Crime and Policing
Opposition Day — [4th Allotted Day]
Keith Vaz (Leicester East, Labour)
It is always a pleasure to follow Tom Brake, who for a long time was a member of the Select Committee on Home Affairs. I congratulate him on his recent appointment as the Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs.
It would be unfair to talk about the Government's record on crime and policing, as they have been in office for only 16 weeks. Quite rightly, therefore, the debate so far has been focused on their reform programme. It is an ambitious programme-I know it, and so do members of my Committee, some of whom are in their places, such as Mr Burley and my hon. Friend Steve McCabe. At every single meeting of the Committee so far, there has been discussion about how on earth we will respond to the Government's crowded agenda on crime, policing and other Home Office issues.
I should like to begin by welcoming some very important policies that the Government have initiated, because they are all recommendations of the Home Affairs Committee of the previous Parliament. The establishment of the National Security Council, the work on alcohol related crime, the announcement today of the extradition law review, even though we have not yet had a decision on Gary McKinnon, what the Government are suggesting on reducing bureaucracy, the decision to implement the law on wheel-clamping, which the Committee has been on about for the past five years, and the proposals on a fast-track means of banning legal highs are all welcome moves by the Government because, of course, the Committee recommended them in the previous Parliament.
My concern is that the good intentions will be put at risk by the comprehensive spending review. The Government will have serious problems with police numbers. I accept that the law and order and policing debate should not be around numbers, although every Member of Parliament has always told their constituents that they want to see more bobbies on the beat. In exchanges with me and others, the Police Minister has said-indeed, he told the Committee this-that he does not believe that there will be a reduction in front-line policing as a result of proposals in the CSR, but I do not believe that that is possible.
On Monday, at the invitation of another member of the Committee, Mark Reckless, I went to Medway, where I spoke to the chief constable about his statement last Friday, in which he said that if the Government's proposals to cut expenditure by 20% go through, he will see a reduction of £35 million in his budget, which would mean the loss of 1,500 police officers. That is a huge number for a county such as Kent. Therefore, although the Minister feels that he cannot be specific on numbers and the effect that the CSR will have on local police forces, the fact is that it will impact on each and every Member of the House. Will he seek at the earliest opportunity to give an indication to local police forces of how much the cuts will be, because at the moment, an enormous amount of senior police officers' time is spent trying to guess what the percentage will be? The earlier they get a response from the Government, the better. Even a broad indication of the proposals would be extremely helpful to them.
I listened to the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase, who is absolutely right that the reduction of bureaucracy and the saving of money is a crucial part of our view of policing, but the previous Government started us along that route. Perhaps they did so later than anticipated, but as the Minister may find out, Ministers cannot do everything immediately-things take time. The previous Government initiated the Flanagan review, and Jan Berry was appointed by Jacqui Smith, the previous Home Secretary, who has done some valuable work on the reduction of bureaucracy. We all have an interest in ensuring that police officers are back on the beat and that they provide front-line services rather than waste their time on unnecessary bureaucracy. That is why the Government should give a commitment to keep Jan Berry in post after she delivers her final report in July. It is important that someone who knows about policing acts as an external force, because such a person can deal with the vested interests that try to prevent real change.
However, the Government should also give special attention to good practice. When I was in Kent on Monday, I saw that the local police were doing some excellent work on the reduction of street prostitution and on offender management. When I went to the constituency of my hon. Friend Bridget Phillipson, I saw effective engagement by the police with local people-the essence of community policing is the ability to engage with local people. It is important that such good practice is shared as quickly as possible.
I remember a visit to Burton I made a year ago with the then MP for the area. Staffordshire police had done good work in reducing paperwork from 24 sheets of paper to one, but that good practice has still not been rolled out by the Home Office to other areas of the country, and that would save a great deal of time.
I shall not go into the issue of procurement now, but I am sure that the Minister knows what I mean. Kent police have bought Skodas, but the next-door forces in Sussex and Surrey have bought different makes of car. We cannot have 43 police authorities all buying different vehicles. Procurement is vital. Indeed, it is a no-brainer and I do not know why it has not been done in the last 20 years, let alone the last 13. Successive Governments have failed to get the procurement policies right, but it is time to break down the vested interests and give some clear direction.
The big change will be in the landscape of policing, including in effect the abolition of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the National Policing Improvement Agency, and the creation of the national crime agency. This is a great opportunity to change the landscape of policing. For the first time, one can achieve policing on a national level with specialist interests. This is an opportunity for the Government to pause and hear the advice of stakeholders before they rush in and create a new organisation. The danger in abolishing existing organisations-which have budgets of £470 million and £430 million, almost £900 million-without thinking carefully is ending up with the problem that the NHS has of almost constant reorganisation. I ask the Minister to pause and ensure that he thinks very carefully before coming to his final conclusions.
Because the Government's agenda is so large, the Select Committee has decided to put together the proposals in a major stakeholder meeting to be held in the constituency of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase. I hope that the Minister will accept the invitation to attend that meeting, because we seek to bring together the 43 chief constables and other stakeholders to discuss all the issues that are before Parliament and the public. So everybody will have the opportunity to have their say and consult the stakeholders carefully before the Select Committee embarks on the four policing reports that we will undertake. We have decided not to have one big policing report, because that would take too long and we want to keep up with the Government's suggestions.
We need to engage with local communities and stakeholders, and actually ask local people what they want. Politicians can discuss structures until the cows come home, but the issue comes down to the ability of the public to pick up a telephone and call a police officer if a crime has been committed or to see a police officer on the beat. That is what policing is all about, and if the Government engage with Parliament and we do this- as far as possible-on the basis of consensus, we can make a lasting change to our policing structure.