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Mr. David Laws (Yeovil) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend on his speech, all of which I agree with. Does he agree that, if the Government go for a big reorganisation of police forces in our region, there is a risk that that could distract attention and divert resources away from bearing down on crime, which has happened very impressively over the last couple of years in Somerset?

Mr. Browne: Real improvements have been made in tackling crime in Somerset. I have been impressed by the calibre of the police officers in my area, and I am sure that the same is true of the Yeovil area. I do not start from the assumption that everything is going wrong; what I want to ensure is that things continue to go right. My fear is that, if our approach to crime is driven by the urban model of a big city such as Bristol—or, worse still, by that of a regional force in, say, Swindon—we will fail to reflect the concerns of people on the ground in Somerset. After all, why should Somerset's policing priorities be driven by Home Office targets set in London? Why should the Government shape our police force to address urban crime priorities at the expense of rural ones? Why should policing in Somerset be directed from a big city remote from the population of the area that I represent, instead of by that area itself?

The people best placed to determine Somerset's policing priorities are the people of Somerset. They include Somerset's police and its directly elected politicians, and, most of all, its taxpayers, who are
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paying far more than ever for their policing. The Government's agenda is based on the belief that bigger is better—an approach that we see throughout the delivery of public services. But in policing, such an approach leads to too much emphasis on urban crime and to services that are too remote. The people of Somerset deserve to have their police taxes spent on their policing priorities. They tell me that they want strong community policing that is accountable, responsive and relevant to local needs.

6.16 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing his first Adjournment debate. It is on what I consider, for obvious reasons, an extremely important subject, and the points that he made were extremely apposite not only to his constituency, but to mine and to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Laws).

My hon. Friend the Member for Taunton pointed out that Avon and Somerset is in some ways a strange construct. I know of no other police authority area that goes from one extreme to the other within its boundaries. Ours goes from the extremes of some ultimate inner-city areas—St. Paul's in Bristol, for instance—to the wild and woolly parts of Exmoor, in his constituency, and parts of the levels, in my constituency. The latter are the absolute antithesis of inner-city Bristol, which is itself a major crime city, as we recognise.

I have perhaps been involved with this issue for too long not to point out that the difficulty for any chief constable is that policing a conurbation such as Bristol is a real issue. Bristol is a major motor for crime not just within the confines of the city, but across the wider area. The drugs trade, which in Bristol and the neighbouring cities is linked to organised crime, is a major factor that any chief constable has to address. I understand perfectly well that petty and smaller-scale crime in Somerset is often fought on the streets of inner-city Bristol by dealing with the prevalence of the illegal drug trade—the motor for such crime—which is responsible for thefts and burglaries outside the city area.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton eloquently pointed out, although people who live in the smaller towns in Somerset—and particularly in the rural areas—accept, as I do, the significance of that issue, they also want a minimum level of policing of their own areas. It seems to them—sometimes accurately and sometimes not—that there is a flight of criminal justice system resources away from rural areas and towards the cities, and that that flight puts them at a disadvantage.

I have spoken on Home Office matters on my party's behalf for some time, so I have been involved in the national debate on this issue. I have taken the view—it is also my party's view—that we have reached the point where we should recognise that there is a level of crime, international and national, that needs to be dealt with using resources that go beyond the area of an individual force. We would have liked the Serious Organised Crime Agency to have wider powers than are currently envisaged to deal with serious crime across the piece, so that chief constables can focus their attentions on local
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crime and on keeping the peace in rural areas and small towns, which is an important part of policing that is not often mentioned. I understand exactly the point made by my hon. Friend about the palpable similarities between Somerset and Dorset in that respect. Had we been starting with a blank piece of paper, we might have arrived at a much better construct for policing. We do not start from that, however, and I also agree that I do not want the police to be distracted by large-scale reorganisation—other than perhaps in relation to dealing with national and international crime in a different way—from the things that they are beginning to address properly in our area.

I believe, and always have done, that the basic command unit is the most important element of policing. I have established, I hope, very good relations with Chief Superintendent Andy Marsh, based in Yeovil, who commands the district covering my constituency. I can see that the local focus that he and his colleagues provide is of immense importance.

