measure that local authorities can introduce. One hundred and eighty-four local authorities throughout the country use them—that is 396 DPPOs. They increase the powers of the police, who can confiscate alcohol from people who are drinking inappropriately on the street. If they refuse to hand over the alcohol, the police can arrest them. The message is: use DPPOs because they can be appropriate in many areas.

Does my hon. Friend know that the Government are investing more than £3 million in regenerating St. George’s square in the centre of Luton in my constituency? Does he also know that Liberal-Tory-controlled Luton council refuses to reapply for an alcohol dispersal order zone, forcing the police to do that? Will he examine councils such as Liberal-Tory Luton to ensure that they do not waste Government resources but improve our constituents’ quality of life?

I thank my hon. Friend for drawing our attention to that. Clearly, Liberal-controlled Luton council should learn from examples throughout the country, where DPPOs are successfully tackling the alcohol-related disorder in our streets. My message to all local authorities is to consider using those measures if they have a problem.

The exclusion zones are clearly effective because a neighbouring town to my constituency introduced one, thus shunting the problem into three villages in my constituency. They then also introduced exclusion zones, but there was clearly a problem this summer when I visited one of my villages because many constituents told me that they were experiencing problems. We do not have funky signs—maybe they are the answer—but does the Under-Secretary agree that policing the exclusion zones must be effective and equal throughout the relevant areas, including rural areas? Will he ensure that the guidelines are sufficient to meet the task?

When a local authority chooses to set up a DPPO, it has to take account of the impact on neighbouring areas. The answer is that people should talk to each other. However, the DPPO is only one answer to the problem of alcohol-related disorder—for example, fixed penalty notices can be used alongside it. If under-age drinking is a problem, it means that off-licences, supermarkets, pubs or clubs are selling inappropriately to children. In those circumstances, other measures should be used to tackle the problem.

Offending Reduction

The criminal justice review, “Rebalancing the criminal justice system in favour of the law-abiding majority”, published in July this year, sets out how we will improve the effectiveness of the criminal justice system to cut crime and reduce reoffending. Our aim is to reduce reoffending by 10 per cent. by 2010 through rolling out a new system of managing offenders to protect the public, and helping ex-offenders to reintegrate successfully into society.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. There is strong evidence that children who run away from home or from care are targeted by predatory adults who are trying to groom them into criminal activity. Will he work with the Department for Education and Skills and with other agencies to ensure that those children have a safe place to go to and a safe person to talk to, and that they do not become perpetrators or victims of crime?

I wholeheartedly agree with my hon. Friend, and I offer her, as chair of the all-party group on runaway children, my congratulations on the excellent work that the group does on this matter. She is quite right that we need to work with the DFES and across Government to ensure that we support young people. That is what we are trying to do with the introduction of systems, working with Education and Skills and other Departments, to ensure that we deliver for young people so that they feel safe and secure in their environment and that there is a friendly voice to speak to if they have any problems.

During my time with West Yorkshire police on the parliamentary police scheme this summer, local police officers in Keighley division told me that if the top 10 persistent offenders were in jail, they would cut crime by about 50 per cent. straight away, and that if the top 20 were in jail, they would cut it by more than 90 per cent. Does the Minister agree with that sentiment, and will he therefore ensure that those people serve their sentences in full and are not let out on licence?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on attending the police scheme in West Yorkshire, which I read about in our local newspaper just recently, but he has to speak to his Front Benchers, rather than to me. He talks about being tough on persistent offenders, and his Front Benchers have the opportunity to vote on that. He is right that it is important that dangerous and persistent offenders should be kept in prison—that is what we need to do—but we also have to manage the whole prison population. He needs to speak to his Front Benchers: they talk tough but vote soft.

During the summer, I was able to attend the pre-release fair at Parc prison in my Bridgend constituency. The fair brings together voluntary organisations, statutory organisations and local authorities to give advice, information and guidance on housing, jobs and benefits prior to release, in an effort to reduce reoffending. Sadly, the one organisation that did not attend is my local authority, which is a Conservative/Liberal Democrat organisation. Will the Minister join me in encouraging Bridgend county borough council to aid the work of that fair so that offenders can receive appropriate guidance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her remarks, and there seems to be a consistent theme running through today’s Question Time in terms of Conservative and Liberal local authorities failing to be tough and failing to take the tough decisions. I pay tribute to her, because she is quite right that we need to get alliances together—whether they be faith groups, the voluntary sector or the business alliances—to work to reduce reoffending, which costs the economy a large amount of money. It is important that we get together, so I would encourage Bridgend county borough council to work with my hon. Friend to try to cut reoffending.

