Policing (Hampshire)

– in the House of Commons at 2:06 pm on 2nd November 2001.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons) 2:30 pm, 2nd November 2001

I am delighted to have secured this debate on policing in Hampshire. As is my custom in Adjournment debates, I have given the Minister a rough idea of the points that I intend to make. They are not partisan—indeed, the only party political references that I shall make are at the beginning.

The Government's heart is in the right place on low-level community crime. The 1997 new Labour manifesto said:

"We will tackle the unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour and crime on our streets. Our 'zero tolerance' approach will ensure that petty criminality among young offenders is seriously addressed."

In 1998, the then Minister of State, Home Office, Alun Michael, stated:

"'Zero tolerance' policing is one of the tactics available to the police to tackle criminal activity . . . We have given our full support to such strategies, whether they operate under the term 'zero tolerance' or not."—[Hansard, 4 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 716W.]

In 1999, the then Home Secretary, Mr. Straw, declared:

"We are insisting on . . . zero tolerance of anti-social behaviour."—[Hansard, 29 November 1999; Vol. 340, c. 21.]

In the 2001 Labour manifesto, however, there was no mention of zero tolerance. Perhaps the Government thought that the deed was done and that the problem had been solved. It was not, and it has not been.

I refer to two very different stories from the national press. On 26 September this year, the Daily Mail ran an uplifting story entitled "Supercop" and described the

"PC who slashed sink estate's crime rate by 80 per cent. in a year".

Police constable Tony Sweeney took over the beat on a rundown estate. Within a year, he had slashed crime on the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds by a staggering 80 per cent., thanks to walking the beat and an old-fashioned approach to law and order. He said:

"I contacted the local council and the other agencies because people who are prepared to break into cars and rob people are also generally the sort who are prepared to claim benefits when they are doing a bit of work on the side, or not pay their road tax.

It was a question of looking for every avenue that allowed us to apply pressure to these people—to show them we meant business and that their anti-social behaviour would not be tolerated."

He added:

"It was high visibility policing. The idea was to reassure the community, the law-abiding people, that we were taking action.

Around 30 people were arrested in the first week and nearly 100 vehicles found to have defects.

It led to a great many prosecutions and many people's benefits being stopped where they were found to be cheating."

So far, so good. The Government recognised Constable Sweeney's achievement. The article described how that week he was congratulated in person by the Prime Minister at a reception held at Downing street.

Let us contrast that story, however, with "Tormented to Death", a story in the Daily Mail today:

"Night after night, for seven years, the youths gathered on the playing fields behind Ronald Gale's house.

They drank, shouted and screamed, and threw things about. Several times vandals damaged his fence.

When the pensioner told them to go away and stop disturbing him and his wife, he was met by a volley of abuse . . . The final straw came when the fence was burned down for a second time. Three weeks later Mr. Gale hanged himself at home".

His wife said:

"Ninety-five per cent of the people living on the Nunsthorpe estate are honest and hard-working but it's just a small element who ruin it for everyone."

The local inspector from Humberside police, in whose jurisdiction this took place,

"denied that officers had failed to take anti-social behaviour seriously. He said: 'The problems on this estate are no worse than anywhere else in the country. We deal with problems of youth nuisance as they arise in a positive manner'".

There is the nub of the problem: those two very different approaches to policing. There are the people who go out, are proactive and take firm steps against youngsters who are causing disruption and distress, and there are the people who wait for things to happen and then react as best they can, instead of deterring the menace in the first place.

