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I would like to talk about safety, and about why it is not mentioned in clauses 3 and 4. The Minister should do more to ensure that speed limits are brought down on trunk roads that go through towns and villages. If I drive over the border from Wales into the Forest of Dean or into Herefordshire, I am immediately struck by the fact that I am expected to comply with a 30 mph speed limit every time I drive through a town. That
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simply does not happen in Wales. I have been told on good authority by no less a person than a previous Minister in the Welsh Assembly Government that one of the reasons for that is bureaucratic inertia, and that nobody can be bothered to sort out the paperwork required to reduce the speed limit on a trunk road from 60 or 70 mph to 30 mph. That simply is not good enough. There are 4,000 people dying on our roads across the whole of the United Kingdomas many as died in the tragedy of 11 September in New York. We must do more to reduce the number of preventable road deaths, and I see nothing in the Bill that will help to achieve that
David T.C. Davies: In that case, Madam Deputy Speaker, this is probably not the moment for me to plead with the Minister to examine what is happening on the A449, but I hope to be able to do so on a future occasion.
Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): I have prepared a four-hour speech for the occasion and I am delighted to be able to deliver it in full to the Minister and everyone else who chooses to stay for the duration.
On a more serious note, I am delighted to have secured a debate on the important issue of policing in Somerset. I start by paying tribute to the police in the county, and particularly to the chief superintendent of the basic command unit for my area, John Snell, and his team, with whom I have spent many hours on patrol in both Taunton and Wellingtonthe second town in my constituencyand also in the more rural communities. I have been impressed by their work and their commitment to their tasks.
Many indicators of crime have fallen in Somerset in recent years. No doubt the Minister will give some of the statistics when he responds, but let me say, in a spirit of consensus and magnanimity, that I welcome many of the Government's initiatives on crime reduction. I do not want to talk entirely negatively about what the Government have done. I have a lot of time for what the Prime Minister calls the respect agenda: I think that it accords with many people's neighbourhood concerns. I have been impressed by the whole initiative of police community support officers and the role that they can play in areas such as mine, and I am keen to see their numbers increased. I can vouch for the fact that, as long as they are an additional resource rather than a substitute for the regular police, they will make a considerable contribution to the communities that I represent and to others further afield.
The purpose of this debate is to take a slightly wider look at the situation in Somerset and across the Avon and Somerset force and, more specifically, to look at the changes in police structures in England and Wales. As all Members know, there are currently 43 police forces covering England and Wales, but the Government's drive is towards bigger regional police forces. On 19 September, responding to the report from Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, the Home Secretary said that we needed bigger forces, possibly even as big as regional forces, because of the
He concluded that at least 4,000 officers were needed to respond to the so-called modern threats. According to the latest statistics relating to the 43 forces in England and Wales, only seven meet that criterion, although Avon and Somerset, the area that I represent, comes close with more than 3,000 officers.
The argument throughout, both from the inspector in his formal report and from the Home Secretary in his response, is that bigger is better in policing in England and Wales. The logical conclusion is that we will move towards forces that are as big as regional police forces. There is even a riskI suppose some would regard it in those termsof going further and having a national police force. Rick Naylor from the Police Superintendents Association said that going down to 30 forces was not sufficient and added:
The problem for people in the part of Somerset that I represent is that the Government seem to be entirely driven by an urban-centric model for policing. Ministers are based most of the week in London. Most Home Office Ministers represent constituencies in big urban conurbations, including the Minister who is present today. Home Office advisers are predominantly based in London. The leading police officers tend to be the chief constables of the big urban metropolitan police forces. The drive from the Home Office and the Government is towards seeing policing through urban perspectives.
What the Government describe as the modern threatsterrorism, people trafficking, drug smugglingare, of course, important; I do not diminish the importance of those subjects. They would occupy anyone who was Home Secretary, or a Minister in the Home Office, but they are urban considerations. They are the considerations predominantly of people in London, Manchester, Birmingham and even Bristol, the other part of the area that I represent. However, they are notthis is my essential pointthe key priorities of people living in Somerset.
Three issues are of particular concern to people in the area that I represent. As I say, terrorism is not among them, important though that is. The first is antisocial behaviour. People want more to be done about vandalism, graffiti, late night noise and unruly children in their estates. That is not just a big city issue. It is as much a medium and small town issue; it is even a village issue.
