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28 Jan 2009 : Column 77WH—continued

9.53 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr. Atkinson. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing the debate and on his kind words.

To follow what the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said, and in case any hon. Members think that all the young people in my constituency travel to Oxford to kick off on a Saturday night, I assure him that the young people of Wantage, Didcot, Wallingford and Farringdon are extremely well behaved. In fact, I was going to begin by saying that I am lucky enough to represent one of the safest areas in the country. Indeed, some police officers have described it to me as a boring area to police—long may it remain so. However, like any Member of Parliament, I occasionally criticise Thames Valley police. There are one or two issues, and there has been the occasional wrongful arrest. There is the legendary case of an 85-year-old pensioner who was arrested for chopping down a tree in his garden, which is now known as the willow tree case and has a 2 ft thick file. I am also trying to deal with a small amount of antisocial behaviour at Smith’s Wharf, Wantage.

I think that all hon. Members and most policemen would agree that there is a growing management culture in the police. In fact, at the Home Affairs Committee hearing, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury referred, that was mentioned by the chairman of the Police Federation. He said:

That is a general issue that affects police forces across the country.

The telephone service should be more local—all my constituents hate the 0845 number—and we should have more special constables. I join the hon. Member for Reading, West in paying tribute to our chief constable, Sara Thornton, and to our new local area commander in the Vale of White Horse, Andy Boyd. On first meeting, he certainly comes across as being a copper’s copper. Both of them have put more police on patrol at the right time on Friday and Saturday nights and they are going around visiting victims of crime.

Most of what I would describe in the vernacular as the slam-dunk arguments in favour of Thames Valley police’s case have been made by the two hon. Members who spoke before me. However, some other points may add weight to the case. First, all hon. Members in the Chamber represent areas that will experience huge housing growth once the credit crunch is over. Hundreds of thousands of houses are planned for our area and that will lead to a need for more police officers for Thames Valley. If all the housing that is planned goes ahead, Thames Valley police estimates that it will need at least 1,200 more officers and staff. That is something that must be included in the mix.

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The arguments about the different wages for Metropolitan police officers and Thames Valley officers have been made clearly. One could travel a few hundred yards and earn £4,500 more for doing the same job. The Select Committee made a clear recommendation to increase the south-east allowance from £2,000 to £3,000, and noted that the allowance has not increased since its introduction—even with the rate of inflation. That is why there is such a disparity. At present, Thames Valley police would need another 436 police officers, 349 special constables, and 22 police community support officers to reach the shire average, not just the national average. If it were to reach the shire average in terms of its budget, it would need to receive additional revenue of almost £4.5 million. Those are significant sums.

The core point that was so ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury is that the Thames valley is becoming a training area for the Metropolitan Police Service. We are very low down the list in terms of the number of experienced officers patrolling our streets, whether in Reading, Milton Keynes or Wantage. That is not an aspersion; it is simply an objective statement of fact, which means, for example, that there will tend to be officers with only two to three years’ experience on the core and most important shifts of the police week in Thames valley when, ideally, a police force wants at least one officer of four to seven years’ experience patrolling the streets. A clear protocol is needed between the Metropolitan Police Service and the neighbouring constabularies.

I understand that Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary got involved earlier this year or at the end of last year and reduced the demand of the Metropolitan Police Service, which has had an overt demand for something like 500 to 600 experienced trained police officers whom it wants to recruit from other police forces. I understand that the total has been reduced to 400.

There are two clear solutions, to which I hope the Minister will respond. One is to increase the south-east allowance to reduce the differentials between the Metropolitan Police Service and neighbouring constabularies. The second solution is to bring the MPS to the table and force it to sign up to a meaningful protocol that will ensure that Thames Valley police and other constabularies can keep experienced officers and maintain an important balanced ecology in their force.

9.59 am

Mr. Andrew Smith (Oxford, East) (Lab): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing the debate, and I welcome his having been out on the streets in Cowley. Whether that was responsible for the fall in crime locally, I do not know, but he is very welcome, and I know that he learned many useful lessons from the experience.

