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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 9 May 2000

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Law and Order

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

10 am

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk): I am very grateful to have secured this debate on a matter greatly exercising the minds of rural communities. The House--indeed, the whole country--knows that the issues raised by Mr. Tony Martin's trial have touched a nerve in the nation's consciousness. During the nine months since the incident, I have not commented on the crime, the trial or the outcome of the trial. Mr. Martin is to appeal, so the matter is again sub judice, and I do not intend to break my self-imposed embargo.

Although I am concerned about the impact of the episode on the people of South-West Norfolk, especially those who live closest to Mr. Martin's property in the village of Emneth, I am even more concerned about what the incident has revealed about the state of policing in rural areas and people's attitudes to the police's ability to protect them and their property.

We should not forget that rural communities are collections not only of individuals, but of businesses, including agriculture. In its journal this month, the National Farmers Union makes its concerns clear. The latest NFU Mutual figures show that rural theft costs the farming industry more than £93 million a year, and the journal states:


I feel sure that the Minister will have seen that journal, as it is in front of him.

The NFU's president, Mr. Ben Gill, comments:


In a letter dated 2 May to my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall), the Country Landowners Association draws attention to the report, "The State of the Countryside 2000", published on 26 April by the Countryside Agency. That report says that some crime, such as vehicle crime, has been rising faster in rural areas than in urban areas. The letter says:


The Minister will know, because I have raised the matter several times in the House and in correspondence with him, that I urge him to act on the recommendations

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of the report on policing in rural areas that his Department commissioned a year ago. He or his colleagues will have discussed with the chairmen of the 11 most rural police authorities the findings of that report, which would give Norfolk an additional £2.4 million for extra police on the beat.

In a letter to me dated 28 April, the chairman of the Norfolk police authority, Mr. Jim Wilson--recently appointed--makes his point with some force. He says:


Mr. Wilson also describes the further pressures on Norfolk's existing police budget. He points out that the authority is expected to sign up, apparently, for a period of 19 years to the new national communications service for the police, which seems odd in a field as rapidly changing as communications technology. The Minister may like to comment on that, if he can, although it could be a misunderstanding on Mr. Wilson's part. That will cost the force £3 million in capital and up to £630,000 a year in revenue. He adds:


When we had the opportunity to debate some of those issues last week in the excellent Adjournment debate on police numbers that was initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge, I said that modernisation and up-to-date technology were clearly essential to combat equally up-to-date criminal activity. However, that should not be at the expense of other priorities and, at the very least, should not render front-line policing less effective, as Mr. Wilson implies would be the effect of the current strategy.

Mr. Wilson goes on to point out that the increased bureaucracy and paperwork imposed on the police by best value legislation and the requirement over the past two years to implement annual 2 per cent. efficiency plans across all forces--irrespective of their capability to make such annual savings--will be time-consuming and expensive. He uses a worrying phrase in that he describes that activity as:


Those are the words of the chairman of the Norfolk police authority. I hope that the Minister can comment on that point, which comes from the coal face. Clearly, he would agree that any diversion from the real purpose of policing should be avoided.

I also hope that the Minister can expand on his interesting comment in last week's Adjournment debate that he is seriously considering the problems posed by the funding of pension payments. Of course, I realise that that is not a new problem, but one that has grown over the years. However, such payments currently absorb 15 per cent. of the revenue budget of the Norfolk police authority, according to its chairman.

Police morale is affected by those factors and by the criticism that the police feel that they have suffered as a result of a number of high-profile cases, including that

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of Tony Martin. In Norfolk, the police have achieved two extremely high-profile successes in terms of an arrest and charge in one high-profile murder case and a conviction in another case. In the many hundreds of letters that I have received about the Martin case and the issues that it raises, the legal system is criticised at least as much as the police. The Minister will be aware of that.

However, there are police operational matters uncovered by the case and frequently spoken of, for which the Minister is not responsible, but of which he needs to be aware. I think that such matters exasperate local police on the beat as much as they do the public. Many of those matters were raised last week at a meeting of the Swaffham chamber of trade in my constituency, attended by a police inspector, a sergeant and a constable. The Minister might like to note that the chamber presented the constable with a mobile phone, so that he could be contacted at all times. The Minister will doubtless say that that is a good example of community police partnership. [Laughter.] So it is, but he will also accept that it shows that the chamber of trade feels that it is sometimes difficult to get anyone on the beat. I certainly do not decry the generosity of the chamber of trade, which was well meant, or its relationship with the local police, but I should like the Minister to reflect for a moment on where we now are.

It was pointed out at that meeting that, in the past two and half years, 50 per cent. of the constables, an inspector and two sergeants had been lost because of reduced funds. Poor-quality police cars with high mileages on the clock did not help. Response times to calls for help, the routeing of 999 calls to a central point in Norwich where the staff did not know the location of villages across the county and computer problems were raised at the meeting by local business people who were anxious about what they see as escalating security risks for them and their businesses. Those are clearly not simply matters of resources, although some of them are resource related. That is the view not only of the public, but of the police.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): My right hon. Friend will know the market town of North Walsham in my constituency. I believe that she was born there, or at least went to school there. I met a great number of people in North Walsham last week who told me that they were frightened to go out at night. That would also be true of towns like Swaffham in her constituency and Fakenham in mine. There is a feeling that there are simply not enough policemen visible on the beat to protect people. It is the fear of crime, rather than levels of crime, that is important in rural areas.

Mrs. Shephard : There is no simple correlation between the number of police on the beat and the reduction of crime: I know that the Minister will tell us that at the end of the debate, because I have heard him say it many times. But there is a clear correlation between people's attitude as to whether they are at risk and the number of policemen that they see. Indeed, it is connected to my next point, which has been my constant theme during the past nine months while the Tony Martin case has dominated the headlines. If people feel that the police lack the resources to protect them and

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their property--my earlier remarks illustrate the fact that the police share that view--they will be tempted to take the law into their own hands. The consequences of that have been all too tragically demonstrated by the outcome of the Martin case.

