I am delighted to take part in today's debate. Debating with Mr. Prior is like going over old terrain. I always thought PC was about getting police constables on the beat rather than political correctness. We must be approaching the election season because the hon. Gentleman's comments had a harder edge. I could, however, agree with much of what he said about the need to take rural policing forward.
The fact that we have debated the subject in the past does not make it any less important. If the "Today" programme is to be believed, policing is today's issue, so we must face up to our responsibilities, evaluate what is happening on the ground and ensure that policing is as effective as possible. There is no denying that rural policing is an issue; it certainly is in my constituency. I am not sure that it is the most important, but it is certainly a major issue. My constituents regularly talk to me about what should be happening and what they perceive--which are not necessarily the same.
I have regular contact with the police in my constituency. I go out on a Friday or Saturday night every three months to see what is happening on the street. It is the best way of understanding how the police operate, without telling them how to do their job.
Numbers are important and there can be no denying the dip since 1997. Gloucestershire is representative in seeking to recruit more officers, but budgets are an important factor. There can be no denying that the way in which we fund our police is under strain.
As the hon. Gentleman said, whether to close police stations or keep them open and move some police to areas with a larger population is a thorny issue. A police station was opened recently in my constituency because in the past 10 or 20 years the population has changed and the police must be where they are accessible and visible. Closing the police stations at Painswick, Rodborough and Minchinhampton caused difficulties in the community. People like the idea of the physical presence of a police officer and when they were told that they would have named officers in their community their fears were usually assuaged. However, the single police officer at a station was often unavailable because of the pressures of work; it was a myth that people could just knock on the door and talk to their friendly police officer.
Police have a role to play in the community and in education. If officers do not have the time to go into schools to talk to young people it is counter-productive, because giving information and advice to young people is active policing; it is the last thing that should be cut, but it is sometimes sacrificed to other operational work. That problem should be tackled, because such sacrifices should not be made.
As I said, apart from the number of police, the issue that causes the most tension in rural areas is how police time is allocated. There is no easy way to persuade the general public that a visible police officer is not the same thing as an effective police officer. That does not mean that we want all police officers to work in specialist teams; in Gloucestershire there has been a big drive towards specialism. The chief constable in Gloucestershire, Tony Butler--he is looking forward to his retirement, but knowing how well thought of he is, we will find other things for him to do--is adamant that specialist work should continue. My hon. Friend the Minister might want to respond to that, because specialism can be at the cost of police on patrol, which causes tension.
The first night that I went out with the Stroud police I got it in the ear that they felt things had gone too far and that their overall policing responsibility had been diluted by the setting up of specialist teams. If Gloucestershire is anything to go by, crime has been cut, but there are some sticking points in that success: if there are more police on patrol, the size of the specialist teams must be reduced. That is as much of a dilemma in rural areas as it is in urban areas because the criminals are more subtle and can hide more easily in the country.
The numbers issue is crucial; however many policies, strategies and initiatives there are, they cannot be carried through without sufficient police numbers. I tabled a parliamentary question on the matter, but I have not yet received an answer, perhaps because it is such a difficult issue. One problem is that there is an age skew in the police force: the number of officers retiring is greater than the number of recruits, although I was pleased to hear about the numbers going to police college at present. It is easy to blame the previous Government, but the problem is not of our making. Officers who are retiring now are not being replaced because of our predecessor's policies, and we have to tackle that problem. It relates to the lack of investment in both recruiting and retaining. The armed forces have the same problem. One can recruit as many people as one likes, but unless they are retained there is a problem.
Then there is the problem of the retirement time bomb. I make no excuse for always going on about this. We have a particular problem in policing and I blame the Government for failing to grasp the nettle. It is a painful nettle. Let us not beat about the bush: during the miners' strike the police were offered a retirement and pension package that could never the equalled. Yes, the police pay a high contribution but so do taxpayers, and local taxpayers in particular. In Gloucestershire an unacceptable 19 per cent. of the budget is now top-sliced for retirement and that comes out of operational funding. We cannot pretend that that is anything but damaging. Thankfully, the really unacceptable rate of increase of some of the figures has begun to slow. I suspect that that is because the budget is bigger and is perhaps being used in a slightly different way. We must accept that unless we grasp the retirement nettle, our budget will always be constrained. That has an enormous impact on what the police do.
Will my hon. Friend say something about what is being done about the retirement problem? One of the good news stories concerned asking police officers to serve longer. Fifty is a pretty arbitrary age, although I know that the police service is a 30-year service. Alan Cook, the community police officer in Stonehouse in my constituency, will be retiring this year. He is more than happy to carry on, not necessarily as a police officer, but in a civilian role. Everyone thinks that these officers must carry on in uniform, but that may not be the case. We could civilianise them and use them to good effect because of their knowledge and rapport with the local community. That would be much more cost effective than having police officers retire at 50 or in their early 50s to go on to other things. That problem is yet to be broached. It is the responsibility of this Government, but it arises from the actions of the previous Government. We must not misunderstand that.
Finally, I want to consider what is happening to policing. I agree with the hon. Member for North Norfolk that there are problems in rural areas as much as in urban areas. The market towns have a serious problem with alcohol abuse by young people on Friday and Saturday nights. It may be no different from when I was young, but it seems different. There seems to be more misbehaviour and more violence. I am the president of my local victim support group, and Sara Mason, who has been chairman during most of my time as president, has told me on more than one occasion how sad it is that when one counsels young people one finds that they are victims of crime as well as perpetrators of crime. In other words, they have been involved in a hell of a punch up and perhaps have been injured, but they also have to go to court because of offences that they have committed. The number of people who get involved in such fracas is a sad indictment of our society.