The debate is a welcome opportunity, on a cross-party basis, as we have seen, to raise the important issues of retention and the need for a fair deal for police in the Thames valley, especially in relation to the Metropolitan police. It is, as others have noted, a good opportunity to place on record our appreciation, and that of our constituents, of the job that the police are doing in our area. I go out on the doorstep a lot in my constituency, calling round with local councillors, and we pick up a fair few issues that need taking up with the police. I also
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regularly survey constituents on whether they feel that community policing is making their neighbourhood safer, and satisfaction with policing and police responsiveness when cases are raised have been going up for a while—they were doing so even before the hon. Gentleman went out with our officers. I think that is because there are more police officers and the police are more visible—with neighbourhood policing and community support officers.

At the end of the day, policing, like justice, has to be not only done but seen to be done, and progress is being made. That is not to say that crime is not still too high, because of course it is—even one crime is one too many—but people can see the progress that is being made. I certainly get fewer complaints about lack of police response than I did a few years ago. One conclusion I draw is that community policing, including the valuable contribution of community support officers, is a success. It is valued by the public and puts the police more closely in touch with them at a time when the nature of specialist operations and the fight against highly organised crime and terrorism inevitably distances some police functions from the citizens they serve.

On the question of retention and recruitment by the Met, I wholly agree with the points made by the hon. Members for Banbury and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) and my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter). As my hon. Friend said, several of us put those points to the Home Secretary last year in a meeting that he organised with her. I note from the police briefing for this debate that following those meetings and our representations, and the intervention of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, to which the hon. Member for Wantage referred, the Met has been forced to reduce its target for recruiting experienced officers from other forces from between 500 and 600 to 400. One must ask what the justification is for drawing as many as 400 experienced officers from neighbouring forces. What evidence does my hon. Friend the Minister have as to whether the commitment is being kept? Does he have statistics on what is happening month by month or quarter by quarter? Incidentally, I was very grateful to my hon. Friend for coming to my constituency to see the local neighbourhood policing strategy for himself. He went on to visit Banbury on that occasion too, so it is good to know that he is out and about, keeping in touch with what is happening on the ground.

We are all familiar with the factors that cause officers from the Thames Valley force, and others within striking distance of London, to go to the Met: the aggressive recruitment policy, the pay differential of £4,500 and free travel within a range of 70 miles. I am sure that we want to send a united message to the Minister and, through him, to the Home Secretary that the unfairness in the differential must be tackled without further delay.

I single out in particular the nonsense whereby the London allowance increases with inflation while the south-east allowance does not, meaning that the gap gets wider all the time. The Select Committee on Home Affairs recommended a substantial increase in the south-east allowance and a protocol with the Met to limit transfers, so it would be very helpful if the Minister could tell us when the Home Secretary will respond to that report, and even better if he could at least hint that the response will be positive. The police do a very good job of
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serving our area, and they must be helped to keep to a minimum the wasteful and wholly avoidable drift of officers to the Met, and to tackle the problem sooner rather than later.

10.5 am

John Howell (Henley) (Con): I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Banbury (Tony Baldry) and for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) for their respective roles in this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury comprehensively set out the background to the issue, so I shall spend a few moments on two problems: first, rural policing; and secondly, the impact of the funding formula grant.

The Thames valley policing area is varied, but we should not forget that large parts of it include rural constituencies, such as mine. From the point of view of officers, rural policing is not the sexiest part of the job. The fleshpots of Newbury, Wantage, Oxford and Reading are more attractive in terms of the variety of crime that the police handle, but rural policing is a vital and visible part of policing the whole area. It has often been seen, from a force perspective, as the poor relation of other policing—certainly when compared with policing in the Met. However, that, too, must be addressed, because one characteristic of rural policing is the need for a police officer’s local knowledge, owing to the distances involved and the isolation of villages and individual houses, and the need, therefore, to build strong working relationships with local individuals, many of whom have had to establish their own intelligence networks—to report crimes and potential crimes to each other—that go far beyond the neighbourhood watch scheme.

