HC Deb 08 July 1994 vol 246 cc639-46

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn—[Mr. Andrew Mitchell.]

2.33 pm
Sir Keith Speed (Ashford)

I make no apology for raising the problems of rural policing and rural crime. I do not disparage what has been happening in our towns and cities and I recognise the real problems of urban crime. Perhaps rural crime and rural policing have been less in the spotlight. I wish to focus briefly on some of the problems and opportunities.

I welcome the presence of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. He and I march together across the Sussex and Kent borders. I am sure that in his constituency he has many of the problems that are to be found in mine.

The problems of policing generally and rural crime will be overcome only by good intelligence being available to the various law enforcement agencies. We should be targeting and seeking the criminal and not the crime itself. There are now police teams in rural areas in Kent to which one person is attached who is responsible for a specific rural area. That person must know the area. That is fine because, without the intelligence, we do not stand a good chance of catching the criminal and obtaining a conviction.

The village bobby is a particular problem in rural areas. In the old days, every village had its policeman who lived in a police house. Today, for economic and social reasons, that is not possible. Quite naturally, policemen wish to buy their own houses. Therefore, police authorities have sold village police houses as there has been no demand for them.

With the best will in the world, one cannot expect a village policeman to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Therefore, police teams and mobile forces are increasingly covering rural areas to prevent crime and to catch criminals.

Experiments are being carried out with parish constables in different parts of the country, including in Tunbridge Wells in Kent. Parish constables are an answer to the village bobby problem. A parish constable must be a special constable. He or she must have the training and powers of a special constable so that that person can arrest people and enforce law and order. Parish constables are part of the community and can work extremely well with neighbourhood watch schemes, parish councils and others.

I have a suggestion which may or may not be controversial. I accept that we should not pay special constables a full salary. However, we need more special constables, even in Kent where there are vacancies. We need to encourage people. Perhaps we should pay special constables a modest bounty at the end of each year's service in the same way that we pay members of the Territorial Army and the Royal Naval Reserve. That would not be expensive. In fact, it would be cost efficient as it would tell people that we are prepared to reward them for the unsocial hours they work, for their dedication and for the voluntary duties that they perform, with a small tax repayment at the end of each year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider that suggestion.

Neighbourhood watches have been well established for many years. They are particularly useful in rural areas if they can work with the concept of parish constables, the local men and women who can look after a patch. Technology is also helping us. The Kent police authority has introduced a radio system which enables headquarters to contact a policeman wherever he may be. Even if he is right out in the wilds or the sticks, there can be two-way contact. That is vital.

Geography is a particular problem for rural areas. It is easy to get around in towns. If there is an incident in a town, people can get to that incident very quickly because they can use an A to Z guide. They will know precisely where they are going. It is not so easy in villages and rural areas. That is not just a problem for the police; it also affects the ambulance and fire services.

For example, to be told that there is a problem at Bramble cottage in High Halden means very little. One could spend 30 minutes or an hour travelling around High Halden trying to find Bramble cottage. That problem arises for several reasons. In many rural areas, local authorities—no doubt for good reasons—do not erect street signs. There is also the problem that, in many villages, streets have more than one name.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is familiar with High Halden, which is on the A28 in my constituency. There is a street in High Halden called Man of Kent road. It is also known as American road, America road and Crompton House lane. Those are names for the same street. If there is an incident in that area, it is the luck of the draw how it is described by the person affected by that incident. It would be extremely difficult for the police car, the ambulance or the fire brigade to find that incident.

In addition, many houses in rural areas do not have names or numbers or, if the names or numbers are shown, they are right by the front door and perhaps hidden from the main road. This is essentially a problem for local authorities. I do not know whether they could adapt postcodes. However, the Kent police have mentioned that problem to me. Perhaps the Department of the Environment and the Home Office could have a long hard look at it.

Another matter might be helpful in dealing with the problem of rural crime. We have had a number of horrendous events in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Minister will recall that, a few months ago, there were 12 cases of arson in Kent, mostly in my constituency, and even in Sussex. Barns were burnt down. In fact, there were 12 cases of arson in one night. I regret to say that, so far, the culprit has not been found.

