HC Deb 02 May 2000 vol 349 cc29-36WH

12 noon

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I wish to bring to hon. Members' attention some of the lessons on police resourcing that should be learned, in a calmer debate, from the events surrounding the Tony Martin case and the public response to it. Tony Martin is one of my constituents, albeit living right on the border of my constituency. I am fully aware that the case is under appeal and therefore sub judice and I have had to revise my speech as a result. I shall make no comment now about the events at Bleak house or the legal case that followed. More importantly, I have censored the views of my constituents on those events and on what should happen next.

The Tony Martin case has done much to highlight police resourcing, the problems of crime in rural areas and, even more importantly, the fear of crime, which has become endemic. My personal concern about resourcing in Norfolk is, like the problem itself, of long standing. As a member of the county council for 20 years, including a period on the police authority, I witnessed first hand the way in which the previous Government consistently underfunded the police and presided over a doubling of crime. It has been particularly galling for me over recent weeks to hear those who had direct responsibility for so many years making cheap party political points, largely distorting the real issues and encouraging a disproportionate lack of confidence in the Norfolk police constabulary.

The Norfolk police force covers more than 2,000 sq m and a residential population of about 708,000 people. It is the fourth highest staffed police area in England, currently employing some 1,400 officers. However, that amounts to 1.97 police per 1,000 residents—the lowest ratio in England.

Taking shift patterns and officers on leave into account, about 107 uniformed patrol officers are on duty—one officer for every 19 sq m of the county—and officers tell me that they are unable to spend all their time outside the police station. Occasionally, they have to spend half their time in the police station. It is a thin blue line. I can confidently assert from my long experience and interaction with the police that they should be applauded and supported for their work on behalf of the people of Norfolk. They should not be lampooned as we have seen too often of late. The lampooning has not been confined to the tabloid press.

Crime statistics can be a minefield. Norfolk has had to accommodate changes in the national rules for reporting and changes in beat patterns as a result of recent reorganisation. In preparing for the debate, I took the opportunity to examine not just the crime figures for the whole of Norfolk, but those for my region of west Norfolk and the detailed DO6 beat figures, which included Bleak house within their ambit during most years. The statistics are not very revealing. There were 49 burglaries in dwellings in 1996–97. The number dropped to 37 but rose again to 56. In 1994–95, there were 95 burglaries in that beat patch.

Available figures do not justify anything like the atmosphere of crisis that has been created in recent weeks. In my division, crime is higher in density and, more importantly, higher still in relation to the number of residents in rural communities. Norfolk is not at the top of the list for crimes per head of population. Claims of a recent dramatic rise in crime in rural areas are unjustified, although I can say with confidence that the figures remain a cause for considerable concern—which has escalated recently. As rural communities have become less close knit than when I went to Norfolk—the decline in agriculture ensured that that would happen—the fear of crime has risen steadily, outstripping the pace of crime itself. I know that this fear can be every bit as damaging as crime itself.

Before setting out my thoughts on what the Government ought to do, and in anticipation of the Minister's response, I want briefly to acknowledge the fact that in the past three years the Government have at least begun to listen to what is being said in rural Norfolk and to tackle the problems of constituencies such as mine. I arrived five or 10 minutes early for my first constituency meeting and could hardly get through the doors. I had known that crime was an issue immediately after being elected. Following that meeting, I invited the Home Secretary to my constituency. I was delighted that he came early in the life of this Parliament to address a meeting at which I had invited wide representation—including the 63 or 64 parishes in my constituency. Although parliamentary sketch writers found it a source of fun, the Home Secretary admitted that the fact that 600 people turned up on a wintry Friday night to listen to, and question, him, left him in no doubt that crime was an issue for the Labour party in its new heartlands as well as its old.

More recently, the Minister came to a crowded meeting in King's Lynn town hall, and heard for himself the strength of feeling. I acknowledge that, for the first time in many years, we have a Government who are in listening mode and who have made a start. I and other honourable Members from Norfolk constituencies welcomed especially the commissioning of a study on the impact of population sparsity on the cost of policing.

The study was completed in May 1999 and is the main issue that I press on the Government today. There is a genuine need, which I vocalise on behalf of every constituent in North-West Norfolk, for the speedy implementation of the clear recommendations that arose unambiguously from the study. The simulation model that was used demonstrated a significant sparsity effect and showed that it was caused not only by the most obvious feature—officers having to travel greater distances to crimes—but because greater availability was essential in rural areas for crews to meet reasonable expectations for response times.

