Rural Policing

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:59 am on 16th January 2001.

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Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Liberal Democrat, Montgomeryshire 9:59 am, 16th January 2001

As the hon. Members for North Norfolk (Mr. Prior) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) pointed out, we are lucky in the countryside in that, at this stage at least, crime in most parts of rural Britain is not all that bad.

A few years ago, I was talking to the police in my area of mid-Wales. There had been a spate of 64 crimes over a period of some months on one of the trading estates and they had arrested two lads who owned up to 62 of them. It is widely believed that they did not own up to the other two simply because they had forgotten that they had done them.

We have a good clear-up rate much of the time and we do not have some of the problems that one sees in some of the inner cities and the most deprived parts of urban Britain. Having said that, there is no excuse for complacency. Both hon. Members who have spoken highlighted the psychological importance of a rural presence, with bobbies on the beat and so forth. To some extent, the police presence--like that of the post office--defines the character of communities in rural Britain, particularly rural England and Wales. It provides an identity to a community and a confidence that there is a balancing element locally, to which people can turn if things go wrong.

First, therefore, I encourage the Minister to consider the nature of the partnership between the public and the police in rural communities. It is important because that very presence probably has a powerful preventive effect in such communities. As they are tightly knit villages and towns, people tend to know each other. There is a much bigger "bang for your bucks" in the policing of communities where individuals feel personally responsible about participating--passively--in the law enforcement process.

Secondly, I shall highlight the importance of recognising that some issues that have been mentioned are not new. Robert Owen was born in my constituency in 1771--he was, arguably, the inventor of socialism and, indeed, the inspiration for the co-operative movement. If hon. Members are interested in hearing more about him, they can purchase copies of a programme that I presented only last summer. One thing that I learned about the great Robert Owen is that he left Newtown, the largest town in my constituency, partly out of despondency about all the fighting in the pubs. That was in the 1780s, more than 200 years ago.

Things have improved a little since then, but let us be realistic, pub brawls are nothing new and are certainly not unique to the countryside. I suspect that, in some ways, we regard them more seriously in rural communities because we tend to hear of the individuals involved. It is a much more personally motivated fracas, with two groups of lads from different villages deciding to settle a feud with their fists. To put it in perspective, however, it is still easier to resolve these problems in the countryside than in towns where, I suspect, pub violence is rather more serious.

Having said that, the hon. Member for Stroud is correct to say that the advancing drugs problem is a new phenomenon--it was not around even 20 years ago, let alone 200. One of the pressures on the modern rural police force is to find ways to prevent that problem from getting worse. In most market towns and rural areas, there is not the same proportion of hard drug taking as there is in a comparable age group in an urban area, although I accept that there are variations.

Clearly, there is a relationship between the use of hard drugs and criminality, so I hope that the Minister will say how he intends to prevent the advance of such drugs in rural areas. Blessed as we are in those communities with a lower percentage of drug problems, there is a great and urgent challenge to try and keep it that way.

Thirdly, I agree with the hon. Members for North Norfolk and for Stroud that the rural police do a good job. They are very committed, not least because they identify with the communities they represent. It is that personal relationship that gives a good rural police officer his or her strength and authority. It provides additional pressure because, when officers are off duty, they are still known to the people in the area. More than urban police officers, rural police officers are on duty all the time.