Arising out of that and other matters, the leader of Ashford borough council and I decided to institute a series of meetings to take place perhaps every three to five months, involving the leader and deputy leader of Ashford borough council and two or three of its key officers, myself as the Member of Parliament, the local representative of the Kent Association of Parish Councils, representatives of the National Farmers Union, the local police superintendent and our chief inspector of police.

Those meetings are structured in so far as we have an agenda, but they are very informal—no great papers are presented. We discuss informally the latest crime statistics, the problem of vandalism on farms, and perhaps teaching young people how to respect the land, footpaths and so on connected with the countryside. We can address the problems of towns or of the countryside and bring to bear our expertise and knowledge.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will respond to my points. Crime generally and rural crime in particular are not just for the police. Whether it is the prevention of crime or the enforcement of the law, we are all involved— farmers, school teachers, ordinary citizens and the police. That is true all over the country, but in villages and small towns there is a real sense of community. I hope that everyone realises that it is no good passing on the other side of the road and that if we enhance the role of the parish constable, neighbourhood watch schemes and communities working together, perhaps in the informal way as in Ashford in Kent, we may bring about a rather more peaceful and pleasant countryside in which people can go about their business without the fear of being mugged, without vandalism and without car theft. It is an important problem and I hope that my hon. Friend will respond constructively.

2.42 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Sir K. Speed) on obtaining this Adjournment debate and on raising such important issues. As he said, our constituencies lie side by side along the Kent ditch. Were he or I to travel from Northiam to Newenden or vice versa, we would be able to meet each other on the border. The situations that my hon. Friend described apply just as much in Sussex as in the part of Kent which he represents, and indeed in much of rural England. My hon. Friend made a number of interesting suggestions. I shall talk in a moment about the parish constable initiative, and I am delighted to hear my hon. Friend's support of it.

My hon. Friend gave a wonderful description of how partnership should work—people getting together with the police, local community leaders, Members of Parliament, farmers and others, working together in partnership to ensure that we can tackle crime as vigorously as possible on every front. My hon. Friend was right to talk about the importance of local intelligence. I know what he means about that intelligence helping to pinpoint houses. I understand entirely what he means about the difficulties of trying to find Bramble cottage down America road, America lane, or whatever else it might be called by local people. It is a problem to which we shall all pay attention.

My hon. Friend also suggested a bounty for special constables. That idea has been raised before. A pilot scheme was tested by the Dorset constabulary last year and we are currently considering the outcome of that test. We shall, no doubt, have more to say about it in due course.

The Government recognise that there is much concern among people living in rural areas about policing and the effect that crime can have on their communities. All too often, the attention has been on inner cities, which is where the media tend to focus. Crime has spread into rural areas, where it bites just as much and with just as devastating an effect. I shall say more later about Government action and how the Government encourage the public to take action. At the outset, I want to place my remarks in a suitable context by talking about our commitment to the police.

The first statutory responsibility of the police is to prevent crime; that has been so ever since the formation of the police in 1829. The police have always needed the consent of the public and a partnership with the public to help them in the fight against crime. Since 1979, we have greatly increased the resources available to the police. After allowing for inflation, expenditure on policing has risen on average by 87 per cent. since 1979 to more than £6,000 million. There are 16,000 more uniformed police officers in post and a similar number of additional civilians working for the police. When we consider the number of jobs that have been civilianised, thus enabling more uniformed officers to get out from behind their desks to undertake operational duties, we realise that progress has been considerable.

Every police force has shared those increases, with an average county force tending to do better in terms of the percentage increase in expenditure than an average metropolitan force. For the current year, the total of police standard spending assessments has risen by 4.3 per cent. for the metropolitan forces, and by rather more than that—4.6 per cent.—for the county forces. On average, police establishments have risen by 8 per cent. since 1979, but some of the more rural forces have done significantly better. Kent has had an increase of 12 per cent. and Suffolk has had an increase of 13 per cent.

The vast majority of forces are a mixture of urban and rural, and it is for chief constables to decide on the allocation of resources within the areas for which they are responsible. But we are continuing to do everything possible to help them to maximise the number of officers available for operational policing. Current initiatives aimed at cutting bureaucracy, reorganising management structures and employing more civilians will help to get yet more police officers into the front line against crime. From next year, detailed central controls on force strength will be removed as a result of the measures now going through Parliament. Chief constables will be able to decide for themselves how many officers they need within the resources available to them.

