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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I congratulate the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne) on securing this important debate, and he has raised a number of important questions. Two of his hon. Friends were also able to participate, and I was grateful for the constructive way in which they approached the issues.

The hon. Gentleman predicted that I would rehearse a number of impressive statistics about police numbers and crime falling in his area, and I shall not disappoint him. Those details are important, but I shall first reassure him, I hope, about the central theme of his and his constituents' concerns. He said three issues would concern his constituents above all others—antisocial behaviour, binge drinking and the need for visible policing. As he pointed out, I represent an urban constituency, but if I went out and about, as I do, and asked my constituents for their three issues of concern, many would name the same three. The context is different, and we need to understand the difference between policing a rural and an urban community, but many themes and concerns are broadly similar. I hope that that is of some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman, although I have no doubt not fully persuaded him of the merits of the Home Office team, which perhaps has slightly more experience in urban areas. I assure him that we understand the issues.

Overall, Avon and Somerset police has made significant progress over the past 12 months and continues to improve performance, largely owing to the hard work and professionalism of the officers and staff. Overall, crime is down 5 per cent. compared with the same period last year. Burglaries are down 14 per cent., and vehicle crime has dropped by an impressive 19 per cent. The hon. Gentleman argues, understandably and of course, from the perspective and for the interests of his own constituents, but the figures are encouraging, and specifically so for his area. The basic command units of Somerset East and West have higher sanction detection rates than the force overall, and Somerset East's should be particularly congratulated on its achievements in reducing burglary and vehicle crime by 29 per cent. and 27 per cent. respectively when compared with the same period last year.

As those figures show, the force continues to make strong progress in reducing crime and in tackling issues of real concern to local communities. The fact that the force has been able to make those achievements reflects on the efforts and commitment of local officers and, as the hon. Gentleman was generous enough to acknowledge, on the considerable investment that the Government are making in the police service. On a like-
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for-like basis, expenditure on policing supported by Government grant across England and Wales has increased by 27 per cent. in real terms since 1997, which is a cash increase of £3.7 billion, from around £7 billion in 1997 to £10.7 billion in the current year.

We have increased police numbers to record levels across England and Wales. Today, we have more than 141,000 police officers, which is 14,000 more than there were in 1997. We have more than 70,000 dedicated support staff. We also have 6,300 community support officers and are committed to increasing their numbers to 24,000 by 2008. As a first step towards that, last autumn we made available £50 million in new money to enable forces to recruit and retain 1,500 new community support officers.

Avon and Somerset police has benefited from that investment. At March this year, the force had 3,384 police officers, which is 395 more than in 1997. The former chair of the police authority, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who told us that he used to come to argue for 200 or 300 more officers will be very pleased that that aspiration has become a reality following the investment that the Government are making. Avon and Somerset police also benefits from 144 community support officers and 396 special constables, which is an increase of 91 special constables over the figure of a year ago. I was pleased to hear the hon. Member for Taunton underline the important role that community support officers play. Yes, there are limits on their responsibilities, but they are very much part of the team and can make a considerable difference. The big increase in the number of special constables is an impressive reflection on the hon. Gentleman's constituents and those who wish to volunteer and make a contribution in that way.

Avon and Somerset police has received its fair share of the resources available this year. It is receiving £170 million in general grants, an increase of 4.8 per cent. or £7.8 million over last year. That increase is significantly higher than the minimum increase of 3.75 per cent. that we guaranteed for all forces, and is well above police pay and inflation increases.

On top of general grants, the force is continuing to benefit from a range of specific grants. Avon and Somerset is receiving around £14.7 million in specific grants and capital provision. The hon. Gentleman has expressed concerns that local police resources have been targeted primarily towards the Bristol area, perhaps unfairly in the view of his constituents. It is rightly a matter for the chief constable and the police authority to decide how best to deploy the available resources across the force area, taking account of local operational priorities. It is only fair to point out that the number of police officers covering the three Somerset basic command units has increased by almost 8 per cent., or 59 additional officers, since 2002, compared to an increase of just over 4 per cent., or 48 officers, for Bath and Bristol. Indeed, Somerset is comparatively well resourced overall, with 89 community support officers compared to 37 in Bath and Bristol.

The hon. Gentleman will know that since 2000–01 we have made extra resources available specifically to enhance the accessibility and visibility of policing in areas with the most widespread populations—the third of his three themes was high visibility for policing, and it is very important. Avon and Somerset is one of 31 shire
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forces that have benefited from the annual £30 million rural policing fund. Avon and Somerset currently receives some £1 million a year from the fund, which is money that can be spent entirely at local discretion to promote policing in more rural areas.

I understand that Avon and Somerset has used its allocation to continue investment in, and to meet some of the ongoing costs of, the bobby van project, which provides extra security to vulnerable members of the community, especially those over 65, and victims of crime. The funds have also been used to help support the mobile police stations of the community support unit.

The hon. Gentleman put the issue of structural reform of the police service at the heart of his speech. The Government believe that it is a crucial step towards ensuring that our police service is equipped to meet the threats posed by terrorism, serious and organised crime, and civil emergencies, as well as the other important priority of effective neighbourhood policing. It is not a question of either/or, but of both. One must complement the other. We cannot deny that the horrific events of 7 July have raised the stakes and made it even more important to grasp the structural issue decisively. The Government cannot ignore the findings of Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary, which concluded, in a report published last month and to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that the 43 force structure is

Mr. Laws : It is understood that the position of some of the small forces may be affected by the review, but can the Minister say specifically whether the Avon and Somerset force is too small at present?

