HC Deb 21 July 1998 vol 316 cc913-28 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

With permission, Madam Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the comprehensive spending review and the criminal justice system.

May I open by expressing my gratitude to the Liberal Democrats for accommodating this statement on their Opposition day, and say that I am making it not least in response to representations from them?

In our election manifesto, we promised to reform the criminal justice system, to tackle youth crime and to reduce levels of crime and disorder. Therefore, I greatly welcome the outcome of the comprehensive spending review, which has targeted resources where they are most needed to deliver those manifesto commitments. The Home Office will receive an additional £3 billion over the next three years. That money will be invested in modernisation and reform to help us to build the safer, fairer society to which we are committed. Across Government, the comprehensive spending review represents an end to short-term thinking and should allow public services to plan with greater confidence over a longer period.

We need first to improve the performance and management of the criminal justice system overall. We have to provide clear, strategic direction to ensure that the different parts of the system work efficiently and coherently together. Therefore, for the first time, the Government have agreed new over-arching aims for the criminal justice system. They are to reduce crime and the fear of crime, and their social and economic costs; to dispense justice fairly and efficiently; and to promote confidence in the rule of law. Those aims will drive Government policy for the criminal justice system as a whole.

To modernise the services, we shall be establishing joint, strategic planning; improving and integrating services' information technology; and aligning boundaries more closely. I have today placed in the Library a copy of a more detailed statement about those plans.

To oversee those structures, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has asked me to chair a new ministerial group, which will include my right hon. and learned Friends the Lord Chancellor and the Attorney-General and my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

I think that the whole House acknowledges that criminal justice agencies cannot by themselves deliver the safer society that we all want. If we are to make an effective attack on crime and its causes, we need to work in partnership right across Government and beyond. The Crime and Disorder Bill therefore provides for statutory partnerships to analyse local crime problems and then draw up strategies to reduce crime and disorder at a local level.

The new anti-social behaviour order will tackle the problem of criminal anti-social neighbours, who can make life a misery for those who are affected by them. The Crime and Disorder Bill also radically reforms the youth justice system. It establishes new multi-agency youth offending teams, a new police final warning scheme and new court orders. Those will ensure that young offenders make reparation to victims or to the community, and that their parents take greater responsibility for their offending behaviour.

A new national Youth Justice Board is to be established. It will administer a development fund for local programmes, including bail supervision and mentoring. The board will set standards for the youth justice system as a whole.

We will take forward a programme of work to reform the quality and delivery of secure accommodation for sentenced and remanded juveniles. In the short term, that includes work that the Prison Service has in hand to improve the care and quality of regimes for young people who are held in young offender institutions. In the longer term, we aim to provide for greater coherency and efficiency in the delivery of secure accommodation through extending the role of the new Youth Justice Board to include commissioning and purchasing of places. Additional resources are being made available for new secure facilities and to improve the constructive regimes for juveniles when our new detention and training orders come into force next year.

As part of those changes, we will deliver our pledge to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders. When we came to office, we found that, on average, it took 142 days from arrest to sentence—more than 20 weeks or five months, a wholly unacceptable delay. The Lord Chancellor and I have worked hard to persuade the youth courts to introduce fast-track schemes. More than 160 schemes have so far been introduced or are planned; compare that with the fact that just 12 were extant when we took office. We shall use some additional resources to ensure that that pledge is fully delivered within the next two to three years.

In our manifesto, we said that we would be tough on crime and on its causes. Individuals must take responsibility for their criminal behaviour, but we also have to recognise that crime breeds where there is family breakdown and social exclusion. For many years, Governments have concentrated too much on the effects of crime, to the detriment of its causes, but we can make a long-term impact on crime and disorder only by concentrating on both crime and its causes.

Since the 1920s, the underlying rate of crime has risen by about 5 per cent. a year. There have been two periods when it has fallen: one from 1948 to 1953; the other since 1992. The first proved short-lived; the danger is that the second may, too. Increases in crime have, to many, appeared inexorable. "There is nothing you can do," is the claim, "it is a fact of life." The assumption has been that "nothing works"—that nothing could be done to reverse the long-term rise in crime. Indeed, that was the dismal conclusion of Governments both in the 1970s and 1980s. I disagree, and I hope that that disagreement is shared by hon. Members across the House.

