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24 Apr 2002 : Column 114WH

Policing (East Anglia)

12.30 pm

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk): Norfolk and, indeed, the whole country was shaken by the Tony Martin case, which brought into sharp focus the issue of policing in remote rural areas. Tony Martin had been the victim of a number of burglaries and thefts. By the time of the burglary that resulted in the tragic death of one of the intruders, he had virtually lost confidence in the local police. Time and again he had reported crimes to the local constabulary, yet he did not feel that due note was being taken of his reports and concerns. Most people in Norfolk were dismayed when he was charged with murder and even more dismayed when he was convicted. I am pleased that the Court of Appeal reduced his conviction to one of manslaughter and I hope that he will be out of prison soon and can return a free man to his farm, Bleak House, at Emneth Hungate.

I want to examine how Norfolk constabulary has reacted to the challenges thrown up not just by the Martin case, but as a result of ongoing appraisals by our excellent chief constable, Kenneth Williams. I shall then look at what still needs to be done and try to put some of those changes into the national context.

I have nothing but praise for our local police. They are excellent, incredibly hard-working and conscientious. I should like to praise in particular chief superintendent Alan Hayes, who is in charge of the division in King's Lynn, and his operations superintendent Tony Charrington. They have always been extremely professional and responsive whenever I have contacted them, and they are held in high regard by their officers throughout that part of Norfolk.

Norfolk has had a pattern of under-investment in policing, and police officer strength is well below the national average. Norfolk is bottom but one of the 43 forces in terms of the officer-population ratio. That is completely unacceptable in a county that is geographically one of the largest in England, has a rapidly growing population and is visited by 4 million tourists a year. Although Norfolk may appear to be quite prosperous, it has pockets of social deprivation and many isolated villages and rural areas that increase the difficulties of providing the reassurance and police visibility that the public rightly demand.

The current settlement, as the Minister knows, allows for a welcome increase of 100 officers for Norfolk's constabulary, up to a target figure of 1,500 by March next year. However, numbers will only return to where they were in 1997. There are currently 1,470. Across the country, there are 600 fewer police officers than there were in 1997, so we have a significant way to go. I am concerned about the number of officers leaving the police forces up and down the country and the number of officers leaving Norfolk's constabulary in particular. Indeed, in some parts of the country, the numbers leaving are outstripping new recruits, which is creating a problem for police morale.

The Norfolk constabulary has proposed several initiatives that have directly benefited my constituents. A beat station was established in Terrington St. John, which is a small village in the west of my constituency in the middle of an area known as Marshland. The area is

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remotely populated, and people have a sense of distance from Norwich, the county capital. Parts of Marshland are 45, 50 or 60 miles from Norwich. The establishment of the beat station has done a great deal to convince local people that the constabulary is taking seriously their concerns about visible policing and the need to have more police officers on the ground.

I am also pleased that Chief Constable Ken Williams recently launched several mobile police stations in Norfolk: one is in west Norfolk, another is part of the Fenland initiative, which I shall discuss later. Each vehicle will be staffed by a police officer and, in some cases, support staff. The vehicles have been designed specially for the Norfolk constabulary. They will all have telephones, radios, fax connections to police force networks, disabled access, and a folding pedal cycle for the police officer to use on patrol while the vehicle is parked visibly in a rural community. Each will follow a published route and timetable for visiting villages. From now on, two vehicles will operate in my constituency, which is welcome.

I also want to praise the community contact vehicles initiative, which is another of Ken Williams's initiatives. As the Minister probably knows, Norfolk has been split into three areas and 16 inspector-led sectors for policing purposes. I praise the Government for the rural policing fund, which enabled the purchase of 15 Ford Galaxy people carriers—the sort that the Prime Minister and his family use. Each sector will have one of the people carriers, which have been modified to permit use as a mobile office and include a folding table at the rear.

