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Home Department

Volume 455: debated on Monday 15 January 2007

The Secretary of State was asked—

Trafficking of Women

1. What assessment he has made of the link between domestic violence and trafficking of women; and if he will make a statement. (114675)

The Government are committed to tackling all forms of gender-based violence through our national action plans, including those for domestic violence, sexual violence and trafficking. I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking and we participated actively in the negotiations for it. I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework it imposes for victims of trafficking remain a primary goal for the Government.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that very helpful reply. Is he aware that in the Ukraine, in the first ever parliamentary session on domestic violence, which I was privileged to address, it was estimated that more than 50 per cent. of people who are trafficked have suffered from domestic violence? Will the Home Secretary work with his European colleagues to ensure that we prevent these serial abuses of women? I encourage him to sign the European convention and to work hard to ensure that this valuable piece of European legislation comes into force as quickly as possible.

I thank my hon. Friend, who has taken a keen interest in these matters. As regards domestic violence in this country, she will know that we have already taken a number of steps. For instance, every local authority has a local strategy to deal with domestic violence and there are domestic violence co-ordinators to meet the general strategic line that the Government have set out on this matter.

I also agree with my hon. Friend on the question of the European convention and I have made it plain that I fully support the multiple aims of the European convention on human trafficking. As I said, we participated actively in the negotiations for it. Obviously and as my hon. Friend would expect, I have wanted to make sure in my considerations that the convention is absolutely compatible with our enforcement of managed immigration into this country. However, I repeat that I believe that the signing of the convention and the protection framework that it imposes for dealing with victims of trafficking remains a primary goal for the Government. I hope that my hon. Friend will not have too long at all to wait—[Laughter]—until we have completed our assessment of its compatibility with managing immigration, which people of this country, despite the laughs of Conservative Members, take very seriously. When we are assured of that, we will go ahead and sign the convention.

It is not only a question of dealing with trafficked women, but with trafficked children. Is the Home Secretary aware that it was announced yesterday that 48 young children in five local authorities—some as young as 10—had disappeared from local authority social services care and had never been found? What is his view on that matter, bearing in mind the fact that the Government have no central data at all on where trafficked children are? They will not provide the information and nobody knows where they are, what they are doing or where they are going.

I agree entirely with the hon. Gentleman that trafficked children, as well as trafficked women, are involved. Indeed, I was checking the figures this morning, as the hon. Gentleman will know that we are not waiting until we have signed the convention before taking action. For instance, Operation Pentameter—a three-month national enforcement operation—identified 84 potential victims of trafficking for sexual exploitation, 12 of whom were minors or children. Through about 343 operations, we have been able to disrupt the problem, but it remains a very serious matter to me.

On systems of data collection, the hon. Gentleman will know that that is a subject close to my heart. I have asked my Cabinet colleagues for an overall review of all data collection relating to criminality. The volume and mobility of criminality and the easy transportation that is possible nowadays mean that we are living in a different age. As illustrated by some of the problems that we face, the old systems have not always been able to cope. Now that that is obvious to me in one particular direction, I want to extend consideration of data collection right across the board. I hope that that will meet the point that the hon. Gentleman raised.

Will the Home Secretary give an assurance that, where the victims of trafficking are brought to his attention and where they have co-operated with the police, we will not be as eager as we have been in the past to remove them from the UK? Can we have assurances that women who have come forward or been discovered by the authorities will be given exceptional leave to remain?

I have discussed the matter with my ministerial colleagues. The issue is getting the balance right between ensuring, on the one hand, that that which is intended for good purpose, including the protection of those who have been the victims of this terrible trade, is achieved, and on the other, that we do not allow the abuse of the system that is meant to protect them by those who would use it for illegal entry. It is precisely ensuring that correct balance that has caused such prolonged deliberation on my part, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not adopt a prima facie position that everyone must be removed. We have to look at a balance between managing immigration and humanitarian considerations, and therefore judge matters on a case-by-case basis.

Having looked at the issue of trafficked women in the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly, we are encouraged by what the Home Secretary has said about the Government’s intention. However, it is a question of leadership. We are not alone in failing to sign the convention and I am convinced that if this country signed, many other countries would follow suit.

In terms of the convention itself, I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I hope that he accepts the point that I have made: both sides of the House want to see us take a compassionate and protective step in relation to the victims, but they want us to ensure that, when we do so, we do it in a way that is commensurate with our obligation to the people of this country to manage immigration.