Therefore, as part of the comprehensive spending review, I asked the research and statistics department of the Home Office to undertake a thorough investigation of all available national and international evidence to identify "what works" to reduce crime and disorder. Its conclusions are included in a report entitled "Reducing offending", which I am publishing today. Copies are available in the Vote Office.

That report provides concrete research evidence that we can make a difference. It shows that investing resources where it matters can have long-term benefits in reducing offending. It also shows that the most cost-effective strategy for reducing crime has three strands: the promotion of a less criminal society by preventing young people from becoming criminals and by investing in measures that reduce the opportunity for crime; the prevention of crime in the community by acting on the social conditions that sustain crime and by effective policing; and using sentencing policy effectively to change the behaviour of offenders, including, importantly, drug users.

Therefore, I am pleased to announce that the Government will invest £250 million over the next three years on a crime reduction strategy that draws on the findings of that research. This will be the first time that a centrally co-ordinated programme of such magnitude, based on comprehensive research evidence and with in-built evaluation, has been put in place anywhere in the world. As a result, we should be able to make a significant contribution to reducing crime and the number of victims.

That programme will tackle the social causes of crime through long-term investment in children, families and schools. We will target crime prevention measures on crime hotspots and reduce the opportunities for crime. There will be new investment to tackle burglary. We will help the police to target their efforts to reduce the pattern of repeat attacks on the same victims. Where prevention has failed, the prison and probation services will work with offenders to help to cut reoffending rates.

Some of those initiatives, for example those with young children and families, will take up to 10 years to make an impact on crime, but even those programmes will have an earlier impact on the factors that predispose people to later criminality. However, some measures will work quickly—for example, burglary prevention makes a speedy and tangible improvement to people's lives, as the safer cities programme of the previous Administration very well illustrated.

As well as proposals to tackle crime and its causes, the Government will pay more attention to the needs of victims and witnesses, especially those who are vulnerable or intimidated. We will provide extra resources to improve services in the magistrates courts and for the support of victims. The strategy I have described should do much to lessen the impact of crime and the misery it causes.

The comprehensive spending review for the Home Office also makes substantial additional provision for the police, prison and probation services. Currently, the police spend £7 billion a year. We will allocate an extra £1.24 billion over the next three years, to add to that £7 billion. However, this has to be accompanied by improved efficiency, with the savings recycled into front-line policing priorities. The police settlement will therefore include targets for efficiency improvements of 2 per cent. a year. Part of the additional funding for the second and third years will be dependent on the police achieving those targets.

For the Prison Service, the settlement provides an additional £660 million over the next three years. Some of that money will be used for additional prison capacity to meet the pressure of rising numbers of prisoners and to clear the backlog of urgent repair and maintenance. However, prisons will fully protect the public only if they not only incarcerate prisoners securely during their sentence, but reduce reoffending on release of those prisoners. Therefore, we are providing for a significant increase in purposeful activity within prisons in the next three years. There will be more sex offender treatment programmes; extensions of the welfare-to-work pilots in prisons; improvements in education for juveniles and adults; and increases in the number of probation officers providing through-care support.

To meet part of the costs of those initiatives, I am looking to the Prison Service to implement a new efficiency strategy. Every pound saved will go back into the Prison Service to help fund more programmes to reduce reoffending.

For the probation service, there will be an additional £18 million of grant next year instead of the £6 million cut planned by the previous Administration. In total, the settlement gives an extra £127 million to the probation service over the three years. That will enable the service to take up important new responsibilities under the Crime and Disorder Bill, such as extended supervision of sex offenders and involvement in the new youth offending teams.

The probation service, too, will be required to make further improvements in efficiency. That drive will be reinforced by improved joint working between the prison and probation services. We will shortly be publishing a consultation document on our proposals for this improved collaboration between those two important services.

Taken together, the measures that I have announced today will help to bind and strengthen our communities; build a safe, just and tolerant society; and should make Britain a better place in which to live. I commend them to the House.

Sir Norman Fowler (Sutton Coldfield)

We welcome the publication of the Home Office research study, "Reducing offending". Work on that started three years ago, under the Conservative Government. Some of the proposals, such as that on better parenting, are entirely sensible.

