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Westminster Hall

Tuesday 16 January 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Rural Policing

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Jamieson.]

9.30 am

Mr. David Prior (North Norfolk): While researching this important debate, I was forcefully struck by a reminder that Sir Robert Peel first established a system of uniformed police patrols as long ago as 1829. The instructions given to the police force at that time stated:

The case for more uniformed police officers is, I believe, unanswerable. The fall in numbers over the past few years is well known and must be rectified. My constituents and I demand to see more police officers walking down our streets and about our market towns. We are constantly told that the statistics show how safe it is to live in rural areas. It sometimes seems that one will drown in statistics. The fact is that low level crime and antisocial behaviour are increasing. I can give the Minister umpteen examples of public toilets being wrecked, newly planted trees uprooted, street lights broken, shop windows smashed, obscenities shouted, playgrounds vandalized, boy racers speeding around car parks and town centres, and graffiti scrawled on churches. I doubt if many of those incidents end up in the crime statistics, but such behaviour causes great distress to ordinary, decent people.

The Minister should be in no doubt that ordinary, decent people have just about had enough. There is no more important freedom in a civilized society than the freedom to live without fear and intimidation. The rule of law and its acceptance by the people, even when they

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disagree with it, is the hallmark of a mature democracy. It is a paradox that freedom is both constrained and preserved by law and order policies. However, I am sure that all hon. Members believe that people should not feel or be threatened by crime.

Since the last election, the number of officers in Norfolk has declined by 45 to 1,387. In November 2000, Jim Wilson, the chairman of the Norfolk police authority, stated:

Police officers are frustrated that they do not have the resources to do the job, that too many rural police stations have closed and that the rent allowance, which enabled police officers to live more easily in their communities, has been abolished. The Conservatives in government were wrong to end the rent allowance. Equally, this Government have been wrong to allow police numbers to fall and police stations to continue to close. They have also been wrong not to allocate more resources to police forces that operate in rural areas.

I make the same point about specials, who are not a substitute for experienced, trained police officers, but can complement the force. Some are outstanding; all are volunteers. Their numbers, too, have been falling throughout the country, from just under 20,000 in 1997 to just over 14,000 today. That fall must be reversed--and quickly. Specials have an important role to play: more uniformed, visible police will go a long way towards reassuring the public.

I make two points about the culture of the modern police force. The first concerns the insidious growth of political correctness. Every time that I read of complaints about racism, sexism and homophobia in the police force, my heart goes out to the thousands of decent, normal police officers who have to put up with that liberal, woolly-minded, unfair criticism. How can the Norfolk constabulary, for example, justify a cultural audit on sexism, homophobia and racism? Are we really saying that they are important issues in Norfolk? Is it not time that we stood up for the integrity and decency of police officers, instead of seeing them harassed, wrongly, for lesbian bullying, institutional racism and the like?

Secondly, the Local Government Act 1999 introduced what is euphemistically called best value. It is a wholly bureaucratic system, which could almost have been designed to drive out what is best in the police service. It is all about models, corporate reviews, mission statements, research teams, statistics, key milestones, performance development reviews,

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corporate plans and best value performance indicators--and very little about effective community policing. That is a perfect recipe for paralysis through analysis.

There are now more than 700 civilians in the Norfolk police constabulary; 20 years ago, the number was minimal. It takes on average eight hours for a police officer to make an arrest and bring it to a conclusion. Police officers need to, and should, be on the beat, not in the office filling in forms.

Best value allows politicians, locally and nationally, to get into the minutiae of operational policing, which should be none of their business. It bogs the force down in a welter of unnecessary reports, overheads and administration. It distorts priorities and creates a culture of meeting published targets, rather than doing what is best. It creates political priorities, not policing ones. Most damaging of all, best value will move the emphasis even further away from the qualitative aspect of policing to the quantitative aspect. It will allow people to argue for more police in our cities--where more arrests can be made--and less in rural areas. It will measure crime detection but fail to measure crime prevention. It will divert the police away from the less visible aspects of policing into the political headlines. How can we measure the impact of a police constable walking the beat in a town or village that he knows or the informal words that he or she has with a parent or schoolteacher? How can we properly value the role of the traditional police constable who works within the community as part of the community? They are the unsung heroes who do not appear in Home Office statistics but whose contribution is, literally, immeasurable. Sir Robert Peel must be turning in his grave.

My message to the Minister is that he should get his and other politicians' hands out of operational policing. They should set the police free to run their own forces, rather than trying to do that for them. Equally important, they should not force chief constables and senior officers to become politicians and spin doctors.