As regards the data collection point and exchange of information and our co-operation with our European colleagues at various levels, I take that very seriously. This morning, I had a helpful discussion with Commissioner Franco Frattini in order to impress on him the need to carry forward more quickly stronger modifications and standardisation of the exchange of information, so that we can tackle not just this problem but a number of other problems that have arisen recently.

In a way, ensuring that women who have been the victims of trafficking know what to expect if they shop the men who have trafficked them is more important than European systems. What can they expect, and how can we help them to know that the state is there to protect them?

That is part of our commitment, not only now, but when signing the convention. My hon. Friend, who has experience of dealing with some of these issues in a ministerial post, will know that. She will also know that the Government have provided something like £2.4 million over the two-year period to continue providing the 25 crisis beds and to extend the service to include the 10 step-down resettlement places to help women live independently, as well as the first ever outreach service for victims of trafficking in the United Kingdom. The POPPY project provides secure accommodation and a range of other protective services for women. I would not like to think that the indication that we are considering before signing—which I hope that we can do—means that we have not been taking practical measures to protect women up till now. I believe that we have, but a lot more needs to be done.

I sense that the Home Secretary is on the brink of announcing that he will sign up to the European convention. We have been urging him to do that and, when he does so, it will be right to welcome the fact. He also knows that we proposed signing the convention as part of a package of measures needed to stamp out the evil trade in human beings. May I return him to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) about his reaction to the report from the charity ECPAT? It revealed the truly deplorable fact that, of 80 children who had been victims of trafficking and had been taken into care, 48 have gone missing and have never been found. He talked about effective action. Does he recognise that signing the convention is an important step forward, but that unless the Government take effective action to guarantee the safety at least of those victims who have been taken into care, this will be a terrible waste of an opportunity to do some good?

First, may I say to the hon. Gentleman that in terms of our compassionate approach and our constructive and benign attitude towards this convention, I do not think that there is any difference between the two sides? The difference is that we are the Government, and we therefore have to try to make sure that we do not, by doing one thing, create problems in another area. He and his hon. Friends will be the first to point out if such problems occur—quite correctly.

Secondly, I take the points that the hon. Gentleman makes very seriously. We will try to make sure that they are addressed in an improving fashion over the period; improvement, as I know only too well, comes slowly, but it comes in substance eventually.

Police Detection Rates

2. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of measures to improve police detection rates. (114676)

The effectiveness of the police and their Crown Prosecution Service partners in detecting and prosecuting crime is measured through the target of bringing more offences to justice. This has seen the numbers of offences brought to justice rise to 1.3 million last year and sanction detection rates increase from 19 per cent. in 2003-04 to 24 per cent. at the end of 2005-06.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Overall detection rates remained static at about 27 per cent. in 2006, while the figure for violent crimes reduced from 69 per cent. in 1998 to 50 per cent. Can we be certain that a cash squeeze involving more than £250 million, as set out in the recent Treasury paper on delivering a step change in police productivity, will not mean a real-terms cut in police funding? Such a cut would have a huge impact on front-line policing and on detection rates.

I certainly take the hon. Gentleman’s point about productivity, efficiencies and how much further police forces can go. As one commentator said on the radio this morning, they are very adept at squeezing down efficiencies. But in reality the police, like other public services, will have to do more with the same amount of money, on the back of the best part of seven or eight years’ significant increases and of record resources and police numbers throughout the 43 forces in England and Wales.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the introduction of the fixed-penalty notice for disorder has played a part in increasing the detection of crime by ensuring that officers are not spending time taking people to the police station after they have been arrested and going through the courts? Instead, people are being punished straight away for minor offences of disorder; they pay their fixed-penalty notice, and the police can get on with the job and arrest somebody else if necessary.

I agree with my hon. Friend. As I have said, since 2001 there has been an almost continuous improvement in the number of offences brought to justice. Certainly more needs to be done, but it is estimated that fixed-penalty notices save between one and a half and two and a half hours’ worth of police time, which must be in the interests of everyone who has policing as a core concern.

Indeed, the chief constable of north Wales, who is the Association of Chief Police Officers’ lead on these matters, said that penalty notices for disorder

“are an extremely effective way of encouraging the police to do more enforcement particularly against anti-social behaviour and carry with them an absolute right to a court hearing if the offender so chooses.”

Does the Minister agree that detection rates might be improved if the police had accurate information about offences committed by British citizens abroad? In that context, will he answer a very specific question? Did his ministerial colleague who replied to the letter from ACPO that was sent to him draw that letter to the attention of the Home Secretary, as ACPO had specifically suggested she should, or not? If not, why not?

