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Policing (Northamptonshire)

5 pm

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): First, I thank Mr. Speaker for enabling me to secure the debate, the Minister for attending, and all the police officers, staff and associated civilians of the Northamptonshire police force for their good work and the tremendous efforts they put into policing matters in the county. They deserve our thanks and praise, and I am happy to put that on the record on behalf of my constituents.

The purpose of my contribution to this debate is to leave the Minister in no doubt about the importance of policing, crime, antisocial behaviour and general law-and-order issues to my constituents. It is extremely important and I have done my best to raise the matter through every parliamentary device. I have asked the Prime Minister a question at Prime Minister's Question Time. I have participated in correspondence with him and even received a reply from him on 30 June. I have joined the parliamentary police scheme and will spend 22 days with the Northamptonshire police to find out at first hand about policing issues on the ground. I want to leave four points with the Minister—my conclusions.

First, there are not enough police officers in Northamptonshire. It is not just me or my constituents who say that. The chief constable also says that. Secondly, Northamptonshire police force suffers persistent long-term underfunding. It is not just me or my constituents who say that. The chief constable also says that. That underfunding will get worse because Northamptonshire is included in the Milton Keynes and south midlands growth area and will experience the fastest growth of house building in the country up to 2021 and 2031.

Thirdly, there are huge local concerns about the performance of Northamptonshire police who are, according to the Government's measures, an underperforming force. Fourthly and lastly, there is strong and growing local opposition to the proposal to merge Northamptonshire police force with neighbouring forces and perhaps even to make it part of a new, grotesque east midlands police force.

On the first point about there not being enough police officers, in Northamptonshire there are 1,264. If we had the national average number of officers per head of population, Northamptonshire would have 1,479. There are 938 full-time-equivalent police service staff, which is one of the highest rates of civilianisation in the country. There are 192 special constables, compared with 314 eight years ago. There are some 39 community support officers and I am pleased to say that Kettering borough council, on which I am a councillor, funds in part eight community support officers for Kettering.

There has been a doubling of the number of police officers retiring or resigning in the past eight years. Eight years ago, 37 officers left the force and 74 left in 2003–04. Of the constables in the force 25 per cent. have been in service for less than three years and 20 per cent. of those on the beat are probationers.
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On crime statistics, in 2003–04, 123 crimes were committed for every 1,000 people in the county, compared with an average in England and Wales of 113 for every 1,000 people. That is the highest crime rate among Northamptonshire's family of eight most similar forces where the range was 86 to 123 for every 1,000 people.

On population per officer, in 2003–04 in Northamptonshire there were 506 people for every constable and 461 in England and Wales. On the average number of crimes per officer, there were 62 in Northamptonshire and 48 among its family of most similar forces.

Everyone in Northamptonshire from the chief constable downwards—plus Northamptonshire's elected parliamentary representatives taking part in this afternoon's debate—wants the Minister to know that there are not enough police officers in the county.

The second point is about persistent, long-term underfunding. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) wants to catch your eye later, Mr. O'Hara, to expand on that point. Over the past three years, the formula funding for the Northamptonshire police service has meant that the force has received £5.5 million less than it ought to have done. Last year—2004–05—the police budget was nominated. In the three previous years, the police precept had to go up by 26 per cent., 23 per cent. and 14 per cent. to try to address, at least in part, the systematic failure to deliver the funding that the county needs to provide proper policing.

In terms of the formula grant per head of population, Northamptonshire gets £101 a year compared with the average in England and Wales, of £139. The police force with the highest figure in the land gets £248. Northamptonshire is the third worst authority in the country in respect of falling victim to the damping formula applied to the funding formula mechanism.

There is growing concern about the performance of the Northamptonshire constabulary. The police standards unit has been engaged with the force since spring 2004. A new policing model was introduced in October 2004 and is beginning to tackle some of the underlying problems. The difficulty is that the forces in Northamptonshire's family of most similar forces are beginning to tackle their difficulties more effectively than the Northamptonshire force is tackling its own.

