HC Deb 06 February 2001 vol 362 cc209-15WH

12.30 pm.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate. I am also grateful to the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), for being here to respond.

Two weeks ago in Risby, near where I live in Suffolk, there was a raid on the small post office, which is part of an antiques centre. The raiders wore balaclavas and carried coshes. They screamed and shouted at the sub-postmistress, saying that they were going to kill her. They smashed the glass to ensure that the robbery was speeded up. It was a deeply shocking and traumatising experience for all involved. Just last week, across the border in Cambridgeshire in the village of Bassingbourne, a similar robbery took place. Masked robbers with baseball bats went into the post office and held it up. I have here an article from the Cambridge Evening News that proves the extent of the anxiety in the local community. The article points out that the robbery rapidly followed similar raids in Grantchester and Great Abington. Late last year, again in my constituency, the post office at Kedington was held up, on that occasion at gun point. That occurred shortly after a raid on the small post office at Stoke-by-Clare.

Let me make clear to the Minister something of which he will already be aware as a Member who represents an East Anglian constituency: such events are deeply traumatising to small communities. They have a ripple effect that sends out fear and anxiety in the locality. When a small shop or village post office is held up, the community's sense of well-being is greatly disturbed. The truth is that in the past two years in my constituency, in addition to the places I have already mentioned, hold-ups have taken place in Lakenheath, Dalham, Worlington, Horringer, Barton Mills, West Row and Newmarket. Even that is not a complete list. I have had hundreds of letters from people who are sick to death of the huge rise in violent crime in our region.

I focused on the problem in a newsletter that I put out just before Christmas. I pointed out that it was a source of considerable anxiety to people in my constituency and asked whether the concern was justified. The truth is that, since the general election, there have been 40 fewer police officers in the Suffolk constabulary and crime has risen by 20 per cent. Since April 1998, when the measurement of violent crime changed, crimes of violence in Suffolk have risen by 59 per cent.—twice the rate of other English counties. Given that, in the 12 months preceding April 1998, crimes of violence increased by 21.2 per cent, the figure of 59 per cent. over the four-year period of which I am speaking is certainly an underestimate. That is a shocking statistic. Such violence profoundly undermines the fabric of rural life.

To be frank, the problem arises from chronically inadequate police numbers. The pressures on Suffolk constabulary and surrounding constabularies are greater than ever and the effect on police officers' morale is devastating. A letter to me from Mrs. Butcher of Brandon reveals the problem. She states: In my young days, there were always two policemen on foot every night patrolling the town, even though we had a population of 2,000. Those were the days. I refer to the results published in my "West Suffolk Westminster Report" after I invited people to put their views on crime and policing in my constituency. I asked 10 questions, of which the following are three with the responses. When asked, "Do you think that there are enough policemen and women on the streets?" only 1 per cent. replied yes and 98 per cent. no. The question "Do you feel that crime is on the increase in our local area?" elicited a yes from 84.1 per cent. and a no from 5.6 per cent. At the risk of straying into party politics, I also asked "Do you feel that the Government have met their pledge to be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime?" to which 2 per cent. replied yes and 97 per cent. no.

The impact on local communities is reflected in the way in which the local media deal with the issue. They respond to the anxieties of people who live in the local community and who are extremely worried about the lack of police coverage. No one could describe the local newspapers in East Anglia as being remotely sensational. For example, on 17 January, the front-page headline of the Thetford & Watton Times, the local paper in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for South-West Norfolk (Mrs. Shephard), stated: "Stand up to yobs on estate call". The article stated: A Thetford housing estate is being held to ransom by a group of marauding youths because residents are too scared to report incidents to the police. The article refers not to a sink estate in an inner-city area in which alienation and despair might be rife, but to Norfolk, in East Anglia. Only a few days ago, a headline in the Cambridge Evening News read "Time to halt violent tide". The Newmarket Weekly News headline on 1 February was "Stern warning for criminals", and the following article stated that although the detection rate in Newmarket had gone up, which is welcome, crimes of violence in the preceding nine months had increased from 110 to 150. Thus the pattern continues.