I certainly agree with the starting point of the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s question. We will put it in the context of a regime where the number of convictions fell by a third, where the chances of being a victim of violent crime trebled and of being a victim of burglary more than doubled, where crime doubled and where violent crime, by the by, increased by 168 per cent. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan), made it very clear in last week’s Standard that she did not refer the matters in the letter to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary because they were not about the backlog and the 27,500 cases—they were about the ACPO contract and the efficacy of that contract since May 2006. In terms of the more general points, we will take with a very, very strong dose of salt anything said by the right hon. and learned Gentleman, given his lamentable record.

I thank the Minister for his reply concerning fixed-penalty notices. Does he agree that the Opposition, by opposing fixed-penalty notices, seem to be supporting more—

If the letter of October to the Minister did not refer to the problem that ACPO was having in detecting the offenders on the files passed to ACPO in May last year, will the Minister tell the House whether, at any earlier stage, ACPO asked for more resources when it realised how great the backlog was? To whom might that request have been addressed, at ministerial or official level, and what was the answer?

The short answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the request was not addressed to Ministers. The substance of the answer to his question will come out in Sir David Normington’s inquiry. That is the whole purpose of the substantive inquiry.

Will my hon. Friend take a look at the excellent work done by volunteer police cadets in my constituency, who are helping Merseyside police to detect shopkeepers who sell alcohol to children? Is not the sale of alcohol to children a significant factor in youth offending, and did not youth offending convictions fall dramatically in the 10 years between 1984 and 1994?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. She is entirely right, and there are any number of programmes and projects, voluntary and otherwise, that work with the retail industry and others to ensure that, where possible, we drive down alcohol-related crime, particularly violent crime. All of them are to be commended, as is their work with police community support officers and police officers, particularly in the context of rolling out further neighbourhood policing. I commend the schemes in Liverpool and elsewhere.

The Minister has admitted that it does not help to improve detection rates if police forces do not know about criminals’ previous convictions for crimes committed while abroad, and on Friday he admitted that he did not know whether crimes committed by British criminals in non-European countries were reported to British police. Will he tell the House two facts: first, whether he is confident that the criminal convictions from all non-European countries are properly recorded on the police national computer, and secondly, whether the foreign criminal convictions of foreign citizens approved to live and work in Britain are put on the police national computer?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, we are seeking to write to all Cabinet colleagues to ensure that there is a root-and-branch review of all aspects of the notification, across all Departments. As I understand the position at the moment, the system is in part rooted in Interpol, and beyond that in bilateral and other relationships between the UK and other countries. On a factual point, I think that what I actually said on Friday was that I could not say with confidence that every single record from every single source, under whatever treaty, was on the PNC. The review that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is carrying out will clear the matter up entirely, and will take us to a stage at which the House, collectively, can be assured about public protection.

If I understood what the Minister said in toto, I think that his answer was “Yes, in part.” The fact that the actions are taken in part undermines the operation of the Criminal Records Bureau, because many people have been missed out. It also undermines the sex offenders register, and as a result, it undermines the detection rates that the police can achieve. The public want the police to be able to do their job, and as a result they want to know three things: what has gone wrong in this fiasco, who is responsible, and what will be done about it? As the answers may involve ministerial decisions, it is entirely inappropriate for a civil servant to carry out the inquiry. It is also bogus nonsense to claim that an internal investigation should preclude the public’s knowing what happened. Why can the Minister not publish the letters and minutes now? Why can there not be an independent inquiry, and why is it that civil servants are suspended for admitting the truth, but Ministers are not suspended for hiding it?

The right hon. Gentleman will know that the permanent secretary wrote to him today, although I do not know whether he has received that response yet. To respond directly to his three points—what has gone wrong, who is responsible and what is to be done—they are precisely the points that the Home Office is considering now, by getting to grips with public protection issues, carrying out the inquiry, and remedying the situation in Europe and beyond, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said in relation to his conversations earlier with Commissioner Frattini.

Will my hon. Friend acknowledge the role played in crime detection by PCSOs such as Tracey Taylor and Sarah Nicholson of the central sector in Plymouth, who, much to the relief of John Boyd and other residents of Federation road, have solved some intractable antisocial behaviour problems? Does he agree with the basic command unit commander of Plymouth, Morris Watts, that PCSOs do not need to be marketed, because when people meet them, they market themselves?

Members throughout the House, whether or not they favoured the introduction of PCSOs, accept that those officers have made an enormous contribution to fighting crime and improving detection rates up and down the country. I am happy to commend my hon. Friend’s BCU commander, because PCSOs are complementary to, rather than replacements for, the police. They work alongside them in neighbourhood policing in a truly effective way throughout the country.