Mr. Lovell of Tipps End in my constituency puts the matter succinctly in his letter to me of 24 April. He says:


A letter from a farmer states:


I have received letters on this subject from all over the country. Mr. Derek Bromwich from Greenford in Middlesex takes the point further. He asks:


the Minister will enjoy this--


The Minister is bound to be aware of the current strength of feeling about law and order in this country. He occupies a hot seat, which would not be made more comfortable by reading the survey in the previous issue of the Fenland Citizen. Its readership was asked to telephone in with answers to questions about the Tony Martin case, one of which was, "Do you feel safe in your own home?" A staggering 91 per cent. of the more than 1,000 people who rang in replied that they did not.

The police are aware of these attitudes, which does not make their job any easier, especially when they feel under-resourced. All hon. Members will have heard from their constituents anecdotal evidence of the police arriving hours after an incident or, even worse, not arriving at all. At the Swaffham chamber of trade meeting in my constituency last week, a shopkeeper in the town, Mrs. Carol Baker, described arriving at her shop at 7.30 in the morning to find that it had been burgled. She reported the crime to the Norfolk police central switchboard at 7.45, was told that no one could attend the crime and was given a crime number for her insurance claim. It was 36 hours before any police officer attended; and five whole days later, the local police had still not been informed about her problem because it had been communicated to a computer. The exasperation of the local police can only be imagined: they would have been as infuriated as she was. Her confidence in the ability of the police to help her took a severe bruising.

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People have written from all over Britain. Many of them took the trouble to say that they were not members of my political party. Much of what they said was about Tony Martin's trial, the verdict and the sentence; but many also commented on how they felt about the current performance of the police. The most important issue raised by the case is that people feel that police numbers are so thinly stretched that they cannot protect individuals' property.

Since the Government came to power, police numbers have fallen by 2,300. The number of civilian staff has remained the same and the number of specials has fallen by 3,500. Worse, the Norfolk police authority chairman has made it clear that the new communications system will demand extra money and the Government's own requirements for police bureaucracy are eating further into police time--a


as Mr. Wilson put it. The consequent inability of the police to respond as they would wish to calls for help from the public is beginning to diminish public respect for them, through no fault of their own. Their own morale is suffering.

The solution is at least partly in the Government's hands. Some problems are not new, but others--the reduction in police numbers, the increase in bureaucracy and paperwork and the lack of interest in rural communities--are of the Government's own making. Rural people and their problems matter too. They deserve some priority of treatment. I cannot believe that the Minister will stand by and watch respect for the law crumble, partly as a result of reduced resources.

The Minister has taken the trouble to listen to concerns, many of which have been voiced in his own predominantly rural county. He has promised to examine the issues carefully in the run up to the publication of the rural White Paper and the comprehensive spending review that is being prepared for later in the summer. I ask him to persuade his colleagues in the Government to reconsider the Government's spending and attention priorities, to reflect on what is happening in rural communities and to understand that the issue is much more than simply a matter of resources--it is about respect for the law and taking action before it is too late.

10.19 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to be able to take part in the debate. Because of Select Committee duties I was unable to attend last week's debate on police numbers, but I am sure that some of the issues that the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) mentioned were highlighted. I have, however, spoken in both the debates on police grants that have been held in recent years, so I hope that I have shown an interest. My hon. Friend the Minister will also know about the meetings that we have had.

It is important to put the record straight. I hold the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk in high esteem--we worked together on the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons and still bear the scars--but I was disappointed when she said that the Labour party did not care about rural areas. Labour Members do not pretend to have a new feel for

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rural issues but have worked relentlessly over many years to highlight them. Such issues have not appeared on the political antennae only recently, but date back decades.

I do not want to trade newspaper cuttings with the right hon. Lady, but the headline story in my local weekly newspaper last week said that the village bobby and station were about to be axed and taken away from the good denizens of Minchinhampton, which is a fairly large village in the Cotswolds, in my constituency. The newspaper announced that the police constable, Jim Gregory, whom I know well and who has been an excellent bobby over the years, is about to be moved to rural protection duties. I hope that that will be a good way for him to see out his later years in the police force, but the change leaves the authority with a dilemma over his replacement. Jim lives in the police house in Minchinhampton and operates the police station next door, and I should make it clear that I do not want to push him out of his house, because he wants to see out his years there. However, Cheryl Thomas, the inspector for the area in which I live, has said that the police authority will not seek a replacement for Jim, and I want to tease out that dilemma.

We must replace the Jim Gregorys of this world, but we cannot do so by putting officers into the various communities, because there are other pressures and policing has moved on. That dilemma, which I have faced several times, relates to the visibility and accessibility of the police. Those issues are important in rural areas; if people do not see their police, they lose confidence and feel that they are unpoliced. At the same time, that approach to policing is not, in the main, the way to catch criminals. The dilemma that we face is how to balance visibility and accessibility with the effectiveness of the police force.

I am carrying on a funny sort of dialogue, because I have not talked to my police authority and the police about how they reached their decision. However, by pure chance, a police consultative committee meeting is taking place in Minchinhampton tomorrow night, and I imagine that it will be well attended. Inspector Cheryl Thomas announced the news about Jim Gregory at a parish council meeting last week.

I would like assurances from the police that they will give the area a named officer, as they have done elsewhere. Whitminster, which is also in my constituency, lost its police station 18 months ago, and WPC Debbie Lord was allocated as its named officer. That seems to have worked reasonably well. It is important for someone, in co-operation with other agencies, to have responsibility for an area, even if, as with Jim Gregory, his operational duties occasionally pull him away from the community. That has long been the case, but it is more the case now. It is important to have a mobile police force, which can do what we need it to do.