In the recent statistics published by the Home Office, the Northamptonshire police force came out—on the Government's figures—as the third worst-performing police authority in the country, with an overall aggregate score of 1 in a range of minus 3 to plus 16. Recorded crime for every 1,000 people is 22 per cent. higher than in comparable forces. House burglary is 60 per cent. higher, robberies are 84 per cent. higher and vehicle crime is 42 per cent. higher. House burglary detection is the worst in the most similar family of forces and vehicle crime detection is almost the worst. Only 35 per cent. of the Northamptonshire public think that the criminal justice system is effective in bringing people to justice compared with 43 per cent. for the east and west midlands on average. Fear of crime is among the worst in the country.
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There is strong and growing opposition to the prospect of merging the Northamptonshire police force with neighbouring forces. The National Association of Retired Police Officers has written to me to say that

The local National Farmers Union has written to me to say that it is worried that the regionalisation of the local police force could mean that rural crime is tackled even less effectively than heretofore

There are problems with policing in Northamptonshire and they basically stem from insufficient funding being given to the local force. Local people feel that the issue is very important. I hope that the Minister will take on board these points and come up with some constructive solutions so that policing can be    properly addressed in the great county of Northamptonshire.

5.10 pm

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): I thank the Minister for kindly allowing me this privilege, for which I am grateful.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone), not only on securing this debate, but on the work that he does for his constituents and the wider Northamptonshire population. I am grateful for that and many others are, too.

I wish to talk for two to three minutes about the funding formula, which has impacted so heavily on Northamptonshire. When the new formula was first announced more than three years ago, we were rather pleased because it showed that we were one of the main underfunding constabularies in the country—underfunded by way of the previous formula—and that the new formula would correct that underfunding. If the Government had not changed the new formula, we would have expected more than 22 per cent. extra funding over the past three years. My hon. Friend has explained how much that added up to; in truth, it would have meant 50 permanent officers for Northamptonshire constabulary.

Sadly, the formula realisation did not occur. I understand why the Government put a damping formula on their own formula: it would have meant serious difficulties for them at the other end of the process. However, be that as it may, we were left with a reduced grant of some 13 per cent., adding up to £5.5 million, which has had a massive effect on the performance that our force in Northamptonshire can achieve. There is a link between funding and performance in that respect. I am not arguing that that is the only explanation, but it is one factor that has meant that we have underperformed—and we and the Government have been disappointed.

I appeal to the Minister to consider seriously the funding formula as it impacts on Northamptonshire, because the Government said fairly that we deserved more. However, they then dampened the impact and we did not get what they said they thought we deserved. In the light of that, I ask the Minister to consider the issue again.
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5.12 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing this important debate and on attracting four of the six county Members of Parliament to it. I should like to put on record my high regard for the police force in Northamptonshire, particularly the chief constable.

I want to make a brief point, and I hope that the Minister will appreciate that none of this is party political. I run a survey in Wellingborough, called "Listening to Wellingborough and Rushden", and 20 per cent. of the residents tell me that they are scared to go out at night because of the fear of crime. When we asked what they would like to see done about that, they said, "We'd like more police officers and more local policing." Nobody has suggested that they would like a police force covering a bigger area.

With the aid of this map, I should like to demonstrate quickly the problem with my constituency, which is right at the tip of Northamptonshire. We already feel a little bit out on a limb. However, if we look at the proposed region, the map shows that we are 80 to 100 miles from Nottingham, for example. However, I could walk 100 yards in my area and I would find myself in Bedfordshire. We therefore look to Bedfordshire and Milton Keynes and, if there were a merger, I understand that there would be a large operational argument for us to go in with Bedfordshire.

I urge the Minister to consider this matter again, give better guidelines to the police authority and examine the option of looking across Government regional boundaries.

5.15 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate and thank his hon. Friends for ensuring that I have plenty of time to respond to it. We have had good participation and good visual aids, which are always helpful.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for the enthusiasm that he has shown for policing issues. They are important to all our constituents and, thus, to all Members of Parliament. It is right that he drew attention to them in this debate. I congratulate him on joining the parliamentary police scheme, which I am sure he will find an interesting experience. I share his interest and that of other hon. Members in effective policing, but I hope he will forgive me for drawing different conclusions from those that he drew.

