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Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): Let me tell the hon. Gentleman about my experience in my constituency. He and I have similarly rural communities. The police put an ASBO on the whole village of Mid Calder because they had had problems with a small minority of youths for five or six weeks. There was much violence and aggression, and an attempted murder. Over the past six weeks, that community has had peaceful weekends. Perhaps the police in the hon. Gentleman's area should follow that lead.

Mr. Stuart: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. We must use whatever tools are available, and I would not rule out the fact that ASBOs, whatever their chequered record, have a part to play.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that as the reorganisation will incur massive costs, the police will not be able to afford to issue ASBOs?

Mr. Stuart: I completely agree; the difficulty is getting police to attend. In rural areas, proactive policing no longer occurs. The key question for us in this reorganisation is why would the creation of a huge Yorkshire force make accountability at local level more likely. The answer is that the likelihood is that it will not. There are issues about cost, and we have heard from the chairmen of the police authority that reorganisation will lead to fewer police on the beat.

I am astonished at the experience of the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North of talking to police officers in Hull. It differs greatly from my experience of meeting officers from the same force in my constituency. They have told me that they would be distinctly put out at the prospect of being used in a whole-Yorkshire force, which would remove them from the communities that they joined the police to represent and protect. Sending
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them elsewhere in Yorkshire without any safeguards—I would be interested to hear about that in the summing up—could have a big impact on recruitment. That point was well made earlier.

The Government will be pleased that the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham) came out with some support for the policy; it sounds as though he will be supporting the proposed legislation. However, there were elements of scepticism and doubt in his speech. Following so closely the political disaster of last night and so many ill-thought-through bits of legislation, I say on behalf of the rural communities that I represent that the Government have not answered our questions about accountability and empowering local people so that they feel that they can control the police force and that we can escape the curse of cricked-neck policing, under which police officers who are supposed to represent my constituents appear to be representatives of Whitehall and the Minister.

3.15 pm

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart). If I may say so, he gave a speech suitable for an ambitious, young Opposition Back Bencher.

I would like to take hon. Members on a brief tour of County Durham. It is a largely rural area with low levels of crime. In fact, I think that we have the lowest level of crime in the entire country. Of course, I get complaints from my constituents when there are serious problems and about antisocial behaviour, but in general the level of crime in the county is very low.

Moreover, the police force is very efficient when compared with those facing similar issues. On all seven Home Office performance measurements, County Durham performs well. On reducing crime, investigating crime, promoting safety, providing assistance, citizen focus, resource use and local policing, the delivery is fair, good or excellent, and the direction is either stable or improving.

The proposal in our part of the world is to bring together the police forces of Durham, Northumberland and Cleveland. One would therefore think, given that picture of a county force, that that circumstance would fit precisely the stereotype used by Conservative Members to criticise the Government's proposals. The area falls into all the categories that Conservative Members have said will be worst served by the Government's proposals. In fact, the local community is united in supporting the Government's proposals. The previous chief constable, Sir Paul Garvon, supports it, the new chief constable, John Stoddart, supports it, the county council supports it, the police authority supports it and all six Durham MPs support it.

Anne Milton: The hon. Lady is drawing out the fact that one size does not fit all—what is good for her area is clearly not good for my area of Surrey. Does she therefore agree that an approach that allows areas to make their own decisions about how their communities are best served is the right way forward?

Helen Goodman: I was not agreeing with the hon. Lady. I was disagreeing with her. I was saying that the
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characteristics of areas that Conservative Members have said will be ill served by the Government's proposals are not considered a problem. The concerns that Conservative Members have expressed have not been raised in County Durham. Clearly she is so surprised by that that she does not believe what she is hearing, but it is indeed the case. One might, for example, be concerned that resources will be dragged into Cleveland, but again, that concern has not been raised.

Martin Horwood: The hon. Lady does not seem to appreciate the scale of the merged forces proposed. Her constituency is closer to mine than the far end of the Isles of Scilly with which Gloucestershire is supposed to form a south-west force. Would she be interested in a merger between Gloucestershire and County Durham to see whether we can shift resources between the two?

Helen Goodman: That is a patently ridiculous suggestion, as there is no proposal to unify County Durham with Gloucestershire. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at a map, he will see that the proposed geographical region for the north-east is large, comprising Durham, Northumberland and Cleveland. County Durham is united in support of the Government's proposal because the force is too small to deal with the new challenges of organised crime and terrorism. We would be in a similar position to the Cambridgeshire force if we had to resolve an extremely difficult or complex problem.

John Hemming: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Helen Goodman: I feel that I have accepted enough interventions in a short speech.

The view in County Durham is that, as long as we retain local neighbourhood policing and the basic command units, which are not threatened by the Government proposals, the change will be a positive step. A counter-proposal in the north-east would have unified south Durham and Cleveland and north Durham with Northumberland, but it would have cut across the coterminosity of other services, so we did not wish to accept it in County Durham. Opposition Members have criticised the Government for introducing proposals that would increase bureaucracy. That is patently ridiculous. The proposals will reduce bureaucracy, unlike their proposals, which would introduce a new layer of bureaucracy in the system. I therefore support the Government amendment.

3.22 pm

Anne Milton (Guildford) (Con): I was surprised that the hon. Member for Bishop Auckland (Helen Goodman) found the Conservative proposals patently ridiculous. In doing so, she attacks my local community, my local residents, my police authority and my local policemen, who all support the views that my hon. Friends and I have expressed.

May I respond to a point made by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Ms Johnson)? I could hardly believe my ears when she said that police bureaucracy had gone down. In Surrey, an estimate earlier this year was that one third of police time was
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taken up with police paperwork, which has risen a great deal in the past few years. I fear that, yet again, the Government are trying to re-provide, reorganise and, in this case, restructure their way out of inherent problems in the public sector. In Surrey, restructuring is an attempt by the Government to solve chronic underfunding problems. If one talks to people in my Guildford constituency about restructuring, their eyes glaze over. I am sure that that is the case for many residents in other constituencies. All my constituents want to do is go about their business. They want to be free, both of crime and of the fear of crime. In Guildford town, Cranleigh and all the surrounding villages in my constituency, fear of crime is a significant and, at times, disabling issue for many local residents. They would therefore put crime and the fear of crime at the top of their list of priorities.

Surrey is a low-crime area, so it is easy to dismiss such fears, but they are genuine even if they appear disproportionate in the light of the figures. They stop people going to the local shops after dark and prevent parents from allowing their children to walk to school. They stop people going into Guildford at night, because 4,000 to 5,000 kids from the local area go into town to drink in the bars and clubs. They stop people getting on with their lives, so they are socially disabling. Although the crime figures are low in Surrey, there are worrying trends, including an upward trend in violent crime, which gives considerable cause for concern. Villages are not immune to the problem. My hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart) talked about rural crime, which is an increasing concern. Farmers have to go to significant lengths to secure their property, farm gates and vehicles.

When my residents' eyes glaze over, it is because restructuring of the police is not their main concern. They want to know what the changes will do for them. Will they feel safer? Will crime and antisocial behaviour go down? Will the police be more accountable and will they be able to respond to their problems? My instinctive belief is that that any measure that makes Surrey police more distant from my local residents or which makes the police more distant from anyone is the wrong thing to do. The proximity of the police and their association with the local area are important. The Home Secretary talked about neighbourhood policing, which I applaud. However, my hon. Friend the Member for North Thanet (Mr. Gale) cited Jerry Kirkby, who piloted neighbourhood policing in Surrey and believes that the restructuring will knock neighbourhood policing on the head.

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