Just before Christmas, I was part of a delegation to my hon. Friend the Minister, which included the chief constable for Gloucestershire, Tony Butler; the chairman of the police authority, Brigadier Michael Browne; and the chief officer of the county council, Richard Cockcroft. The hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Jones) was also a member of the delegation. Members of the public who say that Members of Parliament have a well-protected, easy life should

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remember what some people go through. Understandably, people sometimes have short memories, but they should be reminded of the tragic events in Cheltenham, which bring home to us the risks taken by anyone in the public service.

The key points raised by the delegation may have had some impact, as the Minister has spoken about those matters on more than one occasion, and we are gratified by what he said. We made an early bid for what are known colloquially as Jack Straw bobbies. I would not say that Gloucestershire got its fair share, as we never get--well, never argue that we get--a completely fair share, but police numbers have been increased, which is most welcome. We bid to ensure that when those officers have been trained there will be a rural dimension to their allocation. We stressed the importance of the sparsity factor as a way of considering how the correct formula is decided, and emphasised that the distribution of police numbers should take account of the mobile criminal fraternity.

My county faces the problem of criminals coming from Bristol and Birmingham, and that has begun to hit rural areas. Constituents and members of the public sometimes allege that the number of offences is up when in reality it is not, unless someone is doing something strange. There are always arguments about how the figures are counted and how crime is recorded, but whenever I ask the police, there is a decline in the number of crimes. However, it needs only one event such as the Tony Martin case to bring home to all of us--

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): I thought that the hon. Gentleman was talking about Gloucestershire. Crimes there rose by 1,932 last year--an increase of 4 per cent.

Mr. Drew : As I was saying before the hon. Gentleman intervened, it is a lot to do with how crimes are recorded. In Gloucestershire, we are trying to record crime properly and get to the root of what is happening. I shall not bandy statistics with the hon. Gentleman, but in many areas, especially rural areas, there has been a decline--although not significant--in the number of crimes. However, even if we play the statistics game, we ignore crime at our peril because what is important is how it is perceived. I entirely agree with the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that how one perceives what is happening is very significant. I raised the matter in a previous debate on the police.

A Women's Institute survey highlighted the degree to which people fear crime and genuinely see it as the most important issue in determining their quality of life. I will not argue about statistics with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire; crime is declining, but although the recording of crime may have improved, there is much more to do.

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North): It is rather novel for me to think about matters relating to crime, in spite of the fact that my home was burgled twice in the past six months. Although a House of Commons champagne bottle was taken, and found in the back of a car during a machete fight, the police were unable to nail the two

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culprits. I wonder about people's perception. What is it that people perceive when they are being burgled, mugged or raped? What sort of perception do the people have whom my hon. Friend spoke about? What are they most frightened of?

Mr. Drew : I shall try to answer my hon. Friend. They are fearful of what appears in the headlines, but their overwhelming fear is that it will happen to them. That is now just as likely to happen in rural areas as in urban centres. Like my hon. Friend, we can all cite such experiences. My office has been broken into twice recently--I suspect by the same person. The first time, he took £5. The second time, he took £2. That tells us something about Labour party offices, which seem to get poorer rather than richer. I am not sure when we can expect matters to improve.

Rural areas suffer not only from the activities of mobile criminals. In rural areas--my constituency is typical of a rural area, with market towns with a rural hinterland--members of a hard core of local criminals seem to commit the same crimes time after time. The police are frustrated because the crimes of many of those who are regularly arrested are drugs related. We need a police presence on the streets because it would give people confidence and make the criminals think twice about the daft things that they often do.

Mr. Prior : I am sorry to hear that the hon. Member for North Norfolk--

Dr. Gibson : You represent North Norfolk.

Mr. Prior : I am sorry to hear that the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) had a bottle of champagne stolen. He certainly would not have wanted to drink it last Thursday night.

Does the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) believe that it is the fact that repeat offenders continuously receive short custodial sentences that so undermines the morale of the police force?

Mr. Drew : Yes, I do. One of the Labour party's key manifesto commitments was to speed up the course of justice. That can be done in two ways. First, we must convict criminals and, when appropriate, commit them to prison. Secondly, we must have an overall approach to dealing with crime. Everyone from the chief constable and the police to the various agencies concerned welcomed the youth justice reforms that we introduced, but the improvements will not come about in a matter of months or years; they will take decades.

Until recently, many communities knew the hard-core group of local criminals; indeed, they were so notorious that they were often accused of things that they had not done. It is important to deal with them. I am not saying that the problem does not exist in urban areas, but in rural areas it is easier to pinpoint those people; because of the way in which communities still hold together, they know exactly what is going on. Until recently, my own community of Stonehouse had an amazing clear-up rate of more than 70 per cent. because certain people were always known about. Unfortunately, fractiousness there during the past five years has made that clear-up rate more difficult to achieve.

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I wish to comment on what the Government have done so far and what should happen next. It is vital that the police have a presence on the streets, in which named officers are responsible for certain areas. Not only will they been seen doing their daily task, but they will be known from their visits to schools and community centres. That will build up people's confidence. We must also acknowledge that fighting crime is about being mobile. Mobility can be improved by ensuring that we have an effective police fleet and by making the other changes that we know to be necessary.

The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk spoke about the chamber of trade in her constituency giving a mobile phone to a constable. Police in Gloucestershire might obtain better reception on mobile phones than they do on their radios. I go out with the police regularly and I have discussed these problems with them. I could be a good luck charm, as I have not seen the malaise that has been mentioned, although I know that it is real. Until recently, the police have had to keep changing their radio wavebands as they go from one side of the valley to the other and so on. These are acute problems and, although there have been arguments about the funding of the police radio project, it is crucial that it is completed as soon as possible, so that communications will be as rapid and effective as they can possibly be. I hope that the Minister will yet again reiterate that we are simply waiting for the money to be made available, and that the sparsity argument is won. We know about the associated problems, which are faced not only by farmers and other isolated rural businesses but by rural communities, especially in hamlets, where people feel very left out.