Probation Officers

Figures for 31 March show that there were a total of 8262.5 full-time equivalent probation officers in post in England and Wales. On the same date, there were 227.7 full-time equivalent vacancies that were actively being recruited to, which accounted for 2.68 per cent. of the total posts available at that time.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Recently, I met probation officers in south Cumbria, who expressed deep concern about the Home Secretary’s attitude towards the probation service. Given the Minister’s reply, does he accept that the Home Secretary should stop undermining the probation service with ill judged rhetoric in inappropriate places and poorly thought out legislation, and instead support the probation service by acknowledging that it has met the overwhelming majority of its performance targets this year, unlike his Department?

If anyone is undermining the probation service it is the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. The Home Secretary has said on numerous occasions that the probation service is working hard and well, and that the public need to understand exactly what it does. The hon. Gentleman referred to the Offender Management Bill, which is in Committee and tries to enhance the role of the probation service and probation officers. The Government are confident that they want to promote a successful probation service, not undermine it like the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are doing.

I know from his statements in the Chamber and conversations I have had with him elsewhere in the House that the Minister is an enthusiastic proponent of contestability. In future, when the probation work undertaken by the probation service doubles, then doubles again, because the private and voluntary sectors will be involved, does he accept that the quality of probation officers recruited to fill the vacancies to which the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) referred is likely to decline, because private sector organisations, but not voluntary sector ones, are likely to provide services down to price, not up to standard?

My hon. Friend and I disagree on this issue, but I respect his viewpoint. The probation service must grow if we are to reduce reoffending rates, so we must make sure that providers, whether the probation service, the voluntary sector or, indeed, the private sector, can provide the best service. The Government and I do not want to prevent anyone from providing such a service. Training and development enhances the role of probation officers, and a backstop will always be provided by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of probation, which will maintain consistent standards of inspection.

Shortly before Christmas, I had the privilege of visiting the probation service in Milton Keynes, and I wish to pay tribute to the work of Anna Perry and her team. Is the Minister aware that in the past year alone the average officer’s case load in Milton Keynes rose by 15 per cent., so that he or she dealt with 46 cases? At the same time, on the front line, there has not been a real-terms increase in budget. To be fair, that is partly because of the rapid expansion of Milton Keynes, but does the Minister accept that morale in the probation service is at an all-time low in the town?

I do not accept that the morale of the probation service is at an all-time low. The service wants certainty about the future, and I do not believe that there is a lack of investment. For instance, since 1997, there has been a 21.5 per cent. increase in probation officers, from 6,827 to 8,298., so there has hardly been a lack of investment. We must make sure that morale among probation officers is high, and that we cut reoffending and protect the public from violent offenders.

Last November, at a time when probation service morale was already at an all-time low, the Home Secretary went to Wormwood Scrubs, of all places, to give the service a pre-meditated kicking in front of an audience of convicts, whom he charmingly described as the experts on probation work. How does such behaviour help reduce the reconviction rate of those released from prison?

This is not the first time that the hon. and learned Gentleman has raised the issue. The Home Secretary has been clear about wanting to ensure that the probation service delivers not only for probation officers, but for the public at large. He has pointed out in speech after speech, in particular in the Second Reading debate on the Offender Management Bill, that he holds the probation service and probation officers in high esteem. However, we all agree that they are not reducing reoffending. That is the fault not of probation officers, but of society. The Offender Management Bill provides an opportunity to put that right.

Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act

4. If he will review the effect on the use of police officers’ time of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. (114678)

The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Office conducted a review of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000, as my right hon. Friend knows, and identified that some processes are excessively bureaucratic owing to an over-zealous interpretation of the Act. The Home Office is currently working with ACPO and the Office of Surveillance Commissioners to eliminate such excessive bureaucracy.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the comments from Sir Ian Blair during the recess, that whereas as young policemen they used to anticipate being able to make three arrests during the day, now young officers say that they can only make one arrest because of the red tape, particularly as a result of RIPA. Does not an imbalance seem to be developing between the interests of the public and the police, as opposed to the interests of the criminals and the avaricious lawyers? I welcome the steps that my hon. Friend has announced. Can he tell us the time scale, and can the process begin fairly soon so that the police officers on the streets of Sandwell will be able to get out and arrest the criminals?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. On the specifics of RIPA, the review showed that there were unnecessary forms in place, unnecessary bureaucratic duplication by forces, and in some cases an unnecessary desire to find out information that they already knew. In one case a police force made a RIPA application for a subscriber check on a telephone which turned out to be in its own headquarters and for which that force was the subscriber and paid the bill. In the case of RIPA and other legislation to which my right hon. Friend alludes, there must be a clear understanding of what is anticipated within the overall strategic demands of the Home Office, and those at the centre must let police forces get on with it, as we are seeking to do.