The idea behind the community contact vehicles is that police officers will be able to carry out a substantial amount of paperwork in them. All too often in the past, police officers went out to a small hamlet or a community in their patrol car, and had to return to the police station to complete the paperwork. We all know that the weight of paperwork on police officers is increasing all the time. The vehicles will be parked prominently in the community.

I also praise the chief constable for the excellent Fenland project, which is a policing initiative that the Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire constabularies set up. The idea is to try to co-ordinate police operations and intelligence sharing between those forces. As the Minister knows only too well, criminals do not respect county boundaries. One of Norfolk's biggest problems was that the western part of the county is close to Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire. Burglary, theft and vehicle crime are, of course, serious to the individual, but unless the crime was murder or involved grievous bodily harm, the Norfolk constabulary would send someone to the scene, which could take up to half an hour. If a patrol car belonged to Cambridgeshire or Lincolnshire, it could not cross the county boundary. Under the initiative, however, a pooling of resources and a more common-sense approach to policing across county boundaries will develop, which I welcome. Undoubtedly, the project has been a significant success. It covers 500 square miles and encompasses 72 parishes in the three counties, and it went live in August 2001.

As the chief constable pointed out to Norfolk MPs in a recent memorandum, the aims are to reduce the disproportionate fear of crime and to provide high-profile policing to reassure the public and restore confidence. The initiative will focus on three key areas:

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repeat victimisation, an increased rate of scene attendance and greater attention to cross-border crime and intelligence.

I am worried that the Fens project does not have guaranteed Government funding beyond 31 December this year. It is vital to renew the funding commitment. The project has been a significant success, but without renewed funding it could well fold. Crime has increased in other parts of the country: press reports today show that people are more likely to be attacked, mugged or murdered in some parts of London than in Harlem. That is an appalling indictment of what is happening in this country and the Opposition are right to draw the public's attention to such problems.

Norfolk, however, compares well with other parts of the country. In west Norfolk, violent crime, burglaries and robberies are down. The only category that has increased slightly from last year is vehicle crime. Norfolk is doing well in the battle against crime. We cannot be complacent, but we are making good progress. I submit to the Minister that the Fenland project has played a key role in getting on top of crime in this part of the county. It is vital that she reinforces success by ensuring the continuation of funding.

As to the future, there are no grounds for complacency, as I said. We still need more officers on the ground. About a year ago, the Minister announced 100 extra police officers—the aim was to build up to 1,500 officers by March next year—but they are spread across a large county. Of course they are welcome, but there is a long way to go. Norfolk is second bottom in the league of police officers per head of population, so we still need many more officers.

More closed-circuit television is vital for my constituency. This debate is about policing, not CCTV, but I want to flag up its success in the battle against crime. The Minister is pro-CCTV and she will know that King's Lynn was one of the pioneer local authorities to install it about 12 years ago. We now need the CCTV scheme rolled out in Hunstanton, in other parts of King's Lynn, and particularly on the Saddlebow travellers' site on the edge of King's Lynn. It will play a significant part in the battle against crime.

We need to retain police officers and ensure that police morale is as high as possible. Police officers presently feel under valued and uncertain about their future. Now is not the time for the Home Secretary to proceed with his comprehensive review of pay and conditions. The Minister will know that on 6 February a police ballot showed a 91 per cent. vote—84,205 officers—in favour of rejecting the proposals. Their main concern was the Home Secretary's plan to reduce overtime payments from time and a third to time and a fifth. If it goes through, thousands of police officers will be worse off. There will be times in the future when it is correct and well judged to introduce reforms to pay and conditions—perhaps when police morale is high and there is progress in the fight against crime.

Mr. George Stevenson (in the Chair): Order. I assume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to morale in the police service in East Anglia?

Mr. Bellingham : I certainly am, Mr. Stevenson.