We should take all opportunities to reduce and prevent crime. However, as the Home Secretary acknowledged, some of the proposed schemes will not produce results for many years to come. Indeed, we are interested to note that the early pledge at the general election to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders has now become a pledge within the next two to three years. Against a background where the public want action now, I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman a number of brief questions. First, is not it a fact that any strategy for fighting crime depends on strong professional services—a strong probation service, a strong Prison Service and, above all, a strong police service?

Does the Home Secretary therefore stand by the figures in last week's press release from his Department, which show that, for police, there will be only a 0.1 per cent. real-terms spending increase in the first year, 0.3 per cent. in the second year and 1.4 per cent. in the third year? Does he acknowledge that that average of 0.6 per cent. compares very badly with an average annual real-terms increase of 3.4 per cent. over the 18 years of the Conservative Government, and that those increases were additional to any efficiency savings?

The Home Secretary talked about a cash increase for police of £1.2 billion over the next three years. Does he agree that the Government will therefore spend on police £2.6 billion in cash over the whole five-year period 1997–2002? Does he realise that, in the five years 1992–97, the previous Government spent on police almost £4.5 billion extra in cash, again underlining our commitment to the service?

Additionally—using those same cash figures—will the Home Secretary tell the House what cash resources it is planned to devote to political asylum seekers, for whom he has now taken on responsibility? All hon. Members will want to know what the cash cost of those plans will be over the period.

On the vital question of what the money will buy, will the Home Secretary confirm that, in the 18 years of Conservative Governments, police strength increased by over 15,000—or by 14 per cent? Does he realise that many United Kingdom police forces now stand on the verge of reductions in strength? Does he agree that one of the forces facing a fall in manpower is the Metropolitan police, where he still acts as the police authority? Rather than more men and women on the beat, we now face the prospect of fewer on the beat. May I personally tell the Home Secretary that they will not be sensibly replaced by red-coated local authority street patrols?

Is it not true that, however the sums are done or whatever spin is put on the story, the police are not being accorded the same priority as they were by the previous Government? In the next year, that will inevitably harm the public and, above all, harm the war against crime in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman's welcome for publication of the research, some of which, as I acknowledged, is based on the experience of the previous Administration—including the safer cities programme, which we greatly welcomed at the time and which had an important impact. However—on a small detail—the research was commissioned by me as part of the comprehensive spending review and could not have been commissioned by the previous Administration. The previous Administration cut funding for the research and statistics department from £2 million to £800,000—a 60 per cent. cut—so little did they subscribe to the idea of research.

I should now deal with the central charge made by the shadow Home Secretary—the issue of resources to police. However, I should first say that he has exposed further profound confusion—to put it at its best—at the heart of the Conservative leadership. The criticism of the Government's programme offered by each Opposition spokesman shadowing a spending Department has been that more, not less, money should be spent.

Sir Norman Fowler

More police.

Mr. Straw

The right hon. Gentleman says, "More police." The shadow spokesman on schools says, "More teachers", and the shadow Health Secretary says, "More nurses". It is ratcheting up and up. The right hon. Gentleman has just called for an extra £2 billion. Shadow Ministers call for more spending on individual services, but less spending on services overall. The public will not be conned by such a trick. Indeed, only a week ago, the shadow Chancellor said at the Dispatch Box that his overall criticism of the comprehensive spending review was that we could not control public spending and that there ought to be less public spending rather than more.

Sir Norman Fowler

Get on with it.

Mr. Straw

I will get on with it; I will make the charge against the right hon. Gentleman and other Conservative Members of speaking in tongues, of double talk, of saying one thing one day and another the next.

The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield asked me about resources devoted to asylum seekers. He made that error this morning, which I sought to correct. I am only sorry that he did not listen to my correction, which was broadcast on "Today" on Radio 4—shortly after the thought for the day. He was assuming that the money that will be transferred from other Departments to cover support for asylum seekers is included in the £3 billion. That may have been a sleight of hand committed by an Administration of whom he was an adornment, but it is not one to which I am committed. I intend to publish a White Paper on the immigration and asylum system next week, when full details will be disclosed to the House.

The right hon. Member asked me about police strength. Again, he makes an error. He asserted that the amounts of money going into the police had risen inexorably under the previous Administration and that that had therefore led to an inexorable rise in police numbers. He fails to recognise that police numbers fell under the Conservative Administration from 1992. Indeed, despite the previous Administration committing themselves to spending for an extra 5,000 officers, figures for 1 March 1998, the last period for which the previous Administration set the Budget, showed an overall fall in numbers of 200. That included a fall in the Metropolitan police area of 437.

