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Police (Hertfordshire)

12.30 pm

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere): I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise a subject of particular interest to my constituents, as it is to the constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Prisk), who will say a few words after I have spoken. A recent public opinion survey in the borough of Hertsmere revealed that the maintenance of law and order was the No. 1 concern of local residents. As my constituents have made clear to me and others many times, they regard that as being linked intimately to the provision of sufficient numbers of police officers to provide a visible police presence in the borough, to respond to crimes and emergencies and to be available in police stations when the public need them.

The Hertfordshire police force has had particular difficulty in attracting the number of new recruits that it needs. Before I refer to those recruitment difficulties, I wish to make it clear that I do not intend any criticism of the Hertfordshire force. My feelings are quite the opposite. I hold the Hertfordshire police force and its leadership in high regard. Its recruitment difficulties are not of its making. It has done its best to overcome such problems and to recruit as many new members as it can, and to overcome the consequences of not having sufficient police numbers. For example, it has done as much as it possibly can to put police officers on the front line when they can be of assistance to members of the public.

However, the Hertfordshire police force is not attracting the number of recruits that it needs. An apparent increase in police numbers in Hertfordshire in the past year has to be put in the context of an extension of the boundaries of the Hertfordshire force and the secondment of Metropolitan force officers to areas such as Hertsmere, which were policed formerly by the Metropolitan police. Hertfordshire is falling behind its target for recruiting enough officers to police the county. The recruitment target per year for the Hertfordshire force is 250 recruits. That is made up of 25 recruits in each of the five-weekly intakes of new recruits. Until recently, the number of recruits coming forward has been about half of that target—about 13 new recruits in each intake—whereas 25 recruits were needed to meet the force's target.

In response to that deficiency, the Hertfordshire force launched a recruitment drive last February. That was a sensible decision, but it has cost £250,000. As a result, recruitment has increased to about 18 in the most recent intake, but that is still well below the number needed. Overall, the force is about 145 officers short of its establishment target of 2,049 officers, excluding the crime fighting fund.

Such matters have serious consequences for Hertfordshire constituencies. Following changes in the governance of London, Hertsmere was transferred from the Metropolitan force to the Hertfordshire force on 1 April 2000. The Metropolitan officers who served Hertsmere were temporarily seconded to the Hertfordshire force. However, the secondment began to come to an end at the beginning of this year. Since 1 April, Metropolitan police officers have been returning to the Met from Hertfordshire at the rate of

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between eight and 12 a month. I understand that 31 have already returned and the remaining officers will return between now and March 2002.

Metropolitan officers who return to the Metropolitan force from Hertsmere are replaced by Hertfordshire officers, which is why the recruitment difficulties of the Hertfordshire force are of such direct relevance to my constituents. The Hertfordshire force has made it clear that the problems caused by the shortfall in recruitment will be shared throughout the force area. Hertsmere will not suffer alone. Nevertheless, Hertsmere's share of the recruitment problem will have consequences for policing the borough.

The number of police officers in Hertsmere is already below strength. The target for the Hertsmere division is 105 officers. The number in place is 95 and it may fall even further as Metropolitan force secondees continue to return to that force.

In Hertsmere, there is a widespread perception among local residents that the thin blue line is getting increasingly thinner and that, through no fault of its own, the Hertfordshire force cannot always provide the visible policing or response to crime that the public want. With some justice, Hertsmere residents feel that there are simply not enough police officers in Hertsmere. At the same time, there is also a perception that in various parts of Hertsmere there is a rising tide of antisocial behaviour, especially on the part of youths—it is low level in some cases, but local residents should not have to put up with it. Examples include gangs of youths in Grosvenor road in Borehamwood terrorising residents; a particularly unpleasant attack by vandals on the Threeways community and old people's day centre in Borehamwood, resulting in graffiti and damage; and harassment of shopkeepers, mess and vandalism by youths in the Harcourt road area of Bushey. Those are just some examples of the antisocial activities perceived to be taking place.

