Northamptonshire Police

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 8th October 2008.

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Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough 11:00 am, 8th October 2008

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Caton. I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me the debate. He has been very generous in providing a series of debates relating to Northamptonshire to my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone and to me. Only yesterday, my hon. Friend introduced a debate on policing persistent and youth offenders in Northamptonshire. Yet again, he has spoken up not only for his constituents, but for all the people of north Northamptonshire. I appreciate his attendance and support in today's debate.

I also welcome my hon. Friend Mr. Binley, who has spent years supporting the people of Northampton and Northamptonshire in his role as a senior county councillor and as a Member of the House. It is encouraging to have half the Members of Parliament for Northamptonshire present for today's Westminster Hall debate. I thank the Minister for his attendance. I believe that this is only his second debate as an Under-Secretary at the Home Office; the first was yesterday's debate. I am grateful to him for the immense amount of time that he has put in and the interest that he is showing in policing in Northamptonshire.

The men and women of Northamptonshire police do a fantastic job and work very hard for the people of the county. They are held in very high regard by my constituents. The only problem is that there are not enough of them. I pay particular tribute to Chief Superintendent Paul Fell, area commander for Northamptonshire North, for all his help and advice. I should also mention the excellent work by our police community support officers, who play a valuable role in the community. However, they have a specific role and function and are not there to replace police officers, although on occasion that seems to be the Government's policy.

So what is the reason for the debate today? In July 2008, the results of the British crime survey were published, showing that there were 1,199 crimes per 10,000 adults in Northamptonshire—the second worst rate in England and Wales. It is right to say that the No. 1 issue in my constituency has always been crime. I regularly send a "Listening" survey to my constituents. That simple tracking survey is sent out throughout Wellingborough and the surrounding areas to give my constituents the opportunity to tell me what issues concern them. Crime has always come out as the No. 1 issue.

Up to 20 per cent. of the people whom I represent are afraid to go out after dark, because of groups of teenagers loitering, or thugs or vandals—or more often all three—which is commonly referred to as antisocial behaviour. That is what the people of Wellingborough want action on. They want the problem dealt with and its back broken so that they can feel safe in the street and so that they can leave their house at night without always looking over their shoulder and worrying about whom they might come across. That major concern is not, however, reflected in national targets. Antisocial behaviour is not seen as a big issue, perhaps because making people feel safe on the streets will not create attention-grabbing headlines. As it is not recorded as a crime unless there is criminal damage, the police are not rewarded for tackling antisocial behaviour. At the moment, as a target does not focus on it, police performance in tackling antisocial behaviour is irrelevant in any potential league tables. It is the No. 1 issue for my constituents, yet committing time and resources to tackling antisocial behaviour in effect punishes the police in Northamptonshire.

Some excellent initiatives are running in Wellingborough and Northamptonshire, including Farmwatch. On Saturday, I attended the launch of the street pastors initiative, which is led by churches in Rushden and east Northamptonshire. Street pastors work alongside local authorities and the police. The people involved go out at night and talk to troubled youngsters about their problems and their lives to help to stop them turning to crime. One innovative contribution from the police is the gift of hundreds of lollipops. Giving youngsters a lolly when beginning a discussion keeps their mouths busy and can prevent them from talking back or shouting. It encourages them to listen and stay calm. That is a simple solution to a difficult problem.

In Northamptonshire, there are not enough police officers out on the beat, catching criminals and deterring crime. One weekend recently, only two police vehicles were operating to cover a 70-square-mile area. That is a pitiful number and nowhere near enough to allow the police to serve the community effectively. The latest available police manpower statistics show that, on 31 March 2008, there were 1,309 police officers in Northamptonshire, which equates to 196 police officers per 100,000 of population. It is the lowest figure of any of the other forces with which Northamptonshire is compared and the eighth worst of all police forces in the country. The national average is 264 police officers per 100,000 of population. In Northamptonshire, we have a quarter fewer police officers than the average in the country. Even if we had an additional 400 officers today, we would still be below the national average. We are asking too few police officers to do too much work.

My constituents worry most about how much time police officers spend patrolling the streets of Northamptonshire. They do not want them locked away in police stations, signing forms, attending strategy meetings and doing diversity training. They want them out on the street, catching criminals and deterring crime, so I thought that I would ask the Home Secretary what percentage of their time a police officer spends patrolling. I guessed that it might be as high as 75 per cent.; it would definitely be more than 50 per cent. I have just received the parliamentary answer. Incredibly, in 2004-05 in Northamptonshire, a police officer was on patrol for only 15 per cent. of their time. Despite that figure being woefully low, it almost matched the national average.