The right hon. Member should take on board the point about efficiency of the police service. Every other public service—not least when he was a Secretary of State—had to undergo efficiency improvements. On the whole, they benefited from doing more for less.

The right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr. Davis), who chairs the Public Accounts Committee, has said that there is a huge variation in the efficiency and effectiveness of the police service and that it is not related to resources. The challenge for us all is to ensure that, from such an important public service as the police, we get the most effective and efficient results, we are able to draw on best practice, and forces improve their efficiency—as the PAC recommended only last week in a very important report on police sickness, and as the Audit Commission recommended.

Such improvements in efficiency and effectiveness, taken together with the £250 million that we are investing in crime reduction strategies, will make the job of the police in tackling crime and disorder far more effective than it was under the Government of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South)

May I welcome the introduction of long-term thinking into the management of the criminal justice system? I particularly welcome the extra resources that are going into the probation service, and I endorse the Home Secretary's point that we must require that the police make better use of existing resources before we consider providing further resources. May I put to him that, in the long term, the best way to reduce offending, particularly among juveniles, is to divert vulnerable juveniles who have not yet offended into constructive activity, rather than having to spend a great deal of money locking some of them up later on when it has all gone wrong?

Although I appreciate that that is a long-term matter and that other Departments will be responsible for part of the strategy as well as his own, that must be the long-term overall aim in reducing juvenile offending.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's endorsement. He speaks from a position of great authority as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee—[HON MEMBERS: "Home Affairs Committee."] I am sorry, the Chairman of the PAC is on my mind, given that he said: There is enormous variation in the performance of police forces". My hon. Friend is Chairman of the Select Committee on Home Affairs, and he was a member of the Committee when it produced an important report recommending regulation of the private security industry. At the Association of Chief Police Officers conference last week, Ian Blair, the chief constable of Surrey, and I talked about the importance of regulating the private security industry to prevent the scandal tolerated by the Opposition of crooks being able to employ other crooks to pursue criminal activities.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The Liberal Democrats welcome much of the Home Secretary's statement, particularly his announcement of research and his confirmation that we are moving away from the "nothing works" agenda. I share his view that the Government can and should do far more to reduce offending and to seek rehabilitation of offenders. We welcome the joint aims for the various criminal justice departments, and we look forward to seeing them all work together in perfect harmony.

Does the Home Secretary agree that the spending that he has announced is simply the bare necessities to keep the prison, probation and police services going? Does he agree that the probation service, which lost 10 per cent. of its staff between 1994 and 1997, has been thrown a lifeline, confirming our view that, under the plans of the previous Government, it would have been unable to fulfil its statutory duties? Does he agree that the police funding settlement will stem the decline in police numbers, which are 150 down since Labour took power, and 700 down since 1992? While the Home Secretary has no direct responsibility for police numbers, will he hazard a guess at whether his settlement will lead to an increase or a further fall?

Will the Home Secretary assure the House that the Prison Service budget will genuinely be spent on better regimes that lead to rehabilitation? What assessment has he made of the increases in prison numbers, which seem likely to soak up money? Will he confirm that police efficiency savings will not be to the detriment of forces that have good sickness and retirement records? If efficiency measures are to be based on sickness and retirement, forces that have appalling records should not get extra cash merely because they bring the figures down to normal while those with good records miss out on extra funding.

Mr. Straw

I thank the hon. Gentleman for welcoming the statement's overall purpose, and I thank his right hon. and hon. Friends for accommodating me while I make the statement.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the new joint aims and our new machinery might achieve perfect harmony. I do not make that claim, but they will produce better co-ordination than exists now. I do not accept that the settlement provides merely the "bare necessities" to keep the services going, but I note that the hon. Gentleman's words run contrary to assertions from the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler).

The probation service's resources have been stripped bare despite an increased work load. A 20 per cent. increase in efficiency has been extracted from the service over the past few years, but it faced a further £8 million cut which would have been impossible to achieve.