Let us consider first the performance of Northamptonshire police. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, the police standards unit—the PSU—within the Home Office has been engaged with Northamptonshire police since the spring of last year. That engagement arose from specific worries expressed by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary. Because of the performance gap in reducing crime to which the hon. Gentleman referred between his force and its peers, at that time overall crime in Northamptonshire was about a third higher than it was for the comparable authorities.It is to the credit of the chief constable that he grasped the nettle and invited the PSU into the force.
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I am pleased that such action is already showing real dividends. Let us consider the most recent data for the force. In the 12 months to the end of October, it reduced its overall crime level by 11 per cent., domestic burglary was down by 18 per cent. and vehicle crime was reduced by 19 per cent. I join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating the police on the front line for making that difference in his community.

Having said that, there is still further improvement to be made in performance. The scale of the challenge was reflected in the recent police performance assessments that were published last month by the Home Office and HMIC. For example, the assessment gave the force poor and deteriorating grades for investigating crime. While there has been some progress, there is room for further improvement. The role of the PSU is to share good practice, to provide expert knowledge and to bring in additional resources. About £1 million in additional resources has been made available through the PSU intervention in Northamptonshire. That sum is in addition to the £67.8 million in general police grants that was given for 2005–06, an increase of £3.5 million on the year before, which is 5.5 per cent. and considerably more than the minimum increase of 3.75 per cent., which is guaranteed to all police authorities. The force continues to benefit from a range of specific grants for particular targeted programmes. In Northamptonshire this year, that amounts to £7 million.

In my time as a Minister, I have learned that financial investment is important. However, it is far too simplistic to say that poor performance by any public service is always the result of lack of investment. It is certainly too simplistic to say that in the case of Northamptonshire. The president of the Association of Chief Police Officers acknowledged recently that it is not only a matter of resources but how they are managed and directed that makes the difference. The PSU will continue to work with the force with the agreement of the chief constable and under the ultimate direction of Ministers. We have in place an agreed set of criteria, which will make it clear when is the right time for the PSU to end its engagement. We will keep such matters under review. Eventual disengagement by the PSU will happen when all parties are satisfied that the criteria have been met.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to police numbers. We ought not to disagree about the fact that police numbers are at record levels in Northamptonshire. I have a slightly different figure from that of the hon. Gentleman, but as of March this year 1,267 police officers were in post, an increase of 90 since 1997. The force already has plans in hand to increase that number to 1,315 by March 2006. It is slightly more complicated than just the headline figure of police officers, because the number of police staff has increased by a fairly dramatic 73 per cent. since 1997—from 554 to 958. There has been an increase in the overall staffing of 21 per cent., which compares with a 13 per cent. increase nationally. If all the staff are considered—police officers, community support officers, traffic wardens and so on—the increase in Northamptonshire has been bigger than that across the whole country.

Mr. Hollobone : Hon. Members representing constituencies in the county, and the chief constable, anticipated that the Minister would reply as he just did. The chief constable wanted us to make it clear to the
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Minister that although it is perfectly true that there has been an increase in the number of police officers, local residents in Northamptonshire still do not have the number of police officers required.

Paul Goggins : I freely acknowledge that if we were to go to any community in this country, people would say that they wanted more police officers. This Government have pledged, and are delivering, more police officers, but we have to manage the available resources. I commend the chief constable of Northamptonshire police and all those involved on managing a switch so that there are more back-up staff who are not police officers doing jobs that police officers used to do. That frees up police officers to get on to the front line and to add capacity to community policing, which the hon. Gentleman's constituents—all our constituents—want.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of force restructuring, which I know is a matter of concern to hon. Members in his region and others. At the centre of the issue is how we ensure that we have police forces equipped to deal with the level 2 threats that we face—organised crime, terrorism and so on—while at the same time ensuring that there is reliable, stable, solid community policing in all our neighbourhoods.