When we examine the latest figures, for 2007-08, the situation becomes much worse. Officers now spend only 10 per cent. of their time on patrol in Northamptonshire. That is 26 per cent. below the national average and a third less time on the beat than three years ago. It is time to cut the police bureaucracy, red tape and form filling. It is no good having more policemen if they are locked away in police stations, not out on patrol. If we could only increase the time that police officers spent patrolling to 20 per cent. of their time, we would at a stroke double the number of police officers on the beat in Northamptonshire. By cutting out unnecessary red tape and form filling, we could make our streets safer for the citizens of Northamptonshire.

I come now to the Government's funding of Northamptonshire police. The Government formula grant is distributed according to a complex set of criteria. However, distribution does not operate according to the formula, because of damping. That means that when the grant gets to a certain level, Northamptonshire police receive only 13p in every pound that they are meant to receive. In total, Northamptonshire will lose £1.8 million of grant through damping over three years to subsidise other forces, such as Northumbria.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

I thank my hon. Friend for his kind remarks earlier: I am most appreciative of them, as I am sure my hon. Friend Mr. Hollobone is. Does he agree that the consistent and regular underfunding of Northamptonshire police in the support grant, as proved by an increase of only 1.4 per cent. last year when we take both the formula specific grants into account, is a major contributor to the problems that we face with antisocial behaviour, crime and the lack of police presence in our county?

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

The House might like to know that for a long time my hon. Friend was responsible for the county council's finances. Of course, he is correct.

We did not stage manage this, Mr. Caton, but the next part of my speech is to state that it has not happened in one year only but that it happens year after year. The Government say that we deserve money, but then they take it away from us. I merely ask for what is fairly ours. The historic data used to calculate the grants take no account of the recent growth in population. The latest mid-year estimates, published on 21 August 2008 by the Office for National Statistics, show that Northamptonshire is the second-fastest growing police force area in the nation, its population growing at 1.4 per cent. annually. That is more that twice the national average of 0.6 per cent.

To make matters worse, those figures are not reflected in the grant that Northamptonshire is forecast to receive next year or the following year. The Government's growth population projection for grant purposes is only 0.9 per cent, which equates to missing 15,000 people. It is like ignoring a small town when deciding how much money an area should get for policing. On top of that, the Government's grant calculation for the next two years allows for inflation increases of only 2.6 and 2.7 per cent. That is significantly less than the current inflation rate of 4.7 per cent. There is no way around it: Northamptonshire police are dramatically underfunded, even based on Government figures.

I want to turn to a new idea. I want to see the introduction of a sheriff of Northamptonshire. I do not want someone wearing a ten-gallon hat, carrying six-shooters and tying up his horse outside the Wellingborough McDonald's—on the other hand, though, that might not be a bad idea! Dictating from the top down is not the way forward, given that our police forces cover such a diverse range of issues. They should each be able to set priorities in areas that are relevant to them. Government targets, priorities and guidelines have severely restricted the way in which Northamptonshire police are able to tackle the explosion of antisocial behaviour that we are seeing in Wellingborough.

We need a locally elected police commissioner—a sheriff of Northamptonshire—who will target police resources for the benefit of local people, not for the benefit of bureaucrats setting targets in Whitehall. We need a directly elected sheriff, who would be responsible for targeting police resources for the benefit of local people. They would set local priorities, and the chief constable would then be charged with enforcing those priorities. They would be elected by ballot every four years, making them accountable to the public, and bringing in democratic control of policing. Such policies would be put forward in pre-election campaigns, and the public would be able to choose whose ideas they liked best. If the sheriff did not perform well or did not live up to expectations, the public could vote them out so that somebody new, with fresh ideas, could take over.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

Does my hon. Friend realise that the county council has already taken a major step in that respect by giving a sizeable grant directly to the Northamptonshire police force to fund extra policing? His idea is in keeping with the thrust of that grant.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

Indeed. I pay tribute to the way in which the county council manages to juggle an almost impossible situation. Farmwatch is a good example. Funding has been granted to that scheme, but because it is not granted to the county council for long periods it cannot always pass it on to local organisations. As a result, Farmwatch is worried that its funding will run out at the end of the year.

All that is needed to solve the policing problems in Northamptonshire is for the Minister to guarantee three small things: first, fair funding for Northamptonshire police; secondly, immediately providing 400 more officers; and thirdly, providing a sheriff of Northamptonshire. If he guarantees that, his first week at the Home Office will be well spent.

Photo of Philip Hollobone Philip Hollobone Conservative, Kettering 11:14 am, 8th October 2008

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr. Bone on an excellent speech, and on the time and effort that he puts into the question of crime on behalf of his constituents. I endorse everything that he said, and I join him in thanking Northamptonshire police, the policemen and women, and the officers and support staff, for the tremendous work that they do.

