Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe): I am very glad to have the opportunity to open a short debate on the problems of policing in Nottinghamshire. I see, looking around, a good turnout of my fellow Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament, so I shall try to keep my contribution brief.
I am sure that those hon. Members are all here because their recent experience has been the same as mine. There has been an upsurge in feeling about policing standards in the county, to a level that I do not recall for many years. I have experienced occasions previously when crime and disorder problems have featured large among my constituents, and I campaigned on that issue at the last general election. However, during the past six to 12 months, strength of feeling in many towns and villages in my constituency has risen again. I do not recall having received for many years such representations about the levels of service that people are receiving from the Nottinghamshire police service.
Tomorrow evening, 12 December, a public meeting is to be held at Harry Carlton school in East Leake, at which the chairman of the police authority will be present to try to reassure my constituents. Bingham town council has asked me to arrange a meeting with the chief constable to address the public in Bingham on the problem. My correspondence as a constituency MP and my regular contacts with my neighbours and the residents of my constituency make it obvious that this problem has come to the fore, and that people feel disturbed about it.
My constituency is rural and suburban, and my constituents have a high regard for the police service and for the policemen who serve them. I think that, like me, they enjoy the company of policemen. They support the police service, feeling that it is something that all responsible citizens should back. However, there is discomfort about the way in which the service is being delivered at the moment and a sense that people do not have good enough protection.
The background is that the Government are making much of the reforms of the police and criminal justice system that they are instituting. They are setting vast numbers of targets and seeking to demonstrate that they are raising the level of service across the country. It is therefore rather suitable to be having a debate in which we can ask why no sense of achievement in that field is getting acrossto the residents of southern Nottinghamshire, at least.
Sadly, I read in the local newspaper that the chairman of Nottinghamshire police authority is, as is the case with police authority chairmen up and down the country, only too inclined to put problems down to lack of resources. After this year's settlement he is calmly saying that the police precept is likely to go up by 27 per cent. next spring. If that goes ahead, I fear that it will add to my constituents' anger because in recent years, percentage council tax rises in Nottinghamshire have usually been in or near double figures, and they seem likely to be next year. I hope that the Minister will address himself to the organisation of the police service, not just turn it all into a demand for more money.
I never put too much emphasis on the theme of bobbies on the beat, which is a focus group approach to policing. If one asks an ordinary member of the public who has no personal experience of how to organise a police service what they think should be done, they tend to answer, "There should be more bobbies on the beat." As a result, at every general election all parties commit themselves to that. Nowadays, especially in rural areas, it would be nice to think that one could go back to the old police house in the village and visible foot patrols, but that is neither possible nor the best way of dealing with modern criminality. However, I do not totally dismiss the concept of beat policing in the sense of a feeling of the ready availability of the police service. My constituents do not feel that, and that is what most disturbs them. They do not really expect to see a policeman walking down the main street of Ruddington at most hours of the day, but they do want to feel that if they need help it is quickly availablethat there is contact and the sense of security and protection that the police service should be able to provide. People do not feel that that ready response to their problems is available.
The Minister will almost certainly be aware that the Nottinghamshire police service has genuine problems, both in its history and with current problems of criminality, as I readily acknowledge. Although no form of statistics is less reliable than crime statistics, the area is said to have the second highest crime rate in the country in terms of offences per 1,000 of population. There are certainly parts of the county that are not quite lawless, but troubled by serious crime. My constituency goes up to the boundaries of Nottingham city, parts of which have very serious crime problems that the police have to concentrate on tackling. We have a serious drugs problem in the middle of the city; we have gunfights breaking out in the city; we have a lively city centre that creates problems to which the police have to give high priority. Because that area has to be the No. 1 priority, people outside it in the towns, villages and suburbs often feel that they have lost their access to help and response. That is a problem that I am now seeing as Member of Parliament for Rushcliffe.
Recently, we had a new chief constable, Mr. Stephen Green. I met him soon after he was first appointed, and found that he was determined to introduce a process of reform of which I wholly approve. Although the Nottinghamshire police service has never been exactly bad, it has never been particularly distinguished or remarkable. I believe that the last national league tables rated it as second from bottom in terms of effective police services in England. The new chief constable is determined to tackle that through a reform programme, which I wholly support. I was extremely impressed by his declaration of his intention to turn round the baseline performance of his police service in key areas, to undertake a more proactive style of policing and to target his service more effectively. The police and the chief constable assure us that that has not resulted in any transfer from rural to urban areas or vice versa. That makes it all the more puzzling that my rural constituents feel that that is precisely what has happenedthat the problems of the Meadows and St. Annes, including gunfights and highly publicised major crime, have led to lower responses in the areas in which they live.
I have already mentioned the rurality of my constituency. It is actually suburban and rural, but the geographical area is largely rural. The biggest troubles arise in the larger rural villages cum towns that are a feature of my part of Nottinghamshireplaces such as Bingham, Ruddington, Keyworth, East Leake and Cotgrave. There are also problems in the suburbs of West Bridgford and Edwalton.
My constituency's geography is rural, but Nottinghamshire does not benefit from the Government's rural policing fund and does not have any particular rural policy of which I am aware applied to it. Given that policing is meant to be community-based, it is unclear to some in my constituency exactly how policing is meant to be delivered in the large towns in particular. At one point, for example, a contact point, at which six or eight officers would be based, was going to be set up in Keyworth, but my constituents have told me that those officers have recently been moved away and are back in West Bridgford.
In rural areas and in the suburbs it is inevitable that, in 2002, people expect to use the telephone to get the response that they require. If one cannot have a policeman walking past one's gate and cannot expect to see a police car driving down the village street regularly, one expects to be able to speak to the police on the telephone. A feature of representations to me over the past 12 months has been that almost everyone complains that no one answers the telephone when they try to make a non-emergency report. There has been controversy about responsiveness, which has been quite high and is getting better, to 999 calls. The real problem occurs when responsible citizens do not misuse the 999 service, but try to call what they believe to be their local police station or the divisional headquarters to report a routine incident, which is serious to them, in which they have been a victim of crime or have witnessed vandalism or rowdiness. I have been told over and over again that it is a waste of time trying to telephone the police because frequently no response is available or, if a response comes, it is very late. When the response comes it can be
I can understand the difficulties in providing a telephone response service in today's world, because everyone now carries a mobile phone. In the old days, people could phone the police only by going to the considerable trouble of finding a telephone. Now everyone has a telephone in their pocket, which means that the propensity to ring the police has greatly increased. That means that staffing must be increased because those calls are very important to the people who make them.
