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Column 643that a single criminal incident in a quiet rural area can have a simply devastating and disruptive effect on the way of life of the entire community.
We are all aware of the nuisance caused to rural communities by the activities of new age travellers and other trespassers, and we are taking measures to deal with them. But other types of crime, which are also more relevant to the countryside, present their own particular problems : the rustling of animals, arson attacks, as my hon. Friend described, and the theft of agricultural machinery, which can create heavy losses. The attacks on, and mutilation of, horses in the southern counties have given a disturbing and horrific twist to our notion of rural crime.
Another worrying development is the export from urban areas of some particularly nasty crimes that have rarely been experienced by rural communities such as the armed robbery of village post offices and rural petrol stations and the violent burglary of isolated homes. These seem to become increasingly common as criminals are squeezed out of some of their more difficult urban haunts and go further afield. Of course, the professional villain can be in his car and half way across the country on the motorway network after hitting a pre-chosen target.
Again, rural communities are often better placed to report anything out of the ordinary more quickly than can many urban or suburban communities. The police rely on seemingly innocuous pieces of information that might be essential in linking known criminals to these crimes. Dealing with crime in rural areas is already a high priority for the police and for the Government. There is considerable activity across many Departments.
My hon. Friend spoke enthusiastically about the parish constables initiative in the context of rural policing. He will know that our aim is to increase the number of special constables from 20,000 to 30,000. As I shall show in a moment, we hope that an increasing number of those special constables will become parish constables. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's parish constable initiative, which began less than a year ago, has quickly established itself as a valuable extra dimension to rural policing. I am very pleased indeed with the enthusiasm with which both police and public have greeted the initiative. There are now more than 80 schemes in operation around the country. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend hopes personally to launch the 100th such scheme later this summer.
The success of the parish constable scheme clearly demonstrates the great interest that members of the public have in helping to police their own communities. That is what matters so much. They have that vested interest. The schemes are an excellent example of what can be achieved when police and public work together in that fashion. In practice, most of the small towns and villages taking part in the initiative have preferred the parish special constable model to the alternative parish warden model. In this kind of scheme, the chief constable agrees with the parish council or councils that a serving special constable should spend all his or her duty hours working within their area.
The special constabulary in general is an excellent example of how ordinary men and women can volunteer to help the police. Ordinary men and women from other walks of life lend their help to the police. Special constables have full powers of arrest ; they are trained and supervised by the regular police, but, none the less, they give their own time as volunteers.
Column 644Until the introduction of the parish constable initiative, specials were generally used on a range of duties. Now, whether they are existing specials or volunteers recruited specifically for the purpose, they can develop a sense of identity with their local area, patrol it regularly and get to know all the local people and all the local concerns. They provide a uniformed police presence in areas of the country which the full-time police sometimes find less easy to reach regularly.
The Home Office is keeping track of the schemes. Four are being studied in detail so that we can identify good practice and spread that knowledge more widely. But for parish constable schemes to work as well as they are doing, everyone involved has to recognise that it is a locally driven initiative.
In my hon. Friend's county of Kent, eight very successful schemes are already up and running, using a mixture of experienced specials with some years of service and new recruits supervised by local beat officers. The police in Kent have begun to recruit members of the public to work as parish special constables in the county. Those recruits will have to be trained and supervised to start with, but the chief constable of Kent has extended that imaginative approach, by ensuring that they will be trained in the parishes where they will be working, once they have completed training.
As I have said, a formal progress report on selected schemes will be published later in the year, but informally we already know that there is high satisfaction with what has been achieved. The benefits of the scheme are obvious to many. They include support for the regular police, in terms of the intelligence information that is fed through to them by people who really know their area and can detect quickly signs of trouble brewing, strangers snooping around, and any build-up of tension.
The benefits include a reassurance for local residents who may recently have felt somewhat out of touch. So often, reducing the fear of crime is just as important as preventing crime--both matter. In some areas, volunteers under the parish constable scheme have been active in keeping local police stations open and manned for some hours during the day when that might otherwise not have been possible.
Parish special constables and the alternative--parish wardens--are positive, productive examples of the type of partnership between public and police on which policing, whether it is in rural areas or inner city estates, crucially depends to achieve all its aims. I am encouraged by the success of the initiative. I look forward to its increasing success throughout the country and hope that it will give us lessons that we could build on, even in the wider context. On other Government initiatives, I have been exploring the issue of rural crime with my colleagues on the ministerial group on crime prevention, which promotes co-ordinated action by Government Departments in the prevention of crime. The National Board for Crime Prevention is also giving the matter attention. Recently, I spoke at a conference in Gloucestershire on rural crime, with Crime Concern and other participants.
In February this year, my hon Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside announced the rural challenge initiative. That is a competition run by the Government's agency, the Rural Development Commission, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford will be familiar. It is designed to stimulate
Column 645innovative approaches to social and economic development in less prosperous rural areas. One of the prize categories is action to combat rural crime.
We are also determined to take measures to deal with those who trespass en masse with complete disregard for law-abiding citizens. I do not need to remind the House of the disgraceful events at Castlemorton common in the summer of 1992, which were subsequently repeated, albeit on a lesser scale, in other parts of the country. The disruption suffered by local communities, the fear caused to local residents by such mass gatherings and unruly behaviour, and the filth left behind by the trespassers are intolerable.
The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which is before Parliament, will strengthen existing police powers to deal with trespass on land and introduce new powers to tackle specific nuisances, such as unlicensed night -time rave parties on open land, which can cause untold misery to local residents, and trespassers who wilfully disrupt or intimidate others engaged in lawful activities on land.
The proposed new powers will allow the police to take pre-emptive action to nip disorder in the bud, rather than leave them to deal with a serious problem once it has arisen.
That comprehensive package of measures is necessary to protect the quality of life in rural areas and will be welcomed by law-abiding citizens throughout the country.
Rural areas present a special kind of challenge to the police. The types of crimes that I have mentioned are less easy to prevent and detect because of the relatively isolated nature of the areas where they are committed. The response of the police to those incidents cannot always be as speedy
Column 646as they, or the public, would like. That is why there is a particular onus on rural communities to be the eyes and ears of the police and to work in partnership with them.
The rural community is more stable than most other communities, however, and that is a strength on which we should be able to develop our initiatives. Tightly knit communities can easily spot outsiders. Those who live in close communities can find it easier to work together to fight crime.
The police place considerable emphasis on dealing with crime in rural areas, both through prevention and detection. Cheshire constabulary, for example, appointed a dedicated wildlife and environment officer two and a half years ago. He has since developed a very effective county-wide strategy for dealing with rural crime. A great deal can be achieved when the police work alongside the public and other agencies. The partnership approach is the cornerstone of the Government's crime prevention strategy, and it is being developed on a broad front. Neighbourhood watch schemes are well known, and there are 130,000 such schemes in England and Wales. There has been a welcome proliferation of other watch schemes, many of which are relevant to rural areas--country watch, farm watch and horse watch. At the last count, there were 35 different watch schemes up and running throughout the country. They show that members of the public want to work with the police in the fight against crime and to help the police to develop a strengthened partnership at local level. That, in turn, will help the police to be more effective and responsive to the public's needs. I hope that my hon Friend agrees that, in that way, we will be able to deliver the kind of society in which we all want to live.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.
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