I should point out the importance of security funding--argument continues on this private matter--in these issues. If I did not throw this subject into the debate, my chief constable would say, "You made a good speech, but you failed yet again to mention that some of us feel a little bit miffed about the security issues, which have not been properly listened to in relation to the complete funding picture."

As the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk rightly said, the police pensions issue is also highly significant. Among all the other constraints under which any public service will operate, the police pensions issue is the one that is especially important for police. We must grasp that nettle. I will not say that the current Government are more responsible for this matter than were the previous one, from whom all the problems came. They created a time bomb that was obviously going to explode at some point. We know that if we do not do something about it, it will eat into the police budget. I believe that pensions account for 17 per cent. of my authority's budget, and that that figure is expected to rise to more than 20 per cent. That is an enormous top slice off money that can be used for operational work, and we must do something about it.

In conclusion, I feel that the Government have got the message, which does not relate only to funding; it is also an operational message. We must revisit some of the ways in which we allocate our police. We must also ensure an understanding that the high-profile stuff does not relate merely to a synthetic vision of policing in the past. It is important to build people's confidence, which is as important as--although not more important than--the way in which we use all the different means that are available of fighting crime more effectively.

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10.37 am

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk): I start by congratulating the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on the generally tempered and measured way in which she spoke about problems that, I suspect, have featured in my mailbag as much as in hers during the past several months. However, I hope that I may gently chide her, as I would like to have heard some words of apology for the fact that when she and her party had the opportunity to do more about the issues that she mentioned, they did nothing.

Mrs. Shephard : I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does not dispute the fact that police numbers have fallen under the current Government by 50 in Norfolk and by 2,300 in total.

Dr. Turner : I shall come to that point. I know that the right hon. Lady was not present last week, and I intend to briefly summarise, but not repeat, one or two points about that issue.

As a member of the Norfolk county council, which was responsible for the police budget for many years, and having been a member of the authority for a number of years, I know that we are discussing long-standing problems. I am pleased that they are being highlighted, as by emphasising them we can more quickly and firmly ensure that the Government address them. The problems of rural crime are not new and hon. Members who were in the previous Government should recognise that they provided the incoming Government with a poor heritage with respect to the resourcing of the police in Norfolk. I visited police stations throughout the county over the years and could have despaired about the resources--the lack of IT and good communications and, for most of those years, an argument about police numbers.

I suppose that it is the job of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk to criticise, but it is particularly inappropriate to say that the Government do not care about rural areas. It was because I represent one of the most rural seats in England that the Home Secretary went, on his first major expedition to East Anglia, not to Norwich but to King's Lynn. He told me that. He went there because he knew that I would be able to invite representatives from 60-plus parishes to meet him. As I reminded the House last week, he was chided by people with their bums firmly on seats in London about the pleasures of being in King's Lynn on a wet Friday night, when 600 people turned up to hear him and to give him their views on rural crime. The Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), came to the county earlier this year.

I know, from correspondence and discussion, that the Government do care about rural crime. However, I understand--and because I do I shall continue to press the Government about this matter--that there are many demands on resources. We shall have to continue, as the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk did, to keep the issue before Government if we are to have a fair share of the resources. It is to the Government's credit that they commissioned a report to investigate the validity of rural areas' claims that they were under-resourced to an unfair degree. Almost every Member of Parliament says that the police in their constituency are

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under-resourced, but it is claimed that rural areas are unfairly under-resourced because previous Governments did not take into account the problems of sparsity.

I spoke about those challenges last week and do not want to cover them again, but they are problems for those who must police a large area, particularly when, as in my constituency, most crime is committed in the smaller, urban part of it. There are hundreds of square miles to cover, but much police effort is tied up by the crime in a small area, and that makes policing difficult. There are vehicle problems and Norfolk has difficulties in keeping 46 stations--one of the highest numbers in the country--open to the public.

Dr. Gibson : Will my hon. Friend also accentuate the positive with respect to the Norfolk police force? Will he mention their work with DNA technology and the marvellous way that they have solved crimes with the use of modern technology in the past few years? They have grasped the nettle and are leading the way in many of the new technologies. We should sing about that.

Dr. Turner : My hon. Friend does me a favour by mentioning the next issue that I wanted to raise. The matter was brought home when, last week, the debate was summarised as being about police numbers. I regret that I gave that impression because one of the key points that I wanted to make in the debate was that one can overemphasise the import of a number. The fact that modern technology provides the police with tools to increase their effectiveness has led the Norfolk police authority to divert resources. Lower police numbers are due not to lower funding, but to the fact that the local police authority and the chief constable have been trying to achieve better results with the resources.

We must understand that just raising police numbers is not the right way to help the public. We have to ensure that the public understand this argument. The new crime detection methods--and IT, which relieves the burden of paperwork and bureaucracy and provides clues, not because computers are more intelligent, but simply because of their greater crunching power--both free police time. We could divert the money needed for those to pay to have people parading up and down the streets although that would have less effect. The police authority is to be congratulated on facing up to that problem.

The Opposition will not help the debate if they continue to take a blinkered view. I accept the statement by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that she does not want extra police numbers at the expense of technology. In a non-ideal world, the police and the police authority must balance these demands. We should give them our support and not criticise them if they choose not to adopt the sole measure of increasing police numbers.

Fear of crime in recent months has probably been a more important issue than crime itself. This situation reminds me of my mother. If my mother, a marvellous hypochondriac in her time, were asked several times whether she had a particular symptom, she could almost imagine that she had. One cause of the fear of crime is

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the asking of questions about it. If people are repeatedly asked, "Are you frightened to leave your home tonight? Are you frightened when you go down that dark lane without any street lighting to get to the local pub? Are you frightened by what has happened in Norfolk recently?" the result will be a heightened fear of crime. We must assess the public's view and take it on board, but we must also be careful that we reassure people. Rural crime has always existed. There has always been, and still is, less of it than in urban areas. Whatever our individual experience of crime, most of us for the most part are under no threat from the crime that we really fear--violent crime. The fear of violent crime is the greatest fear at present in West Norfolk.