In the early part of this year, responsiveness to phone calls of any kind fell to dreadful levels. I could not find the figures for the early part of this year, but by August matters had apparently improved as 39 per cent. of non-emergency calls were being answered within the target time. Of course, 39 per cent. is an appalling figure, but the situation was worse before August. I have been told that staff are being recruited and trained, and now 75 per cent. of calls are being answered within the target time, but that is still a fairly dismal performance. The Minister will no doubt explain the targets that the Government expect police services to achieve in response to the telephone. My constituents' experience has not adjusted to this so-called improvement because I have not yet found any falling away in the number of people telling me that it is a waste of time telephoning the police. It is also sometimes a waste of time going to the large police station in West Bridgford, which was once a divisional headquarters, because often the desk is not manned or the door is closed and no one is available to provide a service.
What subjects do people ring up about? In rural areas, people suffer to a lesser extent than elsewhere the problems of burglary, which is carried out by slightly more sophisticated burglars who travel out to rural areas. There is also car crime, which has decreased in recent years. Joyriding is not as fashionable as it once was among the young delinquent population of my part of Nottinghamshire, and although cars are still stolen, they are burnt out less frequently. [Interruption.] It sounds as though the delinquents have moved to the Nottingham, North constituency.
Antisocial behaviour of a semi-criminal kind is the real problem in my constituency, particularly in the large villages. I do not recall a time when things have been quite so bad. Large numbers of young people hang about in key places: in the centre of large towns and villages and small towns or in set places, such as cul-de-sacs and the edge of villages near fields where motor bikes can be ridden. Those young people make a general nuisance of themselves and commit crime. The crime in question is often vandalism; it can be petty and can constitute little more than abusive and difficult behaviour towards passers-by and people living in the locality. However, it can be quite serious and if the behaviour is repeated it has a most damaging effect on the quality of life of those who have the misfortune to live in places where it occurs, who happen to use the shopping centre that is regularly vandalised, or who find that the centre of their village is unusable.
I shall return to the subject of the transfer of resources and what is being targeted. I am not sure whether the police service has almost given up on the type of behaviour that I have described. At the moment, its response is not very adequate. I acknowledge the difficulties: more serious crime is being committed in the centre of Nottingham and it is quite difficult for the police to deal with large groups of unruly and antisocial youths because they need evidence of a criminal offence against an individual before they can move in and effect an arrest and turn to the criminal justice system. However, that does not mean that the problem can simply be abandoned. If it is, people are left feeling that there is no visible police presence and that no police will attend to improve the situation and perhaps persuade the delinquent young people to disperse.
Surely special constables could have more of a role in this area. I trust that the Minister is aware of the problems that exist in relation to special constables. Numbers have collapsed and recruiting is difficult. I have always thought that we should pay special constables. We need to acknowledge that that is the best way to persuade that type of volunteerif they were paid, they would be volunteers with inducementsto enter the service. There are many people who would readily serve.
The Government lay great stress on the introduction of community support officers. The officers are meant to have limited powers to deal with minor crime. I cannot think of anything more suitable for them to deal with than rowdyism in the middle of Cotgrave. Apparently, 12 community support officers are planned for the enormous county of Nottinghamshire; my constituents will not be able to take much comfort from that. I should like to know when the idea will be tried out on an effective and bigger scale so that it might make some difference to the perceived level of the service.
Those are the problems that I want to raise. I am conscious of being surrounded by other hon. Members who wish to join in. It will reinforce my case, and everyone else's, if the problems that I have mentioned become a recurrent theme because other Members of Parliament have experienced the same increase in public disquiet and the same problems in different parts of the countythe south seems particularly well represented, so that area clearly has this difficulty.
I cannot forbear from reminding the Minister that while we are in the middle of the problem that I have described, his Department proposes to put an asylum detention centre in Newton. I mentioned Bingham as one of the places that suffers from criminality and vandalism. Bingham is about three miles away from the proposed centre and the residents do not welcome the prospect of 750 asylum seekers being put in a large camp where they will have little to do during the day but wander into Newton and encounter those who are already causing trouble in and around the market place in Bingham. If the building of the centre goes ahead, there are obvious implications for the police service in Nottinghamshire. I do not see how anyone plans to address the policing implications of putting a transient population of 750 people in the middle of the area that I represent.
If one is going to improve the effectiveness of the police service and make better use of our police men and women, the Government's drive to reduce red tape and paperwork should be improved. I approve of that because I had a similar drive when I was Home Secretary 10 years ago. We have talked about reducing paperwork and the demands on the police service. I blame my successors for the fact that the problems seem to have got infinitely worse since I announced my drive, and I see no sign of improvement in the near future. It is a problem for all police services that in any shift, the time in which a policeman is available to carry out any duties of a serious policing nature is greatly reduced by the amount of time spent filling in endless forms and paperwork and the sheer bureaucracy that has descended on the police service in this country.
I am sure that hon. Members and the Minister have got the flavour of the complaints that I am trying to raise on behalf of my constituents, who think that the Government's rhetoric, which always sounds quite stirring when it comes to raising the quality of the police service in this country and achieving reform that will make it more effective, contrasts starkly with the reality in the villages and suburbs of southern Nottinghamshire.
Having explained the problem, and the perception that it has got worse during the past 12 months with a deteriorating service, I look forward to hearing what encouragement and response my constituents will get when the Minister replies.
Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): I am pleased to speak in this all-party debate. There is a majority of Nottinghamshire Members of Parliament from all parties present in the Hall at the moment. I am also pleased to speak in a debate convened by someone born in the heart of Nottingham, North, in Bulwell. I am pleased to pick up on some of the themes of the opening speech.
Several facts are beyond doubt. First, the Nottinghamshire police force has more police officers and more money than at any time in its recorded history. Secondly, the public in Nottingham, North feel that our streets are less protected than ever before. They ask me, "If we have all these extra officers, where are they? What are they doing? Why are they not there when we need them?" I ask those questions of the chief constable. I should like to raise several important issues about the management of the police service, all of which have had dire consequences for my constituents.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): My hon. Friend mentioned the record number of police officers. Will he also confirm that over the past four months, crime has been falling each month consecutively in Nottinghamshire?
Mr. Allen : I intend to discuss the perception of crime and whether the perception and reality are the same. I shall also mention the amount of time invested in putting out a public view about the crime statistics that has often been totally at odds with my constituents' experience in the last four months, regardless of whatever the statistical finesse may be.
Like the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), I could recite the contents of letter after letter and phone call after phone call from constituents who have seen that perceptible deterioration in law and order, for example in Bulwell, where my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) did many years of valuable service. Each Saturday, I hold an open meeting in my constituency that people can attend to raise any issue that they like. Traditionally, topics have ranged from global warming to housing repairs. Those meetings are now almost entirely monopolised by frightened constituents, those who have suffered individual incidents or a reduction in their quality of life due to antisocial behaviour, and those with stories to tell about bad recent experiences with the police.
Over the past 15 years in this House, I have totally supported the police in the extremely difficult job that they do. My commitment to the constables, sergeants and inspectors who serve Nottingham, North remains absolute. I have enjoyed good relations with chief constables since 1987 when I was first electedincluding the present incumbent.
My surprise was therefore all the greater when, in May of this year, I heard from officers in my constituency that the chief constable was proposing to abolish the individual beat officerthe bobby on the beat to whom the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe referredin the Nottingham division, but nowhere else in Nottinghamshire. One of the four inspectors in my constituency, who had carefully constructed a beat system, immediately requested a transfer from his existing duties. The impact on morale of the beat bobby has been catastrophic: some applied for a job in April only to be told that they were irrelevant at the end of May. Where does that leave the Government's rhetoric on community policing? Everyone pays lip service to the concept, but the reality is that a chief constable can on a whim do away with whatever he declares is not operational. Home Office Ministers are impotent to do anything about it; there is no redress.
We all live on rumours about what will happen next. To this day, I am not privy to a clear plan of action of what the chief constable is trying to achieve. If there is one, I would appreciate a copy and it should be put in the public domain so that everyone can debate it. I accept the need for change, and I endorsed the chief constable's desire to see it; one can hardly object to the word change. However, if there is to be change, the most basic management textbook would suggest that some effort should be made to discuss that with the public, and with the officers who are due to implement it.
The core question is, what is the right balance between reactive and proactive policing? Of course we need both. We need preventive policing; we need the community; and we need people doing what is often called proper policing, which is detecting and arresting criminals.
If I understand the chief constable correctly, his reason for establishing a centralised response team for the whole of the city of Nottingham was to respond and so leave officers based in local stations to be longer term and proactive. However, the majority of officers in the local stations were individual beat officers who were already doing longer-term policing. Those are the very people who are now leaving in droves because their jobs are soon to be abolished. Should beat officers be doing longer-term, proactive stuff, or more reactive policing? What should the mixture or balance be? That needs to be made clear to all of us who are consumers of the police service. We also need that expectation to be clearly established between the chief constable and the divisional commander. It sometimes seems that we are receiving mixed messages.
In place of a professional personnel policy, an insinuation has been spun to anyone who questions the decision that individual beat bobbies did not do their fair share of responsive policing. People are given a nod and a winkor something more clearly disparagingthat bobbies just wanted a soft nine-to-five job. If that were trueI doubt that it isit is a reason not to abolish the concept of the individual beat officer in the community, but to get stuck in to making the management of police officers more effective at local level.
The other smokescreen put up to conceal recent performance is the idea that we need more funding. Until the record amount of funding and the record number of officers are deployed competently, no one should seriously expect the Government to throw yet more money in our direction. We must be able to handle properly the extra and large amounts of money that we have in the Nottinghamshire police force.
If the idea was to build a proactive capacity in the local stations, we must ask, why move officers out of each of the Nottingham stations into the centralised response team, which is reactive? That is happening at the same time as stations in Bestwood, Bulwell, Basford and Strelley are each losing a sergeant and two experienced officers to the street crime initiative. I fully understand the problems in city centres of large-scale movements of young people, particularly at weekends, because of the entertainments and bars in city centres, and the other very difficult problems of the inner city, which are often related to drug and gun crime.
However, to adopt a totally undifferentiated policing strategy for the whole city of Nottingham, including my outer-city council estates, which are white, working-class areas where an older generation lives, and to assume that the problems faced by my constituents are the same as those in Rushcliffe or other parts of the city of Nottingham is a nonsense and a crude way in which to manage a police force.
These are not academic questions. The hollowing out of my four local stations has got the hyenas circling. Burglars, drug pushers and yobs know where their best chances are and they move to where the police are not.
It would at least be some consolation if the response team worked properly, but the failure of the centralised response team has resulted in blameless officers who remain at local stations becoming the butt of public resentment. The obvious question is why the master planshould one existwhich has not been published and on which there has been no consultation, was not tested on local officers or at least piloted in such a way that it could be corrected as it was rolled out. Rather, it has been imposed and is resented. It is a failurein the chief constable's words, it is "not working properly"and has required a permanent process of tinkering since April.
Yes, I know all the management-speak about change being painful, but change introduced without anyone in the service or in our communities buying into it, and without ensuring the maintenance of basic policing services, is unnecessarily excruciating for my constituents, who depend on us, and for the loyal, hard-working and long-serving local police officers who see only decline and demoralisation in local policing and, frankly, deserve a lot better.