Two weeks ago, the Home Secretary claimed that the reoffending rate for home detention curfew was 4 per cent., and the Minister implied on Radio 4 that that was a massive improvement in reoffending rates from prison. Professor Sheila Bird, the vice-president of the Royal Statistical Society, said that

“the only thing that’s massive is the Minister’s misuse of statistics”.

When the Home Secretary quoted those statistics and the Minister talked about them, was he aware that a direct consequence of the scheme was that five people were killed by convicts on tag?

Anybody reoffending and any offence involving such reoffending has to be deeply regretted, but may I make it clear that I did not try to mislead anybody on the statistics, and nor did the Home Secretary? The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that the reoffending statistics were over a two-year period—67 per cent., which I made clear in the interview. On home detention curfew, the reoffending rate is 4 per cent., and I am happy to discuss that—[Interruption.] Not over two years, and I made that point on the programme. The shadow Home Secretary has to answer on why he is against home detention curfews. Where would he find the money to pay for those people who would otherwise be in prison?

I hate to remind the Minister that Ministers are accountable to Parliament, not the other way round. He has already given us one confession, as it were, on reoffending rates. Now can we get a straight answer from him on prisons? In the nine years since his Government have been in power, reoffending by prisoners has increased from 58 to 67 per cent. That is the largest increase since records began. What is the reason for it?

What the shadow Home Secretary did not mention is that prison places and the capacity in prisons have increased—[Interruption.] It is all part of the equation, and the shadow Home Secretary picks figures to the benefit of his argument and does not give the whole picture. We must make sure that dangerous and persistent offenders are in prison, which is what we are doing. That is why we have increased prison capacity by 19,000 since 1997, with 8,000 places announced in July. We are serious about tackling reoffending, and it will be interesting to see whether the shadow Home Secretary supports us when we introduce the national offender management Bill. Will he try to tackle reoffending? [Hon. Members: “What are you doing?”] What we are doing is trying to tackle reoffending through various alliances, and tackling persistent and dangerous offenders by putting those people in prison and increasing prison capacity. We are also introducing the national offender management scheme. I hope that the Opposition will support us on that.

The feedback from my constituents in Milton Keynes is that neighbourhood policing is one of the most effective ways of reducing offending. Is the Minister aware that Milton Keynes council is cutting the number of community wardens from seven to four, and taking them out of neighbourhoods and putting them in civic offices? As Milton Keynes council is Liberal Democrat-controlled, does he think that there is a pattern?

When it comes down to the reality of doing something, the Government want to do it, whereas the Opposition are not bothered. That is a consistent theme.

The Minister will no doubt be aware of the Home Office’s statistics showing that violence in our prisons has risen sixfold since 1997, such that an incident of violence occurs in our prisons every 30 minutes. Does he agree that violence inside our prisons begets violence outside prisons, committed by those who reoffend on release?

What we must do is protect the public by making sure that sufficient prison places are available for the increase in the prison population. Clearly, I am concerned about violence in prisons, which is why we need to examine the nature of the prison population and what we can do—[Interruption.] It appears that the Liberals do not want to hear the answer, and just want to pursue a particular track. We are keen to make sure that we tackle reoffending through a variety of means and protect the public from dangerous and persistent offenders, and we will continue to do so.

To reduce drug-related crime, the Government introduced drug treatment and testing orders, but those were a failure because of a reoffending rate of more than 78 per cent. over two years, and because most of the orders were either breached or revoked. The Government have moved on from drug treatment and testing orders to drug rehabilitation requirements. What is different about those sentences from the earlier failed ones that gives the Minister confidence?

I am confident that more than 13,000 offenders are completing drug treatment in prison and in the community. We are considering anything that we can do to try to get people off drugs, because we know that those who take drugs are more likely to reoffend. The programmes are in place, and I am happy with what we are trying to achieve. Despite the capacity problems in prisons, we are trying to tackle drugs.


7. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to prevent prisoners from absconding from open prisons. (95425)

Public safety is paramount, and despite the current population pressures I can provide assurance that it will not be compromised. The requirement for prisoners to pass a robust and rigorous risk assessment to qualify for open conditions is the most effective way of ensuring that.

I thank the Minister for that answer. What steps has he taken to ensure the capture of those who have absconded from open prisons? For example, of the 393 prisoners who have escaped from Leyhill open prison since 1999, 25 remain on the run, including three murderers, one of whom has been on the loose for the past eight years.

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was able to attend the Adjournment debate in Westminster Hall last week in which we discussed Leyhill open prison and issues to do with it. Clearly, the police try to recapture people who abscond. He will know that the absconding rate has fallen from 1,115 in 1997 to 709 last year, even though there has been a change in the prison population, which has increased from about 60,000 people in 1997 to 70,000. The indications are that this year, we are again heading for an all-time low in the absconding rate.

I know that the Home Office is seeking to take pressure off open prisons by building new prison places. When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary published his forward strategy in the summer, he drew attention to the number of prisoners with mental health problems. Are the Government considering building purpose-built places for those prisoners suffering from mental health problems, as part of their future prison strategy?

First, I congratulate my right hon. Friend, who is the Chair of the Select Committee, on having raised the issue on numerous occasions. We certainly are considering the issue of mental health, and we hope that there will be a forthcoming mental health Bill, but we are considering what we can do in the short term, too. He will be aware that the contingency plans that we put in place to deal with the issue of prison capacity are for the short term, but in the longer term we need to address the issue, and we will talk to colleagues from the Department of Health about it.

The Home Secretary said that he was prepared for an increase in the number of absconds. He was prepared to take that risk arising from the use of the open estate, but is it not the law-abiding public that will take the hit, rather than the Home Secretary?

The hon. and learned Gentleman refers to a leak, but the leak was wrong, and the Home Secretary said no such thing. We must manage the open prison estate in the way that we have outlined, and we have not compromised the categorisation or allocation processes to achieve our aims. If we had not tried to maximise use of that estate, I am sure that Opposition Members would have criticised us for not trying to use the capacity of the open prisons.


9. What assessment he has made of the reconviction rate of former prisoners; and if he will make a statement. (95427)

Reconviction statistics for adult offenders are published annually. They include an assessment of offences committed during a two-year period after release from prison. The latest results from the 2002 cohort were published in December 2005 as national statistics, and were made available to the House.

I am grateful to the Minister for that informative reply. Given that approximately 60 per cent. of adult offenders are reconvicted within two years of release from prison, and that high-quality education in prisons is vital to the prospects of rehabilitation, does he not agree that it is a manifest disgrace that almost half of prisons pay less for education than for work, and what will he do to try to improve that highly unsatisfactory state of affairs?

First, I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on taking a close interest in the issue of reoffending and the prison population; I know that he has asked questions relating to reoffending in many different ways. He will be pleased to hear that more than 10 per cent. of adults who gain basic skills qualifications now gain them in prison, and that the Prison Service is one of the key deliverers in enabling basic targets to be met. He will also be happy to learn that the rate of employment on release from prison is up from 10 per cent. some 10 years ago to 37 per cent., and that more than 13,000 offenders have completed drug treatment in prison and in the community.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is a debate to be had about the prison population and what we do with people who are in jail. First, we have to protect the public, and that is why we must have adequate places. Secondly, we need to consider what employment opportunities there are in prisons. Some interesting initiatives are taking place across the country, and I would be happy to write to the hon. Gentleman and engage him in discussion on those projects, because I am sure that his support will help them to develop further.

Is the Minister aware of the work being done by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle), in his local prison? He has been looking into the idea of incentivising prisoners to improve their literacy by allowing them visits from their children. There is an obvious correlation between improvement in literacy and family responsibility—and, in the long term, of course, employment possibilities on leaving prison. Will my hon. Friend look at those schemes to see whether they can be more widely used by the Prison Service.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising the subject of the work that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (John Battle) has done at Leeds prison. The Home Secretary paid tribute to that work at the last Home Office questions, and it is clearly the way forward. Many of those prisoners, having learned to read, then read to their children for the first time, and sent tapes home to their families. Reading builds up their confidence and self-esteem, so we need to support such schemes. It is clearly a priority to reduce the number of people aged 21 to 35 in the prison population who lack essential skills.

