HC Deb 19 October 1999 vol 336 cc352-60

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

10 pm

Mrs. Gillian Shephard (South-West Norfolk)

I am extremely grateful to have been given the first available opportunity after the recess to raise the important issue of rural crime. I am glad to see the Minister of State, Home Office, the right hon. Member for Brent, South (Mr. Boateng) in his place, but disappointed not to see the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke) who had the courtesy to send me a charming note explaining that his absence from this debate, in which he has taken a great deal of interest, is due to his attendance at, as he put it, an organised crime summit in Moscow.

In August, the community of Emneth in my constituency and the whole of the fenland area were profoundly shaken by an incident that occurred just yards outside my boundary in the constituency of the hon. Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner). The incident and the circumstances surrounding it are sub judice. The current factual position is that a farmer is on bail, accused of murder and causing grievous bodily harm.

That incident came hot on the heels of a double murder charge—also sub judice—in the adjoining village of Upwell a few months earlier. There had also been a string of armed break-ins—as yet unsolved—in our local rural post offices. I do not intend to rehearse information that is sub judice. In any case, my concerns go wider.

The Emneth incident in particular has resulted in an expression of public concern locally, nationally and internationally. There have been demonstrations, heated meetings, letters, and press and media comment the like of which I have not experienced in my political career. It would be no exaggeration to say that the incident has touched a nerve in rural communities everywhere. People from all over the country and from as far afield as Canada and Australia have written to say that they, in their isolated homesteads, businesses or farms where there is sparse police presence, are living in fear. Those are strong words, but they are the words that people have used.

A constituent who has supplied me her address but who does not wish it to be made public wrote that the fact that there is a slender police presence makes people who live in outlying districts take more draconian measures to protect themselves and their property. That is the key issue facing the Minister, the Government and, ultimately, us all. We cannot afford to allow a situation to develop in which people lose confidence in the power of the police to protect them and their property and in the forces of law and order to administer justice. The Government will wish to avoid that situation, as do we all.

The Minister will be aware of the depth of public concern. The well-respected newspaper the Eastern Daily Press, which covers all of Norfolk, has used the incident to launch a public campaign for more resources for rural policing. The Fenland Citizen, based in Wisbech, has collected more than 1,200 coupons filled in by its readers and asking for more resources. I have passed those on to the hon. Member for Norwich, South. The right hon. Member for Brent, South will be interested to know that a further 130 coupons are in the safe keeping of his officials after I passed them on this evening along with two petitions from people in the fenland area.

The Minister will also know from written answers provided by his Department that, whereas in March 1997, Norfolk police strength was 1,432, it had fallen to 1,409 by September 1998 and to 1,381 by March 1999. As the Minister will also be aware, Norfolk has the lowest number of constables per 100,000 of population of any authority in England. As the chairman of the Norfolk police authority, Brian Landale, said, as reported in the Eastern Daily Press on 11 September: The outcry following the recent events at Emneth is echoed in other rural areas of the country. Emneth was a time bomb waiting to happen.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

Does the right hon. Lady accept that the accuracy of reporting when the press gets involved in such events is illustrated by the fact that the incident to which she is referring happened in Marshland St. James, which is in my constituency? That shows that the press do not get the facts right. The truth is that Norfolk policing is where it is because of the decisions that she and her right hon. Friends made in the past 20 years.

Mrs. Shephard

The hon. Gentleman's last point is not quite accurate. The incident happened at Emneth Hungate, as I think he must be clear. He should also remember that police numbers in Norfolk have fallen by 50-odd since May 1997.

No one would want to argue that crime patterns have suddenly changed in the past two and a half years—I certainly would not wish to do so. Criminals have been becoming more mobile and more technologically sophisticated for a number of years. As the Minister will know, they have well-developed communication systems. People's life styles and working habits in rural areas have changed. Homes are left empty during the working day. Changes in agriculture have meant that the countryside is not as populated as it once was. Paradoxically, the introduction and great success of CCTV systems in cities and market towns, which was pioneered by the previous Government and has been continued by the present Government, have tended to drive the criminal to look further afield for his ill-gotten gains. Obviously, that does not mean that I do not support CCTV. May I make a short plea for the CCTV bid for a rural area based in west Norfolk? I hope that the Minister will look upon it with kindness when it reaches his desk.

