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31 Jan 2001 : Column 112WH

Police (South Buckinghamshire)

12.30 pm

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It has been my privilege since 1997 to represent the Beaconsfield constituency, of which South Buckinghamshire district forms the core. Recent surveys have shown it to be one of the wealthiest and most economically successful areas in the country. It has low unemployment and is, above all, a pleasant place in which to live. Far from being cloistered by their wealth and success, local residents are active in charitable and community work.

It has become clear during the past 18 months, however, that there is a growing problem with crime. Of course, there is always public anxiety about crime. I once served on the Lambeth police community consultative group, and I have seen problems of crime at the sharp end. Sometimes, people's anxieties are misplaced, but my mailbag and the evidence of my surgery tell me that crime has been increasing along with local residents' anxiety.

Residents have complained about burglary and car crime in particular and, in Burnham, about disorder, which is centred around the presence of several antisocial families causing fear in their neighbourhood. There is also a major problem with travellers, some of whom live wholly outside the law, causing damage to property, degrading the sites on which they unlawfully settle, and using their bases for other criminality. That matter became so serious that I raised it with the Home Secretary last March. I am extremely grateful to him and the Home Office for taking the issue seriously and issuing new guidelines to try to deal with the problem.

This month, Home Office research conducted by the university of Leeds, and highlighted in a Channel 4 programme, "The Crime List", identified South Buckinghamshire as having a serious crime and policing problem. Taking into account the many economic and social factors that affect crime, on the basis of which the Home Office allocates resources to the police, the survey rated South Buckinghamshire bottom of the 376 districts in terms of police effectiveness in dealing with crime. The press promptly dubbed South Buckinghamshire the worst-policed area of England and Wales.

That description is a gross oversimplification and singularly unfair to the police. Some types of crime, such as violent crime and sexual offences, are very low in South Buckinghamshire. We are 29th out of 376 for violent crime, and 16th out of 376 in the league table for sexual offences. The district is covered by two police areas, one of which, Chiltern Vale, is based in Wycombe, and the other in Slough, both of which are outside the district itself. Both areas are commanded by relatively young officers, Chief Superintendents Setchell and Beckley, for whom I have a high regard. They are dynamic and proactive in trying to fight crime, and are approachable for the local community. A recent raid on a travellers' site by the Chiltern Vale police also involved customs officers and the RSPCA. They netted a haul of stolen cars, illegal shotguns, stolen property, red diesel where it should not be, and ill-treated animals.

Beat officers are good. Some of them are extremely good. Community-police liaison is superb. Currently, though, no police stations are open full-time in the

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district. The police station at Iver is manned and kept open part-time with the help of volunteers, which is a good reflection of local support and participation. The district council does its best to help.

None of that has stopped the rising trend in certain types of crime, which has reached levels that are too high for the local police to tackle effectively, and certainly not as they would wish, as they tell me. The problem is that, because of its relative affluence and advantage, the area acts as a magnet for criminals from adjacent areas that have historically had much higher crime rates and, in fairness, much greater indices of deprivation.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate, which obviously covers my area as well. I endorse his remarks about our police force. Does he agree that one of the problems that the force faces is in the recruitment and retention of officers, especially because of the high cost of living in the south-east? No matter how excellent our police officers are in executing their duties, if we cannot recruit and retain them, we have a serious problem.

Mr. Grieve : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and I am grateful to her for attending the debate, as we share the Chiltern Vale police district. I will move on in a moment to deal with her point--she has captured the issue in one sentence--but first, I shall illustrate to the Minister the sort of problems that we are having.

Property crime generally, including burglary, theft, handling, fraud and forgery, and criminal damage, is at 25.4 offences per 1,000 population, compared with a national average of 19.6. It is particularly telling that burglary from dwellings is at 28.3 offences per 1,000 households, placing the district 330th in the catalogue of 376. In the village of Hedgerley, the rate is a staggering 55 offences per 1,000 households.

Theft from vehicles is at 30.3 offences per 1,000, which puts us 373rd out of 376 in the table. That is three times the national average. In Dorney, another small village on the Thames near Slough, the rate is over 75 offences per 1,000. Those are horrific figures. Theft of vehicles is at 7.8 offences per 1,000 population. Vehicle crime generally, theft both from and of vehicles, is twice the national average in England and Wales, and the gap is growing. It is a feature of most of the crimes that I have just cited that the latest figures show increases. Burglary has risen by 29.3 per cent. since last year, vehicle crime by 7 per cent., and criminal damage by 23.9 per cent.

To put those figures in perspective, all crime is down by 4.4 per cent. over Thames Valley as a whole. Equally, I accept that those crime levels do not compare with very high-crime areas in the Thames Valley, such as Slough town centre or Reading. What I find worrying--the Minister should, too--is that robbery, which largely means ram raids and holding up shops, which was hitherto very low, is showing signs of increasing at a time when it seems to be decreasing in other places. It all points to a deteriorating situation.

