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Crime Reduction (Small Businesses)

Volume 475: debated on Tuesday 29 April 2008

1. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for the Home Department on sentencing and other policies to reduce crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. (202043)

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I take very seriously the need for the whole criminal justice system to be as effective as possible in tackling crime against shopkeepers and small businesses. The number of people convicted of theft from shops and sentenced to prison immediately has doubled in all courts in the past decade, while the average sentence length for all theft and handling cases tried at Crown court has increased from 11 months to 13 months. The Government will soon respond to the Sentencing Guidelines Council regarding its draft guidelines on theft and burglary from non-dwellings.

Shoplifting, theft, graffiti and vandalism and violence against small businesses and shopkeepers hasten business closures and are leading to the wider decline of our town centres and greater communities. The threat of jail for shoplifters and yobs must remain, but will the Secretary of State work with the Home Secretary to ensure that police forces, including that in Northamptonshire, use the powers that are already available to them to issue fixed penalty notices to offenders aged under 16?

I entirely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about levels of shop theft, burglary and robbery. He will be aware that in Northamptonshire there has, fortunately, been a decline in all those crimes in the past five years, particularly recently, as there has across the country. However, the levels are still too high. In answer to his specific question, yes I will work with the Home Secretary to encourage forces to issue fixed penalty notices to under-16s in appropriate circumstances, because the experience in my area, in Lancashire, is that FPNs work effectively.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments that he will not treat this subject lightly and that there will be stricter sentencing. At least, I hope that that is what he is saying. Currently, small businesses and shopkeepers are suffering attacks, violence and robberies, whereas companies such as Tesco can get protection from Securicor and other security companies. Attacks on small businesses are also attacks on the people who work in them and the customers who use those shops, and simply lead to further closures.

Small shops are a vital part of local communities in urban and rural areas, so we take very seriously the need to ensure that the whole criminal justice system—from the police through to the courts—works effectively. As I have spelled out, we have been encouraging the courts to be tougher, as they have been, on theft from and burglaries of shops and other small businesses as well as large businesses. That is why the number of people sentenced to immediate imprisonment has more than doubled in recent years, and why sentence lengths at Crown court for more serious offences are rising.

Sentencing is extremely important to my constituents. Indeed, they like to read about the sentences that have been given by the local magistrates court, which is why I am disappointed to hear from my local newspaper, The Herts Advertiser, that for the past seven months the St. Albans magistrates court has not been providing the lists of offences to be considered in the court. What offices could the Secretary of State use to encourage the practice of making those lists more public? We have been assured that there is no data protection conflict issue, but the current situation means that local reporters cannot cover those cases and draw attention to the offences that are blighting the community.

I am not surprised that the hon. Lady is concerned about that. If I may, I shall arrange to meet her, perhaps after oral questions, to take down the relevant details and follow the matter up.

Has the Justice Secretary seen early-day motion 1358, tabled in my name and that of other hon. Members, about crime against small businesses? If so, he will know that it praises the campaign of the Federation of Small Businesses, which is extremely concerned that the under-reporting of crime might be leading local police forces to take it less seriously than they should. Given that less than 40 per cent. of crimes against small businesses are reported, what measures will the Secretary of State take to encourage businesses into full reporting? Every crime should be reported.

I have seen the early-day motion to which my hon. Friend draws the House’s attention. It is vital that small businesses report crimes against them; in fairness to the police, they are likely to be aware of crimes only if they are reported. I think that levels of reporting are pretty consistent. The better news is that, across the country, crime against businesses, particularly shops, is going down. However, we need to do more. Along with reporting specific crimes, I encourage small business federations, at a local level, along with larger retailers, to work through community and crime reduction partnerships to ensure that there is more effective policing and that other work is undertaken to reduce crime in their areas.

The Havering chamber of commerce and industry has long been concerned about the level of crimes against Upminster’s many small businesses and it would like to see these statistics recorded separately. Will the Minister agree to record crime against business separately so that its real level can be acknowledged and greater steps can be taken to combat it?

I am very keen on ensuring that the data are not only accurate, but much more specific. I am not passing the buck, but this is the direct responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I will certainly raise the matter with her. Some specific business crimes are separately recorded—for example, robbery of business properties, shoplifting and burglary in other buildings, which in practice refers to businesses. I will certainly follow up the hon. Lady’s point.