The service will still be required to produce efficiencies. We seek—as, to their credit, the previous Government did with education, although they seem unwilling to learn the lesson for criminal justice—to compare the best practice of one force or service with that of another. Then we can say that those forces or services that are lagging behind can follow the best examples. In the police, prison and probation services, some institutions are doing far better on fewer resources. We should learn from that, so that we can put money into helping to reduce offending.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to guess whether the settlement would lead to a reduction in the decline in police numbers that occurred under the previous Administration. I will not make such a guess. Under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994, which was introduced by the previous Government, but which the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield seems to have forgotten, the Home Secretary has no power to set the establishment of the police service. It is a matter for chief constables and police authorities.

As I have said, part of the Prison Service's increase of £660 million will be used to pay for increased prison numbers. I can make available details of the projections for the next four years. We are providing an additional 2,500 places in this financial year.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) made an important point about sickness and retirement. He suggested that we should seek to modify how the police grant operates so that it rewards the efficient and discriminates against the inefficient. We are seeking to do that. It remains to be seen whether we can, but it is certainly my intention.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that my constituents look forward to seeing clear results from his very welcome statement, given the disturbing amount of crime committed by youths, young people and even children in my constituency, including attacks on elderly people in their homes and in the streets? For example, a woman pensioner was attacked by two 13-year-old girls, a 12-year-old boy and a 10-year-old boy who hit her across the back with a piece of wood and on the head with half a brick. Too many such events occur in my constituency. It is no accident that the area concerned is one of the most deprived in my constituency.

We look forward not only to the welcome action to deal with the causes of crime, but, where appropriate, to more punishment, more charges, more charges in place of cautions and to the bringing home to young people, children and their parents that such anti-social behaviour will not be tolerated by a Labour Government.

Mr. Straw

Yes, I can give my right hon. Friend those undertakings. I am grateful for his welcome. One of the extraordinary things about the previous Administration—I am sorry that the Conservatives did not give the statement a full-hearted welcome—was that they were there for 18 years, but allowed the youth justice system to fall into thorough decay. The result was spree offenders offending 30, 40, 50 or, as in Newark, 80 times without being put in secure accommodation, and youngsters being cautioned, cautioned and cautioned again. I am glad that the Opposition now support anti-social behaviour orders. I wish only that they had supported them when we were in opposition and put them forward on a housing Bill. The orders would have been in place to save families from the terrible ravages that they have suffered in recent years.

We intend to introduce a thorough-going reform of the youth justice system, with a clear hierarchy of punishments. We are abandoning the use of endless cautions. There will be a reprimand, a final warning and then clear charges. If punishment in the community does not work, youngsters will be put in custody. Another change that we are introducing is that we are giving the courts the power to remand youngsters in custody, rather than leaving it to directors of social services.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

I hope that the Home Secretary will acknowledge that if he were to ask one of my constituents what they would like for a luxury, whether or not they were on a desert island, they would probably ask for a bobby on the beat, something which, sadly, has become a luxury because of Labour's cuts—[Interruption.]—Labour's savage cuts in Lincolnshire's police budget last year. Will he answer the question that he was asked before: how much money has been transferred to deal with asylum seekers?

Mr. Straw

This is a statement about criminal justice. I will make a statement to the House about asylum and immigration next week, but I am happy to give the hon. Gentleman the figures that he seeks: £350 million in 1999–2000; £300 million in 2000–01; and £250 million in 2001–02. As we are transferring costs from other Departments—some of the sums are in social services and housing budgets—these are provisional figures at present. We are doing what the previous Administration should have done: ending the chaotic system of support for asylum seekers.

As to Lincolnshire's budget, I can only repeat what the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), told the chief constable, Mr. Childs, when he met him recently. Given the recent history of Lincolnshire constabulary, they have a great deal of making up to do in terms of efficiency before they come to us with a begging bowl.

Mr. David Lepper (Brighton, Pavilion)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware of the concern expressed by many of my constituents last year following the release from prison of Robert Oliver and the additional burdens that his release placed on the local probation service, the police and social services. Will my right hon. Friend join me in placing on record thanks for the sensitive way in which those agencies dealt with that situation? Will he also inform the House how, in light of the lessons learned from that and similar cases, that experience has been brought to bear in making resources available to the probation service and other relevant agencies to provide for the future extended supervision of sex offenders following their release from prison?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I pay tribute to all those involved in the probation service, police service, social services and the Prison Service for the sensitive way in which they have dealt with those issues. I put on the record my appreciation of the fact that those difficulties are recognised across the Chamber. I applaud the way in which the hon. Members for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) and for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and my hon. Friend and many others have dealt with such cases in their areas.