Leaving aside the J curves, police college jargon and crossed fingers, the question to which we have never been given a clear answer is, on what date can we expect the systemwhatever it isto be working properly? How long do we give it before someone says that enough is enough?
As I understand itI am not privy to any plan, should one existindividual beat officers in my constituency have had seven months of drift since April and May, in which they have been told that their jobs are redundant but have been given no clear idea of what is to replace them. I now understand that they are at some time to be replaced by "sections"a new wordwhich are much larger areas with five or six officers attached to them. The chief constable said in a recent letter to me that he had come to the conclusion, "with hindsight", that 60 beat officers were not enough.
Despite the fact that the Nottinghamshire constabulary has more police officers available than ever before, it is now evident that the deployment strategy was based on guesswork, was not supported by consultations with Nottingham's police officers, the crime and disorder partnership or local representatives, and is still being made up as we go along. The centralised response team is now being cut into four parts. Well, let us give that a try for a couple of months and see whether it is any better. Law-abiding citizens in my constituency are being treated like lab rats in an experiment.
While we still have time, let us not depend on hindsight to judge the effectiveness of sections. We can make a judgment about them now. If we do not give individual officers clear personal responsibility, the result in my constituency will be pass-the-parcel policing. In reality, sections are likely to become mini response teams with less and less connection with the public or the beat and more and more responsibility for picking up the leftovers from the response team that failed to get to the scene the night before. Every hon. Member of every party in Nottinghamshire knows what is happening on the ground. They know, as local inspectors do in the local stations, that that is the truth of everyday experience.
The chief constable, rather surprisingly, asserted in a letter to me recently that there is no shortage of information coming to the Nottinghamshire police. I hope that that does not mean that the police feel that they can afford to pass up masses of intelligence from a public who have learned not to call the police any more; or ditch experienced beat officers and their painstakingly built up networks of information. Some of those officers have been five years on the same patch and are known to the community, feeding valuable leads and intelligence from local community activists who personally know the number of an individual officer. I hope that in January Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will discover why this incredibly valuable asset has been deliberately bled out of our local policing in Nottingham, North. People are applying to join traffic or antisocial behaviour teams or to be dog handlers, having spent years building up intelligence on the good families and bad families in my constituency. We cannot afford to dispose, although we are disposing, of that talent. I hope that HMI will ask whether this has been by accident or by design; either answer will raise very serious questions that need answering.
I am afraid that there is a massive loss of confidence in policing by the public in Nottingham, North and my colleagues will refer, if they wish, to the same phenomena elsewhere in the shire. The public find that it takes longer to get through, that there is a longer wait for a response and that they receive a poorer quality of response when it is finally forthcoming.
However expert the spinning of the statistics and of the mediaI must tell the Minister that that is one area of massive improvement in the last couple of yearsthe chief constable knows, I know, local police officers know and the public know the reality on the ground. Those ill-conceived and poorly implemented changes have had an appalling impact on the police service in my constituency and on my constituents, whose lives are blighted by the inability of good, sound police officers to be allowed to get on and do their jobs effectively.
Yes, there is a massive cultural problem in the police service, which must be tackled. Sadly, the way in which the chief constable has imposed and poorly managed change exemplifies rather than eliminates those cultural problems. I hope that if, even now, the chief constable will listen, not to Members of Parliament but to his own officers and to the Nottingham public and the communities to whom he is duty bound to provide a service, the guesswork and secrecy that have brought such a loss of confidence can yet be substituted with careful planning, patient involvement and confidence-building.
I am not starry-eyed about my constituency. As someone born and bred in it, I know that it has always been a tough, hard place, but I also know that the vast majority of my constituents are law abiding, want to help the police and are the salt of the earth. I genuinely feel that my constituency has little time left if the degeneration that we have all witnessed over the past year is to be halted and we are to restore acceptable levels of law and order in the outer estates of Nottingham. We have been the subject of an experiment. It has failed and it will take a big man to change direction now. I have to ask the chief constable, or he must ask himself, whether he is that man.
Patrick Mercer (Newark): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) on a powerful speech.
I fear that I shall sound like a stuck record. Although I shall talk not about south Nottinghamshire but about north Nottinghamshire, many of the problems that we have heard about in both speeches are common to those prevailing in my constituency. My constituency, not unlike that of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, is a rural, market-town constituency, which suffers from a level of crime similar to that of other rural areas. However, there is no doubt that during the year and a bit that I have been in Parliament the majority of the contents of my mailbag reflects police and policing difficulties. The majority of my time as a new Member of Parliament has been spent trying to deal with those problems. That has been exacerbatedor helped, whichever way one likes to look at itby my personal knowledge of the chief constable, whom I have known for more than 30 years, and by the fact that in a previous profession I was closely associated with the police. I hope that I have brought some empathy to the problem, but I have been bombarded with complaints at every opportunity about the way in which Newark, in particular, is policed.
I start by congratulating Inspector Gary France and Inspector Gerry Butler and their policemen and women on their efforts in Retford and Newark to contain a difficult situation. My support lies entirely behind the lower ranks, the officers on the beat, the sergeants, the inspectors and the chief inspectors who do so well in an increasingly difficult job. My support has been unswerving for these officers; my admiration for them is huge, and so is that of my community, but that is being put in danger now by the problems that we face.
As the Minister knows, I have been pestering him and the Home Secretary for improvements in funding in Nottinghamshire. I have mentioned several times the 21 per cent. rise in police precept in Newark and Sherwood, which council tax payers in my constituency greatly resent. I have pestered the Minister for the Home Secretaryand the Prime Ministerto visit the constituency; the Prime Minister has never done so. The Minister knows that this is a particular subject of mine; I have pointed out several times that Nottinghamshire constabulary has about half the officers of Merseyside police, and about half the funding, despite the fact that 9,000 fewer crimes are reported in the Merseyside area; 160,000-odd crimes are reported in Nottinghamshire.
