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29 Jan 2003 : Column 315WH—continued

Policing (Cornwall)

3.30 pm

Andrew George (St. Ives): I am delighted to have secured this important debate on local policing for my constituents and those of other hon. Members in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

I emphasise first my strong support for the work of the police in Cornwall in particular. I keep in close contact with the district commanders on my patch and with the chief constable—we now have a new one—because policing is a matter of concern to many of my constituents. I regularly visit local police stations to discuss issues of local concern and I join police from the local constabulary on night patrols and other occasions to see their work at first hand. I am grateful to the local constabulary for enabling me to do that.

The purpose of the debate is to raise a number of policing matters that concern my constituents. I was advised by the Table Office—I am sure correctly—that many policing matters are the responsibility of the constabulary rather than the Home Office, which is why I specifically requested a debate on Home Office responsibilities for policing in Cornwall. I am sure that the Minister, in replying to my questions, will know far better than I do where the constabulary's responsibilities end and the Home Office's begin, and will advise me on that.

I have informed the Minister's office of the three issues that I intend to raise in the debate: the first is the clarity needed when defining an offence, particularly with regard to replica guns, knives, extending police batons and so on; the second is how to contact the police if one fears that an offence has taken place or is likely to take place; and the third is how the police can fund their response—in other words, their budget.

What is an offence? I want to reflect the deeply felt and widely expressed public concern about a shop that recently opened in Penzance. Two weeks after it opened there was a peaceful protest outside its front door, and on an extremely wet Saturday afternoon in December, one of my constituents, Mrs. Lucy Duveston, collected more than 700 signatures. I have the petition here and will happily give it to the Minister after the debate. It expresses the deep concern felt by local people about the laws relating to the sale of replica guns, knives, police-style extending batons and drugs paraphernalia, which are now being sold openly on the high street in Penzance. The petition calls into question where the boundaries of the law lie and whether it is being made to look an ass in this respect.

I asked the local constabulary for a briefing, and before Christmas a local police constable, PC John Fahy, provided me with a briefing on the situation. I wrote to the Home Secretary seeking further clarification. Although I appreciate that the matter raises many complex issues, I look forward to receiving a response in due course. I have also had a further meeting with the chief inspector, Mike Fowkes, the district commander for Penwith and the Isles of Scilly, at which I raised these issues. The local constabulary needs to know when the police can act and whether the regulations can be tightened to make it clear where they can intervene.

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The kind of baton being sold at the shop is one that is extended by being simply flicked out, in the same way as a police baton. I understand that if a baton is extended by means of a button, spring or other mechanical device, it is illegal to sell it. As the local police have pointed out to me, it does not matter how the baton is extended—the fact that it can be extended and that it is a potentially lethal weapon is a matter of deep concern. There is another aspect of the law that needs to be considered. Once the baton is out on the street, it is an offensive weapon no matter how it is opened. Why allow it to be sold in the first place? There is no good reason. Why would someone want to have it?

There is also an issue with knives. The shop sells a large selection of knives and swords, many of which have very long blades and some of which can be concealed on a person in the street. They can be sold quite legally because the shop does not suggest that they are fighting knives or suitable for combat in any way. The fact that they are not sold as combat knives means that they can be sold to a person in a shop. As I understand it, the law relating to carrying offensive or dangerous weapons acknowledges that there are reasons why someone might be carrying knives and swords publicly. For example, one can do so if one is a chef or for ceremonial and national costume purposes. Apart from such instances, it is an offence to carry such weapons. Again, why sell the weapons if there is no good reason to have them? One cannot use them publicly, other than for ceremonial or other specified purposes. Clarification on that would be helpful.

I understand that the issue of replica guns was raised in the debate on gun control this morning. In the shop in question, many of the replica guns for sale are so close to the originals that even experts cannot tell the difference. Local policemen have made the point that a toy should be made to look like a toy and that the police should be empowered to seize anything that looks like a real weapon. There are serious issues here, and I am sure that the Minister takes that on board.

On drugs paraphernalia, it is argued that section 9 of the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971 is out of date and that it is perfectly reasonable to come to a conclusion that eight-inch cigarette papers, huge rolling machines, sets of scales, mouthpieces, bongs and various other paraphernalia, all carrying a cannabis leaf design, will be used to prepare and smoke drugs, rather than tobacco. Those things are openly on sale in the local shop and many of my constituents are very concerned about that. It would be extremely helpful to have some clarity in relation to that area of the law. Do the Minister and his Department propose to review such matters and tighten up the law on the sale of such items?

I will move on to the issue of how the police can be contacted when there is a suspected offence, but it is not an emergency. As the Minister knows, I am raising the issue of the non-emergency police phone number, which is 0870 577 7444. Many of my constituents, local authorities, parish councils and neighbourhood watch groups have complained about the system. Many responsible citizens who fulfil their public duty to the community by reporting matters to the police are deeply frustrated by their experiences.