I know that the Kent constabulary is well aware of the problems of rural crime that my hon. Friend described and is undertaking a number of initiatives to tackle them. The Thanet police are currently developing an intelligence-based proactive model that will be evaluated by the force and considered for use throughout Kent. It should bring advantages to my hon. Friend's constituency. The structure of area intelligence will take into account the unusual and sometimes unique nature of rural communities.

My hon. Friend mentioned the new radio system to be introduced by the Kent constabulary. It represents an investment of £7 million and will offer enhanced communications to police officers in rural areas. The police are aware of the importance of working with the community to tackle crime. To that end, police officers working in rural parts of Kent will work as members of teams under dedicated leaders. Those teams will identify with specific parts of the rural area to allow the development of a particular local knowledge. That ties in with the reforms and the Police and Magistrates' Courts Bill in terms of locally focused policing plans. The initiative in Kent will assist members of the community, in that they will be more directly aware of the officers responsible for tackling crime, but, ultimately, it must be the chief constable who decides how to deploy his resources.

There is a danger when talking about crime, and the way in which the police and the public can work together, of concentrating on urban burglary and the like. As I said a few moments ago, that is what the media seem to concentrate on. Frequently, rural crime happens and does not make the headlines. But I know, and so do the police, that a single criminal incident in a quiet rural area can have a simply devastating and disruptive effect on the way of life of the entire community.

We are all aware of the nuisance caused to rural communities by the activities of new age travellers and other trespassers, and we are taking measures to deal with them. But other types of crime, which are also more relevant to the countryside, present their own particular problems: the rustling of animals, arson attacks, as my hon. Friend described, and the theft of agricultural machinery, which can create heavy losses. The attacks on, and mutilation of, horses in the southern counties have given a disturbing and horrific twist to our notion of rural crime.

Another worrying development is the export from urban areas of some particularly nasty crimes that have rarely been experienced by rural communities such as the armed robbery of village post offices and rural petrol stations and the violent burglary of isolated homes. These seem to become increasingly common as criminals are squeezed out of some of their more difficult urban haunts arid go further afield. Of course, the professional villain can be in his car and half way across the country on the motorway network after hitting a pre-chosen target.

Again, rural communities are often better placed to report anything out of the ordinary more quickly than can many urban or suburban communities. The police rely on seemingly innocuous pieces of information that might be essential in linking known criminals to these climes. Dealing with crime in rural areas is already a high priority for the police and for the Government. There is considerable activity across many Departments.

My hon. Friend spoke enthusiastically about the parish constables initiative in the context of rural policing. He will know that our aim is to increase the number of special constables from 20,000 to 30,000. As I shall show in a moment, we hope that an increasing number of those special constables will become parish constables. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary's parish constable initiative, which began less than a year ago, has quickly established itself as a valuable extra dimension to rural policing. I am very pleased indeed with the enthusiasm with which both police and public have greeted the initiative. There are now more than 80 schemes in operation around the country. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend hopes personally to launch the 100th such scheme later this summer.

The success of the parish constable scheme clearly demonstrates the great interest that members of the public have in helping to police their own communities. That is what matters so much. They have that vested interest. The schemes are an excellent example of what can be achieved when police and public work together in that fashion.

In practice, most of the small towns and villages taking part in the initiative have preferred the parish special constable model to the alternative parish warden model. In this kind of scheme, the chief constable agrees with the parish council or councils that a serving special constable should spend all his or her duty hours working within their area.

The special constabulary in general is an excellent example of how ordinary men and women can volunteer to help the police. Ordinary men and women from other walks of life lend their help to the police. Special constables have full powers of arrest; they are trained and supervised by the regular police, but, none the less, they give their own time as volunteers.

Until the introduction of the parish constable initiative, specials were generally used on a range of duties. Now, whether they are existing specials or volunteers recruited specifically for the purpose, they can develop a sense of identity with their local area, patrol it regularly and get to know all the local people and all the local concerns. They provide a uniformed police presence in areas of the country which the full-time police sometimes find less easy to reach regularly.

The Home Office is keeping track of the schemes. Four are being studied in detail so that we can identify good practice and spread that knowledge more widely. But for parish constable schemes to work as well as they are doing, everyone involved has to recognise that it is a locally driven initiative.

In my hon. Friend's county of Kent, eight very successful schemes are already up and running, using a mixture of experienced specials with some years of service and new recruits supervised by local beat officers. The police in Kent have begun to recruit members of the public to work as parish special constables in the county.