Unless there is high morale and police officers feel that they are being properly rewarded for the job done, their morale will suffer. The police in East Anglia cannot

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function without overtime because of historic under-resourcing and the nature of the job. My clear message is that the Government cannot manage overtime by making it cheaper, as it will lead to demoralisation and to retention problems. Furthermore, last week's Budget announcements will mean many officers in my constituency and in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) paying more tax. They will be £25 or £30 a month worse off. If they lose their overtime on top of that, there will be serious problems with retention and morale.

Many officers came to lobby Parliament on 13 March. They were not hotheads who wanted to cause a disturbance or to riot in the streets; thoroughly decent officers from Norfolk came here quietly to put their point of view. They want a constructive dialogue and a positive partnership with the Government. If the police in Norfolk do not have that positive partnership, they will be unable to make headway in the battle against crime.

I hope that the Minister will take note of what I have said. I look forward to her reply and hope that she can give us some comfort that our success in the battle against crime will be able to continue.

12.46 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) and to the Minister for the opportunity to intervene briefly in the debate.

Crime is a big issue in my constituency, too. Twelve months ago, our survey on the issue found that 29 per cent. of people rated it the most significant issue, followed by education at 22 per cent. Last Saturday, we did another survey on crime in South Norfolk and had the tremendous response of some 600 replies on the day in the four market towns of Wymondham, Diss, Loddon and Harleston. My agent told me this morning that we had about 900 replies in total, and I shall share some of the results with the House.

Of those who replied, 17 per cent. said that they had been victims of crime in the last year; a further 15 per cent. said that they knew someone who had been a victim of crime in the same period. Thirty per cent. believed that crime had risen in the past five years; 92 per cent. believed that a strong police presence was required locally; 65 per cent. believed that the Government should spend more on policing; 72 per cent. were against early release schemes; and some 92 per cent. believed that sentences handed down by the courts are not in line with public opinion.

I agree entirely with what my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk said; the question is, if everything is so rosy in the garden, why did thousands of policemen and women march on Parliament? Inspector Andrew Taylor from Wymondham police station in my constituency invited me to accompany him in the police patrol car so that I could see at first hand what happened in the area, and I was glad to accept. Things are not all rosy in the garden.

I appreciate that the Minister has a difficult task and there is much more to do, but the reforms that the Government are considering, especially those on police pay and conditions, are almost the worst possible way of going about it.

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12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes) : I congratulate the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham) on securing the debate. As well as being a welcome opportunity for him to express his views, it enables me to put on the record how seriously the Government take the issues of rural crime and rural policing, and what we intend to do to address them. His remarks acknowledged the seriousness with which we approach the issues, perhaps the first time that any Government have done so in such a distinct way.

We recognise the widely held concern about the need for police forces to put more resources into rural areas and to look at the distinct issues that arise in policing crime in rural areas. Let me put that in context. It is clear and generally accepted from the valid studies of the British crime survey that both the fear of crime and the general level of crime are significantly lower in rural areas than in urban or inner-city areas. That does not mean that we are complacent or that we do not need to listen to what people are saying. We do, but we must start from an understanding of that context.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) talked about his survey, but the last two British crime surveys, which I hope he will accept are much more rigorous and fundamental, are repeated regularly and reveal valid trends. They show that crime levels have fallen consistently in rural areas. That also applies to categories of crime that are recorded by the crime survey, such as vehicle crime, violent crime and burglary. The British crime survey also reports that people in rural areas feel that they have a better quality of life. They suffer fewer social problems and are less fearful of crime; they are less likely to think that they will be victims of crime and are more positive about the way that crime is being dealt with locally.

Having said that, I do not suggest that there are not problems in rural areas or that we do not need to listen to the people who live there. I accept that there are distinct issues about policing in rural areas that must be taken seriously. Overall, the figures show that East Anglia is a safe place in which to live. The overall picture is that there is a lower incidence of crime, that crime is falling faster in that area than the national average and that police clear-up rates are higher. That gives us some sense that, while we have to respond to problems, things are going in the right direction.