As for resources, as I said in my statement, we are allocating an extra £127 million to the probation service. Part of that sum will be used for the early implementation of the sex offender orders. Those orders will attach to sex offenders who were sentenced before 1991 and who presently have no conditions attached to their release, in order to ensure better protection for the public.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

I am very glad that the Home Secretary referred to the chief constable of Surrey, Mr. Ian Blair. He is an outstanding chief constable, but he is wrestling with the problem of taking a savage cut in the provision of resources to the Surrey police last year. Surrey has the most successful record in crime prevention in the country, which is founded on the provision of policing that is largely community based. It will be undermined if there are further cuts in the funding for Surrey's police. Can the Home Secretary offer any hope today to my constituents and to the chief constable of Surrey?

Mr. Straw

I pay tribute to the chief constable of Surrey, who is one of many very impressive chief constables. The savage cut to Surrey's budget last year was a Tory cut. [Interruption.] Well, it was. The budget for 1997–98 was set by the previous Administration and we came to office on 1 May, one month into the financial year. [Interruption.] It is true. The hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) is gaping, as though he fails to recognise the date of the general election. It may have passed him by: he was one of the few Tories for whom it was not wholly traumatic because he won his seat. The 1997–98 financial year came into force on 1 April 1997 and we took office on 1 May, a full 30 days later.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

May I welcome my right hon. Friend's commitment to reducing crime and, particularly, his emphasis on crime prevention? Are any of his initiatives aimed at getting an increasingly young population out of prostitution? Given that many young people go into prostitution in order to fund a drug habit, what initiatives does my right hon. Friend intend to introduce to help drug users kick the habit?

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend raises a serious problem. The first point, on which there will be agreement on both sides of the House, is that we should treat child prostitutes, not as criminals, but as victims of serious and unpleasant criminals; and that only in exceptional circumstances, when they are near adulthood, should they be treated as criminals. My hon. Friend is probably aware that a great deal of effort has been made by the Government and the police to develop ways to deal much more effectively with the problem of child prostitution: for example, West Midlands police carried out pioneering work in the Wolverhampton area. Some of the money of which I have spoken today will be available for dealing with that problem.

In addition, my right hon. Friend the President of the Council, who leads for the Government on drug treatment and overall drugs policy, will be making a statement about the additional resources that we are allocating to be specifically targeted on the major drug problem that this country faces.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

I am sure that the House will have noted the Home Secretary's recognition of the fall in recorded crime achieved since 1992 and welcomed his objective of sustaining the Conservative Government's record in that respect. Does the right hon. Gentleman recognise that, in my county of Cambridgeshire, the increase in the number of police in recent years has been counted as a significant factor in achieving a fall in recorded crime? Notwithstanding that he cannot set establishment figures, will he say whether he regards his statement as consistent with an increase or a decrease in police numbers, and on what assumptions does he base that view? Given the importance, especially in rural areas, of visible policing—the bobbies on the beat to which my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) referred—will he say why he has removed visible policing as a key objective for police forces?

Mr. Straw

As I said, the previous Government learned a hard lesson. Under legislation that they brought before the House and passed, the setting of police numbers was made a matter for police authorities and chief constables alone. The previous Government said that they were providing additional money to pay for more officers—the number varied according to the tune: sometimes it was 5,000 more officers; sometimes it was 2,000—but the reality was that, by the end of the 1992 Government, 200 fewer officers were available. The right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield talks about the previous period, and I want to see more officers wherever possible, but, if we are to have a serious debate about the relationship between the number of police officers and the rise in crime, we must recognise that, during the 1980s, when there was a significant increase in the number of police officers—although not as significant as the 2,000 a year which the Labour Government put in place between 1974 and 1979; it was only 800 a year under the Conservatives—crime rose very much faster.

