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Mrs. Diana Organ (Forest of Dean): My hon. Friend mentioned the difficulties caused by the lack of government funding to recognise rural sparsity. Like him, I represent a rural constituency in Gloucestershire, and it faces a double whammy. The difficulty of providing a force in rural areas is not recognised, and the fact that our force is both small and efficient means that efficiency savings are difficult to find.

Mr. Drew: I thank my hon. Friend, who represents the area across the water from me. She has made her point clearly, and we shall continue to argue that case. We have several times made the point to the Minister about the impact of efficiency savings on a smaller force. Our force is efficient, and I pay tribute to its policing of Gloucestershire. We cannot keep cutting the service.

Like every other force, Gloucestershire has put in a bid for what are colloquially known as the "Jack Straw bobbies". Our bid is realistic. I cannot say that I think that it will simply be taken from the shelf and implemented, but it is as realistic as it can be. We would certainly like additional police in the rural areas, even if a training element would mean their helping Gloucester and Cheltenham. There is a need for policing in rural areas so that officers can be seen to be in action as well as actually being in action.

As I said last year, I understand the Government's difficulties over pension provision. Perhaps because he is new to his post, I felt that the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) did not quite answer my point that the Tories had had plenty of opportunities to sort out that problem. We have those opportunities now, and we must deal with the report that has been produced.

From the point of view of the police, we cannot improve on their pension provision. The only way in which to do something about it would be to set up a funded scheme. I believe that we must do so. It would cost money, and the Treasury would have to find it.

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Sooner rather than later, we must grapple with this almost impenetrable problem. As the hon. Member for Chipping Barnet said, pensions take up to 17 per cent. of the budget, and that figure will increase, as the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey said. We cannot allow that. It would be neither sustainable nor practicable to continue as we are. It is already doing enormous damage, and the operational impact is clear.

The Minister generously said that security is still--let me put it no more strongly than this--open to investigation. We feel especially hard done by because, although the overall budget may have increased, so too has the number of forces bidding for it. The perception of the matter must be taken into account. We do not want conflict between local communities over the way in which we fund security arrangements. That would serve no one's purpose. Robbing Peter to pay Paul is not a good way to run a police force.

The overall budgetary problems are clear, and we shall continue to advocate our case in that regard. However, our greatest concern is about the damage that can occur to the partnerships by which the Government set such great store. It is good to see community policing arrangements working to promote safety initiatives.

However, as officers of all ranks have told me, not only does that have to be paid for in time and money, but it results in an administrative overload. That has to be dealt with. The resources will not come out of fresh air--changes in policing need to be funded. It is good to implement such initiatives, but we cannot do so indefinitely without some money coming in.

The same point applies to best value programmes. It also applies to the tri-service initiative in Gloucestershire--of which we are extremely proud--for unifying the emergency call services. People are starting to realise the benefits of some communality for all three emergency services--ambulance, fire and rescue and police. We can build on that, because the public want the services to work together and to know that they will receive the best possible reaction--in both time and professionalism.

Budgetary problems need to be solved. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Minister's door seems to be open, because we shall be pursuing those matters with him in due course. We want our slice of the £35 million, although we have made it clear that we do not want more than our pro rata share.

The proof of the Government's ability to master the problems of law and order will be seen not only in budgets but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Ms Keeble) said, in the impact on the streets and in the perception of what is happening. I recently read a document commissioned by the Salvation Army, but produced by the Henley Centre for Forecasting--an interesting combination. I was rather depressed to note that the document showed that people stated that the fear of crime was the single most worrying aspect in their quality of life. That is a key factor in people's perceptions. We have to get that right in Gloucestershire and throughout the country.

3.33 pm

Mr. John Horam (Orpington): As the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. McDonnell) pointed out, the leafy suburbs have traditionally been neglected in debates on policing. I hope that my contribution and that

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of my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir S. Chapman) will go some way to redress the balance.

I illustrate the problem with an example. I have always been proud of the fact that my constituency includes the village of Biggin Hill with its famous fighter airfield, which was at the heart of the battle of Britain. Today, Biggin Hill is a pleasant place in which to live--full of character, as are its people.

However, the village has a problem--as the chairman of the residents association, many other residents and local councillors told me last Friday evening at my regular advice bureau. Until last year, it had a fully operating police station, right in the main road. As recently as the late 1960s, 14 police officers were working from that one station.

Last year, the police station was closed to the public and, more recently, the number of home beat officers was reduced from two to one. To have only one officer would seem to render the service almost non-operational, but that is the situation. The latest local rumour is that the police station is to be turned into a pizza parlour. If hon. Members think that that is bad enough, a police station in Chislehurst may be about to be converted into a theme pub. I do not know what that will do for the local crime problem.

The local police are still searching for somewhere suitable in Biggin Hill to locate the remaining home beat officer. The people of the village feel completely exposed. Orpington, which houses the main police station, is some distance away across winding country lanes; it can easily take 30 minutes to get from there to Biggin Hill. By that time, any incident would be over and all the miscreants would have gone.

As a result, a hard core of about 12 teenagers have taken to rampaging around local streets, causing mayhem. In a recent incident, they threw iron bars at overhead electricity cables, bringing them down and plunging the neighbourhood into darkness. Drink and, increasingly, drugs are part of the problem. That causes stress, anger and fear in the neighbourhood.

Biggin Hill is not alone. After six years of improving crime figures, which started under the Conservatives, there was a reversal of the trend last year; notified offences increased by 12 per cent.--a large increase--in the Orpington sector. As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) said, that is a tragedy: much hard work went into reversing the previous rise in crime figures and produced that long six-year run of lower figures, but that has suddenly been dramatically reversed in areas such as Biggin Hill.

The Orpington police have worked hard to overcome those problems; I make no complaint about them. They have had successes, but there are now 20 fewer police officers in the Bromley district than there were two years ago. London itself has 400 fewer officers; during the past two years, the number is down by more than 1,000 over the whole country.

The Assistant Commissioner, Denis O'Connor spelt out the facts at a recent meeting of the Bromley police community consultative group. He said that he needed 6 per cent. extra resources each year even to keep the present strength. The Government have allocated an extra 2 per cent.; the force has to find 2 per cent. from extra efficiency and there is a 2 per cent. shortfall.

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The Minister's speech makes it obvious that the situation will not improve in the foreseeable future. According to his figures, with the Government's resources, police numbers will decline again over the coming year, but the police precept will rise--in my area, possibly by 16 per cent. People will be paying much more for a lot less.

The police are being starved of resources when our society demands more policing--especially a more visible police presence on the streets. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) committed the Conservative party to reversing Labour's cuts in police numbers. I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire reiterated that firm guarantee today.

The Government are beginning the second phase of their comprehensive spending review, to be concluded in June. I ask them to reconsider this matter urgently. If they do not, crime will be a big issue at the next general election.

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