The effect of all of that has been to make rural communities feel more exposed to and threatened by crime and to expose the difference in funding allocations between rural and urban areas, of which the Minister will be aware.

Home Office Ministers are to receive a deputation from 12 rural police authorities asking that they accept the findings of independent consultants engaged by their Department to the effect that it costs more to police far-flung rural areas. The chairman of the Norfolk police authority's audit committee, Jim Wilson, was reported in the local press on 11 September as saying: We must not allow this report to be shelved by Ministers. The research gives clear evidence that there are significant extra costs in rural areas which are currently not being recognised. Taxpayers in rural areas are paying relatively more through taxes and council tax than residents in urban areas, but for a lesser service.

The chief constable of Norfolk has calculated that to bring his force to the level of effectiveness that he would wish it to achieve, he needs an additional 400 officers. He has also calculated, perhaps more realistically, that, if the Minister accepted sparsity as a factor to be used in the allocation of police funding, it would mean an additional 132 officers for the county.

The Minister will certainly say that effective policing is not merely a matter of police numbers, and I would agree. However, again as reported in the local press, the chief constable of Norfolk puts his dilemma as follows: The real difficulty for me is handling the fear of crime issues and confidence in local police. No matter how hard I try to describe how we allocate scarce resources, people are going to be sceptical because all they see are scarce numbers of police officers on the ground. That is how the chief constable put it.

The issue is partly one of public perception, therefore. The facts may inform us that a well-equipped and technologically advanced police force—mobile and fast moving—is the way to beat crime, and yet the perception of the public is that visible police officers, making their presence felt in the communities, are the only way to prevent and deter crime and to restore confidence in the protection that the police can afford to the citizen. When we consider that, in the western Norfolk police area, which covers an area of 560 square miles, 34 police officers are on duty at any one time when the force is up to strength, which it is not, it is clear that public expectations are not being met.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

In my constituency, in the town of Reepham where I live, I have been burgled twice in two and a half years. My right hon. Friend is no doubt aware that there is no full-time police presence in Reepham—a market town of 4,000 people. She is right that we must overcome the perception that any reaction will come from tens of miles away.

Mrs. Shephard

I agree with my hon. Friend, and so do many of the constituents who wrote to me following this summer's events. Their letters make disturbing reading. It is clear from those communications that people need to be able to feel that the police are not only equipped but willing to protect them and their property; that they can report crime without fear of reprisal or intimidation; and that, if they report crime, action will be taken. If they do not feel protected, they may feel justified in taking the law into their own hands, which is not what we want.

What should be done? First, as an open letter from a police officer to the Lynn News and Advertiser stated: The place for an operational police officer is out on the streets, policing the community which pays our wages. Obviously, as I have said, modern policing cannot be only about visible uniformed officers, but police numbers and visibility are key if public confidence is to return.

Secondly, policing methods must be seen and judged to be effective and responsive. People need to know that if they report crimes, action will result. At present, too many do not. A constituent, who supplied his full address, wrote to the Home Secretary on 5 September: Much of the crime is not now reported, as the police may not even bother to attend let alone report the outcome, and they are never there to witness it for themselves. It is generally believed that crime figures presented to Chief Constables are those they would prefer, rather than the facts.

Thirdly, people cannot be allowed to live in fear of reprisals and intimidation if they report crimes against themselves or their property. The House will have noted the sad fact that although constituents and other concerned citizens have written to me, and I have quoted from their letters and will pass them to the Official Report, they do not wish their names and addresses to be given publicly. The whole incident has revealed that too many people feel like another man who wished to remain anonymous, who wrote: I was unable to attend the public meeting for fear of reprisals … There were a lot of people who would like to have attended, but were too afraid, because we all fear that the police cannot protect us.

Another woman wishing to remain anonymous wrote: Many more people would have attended the public meeting … to discuss the incident, but for fear of reprisals. Our home has been targeted often, this year we have had three robberies. It takes so long to get through to a police station that now we don't bother to report it. My two children have never dared to go into the village alone although they went to the village school. Now they have cars and fear that they will be vandalised if left and recognised. We the normal working law abiding people of this village feel victimised.

