Policing in England and Wales has always depended for its effectiveness on policing by consent, which in turn has required a high level of discretion within relevant guidelines—not least in regard to arrest, charge and other disposals—to be exercised by police officers and prosecutors. Out-of-court-disposals are, therefore, as old as policing itself. What we have done is ensure that their operation is transparent, consistent and proportionate. While, under us, crime has been falling year by year—by 39 per cent. over 12 years—the level of convictions by courts has been broadly stable.
I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, but the problem is that if, for example, someone parks their car in the wrong place for 10 minutes, they can get a fixed penalty of £120. Does the Secretary of State not understand that my constituents, along with people all over the country, believe that theft and criminal damage, which are often dealt with by a fixed penalty of £80, are far more serious offences? What will he do to restore public confidence that the punishment fits the crime?
I accept the basis of the hon. Gentleman’s question; parking offences are a nuisance, but the two other offences he mentions are, of course, more serious. As I have said to his party colleague, the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), I am looking at whether penalty notices for disorder involving dishonesty—the only one directly is that of shop theft—should continue to be subject to PNDs or should be subject to normal court process.
Fifty-seven per cent. of serious offenders in Dyfed-Powys escape prosecution and are cautioned. That is compared with an all-Wales average of 36 per cent. and a rate of 22 per cent. in the North Wales police area, which is the local police force of one of the Department’s Ministers. When figures vary so much across police force areas, are they audited by the Department to see whether they comply with any guidelines that are issued for the cautioning of serious offenders?
I have sat in this House for almost 30 years listening to lectures from Liberals and then Liberal Democrats about localism and the need for local areas to decide things for themselves without some central state direction, but now the hon. Gentleman wants a national dirigiste formula to be applied to Dyfed-Powys in the same way as anywhere else, without any local discretion whatever. He therefore needs to think again about the philosophical base of the party that he claims to represent. The other point I would make to him is this: overall, the reoffending rate in respect of reprimands stands at 28 per cent., which is significantly lower than that for those who receive a disposal order or those referred to custody. Reprimands can therefore play an important part in ensuring that offending is nipped in the bud, provided, of course, that the offence is not sufficiently serious to warrant a prosecution straight away.