Anti-terrorism Strategy

5. What recent discussions he has had with officials and Ministers on co-ordination of the anti-terrorism strategy. (114679)

I recently conducted a review of the terrorist threat and our counter-terrorist response, the conclusions of which are with the Prime Minister. The threat from international terrorism is seamless and is no longer easily divided into foreign affairs, defence or domestic affairs. Our counter-terrorist campaign will need to be seamless, integrated, politically driven, forward-thinking and dynamic, and have at its heart the recognition that above all this is a battle for hearts and minds, a struggle of ideas and values.

In 2005 the Prime Minister’s delivery unit said that the Government’s counter-terrorist strategy

“measured meetings and reports, not real world impact”,

and that

“no one seemed to be in charge”.

Last month the Home Secretary again identified the problem. He said that we need

“a seamless, integrated, driven, politically overseen counter-terrorism strategy”.

It is 18 months since the July bombings. When will we have a workable strategy?

I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the situation is a dynamic situation. It is not a static one. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that we know now that the first AQ-related conspiracy plot in this country was in 2000, and that was in Birmingham. Since then, the threat has been growing. It is serious and it will, I believe, be with us for a generation. As that terrorist attempt expands, we must expand and respond in a continually improving fashion. Therefore the idea that, just because I have outlined what we must do now, that precludes improvements over the past year or two is not consistent. The current terrorist threat level is at its second highest level, classified as severe, which means that a terrorist attack is highly likely. It indicates a continuing high level of threat. We must therefore do everything to continually improve our response to it. That was the purpose of my report to the Prime Minister and will be carried through in the strategy, the functions and the structures, but we are doing that continually.

Just before Christmas, I visited the unit dedicated to fighting serious organised crime and terrorism in the east midlands, which is based in Derbyshire. It has received only pump-priming funding for its establishment and first couple of years of operation. Will the Home Secretary assure me that steps will be taken to ensure that the very good work that it is already doing will be maintained and further developed with additional resources?

My hon. Friend points out an improvement that did not exist before. The assurance that I will give is that the security services will have the resources, capabilities, structures and politically driven oversight that are necessary to meet the level of threat that we now face. We now know that the first plot connected with al-Qaeda was in Birmingham in 2000, and the threat has grown apace year by year. The security services are aware of approximately 30 plots in the United Kingdom. As of September last year, 98 people were awaiting trial for terrorist offences, and we believe that a considerable number of people were involved in those plots. The subject is serious, and it is not always easy to get the balance right between putting too much information too often into the public domain, which disrupts our normal way of life, and retaining information that may be necessary for operational purposes but of which the public feel they should be availed. We try to get that balance right.

We regularly read in the papers that the Home Office is aware of British nationals who are training in terror camps overseas and that some of those people have returned to Britain. Will the Home Secretary confirm that he has a list of those people and will he state how many British nationals are currently training in overseas terror camps and how many of them have returned?

The security services have a list, but I am not going to reveal the details or imply—as the hon. Gentleman implied in his question—that the ones we know of are all those who are so engaged, because that would be misleading. As one of my counterparts in the United States pointed out, the difficulties are the unknown unknowns. Since we know that a considerable number of people in this country are engaged in conspiracies and that some of them have trained abroad, we must assume that there are others of whom we do not yet know, and to say otherwise would be to mislead the House.

What criteria does my right hon. Friend use in assessing whether an individual or organisation is a suitable partner in the fight against terrorism? What assessment has he made of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee?

On our criteria for engaging with people, the basic political criterion is the working assumption that the division in this country is between terrorists and the rest and that it is not between Muslims and other sections of society. It follows from that that we cannot defeat domestic terrorism, or indeed terrorism which is international and domestic, by security or military means alone. We can defeat it only from these two premises: first, that we get maximum unity among those people, Muslims and everyone else, who oppose the use of terrorism; and secondly, that we understand that, although the struggle may manifest itself in security terms, military terms or other terms, it is at heart a battle for hearts and minds—a battle over values. That is why the starting point for our defence against terrorism in this country is the defence of our values. Anyone who contributes towards that is a potential ally in that struggle.

Why will the war on terror last for a whole generation? Why could it not be brought to a successful conclusion earlier, and why would it end at the end of one generation?

