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Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am also grateful to the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), for being here to respond.
Two weeks ago in Risby, near where I live in Suffolk, there was a raid on the small post office, which is part of an antiques centre. The raiders wore balaclavas and carried coshes. They screamed and shouted at the sub-postmistress, saying that they were going to kill her. They smashed the glass to ensure that the robbery was speeded up. It was a deeply shocking and traumatising experience for all involved. Just last week, across the border in Cambridgeshire in the village of Bassingbourne, a similar robbery took place. Masked robbers with baseball bats went into the post office and held it up. I have here an article from the Cambridge Evening News that proves the extent of the anxiety in the local community. The article points out that the robbery rapidly followed similar raids in Grantchester and Great Abington. Late last year, again in my constituency, the post office at Kedington was held up, on that occasion at gun point. That occurred shortly after a raid on the small post office at Stoke-by-Clare.
Let me make clear to the Minister something of which he will already be aware as a Member who represents an East Anglian constituency: such events are deeply traumatising to small communities. They have a ripple effect that sends out fear and anxiety in the locality. When a small shop or village post office is held up, the community's sense of well-being is greatly disturbed. The truth is that in the past two years in my constituency, in addition to the places I have already mentioned, hold-ups have taken place in Lakenheath, Dalham, Worlington, Horringer, Barton Mills, West Row and Newmarket. Even that is not a complete list. I have had hundreds of letters from people who are sick to death of the huge rise in violent crime in our region.
I focused on the problem in a newsletter that I put out just before Christmas. I pointed out that it was a source of considerable anxiety to people in my constituency and asked whether the concern was justified. The truth is that, since the general election, there have been 40 fewer police officers in the Suffolk constabulary and crime has risen by 20 per cent. Since April 1998, when the measurement of violent crime changed, crimes of violence in Suffolk have risen by 59 per cent.--twice the rate of other English counties. Given that, in the 12 months preceding April 1998, crimes of violence increased by 21.2 per cent, the figure of 59 per cent. over the four-year period of which I am speaking is certainly an underestimate. That is a shocking statistic. Such violence profoundly undermines the fabric of rural life.
To be frank, the problem arises from chronically inadequate police numbers. The pressures on Suffolk constabulary and surrounding constabularies are greater than ever and the effect on police officers' morale is devastating. A letter to me from Mrs. Butcher of Brandon reveals the problem. She states:
"Rural people are being ignored and under protected in favour of the urban areas. Standard New Labour policy. I think the police force needs a good objective assessment to target police in the areas of real need."
I allude to that idea having seen its success and because we need the Home Office to encourage and sponsor such projects, not only as the one-off schemes that exist now--although I repeat that I applaud them--but as projects to reach young people through sport and physical education.The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who must hold the world
I would also like to make a very specific suggestion. The management of the Post Office have been down to my constituency, visiting the post offices that have been held-up and raided with the terrible consequences I already described. Running a small rural post office is expensive: it is difficult to build up the business, it is hard work, and the business is not very profitable. As a result, record numbers of rural post offices have been closing--there are 450 post offices for sale at this moment. I urge the Minister to talk to the Post Office about security in a proactive and positive way. I have repeatedly had meetings with the managers and they must be made to understand, that if there is inadequate security provision in rural post offices and if the police are not there to help when a problem arises, the ripple effect started by closure is exacerbated, encompassing all the problems that that brings for local communities. I urge the Minister to engage in high-level discussions with the Post Office on specific measures to address the issue.
It is a characteristic of the present Government that they like to target things--they have challenge funds and other sums that can be accessed for different purposes. I fully accept and acknowledge that there has been an increase in funding to the Suffolk constabulary, but the Minister should bear in mind--because it is a culture prevalent throughout Government Departments--that to secure those funds requires a very high level of bureaucratic activity on the part of the constabulary, and we know that the bureaucratic pressures on the police are already high. I hope that the ability of chief constables to organise policing in their areas is not being further impaired by the amount of bureaucratic activity that such funding requires.
At the heart of the issue is the absolute necessity to redress the reduction in police numbers that has happened in areas such as Suffolk. Indeed, we must add to those numbers. We must be tough on crime and on the causes of crime: in an area like East Anglia--where the causes of crime do not bear comparison with those in many other urban parts of England--there is no excuse. To be tough on crime requires transparency in sentencing and it requires that local criminal justice systems be supported so that magistrates understand about problem families in their local communities.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate, although I found some of his language a little extravagant. The debate provides a useful opportunity to air some of the concerns that have been raised about policing in East Anglia and it allows me accurately to set out the overall situation and put it into context.
East Anglia is relatively a very safe place to live. In all major categories of crime, offences per 1,000 of the population are well below the national average. In fact, the Audit Commission report on police performance for 1999-2000 published in January--the sort of good objective assessment to which the hon. Gentleman referred--shows that his local area of Suffolk, has the fourth lowest crime rate in England and one of the highest detection rates. I understand from the chief constable of Suffolk that house burglary in the force area is the lowest in the country in terms of number of offences and of repeat victims. The below-average trends for crime per 1,000 of the population are repeated in the other East Anglian counties of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, to which I shall refer during the course of this debate. I shall leave north Essex out for the time being and stick to the three county areas that make up what might be called "real" East Anglia.