It would be nice to say that all that was unexpected, but it is not. The cause is not an inefficient or lazy police but lies elsewhere, in how the resources have been allocated. As the Secretary of State confirmed to me in his answer of 20 January 2000, spending on policing

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on an average per capita basis in Thames Valley in 1999-2000 was £108.88, compared with a national average of £123.19. Yet Thames Valley is a large area with significant policing demands.

Historically, increases in establishment agreed with the Home Office failed to keep pace with the growth in population. As a result, when in April 1995 funding was introduced on a complex needs formula, removing Home Office controls, a number of damping mechanisms were introduced. Those were designed to prevent places such as Surrey from losing too many officers, but the damping mechanism in Thames Valley has left the authority without the resources necessary to raise its establishment to the level that it needs.

In the police's view, we are £10 million short in grant and standard spending assessment over the six years. Worse, extraordinary items of policing, such as the Newbury bypass and the problems at Hillgrove farm, Witney, have cost the authority £11 million. When there was a problem at Huntingdon Life Sciences in Cambridgeshire, the Government saw fit to offer £1 million to help. Thames Valley has not seen one penny of assistance in respect of those extraordinary policing costs.

Up until 1998, South Buckinghamshire escaped the worst aspects of the formula, because historically it had been policed with a larger establishment than some other Thames Valley areas. The rumour is that, historically, because of the number of police officers living in the area, there was no problem in attracting a high level of policing to protect their homes--I do not know whether that is apocryphal. In that year, it was determined--frankly, inevitably, in view of the pressures elsewhere in the Thames Valley area--to apply the total resource allocations formula, or TRAF, to determine police numbers, and South Buckinghamshire suffered in that process.

I still have the correspondence and briefings from when my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) and I made our representations. Chiltern Vale took a cut of 9 per cent. in budget, on top of a 2.5 per cent. cut that applied to the force as a whole. That was 30 police officers and 20 civilian staff. On top of that, another 20 probationary officers were lost at the same time, as the service was over establishment. That was a huge cut. It is interesting to note that we were told at that time that crime had been reduced by more than 10 per cent. over three years, and burglary was down by one third: the result of good policing and adequate resources.

The effect of the changes has been entirely negative for South Buckinghamshire. In April 1997, there were 316 police officers in Chiltern Vale. Today, despite enormously creative attempts by the chief superintendent to raise the number of officers by cutting in other areas, we are below 300. In Slough, cuts in numbers were never envisaged--it is, after all, a high-crime area--but even there there are 254, which is seriously under strength, with 18 vacancies.

It is not surprising that one of the principal complaints, with the rising crime rate, is the inability of the police sometimes to fulfil the basic response requirement of getting to the scene of a burglary, when it is not an emergency, within two hours. If staff are off sick, longer delays will inevitably occur, and the police

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cannot be in two places at once, but public confidence in police efficiency is thus eroded and the closure of the police stations in the district, with Gerrards Cross no longer operating 24 hours a day, adds to a sense of being abandoned.

Other recent examples include the removal of community officers from Burnham and Iver back to Slough police station to deal with more urgent issues there. The fact that, in truth, the police are still working very hard, and concentrating on priorities, is not noticed. The complaints, in turn, have an adverse effect on police morale, as they see their hard work no longer being appreciated or recognised.

On some evenings, there are only two patrol cars on the road in the whole of the Slough police district. Some of my constituents point out that the one police force in the country that has seen an increase recently is Durham, and suggest that there may be a link with the Prime Minister's constituency. I have not the slightest idea, but such comments will continue unless clear answers can be provided.

Part of the problem with the police establishment is that the high cost of living makes it difficult to recruit and retain officers, as my hon. Friend said. The ending of the housing allowance in 1994 meant that officers recruited after that date received £4,000 per annum less than those previously joining the force. I accept that the decision was taken under the previous Government, but the Metropolitan police at that time enjoyed an uplift of £2,000, and will now enjoy an uplift of £6,000, over Thames Valley officers. It is hardly surprising that, as quickly as Thames Valley officers are recruited, they haemorrhage either into London or out into the country, to enjoy a better standard of living. Last year Thames Valley recruited 244 officers and lost 245. The briefing prepared for the Minister by Thames Valley police specifically states:

I hope that I have persuaded the Minister that something must be done about issues that are a real problem, and not just some politically motivated exaggeration. I am aware that, under the provisional funding settlement of 2001-02, Thames Valley will get an increase of 5.8 per cent., receiving over £4 million from the crime fighting fund and £1 million for rural policing. Frankly, however, that will have no beneficial impact unless the recruitment problem is solved. Thames Valley needs the ability to provide a substantial uplift in line with the Metropolitan police. If the problem is reluctance by the Police Federation to allow for differentials, all I can say to the Minister is that he is going to have bang some heads together pretty hard and pretty quickly.