Those recruits will have to be trained and supervised to start with, but the chief constable of Kent has extended that imaginative approach, by ensuring that they will be trained in the parishes where they will be working, once they have completed training.

As I have said, a formal progress report on selected schemes will be published later in the year, but informally we already know that there is high satisfaction with what has been achieved. The benefits of the scheme are obvious to many. They include support for the regular police, in terms of the intelligence information that is fed through to them by people who really know their area and can detect quickly signs of trouble brewing, strangers snooping around, and any build-up of tension.

The benefits include a reassurance for local residents who may recently have felt somewhat out of touch. So often, reducing the fear of crime is just as important as preventing crime—both matter. In some areas, volunteers under the parish constable scheme have been active in keeping local police stations open and manned for some hours during the day when that might otherwise not have been possible.

Parish special constables and the alternative—parish wardens—are positive, productive examples of the type of partnership between public and police on which policing, whether it is in rural areas or inner city estates, crucially depends to achieve all its aims. I am encouraged by the success of the initiative. I look forward to its increasing success throughout the country and hope that it will give us lessons that we could build on, even in the wider context.

On other Government initiatives, I have been exploring the issue of rural crime with my colleagues on the ministerial group on crime prevention, which promotes co-ordinated action by Government Departments in the prevention of crime. The National Board for Crime Prevention is also giving the matter attention. Recently, I spoke at a conference in Gloucestershire on rural crime, with Crime Concern and other participants.

In February this year, my hon Friend the Minister for the Environment and Countryside announced the rural challenge initiative. That is a competition run by the Government's agency, the Rural Development Commission, with which my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford will be familiar. It is designed to stimulate innovative approaches to social and economic development in less prosperous rural areas. One of the prize categories is action to combat rural crime.

We are also determined to take measures to deal with those who trespass en masse with complete disregard for law-abiding citizens. I do not need to remind the House of the disgraceful events at Castlemorton common in the summer of 1992, which were subsequently repeated, albeit on a lesser scale, in other parts of the country. The disruption suffered by local communities, the fear caused to local residents by such mass gatherings and unruly behaviour, and the filth left behind by the trespassers are intolerable.

The Criminal Justice and Public Order Bill, which is before Parliament, will strengthen existing police powers to deal with trespass on land and introduce new powers to tackle specific nuisances, such as unlicensed night-time rave parties on open land, which can cause untold misery to local residents, and trespassers who wilfully disrupt or intimidate others engaged in lawful activities on land.

The proposed new powers will allow the police to take pre-emptive action to nip disorder in the bud, rather than leave them to deal with a serious problem once it has arisen.

That comprehensive package of measures is necessary to protect the quality of life in rural areas and will be welcomed by law-abiding citizens throughout the country.

Rural areas present a special kind of challenge to the police. The types of crimes that I have mentioned are less easy to prevent and detect because of the relatively isolated nature of the areas where they are committed. The response of the police to those incidents cannot always be as speedy as they, or the public, would like. That is why there is a particular onus on rural communities to be the eyes and ears of the police and to work in partnership with them.

The rural community is more stable than most other communities, however, and that is a strength on which we should be able to develop our initiatives. Tightly knit communities can easily spot outsiders. Those who live in close communities can find it easier to work together to fight crime.

The police place considerable emphasis on dealing with crime in rural areas, both through prevention and detection. Cheshire constabulary, for example, appointed a dedicated wildlife and environment officer two and a half years ago. He has since developed a very effective county-wide strategy for dealing with rural crime.

A great deal can be achieved when the police work alongside the public and other agencies. The partnership approach is the cornerstone of the Government's crime prevention strategy, and it is being developed on a broad front. Neighbourhood watch schemes are well known, and there are 130,000 such schemes in England and Wales.

There has been a welcome proliferation of other watch schemes, many of which are relevant to rural areas—country watch, farm watch and horse watch. At the last count, there were 35 different watch schemes up and running throughout the country. They show that members of the public want to work with the police in the fight against crime and to help the police to develop a strengthened partnership at local level. That, in turn, will help the police to be more effective and responsive to the public's needs. I hope that my hon Friend agrees that, in that way, we will be able to deliver the kind of society in which we all want to live.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.