Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Crime Rates (Staffordshire)

12.59 pm

Mr. William Cash (Stone): I was due to be in Sweden today with the European Scrutiny Committee. That meeting is important, bearing in mind the fact that Sweden now holds the European Union presidency. However, I was successful in securing this debate on crime rates in Staffordshire. That issue is even more important than the meeting in Sweden, and I am delighted to be here. I am delighted also that the Minister of State, the hon Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), is attending the debate, perhaps in some recognition of the seriousness of the situation in Staffordshire.

Staffordshire crime rates are appalling. The spin and the misleading statistics put out by the Government cannot cover up their failure to provide a truly excellent police force in Staffordshire with the proper resources to carry out its job. My constituents are being put at serious risk, and I insist that the Minister not only explains his position and that of the Government, but tells us that the situation will be remedied, and how. Why should my constituents be subjected to such bad crime rates?

Yesterday, on the Floor of the House, the Home Secretary claimed that last October's British crime survey showed that crime had fallen since the general election by 10 per cent. between 1997 and 1999, and that that included a 4 per cent. reduction in violent crime. These figures will astonish my constituents in Staffordshire. However, the Home Secretary conceded that crime rates under the previous Conservative Government had fallen from 1993 to 1997.

I shall present some facts that have been taken from the Library research department, from my researches and from the Staffordshire police. First, the rise in recorded offences in Staffordshire since the general election, under the new method of calculation, is 13 per cent. Even under the old rules, the rise is 4 per cent. Given what the Home Secretary had to say only yesterday--that there had been a recent reduction of 4 per cent. in violent crime and of 10 per cent. in other crime--the Minister has some serious explaining to do. It is the Home Secretary's assertion that crime has fallen by 4 per cent. everywhere else in the country. The figures for the country as a whole bear no relationship to what is happening in Staffordshire.

Secondly, the Home Office's figures show that the largest increase in violent crime, a massive 43.6 per cent.--this is outrageous--is in Staffordshire. Given the figures, it would be little comfort to my constituents to hear that house burglaries this year have fallen by 13 per cent. and that car crime has come down by 11 per cent., welcome as these reductions are.

The Prime Minister's pledge that the Government would deal not only with crime but with the causes of crime has disintegrated in Staffordshire. The causes of crime cannot be dealt with unless the money is on the table, and it is not in Staffordshire. The Government have failed my constituents on crime rates, on the cause of crime, and on the money to solve the problem. The police, including the chief constable, do a great job but the Government have them in financial handcuffs.

30 Jan 2001 : Column 50WH

I shall give some simple key figures that prove my point. They have been taken from the police authority and from other sources. Government support for the authority has fallen from 85.13 per cent. in 1995-96 to 75.52 per cent. for 1999-2000. That is a huge drop of 9.6 per cent. In 1997-98, the budgeted spend of £115.25 million was £4 million more than the Government grant plus standard spending assessment. By 2000-01, the budgeted spend had increased to £126.9 million, which was £10 million more than the Government grant plus SSA. The situation is becoming much worse under this Government and the gap has had to be filled by reserves.

That is important because other public services are involved. As for the police, reserves are now below the levels recommended by the Audit Commission. I understand that they may be nil. On the figures that I have been given, there will still be a shortfall even after the use of reserves. Therefore, the balance will have to be filled by council tax proceeds. The council tax payers of my constituency will need to know why their bills have increased. They have been described recently as the third highest demand on the police precept in the country. My constituents will also want to know why crime rates have increased by so much. They will be interested in the correlation between the vast increase in crime and crime rates, which is dramatic and contradicts what the Home Secretary said yesterday, and in the lack of resources made available by the Government.

The Government have betrayed my constituents. They have broken their promises and they have let down the police. They have exposed my constituents to grave risk from criminals and criminal behaviour. Even with the announcement yesterday of a Government grant plus SSA for Staffordshire of £121.7 million on last year's figure of a budgeted spend of £127 million--I trust that the Minister will take this in good part--pressures such as this debate and the prospect of a general election, which no doubt are concentrating the mind marvellously, a huge shortfall of about £5 million will still have to be met by council tax payers. Even assuming that the budgeted spend does not increase from last year--I regard that as highly improbable, and perhaps the Minister will comment on that--yesterday's announcement will still leave that shortfall.

Part of this bad situation stems from the Government's failure to give a fair deal to my constituents in relation to the standard spending assessment. I have campaigned vigorously about the matter over the years, but the Government have failed to meet the problem. As a result, my constituents suffer across the board. Education and other services are affected, and damage is done to the police service. Some of the problems come from pension costs, but the Government are not measuring up to the crisis. I have drawn attention to the issue in the local press and on local radio many times over recent years.

What does all this mean? Crime has increased above the national average in Staffordshire. The required money is not there, and police and police support numbers have been cut by as many as 245, including the mounted branch. The prediction--that is all it is at present--is that 85 new police officers will be recruited. I think that I am right in saying that the Home Secretary said yesterday--he has certainly said this on other occasions--that there will be an increase in police

30 Jan 2001 : Column 51WH

recruitment. That does not make any difference comparatively if we have disproportionate cuts in manpower as a result of the Government's failure to provide the necessary resources.

That applies to resources for what is happening on the ground and to those that are needed to deal with problems arising from the police pension. I understand that the amount of money that is currently required to deal with those problems will involve an increase of about 54 per cent. in current funding. We are talking about substantial sums of money and a matter that the Government are obliged to redress. It is not simply a matter of doing that for the sake and benefit of the statistics. We are not talking about statistics, but, as I said, about a 43.6 per cent. increase in violent crime, which is the highest increase in the country. There is a direct relationship between the increase in violent crime and crime generally and the lack of resources being made available by the Government.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): Most statistical analyses would contest that assertion. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could give me the academic sources from which he drew the correlation that he has just cited.