I am grateful to the Minister that in the next financial year we may receive a rise of 4.9 per cent. in police funding. However, like my hon. Friends I am not convinced that that money will be spent wisely. As has been said in both the previous speeches, it is not simply a matter of improvements in crime figures or in response timing, or in extra sums of money given to the police; what is crucial is the ability to communicate those improvements to the average man and woman on the street who feels that their police officers are not doing the job for which they are paid and perhaps resourced. It is the essential element of reassurance of constituents that is so badly lacking.
I want to thank the chief constable for the time that he has spent in my constituency; he is not Newark's or Retford's but Nottinghamshire's chief constable. I pay tribute to the fact that he has listened carefully to what we have to say, but the fact remains that although improvements are undoubtedly being reported, particularly by Newark police, there is a general lack of assurance and faith from my constituents in the job that is being done.
I understand Nottinghamshire's needs. I understand that the chief constable must put his resources where they are needed, in the big crime hotspots such as Nottingham, which, as we heard, faces the problems of gun crimewhich is largely absent in Newark and Retfordand drug crime. However, the constabulary is about to get extra resources and I am not sure why the chairman of Nottinghamshire police authority is saying that it will make little difference and is calling for another rise in council tax of perhaps 27 per cent. in the forthcoming financial year. Like my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe, I believe that that will be deeply resented by my constituents.
Patrick Mercer : Yes, of course I agree, but that is 27 per cent. on top of a 21 or so per cent. rise, or in other words an enormous rise in the overall proportion of the council tax. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention.
Improvements have been made in the way in which calls are handled. Speed of response has increased considerably. However, I am not sure that the advice that my constituents receive at the end of a telephone is always well considered. The chief constable has gone through that with me at length, saying that the staff for the new call centres need to be properly trained and to become familiar with the areas. They need to understand that Skegby is a hamlet just north of Normanton on Trent, not a considerable town near Mansfield. Clearly, the problems will take time to iron out, but the fact remains that they have not been ironed out yet. I very much look forward to my visit to a call centre to assure myself that things are improving.
I reiterate the words of my right hon. and learned Friend: if there is one problem that can be solved, it is the speed of response to telephone calls. That would go an awfully long way towards reassuringI use that word againmy constituents.
In my day, when I worked alongside the Royal Ulster Constabulary, it worked on three pillars: attrition, deterrence and reassurance. I am reasonably convinced that, under the new strategy that the chief constable has introduced, attrition is being considered in some detail. Prevention is better than cure, and no doubt professional police officers have well and truly understood that lesson. However, deterrence and reassurance are the two pillars of the structure to which I am referring. If they are not implemented properly, that leads to a lack of faith and a wholesale fear among constituents that they are not getting the protection that they deserve from the officers whom they pay, however indirectly.
There has been a certain amount of flim-flam behind this issue. There have been sensational stories in the Newark Advertiser about anonymous police officers complaining about the way in which the police service in the county is handled. It is open to my constituents to judge whether that is helpful. It certainly spreads a huge amount of alarm and it is based on the authoritative voice of ex-police officers. I look to the chief constable to try to reassure those ex-officers and serving officers.
I echo the hon. Member for Nottingham, North about consulting the officers who will have to implement the changes. I hope very much that when the inspectorate is involved in January, the system under which Nottinghamshire is asked to do its policing will be considered in detail.
I reiterate the points about special constables. My view is that community support officers are not a good idea. However, they are here to stay. I regret the fact that the chief constable has been unable to produce more CSOs than the 12 whom we are offered, due to the fact that his funding is unsustained. I ask the Minister to consider that in detail.
In conclusion, we have excellent policemen and women, who are trying to do an extraordinarily difficult job. We are told that we have more money and more police officers in Nottinghamshire than we have ever seen before. In my constituency, however, we seem to have fewer police officers. It is being bandied around that we used to have 42 but we now have 29. It is the chief constable's job to ensure that my constituents are aware of a job being done better. He must reassure them that they can sleep safely in their beds. Above and beyond everything else, the wedge that has been driven between the people and the police force must be removed with speed.
Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): I agree that there is disillusionment throughout Nottinghamshire. It is important that we examine why that is the case. As has been said, police numbers in the county are at a record high and crime is falling once again. Why is there that lack of public confidence? The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) spoke about the problems with the telephone. That is a key issue. People cannot get through on the telephone. There is no responseI have experienced this myselfand their disillusionment increases. To be fair to the Nottinghamshire police, the response has improved but we need to look at quality, not just quantity. The qualitative response from the telephone operators is abysmal at the moment. We must work harder to ensure that people who ring up in need get an appropriate response.
There has been some talk about the problems caused by the reorganisation. All reorganisation is dysfunctional, but over a number of years the Nottinghamshire police force has been remarkably complacent. Until recently it has been on a progressively downward spiral. Change was necessary. As the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) said, some police officers have found that extremely difficult, but those who go anonymously to talk to the Newark Advertiser are doing the service no good at all. I do not believe the Nottinghamshire crime statistics. I travel the country
I want to make one essential point directly to the chairman of the Nottinghamshire police authority. The precept went up 20 per cent. last year. This week he is threatening that it will go up by 27 per cent. next year. He described last year's settlement as inadequate. Let us just consider it. It is a 4.3 per cent. increase. It represents £5 million extra in the budget, but that is not all. What needs to be considered is the extra money, particularly from the crime fighting fund. If all the specific grants are taken into account, such as those for tackling street crime, which is a real problem for my colleagues in Nottingham, the budget of the Nottinghamshire police would rise from £118 million this year to £130 million next year. That is an increase of £12 million or nearly 10 per cent.
I must tell the chairman of the police authority and the chief constable that unless performance increasesunless we get increased output from the Nottinghamshire policethere can be no suggestion that any Nottinghamshire MP will campaign for more funding for the Nottinghamshire police. The focus should be on making best use of the resources that are available, rather than crying in the dark for resources that will not come. The chairman of the police authority is doing his force and the community in Nottinghamshire no favours whatever.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling): I shall be brief so that others may speak. I want to highlight three or four main points about policing in Nottinghamshire. We have heard about many of the challenges that face the police. Many of the complaints that hon. Members have made are similar to the those that my constituents make. The telephone system is the focus of one such complaint. It is improving, but it needs further improvement.
