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6 Jul 2005 : Column 99WH—continued

Neighbourhood Policing (West Mercia)

2.30 pm

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): As this is a debate of local interest and a number of hon. Members wish to make a contribution, it is likely that, in accordance with Mr. Speaker's ruling, the Front-Bench Opposition spokespersons will be limited to five minutes each.

Mr. Michael Foster (Worcester) (Lab): I am grateful that so many colleagues are present today to debate neighbourhood policing in West Mercia, particularly when they could be in Trafalgar square celebrating with what seemed to be a lot of other people. I welcome the opportunity to have this debate. Policing was an issue on the doorsteps of pretty much every local housing estate and local community that I visited during the recent election campaign. It is good so soon after it to have the opportunity to talk about policing, primarily in west Worcester, but focusing on South Worcestershire division and, importantly, Worcester city itself.

I shall begin by outlining a few facts about West Mercia constabulary. The Minister will be aware of them, but it is useful to put into context what I want to say about neighbourhood policing. West Mercia is the largest land-locked force: it covers an area of 7,429 sq km. It is the fourth largest police area in England and Wales, with a population of just over 1.1 million people. There are the equivalent of 483 people to every police officer in West Mercia, compared with an average for English non-metropolitan forces of 461, so just to reach the average, West Mercia would need an extra 100 police officers.

The constabulary works with 13 crime and disorder partnerships, two two-tier county authorities and two unitary authorities. It covers 652 parishes and 298 council wards, and it holds the Investors in People standard and the charter mark. It has 2,422 police officers, 1,657 staff, 300 special constables and 83 community support officers. The net budget of West Mercia is £172.8 million, and it has a cost base of some 95 per cent. of the average police force per head of population. It is one of the least well-resourced authorities in the country. Its spend of £141.97 per head compares with £151 for the average shire force. It would need an extra £9 million to become average in terms of its funding.

Having said that, West Mercia has consistently met, indeed exceeded, its 2 per cent. efficiency targets for each of the last five years. Since 1999–2000 it has produced £19.8 million in efficiency savings. It is a low-spend police force, but there is real concern on the doorstep about the balance of funding for the police between Government grant, on the one hand, and local council tax. Government grant, at £92.24 per head, compares with £107.16 for the average shire force, whereas the local council tax precept for a band D property is £143.17, compared with £83.68 for neighbouring authorities.

Having outlined the issues about resources, I wish to focus on performance. West Mercia has improved tremendously during the last 12 months. Recorded crime is down by 11 per cent.; the sanctioned detection rate is up by 5.4 per cent.; domestic burglary is down by 19 per cent. in volume and the detection rate has gone up by 6 per cent.; for vehicle crime, there has been a 10 per
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cent. reduction in volume and a 4 per cent. increase in detection; and for violent crime, a 15 per cent. reduction in volume and a 4 per cent. increase in detection. I shall repeat that figure, Mr. O'Hara, because it cropped up a lot during the election campaign: violent crime has gone down in West Mercia by 15 per cent. Perhaps next time accurate statistics will be used in local election material in the West Mercia area.

The constabulary has developed four tracks of policing: responsive policing; targeted policing; local policing; and partnership policing. In doing so, it has laid effective foundations for neighbourhood policing, especially in establishing the role of local beat managers and realigning boundaries with those of local partners. West Mercia did that at a time when many other police services were structured almost entirely around a demand-led, reactive police model.

West Mercia's chief constable, Paul West, has identified four local neighbourhood policing principles, which support and complement those that the Home Office is developing nationally. They form the basis of the minimum standard of service that he would like to ensure is delivered to all local communities in the force area. First, members of the public should be provided with up-to-date and easily accessible information concerning their local beat police officer, including details of the geographic area for which they are responsible, their name and contact details.

Secondly, local beat officers should work as part of a team and be able to draw on generalist colleagues to provide cover when they are unavailable and on specialist support to deal with more complex problems. The team should also include at least one community support officer available to provide high-profile foot patrol deployment in response to local need.

David Wright (Telford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. Does he agree that community support officers have been invaluable in recent years in West Mercia? We have a scheme in Telford whereby a number of community support officers are allocated to key wards that require regeneration and they often patrol in partnership with police officers so that they have all the powers at their disposal. That increases the number of visible uniformed officers in communities when they are needed and in the right places.

Mr. Foster : I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend—community support officers are vital. Later in my speech I will talk about a CSO on my patch to demonstrate the high visibility nature of his police work as well as the active community work that goes on, which is often unsung and helps to build up trust in the police force.

The third part of the neighbourhood policing model laid out by Paul West is that local policing teams should be led by nominated supervisors and should have well-established and formal links with other public and voluntary sector agencies that also provide daily services, such as the local authority, the housing association and social services.

The fourth element of the model is that schools, both primary and secondary, should be considered integral features of local communities and be served by local officers and local policing teams. My right hon. Friend
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the Minister for Schools is unable to be here today, but when I asked her about neighbourhood policing in West Mercia, she told me about PC Dave Wilkins from Redditch, who is heavily committed to the community that he serves. His work extends from surgeries to work with schools, which includes doing assemblies, issuing newsletters and raising issues such as fireworks in the autumn, or parking and antisocial behaviour. Outside those general duties he meets local residents to try to resolve minor difficulties and disputes—the sort that we often get involved with as Members of Parliament.

PC Wilkins is often on the beat, but he also spends a lot of time developing and organising community events such as the annual Redditch fun run, a community theatre group or even local environmental projects. His work means that he touches a lot of people's lives but, crucially, his contacts are not always about crime. His community knowledge, his contacts and his early intervention in problems are actually vital in his work to tackle crime and the fear of crime. My right hon. Friend said that Redditch is lucky to have officers like him.

To colleagues, supervisors and, more important, the public in Worcester, Giuseppe—Joe—Facciano, a CSO from the Barbourne beat, is a round peg in a round hole. He willingly goes the extra mile. Joe cares passionately about his beat and is genuinely upset by damage, litter and antisocial behaviour. In his professional time and his own time he contributes to community well-being. His ready rapport with elderly residents, a group who often feel vulnerable in today's world, helps enormously and, along with his accordion playing at community events, is an example of the voluntary commitment that he makes to the people of Barbourne.

Beat manager Paul Green says that the drop in crime since Joe's arrival is not coincidental. Joe's relationship with local people is impossible to quantify accurately, but it raises the community's perception of the importance and value of community support officers and perhaps refutes some of the scepticism that can be seen in the claim that CSOs are a poor substitute for "the real thing".

The South Worcester division of West Mercia was restructured in 2000, to create local policing units that are coterminous with the local government boundaries, at parish, town, ward and district level, in order to accommodate the requirements of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 for police to reduce crime and disorder by working in partnership with people in the districts. The arrangement was completed when West Mercia restructured the basic command unit in Worcestershire to bring all of Malvern hills into the south Worcester division in 2003. That division is headed by chief superintendent Simon Adams.

There are three district commands within south Worcestershire, each commanded by an inspector, who is the point of contact for the local council. The concept of beat management is established across the community, with the principle that every member of the community can identify with a named constable in the area in which he or she lives, works or attends school. That constable's remit is essentially about problem solving and facilitating partnership solutions. The area of a beat manager's responsibility is arranged around parish, town or wall boundaries and the size of the area is determined by the work load and the geography.
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In rural areas of the division, parishes are typically clustered into a single area, whereas Warndon parish in my constituency is served by two officers because of its sheer size and the amount of work involved.