I shall read the Minister an extract from a letter that truly disturbed me, from four 12-year-old girls who live in Newmarket—Catherine Snell, Elizabeth Lennie, Charlotte Telford and Corrine Marston. They said: We are concerned because there is a lot of vandalism, young smokers, alcoholism and drug abuse. We are also concerned because sometimes it is worrying to walk through the town where there are a lot of gangs of teenagers hanging around because they don't have anything to do. That was reported in the Newmarket Journal and in the Soham and Newmarket Standard, which also carried two stories on—guess what—a baseball-bat thug in Mildenhall and an armed raider who was twice thwarted in the high street in Newmarket. Such things are deeply disturbing to the balance of communities, and the media are fully entitled to report them.

In Brandon—a police catchment area of about 20,000 people including those living in surrounding villages—there is sometimes only one police officer on duty. In Haverhill, with a catchment area of 33,000, there are sometimes only two police officers on duty, although I pay tribute to the success of Haverhill's police in reducing crime in the town. In Newmarket, too, the number of police officers has fallen in the past few years, in spite of Newmarket having become the nightclub capital of East Anglia. The pressures on the police are enormous. We have had staggeringly huge increases in crime, yet the number of police officers has fallen. The chief constable of Suffolk spelled out the problem when he talked of his his constabulary being stretched to the limit and of the absolute need for 100 additional police officers. His views are summed up in a comment made to me by Mr. C A Bailey of Mildenhall, another constituent of mine, who said: My wife and I recently retired and we no longer feel able to walk safely in our local area in the evenings. Where are the police these days? I hear that cry every weekend when I am down in my constituency. I was given another letter from a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley), a gentleman called David Barker, who is a distinguished former chairman of the National Farmers Union in Suffolk and who is very plugged in to his community. Mr. Barker writes: Although we have 1,100 in the Suffolk Police force many do not actually patrol. The Elmswell area has 35 villages and normally three police officers by day. At night there is virtually no cover because Elmswell and Eye, an area of 90 villages, has just one car on patrol. To travel from say Hoxne to West Suffolk to say Chadacre takes almost an hour. This is totally inadequate. We also have the problem of Life Science at Occold drawing away precious resources. This combined area, I am told, has 40 officers for one sixth of Suffolk. Mr. Barker makes a further point: Rural people are being ignored and under protected in favour of the urban areas. Standard New Labour policy. I think the police force needs a good objective assessment to target police in the areas of real need. There is widespread anxiety throughout my constituency, Suffolk and the rest of East Anglia. I would like to make two specific suggestions to the Minister, the first of which rests on the fact that much crime, particularly violent crime, has to do with youth crime. I have some pride in my involvement in setting up a drugs taskforce in Newmarket which has been replicated elsewhere, but I shall refer to a project that I saw while on a parliamentary visit to north America, one that dealt specifically with drugs and young people. I applaud many constabularies in different parts of the UK who have tried to connect to young people through specific projects—perhaps during the summer or school holidays—but the project I have in mind was a permanent one. It was in Ottawa in a truly run-down housing estate with every possible social problem—high crime, drug-taking, alienation, a very large immigrant community and many people who traditionally disliked each other. It was an almost impossible area for the police to deal with. What the police did was to identify something very simple about young people, which is that they have natural aggression. The police took over a building and turned into a sports centre run by police officers who had a good sporting track record and liked dealing with young people. Those officers started to build up a relationship with the young people and, crucially, acted as role models.

I allude to that idea having seen its success and because we need the Home Office to encourage and sponsor such projects, not only as the one-off schemes that exist now—although I repeat that I applaud them—but as projects to reach young people through sport and physical education.The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who must hold the world parliamentary record for taskforces and reviews, announced the other day—though I think it curious that it took nearly four years of Labour Government—that there would be a review of sport and physical education in schools. Physical education in this country is in rapid decline, and the level of fitness and sports participation among young people is not good. I hope that the Home Office will link up with the Department for Culture Media and Sport and have some input into the review. It is very important that we reach out to young people and that we make the police role models in their local communities. We have an opportunity to resolve a problem that exists in our schools; through the co-operation of the two Departments, the situation could be improved significantly. I applaud what is happening in Newmarket, where PC Greenwood is setting up a drop-in centre, which will be opening up to young people to encourage them to meet the police in a positive atmosphere. Not only are young people who participate in sport, less prone to criminal activity, they also perform better at school.

