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20 Nov 2002 : Column 701—continued

7.3 pm

Patrick Mercer (Newark): I am privileged to follow the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird), and I would like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Members for Barnsley, Central (Mr. Illsley) and for Hamilton, South (Mr. Tynan) about fireworks, which have recently been causing all sorts of grief in Newark and Retford. I thoroughly agree with the their comments about them.

I would like to spend my eight minutes underlining the comments made by my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin) about the need for effective legislation on community policing. I want to concentrate entirely on my constituency, which is not a typical inner-city constituency but a mixture of market towns and rural areas. It is an area that should be a fairly quiet part of north-east Nottinghamshire, yet it suffers in a special way. Nottinghamshire has seen a rise in crime of some 2 per cent. over the last year, but, more worryingly, robberies have gone up by 54 per cent., sexual offences by 4 per cent., offences of violence against the person by 8 per cent.—and so it goes on.

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The hot spot in Nottinghamshire is not Newark, Retford or Tuxford but Nottingham, and, of course, that is where the chief constable has to put his resources. Those resources are extremely limited, and I shall come back to that in a moment. We have already heard in other debates from the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen)—I suspect that the hon. Members for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) and for Bassetlaw (John Mann) would agree with him—that all these areas are being stripped of their officers and resources so as to concentrate on the big problem, namely, Nottingham. Before I move on, I would like to pay tribute to the amount of work that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw has done on the drugs problem in north-east Nottinghamshire. That issue certainly touches my constituency and I am grateful for the exposure that he has ensured for the matter.

The problem in Nottinghamshire revolves around police funding. We are told that there is to be an extra #3.3 million for Nottinghamshire constabulary, and I am sure that there is. That will represent a 2.5 per cent. increase, which in real terms is not an increase at all. Nottinghamshire constabulary faces the same level of difficulty and reported crime as Merseyside, yet the number of officers on the beat is several hundred short of the number in Merseyside. To overcome this lack of funding, the chief constable has had no alternative but to step up the police precept in the council tax, which has risen by almost 20 per cent. in the last year. That has deeply irritated my constituents.

Despite that rise in taxation—and perhaps because there is no real additional central Government funding—the lack of policemen in my constituency is quite remarkable. I am told that, since March last year, an extra 55 officers have been available in Nottinghamshire. I am sure that that is so, but they are not to be seen in Newark, where we have gone from 42 officers to 29. When those numbers are divided into shifts, and when the new response system that the chief constable has introduced is brought into play, there are times when we have only two officers on duty to ensure that the town remains relatively law abiding.

In addition, the number of our special constables has fallen, and I have also been told that we are not going to receive any community support officers. I attended a recent meeting of Newark Business Club, at which we were told that if we wanted extra community support officers we would have to fund them ourselves at a cost of #20,000 a year per officer. Additionally, with the new systems that have been introduced to centralise response times, further officers have gone from Newark. We now get response vehicles only from 12 miles away, in Ollerton. It has been said before that Newark has been Xhollowed out" of its officers and its resources.

The Prime Minister has never visited my constituency, and when the Home Secretary came to Nottinghamshire we were not, strangely enough, on the list. Perhaps they did not want to see that the streets were pretty well unpatrolled, or that it can sometimes take 40 minutes to get a response on the telephone from the police. Interestingly, the striking firemen whom I visited recently in Newark said that one of their problems was that they were having not only to act as paramedics at the scenes of accidents but, with the lack of police officers in the area, to become de facto policemen themselves.

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Even more worryingly—I make no comment on the rights or wrongs of this—a number of police officers have complained anonymously through the pages of the Newark Advertiser about the way in which their constabulary is run. This illustrates the completely unacceptable lack of confidence that has spread through the constabulary, which is being communicated to my constituents every day.

What are the solutions? I challenge the Minister and the Home Secretary to visit Newark to see what it is like and how community policing has broken down completely in that part of north-east Nottinghamshire. If the Minister doubts the effect of that and how seriously my constituents take it, let him look at the general election result in the constituency. The grievance is very deeply felt.

When the regional inspector of constabulary visits in January, I ask that he consider particularly carefully the system that has been imposed on Nottinghamshire constabulary and how Newark and associated areas are losing officers in order to police Nottingham. I understand the reasons behind that, but without extra funding my constituency and areas like it will continue to become increasingly lawless.

The Government's failure to announce appropriate measures is likely to continue to undermine confidence in our policemen and their support services. I ask the Government to try to re-establish that confidence and to try to prevent a bigger rift from developing between people and police officers.

7.11 pm

Tony Wright (Cannock Chase): I shall, if I may, speak about antisocial behaviour in particular and in general. The particular point—fireworks—has been raised by a number of Members. The issue has made my postbag bulge like nothing else over these past several weeks, and I am glad that the Prime Minister agreed at Question Time two or three weeks ago that there should be legislation. We do not yet know whether it will be included in the antisocial behaviour Bill or what form it will take, but it needs to be introduced.

The other day, I received a letter from a constituent, who says:

He goes on to suggest, not unreasonably, that it is time for something to be done, and it is. I hope that the Government will do it.

May I move from the particular to a general point on which I shall follow the interesting argument opened up by my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli

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(Denzil Davies) and taken on by the hon. Member for Henley (Mr. Johnson)? It involves the larger question of the context in which we talk about behaviour. We regularly pass such Bills here but nothing happens out there, which suggests that the factors that determine behaviour have little to do with what we do here. We should at least be aware of that when we pass more legislation. We need to pass that legislation, but we need also to be aware of the dark, shaping forces that are causing the problems in the first place.

There is a paradox here. Looking back over the past generation or so, we find that people have better lives in many ways. They have more money than ever before and average earnings have gone up fortyfold during the Queen's reign. Life expectancy has gone up eight years. People can travel all round the world, choose from 100 television stations and have personal freedom of an order never seen in history, yet, over the same period and moving from the private sphere to the public, our society has reached a more parlous state than we have known in recent memory.

If we are honest with ourselves, which we must be in discussing those things, our society has become less civilised, coarser and cruder. People are less attentive to and considerate of the needs of others. Our public spaces have become degraded. We have the image of someone sitting in their house and being able to tune into 100 television stations or to access all kinds of wonders through the internet, yet being afraid to walk down their own street. That is the society that we have created.

A few days ago, the Home Secretary said in a television interview that the real problem is one of our culture. He was right. Saying that shows a necessary humility in a Home Secretary, but the question is, what is shaping our culture and what has made it like that when we have become ever more prosperous, liberated and self-controlling, yet ever more degraded and insecure in our social behaviour?

We see examples on every side. A leading international footballer can write of his premeditation in setting about committing violence on an opponent, there is the routine disorder that is celebrated in sections of the media and the coarseness and crudity emitted from our television screens. As the forces that traditionally shaped behaviour and provided support are weakened—the home is one example; the transformation in family life over the past generation has been extraordinary and on a scale never seen before—where do people get their values? They get them from the images that are transmitted to them from other places. Some people do not have the protections that came from those old sources and I am afraid that those images are corrosive—they produce the antisocial behaviour that we are talking about.

Soon after the general election, after I had been pontificating about the civic crisis and the need to engage people more in the process, I received a letter from someone who had heard my remarks but is not a constituent. I remember his letter well, because he went through what it is like to live on his street on his estate. He described the daily awfulness of being there and the sense of degradation. After going through the list, he said at the end, XAnd you expect us to vote?" He meant, XYou expect us to give legitimacy to a political system that cannot even guarantee the security of my street."

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The bottom line for a state is whether it can guarantee the security of its citizens. If it cannot do so, its citizens will walk away from it. That is what is happening now.

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