David Wright : Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important, wherever possible, that we get officers out of motor vehicles and back on to the streets? For example, in Madeley we have an excellent project in which police use bicycles to get around the town. Obviously, that cannot be done in large rural areas, where there will always be a need for motor vehicles. However, in smaller towns and villages, and in urban areas, we need to encourage police officers and community support officers to make sure that they are not in motor vehicles, but are seen on the street, using bicycles and Shanks's pony.

Mr. Foster : I do not disagree with my hon. Friend. I suspect that a new town such as his has modern estates with many paths and alleyways that cars cannot get through, but to which people who want to cause trouble have ready access, and where the most suitable ways of chasing criminals are on a bike and on foot.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having brought this debate to Westminster Hall. Does he agree that, while the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) is correct that police officers need to get out of their cars more, they need to get out of them and on to the streets, not into council offices, which seem to attract endless meetings? Clearly, there is an argument for working together to reduce crime in all our communities, but there seems to be an epidemic of meetings. Finally, in this brief intervention—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. The hon. Gentleman has made his point well.

Mr. Foster : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, and I am glad that it was brief. In my experience, the result of some of the meetings that police officers attend, working in partnership with local community leaders, is to stop crime right at the beginning. That has got to be better than having a responsive police force. It is far better to prevent things at source than to wait for them to happen and then chase criminals on foot, by bike or in a car. However, I accept the general thrust that police have to be more visible out and about in their local communities.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman was generous and correct enough to name a number of beat officers in Worcester city who do a first-rate job. He rather skipped over the divisional commander, Simon Adams, and the individual inspectors of the command units in south Worcestershire. Does he agree that one of the reasons why neighbourhood policing is working so well in the area that we both represent in Parliament is that the individuals concerned, Simon Adams and, in my case, Steve Brooker, are reaching out to the community and making themselves accessible to organisations and individuals? They deserve to be praised.

Mr. Foster : Towards the end of my speech, I was going to give huge plaudits to Chief Superintendent
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Adams, who is in charge of the whole division. Certainly, the inspectors at district level are fundamental to the leadership in the police force. In each district the team of managers is supervised by a dedicated sergeant, whose remit is to support the inspector for the patch in crime and disorder reduction, and the beat managers are supported by community support officers, special constables, district council wardens, outreach workers and neighbourhood watch. They are all part of the local policing team. On top of that, police officers patrol the hot spots and areas that the local policing team sometimes cannot get to. We have to acknowledge that beat managers also have the support of specialist units, including the antisocial behaviour team, crime prevention officers, school officers, intelligence analysts and the county council's joined-up information system, all of which helps to target police resources where they are needed and particularly in local communities.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that probably one of the nastiest and toughest jobs that the specialist officers and, indeed, all police officers have to do is to deal with people who have been injured or killed in road traffic accidents and their families? Does he further agree that a great tragedy is taking place on the A49, particularly at Ashton, where there has been another accident in the same black spot and again the Highways Agency has failed to act?

2.45 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

3 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Foster : I was just about to respond to the hon. Gentleman. Ashton is a small village about 5 miles north of Leominster. The A49 has some quite severe turns there and it has a known accident record. I hope that the Highways Agency has taken note of what he said and will do something that will satisfy the hon. Gentleman and the residents of Ashton.

Beat managers have been tasked in south Worcestershire, through the national intelligence model process, to assist in other areas of policing, such as gathering intelligence and assisting in managing potentially dangerous offenders and those identified as prolific or persistent offenders. The south Worcestershire crime and disorder reduction partnership was formed from a merger of the three district partnerships.

The resulting single partnership works better with other bodies such as the health service and the fire service. The key role that is now played by youth outreach workers in tackling antisocial behaviour, which was first piloted in Worcester, has now been deployed across the whole of the south Worcestershire division. Key rural safety initiatives have been set up under West Mercia constabulary. I am sure that hon. Members who know more about rural policing matters may mention them too.

I should like to spend some time talking about the antisocial behaviour strategy in south Worcestershire, particular Worcester, because it is key to what local
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communities understand by neighbourhood policing. It is how the low level crimes and disorder that go on in their local communities are tackled.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned the antisocial behaviour unit. Does he have any comment on the alleged remarks of Ms Louise Casey, whom we heard on our radios this morning complaining about the relationship between the Home Office and No. 10 and expressing her personal views about antisocial behaviour. They are views that I suspect he and the Minister would not share.

Mr. Foster : I have not heard the full details of the recording that was made of Louise Casey's speech, but in my dealings with her I have been nothing but impressed with her as an individual and with the ability and life that she brings to her job in the antisocial behaviour unit, as she did in the homelessness unit before that.

Initially the antisocial behaviour strategy in south Worcestershire was led by the police, but it is now firmly established as a partnership approach to dealing with behaviour. It is based on the principle of social inclusion, achieved through diversion and behavioural change before enforcement so that longer-term benefits can be won for the community and the individuals themselves. The division has also maximised opportunities provided by legislation so that they can reduce the demand that antisocial behaviour places on the responding nature of the police service.

The process to deal with antisocial behaviour goes through four levels. At level 1 there would be a letter to the offender and their parents. At level 2 there would be a personal visit to the offender and the parents by the beat manager and perhaps an outreach worker. Level 3 would be a multi-agency meeting to discuss and address the issues with the offender and their parents, a plan of action, restorative justice and perhaps even mediation. Level 4 would be the application for the antisocial behaviour order.

The results for 2005 have been most encouraging. The antisocial behaviour team received 1,906 referrals at level 1. Of those, 328 went to level 2, 57 to level 3 and 26 to level 4. Having been successfully dealt with at level 1, 81 per cent. of offenders did not come to police notice again. That also means that there will be a reduction in demand for further police time. Only 1 per cent.—26—were the subject of an ASBO application. That has to be a good sign in terms of how antisocial behaviour is dealt with in local neighbourhoods.

The use of legislation has been paramount to south Worcestershire in trying to problem-solve. We believe that we are the first in our area to implement a dispersal section 30 order under the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003. Warndon villages were subject to the order to provide the local community with immediate relief from a long-term problem. Last year, 34 notices were issued under section 59 of the Police Reform Act 2002 to tackle the boy racer syndrome in our area.

The antisocial behaviour team is led by Sergeant Chris Allen and served by Constable Tina Dodd, MBE, a police staff investigator, an analyst, clerical support, an employee on secondment from the county council, and council outreach youth workers. Interestingly, the
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chief constable has now directed West Mercia constabulary to implement that approach throughout the force, so what started in Worcester was implemented in south Worcestershire and will be implemented everywhere else in the force. Importantly, the process is now being used to shape the division's response to providing a process to manage the prevent tier of the prevent and deter strand of the PPO scheme.

The Elgar project is a joint project between the division and the local probation service to enhance support to offenders serving drug treatment and testing orders. Support is being provided by a police staff employee, a retired detective called Rocky Hudson. The project has been evaluated, and is seen to be more successful than DTTOs without support. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that the scheme has contributed to a reduction in vehicle crime in the area.