Some thought should also be given to the problem of policing rural areas such as South Buckinghamshire. The area is sandwiched between urban centres with high crime and high police priorities. With those competing priorities, my constituents seem to lose out. That might not happen if there was a separate police district covering our area and possibly part of Chiltern Vale as well.

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When the issue first broke, a local journalist suggested to me that, being relatively wealthy, South Buckinghamshire might be better able to cope with higher levels of crime and ought to accept its fate. I pointed out to him, as I do now to the Minister, that it is the money from the enterprise and thrift of my constituents that pays for the policing successes in places such as Knowsley, North in Liverpool. My constituents are, of course, conscious that they have a better standard of living and greater opportunities than people do there, but they are still entitled to expect a police service that inspires confidence and can deal with crime adequately. The dedicated police officers are there, but not the resources. That is the issue that I hope the Minister will address today.

12.46 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): I congratulate the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) on securing this debate, and I am grateful for him giving me notice of the main points that he intended to raise, which will lead to a better-informed debate.

I also acknowledge the intervention of the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), whom I am particularly glad to see here, as she has a long-standing relationship with my constituency and it is always a pleasure to share a debate with her. She tries to keep quiet about the Norfolk connection, but we advertise it as widely as possible because she is such a credit to the Conservatives in a rather thin field.

I was grateful for the remarks of both hon. Members in praise of the police in their constituencies. I add my tribute to the police in their constituencies and to the Thames Valley force as a whole, which has such a good record.

This debate is timely, because of the concerns that have been raised about policing in South Buckinghamshire recently, and in particular since the transmission of the Channel 4 programme on policing and crime on 13 January 2001. That programme drew up a league table that compared police performance in each district or unitary local authority area in England and Wales. It used the results of some regression analysis carried out by the university of Leeds to equalise a range of socio-demographic factors so that each local authority district could, it claimed, be fairly compared regardless of the nature of its population and the level of deprivation that it faced.

The Home Office has not tried to devise a national league table in that way, because there are methodological issues that are of concern. However, we have gone down the route of devising families of crime and disorder reduction partnerships and basic command units of broadly similar socio-economic characteristics. From those, the public and BCU commanders can benchmark and compare like with like.

We published our most recent figures earlier this month, and the previous figures, published in July, were on the same basis--the first time that such data have been published in that form. That should enable people to have informed debates of the type that the hon. Gentleman is trying to stimulate today.

The Thames Valley police have made known to me their disappointment with the content of the Channel 4 programme. South Buckinghamshire is affluent, in

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comparison with many areas with high levels of social deprivation, and in terms of violent crime, it is indeed one of the safest parts of the Thames Valley. It is important to place that on the record, given the nature of the programme.

The league table constructed by Leeds university is an interesting approach and I look forward to receiving more details from its creators of how it has been produced. When setting up inter-authority comparisons, we have found it far more helpful to generate families of crime and disorder reduction partnership with similar characteristics. That allows more direct comparisons between similar areas and makes benchmarking more accessible to all concerned.

South Buckinghamshire, which is in the crime and disorder reduction partnership family 11--as seen in the published tables of Home Office documents earlier this month and last July--is in the first quartile, the safest, for crimes of violence against the person and for sexual offences. I emphasise that that is within the crime reduction partnership family. It is in the fourth quartile, the worst, for robbery, burglary from dwellings and theft of and from vehicles. It is performing poorly in those respects, but not in terms of crimes of violence.

Across England and Wales as a whole, South Buckinghamshire remains one of the safest areas in terms of violence against the person and sexual offences. It is in the third quartile for robbery, but remains in the bottom quartile for burglary and vehicle theft. A similar pattern emerges across the Thames Valley police authority area. The best approach to stimulating debate about these matters is through more specific analysis rather than through an overall table produced nationally and published in a Channel 4 programme.

Our assessment is that South Buckinghamshire's higher than average property and vehicle crime levels are due to a combination of factors. The area borders several large towns that suffer deprivation. It is also well served by the motorway network, so it can be targeted by travelling and opportunistic thieves. The Thames Valley force is working in partnership with various agencies to promote safer communities and to target prolific offenders, which can be difficult in areas of high mobility.

Thames Valley's own crime reports show that individuals who leave articles such as mobile phones and laptop computers on show, particularly in company cars, contribute significantly to the rise in property-related and vehicle crime. When I recently visited the police in Slough, that point was made forcefully to me. Despite their best efforts, the police cannot solve these problems alone. That is why we developed the partnership approach for attacking vehicle crime, one product of which was the Vehicles (Crime) Bill, which completed its final stages in the House yesterday. In a series of other measures, we are working jointly with the police, local government, motor manufacturers and the insurance industry to attack vehicle crime and achieve our targets.