Rural policing is about more than just the police. The police need the support of the public--parents, youth services, voluntary groups, statutory agencies, schools, district, town and parish councils and the Church--to do their job properly. Whether we like it or not, we are all involved: law and order touches us all. Without it, no one is free. With it, it will work--but only in a free society and with consent. To be fair, the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 encouraged partnerships between the police and parts of the community, but it provided no material resources or budgets. It has provided a forum for talking, which has some value, but little else.

Much antisocial behaviour originates from the young--but from only a tiny minority of them. The vast majority are well behaved, decent, and law-abiding. Of course, young people will sometimes behave badly: who did not when they were young? Do we do enough for young people; is there enough for them to do? If so, how do they get there without decent public transport? What has happened to our youth centres? Living in the countryside has many drawbacks for young people. Inner cities have different problems, but the Minister should be under no illusion about how difficult it is for

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young people living in the country to find things to do. I pay tribute to voluntary groups such as the Carpenter's Arms in North Walsham and the youth centre in Hickling, to youth workers and to all those who arrange after-school activities. The busier children are, the less likely they are to get into trouble.

What are my conclusions? We need more police officers on the beat; more police living in the communities in which they work; more respect for traditional police constables and sergeants who wish to serve their local communities and regard what they do as a vocation more than a job. We should recognise that the key function of the police is to deter crime and reassure the public. There should be less political correctness; less paperwork and bureaucracy; less political interference; greater support from all the community; and greater provision of activities for young people.

Rural policing is at a crossroads. There is no issue more important to those living and working in the country. The Minister may have no magic wand to wave, but I hope that he will give his unequivocal support to traditional community policing and pledge to give the Norfolk constabulary and other rural police forces the resources to do the job effectively.

9.42 am

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I am delighted to take part in today's debate. Debating with the hon. Member for North Norfolk (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

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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

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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.

Mr. Prior : The hon. Gentleman touches on an important point. In the market towns of north Norfolk, which I know well, one finds groups of 20 to 30 young people, often as young as 11, 12 and 13. Most of them are entirely decent, but it takes only one or two troublemakers to lead the others astray. The fact that off-licences are often open in the street close by and the older boys can get alcohol to give to the younger children is a serious problem.

Mr. Drew : I totally agree. Anyone who has been a parish or town councillor--I am still a town councillor--will know that, trying to stop a licence being re-granted, or a new licence being granted, because of the allegations of what and to whom they sell, is the bane of our lives. The problem is that we have never had so much alcohol out on the streets and young

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people drink to excess. We need to examine that. The Government pledged to produce an alcohol strategy, but it is a long time coming, and that is not unconnected to the problems of policing and law and order.

There is of course a link to drugs. Much of the criminality in the market towns in my constituency is, sadly, drug-related. It is too early to judge the drug trialing and testing orders, but among those who know about them, they seem to be popular. Hopefully, they provide a way in which we can get a grip on criminality.

It is worth mentioning that in Gloucestershire we have been innovatory with police information points. Better communication may be one way to countermand negativity among people who feel that their police are not sufficiently present. We look forward to full implementation of the radio project, but it will not come without some teething problems, if planning permissions are anything to go by. People want more policing, but they do not seem to want the masts that allow the proper communication required for better policing. I do not say that they are wrong to question where those masts go, but it does hold up the ability to communicate.

Police information points are, in effect, holes in the wall, so that people can pass messages on, sometimes in confidence, which is very important. That links in to neighbourhood watch schemes, which are popular in my area and continue to grow, but need continual re-investment, because they are so important. Those who run them deserve congratulation.

Another issue is how to bring more people into policing, not necessarily full-time police officers. It is sad that we have lost special constables, and we need to re-evaluate the importance of volunteering. Being a police officer is an important way in which people can use their time as volunteers, and we must always encourage them. It is a way in which they can test out whether they like the job. Specials sometimes serve for 20 years, sometimes for less. Any time is invaluable, but we need to recognise how important these people are and give them every opportunity to go on to what they want to do and to be a special part of the police force.

The idea of parish police officers is interesting. Devolving power in the benefice of the parish means that information, knowledge and the ability to pre-empt problems can be dealt with locally. As always, there are dangers in two-tier policing. Such officers might not be respected or might be abused by being required to do low level work. However, parish officers are an interesting idea, and no one should have a monopoly of ideas about what we should be doing with policing. I agree with the hon. Gentleman for North Norfolk that there are many interesting ideas.

However, none of that gets us away from the fundamental role of the police, which is to be out on the streets, talking to people and catching criminals. The fundamental dilemma is that those things do not always match. We have to persuade the public that not seeing the police does not necessarily mean that they are not active. Impossible though it is to ask for both, we should be striving to achieve that. If my hon. Friend the Minister were able to overcome such an impossible dilemma, it should serve as his epitaph.

