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Widdecombe: Together we can win war against crime

In a speech to the Association of Chief Police Officers in Birmingham, the Rt Hon Ann Widdecombe, Shadow Home Secretary:

"I would like to begin by reiterating the tribute that I paid at the Police Federation Conference last week to all those officers who took part in the successful operation in central London on 1st May. In particular, I would like to take this opportunity to congratulate Sir John Stevens and Mike Todd on what was a supremely professional operation.

Over the past ten days, how we work together to tackle crime has been at the very top of the political agenda - from how many police officers the country needs right through to what measures we should take to combat paedophiles who prey on vulnerable children over the internet. I welcome this debate and I want to see it continue not just for the rest of the campaign but after the election as well.

People want to see crime hit hard. Crime is far too high, and the fear of crime is a problem particularly for our ethnic minority communities and the elderly. Last year's British Crime Survey found that those whose quality of life was most affected by the fear of crime were members of the Asian and black communities and those over sixty.

Earlier this year I was shocked when I read the story of an elderly resident of the Knottingley Estate near Pontefract. He had put his local police station onto his BT Friends and Family discount package because he discovered that it was the number that he called most often. The reason he called the police so much was because he was being terrorised by a gang of youths

He was quoted as saying: 'I am frightened to death. It's unbearable ... I can't live like this. The police, as individuals, are very good, but we need more of them on the streets, patrolling the estate.'

We can forever trade clear up rates and crime statistics, but that is the reality out on the street. People continue to be traumatised by crime. Public confidence in the police, and their ability to fight crime, is therefore essential.

That is particularly so for those who fear crime the most - the elderly and members of our ethnic minority communities. They want to see more police on the streets because the experience of crime, and the fear of crime, is for them all too potent and still too much part of the reality of daily life.

In addition to reversing the decline in numbers of the past four years, one of the proposals that I have put forward is to create a new system of parish constables. Reduced police numbers, especially in rural areas, have meant less visible policing, which increases the fear of crime.

Under my proposals, parish and town councils would be given the discretion to provide resources from their budgets for additional police officers in their local area. Operational decisions would of course remain with chief officers, but the local council would be able to enter into an agreement with local force in respect of the financing of additional policing in their area.

I believe that this kind of initiative could provide additional resources to many already over-stretched police forces which would help to provide an increased police presence and to combat crime and the fear of crime for all members of the community.

The confidence of ethnic minorities in the police is also improved when they see the hard work and dedication of ethnic minority officers who make it to the very top. I would like to congratulate Tarique Ghaffur on his promotion to Assistant Commissioner, and I am sure that he will bring a huge degree of commitment and skill to that post.

But it's not just about numbers. It's also about ensuring that officers can spend more of their time doing the best job they can and actually contributing to the fight against crime. Last year I visited Washington DC and saw for myself how officers spend time working out of bases in local shops and other premises, something I call 'Cops in Shops'. This sort of thing increases visibility and allows the police to gain not only more intelligence but also more trust from the community. It works in America - why shouldn't it work in Britain too?

I also want to see a comprehensive review of police functions. Do we really need highly trained, highly skilled police officers to give up large amounts of their time escorting wide loads up motorways, for example?

One of the biggest frustrations for officers of all ranks across the country is bureaucracy. The current Government said that they would cut it back, but in fact they have introduced even more of it under the guise of the Best Value regime.

And as you know, Best Value is a scheme designed in the first place for local government, not for the unique challenges of policing, taking into account the very distinct relationship between police forces and police authorities.

Earlier this year my team and I conducted a consultation on Best Value with forces across the country. I am grateful to the many ACPO rank officers who took the trouble to reply personally and to David Stevens for his comprehensive reply on behalf of ACPO.

The results of our survey were truly surprising. Many forces are spending half a million pounds each on Best Value bureaucracy; some more than a million pounds. It is not uncommon to have teams of ten or more police officers and civilian staff working full time on Best Value. One chief officer said that there was 'a huge amount of bureaucracy'.

Reliable estimates of the total annual cost of Best Value to the police in England and Wales are over £20 million in staffing costs alone, without taking into account the investment in new information technology that has also been required. Many forces appear to be spending more money than they are saving as a result of the exercise.

Of course, when I asked the Home Office Minister Charles Clarke what the additional cost of Best Value was to each force, he said: 'The administration cost associated with Best Value is not collected centrally by the Home Office.'

But if the Home Office do not know how much money forces are spending on Best Value administration - and as you are all aware, it is indeed a significant amount, how can they claim to know with certainty that it will save money?

Many within the police service are dissatisfied with the current regime of performance indicators, of which there are clearly too many.

Yesterday, even the Prime Minister was forced to admit that his Government had been guilty of 'heavy-handed intervention' in the business of delivering public services in order to 'set the priorities and directives of Government.'

Many performance indicators place an extra burden on front line officers. And as the Prime Minister hinted yesterday, some are clearly dictated by political priorities rather than policing ones.

I will take one example. Many if not all of you will be familiar with Best Value Performance Indicator 131, which deals with work on young offenders' case files.

Some chief officers have told me that this indicator is 'complicated'; 'a mess'; 'meaningless to the public'; and a 'nightmare'.

It is revealing to look at the Government's summary of the recent consultation on Best Value Performance Indicators, which was published in January. It states: 'There was some criticism of this indicator. The police have argued that performance in this area has more to do with the CPS than with the police. They point out that the indicator is overcomplicated and is not an issue of particular concern to the local community …'

But the review then goes on to conclude: 'However, this PI is very significant for monitoring the Persistent Young Offenders pledge to reduce time between arrest and trial. Policy interests have stressed that we need to raise performance in this area and that, by having the indicator and by HMIC's interest in this … the attention of Chief Constables is focused on it ... It will not be deleted.'