The Minister will be pleased to learn that it is not all doom and gloom. I should like to advise him of a success story in today’s Colchester Evening Gazette:

“Just one serious sexual or violent offender has reoffended in Essex in the past five years, thanks to a revolutionary scheme”.

The multi-agency public protection arrangements are provided by the police, probation officers, social services and the Prison Service. Will he join me in congratulating those agencies, and will he accept my suggestion that the scheme be rolled out across the country?

Again, I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the multi-agency public protection arrangements. Today we have issued information on the annual report, to maximise its availability and public understanding of the scheme. The MAPPA arrangements are unique to the United Kingdom, and they help to achieve public protection by ensuring that serious offenders are properly managed. I add my congratulations to those that the hon. Gentleman expressed for the MAPPA work in his area.

Will my hon. Friend join me in congratulating organisations such as National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders on their work on the care and the rehabilitation of offenders? What is the current level of expenditure by the Home Office on such organisations, and will my hon. Friend give the House an assurance that, because of the work that they do, he will consider increasing the sum available, as that will obviously help to decrease the prison population?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his work with NACRO in his constituency. I do not have to hand the figures for the amount of money that we give NACRO, but we also give money to Rainer and a number of other voluntary agencies that work with prisons on the problem of reoffending. That is the direction of travel, as we want to find the best providers of services to tackle the problem. I am sure that my right hon. Friend agrees that we need to look at what public services and the public-private sector can provide to ensure that we cut reoffending rates.

Prospects for offenders are bleak in my constituency, as nearby Pentonville prison is nearly full, so there is little opportunity for prisoners to follow detoxification or drug rehabilitation programmes. Drugs are rife, so what are the prospects for prisoners at our local police stations, which have been called on to house them, given that there is no opportunity for the drug rehabilitation that they desperately need?

I would not like the hon. Gentleman to run away with the idea that we are not achieving the education targets that we have set, as many of the schemes are on course. However, he is right to say that there are pressures on the prison population. In his recent announcement to the House, the Home Secretary said that the use of Operation Safeguard was “not ideal”, but was better than releasing prisoners. We want to protect the public, and we must balance that aim against what can be achieved in education programmes. We keep under review the effect on the prison population of the various schemes that take place in prisons.


Under the Police Regulations 2003, the Secretary of State issues determinations setting out the pay of members of police forces. Before making such a determination, the Secretary of State must take into consideration any recommendation of the police negotiating board and supply the board with a draft of the determination. The police negotiating board has its own constitution which sets out the procedure for its reaching agreement on a recommendation to be made by the board. If agreement cannot be reached, the matter can be taken to conciliation and then arbitration.

I am grateful to the Minister for laying out in clear terms the workings of the Edmund-Davies formula, but I and many other hon. Members have received representations from officers who feel severely let down that their anticipated pay increase is not going to be made. One wrote to me and said:

“I hope I have managed to convey how let down officers feel, at a time when our job has never been more difficult or dangerous.”

What words of certainty can the Minister give to officers about planning their domestic finances, given that this year the Government have chosen not to implement fully the Edmund-Davies formula?

As I said, that remains a matter for the arbitration panel. What I can say to the right hon. Gentleman’s constituent, the police officer, is that having met on 18 October, we are assured, as far as we can be, that the panel will report in two to three weeks. I can also say to his constituent that what we will not do is go down the road taken by the right hon. Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron), who, in one of his more recent “fluffy bunnies and sunshine for everyone” speeches, said among other things that first he would smash the national pay negotiating bodies by affording local flexibilities to chief constables; secondly, he wanted modern employment contracts so he could sack more officers; thirdly, he wanted seniority to be—[Interruption.]

Does my hon. Friend agree that special constables throughout the country do a fantastic job in local communities? Will he join me in congratulating the chief constable and Durham police authority on recently introducing a scheme to pay special constables £1,500 a year? That has increased the number from eight to the target of nearly 140. Will the Minister also see what other lessons can be learned from that initiative for other forces throughout the country?