I would also like to make a very specific suggestion. The management of the Post Office have been down to my constituency, visiting the post offices that have been held-up and raided with the terrible consequences I already described. Running a small rural post office is expensive: it is difficult to build up the business, it is hard work, and the business is not very profitable. As a result, record numbers of rural post offices have been closing— there are 450 post offices for sale at this moment. I urge the Minister to talk to the Post Office about security in a proactive and positive way. I have repeatedly had meetings with the managers and they must be made to understand, that if there is inadequate security provision in rural post offices and if the police are not there to help when a problem arises, the ripple effect started by closure is exacerbated, encompassing all the problems that that brings for local communities. I urge the Minister to engage in high-level discussions with the Post Office on specific measures to address the issue.

It is a characteristic of the present Government that they like to target things—they have challenge funds and other sums that can be accessed for different purposes. I fully accept and acknowledge that there has been an increase in funding to the Suffolk constabulary, but the Minister should bear in mind—because it is a culture prevalent throughout Government Departments—that to secure those funds requires a very high level of bureaucratic activity on the part of the constabulary, and we know that the bureaucratic pressures on the police are already high. I hope that the ability of chief constables to organise policing in their areas is not being further impaired by the amount of bureaucratic activity that such funding requires.

At the heart of the issue is the absolute necessity to redress the reduction in police numbers that has happened in areas such as Suffolk. Indeed, we must add to those numbers. We must be tough on crime and on the causes of crime: in an area like East Anglia—where the causes of crime do not bear comparison with those in many other urban parts of England—there is no excuse. To be tough on crime requires transparency in sentencing and it requires that local criminal justice systems be supported so that magistrates understand about problem families in their local communities.

There is a crisis of violent criminality in East Anglia, in Suffolk in particular, and in my constituency. Enough is enough.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) on securing this debate, although I found some of his language a little extravagant. The debate provides a useful opportunity to air some of the concerns that have been raised about policing in East Anglia and it allows me accurately to set out the overall situation and put it into context.

East Anglia is relatively a very safe place to live. In all major categories of crime, offences per 1,000 of the population are well below the national average. In fact, the Audit Commission report on police performance for 1999–2000 published in January—the sort of good objective assessment to which the hon. Gentleman referred—shows that his local area of Suffolk, has the fourth lowest crime rate in England and one of the highest detection rates. I understand from the chief constable of Suffolk that house burglary in the force area is the lowest in the country in terms of number of offences and of repeat victims. The below-average trends for crime per 1,000 of the population are repeated in the other East Anglian counties of Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, to which I shall refer during the course of this debate. I shall leave north Essex out for the time being and stick to the three county areas that make up what might be called "real" East Anglia.

Overall crime in East Anglia increased by 6 per cent. between April 1996 and September 2000, and in the 12 months to September 2000, offences in Suffolk increased by 10.8 per cent., according to recently published figures. In Cambridgeshire, however, crime fell by 2.9 per cent. and in Norfolk by nearly 1 per cent. There was an overall decrease in crime over the population as a whole, but crime is still too high and all our policies and strategies are directed to bringing crime levels down.

In respect of funding, in recent years East Anglian forces have consistently set budgets that are above the national average: in the past two years, budgets have been increased by between 4.5 per cent. and 5.8 per cent., whereas the national average increase was 3.1 per cent. in 1999–2000 and 3.6 per cent in 2000–01. For 2001–02, forces in East Anglia will receive Government-supported funding increases of 5.6 per cent. across the range; Suffolk will receive 5.8 per cent., Norfolk 5.8 per cent. and Cambridgeshire 5.4 per cent. Those figures compare with the national average of 4.9 per cent., so each force and East Anglia as a whole will receive significantly more than the average overall increase. In addition, East Anglian forces will receive £4.626 million from the rural policing fund, which was specifically established by the Government to deal with some of the problems of crime in rural areas to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The settlement has been a good one for forces in East Anglia and I am sure that chief constables and their police authorities will use it to best effect.