Farmers feel particularly exposed. In a survey undertaken by the BBC1 programme "Countryfile", 55 per cent. of farmers questioned had suffered burglary. Mr. Hipperson of Shouldham writes: I do not believe in taking the law into one's own hands: the police and courts should administer the law, but both organisations are failing the countryside. Rural police are far too thin on the ground. Local police stations are too often shut. As the police are overextended, little or no action is often taken on good information from the public. Difficulties exist near county borders.

Many of the concerns that I have described are operational and a matter for the chief constable, and he is aware of them. The Norfolk police try their utmost to provide an effective service and should be congratulated on their efforts. It is disturbing, none the less, to hear a deputy chief constable say on the local radio that policing in the western division is near crisis point.

I look forward to the Minister's reply. His first step will be, I hope, a recognition that as his own independent consultants have pointed out, it costs more to police rural areas. His colleague the hon. Member for Norwich, South has already said that Norfolk has a strong case.

I had intended to welcome the Home Secretary's recent announcement of 5,000 more police officers for the country as a whole over the next three years. According to The Sunday Telegraph of 17 October, that announcement, made at the Labour party conference earlier this month, seems to have hit the buffers of the Treasury. I wonder whether the Minister can clarify the status of the Home Secretary's announcement. Was it conference hype? Did the Home Secretary mean it? He could not have been misleading the country. Did he or did he not have the permission of the Treasury and Cabinet to announce the extra posts?

I feel confident that the Minister will be able to clarify the position tonight and to confirm that when the Home Secretary says that there will be 5,000 more police posts, that is what he means and that is what we will see. In that case, the Minister will be able to tell the House tonight how the Home Secretary proposes to allocate those extra police resources and what account will be taken of rural sparsity in that allocation.

I hope that the Minister will reassure the House and rural people everywhere that he and his Government take their concerns seriously. It will not do for the right hon. Gentleman to exchange statistics, chop logic or blame the whole issue on the previous Government. Of course changing crime patterns and sociological change develop over years rather than months, but it is the task of the Government of the day to respond to such change, and indeed to the profound anxieties that I have described this evening.

I hope that the Minister will give a constructive response. If he does, it will be welcomed by rural communities in the light of the concern that they feel and which I have attempted to describe.

10.17 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Paul Boateng)

I should like to thank the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard) for raising the issue of crime in rural areas. As she will know, it is an issue dear to my heart and one in which the Minister of State, Home Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), has taken a particular interest. He has asked me to convey to her and the House his apologies for not being with us this evening. He is currently in Moscow at the G8 summit on organised crime. Hon. Members on both sides of the House, but particularly East Anglia Members, as he is and the right hon. Lady is, will be aware that, with the coast of East Anglia being as it is, the threat of organised crime, not least organised crime that has its origins in the east, is one about which we have to be ever vigilant.

Let us deal tonight with the issue of rural crime, on which this House has on occasion had cause to reflect. There are hon. Members in the Chamber who have raised the issue both in Adjournment debates and in debates on crime. We believe—as a Government we have taken measures to ensure this—that the whole community, police and public alike, needs to address crime within the context of an effective partnership. That can mobilise the resources of the community at every level in order to prevent and reduce crime and the impact of offending. Nowhere is that more true than in rural communities, where the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which this Government introduced, has been particularly welcomed as a focus for effective partnerships on the ground to reduce the impact of crime and, significantly, of the fear of crime.

I am aware from my experience as a former Minister with responsibility for the police of how successful the Crime and Disorder Act has been in East Anglia. A few weeks ago, I attended a meeting in Ipswich where I saw at first hand, on the ground, how the Crime and Disorder Act and the effective community partnerships that have developed in East Anglia—as they have elsewhere—are beginning to bear down on the problem.

However, we need to set the issue of rural crime in a clear context. The situation in Norfolk is worth examination. The latest Audit Commission figures show that there were 67 crimes per thousand people in Norfolk—significantly below the national average of 78 crimes for every thousand people. The number of burglaries per thousand dwellings in Norfolk was almost half the national average: 10.9 against 20.5. As the police authority stated in its annual policing plan for 1999–2000: Norfolk remains a relatively safe place to live in. That is a tribute to the police and to the wider public in Norfolk. It is a sound basis on which we are able to proceed in partnership.