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Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): 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

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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.

Mr. Prior : Response times are one of the best value performance indicators in North Norfolk. When someone rings the police, he or she wants prompt service. For that reason, local senior officers feel that they cannot put people on the beat because they cannot make the response times. That is exactly the sort of issue that should be left to local police forces, rather than relying on a centralised overall performance indicator.

Mr. Öpik : I shall deal with performance indicators when I have concluded on this point. Most of all, we should consider how we might reward, not necessarily financially, most rural police officers, who have an almost pastoral role in those communities, where they still take a lead. One could almost say that police officers in the countryside do the job in a way that police officers in the whole country did 40 or 50 years ago.

Referring to the point made by the hon. Member for North Norfolk, we have to be careful how we measure the performance of rural police officers. Performance indicators are a rough and ready way of measuring success, as enormous distances are involved. Some of the performance indicators are more appropriate to a city or urban environment than to a rural environment. Can the hon. Gentleman comment on whether there may be a case for having slightly different indicators or altering the parameters to take into account the different environments in which the police operate throughout the UK?

I will conclude by raising three concerns. First, although policing in the countryside is different, it has comparable or even greater funding requirements because the distances are enormous--a small number of police officers are expected to perform an almost impossible task. For example, when organised gangs steal farm equipment, they have the advantage of stealth and the police have the disadvantage of sparsity of resources and distance. In that situation, the police would be grateful for additional resources to clear up a specific problem without compromising policing elsewhere.

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Secondly, strain in the probation service is a less recognised problem. Once the police are involved, their concern is often with sentencing rather than with curing the original cause. It is important that we recognise that the probation services in those areas need to be handled sensitively, and that their funding requirements will have a direct bearing on the degree of crime that the police have to clear up.

Thirdly, I hope that the Minister will recognise that his fellow Ministers in other Departments are considering where courts should be located in rural areas. In mid-Wales and Montgomeryshire we are particularly concerned that if the courts are closed, a siting injustice of distance will be imposed and the psychological presence of the courts will also disappear. That would be a serious problem and I hope that the Minister is sensitive to the relationship between his work and that of other Ministers.

I want to make a fourth point about fox hunting. I will not raise the issue but, if option 3 is passed on Wednesday, it will put an additional strain on the police forces, who will be expected to enforce it. I have asked the Minister to bear in mind that many of us think that that would require extra funding. If he wants to comment today, I should be glad to hear him, but I recognise that that is an issue for another day.

In conclusion, I congratulate the Dyfed-Powys police force on the work that it does, and other police forces throughout rural Britain that work so hard to enforce the law. I invite the Government to ensure that the police are given funding to maintain the sort of partnership that maintains the peace in their areas. I hope that the police can be involved in preventive activities rather than simply having to clear up the damage afterwards.

Finally, I hope that the Minister will confirm what I have always believed-- that the ideal form of policing is self-discipline. Self-discipline comes from hope and gives young people and individuals a reason to be stakeholders in this peaceful society rather than to be disruptive. If we do that, I have little doubt that life in rural Britain will continue to be tremendously peaceful and rewarding.

10.10 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke ): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk (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

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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 the Member for Stroud (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.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (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

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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

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.

Mr. Drew : The Minister was generous in seeing our deputation from Gloucestershire more than a year ago and we much appreciate the additional funding through

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the sparsity factor, but there is almost a need for a sparsity-plus factor because the budget for policing is not just about what the police authority gets but the impact on other parts of an area. We would strongly ask him to consider how we can build up the county council, and, indeed, funding through other services.

Mr. Clarke : I accept that that is a fair case, and, as my hon. Friend says, I greeted a delegation from the authority and the chief constable, Tony Butler, to whom I pay tribute. He is retiring shortly and has been an outstanding chief constable. He is the man who considers performance indicators and so on for ACPO. I have received delegations from police authorities throughout the country and, so far, although my ministerial experience has been brief, not one of them has asked for less money. I am confident that that will happen, but so far it has not. I live in hope. Certainly, I expect that from some Conservative parts of the country, as their overall spending plans make it clear that they cannot afford what we want to do. I am confident that Conservatives will come forward and ask for a little bit less. Perhaps one should not live in too much hope of that happening as one goes round the course.