While trying to discover whether my views are based on facts, I have had the opportunity to discuss the issue with senior police officers and officers on the beat. Yesterday, in preparation for the debate, I met the newly appointed chief superintendent for the division covering west Norfolk, Mr. Mike McCormack. The leaders and deputy leaders of the King's Lynn and West Norfolk borough council also attended the meeting, which made it more useful. The borough council is one of the key partners in the new crime and disorder partnership--the Safer West Norfolk steering group--which is taking forward the Government's proposals for closer working. We discussed the report on the first year of the partnership, which was recently submitted to the Minister. The meeting was helpful, and I hope that a formal meeting on the issues later in the summer will receive good publicity because it will reassure the public.

The participants at the meeting reminded me that, in addition to the beat base in Terrington St. John, which I mentioned last week, a beat office has been established in Great Massingham, in another part of my constituency. Although there have been teething problems in terms of the extent to which the office is used, its establishment shows how, when a parish council works with the borough council and the police, the available resources and police efficiency can be maximised.

I want to press the Minister on something that the Government should be doing now. Last week, the Minister promised me that the Home Secretary was working hard to ensure that rural policing received a fairer share of the nation's resources in the spending review for 2000, due to be announced in July. I do not expect to hear much more than a repeat of that promise in terms of the broader picture. Would the Minister be willing to consider whether there was a significant opportunity, especially given the publicity, to study a package of rural measures for the fens? A part of the area is in the constituency of the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, a part is in Cambridgeshire and a part is in Lincolnshire. Specific problems there could be addressed.

All those with responsibility for crime and disorder matters should consider whether more could be done in the way of property marking, home and farm watches and, in particular, the improvement of intelligence. Complaints are made about telephone calls taken centrally from remote areas. Rural intelligence officers might be appropriate, perhaps acting across county boundaries. They could serve a particular patch so that local telephone messages could by taken by people

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based locally, passing them to local police. I understand that we do not have a mobile closed-circuit television system because we are awaiting the outcomes of trials elsewhere in the country. I say to my hon. Friend the Minister that urgency on the matter would be helpful.

In closing, I hope that, even ahead of decisions to come later in the year, the Minister will be willing to consider some of the suggestions positively. I know from my discussions in Norfolk yesterday that the borough council and the local police would support such a rural package.

10.52 am

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire): I apologise for turning up late for the debate. I had a misunderstanding with a horse at the weekend involving gravity and had to see the doctor.

Mr. Drew : The incident did not involve the hon. Gentleman's head?

Mr. Paterson : Hon. Members will be glad to hear that the diagnosis was entirely trivial.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on bringing this important matter to the attention of the House. I come from a rural area. If I dared to break the Norfolk monopoly on the debate, I would further congratulate my right hon. Friend on being part of a Government who increased the number of police officers in the West Mercia area by 405 during her time in office.

I would like to address the problem of police numbers in the West Mercia police area. The Minister received a delegation of West Mercia Members in January, led by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill). The Minister will therefore know that West Mercia police is easily the worst off of all shire police authorities, receiving £103,127. Dare I mention that Norfolk receives £109,000 and that Cleveland receives £152,495? There is no doubt that West Mercia has the lowest expenditure per thousand of the population. The figures for central Government grant per head of resident population for West Mercia are striking when compared with those for surrounding police authorities. In West Mercia, the sum is £84.63; it is £92.38 in the area covered by the Dyfed-Powys police, £134.30 in that covered by the West Midlands police and £93.60 in the Staffordshire police area.

I could continue at length. I have given the Minister the figures. I stress that West Mercia is one of the largest areas. We have 2,866 square miles and just one police officer per 1,078 members of the population. That is about the lowest ratio in western Europe. As the North Shropshire Neighbourhood and Farm Watch Association asked,


When we saw the Minister, we were told to hang our hats on the crimefighting fund. We have already lost 78 policemen in West Mercia since the election. There was great disappointment when, of the 36 new posts applied for, only 18 were granted, so we are 60 policemen short--despite the fact that the Government

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acknowledged that there are problems in delivering policing in rural areas and commissioned ORH Ltd. to report on the cost created by the extra travel times and communications difficulties and the need for extra police stations. The report recommended that the sparsity factor in rural areas be taken into account.

I hope that the Minister will respond to that issue. Why did the Government commission that report from an independent company and then stick it in a drawer? Why have the Government not acknowledged the report's recommendations, which would have given West Mercia £2.3 million extra? There is a real danger that the contract between the citizen and the state--whereby the citizen pays his taxes and hands over responsibility to the state to maintain law and order--may be breaking down.

Following the high-profile debates that took place after the incident in Norfolk, I went to Oswestry market last week. As I went around the town, I was astonished to learn how many people's houses or shops had been broken into. I was also astonished to discover that many people had not reported the incidents to the police and, importantly, that they had threatened intruders with weapons. That is extremely worrying. There is a danger that, unless the developing vacuum is dealt with, people will begin to take the law into their own hands, either through vigilantism, which has already been mentioned, or by employing private agencies. I have addressed councils on that issue, and they all say that they would like more policemen. However, there are 98 villages in my constituency, and it is highly unlikely that, with any Government, there will be adequate policemen to cover them.

I want to make one suggestion; parish councils should be allowed to finance security men out of their precept. That has already been done in St. Martins, an ex-mining village that has experienced law and order problems. In that village, where an ex-policeman was employed and put in a smart uniform, a considerable amount of trivial, tiresome street crime disappeared because there was someone on the spot who knew the locals, could spot strange cars or ne'er-do-wells coming into the village and could keep in close contact with the police. The system worked extremely well but, for reasons that I shall not go into, it was stopped, and West Mercia has employed a community policeman, who is based in a supermarket in the village. However, there is real merit in considering the use of security men, funded by parish councils, who can liaise closely with the police--an idea that is supported by the senior policemen to whom I have spoken. I should be interested to hear the Minister's reaction to that.