Sadly, in several instances the police have been unable to respond promptly to criminal activity, despite their best efforts. A recent and well publicised local example involved the theft of belongings from the clothes of participants during the installation of a new incumbent clergyman in the parish of Elstree, conducted by the Bishop of St. Albans. According to reports of the incident, on the evening of 11 June thieves entered a room in which members of the visiting clergy had left their clothes, and stole jackets, handbags, wallets, cash, credit cards, keys, diaries and personal documents belonging to about 12 clergy, while the new clergyman was being installed in the church nearby. The police could not attend that evening, as they were dealing with other calls and simply did not have enough officers. I understand that the police subsequently attended, but no one has yet been arrested in connection with the incident, and they could not respond on the evening that the offence took place. That is just one of several cases that have come to my attention.

Against that background of wide-ranging anxiety about the number of police officers available to police Hertsmere I met the Minister then responsible, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), on 3 April and representatives of the three major political parties from Hertsmere. On 22 June, the present Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs wrote to me following that meeting. In that letter, the Minister drew attention to

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some of the measures that had already been taken to deal with Hertfordshire's recruitment problems, but he could not offer anything new to deal with the recruitment circumstances that I described. More needs to be done. As far as Hertsmere is concerned, the situation is unsatisfactory and could get worse. Residents of Hertsmere, local councillors and I are not prepared to allow that to happen without doing more.

I invite the Minister to look into three issues that may help. First, I invite him to consider reducing the pay differential between the Hertfordshire and the Metropolitan forces. It is true that the recommendation of the Police Negotiating Board for a £2,000 allowance for Hertfordshire officers was implemented on 1 April this year. However, Metropolitan force officers had already received an even bigger allowance in the previous year. Therefore, in recent times, the pay differential between the Hertfordshire and the Metropolitan forces has widened. A young person considering a police career in my constituency can make the short journey to London, join the Met and receive £4,000 more than if he or she had joined the Hertfordshire force. That is a substantial differential in terms of a police officer's salary.

Secondly, will the Minister consider the arrangements for concessionary travel for Hertfordshire officers, to bring them into line with those enjoyed by Metropolitan police officers? The latter enjoy free rail travel within a 70-mile radius of London. I believe, and the Minister may be able to confirm, that some Home Office funding has gone into that. Hertfordshire officers have some free rail travel as a result of agreements negotiated locally, but it is not as extensive as the travel arrangements enjoyed by Metropolitan officers, which are much more extensive and advantageous.

Thirdly, will the Minister consider the rate of return of Metropolitan force secondees from Hertsmere back to the Met? Any slowing in that rate could help Hertfordshire tackle the consequences of its recruitment difficulties. If the return of secondees continues at its present rate, Hertsmere and other parts of Hertfordshire could be left with fewer officers than are needed to give residents the service that they want.

More generally, I invite the Minister to consider the position of counties such as Hertfordshire in the overall framework of police pay and conditions. Will the Minister also take on board the fact that what is needed to recruit and retain officers in a high cost of living area such as Hertfordshire may be different from elsewhere. What provides a good standard of living in, say, the west midlands or the north of England, may not necessarily do so in Hertfordshire.

Those are matters of real concern to my constituents. It is not sufficient to say, as some sometimes do, that Hertfordshire is a relatively safe place with a low level of crime relative to other areas. There is a growing problem in Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire residents pay their taxes, both local and national, and look for a police service to be provided for them. Currently, through no fault of the Hertfordshire police force, it is difficult to provide that service to my constituents. They should not have to put up with not having the number of police on the streets, the police response to incidents and

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emergencies, and the general level of policing that they would want in their borough. I am sure that the same goes for residents in the rest of Hertfordshire.

Today, we are looking for constructive help and I am anxious to hear, after my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford has spoken, what the Minister has to say.

12.43 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford): I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on taking the initiative in this debate. Like his constituents, my constituents regard this matter as one of the critical issues affecting the quality of life in Hertford and Stortford. We face the daunting prospect that by Christmas the number of police officers may have declined to 250 fewer than the establishment level that the chief constable has advised me is required for full and effective policing.

My constituency differs slightly from that of my hon. Friend, as it encompasses four market towns and several attractive villages, and has no real centre. It is true to say that some districts in my constituency have some of the lowest historical levels of crime in England and Wales. Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a consistent and growing level of violent crime. Coupled with that is a strong recognition by all my constituents that the profile of police officers has declined year on year.