For the benefit of hon. Members whose constituencies have no rural hinterland I should emphasise that people living in more isolated rural areas could not, and will not, expect the same response times as those that can be expected in built-up urban areas. The study assumed that a response of 10 minutes in urban wards for urgent cases should be matched by only a 20-minute response in rural areas. However, Norfolk police strove for a 15-minute response in rural areas, and it is not clear to me that we should abandon that higher objective. Even if we accept the lower standards that are most common nationally, the study revealed an underfunding of £2.4 million in the past financial year. There can be no doubt that additional funding on that scale would significantly improve the service to my constituents. In fairness, the Government must ensure that that study is acted on, and that the long-standing underfunding of police forces, such as Norfolk police force, is addressed by no later than the spending review, which is expected to be announced later this summer.

In recent years, Norfolk police authority has been encouraged by the inspectorate to remove its focus away from maintaining a minimum police establishment towards a business case approach of achieving agreed levels of performance. In normal parlance, the authority is saying that too much attention has been paid to a simple head count of officers—I agree. The problem is that Norfolk police have suffered for far too long from inadequate support. Last week, I travelled with one police officer on the beat, who was driving a two-door Vauxhall Astra with 118,000 miles on the clock. I was assured that the car was due to be replaced, but what use is such a car for chasing one of the all too familiar car thieves on Norfolk roads? What use is a two-door vehicle in trying to apprehend criminals and escort them to the police station?

The beat base of the patrol in Terrington St. John was opened in 1998, one of the significant achievements of the past three years. However, on my visit, I discovered that the base did not even have a computer with a modern link to headquarters, so that transmitting information was unnecessarily outmoded and time consuming. Poor IT equipment has been a hallmark of the Norfolk police for too many years. The constables with whom I talked said that other issues of resourcing also need to be addressed. I was told that, following the arrest of a criminal, the police offers involved would need to spend a further five hours at the police station. We must deal with the issue of paperwork and provide IT systems to take the load from those who work at the sharp end of policing.

I was also asked why only the cars of the traffic police are properly equipped with stingers, which are thrown in front of cars that refuse to stop. Stingers are used in west Norfolk because of the relatively large numbers of car thefts, but the only police cars likely to be equipped with stingers are those in pursuit. Some officers asked why they, too, could not be trained to use stingers, which they could use to head off criminals and stop them from in front. Those resourcing issues in relation to cars and what is carried in them must be addressed, in addition to issues of IT equipment and back-up services for police on the beat.

In addition, I want to stress to the Minister that we must carefully consider the implications of the additional cost for rural areas of the new national communications radio system. In such a vast rural area, which covers many square miles, the cost of implementation will be substantially higher than in urban areas because of the need for extra relays. I want to know that Norfolk police will be able to afford not only the core of the new system—the minimum requirement—but the add-ons to make the system appropriate for the rural beats on which it will be used. I was disappointed recently to hear the new chairman of the police authority say that it is uncertain whether it will be able to afford those additional costs.

In dealing with the outcome of the Tony Martin case, particularly the response of the tabloid newspapers, we must give some thought to the resourcing necessary to allow us to achieve our objectives. I hope to hear my hon. Friend the Minister make a clear statement, which I can take back to my constituents, that the Government will address the police numbers game. I also press my hon. Friend to assure my constituents that that will not be done at the expense of the police being properly equipped with sensible cars, appropriate radio equipment, proper information technology and reduced paperwork. Will he assure me that, having listened and studied, the Government will now act? I want to assure my constituents that Norfolk constabulary will do an even better job for the citizens of Norfolk.

12.16 pm
The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) on securing this important debate. Hon. Members will know that the policing of rural areas was raised on 3 February in the police grant debate and in other debates on policing, including an Adjournment debate by the right hon. Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), on 19 October 1999. I regret that the right hon. Lady cannot be here, although I am glad to see that that the hon. Members for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) and for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) are present.

I contrast the approach taken by my hon. Friend for North-West Norfolk with the appalling intervention made during the recess by the four Conservative Members who represent Norfolk. They issued a statement saying that, as a result of recent events, people had no confidence in Norfolk police. I take this opportunity to place on record my confidence and the confidence of the Government and of the people of Norfolk in Ken Williams, the chief constable of Norfolk and his officers. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend pay tribute to him. I believe that he speaks also for his constituents and the people of Norfolk.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Having welcomed my presence and that of my hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior), the Minister proceeded to attack us for our press statement. I wish to make it clear that we have no lack of confidence in the hard work that our police force is doing in Norfolk. We were reflecting on the fact that, during the past three years, the number of police has declined by 50 and, even with the promised additional manpower, we shall get only 16 back. That is what our constituents tell us. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond to that.