I am more than happy to congratulate Durham constabulary on what it has done with the special police force, and I take this opportunity to congratulate the specials on their 175th birthday, just last weekend. Specials are often overlooked in what constitutes the growing police family these days, but up and down the country they play a very important role alongside police community support officers, warrant officers and police staff in doing what we need our police forces to do. I shall certainly take away the point about the stipendiary paid to specials, and see whether that can be put into the overall mix of police pay generally.

11. What steps he is taking to reduce the time police officers take to return to their beat after making an arrest. (95429)

The Home Secretary announced on 20 July our intention to consult on a possible review of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. This is part of our ongoing programme to look at custody and related processes, a key objective of which is to simplify and streamline procedures to free up police officer time for operational activity outside the police station. That is why, for example, we have enabled the arresting officer to grant street bail, and use street disposals such as fixed penalty notices and penalty notices for disorder; and why, in 2002, under the work force modernisation programme, we allowed chief officers to designate civilian staff to carry out functions previously performed by the arresting officer, such as escort, detention and case preparation tasks.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but what progress has been made on work force modernisation to release officers from the burden of paperwork and get them back on the street tackling crime, arresting criminals and cracking down on antisocial behaviour, which is what my constituents want them to do?

I share my hon. Friend’s concerns. We are having discussions with the Association of Chief Police Officers and are about to move to the next phase of work force modernisation. I think everyone would agree that having a record number of police is not sufficient if more and more are not out on the streets. I know that the right hon. Member for Witney agrees with that, because he referred to that, too, in one of his speeches. The use of civilian staff and the serious consideration that chief constables are giving to the role played by warrant officers, whether on the streets or in police stations, are important factors. Chief Constable Bob Quick is considering those, and will report to us shortly.

I welcome in principle the Government’s review of PACE, but does the Minister accept that the key to it is finding ways of altering the law so that less paperwork is required, not simply finessing the current situation and handing tasks over from experienced custody sergeants to civilians, which, because of inexperience, may result in acquittals?

I am afraid I do not agree with that. We must get the balance right between the bureaucracy and paperwork and the policing, but policing does not stop with the arrest and placing in custody of individuals. There is then the evidential trail, and all that follows in the criminal justice system. The hon. Gentleman is right: the key is the balance. If that requires more civilians to do some of the back-office and preparatory case work, that is entirely right, but this is not as simple as clicking your fingers, twisting your heels and going off to Kansas, and bureaucracy disappearing.

Does the Minister share my concern at the amount of handwritten documentation that must be produced by police officers following arrests? Surely we should consider the use of information technology. Police officers could use laptops to record information, or, if they will not do that, they could simply dictate their reports into a machine.

I agree. IT is one of the matters being examined as part of the work force modernisation programme, including the increasing use on the streets of hand-held computers that can be plugged in for downloading purposes on return to the office. This too is about getting the balance right, but it costs money. Perhaps the right hon. and learned Gentleman, who I believe is one of the tax cutters, will tell me how it could be achieved when £21 billion had been taken from the public purse by his party.

The Minister seems to ignore the reality of what happens with our police. A few weeks ago I was doing what Members in all parts of the House do—accompanying a police patrol on a Friday night. The police were confronted by an abusive and potentially violent young man. After they had settled the incident, I asked them why they had not arrested the young man, as they certainly could have done. They said that if they had arrested him, it would have taken the whole three-person patrol out of action for three hours—the crucial period for patrolling the town centre. Is the Minister not worried about the fact that after nine years of government by his party, the police are afraid to use their arresting powers because if they do they will be prevented from doing their real job of protecting the public?

With respect, they are prevented in part from implementing legislation passed by this Government in the teeth of opposition from the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends. Of course we need the balance between paperwork and bureaucracy, and proper policing. Along with ACPO and the Police Federation, we are trying to ensure that that balance is maintained and to enhance the modernisation that has already taken place. However, the hon. Gentleman is living in cloud-cuckoo-land if he thinks that that is all that happens in policing—and I would not believe “PC David Copperfield” either, because that is more of a fiction than Dickens.