Thames Valley police has made progress on targeting rural crime, and I pay tribute to its work. It would be a great shame, however, if that were to be undermined as a result of the retention problem. Let me hint at the scale of rural crime. There are major issues with theft, often of highly valuable machinery, but there is also a problem with the theft of animals, particularly of working dogs, for which there is quite a black market. Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of all, however, is the increase in mindless destruction by people who are often armed. They drive into fields in vans or cars with bull bumpers, run down deer or sheep and, without any consideration whatever, leave them maimed, to die in agony. The activity is not restricted to, or at the heart of, my constituency, but the intelligence network on such activities is based there. It requires co-ordination throughout the Thames valley, however, because the gangs that carry out those activities come from many parts of the area.

The point has already been made that Thames Valley police has the highest percentage of new officers, and the implication for rural policing is that the knowledge base, and the relationships to which I referred, are weakest there. Thames Valley police has the eighth lowest proportion of police officers per 100,000 of the population, and that, coupled with the long distances in, and rural nature of, the area leads to isolation and a loss of teamwork there. That also has an influence on retention.

I join my hon. Friends in calling for a review of the south-east allowance and the London allowance, because there can be no justification for such a disparity, particularly given the additional costs that Thames Valley police has to put up with. That is only part of the solution,
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however, because pressures also come from the funding formula, which does not pick up on location or other costs. My hon. Friend mentioned the costs of training, and Thames Valley police authority is not a floor authority, so, despite the additional costs, its subsidy of floor authorities is predicted to be £3.8 million in 2010-11. It may escalate, but it has been in the range of £3 million to £4 million. I understand the nature of floor regimes, which try to provide some stability across the piece, but in reviewing the funding formula, which I believe the Minister is committed to, we need to consider whether removing £3.8 million annually from a police force such as Thames Valley police is sustainable. We must also consider whether it is wise for the floor authorities to be increasingly dependent on that redistributed formula grant, in terms of targeting the formula at where the problem is.

In reviewing the formula, I should like to put down a marker and say that there are three points that we would like to keep a close eye on. I will put it no stronger than that in case it is taken as a spending commitment. We would have serious considerations about three things: first, the idea, which has been advanced frequently, of rolling the rural policing grant into the general grant and allocating that according to the formula; secondly, rolling the London and south-east allowances into the general grant; and thirdly, the abolition of the area cost adjustment. If those three things are on the Minister’s agenda, he can expect particular scrutiny from the Opposition.

I concur with the remarks made by hon. Members from all parties. This is a major policing area and it is under a lot of stress, but it has a huge variety of situations to offer policemen and policewomen coming into the service in terms of the balance between rural, urban and suburban. This debate has highlighted the major problems that it faces.

10.11 am

Mr. Richard Benyon (Newbury) (Con): I, too, welcome the chance to debate this matter and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing it. I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) for his contribution.

I should like to comment on a point made by the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) and develop a theme that has been mentioned. Many of his constituents come to Newbury to drink in the evening because it is safer. This creates a policing issue, because in a relatively low crime area, suddenly there can be a requirement for more police officers. We should try to have an even mix.

I was concerned when the basic command unit area went from being just my local authority area to include Reading and Wokingham, because I naturally thought that there would be a migration of police officers from my area to a higher crime area, such as Reading. I keep a close tab on that. However, at times I detect that there is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell) says, great difficulty maintaining the police numbers required for when crimes do happen in rural areas with a low crime rate.

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We should all congratulate the new Metropolitan Police Commissioner on two things: first, on being successful in getting appointed to the important job of running the Metropolitan Police Service and, secondly, on achieving a degree of unanimity of view between the Home Secretary and the Mayor of London, which is an achievement in itself. I hope that we, as Thames Valley Members of Parliament, will take this opportunity to write to him, congratulating him on his appointment. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury talked about the morality of the issue—we can use words like morality or responsibility—and the Metropolitan police must be responsible in its approach to recruitment. The hon. Gentleman mentioned posters in Slough station, for example. That is not a responsible act and it should not be continued.