The Thames Valley police authority has set five-year targets to reduce domestic burglary by 40 per cent. and vehicle crime by 30 per cent. As the published figures demonstrate, it is a challenging target and it amounts to a head-on confrontation with the problems illustrated in

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the tables. I want formally to congratulate the force on setting such challenging targets in conjunction with the other authorities in the crime reduction partnerships.

The hon. Gentleman asked about funding for the Thames Valley force. We shall debate the police funding settlement for England and Wales later this afternoon. Thames Valley police are set to receive funding support of £245.1 million next year--an increase of £13.4 million or 5.8 per cent. over 2000-01. The average increase for forces in England and Wales is 4.9 per cent. I skimmed lightly down the table of increases and found that only six of the 43 forces have received better overall increases than the Thames Valley force.

It is worth placing it on the record that the 1998-99 increase for the Thames Valley force was 5.3 per cent., compared with 3.2 per cent. nationally; in 1999-2000, it got 2.4 per cent., compared with 2.5 per cent. nationally; and in 2000-01, 3.2 per cent., compared with 2.8 per cent. I have already provided the figure for 2001-02. Over the years, the Thames Valley force has done better than the national average, but that is not to dispute the issues of funding that the hon. Gentleman raised. However, the national context should help him to make appropriate judgments.

In addition, the Thames Valley force has received £4.3 million from the crime fighting fund for recruiting police, about which I shall say more in a moment; £8.7 million for the costs of the Airwave police radio system; and £1.3 million from the rural policing fund, which was established in response to the campaign around the country for more resources for rural policing. Those are all significant amounts and the Thames Valley force will use them well. I hope that they will go some way towards dealing with the situation that the hon. Gentleman describes.

I have met the chief constable and the police authority to discuss the funding for the extraordinary costs to which the hon. Gentleman referred. We have established a clear rule for such funding. The decision on the Huntingdon laboratory in Cambridgeshire took account of the specific circumstances there. I acknowledge the case that has been made about having had to deal with the environmental and animal welfare protests.

We have consistently stated that police numbers are important as part of a comprehensive package of measures. Thames Valley police has 3,748 police officers, as at the end of September 2000, which is eight more than on 30 March 2000, six months earlier, and 53 more than on 30 March 1997. I am delighted that the ambitions of the Labour shadow Home Secretary to have more police officers than when we took power have, under the Government's outstanding leadership, been well overachieved in Thames Valley, and I hope that that fact will be acknowledged.

Mr. Grieve : I accept that, but I hope that the Minister will deal with the fact that it is a much slower take-up of numbers than the police would want, because of the problems with recruiting and maintaining their manpower.

Mr. Clarke : I will come to that legitimate point. Thames Valley has 177.1 officers per 100,000 population. Six forces have lower levels of officers per 100,000.

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Because time is limited, all that I shall say about the crime fighting fund is that the process is being moved forward and that, because of the problems to which the hon. Gentleman referred, we are prepared to be flexible on allocations. The police negotiating board is considering whether there should be an allowance for officers in forces outside London, including Thames Valley, and we await its recommendations on that or any other issues to do with police pay and allowances. It is not appropriate for me, as a Minister, to second-guess the position of the police negotiating board--an august body whose deliberations can never be tested by anybody.

The employers' side has made proposals in which the chief constable and the authority for Thames Valley have taken a full part. We shall await the outcome of the PNB deliberations. I cannot express optimism or pessimism about that, except to say that the employers would not have made their case unless they considered it well founded, as the hon. Gentleman has acknowledged. I hope that, on the issue of police housing--there has been substantial debate in the authority about its housing sales policy--the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham will put their weight fully behind those who argue that the police should maximise the housing available to police in the Thames Valley area and not rashly dispose of housing more rapidly than they need to.

We accept the hon. Gentleman's fundamental point about the need to increase presence and reassurance in rural areas. Only yesterday, I was discussing how to do that with leaders of the national police service. We are making progress on various initiatives, including mobile police stations, rural parish special constables and targeted patrolling, to address issues of police presence and visibility. I know that he will join me in celebrating the fact that police numbers are higher in the Thames Valley area than when we took office. The same goes for police stations: in March 1997, there were 53 in Thames Valley; in March this year, 55.

None of that is meant to deny that there are major problems that need to be addressed, but we can say categorically that we are seeking to tackle precisely the issues that have been raised by the hon. Gentleman in what I have certainly found to be--as I hope that he has--an interesting and worthwhile discussion.

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