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11 July 2006 : Column 406WH—continued

The Notting Hill carnival escapes any charge whatever for a considerable policing cost that runs into hundreds of thousands of pounds, because the Metropolitan police do not charge for such community events, but the organisers of the Dart music festival in Dartmouth, which is minuscule in comparison, were whacked with an initial bill of £16,095.15. As a result of negotiations, the bill was reduced to £5,875, and finally, after further negotiations, to £2,742.35. I am not sure whether the role of the constabulary in Devon and Cornwall is not more like that of a car salesman. One haggles with the individual police inspector over
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how much one should pay for policing. It is not the way that I see policing, and the public do not want to see it continue either.

One would have thought that throughout the land, constabularies would wish to promote good deeds and community enterprise. At least the Metropolitan Police Commissioner recognises that each year the Notting Hill carnival has helped to cement good race relations and bolster good community spirit. In spite of massive police presence, he refuses to make any charge whatever to the organisers in London. What is wrong with the Devon and Cornwall constabulary? Why cannot it recognise the benefits to the community of events such as the Dart community festival, and soon the Dart regatta?

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): My hon. Friend’s excellent speech gives rise to two thoughts. First, does he agree that when one challenges police officers—local divisional inspectors in particular—about a charitable event such as the Hatherleigh carnival in my constituency, which was fixed with a bill last year, they are embarrassed about it? They find themselves in a terrible position—

Mr. Jimmy Hood (in the Chair): Order. Interventions have to be much shorter.

Mr. Steen: I am most grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for attending the debate. If he catches your eye, Mr. Hood, I feel sure that he will be able to develop that point. The whole House would welcome hearing from him, as it always does. He highlights no more than an anxiety throughout Devon and Cornwall. The police have suddenly discovered that they have the powers, which are nothing new, as they have been available since 1925, to squeeze more money out of a hard-pressed community that already pays taxes, and pays council taxes to the police. Communities will be charged even more if they do anything socially useful.

The question may well be asked: will the police charge for antisocial behaviour? When they catch a group of young people, will they send them a charge, too? Besides a criminal charge, will there be a civil charge for the police time spent apprehending them? That would be the natural result of such thinking.

The assistant chief constable in charge of operations support in Devon and Cornwall constabulary said in a letter of 3 May to the Western Morning News:

I am sure that the Minister has taken note of that last point. The Minister knows, as I do, that that is just not true. Section 25 of the 1996 Act simply enables the police to levy charges; it by no means requires them to. It is not mandatory; it is discretionary.

As the then Home Office Minister, the right hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), subsequently Home Secretary, said in a written answer on 29 November 2000:

Is it right that decisions affecting the future of at least 80 annual community events in Devon and Cornwall alone should be decided at the discretion of an unelected police authority? There have been a few important judicial decisions about the legality of charging for special police services. In May, two months ago, the Court of Appeal found against the West Yorkshire police authority, because there was no written contract prior to the services provided to Reading festival, which is a large profit-making event.

My concern is related to the operation of section 25 not in respect of large commercial events such as music festivals—Glastonbury, for example, has a £17 million turnover; it is a commercial event—or football matches, but in respect of the small, charitable, local, peaceful events that are an established and cherished part of the west country way of life. By their very definition, they do not have the resources to fight expensive legal battles that often hinge on obscure legal points. They are the quiet martyrs of the legislation. It threatens to wipe them out without recourse to appeal and without too much fuss.

I would like to believe that the relatively modest nature of such events is the reason why the Government have failed to notice the reprehensible approach to police charging which is creeping in throughout many parts of the country. We would certainly hear about it if the Met landed the Notting Hill carnival with a bill for hundreds of thousands of pounds. But small events such as the Dart music festival, or Widdecombe fair, which has been going for hundreds of years, can slip easily under the radar of the public, the media and the Government. This is in no way a reflection of their importance to the local communities and how beneficial they are to our culture.

I pay tribute to the Western Morning News, the regional organ of our area, which has taken up the cause wholeheartedly and exposed the number of shows, festivals and carnivals that face new charges for policing. Its excellent leader on 30 May pointed out that public support for the police is essential to help them uphold the law, and concluded that

I fear that the police are hitting at softer targets—events with limited resources but huge social, community and cultural benefits—to help pay for policing the real problems elsewhere. That is not the way to foster good community relations and is not a practice that should be allowed to continue on an ad hoc, incoherent and inconsistent basis.