Mr. Clarke

I certainly acknowledge the problem of numbers, which has been discussed in the House at some length. I shall return to the matter later. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was not seeking to express a lack of confidence in Norfolk constabulary, although that is how that statement was reported. I am delighted that he has put the record straight.

I place on record my total confidence in Ken Williams, the chief constable of Norfolk, and his officers. I believe that the recent criticisms of the force, which included offensive telephone calls being made to police officers, were uncalled for. The force is a professional body that undertakes a difficult job, and it does it well and in a just and fair way. Norfolk constabulary has proudly held the charter mark for the past six years, which is a sign of the high standard of policing that they provide. Hon. Members should bear in mind the chief constable's guidance; his remarks are well considered and welcome.

I am very much aware of the concerns of those who live in rural areas. The Government recognise that rural communities can feel overlooked when it comes to setting plans for tackling and reducing crime. There is a perception that there is little or no crime in rural areas and that police and other interested agencies do not need to respond to events in the manner they need to in urban or inner-city areas. That perception is wrong. It is true that there is not the same volume of crime as is found elsewhere, but rural communities have different needs that must be taken into account. In the Norfolk policing plan 2000–01, the chief constable stated: National comparisons show that Norfolk enjoys lower crime rates and higher detection rates than two-thirds of the remaining 42 policing areas in England and Wales. It is pleasing to note that we have achieved this despite having lower levels of funding than any other force. Nevertheless, we all—whether we live in an urban or rural area—expect to be able to live our lives free from the worry of having our person threatened, our property damaged, our freedom of movement restrained, our public spaces wrecked and our peace of mind destroyed by criminal or anti-social activity.

In order to provide some context, it might be helpful to refer to the comments of the Countryside Agency, which published a report on this recently. Mr. Ewen Cameron, the chairman of the Countryside Agency, said in an interview at the time of the report's release that he was Playing down this whole business of crime as an issue. It doesn't seem to me to be a real issue for rural communities. There is fear of crime— that is the point my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk referred to a second ago— But there are many bigger issues. When asked what those were, he named them as Transport, housing and in some areas the rural economy. He continued: Rural crime is rising, but is small compared with urban crime, so one should not make too much of it despite the recent case in Norfolk. The Countryside Agency's report quoted figures from the 1996 British crime survey for offences in 1995, when 3.9 per cent. of rural households were burgled compared with 6.3 per cent. in urban areas and 10.3 per cent. in inner-city areas. From those statistics, the report argued that people living in rural areas are less concerned about being the victims of crime than those living in other parts of the country and feel safer on their streets. Public confidence in the police is higher in rural areas than elsewhere, as is satisfaction for the service provided by the police to victims reporting crimes. The report also pointed to conflicting evidence for the belief that crime is rising in rural areas and for a sense of heightened vulnerability, especially to property crime committed by people from outside the immediate area. I mentioned the report because it is important to set the current concerns—which are real and which the Government need to address—in a reasonable context.

I now turn to the point about funding, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk. The Government announced their overall spending plans for the three years from April 1999 following the comprehensive spending review in July 1998. Government-supported funding for Norfolk police for the year 2000–01—the current year—will be £86.5 million, an increase of 3.6 per cent. on the previous year. Under the budget set by Norfolk police, the increase in their estimates of net revenue spending is 5.3 per cent. The provisional increase in total police spending for England and Wales as a whole is 4 per cent.

Police numbers were raised by my hon. Friend and by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk. We acknowledge that police numbers are an important part of a comprehensive package of measures to ensure a modern and efficient police service. The public rightly feel reassured by the visible presence of police officers on our streets, and this perception helps to reduce the fear of crime. As the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk said in his intervention, there has been a decline of 49 in police numbers in Norfolk since March 1997, to a total of 1,382 in September 1999, but it is important to set that against an increase of 57 in the number of civilian staff during the same period.