Antisocial Go-ped Riding

12. What action is being taken to reduce the antisocial riding of go-peds and other motorised two-wheel vehicles. (95430)

Tackling antisocial behaviour is among the Government’s highest priorities, and the antisocial use of mini-motorbikes remains a nuisance and a danger to many people. That is why the Government's Respect taskforce has led the way in addressing the misuse of mini-motos and go-peds. We recently published a step-by-step guide for practitioners, and provided additional finance for communities affected by the problem. Those initiatives have helped the police and local authorities to pursue robust enforcement measures such as immediate seizures, destruction, noise abatement notices and antisocial behaviour orders.

I welcome the Home Secretary’s response, but can he tell me whether the summer campaign to seize mini-motorbikes was a success? Despite all the enforcement measures that he has listed, it concerns my constituents in Leek, Biddulph and other areas that the issue of antisocial behaviour is not high enough on the list of police priorities.

My hon. Friend makes a good point. There are powers for the tackling of go-peds and mini-motos, which are a danger and a chronic nuisance to many people not just in her constituency but elsewhere, but she is right to say that enforcement of those powers is patchy throughout the country. That is one of the reasons why we spent some £200,000 over the summer on an information campaign to try to heighten the awareness of practitioners such as local authorities and police forces—as well as that of the public—of the ways of tackling the nuisance that lie in their own hands.

The campaign has been a success in many areas, although it has been used to a limited extent in my hon. Friend’s area. I believe that there has been one seizure and five warnings, which is a relatively small result compared with that in many other areas. However, I hope that the increasing availability of information will encourage local authorities and police to take action against something that is becoming a terrible nuisance for many people.

Three years ago, I spent some time dealing with the tragedy of a youngster who was killed as a result of a collision caused by another youngster on a motorcycle. This weekend I spent some time with a family that had lost a 19-month old youngster as a result of a four-wheeled vehicle that was apparently stolen and driven by other youngsters. I accept that the figures show that the number of such crimes leading to fatalities has, happily, gone down considerably. However, will the Home Secretary review the way in which young people are educated so that they understand that potential fatalities can be caused by that sort of behaviour? The best way is to show them the results, to persuade them that their own younger brothers or sisters, or they themselves, could be the next victims, as opposed to the people who cause the deaths.

The hon. Gentleman makes a very pertinent and important point. While these vehicles can legitimately be used off the road on controlled tracks and areas, when they are used on the roads in a haphazard fashion they are dangerous not only to other people but to the lives and limbs of the young people who are driving them. I was recently in Manchester and saw some examples of what can happen. The unguarded chain on those vehicles, for instance, can be a lethal weapon. And everything sits on top of a plastic fuel container—which is a fireball just waiting to happen if used in the wrong circumstances. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, which is why we ran the campaign over the summer months to inform local authorities and the police as well as the public about the problem. In Manchester, I believe that there have been about 116 seizures of mini-motors, and many of them were destroyed. I agree that it is important to send out the information, and I can also inform the hon. Gentleman that we will keep the matter under review.


13. What plans he has to set national targets for local crime and disorder partnerships for detection and reduction in the incidence of rape. (95431)

Tackling sexual crimes—above all, rape—is and always has been an important priority for the Government. Over the past three years, we have made nearly £6.7 million available to support victims. Specific targets on rape have so far been set at local level within the crime and disorder reduction partnerships. I can tell my hon. Friend that we shortly hope to publish an action plan on sexual violence and abuse.

I appreciate and welcome the finance and support given to rape victims so far, and I accept that targets have been set locally through the local partnerships. However, there is enormous variation in the rate of convictions—from 0.86 per cent. in Gloucestershire, through 6 per cent. in the west midlands where my constituency is located, to nearly 14 per cent. in Northampton. Surely such variation suggests that a stronger lead is needed on the conviction targets.

We think it right to set targets locally, and I would ask my hon. Friend to reflect on how we have dealt with domestic violence, where targets are also set locally. There, we have increased the conviction rate and we are replicating some of the methods that we used for domestic violence to deal with sexual violence. In particular, funding was made available this year for the first time to set up independent sexual violence advisers. We have also adopted some important measures, introducing specialist rape prosecutors in every crime prosecution area. Certainly the conviction rate for crimes such as rape, at just below 6 per cent., is unacceptably low. We are working with the Association of Chief Police Officers on the production of guidance for the police and we have overhauled the law on sexual offences. We are also introducing procedures to make it easier for victims of sexual crimes to give evidence.

