While researching this important debate, I was forcefully struck by a reminder that Sir Robert Peel first established a system of uniformed police patrols as long ago as 1829. The instructions given to the police force at that time stated:
It should be understood, at the outset, that the principal object to be attained is the Prevention of Crime. To this great end every effort of the Police is to be directed. The security of person and property, the preservation of the public tranquillity, and all the other objects of a Police Establishment, will thus be better effected, than by the detection and punishment of the offender, after he has succeeded in committing the crime. What a salutary reminder that is today, more than 150 years later. There is no better way of deterring and preventing crime than having local uniformed police officers living in the community--men and women who live and breathe the job and who are police officers because they believe in the concept of duty and public service, who have a true vocation to uphold the law and who have the respect and trust of the communities in which they serve. Charlie Brown and Sid Wright, retired police constables who live in my constituency, are two excellent examples of such officers. One may feel that such sentiments are old-fashioned, easily parodied and have little role in the professional modern police force of today. I disagree. To make one more old-fashioned statement, the likelihood of being caught is an important consideration in the mind of the would-be criminal. The overriding aim of the police is to stop crime before it happens and before it becomes a Home Office statistic.
The case for more uniformed police officers is, I believe, unanswerable. The fall in numbers over the past few years is well known and must be rectified. My constituents and I demand to see more police officers walking down our streets and about our market towns. We are constantly told that the statistics show how safe it is to live in rural areas. It sometimes seems that one will drown in statistics. The fact is that low level crime and antisocial behaviour are increasing. I can give the Minister umpteen examples of public toilets being wrecked, newly planted trees uprooted, street lights broken, shop windows smashed, obscenities shouted, playgrounds vandalized, boy racers speeding around car parks and town centres, and graffiti scrawled on churches. I doubt if many of those incidents end up in the crime statistics, but such behaviour causes great distress to ordinary, decent people.
The Minister should be in no doubt that ordinary, decent people have just about had enough. There is no more important freedom in a civilized society than the freedom to live without fear and intimidation. The rule of law and its acceptance by the people, even when they disagree with it, is the hallmark of a mature democracy. It is a paradox that freedom is both constrained and preserved by law and order policies. However, I am sure that all hon. Members believe that people should not feel or be threatened by crime.
Since the last election, the number of officers in Norfolk has declined by 45 to 1,387. In November 2000, Jim Wilson, the chairman of the Norfolk police authority, stated:
We have to cover a 2,000 square mile area with 1,400 officers. We only have 107 officers out on the beat at any one time and that equates to one officer per 19 sq. miles. The thin blue line is being spread very thinly indeed. His predecessor, Brian Landale, earlier stated:
Crime in Norfolk is being fought on a shoestring. Norfolk now has the second lowest number of police officers per 1,000 people in the whole of the United Kingdom. In north Norfolk, for much of the time, there are simply not enough police officers available to be on the beat. Last week, a senior officer said:
We want to put more police officers on the beat but we simply do not have the manpower resources to do so. Another officer said:
We are always struggling with the bare minimum.
Police officers are frustrated that they do not have the resources to do the job, that too many rural police stations have closed and that the rent allowance, which enabled police officers to live more easily in their communities, has been abolished. The Conservatives in government were wrong to end the rent allowance. Equally, this Government have been wrong to allow police numbers to fall and police stations to continue to close. They have also been wrong not to allocate more resources to police forces that operate in rural areas.
I make the same point about specials, who are not a substitute for experienced, trained police officers, but can complement the force. Some are outstanding; all are volunteers. Their numbers, too, have been falling throughout the country, from just under 20,000 in 1997 to just over 14,000 today. That fall must be reversed--and quickly. Specials have an important role to play: more uniformed, visible police will go a long way towards reassuring the public.
