The Countryside

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:35 pm on 1st December 1999.

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Photo of Earl Peel Earl Peel Conservative 5:35 pm, 1st December 1999

My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Ferrers for introducing the debate. I congratulate him on what I might call a typical Ferrers speech. It was factual, witty and poignant. I agree with everything he said about red tape. It is strangling the countryside. The issue must be addressed.

The Government can be under no illusions as to the strength of feeling in this House about the need for them to take a more pragmatic and sympathetic approach towards the countryside. The truth is that the feeling out there in our green and pleasant land is one of anger and frustration. Your Lordships have made your views very clear not only in this debate but in other recent debates in your Lordships' House. However, one topic has not had the airing it deserves. I refer to rural crime. I wish today to address most of my remarks to that.

To illustrate the strong feeling that rural people have on the subject, a 1998 survey by the Countryside Agency's predecessor, the Countryside Commission, found that 68 per cent of people in the countryside were very concerned about crime, and that the issue topped the list of rural concerns, coming above traffic problems and green belt development. It is, therefore, particularly extraordinary that in its document The State of the Countryside, the new Countryside Agency failed to mention rural crime or policing in any of the list of key rural services.

The latest published crime figures from the Home Office demonstrate that the police have achieved a 19 per cent reduction in crime over the past five years. That is clearly to be welcomed. They should be congratulated. Perhaps the Government should also be congratulated; I cannot differentiate between the extent to which that has occurred in the past two years and other years. Clearly there has been a marked decrease and one must congratulate the Government on that.

The figures in rural areas are less clear. Listening to local people and reading local newspapers, I suggest that the problem is increasing. A recent article in The Times at the weekend gave what I can only describe as a chilling report of how big-time crime operators are now moving into rural areas. My noble friend Lord Caithness gave figures from the BBC 1 programme "Countryfile". I shall not repeat them, but they are horrific.

The other aspect which concerns me is the repeated victimisation which occurs on so many farms. It is a debilitating experience for anyone, in particular at this time when farmers are experiencing such harsh economic times. I suspect, as The Times reported, that much of that is due to the fact that criminals who are becoming thwarted by the more efficient and sophisticated crime prevention methods employed in urban areas are moving out to the rural areas, which they regard as being a soft touch. In other words, the success of the towns and cities is working against the countryside, and clearly that matter has to be addressed.

In 1997, 92 per cent of parishes had no police station, compared with 89 per cent in 1991. Now many rural communities have taken up their own initiatives in an attempt to tackle crime, as my noble friend Lord Dean mentioned: Neighbourhood Watch, Car Watch, Sheep Watch, and many different "watches". In my part of the world, we now have Dales Watch. I discussed the matter recently with my chief constable. He said, "Quite frankly, our local police force simply would not be able to cope in rural areas if it were not for those local initiatives." I also acknowledge the fact that the Home Secretary has introduced crime and disorder partnerships as part of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 specifically to encourage and develop the relationships between police, local authorities and local groups. Perhaps it is too early to see how it is working, but the initiative was worth taking and I wish it well.

However, the problem is that local communities involved in such schemes will soon lose confidence if the police fail to deliver as a result of a continuing lack of resources. One upshot of all that is local security groups setting themselves up as custodians of law and order in the countryside and frightening people by putting pamphlets through letter boxes encouraging them to subscribe to such schemes. That is happening more and more and many local people who cannot afford to be involved in the schemes are increasingly afraid because others are putting them under pressure to do so. Then there is a split in local communities. Many such groups are cowboy operators and they have no accountability to local authorities or to the police. It is a most unsatisfactory situation.

One of the many examples of the seriousness of the situation comes from Cumbria. The chief constable is quoted as saying that government underfunding could force him to close another 20 of his smaller police stations and concentrate officers in major towns. The same force has already closed 10 rural stations and recruited civilians to 70 officer posts in order to cope with a £2 million shortfall. No wonder the criminal fraternity is turning to the countryside; they see it as a soft option.

Of course I appreciate only too well the need for budgetary constraints. However, surely, policing any community must be regarded as a cornerstone for any civilised society. Furthermore, if we are to encourage investment in rural areas and create the new businesses and jobs which are so necessary to take up the slack in the traditional agricultural activities that are disappearing, investors must have the confidence to do so. A proper law enforcement system is essential to that.

One of the principal reasons behind the lack of investment in policing in rural areas is the inadequacy of the police funding formula. It fails to take into account what is now known as the "sparsity factor". I believe that the sparsity factor cuts across many aspects of rural life and hinders local authorities in their attempt to deliver many different services at the same costs as their urban counterparts. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Lichfield referred to this issue in his excellent speech.

In reply to a Written Question asked by my right honourable friend David Maclean on 25th November, the Government stated that there was general agreement that a sparsity factor had been detected but less agreement about how to include it appropriately in the police funding formula. The Government reply went on to state:

"the Government will need to be satisfied that the research has provided a final answer to this question, which is beyond dispute or challenge.".--[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/99; col. 183W.]

For heaven's sake, if all government decisions were based on achieving full agreement, frankly, nothing would ever happen! On the face of it, this looks like a fudge and yet another example of the countryside getting a raw deal.

It is clear that the Government must accept the sparsity factor. Will the Minister ask her right honourable friend the Home Secretary and her honourable friends in the Home Office to act positively on this important issue?

I have a further comment to make on policing. I noticed that the Home Secretary announced at the Labour Party conference that he would provide an additional 5,000 police officers over the next three years. There is no news as to how they will be distributed, or whether they will be forthcoming, but the Government have spoken of a bidding process and have said that their salaries will be ring-fenced. In my home county of North Yorkshire, that would mean about 50 additional police officers, which is excellent. However, I am told that, if the present underlying funding continues to fall, a further 100 staff will be laid off, thus making a nonsense of such a commitment and negating any advantage.

Therefore, whichever way one looks at the issue, the indications are not good. I urge the Government to ensure that rural communities are given the level of crime prevention that they deserve.

Finally, I turn briefly to another subject. My noble friend Lord Ferrers mentioned fox hunting. I had not intended to mention it, but I recently read Ken Livingstone's announcement that he might be prepared to take a Private Member's Bill through Parliament banning the hunting of foxes with hounds. I was interested because I had always believed that Ken Livingstone was a tolerant person who understood minority groups. I was also interested to note his comment that one of the reasons he is against fox hunting was because foxes are attractive and intelligent. Presumably, that implies that it would be all right to hunt them if they were ugly and stupid.

Ken calls himself a man of the people. I say to him, "If so, go to Cumbria and to Wales and talk to the people whose lives will be affected. Spend some time with them and find out what the subject is all about. But do not try to pick up cheap votes on the back of the countryside in order to become mayor of our capital city".