Opposition Day Debate on Crime and Policing

Nick closes an Opposition Day Debate on Crime and Policing

The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice (Nick Herbert): Let us start with what is agreed on both sides of the House. We agree about the importance of tackling crime. Hon. Members of all parties have spoken about the importance of dealing with crime in their constituencies and of making their communities safe. We also agree about the importance of the police in tackling crime and the need to support them. We should all join in thanking the police for the work they do.

Beyond that, however, agreement ended, and we heard two kinds of speeches, reflecting the divide in today's politics-the divide between this coalition Government and the Opposition who are stuck in the past. It is a divide between the realists and the reformers on this side and the deficit deniers and big spenders on the other side. Government Members understand the importance of, and the responsibility to deal with, the deficit. We understand the importance of organisations, whether they be in the private or the public sector, spending their resources wisely.

We heard good speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Cannock Chase (Mr Burley) and for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), reminding us that it is not just the number of police officers, but what they do, that matters. How available are they to the public? We should all be sobered by the report of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, issued just a few weeks ago, telling us that only 11% of the police-about a 10th-are visibly available to the public at any one time. We should ask ourselves the question why. Why is there not greater efficiency in our police service; can the money be spent more wisely? The report also said that higher spending forces are not necessarily better than other forces and it proposed savings by greater use of civilian staff-some forces are doing that; others are not. As the Chairman of the Select Committee recommended, we need better procurement; we also need more effective collaboration and more back-office savings.

Hazel Blears: The HMIC figure of 11% of officers being available on patrol has been much discussed today. What is the right hon. Gentleman's target over the next 12 months? What does he think he can deliver when it comes to having more officers on patrol?

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Lady has not understood the new world, has she? We want to move beyond targets. We do not believe that public services are improved by the targets of which she was so fond.

That issue was reflected in the second group of speeches, which called for more spending. Never mind that we spend £14 billion a year on the police-50% more over the lifetime of the last Government. These speeches-not least the right hon. Lady's-called for more authoritarianism. Never mind about civil liberties: to hell with those, and who cares about the deficit? That was the substance of the shadow Home Secretary's case.

Toby Perkins: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: No, I will not.

The shadow Home Secretary said that we should not cut, that we should not make any savings in respect of the police and that we should protect the police, but take no action to protect civil liberties or reform police accountability. That was his contention. Let us deal with those matters in turn.

In his winding-up speech, the right hon. Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) said that the Opposition would have maintained resources for policing, while the Opposition motion says that the previous Government would have maintained core funding. Yet, on 20 July, on "The Daily Politics" in a debate with me, the shadow Home Secretary said that his Government would have cut by "£1 billion a year"-a cut of 12%. There was the admission that they would have cut spending. Now, however, they say that they would have maintained resources. They do not know what they would have done, but we know what they would have done.

Mr Hanson: Will the Minister give way?

Nick Herbert: No.

Just a few weeks ago, we know that Labour Members voted against a reduction in police spending, which this Government had to make in order to deal with the deficit. That reduction was by 1.5%, but Labour Members voted against it.

Mr Hanson rose -

Nick Herbert: No.

How, then, can we take seriously the shadow Home Secretary's contention that he would have cut by £1 billion? The truth is, as we know, that the Government who left office bequeathed to the country £44 billion worth of unspecified spending cuts. Those were cuts that they were going to make. They would not say how, but we know that they were in the order of 20%.

Alan Johnson: I thank the Minister for giving way. It will give him a chance to get his breath back.

I have said this consistently, and I will say it again very slowly. We set out in the November White Paper, the pre-Budget report, the Budget and other public documents savings of £1.3 billion over the next four years. That is about 12% of the Home Office budget. The HMIC report, to which the Minister referred, said that with a lot of effort it was possible to save 12% without affecting front-line services. That is the argument.

Nick Herbert: The right hon. Gentleman says that he would have protected police spending. So which budget would he have cut more deeply? Would it have been health? Would it have been defence? Of course Labour Members will not tell us, but we do know that HMIC has said that £1 billion a year-12% of the budget- could have been saved through better and wiser spending. We will not know the availability of resources until the outcome of the spending review on 20 October, but we are determined to protect front-line services.

When he was Home Secretary, the right hon. Gentleman would not guarantee police numbers. Perhaps that is not surprising, because we know that police numbers across the country were starting to fall on his watch. He knew that he could not guarantee the funding, and he knew what was around the corner.

The second part of the shadow Home Secretary's contention was that we should make no attempt to protect civil liberties. His entire attack was based on what we planned to do in relation to the restoration of those liberties. The Labour party's position is straightforward: the DNA that is taken from innocent people should be retained. The shadow Home Secretary based that on the argument that crimes would be solved, so why should he stop there? If the end justifies the means, why not take DNA from everyone? If the Labour party is suggesting that all people are potential criminals, they should believe that that would deal with crime. In fact, the end does not justify the means. Labour, the party that proposed 90 days' detention without trial, still does not understand that if we undermine liberty and erode public confidence in law enforcement-if we take away freedom-we do not make people safer at all.