Let me move the debate into the context of my New Forest, East constituency, 80 per cent. of whose population live in the town of Totton or in the villages along the waterside. I have here a note written as an open letter to unknown parents by a waterside pensioner who lives in Hythe. She asks them:

"Do you know where your child is at night or what he or she is doing. I know and I am going to tell you. A large group of youngsters gather outside 'Fairview Parade Shops'. They use the telephone booths as shelters, yelling and shouting all night long. They take over the pavements, kerbs etc. intimidating local people. As the evening progresses so does the noise as they get more and more high on drink and possibly drugs . . . your wonderful child or children, apart from all the noise and broken bottles . . . take a great delight in using my front garden as a toilet, quite openly, and the steps to the flats above the shops are used for free for all sex shows, urinating onto my kitchen window, banging and spitting onto my front windows, just making my life hell . . . The 'Police' do come when called but they say there is not much they can do."

This is not a party political matter. The local Liberal Democrat district councillor for Hythe, Maureen McLean, has been quoted in the local press as saying:

"There's a rather volatile situation at Hythe, where children aged between six and eleven are intimidating a lot of elderly neighbours".

I have a file full of similar individual complaints, but lest what I say be dismissed as anecdotal, I shall refer to one or two of the letters that I have had from more organised sources. The Marchwood parish council deputy clerk, Mrs. Jane Kitcher, wrote to me as follows:

"The members of Marchwood Parish Council are very concerned and frustrated regarding the constant vandal damage in Marchwood. Large groups of youths gather late at night at Lloyd Recreation Ground causing a long list of damage to the play area, football pitch, all-weather courts and sports pavilion and being generally abusive to the neighbours. Many phone calls have been made to the police but mostly no-one arrives. Neighbours fear that drug dealing takes place in the car park as a large number of youths gather around a vehicle many times a week."

So it is hardly difficult to spot those people or take action, if one is so minded. The letter continues:

"The Council has expressed its concern"— to the police at Hythe—

"but there are never enough officers to cover this area".

At the other end of the waterside is Fawley parish. In The Southern Daily Echo of 10 October, Eddie Holtham, an independent parish councillor, listed the events that take place in "A week in the parish of Fawley". Day by day he sets out the gangs, the troubles, and the ineffective response of police when summoned.

The Totton and Eling Community Association has written to me saying:

"At our executive meeting held last night the question of policing in Totton was discussed. We have only one community beat policeman (PC Derek Warwick) and he is excellent but with the best will in the world he is not able to be in all places at all times. We hear from our members quite frequently that a visible police presence on the beat is required and would make them feel safer".

I shall pass over the other individual cases, but I assure the House that I have plenty more in that vein.

I do not accept that the police cannot do more. There is a tendency towards centralisation. There is a tendency to see loutish behaviour as a relatively low priority, and to be reactive rather than proactive. That means that the trouble occurs before the police are seen, instead of visible policing deterring the troublemakers in the first place. The police cannot be on beat patrol everywhere all the time, but that does not mean that they should not be on beat patrol somewhere some of the time.

A proactive strategy, involving selective strikes against known troublemakers and gangs, would pay dividends in terms of deterring crime and reassuring my long-suffering constituents.

I accept that there cannot be much incentive for undermanned police units to take action against low-level community crime if the end result of all the preparatory paperwork that they have to undertake is an ineffective court punishment, laid down by people who have little direct experience of the misery caused to ordinary folk. If that were not enough, the judicial framework has so been twisted in recent years that if a policeman or teacher is accused of using even the most limited physical chastisement on a misbehaving child the result is likely to be suspension, prosecution and professional ruin.

I know that the chief constable of Hampshire, Paul Kernaghan, is fighting hard to improve recruitment by stressing the inadequacy of the outer London allowance of £1,000 granted after the abolition of the rent allowance. House prices in Hampshire are high. My right hon. Friend the Member for North–West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) has endorsed that view, pointing out that policemen are drawn either to London with full housing allowances or to areas such as the south-west where housing costs are lower than in Hampshire.