To see the consequences of that, I took the opportunity, earlier this year to go on patrol with officers and gain experience of the practical issues. It was a Friday evening shift in Bishop's Stortford. It showed me that a town such as Bishop's Stortford, which has 32,000 people, is often served by a shift of approximately seven officers. Clearly, that is inadequate and will lead to further problems in the town. I was also struck by the quality of the professionalism and commitment of the officers in Hertfordshire, to which my hon. Friend referred. I want to put on record my respect for the commitment of Inspector Radwell and his team in Bishop's Stortford and the officers in the rest of my constituency. The truth is, however, that those officers are overstretched and overworked.

The recruitment crisis in Hertfordshire is generating problems with retention because, inevitably, experienced officers who are stretched beyond their limit tend to leave earlier and earlier. Of course, that compounds the problem.

As my hon. Friend emphasised, the root of the issue is that the Government's attempts to solve the problems of the Metropolitan force and improve the situation in London—by changing the pay, and so on—have led to a worse situation in Hertfordshire and other home counties. That financial gap of £4,000 is clearly significant to new recruits, let alone existing officers, and it has led to a ridiculous situation whereby police officers resident in Hertfordshire towns almost invariably work for the Metropolitan police, because Hertfordshire police officers cannot afford to live in the communities that they are responsible for protecting. That is why I endorse my hon. Friend's recommendations and analysis and look forward to hearing what the Minister says in response.

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12.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on obtaining the debate, as it gives us a useful opportunity to air some concerns that have been raised about police recruitment in Hertfordshire and to set out the Government's actions in helping that recruitment. I hope that my response will deal with the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Police strength in Hertfordshire increased by eight between March 1997 and March 2000. That strength grew by a further 155 between March 2000 and March 2001, to a total of 1,922. The force has set a target strength of 2,049, which is 127 officers higher than the force strength at March 2001. As the hon. Gentleman said, the growth in strength in 2000-01 was as a result of boundary changes with the Metropolitan police in April 2000. Following those boundary changes, more than 180 Metropolitan police officers were seconded to Hertfordshire. Some 170 Metropolitan police secondees remain with Hertfordshire at March 2001, but all are due to return to the Metropolitan police force by March 2002, as that force will naturally need those officers back.

Hertfordshire police are therefore faced with the triple challenge of recruiting to cover natural wastage, to replace the departing secondees and to reach target strength. It would be unrealistic to expect the force to achieve that within a single year and the strength of Hertfordshire constabulary may fall this year before starting to rise when the exceptional drain created by the returning Metropolitan secondees is over.

Hertfordshire constabulary recruited 110 officers in 2000-01—fewer than the number recruited before, but well up on each of the two years before that. To counter the difficulties experienced in attracting recruits, the force has made a substantial investment in recruitment advertising. That is reflected in the forecasts provided to monitor the crime fighting fund, in which the force suggested that it would take on 214 officers this year, excluding appointments on transfer.

I have been advised by the Hertfordshire constabulary that the measures taken by the force to boost recruitment include setting up a recruitment website—it has received more than 9,500 visitors since it went live in February—and making other innovative uses of high-tech advertising, for example, the distribution of CD-ROMs in the form of business cards to enable potential recruits to connect to the website. There is a widespread poster campaign, as well as cinema advertisements and open days for potential recruits. The Hertfordshire constabulary is trying to ensure that its recruitment is targeted at the whole population by reflecting the make-up of the area so that it does not miss out on potential applications.

The Government are supporting police recruitment, including recruitment in Hertfordshire, in several ways. The crime fighting fund is enabling forces in England and Wales to recruit 9,000 officers over and above their previous plans in the three years to March 2003. With the help of the CFF, forces in England and Wales recruited 7,415 officers—64 per cent. more than in the previous year. The increase in police strength of 1,349 was the largest annual increase since 1988-89. We expect

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police strength to reach record numbers by March 2003 and to have 130,000 officers by March 2004. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said that when police strength reaches that number he will set a new target to take police force strengths higher.

Hertfordshire has been allocated 107 CFF recruits in the three years of the scheme. The force was unable to recruit any of the 40 CFF recruits allocated to it in 2000-01. In recognition of the difficulties that the force has had in attracting recruits, we have allowed it to carry over the 2000-01 allocation to next year. Hertfordshire will be able to recruit up to 70 CFF-funded officers in this financial year. Monitoring returns submitted by the force show that it expects to take up the full allocation of the crime fighting fund recruits. If the force recruits as planned it will qualify for just over £1 million from the CFF this year.