It is common ground across the House that police numbers are important, but only as 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 the streets; that helps to reduce the fear of crime and increases the possibility of gathering intelligence in order to address crime issues as they arise. That is why we established the crimefighting fund. At the end of September 2000, East Anglia had 3,768 police officers; I am glad to say that that reflected an increase on 31 March 2000. For the first time since 1993, police numbers are beginning to increase. It is also important to note that the number of civilian staff increased in the same period by 54 to 1,786 as of 30 September 2000. The hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that many of the extra civilian support staff will have been used to free police officers from paperwork and other jobs that can be as effectively undertaken by civilians. Thus, police officers will have been freed to spend more time on operational work. In Suffolk constabulary, that meant that the operational presence of police officers increased from 66 per cent. in 1988–89 to 70 per cent.—well above the national average of 53 per cent. In my own force area, the figure was 43 per cent, which is below average, but in Suffolk there was above average operational capacity.

There is further good news in the hon. Gentleman's local force area. Although his force had 31 fewer police officers on 30 September 2000 than on 31 March 2000, the force has projected that there will be 1,152 officers by 31 March this year, which is six more than there were 12 months before. Police forces in East Anglia have genuinely reversed the trend under which wastage exceeded recruitment. Our published police manpower statistics for 1999–2000 show that 83 officers were recruited and 167 left forces in East Anglia in that year. However, in the first six months of 2000–01 alone, 121 new officers were recruited and 89 left, meaning that 32 more officers joined the three forces than left them. Overall, the numbers are improving and we are determined that they will continue to improve by means of the crimefighting fund that the Government have established. I pay tribute to the three chief constables of Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk for their committed efforts to improve the situation. They lead strong and committed forces in areas of relatively low crime nationally and they seek to make a major difference to the communities that they serve. The position on police numbers is a strong one. There were 78,000 responses to our national recruitment campaign and a large number of expressions of interest, many of which have been passed on to forces in East Anglia.

I mentioned rural policing issues, which I will not go through in detail, except to say that £4.6 million—15 per cent. of the total available—has gone to East Anglia: Suffolk got £1.4 million, Norfolk £2.08 million and Cambridgeshire £1.1 million. The forces are spending money to support a wide variety of imaginative initiatives, including the development of intelligence-led patrols, the use of mobile police stations, additional police officers and overtime in rural areas, improving rural police stations, accelerating civilianisation of some police work to increase police officers' operational presence as I have described, the installation of new communications technology and the development of community safety partnerships in rural areas. The situation has improved significantly and will continue to do so in future.

On performance, I pay tribute to the East Anglian forces, which are doing well at maintaining a high standard of service, as shown in the Audit Commission report to which I referred. Their primary detection rates exceed the national average of 12.22 per officer. The figure was 13.3 in Suffolk, 13.1 in Norfolk and 13.8 in Cambridgeshire, which is a tribute to the way in which those forces are managed. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would associate himself with that comment. Responses to calls requiring an immediate response exceeded local targets. The figure was more than 88 per cent. in Suffolk and more than 79 per cent in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. Overall, more than 89 per cent. of 999 calls were answered within the target; the figure was 89.9 per cent. in Cambridgeshire, 93 per cent. in Norfolk and an impressive 95 per cent. in Suffolk. Our partnership schemes have received large resources—£4.2 million in total—from the crime reduction programme, focused on targeted policing, reducing burglary and a range of other initiatives. Bids for neighbourhood wardens and closed circuit television are under consideration by the Government. There is a substantial range of achievements.

The hon. Gentleman made two particular points. On the first, I commend the work that he described on youth crime in Ottowa. I am sure that many police forces in this country, including Suffolk and my own, have had specific schemes and approaches based on involvement in sport. In Norfolk, we have a motorbike club for young people precisely to address those issues, especially as they involve aggressive young men. It is simply not true to say that we are not making sport a priority. He will be glad to know that my Department is in touch with the Youth Sport Trust, which is a highly effective organisation, to develop and roll out the sports initiative that he described under our crime reduction programme and to put resources into those areas. From my time as an Education Minister dealing with youth sport, I know that there is simply no correlation between the picture that the hon. Gentleman painted and reality. Sports education is increasing and will continue to do so. On his second point, I confirm that through our retail crime reduction group we are discussing with the Post Office what steps we can take to address such issues more effectively.

I am delighted to have had a chance to respond to the debate, although I rather regret the pre-election atmosphere. In a more relaxed and open environment, and in his heart of hearts, the hon. Member for West Suffolk might concede that real progress is being made in policing in Suffolk and elsewhere in East Anglia. The Government certainly intend to continue making the kinds of changes necessary for us to be able to do that.

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