My hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald), who opened the debate for the Opposition, quoted from a speech made by the chairman of the Police Federation as recently as 17 May. The chairman said that the police service is
facing a crisis of no confidence, a crisis of no cash and a crisis of no colleagues.
The police seem to have picked up the knack of putting things succinctly these days and, undoubtedly, that is the core of the matter. The chairman went on to say that there is
a sense of disorder and anarchy
in urban areas. He also said that people in many rural areas feel that they are
unable to rely on the police.
I am glad to be speaking in this debate as I wish to express the concerns of London's suburban areas. A crisis of confidence in policing affects them just as much it does inner-city and rural areas. I accept that control is changing, but no doubt the Government will still have considerable influence in such matters. Will the Minister reassure us that London's suburban areas will receive fair treatment in the handling of Metropolitan police resources? I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) is here, as he pointed out in a previous debate that our residents feel that they are paying more and more for the police precept, yet are getting fewer and fewer resources. I therefore seek from the Minister a clear assurance that suburban areas will get proper treatment and that the present limited and decreasing coverage will not be reduced to even more exiguous levels.
The situation in suburban areas is deteriorating. Reported crime figures for Bromley for the past six months show an increase of 6 per cent. in overall crime. I am glad to say that there has been a 17 per cent. reduction in burglary, but there has been a 48 per cent. increase in street crime. I listened to the Home Secretary open the debate, but I am afraid to say that ordinary people are not convinced by the statistical machinations in which he indulged. People do, in fact, make a link between the lack of stop and search and the increase in street crime. Indeed, ordinary people's perception of that is more accurate than the Home Secretary's statistical analysis.
There has been an increase of 15 per cent. in criminal damage. In Orpington, which is the southern sector of the borough of Bromley, there has been a 7 per cent. increase in overall crime. There has been a 2 per cent. reduction in burglary, but there has been a 42 per cent. increase in street crime and a 15 per cent. increase in criminal damage. More worryingly, the offence clear-up rate has gone down dramatically. In 1994–95, that rate was 23 per cent., which is incredibly low. However, this year, it is down to 14 per cent., which is a significant reduction. I should be interested to know what the Minister makes of that because, in many ways, that figure is more telling than police numbers and other considerations.
Areas of my constituency which, hitherto, have been relatively crime free are now experiencing quite serious levels of crime. In Petts Wood, for example, seven cars were burned out and the lives of two young boys put in danger in a recent night of arson. One of my local papers said:
Once upon a time you would have said Petts Wood and Orpington were relatively safe areas … But it seems you are not safe anywhere these days.
Crime is not the only problem. There is also the element that we generally label anti-social behaviour. One of my constituents wrote to me:
We are getting large numbers (40–50) teenagers who are congregating on the green creating a nuisance, many who are under age, drinking alcohol and smashing the bottles in the road, and boys urinating in public and on private property in the area.
When we request Police assistance, we get a car, if and when one becomes available, sometimes a considerable time later, which merely cruises around the area and drives off. This gives the teenagers the impression that it's OK so they carry on.
Another local resident has written to me to say:
we have had cars vandalised, house and shop windows broken, local library windows broken, flower containers upturned and stolen, bottle banks overturned, paper banks emptied—apart from cars racing round the roads driven by under-age, unlicensed, uninsured drivers.
Some people in my constituency and others in London live in a daily hell as a result of anti-social behaviour.
Yet another local resident writes:
In the year we have lived here, we have endured threats, things thrown at the our window, our back door kicked in, a fear for me to venture out with my children without my partner. My car windows were smashed and the car was then set on fire and the fire brigade had to be called. My mother came to see me and her car was stolen.
That is happening daily in suburban and inner London areas.
Another lady writes:
I called the police … The police had 15 calls on standby, and it would have taken them until midnight to get to me!
That is a common problem.
In a graphic e-mail I received yesterday, a resident said:
Without exaggeration, pretty much every other day I return to St. Mary Cray station from working in London, a column of black
smoke is visible across the other side of Cray Valley in the Star Lane area. This is obviously another car that has been torched. We need police in this area, we need cameras in this area, offenders need punishment that will act as a deterrent to prevent future offences.
The hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) referred to the situation on the buses. Drivers refused to work after 7 o'clock for several weeks because they were fed up with the behaviour of young people. Fortunately, the police were able to sort that out.
The problems in my area are made worse by the fact that we have a large group of travellers living on a site, and they have spread into adjoining streets—some to housing association houses and some to private houses. As can be well imagined, that does not help the problem of anti-social behaviour—it considerably worsens it. Local people feel that the police are not in control of the situation.
The Government are putting regeneration funds into the area but the money will be wasted if the fundamental problems of law and order are not tackled. People want and need, and believe that they are paying for, effective and visible policing to deal with the problem. The first requirement is proper numbers of policemen on the ground—on the streets of our suburban areas.
As my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Hertfordshire has said, police numbers in London are down by 1,200. In Bromley, the police are under strength. In Orpington, police stations have been closed to the public, and beat officers and the time they spend on the beat reduced to almost non-existent proportions. The police are rarely seen now, unlike several years ago.
The chairman of the Police Federation has said that there has been the largest fall in actual police numbers since the crisis days of the mid-1970s; and only yesterday Sir John Stevens said that numbers in London were at their lowest since the 1970s, and outlined the problems of retention and recruitment. It seems that every time we have a Labour Government, we have a crisis of this kind in the police. [Interruption.] That is absolutely true, I am afraid.