However, that does not mean that we do not have concerns about the fear and apprehension of crime. The right hon. Lady has realised—with the acumen that I would expect of her—that reducing crime levels is not simply a matter that can be linked to police numbers. On the contrary, if we consider crime in Norfolk, it has fallen steadily year on year, as police numbers have fallen year on year. Therefore, we must have an approach that recognises the complexity of the issue that we face and builds a response that is informed by reality.

Members on both sides of the House have a particular duty not to fuel the fear of crime by suggesting that there is a simple equation between police numbers and crime. That is something that the right hon. Lady will be concerned to ensure that she avoids in raising the matter in the way that she has done. I am happy to make it absolutely crystal clear, however, that the Government are indeed addressing the issue of police numbers. We are addressing it within a context—the right hon. Lady must remember this—in which it was the Government of whom she was a member who removed the power of the Home Secretary to set police numbers. It was her Government who, between 1993 and 1998, under budgets in which the right hon. Lady directly had a hand, saw the overall number of police officers fall in England and Wales by almost 1,500, at the same time as they told the country that they would increase overall numbers by 6,000. Those are the facts.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Boateng


Those are the facts that the right hon. Lady must bear in mind. Having said that, let us respond to the challenge that she threw down. First, we heard a reasoned approach. Only at the end did she descend into party political acrimony and knockabout. If she expects right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches simply to accept that, she has another think coming. [Interruption.]

I am only too happy to return to the pledge made at Bournemouth by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary earlier this year, and to make it crystal clear that when my right hon. Friend announced a new crime-fighting fund for the police to recruit 5,000 new police officers over the next three years, he meant just that—£35 million, all new money, to be spent in the first year to kick-start the programme. The programme is to be delivered by a challenge fund—the crime-fighting fund which is ring-fenced money. The right hon. Lady knows the meaning of ring-fenced money, because it was something that the Conservative Government, when they had stewardship of police in this country, were never prepared to introduce in respect of support for the police. The money will be ring-fenced money, which all forces—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. I must ask hon. Members to keep good order—they cannot keep interrupting the Minister.

Mr. Boateng

All forces can bid for a share of the money. Chief constables will not be able to spend the money on other priorities, nor can they use the funds to divert existing money already earmarked for police recruitment to other priorities. That means that there will be 5,000 more police recruits than there would otherwise have been—about that there is no doubt. The money is new money, starting with £35 million next year, to provide 5,000 extra police recruits over three years. I cannot spell it out more simply than that.

It is precisely that approach to the issue that has been warmly welcomed by the police. I am sure that the right hon. Lady will be gracious enough to accept that her local chief constable, Ken Williams, has made it clear, in respect of the very dilemma she has outlined: The good thing is that the Government is listening to our dilemma. Not only are we listening, we are delivering. We are delivering new powers to the police and the courts—

Mr. Keith Simpson

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Boateng


We have delivered new powers through anti-social behaviour orders, which will be of enormous value to rural communities throughout the country. In the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill, we have given new powers for the protection of witnesses and the victims of crime. That legislation directly addresses the concerns the right hon. Lady has rightly raised about the way in which people are sometimes fearful to come forward and make their complaints. Through the Crime and Disorder Act, we ensure that it is possible to build partnerships between local authorities, the police and the community that will enable communities to fight crime effectively.

Mr. Simpson

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many extra police officers Norfolk will get?

Mr. Boateng

I have made it absolutely crystal clear that it will be for the chief constable and his police authority to make the bid—it is an operational matter. Norfolk has as much chance as any other area to make a bid and to have that bid receive proper consideration. In the meantime, we are ensuring that the police have the necessary powers and resources. More money is being spent on policing in Norfolk this year than was spent last year—above the national average. Above all, the Government are willing to listen.

Dr. George Turner

I understand the problems my right hon. Friend faces. The voice from the past that neglected policing in Norfolk is now at the forefront of making the case for police resources and, in some ways, stirring trouble. Does he accept that, for those living in isolated areas, even if the crime rates are relatively low, the very isolation makes the problems worse? In addition, there is a real need to ensure that Norfolk constabulary is properly funded in terms of equipment. I have been on operations where it is clear that that is needed.

Mr. Boateng

I accept that it is important to make sure that Norfolk is properly funded in respect of its communications system. That is why my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary announced a £50 million investment toward the cost of a new national communications system for the police. That will benefit rural areas, including Norfolk. We offer practical assistance for rural areas, not cheap rhetoric.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.