The division is also involved in planning for real projects in local communities, which is another important interaction. It has introduced an unmarked vehicle fitted with an automatic number plate recognition device, which was bought under the devolved financial management regime at West Mercia.

The division also engages with the voluntary sector. There is a counter service at Broadway, Evesham community contact centre is open, and the police are in negotiation at Upton upon Severn to allow the community access to a wide range of local services, including the police, all at one centre.

Peter Luff : The hon. Gentleman just referred to the Evesham community contact centre. It is worth putting on record what a phenomenal success that innovation has been. I have stood behind the counter at the centre and seen the way in which police staff interact with district council and county council staff and provide a completely seamless service, performing sometimes unpleasant duties, such as recording incidents, getting people to fill in forms and pay fines, and sometimes providing advice. It really is a first-rate initiative that deserves to be rolled out throughout West Mercia.

Mr. Foster : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman went into detail about the Evesham community contact centre, because I was hoping that colleagues who had those facilities in their patch would make the point for the record that south Worcestershire division is a leading light in taking forward the constabulary and the rest of the police force in general.

Class A drug dealing is of particular concern to neighbourhoods and communities in Worcester and elsewhere in south Worcestershire. The division has made particular efforts to focus on street dealing of class A drugs, and has co-ordinated that activity with the work of the county substance misuse team. Chief Superintendent Adams is a member of the board, whose aim is to disrupt the distribution and supply of drugs, and to increase the number of people who receive treatment.

In Worcester city, most police time is spent on the Warndon area, which is typically the area in greatest need. The police team aims to support the city council in its responsibilities under the new Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act 2005. New provisions in Worcester city include youth shelters in
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open spaces in Old Warndon and Warndon villages, surgeries held by community support officers, the shopwatch scheme, retail club and pub radio, and the city centre policing team, which works with partners from the retail forum and the city council to monitor CCTV, among other things. Two section 30 orders are in force in the city of Worcester. One covers the St. Peters estate and Tesco, and the other covers County hall.

The division also gets involved in community focus groups. My right hon. Friend the Minister will associate those with big conversation events that I have held. Those events have been held without publicity and involve local people, but the police and community support officers have come along and, importantly, action has followed, so that elements of antisocial behaviour around the Co-op on the Ronkswood estate have been dealt with to everyone's satisfaction.

The city police force has been involved in the dragon project, which targets young offenders who have been convicted of vehicle crime, with a view to achieving rehabilitation through training and vehicle maintenance programmes. The beat management team has been involved in the streets ahead project in Dines green in the west part of Worcester.

What has all that meant? We Members of Parliament want to focus on police performance and the effect on crime in certain areas, so I shall give the Chamber some detail about performance on crime in south Worcestershire and Worcester city. Comparing 2003–04 with 2004–05, South Worcestershire division has seen a 15 per cent. reduction in all crimes—that is 3,531 fewer offences—and Worcester city a 16 per cent. reduction. In South Worcestershire, there has been a 15 per cent. reduction for burglary and an 18 per cent. reduction in vehicle crime, for which there has been a 22 per cent. reduction in Worcester city. In violent crime, there have been reductions of 9 per cent. in south Worcestershire division and 10 per cent. in Worcester city. According to British crime survey comparators, the division has already achieved its three-year stretch target of a 16 per cent. reduction in all crime. It has seen a reduction of 19 per cent., and Worcester city one of 23 per cent.

On crime detection, data is available only for the south Worcestershire division, but the sanction detection rate for all crime is up by 7.7 per cent. to 31.1 per cent., which puts it in the basic command unit family position of second out of 15. Detection rates are up by 2.2 per cent. for burglary, giving a BCU family position of sixth out of 15; up by 21.3 per cent. for violent crime, giving a family position of third; up by 8.5 per cent. for vehicle crime, giving a family position of first; and up by 40.6 per cent. for racially aggravated crime, again giving the family position of first.

That brings me to the issue of race and race relations. The National Front threatened to conduct a march in Worcester city last Saturday, so Chief Superintendent Adams set up an independent advisory group that included key members of the local ethnic minority community to discuss police responses to various scenarios. The group was involved with the police's decisions and was happy. In the end, there was no march and no disorder, but members of the local community felt that they had been listened to and that their voices
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had been heard. That is essential if we are to deal with the sensitive issue of marches by far-right extremist groups such as the National Front.

I have some things to ask of the Minister and the Government on behalf of West Mercia. Will the Minister take a closer look at the police grant formula to reduce the variation between police forces? What action has she taken to tackle the problem of police pension funding to avoid instability in the system, particularly for those involved in the budgetary process? Will she assure me that the rural sparsity grant will continue and will be index-linked in future to protect its real-term value?

Will the Minister increase the resources available to forces such as West Mercia, which have a low cost base, to afford systems to support the identification of signal crimes and disorder? They will require new capital and revenue investment. Will she allocate extra community support officers to West Mercia? The police have set a target of at least one CSO for every local beat manager. There are 114 local beat managers and 83 CSOs, so we want a minimum increase of 31 CSOs.

The Home Office antisocial behaviour unit should fund research into visible policing—I welcome that being done in Worcester—and what is meant by that term. When we speak to people on their doorsteps, they say, "We never see a person on the beat," but if they are at work in the day and locked away in their houses at night, they will never see bobbies on the beat. So, the unit should fund a project to find out what people mean by visible policing: is it actually seeing police, or is it having some other form of contact with them?

Will the Minister consider what further back-office roles could be undertaken by non-police officers to free up officers to be active in their local communities and neighbourhoods? Given the success of local initiatives, will the Home Office seek to devolve further responsibilities to BCUs and beat commanders? If so, what will they be and when will that happen?

Finally, I pay tribute to the chief constable, Paul West, and the chief superintendent, Simon Adams, for their superb work. It is groundbreaking and inspired leadership in local neighbourhoods that makes a big difference, and I hope that through my contribution and others the people in West Mercia will be more confident about the local policing that they receive.

3.15 pm

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): I thank the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) for securing the debate.

I represent The Wrekin in Shropshire and I have travelled far and wide throughout my large constituency in the past three years. The message that I pick up from the people I meet is that they want neighbourhood and community policing. That has many manifestations, but the greatest demand is for regular officers on the beat. There are different ways of delivering local neighbourhood policing, such as through police specials, parish officers—which have been used successfully in Moreton-on-Lugg in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin)—and community support officers.
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However, although community support officers are welcome and doing a good job, many people are still concerned, first, that we do not have enough of them; secondly, that they do not work enough hours—many knock off at 10  o'clock, when many of the troubles in our market towns are just beginning and many do not work weekends, when there are a lot of problems around the leisure facilities in those towns—and, thirdly and most important, they do not have the power of arrest. I know from speaking to people in Leegomery in my constituency that many people—not just young people; young people are not the only ones involved in antisocial behaviour and crime—know more about the powers of community support officers than some Members of Parliament. They are very switched on to their human rights—more than to their responsibilities. I welcome community support officers, but, through you, Mr. O'Hara, I ask, "Please, Minister, can we have some more, and can we ensure that CSOs are not used as a back-door way of replacing regular officers with real powers of arrest?"