10.57 am

Mr. Colin Breed (South-East Cornwall): I believe that there is a large measure of agreement between members of all parties who represent rural areas. Rural crime certainly is not new, but perhaps it is now being highlighted and it is increasing--partly, I suspect, due to the population shift. More people are moving into rural areas, so it may not be surprising that there is an increase in rural crime.

I suspect that most people and most parish councils want, not more policemen, but less crime, but they imagine that by having more policemen, there might be

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less crime. There is no doubt that the police are stretched and are being stretched further. The sparsity factor has been mentioned, and I hope that the Government will recognise the need to do something about it because it is clearly affecting the ability of the police to provide the sort of service that they want to provide in rural areas.

Those hon. Members who represent holiday locations will be aware of the problem of the seasonal increase in crime due to tourism. We enjoy the benefits of tourism, but it means that the police are stretched even further, and, with the inevitable traffic jams, response times become even worse, which does not make it easier for the police to attend incidents.

I suspect that every hon. Member who has visited a police station and spoken to policemen recently would confirm that one of their biggest moans is about the amount of paperwork that they have to do. I am unsure whether that problem has been tackled vigorously enough in recent times.

My part of the world, the south-west, has also seen the confluence of some unusual happenings. Two lengthy murder inquiries are under way, and have absorbed an enormous amount of police time and money. When unusual events happen together and resources are already stretched, that can make life exceptionally difficult.

I, too, have heard representatives of towns suggest that they may contract private security firms, but, as a former local councillor, I must say that that is slippery slope. Why should people have to pay additional council tax on top of other taxes in order to provide additional policing support? I can understand why councils in some areas believe that that is the right approach, partly because major problems are experienced at certain hotspot times and in certain hotspot places. Many of the problems experienced in our towns and villages occur exclusively on Friday and Saturday nights at certain locations, which most people could readily guess. It is more difficult to police at particular times in particular places: half a dozen towns may all experience Friday and Saturday night problems. Town and parish councils feel that if they could only have extra support for five or six hours at certain times of the week, they could protect the premises, the flowerbeds, the toilets and so on, which are often the target of vandalism at night.

May I offer several suggestions for the Minister to consider? First, Devon and Cornwall has the largest special constabulary and it certainly does a tremendous job. However, the time has come to reflect on how it operates and functions on a voluntary basis. It may be time to place the special constabulary on a more retained basis, as with many of the fire brigades in the south-west, so that chief constables may direct people when and where they are most needed and gain real value for money out of the training costs. I realise that the whole basis would be changed and that arguments about the merits of a two-tier force would be raised, but the special constabulary provides a means of improving community policing.

Secondly, the centralising of control rooms initially caused problems. It has improved, but many control rooms remain remote, particularly in rural areas where addresses are not complete. Some villages share the

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same name and there is an inordinate number of houses and farms with the same name--and a postcode is seldom provided. An experiment with the Post Office is taking place in my constituency because there is a raft of people with the wrong postcode. Satellite references are being examined. Satellite navigation is becoming prevalent in many areas, so we could consider giving proper reference points to remote locations to enable the police to attend such places without having to drive around the countryside looking for lights, balloons on posts or white towels on gates.

Thirdly, we should look further into Crimestoppers, which has already been successful and could be developed further. My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Mr. Russell) has obtained an Adjournment debate tonight on that very subject, so I hope that it will tease out further ways of supporting Crimestoppers.

Fourthly, planning is important. We must try to introduce into the planning system some of the defensive schemes that have been developed for older people's housing. Much of the fear about which we hear is undoubtedly related to the rowdyism and vandalism that occur around people's homes. We could look into that. I should also like wardens to be employed for older persons' establishments once more. The movement to electronic alarms has not helped to give people a feeling of security. I realise that that option was chosen for all sorts of budgetary reasons, but I believe that the physical presence of wardens on older persons' developments is far more reassuring than electronic alarms.

Some businesses invest significant moneys in crime prevention on their premises--the electronic tagging of goods, CCTV cameras and so on--only to find that, when they have caught people trying to leave their premises with their ill-gotten gains, the police decide not to prosecute, perhaps because the value is too trivial, or perhaps too high. Business people almost feel that there is little value in investing in security equipment. The police often give little thought to prosecuting offenders. They need to respond more positively to people who invest their money in security systems.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) mentioned radio communications, as I intended to do. I do not know what the cost will be. However, we know that a certain windfall of £22 billion has come to the Government's coffers by way of the sales of mobile telephone licences, and I suspect that only a small fraction of that amount would be required to cover the cost of communications by radio. There is a certain synergy between the aspects of mobile telephone promotion and the upgrading of the police radio system.

Finally, the subject of access at night is being considered in the Countryside and Rights of Way Bill that is now passing through the House. The Government should consider that carefully. Many people who live in the countryside are worried about people's reasons for wanting access to land and around properties at night. They fear that it might not be for their general enjoyment alone but for other purposes. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will reconsider that provision.

Like every hon. Member present, I want the police to be given greater resources--as do the general public. Whether resources go into physical bodies or to other

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purposes, people must be confident that their fears are being addressed, that crimes that they have experienced are being tackled and that the police have the resources that they need to reduce crime and the fear of it.

11.8 am

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire): We have had an excellent debate. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing it, and on the firm and reasoned stand that she has taken on rural crime. Many people throughout the country appreciate what she is doing, which is why so many of them have written to her expressing their deeply felt concerns.

We have heard a range of speeches; I shall comment on some of them. The final point that the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) raised was about access to the countryside at night. He may remember that the former Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major), writing in The Field, pointed out that the right to roam could in certain circumstances become a charter for rural crime, reminding us of how many people's houses or gardens backed on to open land on village edges. That makes the point that at night, access to the countryside--a fine ideal--can have particular dangers in rural areas.

I pay tribute to the police for their work. Their job is not easy, and they show tremendous bravery and courage on occasions. The police also give us a great deal of reassurance. Obviously, criticisms can be made and must be answered, but it should never be thought that we do not support the police in their work.