I make two points about the culture of the modern police force. The first concerns the insidious growth of political correctness. Every time that I read of complaints about racism, sexism and homophobia in the police force, my heart goes out to the thousands of decent, normal police officers who have to put up with that liberal, woolly-minded, unfair criticism. How can the Norfolk constabulary, for example, justify a cultural audit on sexism, homophobia and racism? Are we really saying that they are important issues in Norfolk? Is it not time that we stood up for the integrity and decency of police officers, instead of seeing them harassed, wrongly, for lesbian bullying, institutional racism and the like?
Secondly, the Local Government Act 1999 introduced what is euphemistically called best value. It is a wholly bureaucratic system, which could almost have been designed to drive out what is best in the police service. It is all about models, corporate reviews, mission statements, research teams, statistics, key milestones, performance development reviews, corporate plans and best value performance indicators--and very little about effective community policing. That is a perfect recipe for paralysis through analysis.
There are now more than 700 civilians in the Norfolk police constabulary; 20 years ago, the number was minimal. It takes on average eight hours for a police officer to make an arrest and bring it to a conclusion. Police officers need to, and should, be on the beat, not in the office filling in forms.
Best value allows politicians, locally and nationally, to get into the minutiae of operational policing, which should be none of their business. It bogs the force down in a welter of unnecessary reports, overheads and administration. It distorts priorities and creates a culture of meeting published targets, rather than doing what is best. It creates political priorities, not policing ones. Most damaging of all, best value will move the emphasis even further away from the qualitative aspect of policing to the quantitative aspect. It will allow people to argue for more police in our cities--where more arrests can be made--and less in rural areas. It will measure crime detection but fail to measure crime prevention. It will divert the police away from the less visible aspects of policing into the political headlines. How can we measure the impact of a police constable walking the beat in a town or village that he knows or the informal words that he or she has with a parent or schoolteacher? How can we properly value the role of the traditional police constable who works within the community as part of the community? They are the unsung heroes who do not appear in Home Office statistics but whose contribution is, literally, immeasurable. Sir Robert Peel must be turning in his grave.
My message to the Minister is that he should get his and other politicians' hands out of operational policing. They should set the police free to run their own forces, rather than trying to do that for them. Equally important, they should not force chief constables and senior officers to become politicians and spin doctors.
Rural policing is about more than just the police. The police need the support of the public--parents, youth services, voluntary groups, statutory agencies, schools, district, town and parish councils and the Church--to do their job properly. Whether we like it or not, we are all involved: law and order touches us all. Without it, no one is free. With it, it will work--but only in a free society and with consent. To be fair, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 encouraged partnerships between the police and parts of the community, but it provided no material resources or budgets. It has provided a forum for talking, which has some value, but little else.
Much antisocial behaviour originates from the young--but from only a tiny minority of them. The vast majority are well behaved, decent, and law-abiding. Of course, young people will sometimes behave badly: who did not when they were young? Do we do enough for young people; is there enough for them to do? If so, how do they get there without decent public transport? What has happened to our youth centres? Living in the countryside has many drawbacks for young people. Inner cities have different problems, but the Minister should be under no illusion about how difficult it is for young people living in the country to find things to do. I pay tribute to voluntary groups such as the Carpenter's Arms in North Walsham and the youth centre in Hickling, to youth workers and to all those who arrange after-school activities. The busier children are, the less likely they are to get into trouble.
What are my conclusions? We need more police officers on the beat; more police living in the communities in which they work; more respect for traditional police constables and sergeants who wish to serve their local communities and regard what they do as a vocation more than a job. We should recognise that the key function of the police is to deter crime and reassure the public. There should be less political correctness; less paperwork and bureaucracy; less political interference; greater support from all the community; and greater provision of activities for young people.
Rural policing is at a crossroads. There is no issue more important to those living and working in the country. The Minister may have no magic wand to wave, but I hope that he will give his unequivocal support to traditional community policing and pledge to give the Norfolk constabulary and other rural police forces the resources to do the job effectively.