That leads me on to the important role of police specials. They have the power of arrest and a lot of the people involved in antisocial behaviour and crime know that. West Mercia police has been involved in the national campaign run by the Home Office to recruit more police specials. Will the Minister tell us whether the advertising has been regional and local? I have seen only national advertising, and when I recently met a senior police officer I was not furnished with the facts in response to my question about whether we had recruited from local advertising. We need local people who have expressed an interest in being a police special in their local community rather than in other places.

Peter Luff : Has my hon. Friend seen worrying figures that suggest a sharp reduction in the number of special constables serving in West Mercia? There were 280 last year, down from a high point of 613 in 1996. That sharp reduction has caused great concern.

Mark Pritchard : Yes, it is of great concern, particularly in Albrighton and Shifnal in my constituency, where we have seen a halving of the number of police specials. Many people are asking how they are supposed to have a relationship with the police if they are remote, and I believe that the more remote the local police are, or are seen to be, the harder it is for them to have a role in community policing. There needs to be a process of reciprocation. That helps the police in the form of human intelligence and gathering information on what is happening in the community, and it helps the community by allowing the police to show that they are interested, engaged and involved in a day-to-day dialogue with their communities.

Parish officers perhaps have a role. As part of the new model pioneered by West Mercia, parish councils can pay for parish officers. I am quite relaxed about that, unless those officers replace the ones that we already have or we pay twice for the same thing. Local parish councils that do not have the budget or the manpower should not have to say that the only way to deliver the neighbourhood policing suggested by the hon. Member for Worcester and to protect the streets from antisocial behaviour is to pay for it again by having a parish
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officer. That proposition would not be acceptable to taxpayers in my constituency, who take the view that they have already paid for policing.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): Pontesbury parish council in my constituency has been told by West Mercia that if it wants a parish community support officer, it will have to pay for one. That is unacceptable to the council, which feels that the cost would massively increase the parish precept for the village, which simply cannot afford it. It is simply not acceptable for rural communities to be discriminated against in that way.

Mark Pritchard : My hon. Friend makes the point very well. There is great concern that, although the new role of parish officer provides an opportunity, it should not replace that of regular officers, police specials or community support officers or be a way of paying for the same thing twice.

Funding has rightly been raised as an issue, and all colleagues in the House from West Mercia know that the region has the third worst funded police service in England and Wales. The problem continues year after year, and year after year we hear platitudes from the Government, but we want action from the Government. Perhaps I can put forward a proposition today. At a recent meeting with senior police officers, they suggested that we consider using the proceeds from crime. Why are proceeds from crime sent to the Treasury, where a lot of them are creamed off, before the remainder is redistributed to forces such as West Mercia police? Why cannot individual police forces keep the money that they retrieve through their hard work from people involved in criminal activity whom they capture? That would incentivise local police officers and detectives, and it would be fair and equitable. The Government say that they support performance-related pay and performance by results—that is their claim at least. I think that rewarding hard-working police forces by allowing them to keep the money that they retrieve through their excellent detection work might be a good example of that.

I shall make just a couple more points, because others hon. Members want to speak. One relates to the important role of youth work. The hon. Member for Worcester rightly highlighted the innovative work carried out by West Mercia police, on which the force should be complimented. It is rolling out youth outreach workers in south Worcestershire, and we want to see more of that, because many constituents ask me, "What about youth work?" Some weeks ago, at Prime Minister's Question Time, the Prime Minister referred to youth work, and I hope that the Government will consider the issue nationally, as well as in West Mercia and my constituency. A lot of funding is being put into ASBOs and dispersal orders, but those are ways of reacting to a problem rather than dealing with its root cause. Although, as I said, not everything is to do with young people or with boredom, there is definitely an argument for saying that we should invest as much in dealing with the causes of problems as we do in dealing with the effects. I hope that the Minister will comment on that.

The displacement of problems is an ongoing issue. Dispersal orders appeared to deal with a problem in Shifnal and Leegomery in my constituency, but the
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solution proved to be temporary; in fact, the problem had been displaced to other parts of the community, and subsequently it came back. I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say about that.

The British police police by consent; their relationship with the community is the most important relationship—perhaps more important than the relationship with Members of Parliament and Government. That is why the Association of Chief Police Officers, which is reviewing the funding matrix of community policing, must bear in mind the important role of the police in policing key community events, such as Shifnal carnival, which has been going since the 13th century. The police have said for the last few years, "We do not have the money, you will have to pay for the policing yourselves," so volunteers from the community have had to police the carnival. That caused great concern in Shifnal. People ask, "Why is our precept going up every year? Why is our national taxation going up every year? Why are the police getting more and more money, yet they are no longer policing the most important community event in the area?" I hope that the Minister will give an undertaking that senior officers and chief constables will be encouraged to look through the calendar of events and say, "Although budgets are tight and there are scarce resources, there is a strong argument for policing key community events in order to be a good corporate citizen."

I conclude by saying that, yes, West Mercia needs to be better funded, but it also has a continuing role to spend its budget better. The answer is not one or the other, but a mixture of both.

3.27 pm

Dr. Richard Taylor (Wyre Forest) (Ind): I congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. I also thank him because it gives me a rather unusual chance not to attack the Minister, but to welcome the suggestions and plans that have been made.

The complaints that I receive from constituents—I am sure that it is the same for other hon. Members—are not about major crime but about the minor problems that bother ordinary people. For example, a little old lady of 84 has a greenhouse at the bottom of her garden which, more than once a year for the past four years, has been smashed by bricks lobbed over from an estate behind her property. She is now frightened to go into her greenhouse, but all she gets is a crime number.

A couple who live next door to a slightly notorious pub, which I will not name, have a sad story to tell. Every night at chucking-out time, and later when the local nightclub closes, young people who are rather the worse for wear prance over the top of cars, so much so that people try not to park their cars outside the pub and club. My constituents set up a camera to take pictures of the car—not their own—that the young people usually pranced over, but that night they pranced over the couple's own car, so they were not able to photograph the incident.

There is great dissatisfaction with the call centre in my area. Serious vandalism in a recently constructed play area was blamed on the delay caused by having to contact the call centre, which meant that the response was too late. I welcome neighbourhood policing and I congratulate the North Worcestershire basic command
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unit on being selected as the pathfinder for a pilot trial of the proposal. Chief Superintendent Suzette Davenport has recently moved on, but Chief Superintendent Mark Howard is following her splendid example. I will not mention all the beat managers, but like every other MP, I have a raft of superb beat managers in my constituency. The hon. Member for Worcester read out the local pathfinder principles, and the first one is crucial. It is that

No longer is it necessary to go to the call centre about something that happens locally. It is possible to call the beat manager, who, it is to be hoped, will be reasonably close, and someone will be dispatched to help.

That gives me an opportunity to praise some things that are happening in Wyre Forest. A few months ago one could drive around various beauty spots and find derelict and burnt-out cars; there is now an initiative to get rid of those quickly, and it is working. There is now a police base at one of the schools in a most deprived part of Wyre Forest—and we have one of the most deprived areas in the county. That is neighbourhood policing in the best way.