Mr. Anton Barkhuysen from Stithians, which is just outside my constituency, sent me a copy of a letter relating to a recent incident. His letter says:

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I am afraid that that is the experience of many of my constituents. Waiting times are unacceptably long. The police are aware of that—they have accepted the criticisms and have attempted to reduce waiting times. However, the latest figures that the constabulary gave me in November—for September 2002—show that, of those calls that the switchboard answered and put through to the call-handling centre for inquiries, 46,328 were connected. Of those, 34,139 held on until their calls were answered. However, almost a quarter of those who phone are unable to get through or simply give up because of the expense.

The issue is about long waits and people simply not wanting to hang on because they feel uncertain. They have no confidence in the system and are concerned about the cost. As I understand it—and I recently sought clarification from the constabulary on this—the police can make a small profit by using an 0870 number—chatlines use the same system—so a call not only costs people money, but additional money goes to the constabulary. Indeed, it profits the constabulary to keep people waiting.

That is not a satisfactory system. I understand that the Minister's Department is looking at a national call number, which is to be piloted from April 2003. Although the constabulary is aware of the problems with its call-handling system, which severely dents local people's confidence, it would be helpful if the Minister set out the timetable for the roll-out of the national number. The constabulary might go to great lengths to improve or change its system at great expense only to find out that there is a national number, so some co-ordination would be helpful.

Once a person has decided that an offence has taken place and has managed to get through to the police, the police must be able to respond. There was a great deal of trumpeting at the proposed settlement for the local constabularies at the end of last year. However, the police have additional costs that perhaps the Home Office does not fully appreciate.

In the far west of Cornwall, it is quite clear that if the constabulary is providing an emergency service and there is a severe emergency, it cannot call on support from the north, west or south, because all there is is sea. The cost of ensuring that the panoply of services is available to respond to serious issues in a place such as the far west of a long peninsula in a constituency such as mine will be an additional cost that other constabularies do not have to meet.

The proposed settlement is due to be confirmed on 3 February. I urge the Minister to review whether the settlement is adequate for the constabulary of Devon and Cornwall. Government funding represents a 3 per cent. increase, which is equivalent to £4.7 million. However, that leaves a considerable shortfall when

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compared with the unavoidable increase in costs, which the chief constable has told me is £4.2 million for police reform impact. Inflation costs are £5.7 million and national insurance increases amount to £1.2 million. Those and other costs can be funded only by a significant increase in council tax. That excludes funding for additional police officers over and above the crime fighting fund allocation. The police authority has set an aspirational target of 3,500 officers by 2006, but that would require a further £2.6 million in 2003–04, making a total additional cost for the next financial year of £13.7 million, compared with the proposed increase of £4.7 million.

At this stage, it is obligatory to brandish a copy of the Western Morning News. The Minister will notice that it points out that the police authority estimates the increased cost of local tax payers' contribution to the local constabulary at between 30 per cent. and 40 per cent. Clearly, the question that Maria Wallis, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, is asking is, having broken the figure down to a weekly rate, are people prepared to make that additional contribution in the future?

We want people to support their police. However, in his response, the Minister must recognise that, in low-wage areas, the Government have obligations. Although many of the improvements are welcome, if they impose additional costs on constabularies, those should be reflected in the announcement of funding support on 3 February.

3.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth) : I thank the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) for securing this debate and for his obvious involvement with and support for his local police force. I am sure that that is appreciated by his constituents and by the police themselves. They need to see that politicians support their work on behalf of the communities that they seek to protect.

I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's comments about problems relating to call handling within the Devon and Cornwall constabulary. It is encouraging that in the past three months the force has achieved its 90 per cent. target for handling 999 calls within the required response time. The number of non-emergency calls answered by the switchboard has also increased over the past couple of months. The force has achieved a target of answering 90 per cent. of those calls within 30 seconds.

I agree, however, that waiting times after the switchboard has received the call remain unacceptable, and I fully understand why the management of call handling within the force has caused concern to some members of the local community, the police authority and the command team. I am confident that the establishment of the call management and communications department will improve performance. The hon. Gentleman may know that a review of the supervisory structure within Devon and Cornwall's control rooms is being completed. I hope that it will ensure that the resources allocated are used efficiently and that real improvements to the services offered in that area will result.

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We must ensure that the police service is properly funded. It will remain a top priority for the Government. The settlement announced for 2003-04 continues that commitment and builds on substantial investment over the past three years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Devon and Cornwall constabulary has been provisionally allocated £164.4 million in general grant for 2003–04—an increase of £4.7 million. All police authorities were guaranteed at least that level of increase. The force also benefits from continued funding from the crime fighting fund of £6.37 million, and £3.13 million goes to Cornwall from the rural policing fund. That is 10 per cent. of the overall pot, so it is not true that we do not recognise or try to address some of the problems that sparsity and geography impose on the police service. Continuing the £30 million allocation for rural policing through the rural policing fund demonstrates our commitment to addressing those issues properly.

Specific initiatives also provide funding for Devon and Cornwall, including £390,000 towards the cost of Airwave. Forces have been invited to bid for further funding for community support officers, and funding has been provided for this year. The force has also been invited to pilot the detention powers for CSOs. We await a reply as to whether we shall receive a bid for CSOs for future years.

Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell): The increases in the past two or three years have been very welcome, and police numbers, as I am sure the Minister will point out, have finally reached record levels. However, the chief constable is specifically warning that this year's increase of £4.7 million is substantially short of the amount that she needs to find for the nationally agreed pay rise and national insurance and pension costs. Short of people in this low-wage area being asked to pay even more on their council tax bill, above the amounts that the Government have allowed for, she will have to cut police numbers.

Will the Minister at least accept that there is a financial problem this year, in that there is a difference between the amounts needed to meet the nationally agreed pay rise and so on, and the amounts that Cornwall is receiving?

Mr. Ainsworth : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman at least acknowledges that there is an agreement at national level as to the necessary funding for the enhancements and the introduction of the police reform agenda. A funding level has also been agreed through the machinery of the police negotiating board.

A legitimate debate is taking place in Devon and Cornwall about what level of precept there should be. Currently, because of the priorities in the area and decisions that have been taken locally, Devon and Cornwall's precept is 13 per cent. below the national average for shire areas. The new chief constable has obviously triggered that debate. Whether or not the local community wants that to be changed or the force should be given an opportunity to increase the precept, I hope that the Liberal Democrat party and Members locally consider that there must be a local element to

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such decisions. They cannot all be taken at national level and imposed on local areas. The level of precept is not a matter for the Home Office, as the hon. Gentleman recognises.

Quite rightly, the discussion is taking place in the locality. Do we want to continue, because of the specific problems, with a below average precept for policing in Devon and Cornwall, or is there an argument for a substantial increase up to the national average or even beyond?

Andrew George : Irrespective of whether the precept should be set at the average level, or above or below it, the fact is that it would be helpful for the Minister to state clearly whether he believes that it is the responsibility of Government at least to attempt to fund those elements in the police budget that are the result of Government decisions. I am referring to increases in salaries and pensions, and other improvements in standards that are Government-driven, not locally driven.

Mr. Ainsworth : Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we place outside each area the machinery that has been established to decide what funding level is necessary to pay for all those initiatives and improvements that we want to see? He accepted that there is machinery through the police negotiating board, and that a level of funding has been agreed. There ought to be a residual debate about what level of precept should be set for the people of Devon and Cornwall. I do not fully understand what he is saying. Is he saying that, quite separately from that discussion, additional payments ought to be made to areas, and that those nationally agreed systems of setting funding should be abandoned? [Interruption.] He seems to be indicating that he does not agree with that. He must articulate exactly what he is asking for. If he or his party wants to make some suggestions as to how the methodology can be changed, we shall be more than happy to listen. However, we cannot have hon. Members making demands for an area that are completely outwith what they then agree ought to be a national framework for taking such decisions. The hon. Gentleman needs to come clean about what exactly his position is.

The force will also receive a share of both the £50 million pot for basic command unit funding and the £38 million pot for the special priority payments element of the PNB agreement.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned our serious concerns about the sale and use of imitation weapons, airguns, real guns, and other items. We have recently made announcements about discouraging people from carrying illegal weapons. The Home Secretary has announced the introduction of a minimum sentence of five years for those who carry illegal weapons in a public place. That will be enshrined in legislation as soon as possible. We intend to give the police the power to challenge people on whether they have a reasonable or lawful excuse for carrying either air weapons or imitation weapons, and where appropriate to arrest people and confiscate those weapons.

We have not gone down the road of a total ban on imitation weapons—there is a constant debate on that in the House—because of problems of definition. I am

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more than happy to continue considering that issue, but unless there is a legal definition that bans imitation weapons of the type that the hon. Gentleman talked about but does not impinge on toys, there will be serious problems with a total ban. By doing what we are doing, we are giving a power to the police and relying on the good sense of a constable to use that power appropriately. Where someone is carrying an imitation weapon in a public place without good reason or lawful excuse, they can be challenged, the weapon can be confiscated and they can, if necessary, be arrested. That avoids some of the definitional problems and gives us a tool to use. We are also planning a long-term review of all the firearms legislation. We cannot rush that or do it immediately.

Andrew George : I appreciate that response. However, outside the replica weapon issue is the issue of lethal weapons such as knives and extending batons. That is a serious matter, and it would be helpful to have some indication that the Minister would be prepared to clarify the law to help the police.

Mr. Ainsworth : Let me just say to the hon. Gentleman—I am not sure that there is confusion on the matter, but we can obviously consider it if the local police say that there is—that flick knives are offensives weapons. It is illegal not only to carry them but to sell them. Other items, such as batons, swords and knives, including hunting knives, are not illegal and it is not an offence to sell them. However, it is illegal for people to carry such items in a public place, and they could be arrested for carrying an offensive weapon. There is a problem. Exactly what do we want to ban and what do we not want to ban? Items are often sold for legal and proper reasons, and sometimes they are sold totally inappropriately, as the hon. Gentleman said.


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