I hope that the Minister will encourage a revisit of the meeting that took place last June with Martin Tiplady, the director of resources for the Metropolitan Police Service, which achieved something—although it seems more like warm words than actual achievement. The Met agreed that it would monitor transfers and run recruitment campaigns in conjunction with south-east forces and would seek to stage transfers where the negative impact of transferees is proving critical to service delivery. That all sounds nice, but the Metropolitan Police Service still intends to recruit some 400—possibly more—experienced police officers whose training will have been paid for by the council tax payers of areas such as the Thames valley.

We should not run away from the fact that it is not just the Met that is sucking police officers away and that it is a situation that we cannot entirely control. I went on patrol in Newbury some years ago with a young police officer whose girlfriend was a police officer in Reading. They lived in a two-bedroomed flat in Reading. He was moving to Lancashire with her and they were going to sell their two-bedroomed flat in Reading and buy a four-bedroomed detached house in Lancashire. Their quality of life was going to be massively improved. The Thames Valley council tax payers had paid for his and her training, but the people of Lancashire were going to have the benefit of it.

It is undoubtedly true that the weighting and the travel allowance covering places 70 miles from the centre of London are causing the problem. Many hon. Members have Metropolitan police officers in their constituency. I seem to meet them every time I go canvassing, although I do not know whether that is just luck or whether an enormous number of them live in west Berkshire. The truth is that the Thames Valley police force has been nicknamed the Met’s training force for too long.

In conclusion, I hope that the Minister will accept the two key recommendations in the Home Affairs Committee report. First, the differential in pay should be reduced. That could be achieved in many ways without it sounding like a spending commitment. Secondly, there should be a clear protocol agreed between the two authorities that will ensure that this problem will cease to exist in years to come.

10.16 am

Mr. Rob Wilson (Reading, East) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) on securing this important debate. I am conscious that, coming last in the pecking order of speaking, I may
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repeat things that other colleagues have already said. But this is such an important debate that a little repetition will not hurt on this occasion.

I am keenly interested in the work of Thames Valley police and I support the great and good work that it does across my constituency. Since becoming an MP, like other hon. Members, I have spent several nights with my local force patrolling my constituency. I have patrolled around east Reading on my mountain bike and in a van around Reading town centre, which attracts a large number of people, particularly at weekends. I have seen first hand the problems that the police experience. Recently, in December, I was out with a vehicle safety check unit, pulling over and stopping cars that are unfit to be on the roads. So I have seen at first hand the important work that police officers do and I have been amazed by the professionalism that they show and by their dedication to their work.

We have a good team of police officers in Reading. I should like to single out one in particular, Steve Kirk, who has been doing an excellent job for my constituents across Reading, East. I also join hon. Members in paying tribute to Dave Murray, who retired last year from the Thames Valley force. He was an excellent, dedicated police officer and he did an enormous amount for Reading.

I should like briefly to cover three issues to do with Thames Valley police: detection, officer retention and red tape and bureaucracy. On detection rates, during the Safer Reading campaign last year the chief inspector announced that offences in Reading had been rising since the previous March and that his force needed to improve. The detection rate of only 10 per cent. of crimes, such as burglary, robbery and theft from vehicles, is disappointing to say the least. These are the crimes that our communities come into contact with the most—almost daily—so it seems that people have cause for concern. Being concerned, I asked several questions about the force’s detection rates and I am interested in the responses that I have received.

According to a parliamentary written answer from the Home Office, in 2007-08 the Thames Valley detection rate for theft was 16 per cent. and just 9 per cent. for burglary. Even with the much discussed changes in measurement made by the Home Office over recent years, a detection rate of below 10 per cent. is surely a cause for great concern. Similarly, the results to a question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) have exposed the below-par performance by Thames Valley when comparing its detection rates against other forces. Out of 43 forces in England and Wales, Thames Valley is ranked 36—only three forces have a worse detection rate. That is cause for concern and a very disappointing result for our local police force. It is clear that the force needs to take steps to improve its detection rates if it is to reassure people that it is improving its service to the community.

That leads me to my next point. Officer retention, as hon. Members have said, continues to be a problem in the Thames Valley area, despite the authority investing considerable resources in housing and related schemes. One can sympathise about the low detection rates when one realises how many excellent experienced officers the force is losing to the Met because of its wages and free travel.

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