Mr. Bone : I understand where the Government are coming from on that. Operationally, in our area, looking outside these predetermined regions would be more sensible and efficient and would achieve better goals, which the Minister wants,

Paul Goggins : In a little while I shall come on to the shortlist of options for the hon. Gentleman's region and emphasise again that we are talking about a consultation. The Home Secretary wants to develop the new structure from the bottom up and not create a blueprint from the top down. I know that hon. Members will be involved in the consultations, and they will be able to make the points that they wish.

In order to ensure that the two issues could both be dealt with adequately by a police structure, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary asked HMIC to examine whether the current 43-force structure was still fit for purpose. It examined in particular what are called the "protective services", which I mentioned: dealing with organised crime, counter terrorism and murders, which rightly draw in huge police resources when they occur in a community; tackling domestic extremism—we are determined to tackle and overcome animal rights extremism—and dealing with civil contingencies of different kinds, critical incidents, public order incidents and so on. All forces have to be able to deal with those kinds of pressures.

HMIC's findings in the "Closing the gap" report are pretty stark. It concluded that the existing force structure, which has been established for more than 30 years, is

HMIC felt strongly that in this particular case size matters. It suggested that as a minimum there should be 4,000 police officers or 6,000 staff in a strategic police
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force that is able both to deal with level 2 threats and neighbourhood policing. Faced with such clear, unequivocal, professional and independent advice from the inspectorate, I put it to the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues that it would be irresponsible for the Government not to respond to that by trying to provide a structure that was more up to the task.

The inspectorate considered several possible options for the way forward, including that of greater collaboration between forces and the creation of federations between forces for the provision of protective services, but it felt that all those options had significant drawbacks. On the federal option, for example, it commented that clarity of responsibilities and governance would be an enduring challenge.

The inspectorate concluded that the establishment of strategic forces with sufficient critical mass to meet all the demands of modern policing was the best business solution. We agree. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has repeatedly made it clear that he has no blueprint. We want the new structure to be developed from the ground up, with local communities and local police authorities very much in the driving seat.

We have made it clear that we want the proposals to be submitted to the Home Office by 23 December, and I am pleased to be able to report that that consultation is well under way.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry) (Con): If the Home Secretary has no blueprint, will he be prepared to consider at least in principle cross-regional boundary mergers as and when local people believe them to be the most appropriate solution?

Paul Goggins : The Home Secretary does not want to carve up existing police force structures, because he believes that that would over-complicate the process. I can confirm, however, that all five police authorities and their chief constables in the east midlands have now made a joint submission that proposes four options. They conclude, as we do, that the two stronger options are for Northamptonshire to join Leicestershire and Lincolnshire and for Derbyshire to join Nottinghamshire, or for all five forces to combine into an east midlands force.

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has said he agrees that those two options are the most sensible ones at this stage. He has emphasised, however, that it is ultimately a matter for each police authority to decide which option to propose in December. Northamptonshire police authority is now engaged with others in a wide-ranging consultation, and I am sure that hon. Members who are in the Chamber today will make their views known very strongly.

I should add that the option of Northamptonshire police as a stand-alone force does not meet the inspectorate's criterion on the size of force. The force has only 1,267 officers, which is well below the threshold of 4,000 officers that the inspectorate recommended, and it is unlikely to deliver sufficient capacity and capability to meet the requirements for protective services to national standards.

Mr. Binley : Will the Minister consider the fact that a force of that size could make sense if we had regional units that specialised in, for instance, terrorism? Does he accept that the two can be separated in that way?
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Paul Goggins : The inspectorate concluded that it would not be appropriate to split the two in that way, and that structures of accountability and so on would make that a very difficult structure to sustain in the long term. It recommended, and we agreed, that the two necessary elements of policing—the level that deals with the threat of terrorism, animal rights extremism and organised crime and the level that deals with neighbourhood policing—must come under the same force structure.
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I know that concern has been expressed that our proposals may detract from local neighbourhood policing, but the reverse is actually the case. We want greater strategic capacity to mean that resources will not be drawn from plans for neighbourhood policing in the event of major incidents. Indeed, we have made a commitment to have neighbourhood policing in every area by 2008.

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