Yesterday's crime figures bring into focus the worrying background to the debate. The figures cover the full calendar year up to the end of 1999, when crime levels rose for the first time in six years. The statistics also show that the rise in recorded crime is gathering pace. The situation was alarming in September, and now it is worsening. For the 12 months to the end of September, crime rose by 2.2 per cent., but for the full calendar year to December, it rose by 3 per cent. The Home Secretary's so-called crusade against crime is failing.

The figures will cause concern everywhere, but especially in rural areas. It is particularly frightening to be the victim of a crime in a remote place, because neighbours are at a distance and there are concerns about the police's ability to respond. Victims feel isolated in a way that they do not in a town. The figures also confirm the anecdotal evidence that we have heard in the debate, and which has been building in the past year. In his excellent contribution, my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) explained that people in Oswestry feel that crime is increasing and that the police are not providing adequate redress.

At the royal show in Stoneleigh on 5 July 1999, it was revealed that rural crime is costing farmers and landowners more than £100 million a year. NFU Mutual said that 30,000 vehicles worth £73 million disappeared from farms and country homes last year, and that farm machinery worth £14.2 million and livestock worth £4 million were lost.

Sid Gibson of the Mutual said that he was concerned about the fact that rural crime was not falling, and he made some suggestions. Colin George, a representative

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of a rural security company, blamed the removal of police from villages. In late August, the Martin case occurred. David Barnard, an Upwell parish councillor, told his local paper that crime had reached crisis point in seemingly tranquil fenland villages. In Wisbech, which has the third-highest per capita crime rate in the country, the police station is now closed in the evenings.

On 3 October, the BBC report on rural crime painted a worrying picture. It surveyed 120 farmers, of whom 55 per cent. had suffered burglary in the past year, 30 per cent. had been abused, 45 per cent. had encountered vandalism and 20 per cent. had experienced arson attacks. They were frightened. In the House, we have held debates that highlighted rural concerns. My right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk pursued the issues on 19 October, and my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) did so on 2 December. They both talked about the problems of rural areas and the fact that 14 police authorities had written to the Home Secretary to say that rural police authorities were disadvantaged because of insufficient recognition of the extra costs of sparsity.

Why has that happened? The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) cited the problem in his local village, where the local police officer, Jim Gregory, will not be replaced, and the hon. Gentleman set out his concerns about that. We should not forget the background in Gloucestershire. Since the general election, funding has decreased by 3 per cent., which means 35 per cent. fewer officers, and in the past year crime has increased by 4 per cent.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) explained that in his constituency there were problems with the visibility of officers; he tried to make the case that the Government were not to blame, but one cannot ignore the fact that in Norfolk, police numbers are down by 50 and crime is up by 665 offences. The hon. Gentleman should accept that there is a relationship between the number of officers and increased crime. He argued that officers should be used more efficiently and should have equipment of good quality, and no one would argue with that. But one cannot get around the fact that if everything is run efficiently and there are more police officers, more criminals are caught and the public are reassured.

Dr. George Turner : Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the Government inherited a situation in which the initial support services in Norfolk were extraordinarily badly funded? It was therefore courageous of the chief constable to tackle those issues.

Mr. Heald : It is all very well to argue, "Oh well, it was all terrible then," but at the last general election the hon. Gentleman stood on a platform saying that things could only get better, when the sad fact is that in Norfolk, they have got worse. The chief constable said that he wanted 400 more officers, although that figure was reduced to 90 in the crimefighting fund bid and he got only 66--two thirds of what he asked for.

Police numbers are a serious issue; funding should be provided to restore them to the numbers that existed at the general election--an extra 2,300 officers. There should be greater visibility of officers in rural areas; my

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right hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) unveiled her plan for officers on the beat to stop in shops and other public places to do their paperwork, to increase their visibility. Work should be audited so that we know what can be done most efficiently and effectively by police officers and what non-essential tasks can be done by civilian staff.

Under the Conservatives, police numbers increased by 15,000 and civilian numbers from 4,000 to 53,000, which allowed the police to do their work--

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): Crime doubled.

Mr. Heald : The Minister says that crime doubled, but we turned it round; there were five years in which crime fell. [Laughter.] How can anyone laugh when, after five years when crime fell, it has started to rise again and the pace has built up, so that in September last year it was rising by 2.2 per cent. and now it is rising by 3 per cent? Where will it end?

The Minister must take the reasonable steps that we suggest. Although there may not be a direct correlation between police numbers and crime detection, there is a clear correlation between fear of crime and the numbers of police, who provide reassurance if their efficiency is maintained.

It is time that the Minister listened. We have had enough of the ORH report being put on the shelf and enough of, "Oh yes, we will do something about police pensions some day." The fact is that some day has come; we want answers and action now. The time for all talk and no delivery is over; the thin blue line cannot be stretched any thinner.

11.19 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): I congratulate the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) on securing the debate. She has shown a consistent interest in this subject. I agree with the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who described the way in which the right hon. Lady spoke as firm but reasoned. She expressed her thoughts in a positive and constructive way, which contrasts with the intemperate style of her party's current leader on those matters. Some members of her party might wish that she spoke for it on such issues instead.

My only quibble in terms of substance relates to the suggestion by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk that there is a lack of interest in rural communities in the Government. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) took up that point with her, and I am glad that he did so. I take very seriously the points made by the National Farmers Union, the Country Landowners Association and the Countryside Agency, to which she referred. In particular, I take seriously the issue of crime against agricultural businesses, which the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire mentioned. His point is correct. I note that many schemes, such as the farm watch scheme, have been positive. Nevertheless, the issue is serious,

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quite apart from the problems that arise from rural isolation and fear, which many hon. Members have mentioned.