The subject of special constables matter has been raised by the hon. Members for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). At a recent specials weekend, I met some of the specials from my constituency, whom I know well in their other occupations. They are very disappointed about the local reduction in the number of specials. I wrote to the Minister, and, although I do not mean particularly to get at her, the response was an example of how figures can be made to show what one wants. Figures for 1996 to 2004 already quoted in the debate show a reduction in the number of specials from 613 to 280, but the Minister quoted the figures for 2004, showing an increase from 231 to 269. I am delighted about that increase, but overall a serious loss has taken place in the past few years.

The reasons for the decline are not hard to find. Specials, rightly, now require extensive training, which must happen at weekends and in the evenings and which is, of course, unpaid. The increase in the number of community support officers, who are paid, leads to a certain resentment. Very few constabularies have enough funds to remunerate the specials at all. Many of the specials like their voluntary status, but I gather that some constabularies give honorariums of between £900 and £1,500 a year.

That brings me to the subject of funding. West Mercia police force is under-funded. The briefing paper that we were given states:

A generous grant is being made for the pathfinder studies. One can only hope that if they are successful, the money will be forthcoming to spread them. I believe that the aim is that they should be county-wide, if not country-wide, by 2008. I hope that that will happen.
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I am sufficiently elderly to have been brought up during the war, when there was desperate food rationing. Families were allowed half a pig, so they had to decide with whom to share it. With whom did we share? The local bobby. I remember the days when there was a local bobby whom people knew and could contact. What is happening now is a huge step forward.

3.34 pm

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on landing yet another debate on West Mercia. The previous debate was on 12 October. I cannot resist pointing out that on that occasion I was the only Conservative Member representing Shropshire, but today we are four. It is now lonely on the Labour Back Benches for my near neighbour, the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). Perhaps the Minister contributed to that, as she visited The Wrekin the day before the election.

I turn to neighbourhood policing. I shall give two examples. The first may sound a little like Beatrix Potter and Peter Rabbit. In the village of St. Martin's a few years ago, a community police officer was embedded in Stan's, the local supermarket. He has an office there and a police car is parked outside. He is a proper community presence and he knows the village. My anecdote shows his value to the community. A break-in took place one afternoon, so he went to the house, where he noticed some large footprints in a newly hoed part of the garden. He thought he had a pretty fair idea who might have committed the break-in. He went to that gentleman's house and found some muddy boots. He took them to the house where the break-in took place and found that the boots fitted the footprints. It may sound trite, as if it were a Beatrix Potter story, but it shows the value of having a real police officer on the ground—above all, one with powers of arrest, because he then arrested the guy.

I compare that with Shawbury, another village in my constituency of a similar size. It has a wonderful new village hall, costing several hundred thousand pounds, that was partially paid for with lottery funds. I have received correspondence from two constituents, Mr. John Chadwick from Wem, who goes there to play bridge, and Mr. Tony Herbert from High Hatton near Shawbury, about the appallingly bad behaviour that has resulted in several thousands of pounds worth of damage to the village hall. Why? It happens because there is no policeman in Shawbury. The local inspector has to cover an area of about 720 square miles. In fairness, West Mercia has done its best—it has sent some community support officers there—and I have not received any letters recently.

The lesson is that St. Martin's has a police constable with powers of arrest and Shawbury does not. That is a graphic contrast. What concerns me is that, because of the way the grants have been slanted, the Government are deliberately forcing police authorities to take on only community support officers. The briefing from West Mercia said that 66 per cent. of CSOs are funded from specific central grants, so although they are welcome—anything is better than nothing—I am concerned that the Government are deliberately attempting to push police authorities into taking on more CSOs. It is interesting to talk to the inspectors who
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employ them. They tell me that they sometimes prefer CSOs because it allows them time to go out on to the streets, and that, if they are given police constables, the resulting torrent of paperwork and regulation ties them to their desks.

We constantly hear about the Government's attempts to reduce the burden of paperwork. The Minister should hear what was said by two senior police officers in my patch who know what is going on. The first says,

The other says,

They were referring to the encounter forms. Whenever a policeman bumps into someone and interviews them, he is tied down for 10 minutes with paperwork.

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears ) indicated dissent.

Mr. Paterson : It is no good the Minister shaking her head. I am speaking about telephone calls that I received this week from real police officers on my patch.

Secondly, there is the nonsense of shadow charging introduced by the Crown Prosecution Service, under which a whole file has to be drawn up before it is decided whether a charge should go ahead. Instead of talking about paperwork, the Minister should come to North Shropshire. I give her an open invitation. I am sure that she will be welcomed at The Wrekin, Shrewsbury, Atcham and Ludlow. She should come to see the police in action. It is ludicrous that, although the public know the value of having a police constable with the power of arrest, senior officers are saying, "Hang on, if we have them we cannot use them properly because they will be bogged down with paperwork."

Another example of ludicrous regulation is that which resulted in the closure of cells. I had a major disagreement on the subject with the outgoing chief constable. I am delighted that Chief Constable West takes a much more open view. It is ridiculous that the cells were shut in Oswestry and Market Drayton, with the result that low-tech cases, such as people who are taken in electively—those who go in with their solicitor—or who are just drunk have to go in a police van, accompanied by one or sometimes two policemen, from Oswestry to Shrewsbury. Shrewsbury is frequently full, so they then go to Telford, and if Telford is full, they go to Worcester. In one ludicrous case, they went to Kidderminster and two police officers were taken out of action.

I am delighted that the new chief constable has taken a more open-minded view of the matter. There have been 337 cases processed in Oswestry police station this year, and 55 so far in Market Drayton. Both local inspectors would like to have full use of those cells. If those 337 journeys were not made, one or two police constables could then be on the beat in Oswestry and Market Drayton. The situation is absurd. The Minister could take action to ensure that those cells were opened up. It is partly a question of the regulations that insist on staffing levels in the cells.

I hate the way in which these debates always descend into a rant about money, but it is impossible not to comment, as the hon. Member for Worcester did, on the
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unfairness of the current system. It is all wrong that West Mercia has been penalised for being one of the most efficient police authorities from the very beginning. It was one of the first authorities to switch jobs from police constables to civilians. However, when the formula started, it nailed West Mercia like a steel trap, and it is stuck.

It is wrong that £92.24 per head is the Government grant in West Mercia. Down the bottom of the hill where I live, where the North Wales police area starts, it is £117.48. In another rural force, it is £103.88. If the area cost adjustment were applied as it is in Cheshire, Warwickshire or the West Midlands police forces, it would be worth another £1.7 million. The grant per head in Cheshire, another neighbouring force and a rural force, is £108.76. In another neighbouring force, Dyfed Powys, it is £105.09. Compare that with West Mercia, where it is £92.24. I am not asking for a single penny more. I am asking for a fair formula and recognition of the issue by the Minister.

Peter Luff : My hon. Friend has understandably not mentioned the urban force near us—West Midlands police force—which has a grant per head of £155.01. It benefits from all kinds of extra money, including the area cost adjustment. The strange thing is that huge numbers of its officers live in my constituency in Worcestershire and commute to the West Midlands police authority area. That destroys entirely the argument for the area cost adjustment that we receive.

Mr. Paterson : My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I shall wind up briefly so that he has the chance to expand on it. In a letter to me last year, the Minister said:

Will she recognise that that was a brutal shift by the Labour Government from rural areas to urban areas? It is wrong that the cake is sliced in such a way that it discriminates against an efficient force such as West Mercia, which would benefit from more community policemen.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. I remind hon. Members present that, with injury time for the Division, the winding-up speeches must now start not later than 3.55 pm.