Reading between the lines, this appears to say, 'The police think this is a stupid and bureaucratic performance indicator and want to scrap it because it is not something that the public are concerned about- however because Ministers are worried that they will not achieve their political target without it, they have decided to ignore the police and keep it.'

The inspection arrangements, with the Audit Commission and Her Majesty's Chief Inspectorate of Constabulary both having a role, are also providing some forces with problems. One police authority said:

'The arrangements for monitoring and auditing Best Value are overly bureaucratic and we certainly feel 'over monitored'.

The feeling is clearly that Best Value has created a culture of 'over-inspection'.

All this is clearly a cause for concern. The last thing we should be doing is introducing new bureaucratic burdens like Best Value when police forces right around the country are already overstretched.

So after the coming Election, the next Conservative Government will conduct a full and immediate review of Best Value in the police. We will radically reform and, if it is found to be necessary, abolish the Best Value regime in its current form.

I hope that when the Home Secretary speaks to you tomorrow he will address some of the concerns which I know many of you have about how this scheme is working out.

In recent days we have also seen concerns expressed about anti-social behaviour orders. In Police Review last week, I saw that a report from the Metropolitan Police Public Order Unit estimated that the cost of obtaining one ASBO was more than £100,000, and that the officers working on ASBO applications were spending more time on them than serious criminal investigations.

Before and after the last election, these orders were portrayed as the solution to many types of criminal behaviour, including neighbours from hell and drug dealers and even at one stage so-called 'squeegee merchants'.

The Home Office estimated that 5,000 of these orders could be made annually - but the latest national figures show that two years after their introduction just 177 have been made.

The Home Secretary actually claimed that they would free up police resources. But the evidence is that they have not taken off in the way he anticipated.

I see that an ACPO spokesman was quoted last week as saying: 'ASBOs were initially seen as the answer to anti-social behaviour… people who think they will solve all problems will be bitterly disappointed… most forces would paint a picture to say they have been disappointed with how long ASBOs take and how expensive they are.'

Yes, there have been 177 cases where orders have been made - and if these orders can be of use in the fight against crime, then let them be used.

But the Community Police Officer of the Year recently said that the legislation was 'unworkable'. It is clear that officers on the ground are still encountering significant problems more than two years after the Crime and Disorder Act came into force.

So the next Conservative Government will work in partnership with the police at all levels to overhaul the ASBO legislation. We want to see measures that work and that can work without excessive cost or bureaucracy being imposed on your officers.

Bureaucracy is obviously still a major problem. But there are other things that frustrate just as much if not more. When I travel the country, one of the things that police officers at all levels tell me frustrates them the most is the way the system fails to deal with younger offenders.

I was saddened to see the results of the recent MORI survey for the Youth Justice Board that suggested that criminal activity, particularly thefts and assaults, by 11 to 16 year olds is on the increase, and that attitudes towards criminal behaviour have softened significantly.

According to the survey, just 78 per cent of youngsters now believe that shoplifting is wrong - compared to 86 per cent just two years ago. And teenagers are also much more worried about being the victims of assaults or thefts themselves.

But it's much easier to make someone see the error of his ways at 13 or 14 than it is when they reach 17 or 18.

So I want to see a huge expansion of secure training centres, with an emphasis on changing persistent younger offenders before it is too late. Taking them off the streets, away from the environment which has failed them, and which they in turn are making impossible, sends a tough message to their peer group that you don't come back laughing from the courts, and at the same time provides an opportunity to address the behaviour of the child in secure and orderly conditions. I want to see a system that focuses on rehabilitating them by linking their release to real change, real achievement on their part.

This will be achieved through the introduction of Flexible Detention Orders. At the outset, the governor of the centre will set a realistic level of achievement. This could be a qualification, a standard level of attainment, or even the basics - like learning to read, or basic good conduct. They will serve at least six months, and will only be released if they have made sufficient progress towards that target. Otherwise, they will stay in the centres until they do achieve those targets, or until their sentence is up.

I also believe that every child deserves a second chance. If they make sufficient progress, reform and stay out of trouble for a further two years, they should be able to enter adulthood with a completely clean slate, except where their offences are very serious ones. I believe that this is the only way. Giving younger offenders a chance to change, and coming down hard on them if they don't take that chance.

We also have a package of proposals to protect our children - including a crackdown on drugs in and around our schools, and tough minimum sentences for those who repeatedly deal to children. Earlier this week, I set out how my plans for closing the loophole in the law that allows paedophiles who lure children over the internet to get away scot-free unless they actually commit a sexual assault. I have also set out a range of other proposals, across the criminal justice system, to improve the rights of victims.

For example, I know that many victims are concerned at the level of sentences imposed by the courts - and this is something that concerns police officers just as much. Sometimes even very distressing and serious crimes do not attract the maximum available at law, and I know that this is an issue not just of concern to victims but also to the wider public. Currently, the powers available to the Attorney General to appeal against unduly lenient sentences are limited to certain offences. We will further extend the powers to appeal against unduly lenient sentences to other offences that are tried at the Crown Court.

We will also reform the law on double jeopardy. Currently, no person can be tried twice for the same crime, even where compelling new evidence emerges of their guilt. At present, we make an exception to this rule in cases of jury-nobbling. I want to go further. Where the crime is extremely serious, and compelling new evidence comes to light that could not possibly have been brought forward at the original trial, the prosecuting authorities should be able to ask the courts to hold a second trial.

I want to overhaul the law so that it is on the side of the victim, not the criminal. The debate on how to fight crime is a crucial one. It has dominated the agenda over the past few days and I am sure that it will continue well after the election. And after that election, the next Conservative Government will be committed to a war against crime and a war against criminals. With your hard work and that of the officers under your command, I know that the war can indeed be won.'

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