Rural Policing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:10 am on 16th January 2001.

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Photo of Charles Clarke Charles Clarke Minister of State, Home Office 10:10 am, 16th January 2001

I congratulate Mr. Prior on a useful debate.

I begin on a slightly abrasive note. I respect and like the hon. Gentleman a lot, but his implicit criticisms of the chief constable of the Norfolk constabulary were wrong, and I want to say why. It is not right to criticise the chief constable for trying to address racism, homophobia and sexism in his police force. Ken Williams has been an outstanding chief constable, during times which, in many respects, have not been easy, with a number of cases given a great deal of local publicity. I support him, and I believe that the great majority of the citizens of Norfolk--I speak as a Member for a Norfolk constituency--would not associate themselves with some of the remarks that the hon. Gentleman made, and that some of his constituents have made in the press, suggesting that those are not appropriate issues with which a police force, or its chief constable, should deal. The chief constable has been right and courageous. It is important that the police force maintains high standards and values in the way that it approaches the citizenry that it seeks to police. I regret that the hon. Gentleman made those remarks in an otherwise interesting and informed speech.

I must take up two other aspects of what the hon. Gentleman said. The suggestion that there has been any encroachment by the Government on the operational independence of chief constables is wrong. Chief constables are rightly free to carry out policing in the way that they think fit. Of course, chief constables will talk to people--certainly the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Home Office and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I--about policing issues. Neither I nor the Government intend in any way to inhibit, nor should we seek to inhibit, the operational independence of chief constables to take whatever policing decisions they think right in the circumstances that they face. That includes operational deployment, issues around particular crimes and so on.

The principle of partnership is important. I talk to police officers a great deal about that, and one of their greatest resentments is that all the problems of society, such as the matters to which my hon. Friend Mr. Drew referred, are laid at the police's door. In fact, it is up to the whole community to decide how such issues should be taken up.

Mr. Öpik made some apposite and correct points about partnership, in riposte to the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Perhaps that prefigures the coming general election contest between the hon. Member for North Norfolk and a strong local Liberal Democrat contender. I share the view of the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire that partnership is at the core of the problem. Genuine partnership between the police and the public, community organisations and other statutory organisations is the way to build the self-reliance and self-discipline which, I again agree, lie at the core of our approach to many such matters.

A number of issues have been raised, and we should start with the reality of rural crime. The Government are today publishing figures--indeed, published them 14 minutes ago--on recorded crime in this country. In Norfolk, crime has gone down by 0.7 per cent. In Gloucestershire, which includes the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud, crime has gone down by 2.7 per cent. In Dyfed-Powys, where the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has his constituency, the figures are down by 4.9 per cent.

Fourteen police authorities, originally led by Lincolnshire, organised to make a case for rural policing, to which I have sought to respond. In 11 of those authorities, crime is down over the period from last year to this, according to the figures published today. Some of the falls are striking, and I shall give two or three examples. I have already mentioned Dyfed-Powys at 4.9 per cent., and I pay tribute to the force for achieving that. In North Yorkshire, the police authority of the Leader of the Opposition, crime is down by 6 per cent. In Devon and Cornwall, crime is down by 5.1 per cent., in Wiltshire by 9.5 per cent., in Northampton by 9.5 per cent., in Cumbria by 13.4 per cent., and in Warwickshire by 7.2 per cent. Those are significant reductions by any stretch of the imagination.

I in no sense suggest that all in the garden is rosy--far from it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for North Norfolk rightly raised issues of violent crime and disorder in market towns--also discussed in today's newspapers--and I shall return to those issues shortly when I discuss partnership. But the record is stronger than some have suggested is the case. There is a great deal more to be done, but there are significant results and improvements. As I have said, crime is going down significantly--in some cases by large percentages--in 11 of the 14 police areas involved in the rural authorities group.

I am familiar with the Conservative politician's slogan of the 19th century--Benjamin Disraeli's

"lies, damned lies and statistics". Statistics can confuse the public debate rather than enlighten it, and I understand that some people try to use statistics to that end. However, understanding what is really going on in society and trying to measure it is important. We need to inform the public debate on the various issues before us. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for North Norfolk, but to reminisce about how it used to be is not the way to focus public debate.

On police resources, I once again mention the 14 rural authorities that have been so successful in their roles. The police funding provisional settlement, announced last year, has yet to be completely finalised, but 11 of the 14 authorities have received settlements above the national average of 4.9 per cent., and three of them received lower settlements. Among the authorities of those hon. Members who have spoken today, Norfolk received 5.8 per cent., Gloucestershire 5.5 per cent. and Dyfed-Powys 6 per cent. Those figures are significant, and it is hard to argue--particularly given the very good performances on crime that many of the rural authorities achieved--that those authorities have not had a fair crack on resources.

Because we were concerned about sparsity, to which the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred, we were concerned about the costs involved for rural police forces. Members will be aware that last year we made an additional £15 million available to rural forces in the second half of this year. There will be £30 million for next year and the other years of the comprehensive spending review settlement, and that has been allocated to 31 police forces on the basis of a formula. The hon. Member for North Norfolk may be interested to know that Norfolk received just over £1 million this year, and will receive just over £2 million in a full year. That money will make a real difference to rural policing as we try precisely to address cost issues as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire.

I am the first to say that more resources would help and that dealing with things more effectively is important. However significant money has been provided, quite above and beyond the settlement on police funding.