The plea that is made to me most often with regard to the police is for a visible police presenceto see more police officers on the streets. The intention underlying the change introduced by the chief constable and the chairman of the police authority was to try to achieve that, and I am sure that people will welcome it.
We heard about the importance of local beat officers in reassuring the local community, and we must make them the focus of our efforts. It is important to reiterate for the record that police numbers in Nottinghamshire are at an all-time high. By March 2003, the number will be 2,434 compared with 2,204 only three years agoan increase of 10 per cent. We should welcome that increase, but Nottinghamshire and the rest of the country still need more police officers. While I am a Member of Parliament, I will repeat the demand that my constituents make to me for more police officers because they want a visible police presence on the street.
I agree that effective management and the efficient use of resources are important, and those responsible for them should be held to account where they are lacking. Since I was elected in 1997, however, my fundamental belief has not changed a jot that this country needs a considerable number of extra police officers on the streets in addition to the extra numbers that the Government have made available. I shall continue to argue that point.
The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) made the important point that, as well as increased numbers of police officers and better management, we, as a society, need to consider how to tackle the scourge of antisocial behaviour and criminal damage in our communities, which are very real problems. We need to consider the role of special constables and increase their recruitment and retention. I agree with the right hon. and learned Gentleman that specials should be paid for the work that they do. The Government have relented and are to consider pilot schemes for paying them. I ask the Minister to consider choosing Nottinghamshire for such a pilot scheme, if the chief constable and the chair of the police authority believe it to be appropriate, so that we may determine whether we can use special constables to work alongside police officers.
I also want there to be more community support officers, not only in the city, but throughout the county. Why is Nottinghamshire not one of the areas in which we may pilot giving community support officers the power to detain people for 30 minutes? Community support officers in six areas have that power; it should be available to ours, too.
I want the Government to put more pressure on councils to tackle some of the problems that they have with antisocial behaviour. The police are continually called to deal with antisocial tenants and other such problems, but it is the councils' responsibility to deal with such problems, and they should do so much more effectively.
Will the Minister ask the Lord Chancellor and those people who are responsible for the courts why persistent offenders are still being bailed? Months ago, we said that the courts would not bail persistent young offenders, yet police officers continually tell me that they do. What does it do for morale and reassurance in the community when a police officer catches people who are then bailed by the courts? When we say that courts should not bail persistent offenders, we should ensure that they do not and that we support our police.
Finally, would it be appropriate, following reflection on our debate, for a delegation to meet the Minister privately to discuss the key issues in more detail? We need to talk them through and find a way forward that both supports the police and addresses the identified problems.
John Mann (Bassetlaw): I am an avid reader of the Newark Advertiser and would love to exchange the problems of Newark and Rushcliffe for the problems of Worksop and its surrounding area. I represent a 360 square mile area and my mailbag is also bulging. After
I urge the chief constable to stop sending an officer or himself to every parish council. I cannot get around all 80 of them. They should be grouped together, perhaps 10 at a time, and in those circumstances I would offer my services to chair meetings at which traffic and police issues could be discussed at the same time. Indeed, a correlation exists between them.
Management of change is always difficult. I spent many years trying to negotiate change in the car industry. Without people biting the bullet of change and without the advance of technology, we would have no car industry left. I want to state in the strongest terms that, however painful the change, I want the police service in my area to have the most advanced technology. Many of my constituents still hold dear the concept of PC Plod travelling around the 360 square miles on his bike, but we cannot go back to that notion. I want the police service to use the most advanced technology and I congratulate the force on the changes that have already taken place. Major teething problems have occurred, but they resulted from the way in which the new technology was first introduced.
The management of change will also be painful for local officers. I should like to see fewer phone numbers: I have never known an area in which it is so easy to bandy around different numbers of the local police station. When people ring the local police station and are dissatisfied, who is blamed?the Government. The police say that they do not have sufficient resources to deal with problems. That occurs throughout the public services. Everyone likes to blame others and ask for more money because it is an easy way of getting rid of people on the other end of the phone. In the management of change, that must be a top priority. I constantly receive feedback from people saying that there are not enough police. How do they know? Because, they say, the police told them that they did not have enough resources for effective policing. It is a critical part of the problem.
I frequently say to parish councils nowadays, "You complain, so you show me the people who are volunteering to be specials." Of course, the Home Secretary has the advantage of a much stronger economy these days, which should help to pay for change. Doubtless the absence of a strong economy was why it was turned down in the past. I should like to see closed circuit television paid for by my own parish council and others in order to deter; it might dislodge criminals to other areas without CCTV. I applaud the Government's efforts and would like even more money invested in CCTV.
About 95 per cent. of recorded and unrecorded crime in my area is caused by drugs. I ask the Minister for my area to be piloted under the Criminal Justice Bill: let us quantify the savings to the police service resulting from diverting criminals into treatment. I suspect that they would be substantial, not to mention the large savings to legal aid budgets. Please make us a pilot area.
Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South): Police funding is increasing by 10 per cent. this year, so the number of police officers2,434is the highest that Nottinghamshire has ever had. However, the context is important, and we must recognise that Nottinghamshire has the second highest crime ratein terms of the ratio of crimes per 1,000 peopleand the highest ratio of crimes per officer in the country.
I represent an inner-city constituency in which the bulk of crimes are committed. We must understand current policing demands and what the police are being asked to take on. Since April, robberies in Nottinghamshire have increased by 18.6 per cent. There have been 31 shootings and three fatalities. There have been 150 arrests for drug or gun-related crimes, 31 of which resulted in deportations. One killing was of a young man who grew up in my front room, and I feel very angry about the nature of his death.
It is wrong, however, to say that all that is the fault of the chief constable. His arrival in Nottinghamshire was one of the best pieces of news that the county had had in a long time. When he arrived, the safest place to be in the county was police headquarters, which was not surprising because of the number of officers who were tied up there. One thing that the chief constable has done is make a commitment to devolve resources and put officers into the communities that they are supposed to be policing. There are problems with that, and with a resistance to change, but my constituents welcome the deployment of police in different ways.