I certainly do not wish to see every decision of the local police authority prescribed by central Government. I believe that it is absolutely right to keep decisions as close to the people as possible, and I am for creating real and genuine local accountability.
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However, I fear that local police authorities are proving far from accountable. I have still received no substantive reply to the three letters that I wrote to the chief constable of the Devon and Cornwall constabulary about the matter in April. That is not good news and does not foster good relations between Members of Parliament and the constabulary.

As a result of the tremendous impact that police charges are having and will have on charitable community events in the west country and the geographical disparity in applying the legislation, combined with the opaque decision-making procedures through which charges are applied and levied, I ask the Government to bring forward clear and fair national guidelines that will ensure that charitable community events across the country are not wiped out by surreptitious police charges.

12.42 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing the debate, and thank him for allowing me to have two or three minutes to underpin his remarks and to raise one specific case, which is that of Yealmpton show, a show with which my hon. Friend will be extremely familiar as he used to represent the part of my constituency that comprises Yealmpton. It has been going on for well over 100 years and is a prime example of what my hon. Friend is talking about.

Yealmpton show is the biggest show by far in my constituency and on a good day, when the weather is right, it can attract up to 10,000 people, 20 per cent. of whom are children. It is run by a registered charity and all the work is done by hard-working volunteers. It is not profit-making and any surplus is given away to charity. Ironically, recently it gave some money to the constabulary widows’ and orphans’ fund, not knowing that it would receive a bill for this year’s performance.

Last year, the show made a loss because of bad weather. That is the sort of organisation that we are talking about. It is a day when people from the countryside and Plymouth come together and have a day of tremendous fun, which is exactly the kind of things we should be encouraging. However, this year the police have come to the organisers out of the blue and asked for payment to cover half of the cost of police engagement in the show. What does that engagement entail? It is not like Notting Hill carnival, where there have been riots and difficulties in the past. It is not about public order, but about a constable or two diverting traffic from the public highway into Yealmpton show field and carrying out ordinary police activities, which are obviously increased by the number of people using the field on a particular day. The show has been asked to pay nearly £2,000, which is money it can ill afford as a marginal activity.

At a time when the Devon and Cornwall constabulary should be seeking to make friends rather than enemies in our part of the world, there will be a huge public reaction, because the Yealmpton show is so popular, when the demand for payment is realised by my constituents. People in South-West Devon are entitled to ask what on earth they are paying their taxes
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for. If something like policing the show is subject to an additional charge, what are we paying for generally through our taxes for the police? I hope that the Devon and Cornwall constabulary will think again. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes, I have written to the chief constable and still not received a reply. I hope that the constabulary will think again but, if not, I hope that the Minister will listen seriously to the case and take action that will cause the Devon and Cornwall constabulary to think again.

12.44 pm

Mr. Geoffrey Cox (Torridge and West Devon) (Con): I shall raise two points. Hatherleigh carnival is an event that has been held for many years. It has a particular attraction as it is one of the few carnivals to have flaming tar barrels, which are wheeled down the high street in Hatherleigh. When I first heard about the flaming tar barrels, and when I went to see them, it caused me a degree of discomfort, but it is only when one goes to see them and inquire into how they are handled that one realises that at every stage the barrels are under the close and tight control of people who know exactly what they are doing and that there is no danger. The fire service is consulted every year, and there have been no accidents or injuries.

Last year, Hatherleigh carnival, which usually raises about £1,500 to £2,000 for charity, was suddenly fixed with a bill of about £1,500 to £2,000. That meant that my constituents would have nothing left to give to charity after they had paid the police force. The point that was made to me by my constituents and the organisers of the carnival was that that would deter people from participating in such important community events. They usually get involved because they know that the proceeds will go to charity. The chances of Hatherleigh carnival happening the following year were remote.

I am fortunate because there are an excellent number of local divisional inspectors and officers who, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) earlier, were embarrassed by their position. They found themselves caught between the community that they were trying, often with great care and diligence, to police and the ridiculous order that meant that they were required to charge a small, charitable event that encouraged the charitable activities of the community. With a degree of good will and negotiation, we managed to get that charge extinguished. Of course, the carnival now lives from year to year with the threat that that charge might reappear.

My constituents said to me, “How often do we use the resources of the police through a normal year? We barely see a policeman in our village communities.” Insult has been added to injury because not only are our rural beat officers and our neighbourhood beat managers fairly infrequently seen in rural areas, but they are now being withdrawn to be replaced by police community support officers. The rural communities in which such charitable events are, as has been said, at the very heart of community activity and feeling, are being deterred, disappointed and depressed, not only by the absence of police but by the fact that when they put on an event that takes a great deal of initiative and hard work, they find themselves charged for it.