First, I have not myself used the expression, “war on terrorism”. Secondly, I have pointed out that it is, in essence, a struggle for ideas and values. Thirdly, the nature of that struggle is such that it is inside Islam as well as outside it. Fourthly, it is a global struggle that manifests itself in different theatres in different forms. Fifthly, I cannot give a guarantee of any time scale, but if I am asked for an estimate—which is obviously, since it is a social rather than a physical science, a human estimate rather than one of 100 per cent. predictability—it is that this will probably last as long as the cold war did.

Neighbourhood Policing

Although there is no one model of neighbourhood policing, as each police force is tailoring its neighbourhood policing response to the particular needs and priorities of its local communities, neighbourhood policing will be introduced to every area by April 2007, and every community will have neighbourhood policing teams in place by April 2008. Delivery of neighbourhood policing has now extended to some 6,700 neighbourhoods. There are 81 neighbourhood policing teams already in place in Humberside and 96 in Hampshire.

In light of recent announcements about allowing local flexibility in the allocation of neighbourhood policing resources, does my hon. Friend agree that that should allow forces such as Humberside the flexibility to recruit the higher number of police community support officers that they want, and that the level of funding that they expected should be given?

Every community will have a neighbourhood policing team by 2008. This year, the funding for Humberside specifically for PCSOs will be some £3.1 million, and next year it will be some £4.4 million—an overall increase of some 42 per cent. I agree with my hon. Friend’s fundamental point that that should mean that the mix required for neighbourhood policing appropriate to Humberside is achieved.

The Government have announced their policies on neighbourhood policing many times, yet this year, in Hampshire, Government cuts have meant the loss of more than 200 PCSOs. Has the Home Office changed its policy or does it no longer think that neighbourhood policing requires visible policing?

Visible policing, including the role of PCSOs, is central to what the Government require of police forces in Hampshire and everywhere else. The allocation for Hampshire is some 333 PCSOs. This year, the funding for Hampshire is some £4.8 million; next year, it goes up to £7.8 million. The overall funding for the neighbourhood police fund will be some 41 per cent. higher than this year. I am not sure how the hon. Lady works that out as being a cut.

Given the reports over the weekend, has my hon. Friend had requests from chief constables for additional funding for neighbourhood policing?

As I said, it is for each chief constable to determine the mix and the balance of and approach to neighbourhood policing. The Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities have asked for as much flexibility as possible in funding and resources for neighbourhood policing as well as other matters so that they can use their resources as effectively as possible for local policing needs in my hon. Friend’s constituency in Coventry and elsewhere.

Surrey police would like to engage in more neighbourhood policing. However, given that they had a relatively poor settlement compared with other shire counties, that they were underfunded by £500,000 through the costs of the abortive merger with Sussex, and that we recently heard that the number of community support officers will be cut against expectations, how can they deliver services to the people of Surrey?

I take the hon. Gentleman’s point and accept his sincerity but, given that funding for PCSOs for Surrey will increase next year by some 28 per cent. and that Surrey’s settlement next year is some 3.6 or 3.7 per cent., I fail to understand his complaint. I speak regularly to the chief constable of Surrey as well as the chief constables of other forces. They say that the key to the future of policing is the greatest possible flexibility in not only resources but performance frameworks, targets and all the other dimensions. That is precisely what we are trying to provide, working with the APA and ACPO.

May I invite my hon. Friend to Bolton to see Greater Manchester police’s mobile police stations, which go into the heart of the community? The idea was borrowed from the town represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson). The mobile police stations are enjoying remarkable success in reducing crime by as much as half in the areas where they operate. Will my hon. Friend visit one?

I am tempted by that suggestion. If my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) can sort out the ticket, perhaps we will go later today. Although I have been to Oldham and Rochdale and seen many of the constituent parts of Greater Manchester in the context of policing and neighbourhood policing, I have not visited Bolton, and I look forward with great interest to seeing the mobile facilities about which he is so clearly pleased.

In October, I asked whether the Home Secretary planned to abandon the Government’s promise of 24,000 police community support officers. He categorically denied that. However, that manifesto pledge has now been abandoned. Three days before Christmas, the Home Office altered the crime fighting fund so that police numbers can drop. No announcement has been made publicly or to the House, and police authorities have been told to keep quiet about it. Will the Minister publish the change or are cuts in policing another example of a failure about which Ministers would rather we did not know?