It is important to acknowledge—as I am sure all hon. Members will—the statements made by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who announced the Government's intention of allocating another 5,000 officers through the crime fighting fund. Those will be over and above the existing number of officers that would otherwise have been recruited over the next three years from April 2000. As a result of the extra £285 million provided by the Chancellor in this year's Budget, the recruitment programme will be accelerated with the aim of delivering 5,000 officers over two years rather than three. We are currently discussing with the police services and the police authorities precisely how we can best achieve that. Under that scheme, Norfolk is to receive 66 extra posts during the next two years, which is 73 per cent. of its bid. It is for the chief constable to decide how to use those extra officers. As the professional head of the police service in Norfolk, it is right that he should do so. He is extremely aware of the rural policing issues that are being raised.

My hon. Friend made a specific point about sparsity, about which there are genuine concerns. Chief constables and police authorities want the recommendations of the research report on the cost of policing rural areas to be implemented. Chief constables and police authorities have also expressed to the Home Secretary and me their desire to see the report's conclusions implemented.

Earlier this year, I met a delegation of representatives of the rural authorities that are concerned with sparsity, including my own in Norfolk. My hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk will have seen my letter to the editor of the Eastern Daily Press, in which I emphasised my belief that Norfolk police authority is right to make the case for the cost of policing sparse areas to be taken into account in the police funding formula. The Government arranged independent research when they came to power, and, as my hon.

Friend said, they published the results last year. As I have said in the House and elsewhere, the case has great force and is being fully considered. The findings of the research report were considered by a Home Office-led group, including representatives of the police in their various forms. There was no single view on its conclusions, but there was general agreement that a sparsity factor had been detected in respect of the resources and police time needed to respond to calls for service and that it had arisen for the sorts of reasons described by my hon. Friend. Perhaps unsurprisingly, as redistribution of the resources would be at the expense of metropolitan forces, there was less agreement about how to include it appropriately in the police funding formula.

I cannot give hon. Members a timetable today for changes to the funding formula to accommodate the recommendations of the research report. We are considering the report and we will consider carefully the best way of responding to the needs of rural areas as part of our wider review of local authority funding arrangements and in the context of the comprehensive spending review. We want to get the funding distribution mechanism right and we want it to be seen as a fair and equitable way of funding the police service in England and Wales. We are committed to doing what we can to achieve that.

In the short time that remains, I should like to comment on the importance of focusing on partnership in fighting crime. It has been suggested that the police should bear sole responsibility for all matters related to fighting crime, but the Government do not believe that that is right. We believe that local authorities and even individuals also have responsibilities to develop the right partnerships. We advise people in various ways to increase home security, which is aided by installation of alarms, provision of alarms to pensioners, locks, security systems and a variety of neighbourhood and community watch schemes. We encourage citizens to involve themselves in such initiatives, which will enhance their security and which are an important part of individuals' obligations to the society of which they are a part.

We also seek to encourage crime reduction partnerships more generally. I noticed that the west Norfolk community safety strategy, which covers the area represented by my hon. Friend, identified specific aspects of that approach in the targets set in its document for the years 1999–2002. First, it referred to target hardening and property marking to deal with burglary in isolated areas and suggested a number of initiatives that could be undertaken to deal with such problems. Secondly, it suggested a series of specific initiatives to deal with rural isolation and the effect that crime and the fear of crime have on rural communities. Thirdly, it identified the need to deal with mobile criminals and suggested the target outcomes of controlled and structured information exchange about convicted and active criminals and seamless communications with neighbouring police forces, councils and other key agencies, which is an important consideration in my hon. Friend's constituency in respect of the relationship between Norfolk, Cambridgeshire and Lincolnshire.

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Clarke

I shall not give way as I have only a minute or two left. I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not doing so.

The strategy also pointed to the need to publicise detection of crime and convictions in respect of such criminals. Fourthly, it referred to farm crime and the widespread use of overt property marking of farm equipment. Such initiatives are an important part of the crime reduction partnership, and I pledge the Government to doing whatever we can to support them. We must address the partnership between individuals responsible for their own security and the police and local authorities with their respective responsibilities. That aspect has not had sufficient attention in the debate that has taken place in recent days. I want to use the opportunity today to highlight those points.

I conclude by congratulating my hon. Friend on securing the debate and by assuring all hon. Members that the Government are determined to address the issues by the sharpest and most direct means so that we can ensure that the problems of rural crime and rural safety are solved in the most effective way.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. We now come to the last debate in Westminster Hall today. It concerns the Government's decision to approve the closure of Ashford hospital's accident and emergency and intensive therapy unit.