Policing (Peterborough and Cambridgeshire)

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:53 pm on 20th February 2008.

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Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice 2:53 pm, 20th February 2008

I congratulate Mr. Jackson on securing this debate. The situation in Cambridgeshire is on the edge of intolerable. Cambridgeshire has 183 police officers, the third lowest number of police officers per 100,000 of population. It is the lowest of the comparable forces for similar areas. That situation will get worse as the population grows. At present trends, the figure will fall to as low as 170 officers per 100,000 of population by 2016. The funding crisis, however, is not in 2016, but now. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, we are already seeing reductions in the number of officers. We are also seeing reductions in support staff. If one goes to police stations around Cambridgeshire, one will see that there are already unfilled vacancies on each shift because the commanders cannot fill the full quota of officers who are needed every day.

The average number of crimes per 1,000 of population per year across England and Wales is 61. At 57, Cambridgeshire is slightly below that average. However, it is not very far below the average. There are 20 forces that deal with lower crime rates than Cambridgeshire. Nearly all of them are better funded than Cambridgeshire.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the crime situation in Peterborough, so I had better mention the situation in Cambridge. As I said, the average figure is 61 crimes per 1,000 of population. In the county, the figure is 57. The relevant figure for Cambridge is 72. Therefore, there is above average crime in Cambridge. However, when it comes to violent crime, Cambridge is below the national average. The crimes that take Cambridge above the national average are shoplifting—because Cambridge is a retail and tourist centre—and bicycle theft, for which Cambridge holds the national record. That point illustrates why it is important to have local determination of police priorities.

There is nowhere else in the country where bicycle theft would be as important a matter. In Cambridge, one quarter of the population goes to work by bike. It is extremely annoying to have one's method of going to work taken away by criminal action. Nevertheless, if we look at the crime pattern across the county, Cambridgeshire is not a high crime area, but it is not a low crime area either. That was the point that the hon. Gentleman was trying to make. He said that there was an image of Cambridgeshire as some sort of rural idyll in which nothing ever goes wrong. That is not true. The effect of years of underfunding on council tax payers in Cambridgeshire is clear. Council tax bills are higher than the national average for a lower level of service. That is what people complain about.

Last Monday, the police authority increased the council tax precept by 5 per cent, which was the maximum that it could do. That will not be enough to fund some of the Government's new national requirements, including requirements on sexual offences, and on custody and detention. It would have cost another £1.4 million to fund the whole range of new Government requirements. That would be another 3.6 per cent. on the tax, which would blast through the capping limit.

I am not going to pretend that Cambridgeshire police are perfect or that it is the best force in the country. There have been problems, but those problems are being addressed by the chief constable and her commanders. For example, there was a problem in Cambridge about matching police resources and shift patterns to when people expected and needed police officers to be available. That did not quite work, but the problem was addressed and the situation is improving. As the hon. Gentleman mentioned, the key to the funding problem is the lag between funding and the increase in population. The population is expected to increase by 12.5 per cent. by 2016. Cambridgeshire is already one of the country's fastest growing areas. That comes about through a combination of factors, but one factor is Government policy. The Government are telling Cambridgeshire that it needs to grow at that pace—that it needs population increases and housing to match. The question is: are the Government putting in the funding to match the growth that they are requiring of Cambridgeshire?

There is a long history to this. Economically, the Cambridge area grew immensely through high-tech industry throughout the 1970s, '80s and '90s, but very little of that was planned by any of the Governments of the time. It just happened, in a way that national Government sometimes seemed indifferent or even hostile to, and the needs of the area were never effectively matched by funding from national Government. That has been added to by changes in the labour market in the rural part of the county, in the north of the county, which are producing in-migration from other parts of Europe.

Those two factors combined have caused an extraordinary mismatch between the funding that is offered and the funding that is required. That problem does not affect only the police in Cambridgeshire. It also affects the district councils in terms of housing costs. There will be a debate tomorrow in Cambridge city council about the fact that the Housing Corporation will not pay the proper amount towards building houses in the Cambridge area. It affects the health service. We have had debates in this very place about the funding of mental health services in Cambridgeshire. Again, that is affected by this problem. It has even affected Cambridge regional college, and further education funding. It is the same point over and again: the Government are not fully prepared to back the economic success of Cambridgeshire. They ask for more from Cambridgeshire, but are not prepared to put in more to help that success to continue.

I shall finish by talking about migration. My perspective on that issue is somewhat different from that of the hon. Gentleman. I would not want to give the impression at all that immigration by itself is a cause of crime. There is no evidence that immigrants commit more or, admittedly, less crime than anyone else.