I should rather like the evidence for the hon. Gentleman’s point about everyone being told to keep quiet about the matter, given that half today’s questions have been about it. Crime fighting fund and PCSO flexibility were afforded the APA and ACPO at their request in discussions. As hon. Members know, given a history of seven or eight years of continuous—now record—growth in policing, we are flattening out resources. All the APA and ACPO protestations have sought greater flexibility not so that numbers can drop like a stone, but so that they can decide locally the best priorities for any force in any area. That is the key point. Given that we have afforded greater flexibility to individual forces and listened to the APA and ACPO, the hon. Gentleman should welcome our actions.

Alcohol-related Crime

The Home Office did not undertake a specific data collection exercise to assess alcohol-related crime during the Christmas and new year period. However, the Home Office collects alcohol-related crime and disorder statistics on an annual basis through the British crime survey. The data covering 2006-07 are planned for publication in July 2007.

Given that the latest data from the British crime survey show that 47 per cent. of crime is alcohol-related, does it make sense for there to be no funding for the alcohol treatment requirements of community orders or suspended sentences, as confirmed by the Minister in response to my question on 8 November? Is it not the reality that the Government have done much to make alcohol more accessible, but little to pick up the tab and address the consequences of their actions?

We can bandy statistics of what has happened with alcohol-related crime, but the hon. Gentleman quoted the BCS, which said, for example, that the number of incidents in which the victim believed that the offender was under the influence of alcohol had fallen by about one third since 1995. However, the hon. Gentleman raises an important question. Is alcohol-related violence too high? Yes it is, and we are trying to do something about that. Do we need to look at our strategy for dealing with alcohol-related violence? Yes we do, and we are taking a number of measures to do that. What about those who might need treatment? We are looking at what we can do with respect to that. The Government are examining our alcohol harm reduction strategy in tackling alcohol-related violence, in toughening the law and ensuring enforcement on the street and in developing treatment to deal with alcohol in a medical sense, which can be made available through either the criminal justice system or the NHS.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the problems is with premises where the publican is happy to allow customers to get tanked up, but ejects them when they start causing problems and denies any responsibility? I recently went out with the West Midlands police on night patrols in areas where that is a problem. They pointed out that one way round the problem is close co-ordination between the police service and the licensing authority—the local authority—to ensure that such premises have their licences removed.

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. We all know that powers have been made available to the police and local authorities to deal with such problems. Where those powers are used, they make a real difference to tackling problems of disorder in our town centres. I have seen the excellent work done in Nottingham and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was there only last Thursday night, when he saw the use of closure powers by the local authority, the use of fixed penalty notices by the police and tough enforcement action on the street. He saw, as I did, that where there is tough enforcement action, and people working together and using all the powers that are available to them, a real difference can be made in tackling alcohol-related violence and disorder. In Nottingham, the latest figures show that where that has been done, there has been a 31 per cent. reduction in alcohol-related crime.

Under previous licensing arrangements, a lot of drinkers used to go home at chucking-out time, causing no difficulty to the police and law and order forces. [Hon. Members: “No.”] Many did, but quite a lot did not. Does the Minister accept that a regrettable unintended consequence of the new licensing arrangements is that many young people go on to other premises, drink for much longer and get into trouble with police later in the night?

I do not agree with that at all. With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I did not notice that, when young people were coming out of pubs at 11 pm, everything was calmness and light. The Licensing Act 2003 gives flexibility to licensed premises to determine when they wish to close. The anecdotal evidence, which we are analysing as we go along, so far shows that the fact that not everybody is turned out of premises at the same time does not cause disorder, but helps to quell it.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been a great difference in alcohol-related offences owing to the fixed penalty notice? Up to the middle of December in my home city of Brighton and Hove, any notices handed out to anyone enjoying the festive season meant that they created no more disturbances throughout the rest of the night. Does he have any plans to extend that successful scheme?

We are always considering how to extend what has been successful. My hon. Friend said how effective penalty notices have been. People want justice and the fixed penalty notices now available to the police mean that there can be swift justice on the street and that the police can deal quickly with people who act irresponsibly. The notices keep the police on the street, reduce bureaucracy and mean that the police are where we want them: patrolling in our communities.

Neighbourhood Watch

The neighbourhood watch movement comprises numerous local and regional schemes. The Home Office provides support to those schemes through the provision of free literature, public liability insurance, training and advice. We continue strongly to believe in and support neighbourhood watch schemes and the wider watch movements.