Two debates have already taken place on this question in the past 10 days, and I do not intend to go over the territory that I covered in those debates. However, I will make a point about the general context. Some crimes are specific to the countryside, such as the theft of livestock and farm equipment. However, in the main, rural areas suffer much the same sort of crime as urban and inner-city areas. The level of general crime is usually lower in rural areas than in urban or inner-city areas. For example, statistics show that the levels of vehicle crime, burglary and violence in rural areas are roughly three quarters of those in urban areas and about half those in inner cities. Across a range of offences--burglary, mugging, car theft, theft from a car, rape and racial attacks--research shows that the fear of crime is also markedly less.

In an interesting interview with the Yorkshire Post, the chief constable of North Yorkshire recently stated:


I do not want in any way to diminish the point made by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, because she is right to raise it in this way. However, it is important to establish the general context. As I said, we will publish a rural White Paper later this year. Our concern with crime in the countryside will be shown by the inclusion of a section dealing specifically with rural crime.

A large number of specific issues have been raised, to which I must respond. First, we accept the point about pensions. As I said last week, we are actively considering whether the matter can be dealt with nationally, rather than by every police authority separately, because the burden of pensions is distributed unfairly across police authorities.

I have only one quibble with Mr. Wilson, the chairman of Norfolk police authority, on best value. I believe that it is making a difference. It is improving the performances of all forces to the top quartile and thereby freeing resources for better policing. The right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk will be interested to know that the Government published last week a report by Clare Spottiswode, on the public services productivity panel, considering the possibility of varying the efficiency target instead of having a 2 per cent. efficiency target across all forces. We are considering that very positively, to try to find a more sensitive approach that better reflects the specific levels of efficiency in organisations.

On the police radio project, my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud is right that it makes a material difference to the police's ability to be in the communities that they serve. However, it is eccentric for Norfolk to suggest that the burden of paying for it falls on Norfolk specifically. Major criticisms have been made of funding, almost all from the main metropolitan areas. In general, most rural areas have acknowledged--for the reasons identified by my hon. Friend--that the project benefits rural areas and that the financial burden does

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not fall on them unfairly. I will discuss that matter with Mr. Wilson and the police authority, because he has also raised it in a letter to me. The issue is important, but I believe that he is wrong.

I have nothing to add to what I have said previously about sparsity. I have met representatives of a wide range of organisations, including all the relevant authorities from North Shropshire, Norfolk, Avon, Devon and Cornwall, West Mercia, and Gloucestershire, which are represented by people who have spoken in this debate. All those authorities are involved in the same consortium. Sparsity is being considered in the context of the spending review and there is a strong case for that. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) made the case about security in Gloucestershire and the same case can be made for Norfolk, which has Sandringham in its midst.

I shall not bandy numbers about any further, except to say that between March 1993 and 1997--under the Conservative Government--numbers decreased by more than a thousand across the country. Civilians are relevant. The example that I gave earlier about the loss of 49 police officers in Norfolk contrasts with an increase of 57 civilians, which is not atypical. Indeed, it applies across the country--

Mr. Heald : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Clarke : I will not, because I am pressed for time and need to deal with a range of specific points.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) asked about parish councils. He made a powerful case. Parish councils are providing some funding. We are examining ways of increasing the role of parish councils. I have discussed with Church people in Norfolk how that could be achieved. Issues about specials and retained officers raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cornwall (Mr. Breed) could be considered within that context. It was right to highlight the importance of parish councils. As I said, we are examining ways of engaging more actively on that front.

CCTV is another important issue. We are attempting in several ways--including the use of mobile schemes of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk, and the linkage of cameras to central control rooms, which has proved effective in different areas--to ensure that it can be used more effectively in rural areas. We are also reflecting on fenland problems--in the context of the relationship between Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire--to establish what is causing the difficulties there and to try to help rural partnerships in those areas.

I much appreciated the points about youth justice raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud. It has been widely recognised and is making a material difference to the process. As to Minchinhampton, I am not familiar with the details, but I shall certainly ask the chief constable to write to my hon. Friend about the important matter that he raised. I shall not be tempted to comment on Crimestoppers because there is an Adjournment debate about it this evening, but I take it most seriously.

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On the right to roam, I was intrigued by the proposition that criminals about to break into countryside houses in the middle of the night will be deterred or encouraged by the right to roam. Those issues are not related in the way suggested.

As I said in a recent Adjournment debate, partnership is a key part of the solution. Joint use of facilities is important and I was interested to hear about the possibilities of police doing their work in shops, schools, supermarkets and so on. We are actively discussing and seeking to encourage that in our review. There should be better use of joint facilities--church halls and schools, for example--to bring about a more tangible police presence locally.

We are also considering the roles of special constables and retained officers in the context of helping to develop local partnerships; and we are examining targeted policing to identify the hotspots. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud made a good point about known criminals in particular localities. We wish to encourage better watch schemes. Farm watch schemes, for example, have been effective in dealing with some of the problems raised by the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire and the National Farmers Union. More effective alarm schemes and wardens are also important initiatives.

I mentioned technology. In addition to the police radio system, the national strategy for police information systems is important for getting rid of paperwork and developing better intelligence. Reference was made to abstractions of police for training or servicing the criminal justice system, which causes problems for local policing. I repeat what I said to the Association of Chief Police Officers: it is important that it, the police and the community as a whole give evidence and submissions to the inquiry on the reform of the criminal justice system, to which the Government give high priority. Debates should not be dominated by lawyers alone. The criminal justice system is relevant to the police and everyone who uses it. We must achieve a more efficient system for community safety. Changing the criminal justice system so that it places fewer burdens on the police and others is an important element of the process.

The debate has opened up the issue of self-defence and reasonable force. I commend what the shadow Home Secretary initially said on that matter:


Sir John Evans, the chief constable of Devon and Cornwall and president of ACPO, and many other police spokespeople have confirmed that position. The editor of the Police Review said:


That is a widely held view. I hope that more Conservatives will align themselves with the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk, who secured the debate, and the firm and reasoned tone in which she has expressed her arguments, than with their party leader.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody): Order.

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