The point about visibility is extremely important, and I shall come to police numbers in a moment, as it was a point raised at the outset by the hon. Member for North Norfolk. Visibility is critical. There are a number of ways of trying to increase visibility. One is police numbers, but there are other means. Parish specials, as mentioned earlier, have been used successfully in some parts of the country. I have spoken to the police officers concerned and, if a particular parish has a special constable who is committed to and living in that parish, that raises confidence and improves visibility, for exactly the reasons given by the hon.Gentleman. Other examples are the police working more closely with communities of which they are a part, or through churches or village halls. I met a group of vicars from Norfolk and discussed how the police could work more closely with the Church in exactly the way that the hon. Gentleman said. Establishing a local police presence in other areas--a local blue light in community halls--is another means of doing that.

In the north-west and north Wales, there are interesting things called pods--police vans regularly parked, like travelling libraries, in a central place, such as a city centre or housing estate. Police and people from the community can discuss problems and move forward. I have seen some interesting initiatives of that type.

Targeting patrolling raises important issues. I am sure the hon. Gentleman would acknowledge that that is not simply a matter of police walking around the streets in a rather unfocused way, but of looking at particular times and circumstances--in the middle of the night in a market town, for instance--to ensure a police presence where there are likely to be problems and targeting in a scientific and planned manner. I am currently discussing a variety of means with the police, and I am confident that we will shortly agree that annual reports from chief constables will include local information on how they are improving visibility and accessibility in every ward or parish within their particular patch. That will create tensions and difficulties, of course, but it will be an important departure, so that people can see how visibility is being achieved in their particular locality.

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Police numbers are, of course, an important and critical element. We announced that during the six months to September last year, the number of police officers increased by 444 after a steady decline during the previous seven years. Ten of the 14 authorities to which I referred have seen an increase in numbers and the hon. Gentleman said that there has been an increase of six in Norfolk. There have also been increases of 28 in Gloucestershire and five in Dyfed-Powys. Some of those increases may be small, but the trend of the past seven years is beginning to turn. We have announced today that 10 of the 14 authorities have seen an increase in police officers. That is significant and a start in the right direction.

As a result of our crime fighting fund, there has been a major increase in police recruitment and training, and we announced the figures in a press release yesterday. During 1999-2000, 3,030 recruits started residential training nationally. In the current year, that number has increased to 5,268, which is a significant increase of 74 per cent. In Norfolk, for example, the number of people entering the police force increased from 30 in 1999-2000 to 64 in 2000-01. Again, that will not break the bank and will only provide some recovery from past problems, but it is a significant improvement and should be welcomed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud asked about retirement. He rightly said that many police officers leave after 30 years' service. I know police officers in the Norfolk constabulary in the constituency of the hon. Member for North Norfolk who are distressed at having to leave because they believe that they have more to offer the service. We are discussing with the police how to deal with the pension and pay situation to make it financially sensible for police officers who want to continue in the service after 30 years to be able to do so. There are technical difficulties concerning pension rights and so on, but we are actively considering the matter because we agree that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud said, many police officers can make a significant contribution at a time when it is better for them financially to retire. We want to ensure that they can make that contribution.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend referred to the numbers dilemma. His chief constable, Tony Butler, leads for ACPO in matters concerning paedophile crime, which is a major issue in which intelligence is the main means of tracking. Bobbies on the beat are not so involved, although they are important in some circumstances, because intelligence and resources are needed to discover where people are and to track them. Tony Butler leads for the police service nationally in what we are trying to do in that area. There is tension between that work and the number of bobbies on the beat, and we must deal with both. We cannot deal with one and not the other.

I was also pleased that my hon. Friend referred to my wife's good friend Sara Mason, who lives in his constituency. We had a Christmas card from her and I know that she is enjoying being a constituent of the hon. Gentleman. I do not know whether he knows her or whether he appreciates my reference, but it may feed discussion because she is very active and committed.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to drugs, and rightly so. The problem of how drugs are distributed in rural areas has not been fully addressed, and we are trying to do deal with it through the

16 Jan 2001 : Column "15"WH

partnership approach, and other measures. Drugs would have been unthinkable in many small communities in the countryside 15 years ago, but are now a normal part of life. We can deal with the problem only as part of our overall approach, and we are committed to that.

Court closure is a matter for my colleagues. On hunting, I look forward to the debate to see how the issues resolve themselves.

I heard what the hon. Member for North Norfolk said about performance indicators in rural areas. There is some variation--in terms of robbery, for example--between performance indicators for police in urban areas and rural areas. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will give the matter positive consideration.

In conclusion, I thank the hon. Gentleman for initiating the debate. I have tried to respond to it in a rounded way. I believe that we can be proud of the Government's record, although there is a great deal still to be done if we are to achieve the secure rural communities about which hon. Members spoke and to which I am committed.

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