The neighbourhood watch scheme claims an impressive membership of 6 million households, about a quarter of our country’s population. However, does the Minister agree that we can go further than that? When Staffordshire police and I make joint presentations to the public, as we did most recently last Friday at Great Haywood, about the effectiveness of neighbourhood watches in complementary action with neighbourhood policing, people see how effective they can be themselves. They queue up to sign for new neighbourhood watch schemes. Does the Minister agree that such local successes could be made nation wide if the Home Office fully backed an effective national organisation?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his work in supporting neighbourhood watch schemes in Stafford and trying to develop them there. He has championed the issue, not only in respect of his local area but in pressing us to do more about it. As he pointed out, there are 165,000-plus watch movement schemes, such as shopwatch, pubwatch and so on, as well as neighbourhood watch. They cover 6 million households and have approximately 10 million members. There is no doubt that neighbourhood watches contribute to tackling crime; most importantly, they also tackle the fear of crime. They provide an important mechanism through which ordinary members of the public and communities can work with local police and influence policing priorities in their areas.

Does the Minister agree that, like Crimestoppers, neighbourhood watch schemes play an important part as the eyes and ears that detect and report crime? If that is the case, surely more support should be given to such schemes. I invite the Minister, as Colchester is much nearer than Bolton, to come to my constituency and see what is arguably the most successful neighbourhood watch scheme in the country.

I visit many constituencies and see success on the ground. As the hon. Gentleman points out, neighbourhood watch schemes are an important way of tackling the fear of crime and crime itself. The Home Office is doing a lot to support the development of such schemes; as I said, we fund public liability insurance and literature and have made a website available to people. Alongside that, we are working with local neighbourhood watch groups to establish a new strategy that will lead to the sort of support mentioned by the hon. Gentleman.

I have been working closely with my own neighbourhood watch on formulating dispersal order action plans so that we can address the underlying issues that have led to problems of antisocial behaviour in the community. What conversations will the Minister have with his counterparts at the Department for Education and Skills to ensure that local authorities act on their new statutory duty to provide new facilities so that we can address some of the underlying problems and so that young people do not hang around the streets with nowhere to go and nothing to do?

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. Although a lack of new facilities can never be an excuse for poor or antisocial behaviour on the street, it is incumbent on us all to try to improve youth facilities. That is what we have been doing. She will be pleased to know that another important aspect of the strategy that we are trying to develop is encouraging more young people to be part of neighbourhood watch schemes. In that way, we can get better schemes and tackle crime more effectively. As I am sure she will agree, it is not only old people who want something done about crime; young people are also demanding that we do something about it. We should work together to develop schemes and tackle some of the problems on our streets. If we can involve young people, the neighbourhood watches will be much more effective.

The hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) is right. Neighbourhood watch is outstandingly successful, but it is outstandingly successful because it co-operates closely with community and neighbourhood policing. Will the Minister reply to the question put earlier by the hon. Member for Coventry, South (Mr. Cunningham)? Is there any truth in the stories that appeared in the press over the weekend that there was to be a cut in the number of members of a police force, and therefore in the number of bobbies on the beat who participate in neighbourhood and community policing?

We have a record number of police on our streets and we have police community support officers in all our communities. It is interesting to note that the debate about community support officers has now become a debate about how many of them there are. When they were first introduced, it was said that they were not worth the investment. The hon. Gentleman made a good point in saying that it was important for neighbourhood watch to work with local police, community support officers, local authorities and all partners. Of course it is important. Neighbourhood policing is not just a matter for the police; at its best, it is neighbourhood management.

Community Support Officers

9. What assessment he has made of the potential effects of replacing police constables with community support officers. (114683)

Given that the basic policy premise behind the hon. Gentleman’s question is, in my opinion, flawed, there has been no such assessment. Police community support officers are not a replacement for police constables. They are an additional, highly visible and responsive resource for the police service to deploy in support of the implementation of neighbourhood policing.

I agree with the Minister that the replacement of police constables is not the basis of Government policy, but may I tell him of the strong feeling of residents in Kettering that the effect of the Government’s policy will be precisely that? Next year, there will be an increase in the number of police community support officers in Northamptonshire and, potentially, a reduction of 42 in the number of full-time police officer posts.

Because of the funding crisis facing Durham constabulary next year, the police authority is contemplating replacing 100 police officers with 70 community support officers. Although I commend the role of community support officers in Durham, as a result, Durham residents will have 100 fewer police officers on the streets. Will the Minister agree to meet me, together with my hon. Friends the Members for City of Durham (Dr. Blackman-Woods), for Easington (John Cummings) and for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman), to discuss the police authority’s budget for next year and to stop that happening?

I shall be happy to meet my hon. Friends to discuss the matter. We have said very clearly that, given the settlement and the debate that we shall subsequently have on it, if any force has any difficulties over resources, it should get in touch with us. I say the same to Northamptonshire as I have just said to Durham.