I do not want to repeat the points that have been made about the answering of telephone calls to the police. Those are legitimate criticisms, but I want it to be recognised that some of the issues thrown at the police have to be set in a different context. We live in a society that faces rising crime. Despite that, police in Nottinghamshire have the highest ratio of arrests to charges in the country. For that, they should be congratulated.
Those police also have a background record of much more substantial involvement in diversionary and antisocial behaviour programmes than we have yet seen. The most successful scheme is a project called Wheelbase in my constituency, which has an incredible record of deflecting young people away from patterns of crime. The tragedy is that the scheme has to survive on a hand-to-mouth funding basis, for which we all have a responsibility, rather than the police who set it up and whose support underpins it.
I shall list four challenges in relation to Nottinghamshire police that I hope that the Minister will consider. Clearly, the central issues are drugs, guns and crime. The connections between the three are pivotal to crime in the county. We must accept that the community is often afraid not only of crime, but of coming forward to identify crime. Witness protection is crucial to detection rates. We should consider a gun amnesty, but only on the basis of introducing a statutory five-year sentence for the possession of guns.
Finally, I urge the Minister to think carefully before we charge down the path of 24-hour licensing in cities, because that will mean 24-hour provision of emergency services, and I am not sure that we have the capacity or cash to provide that at present.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate and on his measured introduction. I agree with 99 per cent. of what he said. The paradox is that the level of crime has been falling over the past few months and, indeed, since 1995, but we perceive that it is getting worse. I believe that the reason for that perception is the undoubted rise in antisocial behaviour. Most people do not see burglaries regularly, but they do see antisocial behaviour and they infer that all other crime is also getting worse.
Mrs. Annette L. Brooke (Mid-Dorset and North Poole): I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would give his opinion on what the police authority in Nottinghamshire should be doing. Some of the problems that we have heard about could perhaps be tackled more proactively by ensuring the right balance. Having made that comment, I waive my right to speak, so that the hon. Gentleman has a little more time.
Dr. Palmer : I am extremely grateful to the hon. Lady for her helpful intervention in both senses. She makes an important point on the role of the police authority. We do not have a great sense of democratic accountability, because of the indirect election to the authority, so it is all the more important that it is seen to be taking a lead. I support the police authority's efforts to get the Government to reconsider the way in which police funding is allocated to different areas, because there are paradoxes. If we make comparisons on population and number of crimes, we see that Nottinghamshire appears to be underfunded in relation to a number of other areas. I ask the Minister to reconsider that.
I shall focus on what we are asking the Government to do. First, they must consider the funding formula and ensure that Nottinghamshire gets its fair share. I am launching a petition in my constituency to gather support for that move.
Secondly, I understand that the chief constable is reluctant to introduce too many community support officers before he has commitments on long-term funding for them. Obviously, he does not want to recruit and train them, only to let them go again a couple of years later. That is one reason why only 12 are lined up. It would help if the Government showed a long-term commitment to the concept.
Thirdly, I was talking to Lord Falconer at a conference on identity cards. There is very wide support for those among my constituents, to back up the police. Fourthly, I support the efforts to reduce paperwork and waiting time in court so that the police that we do have work more productively. I am concerned about the slow introduction of links between computer systems. I understand that a year or two ago, it was still the case that a police officer might have to enter the same personal data about suspects 16 times in different systems. That figure has decreased a little, but it could come down much more.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire): I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate. The strength of feeling about the situation in Nottinghamshire has not gone unnoticed by those of us from other counties who take an interest in police matters. Before the debate, several hon. Members representing Nottinghamshire constituencies had already expressed their concerns in the Chamber and elsewhere. We have heard many different views, and it is not for me as an MP from another county to presume to comment on the detail of policing in Nottinghamshire. However, I want to make a few points that I hope will be helpful.
Most hon. Members have mentioned resources. Understandably, many Labour Back Benchers have said that there is a record number of police officers in Nottinghamshire at present. That is perfectly true, and I would not take that away from them. However, it is interesting that during Labour's first five years in government, numbers in Nottinghamshire fell by 65. One hon. Member even compared the figures with those for three years ago, as though the previous three years did not count.
There are record numbers of police officers, but it is not just a matter of numbers. As my right hon. and learned Friend said, it is a matter of how resources are used, and an issue of organisation. I sympathise with hon. Members who said that the police do not always help themselves. I, too, have heard of police officers telling victims of crime, "I'm sorry, but we can't get therewe're the only ones on duty in 500 square miles." That certainly does not help the public perception, whatever the truth may be.
Telephones and response times have been mentioned. It is time to consider having a second tier of telephones, as they do in many parts of the United States for the less urgent callsnot emergency calls. I have recently been a victim of crime, involving the loss of property worth several thousand pounds. On reporting it, all that I received was an incident number. It is now three months later and I have still not seen a police officer. I have explained that to my force, and it knows my views on that, but that demonstrates that we are all open to the problem of not getting the response that we expect from telephone calls.
I also want to refer to the term that my right hon. and learned Friend used: "bobbies on the beat". He referred to that as a focus group concept, and I am well aware of his attitude to focus groups, which I largely share. If that is seen, as some chief constables have said to me, as purely a matter of reassurance because people want to see bobbies on the beat, then I share my right hon. and learned Friend's cynicism; it is a pointless exercise. However, I contend that bobbies on the beat could provide not merely reassurance but effective policing[Interruption.]if such police officers are proactive, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) is
I would argue that such work is not a job for special constables. There is not time to debate specials now, but being out there, dealing with the community, is such a crucial job that experienced front-line police officers should be doing it. Decisions about that should be taken locally. The Government should not and cannot enforce that kind of policing. However, they can set about stimulating it by removing barriers and obstacles, and encouraging and enabling the necessary co-ordination.