Paul Goggins: I shall come on to those issues, although I shall not say this evening whether I think that the Avon and Somerset force is too big or too small. We are placing the emphasis of the development of the new map of the force structure in the hands of local police authorities and others, so people at the local level can come forward with what they regard as a workable structure. Towards the end of the year, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will form his conclusions on the specific proposals. I will say something relevant to the hon. Gentleman's question in just a moment.

It is important to emphasise that the proposal for structural change and the specific issues raised by the review are ones determined not by Ministers and officials in the Home Office in Marsham street, however remote that may appear to be, but by the Home Secretary's independent, professional advisers on policing matters. HMIC's report "Closing the Gap" is the product of a detailed examination of the capacity and capability of all 43 forces to provide key protective services to national standards. We owe it to the public to ensure that all forces have sufficient capacity and resilience to counter terrorism and domestic extremism, to tackle serious organised crime, to undertake major murder investigations and to respond to public order incidents and civil emergencies.

In light of HMIC's conclusions, no responsible Government could fail to act, but as the inspectorate has made clear, this is not simply an exercise in redrawing
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boundaries on a map; in restructuring the organisation of the police service in England and Wales we need to reconfigure how services are provided. I know that the response of some to the HMIC report has been to ask, as the hon. Member for Taunton did, "What about local policing?" The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question; it is a legitimate and important one. I put it to him that far from undermining local policing, restructuring is essential if we are to underpin neighbourhood policing.

The clear message from HMIC is that the demands now placed on forces by what are called level 2 threats—those of terrorism, serious organised crime and so on—are growing and, if nothing is done, will increasingly draw resources away from neighbourhood policing. HMIC found in its review that smaller forces are less likely to be able to cope with those demands and more likely to be swamped when a crisis occurs. Larger, more strategic forces will protect neighbourhood policing by ensuring that forces have the resilience to tackle crimes at all levels, minimising the need to take officers away from their important neighbourhood duties.

HMIC looked at a number of options for restructuring, but concluded that the creation of strategic forces with at least 4,000 officers or 6,000 staff offered the best business solution. Given that threshold, it seems highly unlikely that a stand-alone Somerset force—I know that the hon. Gentleman argued for such a force in his maiden speech—would meet the requirements. The Home Secretary has made it clear that he has no blueprint for forcing amalgamations; the initiative for the reform should be and is being driven locally by people who know their communities and the challenges faced by policing in each area.

The Home Secretary has asked all forces and police authorities to submit proposals for restructuring by the end of December. The local discussion of the options will be informed by the design criteria set out in the HMIC report, including such matters as size, geography, coterminosity with partner agencies, criminal markets and identity. The Home Secretary has made it clear that to minimise disruption the proposals should not subdivide an existing force between two or more new forces. There would therefore need to be exceptionally strong reasons in favour of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a Somerset and Dorset force, as that would mean subdividing existing forces.

Irrespective of whatever restructuring happens at force level, for most people the priorities of policing are and will remain, as the hon. Gentleman made plain in his speech, the local park, the town centre, the neighbourhood and the community. The Government and the police service recognise that and we are working hand in hand with the Association of Chief Police Officers to roll out accessible and responsive neighbourhood policing across all forces, including the hon. Gentleman's, by 2008. We want every community to benefit from dedicated, accessible and visible neighbourhood policing teams, led by police officers, but involving special constables, community support officers, volunteers, neighbourhood wardens, the security industry and others, and for communities to know who their local police officers are and how to contact them.
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We see neighbourhood policing as the key to ensuring that mainstream local policing services are driven by neighbourhood and community needs, so that the people who are affected by problems of crime and disorder, and who are often best placed to find solutions that are right for their own area, have a real say in setting priorities. Neighbourhood policing is the principal focus of our policing agenda—using local knowledge and intelligence from local people to target crime hot spots and the disorder problems that cause local communities the most concern. Effective neighbourhood policing is about making a difference to people's quality of life. It will empower communities to have a real say in local policing issues and in setting local priorities. They will know who their local police officers are and how to contact them, and know, too, how well their police are doing locally in tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.

Neighbourhood policing means becoming more effective at crime reduction by working directly with local communities. It is about recognising that policing will be effective only when it is performed as a shared undertaking, not only on behalf of the public, but with the public. The public are more than users of services: they are stakeholders and they should be shapers of the way in which their neighbourhoods are policed. Our goal is a police service that is enabled to provide strong,
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planned, forward-looking protective services, based on the basic command unit structure, which is at the heart of local policing and which remains the key platform for the delivery of services.

The hon. Member for Taunton emphasised his concern about binge drinking and he has discussed elsewhere alcohol-related crime. With his constituent, John McClintock, he has championed the use of shatterproof glass in pubs in the area. I congratulate both Mr. McClintock and the hon. Gentleman on their success in that respect. I hope that they are satisfied that the new powers that will be rolled out under the Licensing Act 2003 and the measures that we propose in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill will give their local police force an even greater capacity to tackle that issue and defeat those who, often fuelled by alcohol, cause mayhem in our communities.

I acknowledge that crime remains too high in all our constituencies, but that is precisely why the Government have embarked on their ambitious reform agenda to help the police to focus on their key tasks and to work alongside local people as partners in building safer communities. I believe that that approach will benefit all our constituents, not least those of the hon. Member for Taunton.

Question put and agreed to.

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