Mr. Clappison : I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, as the matter concerns many people involved in policing in Hertfordshire. If, for the sake of argument, one accepts that the money is available to fund new police recruits in Hertfordshire, even so, new recruits may not come forward because the pay and conditions in Hertfordshire are not attractive enough. Will the Minister take those sentiments on board?

Mr. Ainsworth : The hon. Gentleman should be patient and allow me to move on to that point. If he does not interrupt me too often, I shall get there.

In August last year, to help forces to achieve the extra recruitment enabled by the crime fighting fund, the Government launched the first ever national recruitment advertising campaign for the police service. There were more than 150,000 responses to the campaign and 32,000 expressions of interest have been forwarded to forces. The next phase of the campaign will begin in August and will have a regional element. We shall focus some of the advertising in areas where forces are in need of greater support, including Hertfordshire.

Officers in Hertfordshire may benefit from the starter home initiative under which £250 million will be made available in the next three years to help key workers to purchase homes. A bid from Ridgehill housing association, targeted particularly on police officers in Hertfordshire, has gone forward to the second phase of the bidding process. We are reviewing entry requirements and standards for police recruitment with a view to ensuring that unnecessary barriers to recruitment are removed.The review is exploring a range of criteria, including age, nationality, medical, eyesight and fitness requirements as well as the police initial recruitment test. We intend to develop new recruitment standards and requirements that are job related and non-discriminatory, and they will be applied nationally. That should help to ensure that potential recruits are not unnecessarily excluded and help all forces to recruit. We are also considering the way in which candidates can apply for the police service, so that potential recruits might be directed to apply to those forces with the greatest need rather than have them wait until there are vacancies in their local area.

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The pay and allowances available to officers in the Hertfordshire constabulary have a bearing on the force's ability to recruit. Officers in the constabulary who were appointed after 1 September 1994 and are not in receipt of a housing allowance are, since 1 April this year, entitled to an additional £2,000. My right hon. Friend the previous Home Secretary approved that new allowance, following a joint recommendation by the official and the staff sides of the Police Negotiating Board on 8 February, in recognition of the special recruitment and retention difficulties associated with the high cost of living in Hertfordshire. The hon. Gentleman said that that is not good enough, although when his party was in government, it did not take any such action. He claimed that there is a major problem with the Met living next door, a matter that I am more than happy to look at with him.

However, my figures show no evidence of a drain of police from Hertfordshire to the Met. In the past two years, the figures—I am happy to make them available to the hon. Gentleman—show that there has been movement in the opposite direction. In the year 2000-01, 15 Met officers moved to Hertfordshire and so far this year there have been five, whereas 10 officers moved in the opposite direction last year and five officers moved this year. My figures do not support the evidence that there is a great drain of police constables from Hertfordshire to the Met.

I was pleased to hear the hon. Gentleman say that Hertfordshire was not a high crime area. However, he said that after considerable comment along the lines of "The thin blue line is getting thinner and thinner" when he gave details of crime problems in the area. It is true that Hertfordshire is a low crime area. It does not do his argument any good to paint the picture in the way that

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he does. Let us consider violent crimes per 1,000 people. There are five violent crimes per 1,000 people in Hertfordshire compared with 11.6 crimes throughout the national scene. The clear-up rate of violent crimes in Hertfordshire is 69 per cent. compared with 45 per cent. throughout the country.

Thus, Hertfordshire is a low crime, pleasant area in which to live, which is different from the picture that the hon. Gentleman tried to paint. If he is not willing to accept my argument, I refer him to the annual report of the local force, the salient point of which is:

The situation is Hertfordshire is a lot better than that in many other parts of the country.

Mr. Clappison : It is an historical fact that Hertfordshire has a relatively low crime rate. If the Minister is saying that residents should be expected to put up with a lower level of policing and police response, an insufficient number of police officers and recruitment problems, I shall take issue with him as will many people in Hertfordshire.

Mr. Ainsworth : I was not attempting to say that at all. In the majority of his speech, the hon. Gentleman painted a picture of a rising tide of disorder, which led me to think that we were talking about the more serious problems in one of our inner-city areas and not one of the more pleasant parts of country, in which there are relatively low levels of crime. There are recruitment difficulties that are caused partly by the Hertfordshire police force trying to replace the metropolitan secondees at a time of substantial recruitment elsewhere. I do not underestimate those difficulties and I am happy to talk about the situation.

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