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12.48 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Vernon Coaker): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Hood. I begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) on securing an important debate, not only for his constituents but throughout the country. I will mention some of the points that he raised about his locality, but to cover the terms of the debate I shall need to draw widely and broadly on issues across the country and raise a number of issues that might not be specifically relevant to his part of the world.

I also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he conducted the debate and the measured tones in which he put forward his case. In addition, I congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Torridge and West Devon (Mr. Cox) and the hon. Member for South-West Devon (Mr. Streeter) on putting forward their points of view in support of their hon. Friend.

I understand the importance of the issue, because only recently I met the Showmen’s Guild. My hon. Friends the Members for Nuneaton (Mr. Olner) and for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) raised issues about travelling fairs and so on similar to those that the hon. Member for Totnes raised about the Dart music festival. It is an issue across the country, and we are seeking to address it and to work with the police in dealing with it.

Mr. Steen: One must distinguish between commercial events, such as fairs, and charitable, social and community events. That is an important distinction.

Mr. Coaker: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. To a degree, I accept what he says. I was illustrating the fact that there is much debate about the matter in respect of commercial and community or charitable events.

Section 25 of the Police Act 1996 replaced a similar provision in section 15(1) of the Police Act 1964. Prior to those statutory provisions, the practice of lending constables has been recognised since the 19th century. There are three key elements to section 25. First, anyone may ask the chief constable of a police force to provide special services. Secondly, it is for the chief constable to decide whether or not to provide those services. In reaching a decision whether to provide services, the chief constable is likely to take into account the overall resources available and the impact of providing the special services on the policing that would otherwise be provided to the community. The third key element is that it is for the police authority to determine the scale of charges. In practice, most day-to-day decisions are likely to be delegated to the chief officer of the force.

Section 25 clearly requires a request for services to be made before the question of charging arises—an important point. The police cannot unilaterally impose a charge. In some cases the request may be made by a person other than the organiser or promoter of an event. For example, the owner of land on which an event is to be held may ask for special police services to be provided, and he may then pass on any policing costs to the organisers of the event.

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Section 25 does not describe what constitutes special police services. From time to time, there have been disputes about whether particular services fall within the bounds of section 25 or of previous provisions. Judgments in court cases arising from such disputes provide the main guidance to the interpretation of section 25. A judgment was recently given in the Court of Appeal; the hon. Member for Totnes referred to that case, and I shall say more about it later. First, however, it may be useful to say more about the definition of special services.

The broad definition set out in case law is that special police services are those provided over and above the general obligation of the police to maintain law and order and to keep the peace. Examples of special police services include the provision of policing at football stadiums, at concert venues and at motor racing grand prix. In those examples, much or all of the policing service is provided on private property, and the courts have identified that as an important factor in deciding whether special police services are being provided.

Other events may involve the provision of some special police services. For instance, special police services may be requested for large-scale private parties or to provide an additional police presence at funfairs. No central record is maintained of the events for which charges are made under section 25. However, figures published by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy indicate that police forces in England and Wales received income of about £23 million from providing special police services in 2004-05. The hon. Member for Totnes may be interested to know that that is the latest year for which figures are available. That sum represents about one quarter of 1 per cent. of the net budgets of forces in England and Wales.

It is clearly sensible for the organisers of events at which special police services may be required to discuss the likely policing requirements with the police, in advance. It is evidently in the interests of all parties to reach a clear agreement about what services are to be provided under section 25 and what the cost will be.

Mr. Steen: Would the Minister think it wholly unconscionable for the police to say to the organisers of a charitable event that if they did not have special policing, the police would not support their application to the local authority for an entertainment licence?

Mr. Coaker: As I said, those are matters for local negotiation. Clearly, if negotiations take place, the local police will have to make a judgment about what they think is appropriate, and they will have to take account of what is appropriate for general safety and for law and order in the area. I say again that it is for the local police to work with the local organisers of such events, and for them to come to an agreement prior to the event. Such agreements are made and adhered to in the vast majority of cases. As I said, we need to see good practice; we need to encourage people to come to agreements locally.

Mr. Cox: Why does the Minister think it is that, after all these years, the police are suddenly starting to use these powers to impose charges on small charitable events? Why now?

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