3.43 pm

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): I shall be brief, and I shall not do all the consensus stuff that has been done before. I agree with almost everything that has been said. I shall therefore strike a slightly more discordant note, but I hope that the Minister will understand that I associate myself with much of what the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) said in his opening speech, and I again congratulate him on securing the debate.

The funding question lies at the heart of the debate. The welcome move from intelligence-led policing to neighbourhood policing is something that, as constituency MPs, we must be pleased about. However,
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it requires additional resources. I hasten to add that that should be achieved through a fairer share of the cake, not a total increased spend.

We have 300 extra police officers in West Mercia, paid for almost entirely by increases in council tax. Of course, the Government claim the credit for the extra police officers and then threaten to cap the police authority for having the temerity to raise the money to pay for them. That is the bizarre situation in which we find ourselves. The recipe put forward by the hon. Member for Worcester for improving funding is exactly the recipe that I put to the Deputy Prime Minister in a letter in September last year. I entirely agree with what the hon. Gentleman said.

I am concerned that the police authority seemed to think that it could increase the council tax again—that there was popular will in favour of that increase. I caution it against that move. It is not right that the council tax payers of our area should pay for the shortcomings imposed on us by central Government. Although people can always be asked to pay an extra 5p for this or £1 for that, all the fivepences and pounds add up, and hard-pressed pensioners, in particular, and low-income families in my constituency cannot afford further increases in council tax, full stop. I would caution the authority not to go down that route.

I am also concerned that there is the beginning of declining consent for the police in my constituency—a point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard). High council tax payments are one of my worries. Constituents are saying, "We've paid the money. Where are the police officers?" I have a high regard for the West Mercia constabulary; it is extremely well led at local level, at basic commander unit level, and at constabulary level by the chief constable. However, there is the beginning of a concern. Controversially, the police have been asked to do things of which my constituents do not approve, such as enforce the hunting ban. There is a concern among my middle-class constituents—I know that it is controversial, but it happens to be true—about what is seen as a war on the motorist, or the soft target of the middle classes. That perception is growing. I say that because during the election campaign, I went round my constituency saying that we could promise people more police. The response every time was, "I'm not sure that we want more police." People feel that the police are unable to deal with the issues that concern them. Quite often, there is some confusion about the relationship between local authorities and the police about Traveller incursions, for example, but a feeling that such incursions are not being dealt with. That is, in my view, unfair, because members of the West Mercia police are doing a good job in the circumstances that they face.

People are concerned about slow shows in the more rural areas of my constituency. It takes a long time for the police to arrive, if they arrive at all. One local sports club never saw a police officer after reports of serious vandalism. There has also been the loss of police cells, such as in Evesham. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) made a point about the loss of police cells in his constituency. We have lost
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them in Evesham, leading to a loss of the ability of the police to respond to incidences of lawlessness in Evesham.

There is a perception that the police now have their hands tied behind their back. What people would like is more police officers with real powers. I have some caution about community support officers, which I have expressed in this Chamber before. If they are the only way we can obtain extra police strength, I shall take them—better them than nothing. However, I would prefer to see real police officers—full police officers and increased numbers of special constables, who have declined shamefully in number over recent years in our area.

We know that there is no problem recruiting real police officers. The police authority recently advertised for new constables and received some 900 applications—so many that it could not even look at 150 of them. They were sent back unopened, asking applicants to apply for another police force. Perhaps they were the best 150 going; we do not know, but there is no problem recruiting. It is a bit odd to return applications unopened but that is what happened, and it seriously concerned the Worcester News.

I have been controversial, Mr. O'Hara, in my brief contribution, because I agreed with the opening remarks of the hon. Member for Worcester, who said that there is a lot to praise and celebrate. There is a lot of efficiency and modernisation of the best possible kind, which has made our force one to be proud of. However, it needs a bit more help than it has had from the Government if it is to achieve what it is capable of achieving.

3.48 pm

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate, although I did not understand what he said about the statistics involved. The Government claim that crime is going down and things are getting better, but to be honest, a lot of my constituents say to me that the reason why the figures are going down is that they are not reporting crime. They simply do not have confidence that the police will intervene on some of the problems that villages in rural areas face. They simply do not report crimes.

Recently, there have been a lot of problems in Shrewsbury with the Government allowing later licences in pubs. It has caused tremendous problems. Very early in the morning in Shrewsbury, all sorts of    vandalism is going on. One gentleman from Shrewsbury, Mr. Bamber, had his garden shed set alight this week. I met him in his garden and he was just sitting there crying, because his whole garden had been destroyed at 2 am by vandals. I am absolutely appalled that the Government want to grant licences to pubs up to 2 am or 3 am. Why on earth does anyone want to be drinking at 3 am or 4 am? I simply do not understand how that is possible and why people want to do that. I want the Minister to know that it is leading to many antisocial behaviour problems in Shrewsbury.

The police in Shropshire are extremely hard-working. They make tremendous efforts in policing the Shrewsbury flower show, the Shrewsbury carnival and all the sporting activities. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) on
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raising the fact that those major events are not policed    through money from the Government; the organisations have to raise the money themselves. That is resulting in some organisations deciding not to hold those annual events because they simply cannot afford to do so, which is a tremendous shame.

David Wright : There is clearly some inconsistency across the force area. I was at Dawley day on Saturday and there was a police presence there coupled with a CSO presence. Perhaps we have to raise the protocol for events such as Shifnal carnival, the Shrewsbury flower show and Dawley day with Ministers or with the force itself. There seems to be some difference across communities. Perhaps we need to work together as Members of Parliament to raise the issue with the force.

Daniel Kawczynski : That is a fair point. I wanted to stress the point to the Minister so that she was aware of the position. Like my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), I feel passionately that the police have to deal with too much red tape and paperwork. I have been to Monkmoor police station and met many police officers there. There is a feeling that police officers do not dare to talk about the problems that they face because the state will come down on them like a ton of bricks. That feeling is also found among people working in the hospital. People are petrified of being quoted because under this Government if someone has the temerity to challenge the processes they will be sacked, as has happened over and over again. That is the case whether we are talking about the council in Bucharest highlighting illegal immigration or people highlighting local issues.

Monkmoor police station in Shrewsbury is the regional headquarters in Shropshire. The building was constructed in the late 1960s. Going into the station is like going in a time machine back to 1965: it is so old, outdated and dirty. Our hard-working police officers should not have to tolerate such conditions. I notice that the Palace of Westminster has had a lot of money spent on it recently. I wish that the Minister would look at Monkmoor police station and ensure that our regional headquarters in Shropshire has proper funding for proper facilities for our police officers.

3.52 pm

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): I shall pick up on the remarks of my neighbour and hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). I, too, have visited Monkmoor police station—last week, in fact—and I was told that some refurbishment work will shortly be done on the cells there, but the number of cells in Shropshire as a whole is lamentably low. I think that the building in question is a former secondary school; it was not built to be a police station. It needs to have proper cells put in and I welcome the refurbishment work. That is relevant to my constituents because there are no cells in the Ludlow constituency, which, for those who do not know the geography, is 40 miles by 20 miles. People who are to be held in custody overnight have to be taken to Shrewsbury, to Telford or, occasionally, to Hereford.