Mr. Bacon : What would the Minister say to my constituent, Mrs. Maureen Loveless, who told me at an election meeting last year that she had been burgled five times? Only a few weeks ago, she told me that she had been burgled six times in the five years of this Government.

Beverley Hughes : I would express my sincere sympathies to the hon. Gentleman's constituent. One issue that we have learned in recent years by looking in detail for evidence of patterns of crime is that, unfortunately, like most things in society, crime is not distributed equally. We take the phenomenon of repeat victimisation seriously. We are putting a lot of effort into identifying how we can specifically help repeat victims. I would also say to her that, had the

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Government not taken the measures that we have in relation to rural crime over the last few years, her experiences might have been even more serious.

Overall, the picture in East Anglia is one of lower incidence of crime and higher clear-up rates. The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk talked about the need for resources to be translated into higher numbers of police officers, and so on. He will know that this year Cambridgeshire set a final budget on the back of Government grants that shows an increase of more than 10 per cent. In Norfolk, there was an increase of 8.4 per cent., and Suffolk set a final budget with an increase of just under 7 per cent. from last year. Those are substantial increases in resources, which I am sure the chief constable and his officers will use to good effect.

The hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made a point about the relevance of resources and police numbers. The national picture is that in the first six months of 2001–02, police numbers increased by more than 1,500 to nearly 128,000. Figures provided by the 43 police forces in England and Wales and the four main organisations staffed by seconded police officers show that police strength is at record levels. It took some time to increase the number of officers after 1997, but that was largely because there was a drop in police officers between 1993 and 1997. However, police numbers at the end of January were up nearly 1,600 from March 1997. That disputes the hon. Gentleman's claim that we had not yet made up the gap. We have more than made it up, and we did so more quickly than we anticipated.

Police numbers are an important part of a comprehensive package of measures drawn up to ensure a modern and efficient police service. That issue is as important in rural areas as it is in urban areas. The upward trend in police numbers in East Anglia is important and encouraging. There is a record number of police officers in Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, and there is a sustained increase in the number of police officers in Suffolk.

Another extremely important ingredient for the longer term is the issue of pay and modernisation, which was raised by both the hon. Members for South Norfolk and for North-West Norfolk. As the Home Secretary made clear, we want a dialogue with the police to make

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sure that we get the matter right for both parties. We are continuing that dialogue through the police negotiation board, which includes officers from Norfolk.

It is important that the system of police pay is not excluded from the modernisation that must take place if we are to take police practices and the way that we reward police officers into the 21st century. We must tackle some of those issues. Not all police officers' jobs are the same, and we should reward the jobs on the front line that tackle the difficult aspects of policing. That, in part, is what the review and the modernisation of police pay are about.

On rural policing, I shall mention three Government innovations that are particularly relevant to the point that the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk made. First, it is the crime fighting fund as much as the general increase in police resources that is responsible for the record numbers of police officers. The fund is a mechanism that ensures that money for police officers goes towards employing officers. Before the Government instituted the crime fighting fund, with the intention of using it to employ more police officers, some of the increases in the settlement were not being used for that purpose. By providing a ring-fenced pot of money that is available to all police services, the crime fighting fund has ensured that some resources are translated into additional police officers. In the past two years, we have begun to see that through.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman mentioned the importance of closed-circuit television. I share his view that that has been an important development for both rural and urban areas. Almost £2.5 million has been allocated on eight CCTV projects across Norfolk in the past two years as a result of another innovation, the crime reduction programme, some of which centred on King's Lynn. I hear that parts of that area would like extensions of the scheme, and I welcome that. Certainly, there is a great deal of demand. We shall have to see how that goes.

The third innovation, which is very important, is the rural policing fund. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to mention the fens project, which has been made possible, along with other projects that he mentioned, because of that fund. The project is being evaluated, and I look forward to reading the proposal about its needs, which will be submitted to the Home Office after the end of the year.

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