I repeat that this is a cross-party issue. My near neighbour, Mr. Chidgey, does not dissent from my view that there is serious concern in the community about the adequacy of grass-roots policing. My hon. Friend Mr. Hoban tells me that only two policemen are responsible for 50,000 residents at night in the western half of the town. My hon. Friend Mr. Swayne adds that police numbers in the Forest area have declined from 80 to 60 during the past four years and that the task of those remaining is not made easier by what he describes as

"the Human Rights culture which constrains the ability of the Police to meet the legitimate expectations of the public".

My hon. Friend Mr. Turner reports that the chief constable

"is having great difficulty recruiting officers to the island"— and that—

"burgeoning paperwork wastes the time on duty of those whom he can recruit and retain".

My hon. Friend Mr. Viggers has had some success in addressing the problem in his constituency. Before I conclude and enable the House to have the benefit of his experience, I refer to one further matter of which I gave the Minister notice. It relates to the Netley Marsh steam and craft show, which is held annually and is one of the biggest voluntary events in my constituency. The show's chairman, Brian Shillabeer, and its secretary, Tony Greenham, raise more than £20,000 every year. The money is donated exclusively to local charities, sometimes including the police benevolent fund and the police sports and social fund.

In 1996 and 1997, it cost only £840 a year to police the event. In 1998, the figure jumped to £1,536. In 2000, a further increase to £1,920 put a stop to the additional donations made to the police funds. This year, a massive £3,574 is being extracted. The rally organisers have been told to expect that ratchet to continue to tighten until the horrendous total of £12,000 a year is eventually required. That would remove between a third and a half of the money that is raised for charity by that event.

I am unhappy that such events are, frankly, being over-policed, at a price that the organisers cannot afford, when constituents who are genuinely in fear for their safety are not getting the community policing service that they are entitled to expect. I hope that the Minister sympathises with what I have said, and that he can say something positive to reassure my long-suffering constituents.

Photo of Peter Viggers Peter Viggers Conservative, Gosport 2:44 pm, 2nd November 2001

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Dr. Lewis for allowing me to intervene for a few moments to share with him and the House my own experience of spending time with the police constabulary in Gosport. I have always found the officers there extremely efficient and courteous. It is one of the more enjoyable and interesting aspects of the role of a Member of Parliament to spend time with such splendid men and women.

I have found that when antisocial behaviour is drawn to the police's attention, they undertake a range of activities. Operating under the acronym SCARE, in the case of Hardway in my constituency they carried out a survey of 400 houses; put in a covert vehicle to film young people engaged in antisocial behaviour; and observed people glue sniffing. They took the issue up with the individuals concerned, their parents and teachers, and were able to win the support of parents and teachers in clamping down on that antisocial behaviour.

I also have in my constituency the Hampshire constabulary aircraft, which is now a twin islander. My constituents will be pleased to hear that it is rather quieter than its predecessor aircraft. It can be extremely valuable in carrying out heat-seeking surveillance.

I should like to pay tribute to the police. In Gosport, policemen Gary Boud and John Snow have set up six-a-side football teams. Two hundred teams take part and they operate a yellow and red card system. They deal with antisocial behaviour not on the football field but elsewhere, so that if a star player has one yellow card his mates will be anxious that he should not get another yellow card, which would mean getting a red card and being disqualified. The police also operate the so-called "Snap" discotheque for 11 to 16-year-olds. It is over-subscribed, with more than 400 people attending it.

I pay tribute to the police for all that they do, but there is a very thin blue line. My hon. Friend rightly drew attention to the fact that the housing allowance in the Hampshire area is only £1,000, whereas in Surrey it is £2,000 and in the Metropolitan police area it is £6,000. We are losing policemen to those areas and to areas with cheaper housing, such as Norfolk and the west country.

It would be so very good if the police could be made eligible for the Jubilee medal to pay respect for the work that they do in defending all of us—much in the same manner as the armed forces, who are eligible for the Jubilee medal.