It is a matter of interest—I put it no more strongly than that—that, during the period when the number of police officers levelled out, crime fell. There are interesting comparisons—[Interruption.] Conservatives Members seek, and sought when they were in government, efficiency improvements in other public services, but they close their eyes to any application of research or science in this area. They should look at the evidence of the Audit Commission, which they established. It looked at the difference in performance between Surrey and Kent constabularies, which cover similar areas, and revealed that, over a certain period, Kent constabulary did significantly better than Surrey constabulary, even though it had lower resources. That is the sort of thing which ought to be taken on board.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many people welcome his commitment of extra resources for vulnerable witnesses? Last night in the House, a number of hon. Members attended a meeting of Voice, an all-party group for people with learning difficulties, and heard of some of the harrowing experiences of people with learning difficulties who have been victims of crime. Their statements were quite horrific and upsetting. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that some of the money being spent on supporting vulnerable witnesses will be used for training of court staff and judges and for examining procedures, so that such people are dealt with sympathetically and to ensure true justice?

Mr. Straw

I give my hon. Friend that assurance and draw her attention to the consultative document on the treatment of vulnerable and intimidated witnesses, which I published about eight weeks ago. It makes many improvements, both in terms of changes to the criminal law and criminal procedure, especially in respect of cross-examination, and in the sort of support with which victims and witnesses ought to be better provided, both in court and outside.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister was crowing about concessions that he had wrung out of the Chancellor of the Exchequer in respect of hypothecation. Has the Home Secretary been equally successful? If so, does that mean that the police will be able to reinvest the fines and penalties that come from speed cameras in more speed cameras?

Mr. Straw

As "Reducing offending" makes clear, changes are being made in the treatment of income from such fines and charges. A significant change has been brought about—a change, that is, from the extraordinarily dogmatic policy followed by the last Administration. I hope to make an announcement in due course, as does my noble and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor, whose responsibility this is.

Mr. Frank Cook (Stockton, North)

Will these measures augment or diminish the stratagem so publicly imported from the United States—the much-vaunted zero tolerance programme?

Mr. Straw

Zero tolerance is a matter for individual police forces. Interestingly, "Reducing offending"— a copy of which is in the Vote Office—discusses the issue, and what the research suggests. It says that there is moderately strong evidence that it can reduce serious crime in the short term", but that there are large question marks over the ability of the police to distinguish between firm and harsh policing styles". It adds that zero-tolerance may offer an attractive short term reduction in crime, but…it must also be evaluated against its long term effects on those arrested, and the communities from which they come. "Zero tolerance" is a phrase which is used differently in different contexts—

Sir Norman Fowler

Including by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Straw

Of course. It is not a particularly scientific term, and I am not sure whether "Reducing offending" uses it in the context in which I would use it. What I am clear about—and the evidence supports this—is that effective police action against small crimes can stop large-scale crime developing. The research evidence for that is striking. It shows—I am happy to concede that the research was carried out under the last Administration—that there is a four times greater chance of people becoming victims of serious crimes of violence in areas of incivility where small crimes are ignored, than in areas of civility.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

For the avoidance of doubt, the grant settlement referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) was the settlement agreed after the general election, for the coming year.

If the record of Lincolnshire police is so wanting, why did the chief inspector of constabulary take particular care to single out for praise Lincolnshire's record in terms of efficiency gains?

Mr. Straw

I should point out that the baseline on which we are working for the current financial year was established by the previous Administration.

Mr. Leigh

The right hon. Gentleman altered it.

Mr. Straw

Yes, I altered it—to provide additional police resources that the last Administration would not have provided.

Mr. Martin Linton (Battersea)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the most important deterrent to crime is not the number of people in prison, but what they do when they are in prison? His statement that every pound saved will go back into education and probation will be enormously welcome in the probation service.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the second most important way of preventing crime is stopping teenagers from getting into trouble in the first place? In that context, his £250 million crime reduction strategy will be a great relief. Can he tell us anything about the mentoring of teenagers in trouble, a scheme pioneered by Crime Concern and the Dalston youth project and, in the United States, by Big Brothers and Sisters? Big Brothers and Sisters has set up a branch in my constituency, which hopes to launch its operations soon.

Mr. Straw

My hon. Friend is right. The kind of regime that prisoners follow is crucially important; otherwise, to quote David—now Lord—Waddington, prison can end up by making bad people worse. My first responsibility is to ensure that there are sufficient places in prisons to meet the demands of the courts, which are entirely independent; but I must then ensure that the regimes are as constructive as possible. That applies not only to education, but to other activities.

My hon. Friend is entirely right to say that catching teenagers before they get into serious trouble is the crucial challenge. It is astonishing how negligent the last Administration were in simply ignoring the whole issue of the youth justice system.

