Clause 134 - Publication of local policing information

Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:30 am on 20th January 2005.

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Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 9:30 am, 20th January 2005

I beg to move amendment No. 197, in clause 134, page 100, line 14, at end insert—

'(1A) Such a report shall include a report on matters relating to the policing of each local authority area within the police authority's area;

(1B) In this section ''local authority'' means—

(a) in relation to England—

(i) a county council,

(ii) a district council,

(iii) a council of a district comprised in an area for which there is no county council,

(iv) a London borough council, or

(v) the Common Council of the City of London;

(b) in relation to Wales, the council of a county or county borough.'.

Photo of Mr Bill O'Brien Mr Bill O'Brien Labour, Normanton

With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 198, in clause 134, page 100, line 15, leave out 'Such a report' and insert

'A report issued under subsection (1A).'. 

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

We are now dealing with the provisions on producing local policing information. The Government's idea in that regard is perfectly proper, and I commend it; it is important that people know how their local police force is performing its duties and have genuine information about what is happening in their area. My difficulty is simply with the terms in which the clause is couched, because it refers to the police authority area, rather than to something to which people can genuinely relate.

Of course, it is of interest to know how one's police force as a whole is operating, but we may be dealing with joint forces, covering more than one county area. I am thinking, in my case, of the Avon and Somerset police and, in the Minister of State's case, of the Greater Manchester police; there are also the Thames Valley police. It is of limited value having an overall view of how such a force is doing if the information is not broken down to show what is happening in the locality in which one lives.

The amendments would bring the local policing summary down to the level of at least the local authority area—the district in which one lives. One could argue that it would be possible to break the summary down in several ways, and the basic command unit might be appropriate, although that is a policing term, rather than a term that the public understand. Similarly, a policing sector is a particular entity in policing terms, but I am not sure that the public always understand it. In the Somerton part of my constituency, for instance, there are always considerable concerns about crime levels. Although I share some of those concerns—certainly those about the level of policing—I also have to explain to people that the Somerton sector actually comprises a very large area and that crime levels in Somerton itself are in fact relatively low. That is just one example, but I am sure that it applies in many other areas.

Similarly, in the London boroughs, knowing what the Metropolitan police are doing as an entity is of limited use; knowing what was happening in the borough in which one lives is of considerable use. Providing such information would not only inform the public, but enable elected members of local authorities properly to question police commanders in their area about their performance and priorities. Of course, that would also build on the policing partnerships and other provisions that the Government have already put in place.

I think that good police authorities will want to do what I envisage; they will want to break down information so that it is relevant to local people. However, that is not required by statute, and I very much want that to happen. I have argued, and shall continue to argue, that the whole structure of policing should be more localised—not in terms of breaking down force areas, but in terms of making policing relate much more closely to local communities. Indeed, I would change police funding to reflect that, so that local authorities, district councils or borough councils had a direct relationship with policing in their areas and could negotiate a guaranteed level of policing, with people paying towards its funding.

Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Minister of State (Home Office) (Policing, Security and Community Safety), Member, Labour Party National Executive Committee

The hon. Gentleman knows that our views on the matter are very similar, and I am sympathetic to his amendment. Inevitably, however, I shall resist it, because although I believe that information should be provided, even below local authority level, people are most interested in the crime levels in their neighbourhood and what is happening on the few streets where they live, and what things are like when they walk out at night and take their children to the park and when they catch the bus to work. They also want to know how to contact their local police officers; we talked, for example, about beat officers making their mobile phone numbers available. All that is now happening and is part of our drive towards better and more responsive neighbourhood policing, but the duty in the clause is on the police authority. We certainly intend in our guidance to encourage the police to provide information at the lowest possible level, because that is how one secures real engagement with the community.

The hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) knows that it is particular passion of mine to try to engage local people in their own services. A key part of that engagement is information. As well as needing to know who their police officers are, people need information about performance and how their police are performing in comparison with other police services so that they can help to drive the improvements in their area. The Association of Police Authorities is very keen to provide that information, but has asked us not to be too prescriptive. I believe that to be right, because there will be a whole range of ways in which that information can be provided to local communities, which we want to encourage the police to use.

We will set minimum standards, which authorities can obviously exceed if they choose to do so. Liverpool authorities, for example, have divided their areas into particular beat districts, and each member of the public receives a card with details of their local commander and how they can get hold of their beat officers, which has dramatically improved public confidence in and satisfaction with the services that are available.

This is an important clause, and I do not agree with the amendment. Local authority boundaries are not necessarily coterminous with basic command units. Coterminosity is a problem that bedevils us, so   conferring a duty on police authorities to implement it at crime and disorder reduction partnership and neighbourhood level, which will be increasingly important in the policing landscape of the future, is an appropriate way to proceed.

There is very little difference between my argument and the hon. Gentleman's, and I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of David Heath David Heath Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am extremely grateful for the Minister's reply. We obviously do not disagree at all.

I specified district council or borough council because of the requirement under subsection (4)(b) for the local policing summary to be sent out with the council tax demand. That is how I interpret it. Although it can also be sent out in other ways, the implication is that an appropriate way of issuing the summary is to include it in the bundle that accompanies one's council tax demand. That, of course, is the collecting authority's responsibility. In purely logistic terms, I suspect that many police authorities will not want to send out several different versions to different people within a district council's area because of the nightmare of postcoding and so on. The whole thing becomes too complex to be entirely manageable.

Provided that the guidance is issued—we have the Minister's assurance, which she was more than happy to give—and given that we agree, it would be perverse to press the amendment to a vote. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 134 ordered to stand part of the Bill.