I entirely agree with what the Minister has said about many of the issues relating to targets, but one of the real obstacles is the lack of a common approach from police forces across the country to the victims of rape. We need a properly resourced programme to ensure that all victims of rape are given equal opportunity to receive the support, advice and guidance that they need to pursue prosecutions.

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point. We have issued guidance to local crime and disorder reduction partnerships on how to tackle sexual violence, and how to develop a local strategy for doing so. We are also working with ACPO to produce guidance for the police. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that support for the victims is one of the most crucial parts of the process. That is why the independent sexual violence advisers—who work so well in the context of domestic violence, as I have said—can make such a difference. They work with the victim from beginning to end of the process. The victim will be supported more fully, whether they decide to report the offence or not. If they do report the offence, we hope that that will lead to an improvement in the conviction rate.

Antisocial Mini-bike Riding

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer I gave some moments ago.

No one wishes to prevent the safe use of mini-motorcycles—my three sons were taught by their father, who was an RAC Auto-Cycle Union instructor—but we must be concerned about young people who cause a danger not only to themselves but to many other people on our streets and in our parks and open spaces. Is there anything further that we can do to help Sussex police, who are taking an active role in dealing with the problem, to tackle that antisocial behaviour?

As my hon. Friend says, the legitimate use of such vehicles in controlled circumstances is broadly supported by the Government. Well-managed legal sites can divert people away from the illegal use of go-peds and mini-motos. She is also right to say that we need more information and guidance. The Respect taskforce, which is addressing this and other issues of antisocial behaviour, is committed to supporting any area experiencing problems with mini-motos. The taskforce has produced guidance for practitioners on tackling misuse, a public information leaflet has been produced for retailers, and workshops were run for practitioners at the September academy events this year. The taskforce also runs a website and hotline for anyone who is interested in the issue. I commend all those to my hon. Friend as means by which information on this disturbing antisocial trend can be made available to her constituents, and to the authorities.

What recent discussions has the Secretary of State had with his colleague in the Department of Trade and Industry about introducing stricter controls on the sale of mini-motorbikes, and with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency about their compulsory registration?

I believe that the existing controls are sufficient. As I pointed out earlier, the present powers stem from at least two Acts—the Police Reform Act 2002 and the Road Traffic Act 1988—and include powers of seizure, powers to destroy, warning letters, acceptable behaviour contracts, parenting contracts, dispersal powers, noise abatement powers and antisocial behaviour orders. As well as that range of powers, we also encourage legitimate use. At this stage, we are not of the opinion that mini-motorcycles should be banned completely, but where they are being misused we have made available a range of powers. Those are being used throughout the country, albeit patchily, and we are attempting to spread their use more widely.

Asylum Applications

18. What the average time taken was to reach an initial decision on an asylum application (a) in respect of people held at (i) Harmondsworth and (ii) Oakington and (b) overall in the latest period for which figures are available. (95436)

The time for initial decisions at Harmondsworth and Oakington was 14 days and 12 days respectively. Overall, 76 per cent. of initial claims are decided within eight weeks, compared with 20 months in 1996. My briefing then reads: “These figures are taken from internal management information and may be subject to change prior to publication in official Home Office statistics”.

If it takes only 14 days at Harmondsworth and far longer for asylum seekers in the community, does not that show that it is in the interests of asylum seekers for the Government to have reception centres so that asylum seekers can sort out their right to stay much more quickly, and be allowed to work more quickly? That will help refugees do what they what to do, which is to pay their way; it will also, incidentally, save the taxpayer money.

We use detained fast track when we are certain that there is a high likelihood of removal. It is one of a range of tactics. On the continent, of course, tactics are different; there is much greater use of reception centres. The important point for my hon. Friend is that when we look across Europe we see that the UK is now 14th for asylum applications per capita. In the last quarter for which data are available the fall in applications in the UK was 24 per cent., while the fall in the EU was just 11 per cent. When we look at the range of tactics deployed in the UK compared with many other countries we can see how far ahead we are.