Just before Christmas, I went out with police officers in Bridgnorth, thanks to Inspector Andy Thomas, and I saw for myself the problems caused by drunkenness—
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which I am aware also happens in other towns. Generally speaking, the police on the spot have to take a tough decision. They have to ask themselves whether to arrest the person. That is the appropriate policing response, but it takes two officers to deal with an individual who is drunk. They have to be driven 25 miles to Shrewsbury or 15 or so to Telford, which takes the officers out of the local district for two hours at a time. There are usually four people on duty in Bridgnorth in the evening. If they make two arrests of drunks, the decision will be to have no cover in the town of Bridgnorth. It is a very tough call and it comes about entirely because of the points that many hon. Members have raised to do with the police numbers and the resources in our area and particularly in the rural areas. Ludlow has a brand-new police station, which is very welcome. The station has been built with no cells because, as other hon. Members have said, the level of manning to justify cells cannot be supported within the budgets of the division. That is wrong.

Although we have one of the lowest crime rates, not only in the county of Shropshire but in the West Mercia division, that does not mean that we have no crime. Far from it. To give one example, the village of Highley saw the second ASBO issued in the entire country. As of two weeks ago, Highley has had its first policeman for six months. It is an area with noted crime problems—it had the second-largest drugs bust in the county last autumn—and it has been without police cover because the police division does not have to man to 100 per cent. of its capacity. The beat duty officer took maternity leave and there was not any surplus capacity to provide cover to Highley. That should not be repeated.

3.55 pm

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate. He has a long and honourable record of securing debates on West Mercia funding and policing. I remind colleagues that the debate is about neighbourhood policing, and I want to concentrate on some of those areas.

The hon. Gentleman was right to mention funding, particularly the sparsity factor, which was also raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff). The hon. Member for Worcester was also right to raise the issue of the statistics bandied about in the run-up to the general election. I remind colleagues that when we criticise and try to make political points about statistics—whether about the health service, dirty hospitals or police levels—we are often criticising the people who work in those public services. Police officers said to me that they did not recognise the story that was being put about; I heard the same from members of the health service.

I also join the hon. Gentleman in his tribute to Paul West, the chief constable.

3.57 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.12 pm

On resuming—

Mr. Keetch : I was thanking the hon. Member for Worcester for having, rightly, paid tribute to the chief
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constable, Paul West, and wanted to put on record my thanks to the divisional commander in Herefordshire, Kevin Bentley, and his team, which does such excellent work.

The hon. Gentleman was very generous in taking a number of interventions, including one by the hon. Member for Leominster (Bill Wiggin), who continued his campaign for a bypass for the A49 at Ashton. We then heard a very good speech from the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard), who highlighted the issue of specials. They are an important element of rural forces, and we must not forget that. The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) also, rightly, issued warnings about paperwork. Attending to that does affect the amount of time that our police officers spend on the streets and, although the situation has improved since the O'Dowd report—many things have changed—I hope that the Government will continue to look at the issue all the time. It is something about which police officers speak to us regularly.

The hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) also mentioned funding, and we heard generous interventions in the speeches by the new hon. Members for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) and for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne). Again, they spoke about local issues. The hon. Member for Ludlow was right to point out that crime happens even in the most remote and beautiful areas. Crime is a 100 per cent. statistic for each household affected by it.

This debate is about neighbourhood policing, so I asked a number of police officers from Herefordshire what issues they would want to raise if they were here. I will focus not on what my constituents have said—of course, my police officers are also constituents—but on the issues that the police officers really want to get across. Four came up constantly. The first was their inability to deal with matters such as Travellers. They are hugely frustrated that they cannot do enough on such issues, which affect our rural communities. It is the same with neighbourhood disputes: local bobbies feel unable to do what they want to do when faced with problem families on estates. Another issue is traffic. Again, the police feel hamstrung when trying to keep traffic moving in a city such as Hereford.

Most important were the issues relating to alcohol-related disorder. We all enjoy going out with our friends and family, but the cost of alcohol-related disorder is now huge. Recently, a very good study was done in Hereford. It looked at the cost of alcohol-related disorder to the accident and emergency department of our local hospital. It was calculated that in one month, February 2004, alcohol disruption cost the Hereford A and E department more than £32,000. I daresay that figure would be repeated in Worcester or Shrewsbury or other units. The cost of trouble in the evenings, on the Friday and Saturday night, is not just the disorder on the streets. During that period there were assaults on members of our A and E staff; the police were called 18 times to Hereford A and E department in that one month alone. That makes the reported comments of Louise Casey even more difficult to explain.
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We must take this seriously. The Government are trying to do this. They will not be helped by noises off by senior civil servants after drinks parties. The people on the streets of West Mercia and our other cities and towns expect something to be done. I always supported the liberalisation of the licensing laws. I felt instinctively, as a Liberal, that that was the right thing to do. We have yet to see what the result will be, but the Government must ensure that the police have the opportunity to control the streets in our market towns and in our cities when these changes take place.

4.16 pm

Mr. Humfrey Malins (Woking) (Con): I begin, as always, by declaring an interest as a Crown court recorder and an acting district judge, and move straight away to congratulate the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on securing the debate and on the way in which he introduced an important subject to us all. It is a great pleasure to see no fewer than four colleagues from Shropshire here today. All my hon. Friends have spoken with a great deal of knowledge of their constituencies and of the problems. I thank them all.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) and for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) both spoke about the need for more specials and with great knowledge of their own constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) raised the importance of having a real police officer on the ground with power of arrest and referred to the ever-troubling issue of paperwork. My hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) spoke of the time that police have to take in relation to their duties which can sometimes involve difficult judgments as to their priorities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) talked about antisocial behaviour in Shrewsbury. He, in common with others, including my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin, spoke of the need for local police to police local events in order to secure the confidence of their communities. All my hon. Friends were supported in the debate by the presence of my hon. Friends the Members for Leominster (Bill Wiggin) and for West Worcestershire (Sir Michael Spicer).

In the short time available to me I shall mention one or two matters. The issue of specials cropped up throughout the debate. The Opposition believe that it is important for the Government to initiate a drive to get more specials, particularly in the west Mercia area. Reference was made to drug and alcohol crime. My understanding is that Worcester, along with many other towns and cities in this country, faces a great deal of crime that is based on alcohol and drug taking.

Frankly, binge drinking and the ready supply of hard drugs on the streets are two of the greatest problems affecting people today, particularly young people. I imagine that that is the same in the cities and towns in the west Mercia area. I hope that the courts are alive to the fact that these are twin issues. Certainly, I hope that the courts and the police in the west Mercia area take a tough line with licensed premises that sell to drunks. It is a regular activity in the south of England. Much stronger enforcement is needed, and in relation to drug crime, too.
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My final points—it is amazing how quickly five minutes pass when one is enjoying oneself—concern the problems that we can all identify. It is a great shame if the time of the police in west Mercia, as elsewhere, is over-dominated by paperwork and having to reach targets. What really encourages the public to have confidence in the police force is their visibility on the streets of the towns and, particularly in the west Mercia area, the villages. The public want to see their local policeman, talk to him and get results from someone who is knowledgeable about the sort of people who offend in the locality.