Local residents are concerned that crime is not being tackled as effectively as it might be. Although crime has fallen for four years in a row, local residents are shocked to learn that their county has the highest crime rate per capita in England. The figures for Northamptonshire given in the British crime survey show that 62 per cent. of people agree that the county's police force understood local concerns, but that only 44 per cent. felt that it dealt with them effectively. That is the third lowest figure in the country.

I believe that the Northamptonshire police force is doing a good job, but there is a tremendous amount more to be done. It is not rocket science. The three measures proposed by my hon. Friend hit the spot. We certainly need more officers on the beat. In addition, criminals who are caught and sentenced to serve time in jail ought to serve their time in full. Of the residents in Kettering with whom I speak about crime, 95 per cent. are of that opinion. They believe that those sentenced to spend time in jail should spend that time there. The Northamptonshire police force is of the same view.

I had the privilege a few years ago of spending 22 days with Northamptonshire police under the police service parliamentary scheme. Every police officer to whom I spoke said, "Philip, if we could lock up the persistent and prolific offenders in this county"—there are only 70 or 80 of them county-wide, with about 35 in the north of the county—"if we could take those people off our streets, we could concentrate on all the zero tolerance measures that people want to see with regard to tackling antisocial behaviour. But we spend the majority of our time chasing the same few individuals." My message to the Minister is along the same lines as my hon. Friend's. Can we focus on the persistent offenders who commit the bulk of the crime, not only in Northamptonshire but throughout the country?

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction) 11:17 am, 8th October 2008

I congratulate Mr. Bone on securing this debate and I welcome the opportunity to discuss policing in Northamptonshire. As he said, it is for the second day running. Yesterday he gave us a taster of what he would say, and we have had the main course today.

All I can say about my second debate on Northamptonshire is that I bring twice the experience to the matter today that I brought to it yesterday. However, I fear that the hon. Gentleman will be disappointed that I cannot give specific guarantees on the interesting points that he has raised. Nevertheless, I am sure that, in his inimitable way, he will continue to raise interesting matters on behalf of his constituents.

The performance of Northamptonshire police has improved significantly over recent years, thanks in no small part to the hard work of the officers and staff of the force, and I join those hon. Gentlemen who represent the county in paying tribute to it. However, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough pointed out, other individuals and organisations are involved with the Government in a joint effort to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour in the area. Crime in the county is down. Over the past four years, vehicle crime, burglary and robbery have all fallen by 30 per cent. or more, and a greater proportion of offences are being brought to justice than ever. Of course, I share the hon. Gentlemen's desire that that improvement continue. We are not complacent, particularly as we seek to bring the police service closer to the communities that it serves.

The Green Paper on policing sets out a new, clear vision for what the public can expect from their local force. It responds to what the public expect of the police, and the service that they tell us they wish to receive. That was highlighted in Louise Casey's review of crime and communities. It also responds to what the police service told us in Sir Ronnie Flanagan's independent review of policing. We know that the public expect the police to carry out many vital activities in order to fight crime and protect their communities, such as responding to 999 calls and advising members of the public, as well as those less visible activities such as tackling serious and organised crime, major crime and terrorism.

I am told that Northamptonshire police has invested significantly in proactive crime fighting activities. We spoke of some yesterday, including the targeting of prolific offenders. That focused activity is contributing to a reduction in crime for the people of Northamptonshire, but that is not necessarily reflected in figures showing how much time officers spend on patrol.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

We know from our constituency surgeries that antisocial behaviour is increasing because of the focusing on, and targeting of, specific areas. There are not enough resources to spread around the county evenly and effectively, which leads to a rise in antisocial behaviour in areas that are not properly policed when the focus is on other places.

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

The activities that I was talking about are important for bringing crime down. I am not underplaying antisocial behaviour in any way, shape or form, but I suggest that the hon. Gentleman's constituents want to ensure that crime levels continue to fall. I do not believe that it is an either/or question; I have a theory that other things are in play when there is an increase in antisocial behaviour. I hope to address some of the hon. Gentleman's points on that.

I should stress that we know the public want the police to be visible in their local communities and to be responsive to their priorities, as the hon. Member for Wellingborough said. To emphasise the most important elements of the service's relationship with the public, the Green Paper will introduce a new policing pledge, which will set out clear, public-facing, national service standards for the police from first contact to follow-up and which, through the important local element, will give the public a way to hold their neighbourhood policing teams to account for tackling local problems. We are consulting the service and the public about the pledge, but it is likely to contain commitments on how the police will engage with their local communities and respond to calls for services, and the follow-up action that people can expect to receive.