Antisocial tenants were mentioned. That problem highlights the role of an effective community officer with very close organised links with all public agencies involved in an area, including housing agencies and authorities. The Government have much more work to do to make such community policing happen. Yes, decisions must be made on the ground by local police chiefs, working with police authorities where there is room for considerable improvement; but the Government should not shuffle off all responsibility. They should facilitate those developments, get rid of barriers and build partnerships. That will lead to more effective policing on the ground in Nottinghamshire and throughout the country.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Bob Ainsworth) : I congratulate the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) on securing the debate and on the manner in which he presented his case. It was up to his usual standard, on this very important matter.
Two themes emerged from the debate. One was the gratifyingly high level of concern and commitment from all hon. Members who contributed; I congratulate them on that. The other was that although some concerns are shared there is a real diversity of view on some of the basics, and there are different opinions about what is and is not being achieved and the chances of success.
There was a request during the debate for a delegation to meet me to discuss the problems again. Hon. Members are aware that Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary will have some involvement in Nottinghamshire in the near future. I can tell hon. Members from all parties who have expressed heartfelt views on this matter that if they feel that such a delegationI am here picking up the point raised by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire (Mr. Paice)would help to draw together the various opinions in the county without trying to second-guess what is not the Government's job, or is HMI's job, or is the local chief constable's job and the local police authority's job, I should be more than happy to undertake that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) said, change is hugely difficult. It is proving to be difficult and painful for individuals in the force and in the wider community in Nottinghamshire, and I am prepared to do anything that might assist with that. I cannot speak for the Minister for Policing, Crime Reduction and Community Safety, who is unable to be here, but I am sure that he would be equally willingand perhaps a more appropriate personto meet such a delegation. Between us, we are prepared to try to sort it out.
I shall try to deal with the points that have been raised. I do not expect to be able to do justice to them all, but we shall take away all the issues that have been aired and try to be as constructive as we can.
Nottinghamshire police authority has not fared badly under the provisional funding settlement. For 200304 it was allocated general grant of £123.7 millionan increase of 4.3 per cent., or £5.2 million. In addition, there are several specific grants, including £4.32 million for the crime fighting fund. Taking into account the crime fighting fund, as well as grant funding, Nottinghamshire police force will benefit from an overall increase of about 4.9 per cent. No hon. Members have disputed that. On top of that, there is £1.13 million towards the cost of Airwave and £0.85 million to tackle street crime. In the current financial year, capital provision rose by 26.2 per cent., and the notional credit approval of £21.4 million was given for the public-private partnership contract signed last year for the new traffic wing and supply and maintenance of vehicles.
Street crime has fallen in Nottinghamshire by 14 per cent. during the course of the initiative. Street robbery has increased significantly in the constituency of the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe. As he would accept, however, he does not live in the most dangerous part of the county, or indeed the countryquite the reverse. I do not know whether that is all down to the representation that he manages to provide. I am sure that he recognises that despite the rise in street crime, the problems that his constituents face are dwarfed by those in other parts of the county.
There are concerns about how resources have been redeployed in the county. The chief constable tells me that there has been no denuding of posts around the county for the sake of Nottingham city centre. Posts remain as budgeted on 1 April. Because the proportion of probationers in the city division was significantly higher than in any other division, experienced officers were transferred into the city division. However, the proportion of probationers in Nottingham is still higher than in the surrounding divisions.
Another matter that has been the focus of much comment this morning is the programme for change that the chief constable launched on 1 April. It will include a review and is intended to reduce demands on resources, to realign basic command units with local authority boundaries, to support partnership and to ensure that community-based problem solving is at the heart of the policing culture. The chief constable tells me that resources have been devolved to the basic command units and that 52 officers have been devolved to divisional operations from the HQ departments. He tells me that Operation Roman, in utilising scientific
Operation Stealth has been concerned with the problem of firearms in the city of Nottingham; it has seen 150 arrests, of which 31 resulted in people being deported. Doubtless Nottinghamshire Members will be aware of much more being done. It is important to recognise that it takes time for the results of any change programme to come through. I recognise that there are varying degrees of confidence as to whether the change programme will work; along with the chief constable and the police, we shall try to take that into account.
Hon. Members know that HMI will be involved in the force in the near future. In January, there will be a pre-force inspection, and a best value review inspection of Nottingham city basic command unit. Later, in March next year, HMI will be formally inspecting the force based on the earlier inspections. The report will be finalised within five weeks, and it will be available to allow us to assess the performances that concern several hon. Members who have spoken this morning. HMI plans to write to all the MPs concerned in the near future to alert them to the inspections, to give them details of what it intends to do and to invite them to state their views on the problem.
I cannot respond to the many individual issues that were raised. The right hon. and learned Gentleman and many other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping), raised the issue of response times. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is absolutely right that there have been improvements and response times are below the national average, which is one thing that HMI and the police authority will want to consider to see whether improvements can be made in that area.
On CSOs, a variety of opinions was expressed. The Nottinghamshire force has been given what it bid for. If it makes further bids, they will be considered. The right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe and other hon. Members support the concept of CSOs but are impatient for the roll-out of the programme. A great deal of scepticism was expressed by Conservative Members during the passage of the Police Reform Act 2002 about whether we should be going down that route. I was amused by the report this morning that the hon. Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer) does not support CSOs but that he wants funding stability to enable an ongoing commitment to them. He knows, because he served on the Standing Committee, that the Opposition attempted to slow down the giving of powers to CSOs, and to have CSOs piloted rather than rolled out quickly. Any diminution in our ability to roll out CSOs as quickly as we would like is partly due to opposition expressed in this House.
Another issue about which hon. Members are greatly concerned applies not only to Nottinghamshire but elsewhere. It is antisocial behaviour. The Government have plans to deal with that in the new Session. All hon. Members will want to have an input into the plans to ensure that they are as effective as possible.
On local issues, I am more than happy to meet a delegation if people believe that it will be constructive and will help to bring people together. Judging from the debate, I am certain that every single Member of Parliament for the county passionately shares the underlying desire to improve policing in Nottinghamshire for the benefit of all the people who live there.