Finally I make a personal plea. If I could see many more police, not in police cars but wandering around having a chat with the public whose confidence they need, I, for one, would be delighted.

4.19 pm

The Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety (Hazel Blears) : I, too, join hon. Members in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) on having yet another excellent debate about west Mercia. He is an assiduous champion for his community and, as well as these debates, he has asked me a number of parliamentary questions, particularly about antisocial behaviour. I know that that is of great concern to his constituents.

I am also delighted that despite some of the contributions from Opposition Members, there has been a broad welcome for the move towards neighbourhood policing. For once, the policy thrust that we are trying to put in place has support, not only cross-party but from police forces. The fact that one basic command unit in every force has volunteered to be a pathfinder for this new form of neighbourhood policing is encouraging. I say "a new form of neighbourhood policing" because this is not about going back to the bobby on the beat. It is about having neighbourhood policing that builds relationships with local communities, local people tasking the police on their priorities, and using intelligence to direct those resources into the places that matter. It is not simply a matter of having a cup of tea with people, important though that is to build those relationships. It is also about hard-edged policing, which will work only if the police officers involved are catching, arresting and convicting criminals, tackling drug problems—

Mark Pritchard : Will the Minister give way?

Hazel Blears : I will not give way because I have about eight minutes left and I want to deal with questions that hon. Members have raised.

The new form of neighbourhood policing is about both building relationships and hard-edged policing. It is a hard task for our police service to build relationships and to be close to the public, who set the priorities and need feedback, at the same time as carrying out hard-edged proper modern policing as part of the force. That is a considerable challenge, but I am delighted that police forces throughout the country are taking it on and making things happen.

I shall deal with some of the specific issues raised by hon. Members because that is more useful than simply reading out my brief. My hon. Friend the Member for
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Worcester referred to the budget, as did several other hon. Members. I know that he is exercised by the issue of fairness and area cost adjustment, which he has raised before. Throughout the police service we have had a 30 per cent. increase during the past few years—a 21 per cent. real-terms increase after inflation. That applies to West Mercia police as to other forces.

The second important issue is that we have never funded police forces on a per head or per capita basis. The formula works on the basis of what the policing need is in a community and allocating funds for policing need. Hon. Members are right: when we last reviewed the formula there was a big shift to high-crime areas with vulnerable communities that need help. We recognised that areas such as west Mercia would be significant losers if that formula were implemented in full, so we had a damping mechanism through floors and ceilings that have helped West Mercia police over the past few years not to lose the amount of funding that would otherwise have been the case. In fact, last year it received an increase of 3.75 per cent. and if the formula had been implemented in full it would have lost another £2.5 million, so it was better off because we put in place floors to ensure that we took account of the needs of the area.

In addition to the extra general funding, West Mercia police has had significant extra investment for specific funds. It receives £2.34 million from the rural policing fund and is one of the biggest beneficiaries from that fund, which is not ring-fenced. The force can spend the money on priorities that it identifies in the local community.

Mark Pritchard : Is not part of the problem that very point? There are pockets of money here, there and everywhere and chief constables are asked to apply for different pockets of money when they really want a proper budget and to have the independence to spend it to meet the needs of their local community, rather than having to run around chasing the latest Home Office partnership fund or whatever.

Hazel Blears : I hope that the hon. Gentleman recognises that the force has had a 30 per cent. increase in general grant during the past few years, which was not ring-fenced and which it could spend as it wanted on operational policing. Indeed, he will know that the rural policing fund is not ring-fenced to any specific project and the force has the freedom to spend it to meet local community needs. It is important to get the balance right.

My hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) made some telling interventions to highlight the improvements that are taking place in his community. He recognised that there are still pressures on the service and he wishes to keep pressing me to ensure that we provide proper resources and facilities for his community. However, I was pleased to hear about the improvements.

I was delighted to hear of police and community support officers who are making a significant contribution. They were named by several hon. Members. In West Mercia, there are 262 more police officers than we had in 1997. Hon. Members who pressed for extra officers—[Interruption.] There are
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262 more officers and 82 community support officers. Over the next three years, as we develop neighbourhood policing, we will have a total of 24,000 community support officers in addition to the record numbers of police officers—not in substitution for police officers but in addition to the record numbers. The extra 13,000 police officers now in place throughout the country, with the 24,000 community support officers, will give us the capacity to have mixed teams in communities.

Are Opposition Members really telling me that they want fully warranted officers to do every single job in the police service? That would be a very backward step, because we need mixed teams of police officers, special constables, wardens and community support officers in the wider security area. In that way we can ensure that we direct the right people to the right place with the right skills at the right time. That is what neighbourhood policing is really about; it is about working smarter and getting the most out of the resources available. If the    policies proposed by hon. Gentlemen were implemented, communities would have far fewer resources to tackle the very real problems that exist.

What illustrates the point for me is the success of    the    multi-agency antisocial behaviour team in Worcestershire, which has police officers, a housing officer, a civilian investigator and an analyst. That is the sort of modern policing that will be successful, not simply a one-size-fits-all model but one that puts the right people with the right skills in the right place. That is incredibly important to us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worcester also raised the matter of resources for identifying signal crimes, and BCU Pathfinder wants to see whether we can put in some more support. There is support to develop the neighbourhood policing model; it is a genuine point. My hon. Friend also wanted some research on visible policing and what it means. That is an interesting point about whether it is simply seeing police officers or about the quality of the interaction.

Further back-office roles for staff were mentioned and we are trying to engage more civilians. I add to that the possibility of local authorities and police forces coming together to do some of those back-office roles in call centres and pay roll administration, which would give us even more efficiencies.
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The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) and other hon. Members mentioned specials. I am delighted to be able to say that in the last year nationally there has been an increase of 1,000 specials, and 2,500 more are waiting to go through the process of recruitment. For the first time, we put significant amounts of money into national advertising and I want to see whether we can do some more focused advertising this year. Local advertising is a matter for the forces; the numbers are beginning to increase in West Mercia, as they are nationally. One of the reasons why they have decreased in recent years is that there have been more opportunities for people to join the police service, because we have been increasing numbers. Many people who would have been specials have joined as community support officers. That is one reason why we have not been able to increase the numbers, but this year, for the first time, those numbers are increasing dramatically.

The hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) said that response, as well as neighbourhood policing, was important. He is right. If we are to get the model to work we need response policing, investigation and neighbourhood policing as an integral part of doing our business. Again, it means getting the right people in the right place.

The hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson) talked about having real policemen with powers of arrest, and about the need to get people out on the beat on patrol. If community support officers are to be involved in arresting they will have to give evidence and go to court, which will take them off the front line of policing, which is where we want them to be.

Hon. Gentlemen raised issues around "stop and account", and what they said was a travesty of the truth. "Stop and account" does not simply mean that every encounter has to be recorded; it is clear that there are many circumstances in which, if people are not being asked to account for themselves in detail, the encounter will not have to be recorded. I ask hon. Members not to keep repeating such misinterpretations of the process.

Finally, on custody facilities, I understand that some new facilities are being introduced in Leominster, which is very near to Ludlow.

Mr. Edward O'Hara (in the Chair): Order. We must now turn our attentions to Dr. Ghosh and the Northumberland primary care trust.
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