Photo of Mr Keith Bradley Mr Keith Bradley Minister of State (Prisons), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Prisons) 2:46 pm, 2nd November 2001

I congratulate Dr. Lewis on obtaining this debate on policing in Hampshire. It provides a useful opportunity to air some of the issues surrounding policing in Hampshire and discuss Government policies to reduce crime and make Hampshire a safer place in which to live. I also welcome the contribution from Mr. Viggers.

Given the limited time available, I may not be able to cover all the points raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, East, but I shall write to him on any points that I cannot cover.

Let me put the debate into an overall context. Police recorded crime in Hampshire fell by 1.2 per cent. in the 12 months to March 2001, according to the latest statistics published by the Home Office. Recorded crime in the south-east as a whole has fallen by 7.6 per cent. since 1997 and in Hampshire alone, recorded crime has fallen by 12.4 per cent. since 1995.

The latest British crime survey shows that, in 1999 and 2000, an average of 11.7 per cent. of all vehicle-owning households across England and Wales were victims of vehicle-related theft. The south-east Government office region was well below that figure at 9.4 per cent., making it the second safest region for vehicle-related theft after East Anglia, at 9 per cent., in both 1999 and 2000. In the same survey, the south-east was also below the national average for burglary. In the 12 months to March 2001, Hampshire had the highest detection rate in the south-east.

The Government are committed to raising police standards and believe that we must bring every police basic command unit up to the standards of the best. That is why the Home Secretary is setting up the new police standards unit, which will work closely with BCUs and local crime and disorder partnerships to identify and promulgate best practice, overcome obstacles to success and drive up performance throughout England and Wales. As the hon. Gentleman said, this is an all-party concern and there is all-party support for raising those standards.

The Government are also continuing to make the biggest ever investment in crime reduction. The crime reduction director for the south-east tells me that £15.3 million has so far been allocated by the Home Office towards the capital costs of closed circuit television in 95 schemes across the south-east, including Hampshire. Moreover, £6.8 million has been allocated this financial year alone to local crime and disorder reduction partnerships across the south-east to disrupt drugs markets and tackle drug-related crime.

The hon. Members for New Forest, East and for Gosport both referred to antisocial behaviour. I understand and share their concerns about it and other offending behaviour by young people. I listened with great interest and sympathy to the stories that they related. Every Member can give similar examples of such behaviour disrupting communities and causing misery to the people who live in them. We all want to tackle the problem in the most effective way possible.

Responsibility for tackling antisocial behaviour on a day-to-day basis is an operational matter for chief officers of police. However, other agencies have a role to play as well. The most effective way to tackle problems is through co-ordinated preventive action at local level involving all the other relevant agencies—including local authorities, schools and local bodies—in addition to the police. Problems have to be identified locally and a plan of action drawn up with local needs in mind.

The constabulary informs me that officers in the New Forest division have excellent working partnerships, including with the local district council, youth organisations, the Forestry Commission and many other diverse groups. They take a proactive stance in those partnerships.

Antisocial behaviour is being tackled by Hampshire constabulary. For example, in the constituency of the hon. Member for New Forest, East, seven local youths have been identified as being responsible for causing general nuisance in and around the Netley View estate. All the youths have been visited by the police and are now the subject of acceptable behaviour contracts, which are voluntary agreements that aim to address their behaviour. That is part of the process towards their being made subject to antisocial behaviour order—ASBOs—if there is no improvement in their behaviour.

We introduced ASBOs under the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, which was aimed specifically at preventing the persistent harassment and intimidation that can make people's lives a misery in the way that the hon. Gentleman identified. They prohibit individuals from specific antisocial actions and are available for any person over the age of 10 who has acted in an antisocial manner likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress or who is likely to do so again. Three have been issued in Hampshire this year, and we are currently considering the operation of ASBOs to ensure that they are being used as effectively as possible.

I urge the hon. Gentleman to visit officers in the New Forest division of Hampshire constabulary. I understand that they would be only too pleased to welcome him so that he can see the good work that they are doing in conjunction with local partnerships to tackle antisocial behaviour in his constituency.