To help forces focus yet more on the needs of their communities, the Government are committed to reducing red tape and bureaucracy in the service, and to allowing locally determined priorities to direct day-to-day activities. To that effect, all but one top-down numerical target for police forces will be removed, leaving only a single target set by the Home Office: for each force to improve public confidence. Much of what the hon. Gentleman said was about gaining public confidence and responding to what the public say are their priorities. Furthermore, to strengthen the democratic link between the police and the public, directly elected crime and policing representatives will be introduced to police authorities. Their key role will be to hold the police to account for delivery against those locally determined priorities.

The Government remain committed to continuing the improvements in policing in recent years, and Northamptonshire police are no exception. The force has faced significant challenges in recent years, but it has benefited from significantly improved resources that have helped to bring about some of those dramatic improvements in performance. Overall, the police service in England and Wales has benefited from a police grant that has increased by more than 60 per cent., or £3.7 billion, between 1997-98 and 2010-11. Northamptonshire has benefited from an increase in total government grants from £52.7 million in 1997 to £88.3 million in 2008, an increase of £35.2 million, which is a 67 per cent. increase in cash terms and a 27 per cent. increase in real terms.

Photo of Peter Bone Peter Bone Conservative, Wellingborough

I understand the figures that the Minister cites, but one problem in Northamptonshire is that the population of the area in 1997 was much smaller.[This section has been corrected on 13 October 2008, column 3MC — read correction]

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Home Office) (Crime Reduction)

I appreciate that the local police authority expected a bigger increase, especially last year, and hon. Members will be aware that only so much money is available through the grant. We must ensure that all authorities have a broad minimum increase to ensure the stability of police funding in England and Wales. Of course, moving towards longer-term grants for authorities will help. The hon. Gentleman mentioned unfunded population increases, and I can tell him that we are working to ensure that the formula does not operate as he says.

In the meantime, we are doing other things to address the problems. For example, Northamptonshire police force and police authority may, along with all police service providers nationwide, benefit from new sources of funding, including new migration impact funds, which come from a fund of some tens of millions of pounds to alleviate the short-term transitional pressures of migration. The funds will be available from April 2009 and managed by regional Government offices. A key part of the scheme will be applying local knowledge to funding decisions and ensuring that the funds will be spent not only properly, but quickly.

Other sources of funding are available to forces and partners to improve efficiency and to build additional capacity and capability into forces, far beyond a simple interpretation of staff and officer numbers. For example, Northamptonshire police are to benefit, along with the four other forces in the east midlands collaboration, from £8.3 million that has been provided for the purchase of hand-held computers, which could go some way to addressing the form-filling problem that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. That money is being made available as a direct result of the Government's commitment to implement the recommendations made by Sir Ronnie Flanagan in his recent review. Results from similar schemes are encouraging, and reveal the potential for the initiative to contribute to the Government's commitment to cutting unnecessary bureaucracy and to freeing up officer time to focus on front-line policing.

The allocation of resources within each force's area is, of course, a matter for the chief constable and the police authority, and maximum flexibility has been afforded to them. However, it is clear that the increase in funding provided by Government and police authorities has facilitated an increase in officer numbers in the past 10 years. At the end of March 2008, Northamptonshire had 1,264 police officers, which is an increase of 87 officers on the previous year, and the force has 159 police community support officers. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said about those officers, but he and I do not agree about their importance. Interestingly, in my constituency, local communities welcome PCSOs when they are introduced—they want to see someone on the street. The hon. Gentleman spoke in percentage terms or minutes per hour in relation to the amount of time that a police officer spends on patrol, but the job of PCSOs is to be out on patrol in local neighbourhoods, and their time is not reflected in the figures that he used in his parliamentary question. We should appreciate that there is more to it than that simple figure.

I accept that the resource situation is more challenging than it has been, and it is important to note that the recruitment of police staff has a direct impact on the capacity of police officers. Recruitment could free officers from duties that do not require an officer to concentrate on front-line policing. Neighbourhood policing has been successfully implemented in Northamptonshire, which now has 41 full-strength dedicated safer community teams. Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary said in September that the Northamptonshire force has made considerable progress in delivering both effective neighbourhood policing and the wider citizen focus agenda. The force was also graded as excellent by the inspectorate when compared with others after victims were asked whether they were satisfied with actions taken by the police. The force's dedicated business engineering review team, which has been recognised by the National Policing Improvement Agency as good practice, has concentrated on work force modernisation to ensure that we get the best from officers and staff. The force has been praised for forensic science, which is an important part of tackling crime, for pioneering techniques in using DNA, and a host of other things.

The Home Office stands ready to commit extra resources for specific projects, as it did for a police operation to target domestic violence. Additional support is also available for tackling prolific and other priority offenders, about which we talked a great deal yesterday.

Those improvements in performance have been—

Sitting suspended.