The second issue is binge drinking and all its associated problems. A good number of middle-aged people whom I have met in Taunton, which is after all the county town for Somerset, have said, "I am not going into Taunton after seven or eight o'clock in the evening." During the day, it is thronging with people of all ages but in the evening the streets clear and fill up again at seven or eight. I am 35 and, if I go out for a drink in Taunton town centre, I am often the oldest person in the town centre at that time." That is a big
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problem to do with quality of life. It may sometimes be a perception problem rather than a reality problem. None the less, it is a big priority for people in my area.
The third issue is visible community policing. Particularly in rural areas, people want to see police on the beat, on foot or on a bike. That is why community support officers are making a genuine contribution.
Those are the concerns of people in Somerset. They are not the ones that the Home Secretary lists: terrorism, international drug and people traffickers and financial crime gangs. We are fortunate that we do not suffer as much from those problems as people in big cities do, but those are the things that are driving the Home Office agenda. It is becoming a bigger, more remote and less accountable agenda of bigger, more remote and less accountable police forces.
Like so many of the Government's arrangements, the drive is towards heavily centralised services. When the Home Office looks at priorities for policing and at setting targets for police officers to meet, it tends to focus on burglary, car crime, street crime or robbery. All those are laudable targets but, again, they are relevant most to urban areas. In Somerset, in a typical week, there are perhaps three or four robberies. Robbery is an unusual crime in an area such as Somerset. In Bristol, there are about 50 robberies a week. I make the point because any police officer in a senior position looking to meet Government targets and to respond to the approach laid down for him or her by the Home Office will inevitably target their resources where they can have the biggest impact on those targets, and on those crimes that are designated as being most important by Ministers in cities making those decisions. Rural communities such as Somerset have a different agenda and a different set-up. I have talked about the areas of greatest concern to people in my area, but there are obviously less densely populated communities in Somerset than in the big cities and the population is generally older. There is a greater emphasis on reducing the fear of crime and on quality-of-life issues. There are fewer terrible crimes, but they are harder to measure and different from the urban agenda.
It is a common misconception that the police deal predominantly with crime. That sounds like a strange statement to make, but my understanding is that my local police spend as little as 20 per cent. of their time directly dealing with crime. So much of their time is spent on traffic accidents, missing persons, floods, trees falling, animals escaping on to roads or, as happened on Saturday, a float catching fire at Taunton carnival. Rural communities see the police essentially as an additional resource and emergency service. That might mean making sure that an older person has the food they need if it snows heavily; it might mean taking home a 14-year-old girl who has had an argument with her boyfriend.
Those are not necessarily the indicators that come out of the Home Office, which tends to see crime in very urban forms, but they are important to people living in rural communities such as Somerset. This agenda is particularly pertinent because, over the last three years, people in Somerset have paid more and more for their policing services. The police precept in Somerset, the third part of the council tax bill, has gone up by more than 50 per cent. in the last three years, which by any
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standards is an enormous increase. People are entitled to see that money being spent on the crime priorities in their community.
There is considerable unease in Somerset about the current Avon and Somerset force, which merges the predominantly rural county of Somerset with the biggest city in the region, Bristol. When people call Taunton police station with a problem, they get put through to an operator on the outskirts of Bristol. I rang Taunton police station to apologise for being 10 or 15 minutes late for a meeting but was unable to persuade the person on the switchboard 50 miles away, who was not aware of the circumstances of the police station, to put me through. Now, Taunton police station is closing at night, which is not a reflection of the priorities of my area.
We have what is essentially an artificial construct: a big city, Bristol, sharing a police force with Somerset. There is a case for giving Somerset its own police force that can deal with the priorities of the people living in the county, but I accept that that is not where the debate stands. The move of the Government is not towards more police forces, but fewer. If Somerset were to be merged with another area and we were to start from scratch, there is a strong case for it being amalgamated with Dorset, a similar, largely rural county with some medium-sized towns, rather than a big city such as Bristol.
We can have such discussions, but I am certain that what is not in Somerset's interests is a huge, monolithic regional police construct, designed to combat urban crime. I want to see policing in my area that is more responsive, more accountable and less remote.
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