I wish to comment briefly on the work that the hon. Member for Gosport said was being carried out in his constituency. There have been some very successful Gosport police operations and I welcome his support and praise for the police in their work to tackle low-level crime in that area. The work is being carried out by Superintendent Baldry, the divisional commander for Gosport, and his team. The hon. Gentleman referred to the SCARE projects—an acronym for survey, collate, action, respond and evaluation—and they have been a particular success in his constituency.

Gosport is also home to very successful working partnerships, with the police playing a highly proactive role in initiatives such as the "Townwatch" and "Pubwatch" schemes. We must learn the lessons from good practice and ensure that they are disseminated not only throughout Hampshire, but throughout the country. We must recognise the incredibly hard work that the police do to try to reduce crime and antisocial behaviour. We all welcome that.

The hon. Member for New Forest, East also raised the issue of local police numbers and funding. The Government-supported funding for Hampshire police authority has consistently been above the average in England and Wales in recent years. In 2001-02, funding increased by £11.2 million to £213.9 million. That is a 5.5 per cent. increase in cash terms or 3 per cent. in real terms. The average cash increase in England and Wales was 4.9 per cent. By any standards, it can be recognised that Hampshire had a reasonably good settlement.

In addition, Hampshire will receive this year around £1.7 million from the crime fighting fund and more than £220,000 from the rural policing fund. Hampshire police authority set a budget for 2001-02 of £216.2 million. This is an increase of £11.5 million, or 5.6 per cent. over previous years.

Police numbers are also important as part of a comprehensive package of measures to ensure modern and efficient police services. The public rightly feel reassured by the visible presence of police officers on our streets. It helps to reduce the fear of crime. Hampshire had 3,485 police officers at the end of August 2001. That is 50 more than in March 2001 and 33 more than in March 1997.

Photo of Julian Lewis Julian Lewis Opposition Whip (Commons)

The problem is not lack of visible police numbers when it comes to policing the steam rally. The problem is whether the police are visible when people feel intimidated late at night in their local area. Is the visibility in the right places?

Photo of Mr Keith Bradley Mr Keith Bradley Minister of State (Prisons), Home Office, Minister of State (Home Office) (Prisons)

That is an important operational matter for the local police in Hampshire. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will make that point directly on his next visit to them. We all know from our own communities that the fear of crime is as important as crime itself. The visibility of police on the streets is only one element, but it helps to overcome the problem.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned again the Netley steam rally, and in the short time that I have left, I should mention that event. The allocation of police resources to particular events is an operational matter for the chief constable to decide. He must determine within the overall policing priorities for the area and the needs of the particular event the level of resources that can be devoted to it. Where special police services are provided, the Police Act 1996 enables the police authority to make a charge for those services. The rationale for this is that the taxpayer should not be expected to pay for police services at private events or events that benefit only a small section of the community.

However, I accept that Netley Marsh steam rally raises significant funds for charity. It is also a commercial opportunity for other organisations. At the same time, the police have to consider their own set-up costs, including adequate safety and security measures. The cost of policing the rally this year was £3,500. I understand that the local police have been meeting the rally organisers to help put strategies in place to reduce future policing costs for the event. Many useful suggestions have been made, including high-visibility stewarding, that have been favourably received by the organisers. Costs for next year have not yet been agreed and will depend on the outcome of the discussions with the police. I understand that a further meeting has been arranged for 8 November, where I hope that satisfactory arrangements can be agreed. This is clearly an important local event and the cost of policing should not impede its continuing. These are complicated matters, and we have to recognise that local arrangements and local operational needs should be the guiding principle.

Policing throughout the country is a high priority for the Government. We are putting extra resources in and extra police on the street, but the important thing is that we all work closely together to ensure that in local partnerships between all the relevant agencies we have a common view about how we properly tackle the important issues that the hon. Gentleman raised today.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.