I applaud the provision of mentoring schemes. I have seen the one at Dalston, but not the one in my hon. Friend's constituency. We are planning that the national Youth Justice Board should itself sponsor many more mentoring schemes than are currently under way.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

May I welcome particularly the Home Secretary's comments on work for preventing criminality, which is set out in chapter 2 of "Reducing offending"? In that context, may I press the right hon. Gentleman a little further about the resources that will be allocated to deal with that work? When I raised the matter with him in the House a year ago, it was pointed out that the matter fell rather outside the Home Office's remit. Are we to take it, therefore, that the remit has been changed?

How much of the £250 million will go to working with parents with quite small children to prevent the growth of delinquency, or will another Government Department be doing that? What assurance can the right hon. Gentleman give me and the House on the proportion of the £250 million that will be going to that type of work rather than to issues raised by many hon. Members relating to older offenders or delinquents?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gives. I cannot give him a precise answer today on the amount that will be allocated to specific projects on parenting because we have only just made the allocation, which will come into force from 1 April next year. I will ensure that he is provided with that information as soon as it becomes available to us and can be made public.

The £250 million represents a change in the way in which the Government operate. Quite a substantial proportion of it will be "spent" by other Government Departments. As we learned, not least from the safer cities project, if we want to cut crime we do it by ensuring that effort is made not by one Government Department or one local authority department but across a number of Departments. Quite a number of the programmes that we plan to sponsor will be education based and some will be social services based. Others will be sponsored, for example, by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions because they are to do with the built environment. We are aiming to ensure, and we will ensure, that these programmes are properly co-ordinated, are funded centrally and, critically, are evaluated, so we do not end up in a situation in which we have found ourselves too often in the past under Governments of both parties, where good work is done, is then forgotten and then has to be reinvented.

Ms Beverley Hughes (Stretford and Urmston)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on all the measures that he has announced, but particularly on the research, which is long overdue, and on the extra resources for the probation service, especially as, during the last three years of the previous Government, expenditure on the probation service was cut by about 25 per cent? During that period, the only contribution to criminal justice policy was the slogan "Prison works", with all the consequences of which we are aware.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is vital that some resources are invested in improving the national standards achieved by probation services and in developing much more effective and rigorous alternatives to custody in which the police and sentencers can have confidence?

Mr. Straw

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her welcome of the statement. Some of the resources should be devoted to improving national standards, although, to make a point that I have almost laboured, I draw attention to the fact that some probation services are already delivering a level of national standards within existing resources while others, which may be getting more resources, are doing less well.

My hon. Friend makes a very important point about the need for rigorous alternatives to custody that have the confidence of the police and sentencers. I know that an inquiry is under way by the Home Affairs Committee on this issue, and we look forward to its results. In the Crime and Disorder Bill, there is provision for a drug treatment and testing order, with mandatory and random drug testing. That is an example of the rigorous community punishment that we wish to see.

Mr. Alan Campbell (Tynemouth)

Does my right hon. Friend share the concerns expressed in the recent Public Accounts Committee report on the Metropolitan police? The Committee found that, on a typical day such as today, 1,500 officers will be on sick leave, which means the loss of about 400,000 days each year at a cost to the taxpayer of £122 million. Does my right hon. Friend agree that there must be scope for savings there so that we can secure added resources for front-line services?

Mr. Straw

Yes, I do. I am grateful to the Public Accounts Committee for its report, which the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis takes seriously. It makes the important point that, through better management by police services, we can ensure that there are more front-line officers available, within existing budgets.

Ms Sally Keeble (Northampton, North)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's emphasis on dealing with the fear of crime. What is his response to the many representations made by pensioner groups on the matter, in particular Pensioners Voice in my constituency? What steps might the Government take to deal with the specific concerns of pensioners, who are often kept virtual prisoners in their homes by the fear of what they will find outside their front door?

Mr. Straw

The research looked at a range of good initiatives across the country. I saw a scheme today in Merton, in south London, where the provision of alarms that are worn around the neck by the elderly has transformed the quality of life of people on an estate. I spoke to one of the women who have led the scheme. She said that people now feel safer. I commend the work of the Metropolitan police in that area in helping to get the scheme together. By the investment of a relatively small sum, the quality of life of people there has been transformed.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. We must make progress on the business before us.

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