The third part of the right hon. Gentleman's contention was that we should not accept the need for reform of policing. The Government believe that we must replace the bureaucratic accountability and top-down targets of which the last Government were so fond with democratic accountability, rebuild the bridge between the police and the public and reduce Home Office interference, so that we can give local people a real say over policing in their areas.

Labour Members raised various spectres. The hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) spoke of the risk of politicians being in charge of police forces. Who else should be in charge of police forces, other than elected people? Police forces must answer to someone, and I suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it might be right and proper for them to answer to democratically elected people. The shadow Home Secretary raised the spectre of extremism. That is a constant cry from the Labour party. The British national party won just 2% of the vote in the last election, but it suits Labour's argument to suggest that extremists will be elected. We on this side of the House say, "Let us trust the people when it comes to who will be elected to these positions." The people will decide who should represent them and hold the police to account.

We are determined that local authorities will still have a role on police and crime panels, and are determined to press ahead with this reform. The shadow Home Secretary said that the reform simply was not necessary. Why? Why, in 2003, did the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett), propose directly elected police authorities? "For many people", the Labour Government said then,

"the question of who is responsible for what in terms of keeping communities safe is simply unclear. We must rectify this. Strong, transparent accountability is vital for community confidence."

In 2008 the Labour Government made the same proposal for introducing a form of direct elections into the governance of policing. The then Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, said:

"We are...committed to introducing a stronger link between those responsible for delivering policing and the public they serve. We will legislate to reform police authorities, making them more democratic and more effective in responding to the needs of the local community."

Do Opposition Members think these arguments have changed? If they were right in 2003 and 2008, why are they not right now? Indeed, the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Alan Johnson) simultaneously said we should reject further restructuring-his motion says that-and proposed a third reform. He suggested just a few hours ago at the Dispatch Box that we should have directly elected police authority chairs. I say to the right hon. Gentleman, "Three strikes and you're out. You've reneged on your promise to reform police authorities twice; why should we believe your latest back-of-the-envelope proposal to do it again?"

We, however, are determined to drive forward with our programme of reform, and it is reform that does not end at the greater accountability of local police forces. It includes measures to deal with serious and organised crime, the creation of a national crime agency, and placing police forces under strong duties to collaborate so they can cut costs and tackle crimes that cross force borders. It also includes a serious programme to tackle bureaucracy and to give the public more information through crime mapping and information about crime that is really happening in their streets-not statistics, which, frankly, the public no longer believe. It includes, too, proposals to reform the pay and conditions of police officers, and we start from the position, as we do across the public services, that we trust the professionals. That is why we want to return charging decisions to police officers, as was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry) and for South Swindon (Mr Buckland).

The reforms move beyond policing, too. There are reforms of the licensing laws to deal with the problem of 24-hour drinking and reforms to the toolkit of antisocial behaviour measures to ensure the police and local authorities have the ability to deal with that problem.

We do not accept the right hon. Gentleman's rose-tinted view of the years of the last Government. We do not accept what he described as the "glorious year of Johnson".

Where did that glorious year end up? It ended up with 10,000 incidents of antisocial behaviour every day, 100 serious knife crimes every day, 26,000 victims of crime every day and 1 million victims of violent crime a year. That is not a glorious record. Five million to 10 million crimes a year is not a glorious record; that is not a record about which the Labour party should be remotely complacent, yet Labour Members rise from the Opposition Benches and suggest nothing more needs to be done to deal with crime other than the ineffective remedies they proposed before.

What did the Labour Government spend their time doing? They spent it wasting money by amalgamating forces, creating bureaucracy with reams of guidance, introducing a policing pledge and spending £6 million a year on doing so, and, of course, creating new laws: 50 Acts of Parliament and 3,000 new offences, and not just offences that would help deal with crime. After all, did these offences make people safer? No, they did not. With their new laws, the Labour Government introduced 24-hour drinking and the so-called café culture, and they downgraded cannabis. They also released 80,000 offenders early under their end-of-custody licence scheme, which, of course, they scrapped just before the election was called. Above all, they spent and wasted industrial sums. They are in double denial: they created the deficit and they are failing to deal with it. We say that we cannot go on like this, spending more than three times the entire budget of the criminal justice system-that of the police, courts and probation service-on debt interest every year. We are determined to deal with the deficit and it is our responsibility to do so. That is the difference between the two sides-we are driving radical reform and they are stuck in the past.

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8 September 2010

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