Overall crime in East Anglia increased by 6 per cent. between April 1996 and September 2000, and in the 12 months to September 2000, offences in Suffolk increased by 10.8 per cent., according to recently published figures. In Cambridgeshire, however, crime fell by 2.9 per cent. and in Norfolk by nearly 1 per cent. There was an overall decrease in crime over the population as a whole, but crime is still too high and all our policies and strategies are directed to bringing crime levels down.
In respect of funding, in recent years East Anglian forces have consistently set budgets that are above the national average: in the past two years, budgets have been increased by between 4.5 per cent. and 5.8 per cent., whereas the national average increase was 3.1 per cent. in 1999-2000 and 3.6 per cent in 2000-01. For 2001-02, forces in East Anglia will receive Government-supported funding increases of 5.6 per cent. across the range; Suffolk will receive 5.8 per cent., Norfolk 5.8 per cent. and Cambridgeshire 5.4 per cent. Those figures compare with the national average of 4.9 per cent., so each force and East Anglia as a whole will receive significantly more than the average overall increase. In addition , East Anglian forces will receive £4.626 million from the rural policing fund, which was specifically established by the Government to deal with some of the problems of crime in rural areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The settlement has been a good one for forces in East Anglia and I am sure that chief constables and their police authorities will use it to best effect.
There is further good news in the hon. Gentleman's local force area. Although his force had 31 fewer police officers on 30 September 2000 than on 31 March 2000, the force has projected that there will be 1,152 officers by 31 March this year, which is six more than there were 12 months before. Police forces in East Anglia have genuinely reversed the trend under which wastage exceeded recruitment. Our published police manpower statistics for 1999-2000 show that 83 officers were recruited and 167 left forces in East Anglia in that year. However, in the first six months of 2000-01 alone, 121 new officers were recruited and 89 left, meaning that 32 more officers joined the three forces than left them. Overall, the numbers are improving and we are determined that they will continue to improve by means of the crimefighting fund that the Government have established. I pay tribute to the three chief constables of Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for their committed efforts to improve the situation. They lead strong and committed forces in areas of relatively low crime nationally and they seek to make a major difference to the communities that they serve. The position on police numbers is a strong one. There were 78,000 responses to our national recruitment campaign and a large number of expressions of interest, many of which have been passed on to forces in East Anglia.
I mentioned rural policing issues, which I will not go through in detail, except to say that £4.6 million--15 per cent. of the total available--has gone to East Anglia: Suffolk got £1.4 million, Norfolk £2.08 million and Cambridgeshire £1.1 million. The forces are spending money to support a wide variety of imaginative initiatives, including the development of intelligence-led patrols, the use of mobile police stations, additional police officers and overtime in rural areas, improving rural police stations, accelerating civilianisation of some police work to increase police officers' operational presence as I have described, the installation of new communications technology and the development of community safety partnerships in rural areas. The situation has improved significantly and will continue to do so in future.
On performance, I pay tribute to the East Anglian forces, which are doing well at maintaining a high standard of service, as shown in the Audit Commission report to which I referred. Their primary detection rates exceed the national average of 12.22 per officer. The figure was 13.3 in Suffolk, 13.1 in Norfolk and 13.8 in Cambridgeshire, which is a tribute to the way in which those forces are managed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would associate himself with that comment. Responses to calls requiring an immediate response exceeded local targets. The figure was more than 88 per cent. in Suffolk and more than 79 per cent in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Overall, more than 89 per cent. of 999 calls were answered within the target; the figure was 89.9 per cent. in Cambridgeshire, 93 per cent. in Norfolk and an impressive 95 per cent. in Suffolk. Our partnership schemes have received large resources--£4.2 million in total--from the crime reduction programme, focused on targeted policing, reducing burglary and a range of other initiatives. Bids for neighbourhood wardens and closed circuit television are under consideration by the Government. There is a substantial range of achievements.
The hon. Gentleman made two particular points. On the first, I commend the work that he described on youth crime in Ottowa. I am sure that many police forces in this country, including Suffolk and my own, have had specific schemes and approaches based on involvement in sport. In Norfolk, we have a motorbike club for young people precisely to address those issues, especially as they involve aggressive young men. It is simply not true to say that we are not making sport a priority. He will be glad to know that my Department is in touch with the Youth Sport Trust, which is a highly effective organisation, to develop and roll out the sports initiative that he described under our crime reduction programme and to put resources into those areas. From my time as an Education Minister dealing with youth sport, I know that there is simply no correlation between the picture that the hon. Gentleman painted and reality. Sports education is increasing and will continue to do so. On his second point, I confirm that through our retail crime reduction group we are discussing with the Post Office what steps we can take to address such issues more effectively.
I am delighted to have had a chance to respond to the debate, although I rather regret the pre-election atmosphere. In a more relaxed and open environment, and in his heart of hearts, the hon. Member for West Suffolk might concede that real progress is being made in policing in Suffolk and elsewhere in East Anglia. The Government certainly intend to continue making the kinds of changes necessary for us to be able to do that.