While the BCU is the basic building block of policing, for it to work effectively we need to consider global numbers of police officers. Many years ago, when I was chairman of Avon and Somerset police authority—I say this on every occasion that we discuss policing, but I will not stop saying it—I went every year up to London, in the company of the then chief constable, David Shattock, to see the then Home Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard), to say that we needed 200 to 300 more officers, and to be told that we could have none. We had a clear deficiency in manpower. My criticism of the Labour Government was that it took them a long time to react to that deficiency in Home Office spending and that they stuck for a long period to the previous Government's budgetary arrangements for policing. Over the past couple of years, that has changed, and I welcome it. We are seeing a few extra officers, but that is probably not equal to the public's demands to see many extra officers on their streets, as they imagine there are elsewhere.

The other welcome element is the introduction of police community support officers, which we advocated some time ago, and we agree with the Government on their important role, while emphasising yet again that they must not be a substitute for the properly trained police officer in patrolling our streets. They are a supplement, not a replacement. My constituency has had several PCSOs, whom I welcome and have worked with, and they provide welcome reassurance to the public through a uniformed presence on the streets, but there is a limit to what they can do.

Let me give the Minister an example. I had my advice surgery in Martock in my constituency on Saturday and, before I had even got into the market house in Martock, I was shown the damage that had been done the previous night—not for the first but the umpteenth time—to what is called the pinnacle in Martock and the public conveniences there. Inevitably, as Martock is not a big place, a small group of antisocial youngsters who are determined to make their mark on the village are responsible. The PCSOs have been engaged and constructive, but as local people point out, there is a limit to what they can do if they do not have the support and back-up of a community beat officer working with them to make their presence felt in the village, as they do not have powers of arrest. All that they can do is talk to
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the miscreants. We need both elements: visible presence, along with the back-up of omnicompetent constables carrying out their proper role. What worries me is that we do not always have both those elements.

I have argued for a long time that we must address what I call intelligent patrol—ensuring that police officers are seen in the right place at the right time in order to have the requisite deterrent effect. That sometimes means pub chucking out time, although if the Government have their way that is going to be a rather extended process in some of our communities. Pensions day activity is another area, which may also be disappearing under Government proposals. We need to deal with the needs of the community and ensure that they are policed in the right place at the right time.

We must also reduce the number of abstractions from local policing to force or national duties so that people can be assured that when they are told that they have a community beat officer team, that team stays working in their area and does not disappear somewhere else—to Bristol airport, perhaps, if there is a terrorist threat —a few months later. That is unacceptable to the people I represent in Somerset. We must also take steps to ensure that when we have enough police officers—we are not there yet—they are used in the most effective way. Sometimes, that means keeping them on the patch and ensuring that they have the facilities to do their job properly in rural areas.

I have argued for many years about the police cells in Frome, which are perfectly proper police cells, but are not used because the necessary custody suite officers are not available. The consequence is that if a police officer makes an arrest in Frome on a Friday or Saturday night, they have to travel up to Bath or down to Yeovil to put the culprits in a cell. That amounts to a minimum of a 45-minute drive in each direction, so the officer is off the street for at least one and a half hours. A conscientious officer will often take the view that the arrest should not be made because he believes that losing a minimum of an hour and a half, plus the time necessary for booking in the offender, is irresponsible, resulting in inadequate cover for the area.

Local magistrates courts are still under threat of closure and nothing we say to the Department for Constitutional Affairs seems to remove that threat. It is another problem that takes police officers out of their areas to accompany prisoners and provide evidence. Such demands take officers out of local communities, meaning that they cannot do their jobs properly.

I had a useful meeting with our new chief constable, Colin Port and was impressed by what he told me. He recognised immediately that Avon and Somerset force did not perform as well as he would like it to. He also recognised the problems that can result from one bad contact—perhaps when a member of the public tries to report a crime or support their local police. If people provide information to the police and no one gets back to them, or if they have reported a crime, and police are promised for the next day but do not arrive and no explanation is given, that can result in a serious loss of confidence in the police. That is likely to undermine not only that person's confidence, but that of everyone else he talks to in the following week or so. We need to deal with that serious problem.
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We need more officers in Avon and Somerset. We need them to be more locally based and we need them to perform in ways that are conducive to encouraging confidence among the local community. We need them to use their skills and powers in the most effective and efficient way, and we need the whole process of criminal justice in rural areas to be brought closer to the individual and to be seen to be effective. I fear that we are not yet there at the moment.

6.29 pm

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