Mr. Cash: First, it is based on common sense. However, the figures that I gave are also based on those from the research department of the House of Commons Library and from the police authority itself. I will not impute to those sources the opinions that I am happy to express myself, but, for practical purposes, I believe that there is a relationship between money and crime rates; anybody who looked at the matter objectively would draw that conclusion. Indeed, in the past, members of the Labour party and those of their persuasion have often argued that there is a direct correlation between prosperity levels in inner cities and crime rates.

That was one of the things that the Prime Minister was clearly referring to when he said that the Government would deal not only with crime but with the causes of crime. If I may, I will call the Prime Minister in aid of my argument that there is a relationship between money, resources and crime rates. Perhaps the Minister would like to take that up with the Prime Minister. That direct relationship is also reflected in the manner in which the SSA is calculated. In my meetings with Ministers on matters relating to other public services, that has been acknowledged. Indeed, a Minister admitted at a fairly recent meeting that the Government had not done enough. However, she added that that was the fault not of her Department, but of the Treasury, which would not grapple with the SSA problem. The Minister will know perfectly well that the SSA is based on a relationship between need, resources and population. It is for that reason that I complain bitterly on behalf of my constituents about crime rates, which have damaged them severely.

Against that appalling background, the police, to whom I pay tribute throughout my constituency, are making serious efforts--no thanks to the Government--to open new village police stations. Five have been opened, including one which has been

30 Jan 2001 : Column 52WH

reopened in Eccleshall in my constituency. We need more of them, not remote-controlled, pass-you-on systems. We need more police visibility and accessibility. We need more permanent bobbies, and regular bobbies on the beat in every part of my constituency. I am glad that they have come back to Gnosall and Eccleshall, as they make a big difference. In Stone and Cheadle, which have significant populations, we need more permanent bobbies on the beat. There is vandalism in Walton and in Stone, and there are problems in Hixon, where there have been difficulties with juvenile groups. In sum, we need to address the question of resources and we need a greater police presence on the street and on the beat, not only in Stone and Cheadle, but in Madeley and elsewhere.

A police presence is a great deterrent to criminals; a juvenile offender does not dare tangle with a policeman. The Audit Commission has recently revealed that only 5 per cent. of police strength is displayed on the streets around the clock. That is not good enough; in fact, it is an unbelievably low proportion. Rural crime sometimes increases through the theft of garden equipment and so on when there are unsupervised car boot sales in the vicinity. At Staffordshire meetings convened by "Save the Rural Crime Unit", I have strongly urged the police to improve their performance in rural areas of my constituency, some parts of which are invaded by criminals who come down the motorways from Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.

A new system of rural crime detection has been introduced by the police authority and the chief constable. However, the meagre reference to rural crime in the rural White Paper will not be sufficient. Neighbourhood watch, house watch and farm watch need money, and the Government are simply failing the police service on that. For example, from time to time, serious issues have been raised by my constituents in and around Cheadle concerning attacks on horses. That problem is of great concern to the rural community.

All in all, the Government stand condemned for their failure to provide adequate resources to solve the problems of crime in Staffordshire. Whatever the Minister says about the question of the causes of crime, the statistics speak for themselves and come from unimpeachable authorities. My constituents and I look to the Minister to say now that the Government will change their policy and provide the money that is needed to protect my constituents from crime.

1.17 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Charles Clarke): I am grateful for the opportunity to address these issues in debate. As the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) knows, I regularly meet with Staffordshire Members of Parliament on an all-party basis to discuss this kind of issue. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman has attended some of those meetings. I am slightly disappointed that the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) is not here today. He raises these matters with me, and I am a little surprised that he has not taken the opportunity to ventilate them fully here.

I want to address a couple of points at the outset. First, the hon. Member for Stone was right to raise the crime level in Staffordshire. The statistics that the Government published a few weeks ago on total

30 Jan 2001 : Column 53WH

recorded crime made it clear that crime in Staffordshire, which had increased by 13.4 per cent., was the worst of any police authority area in the country. The only authority that had an increase in crime of more than 10 per cent. during the same period was Suffolk, which had a 10.8 per cent. increase. In fact, the majority of police forces saw reductions in crime.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the issue in Staffordshire, not only because he is a Staffordshire Member of Parliament, but because performance there was significantly worse than that in comparable police authorities. That was especially true of violent crime, for which the figures are as the hon. Gentleman set them out.

A number of important qualifications must, however, be made. The first relates to the connection that the hon. Gentleman made with resourcing. I am the last person to say that resources have no impact on the situation, but let us take, as a simple measure, the number of forces with a lower number than Staffordshire of constables per 1,000 of population. Table 3 of Home Office Statistical Bulletin 2/01 dealing with police service strength shows that 22 forces have a lower number. Staffordshire has 157.7 police constables per 1,000 of population, Avon and Somerset 152, Bedfordshire 139.3, Cambridgeshire 136.5 and so on. About half the forces in the country have a lower number of constables per 1,000 of population than Staffordshire.

I have used the constables per 1,000 measure because, in the regular interchanges that we have in the Chamber on these matters, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) always prefers it, but similar figures apply for officers per 1,000 of the population: 19 forces have a lower number of officers per head than Staffordshire. I cite those figures to demonstrate that the hon. Gentleman's point about the direct link between resources and crime levels is too simple. Important issues involving resources, including reassurance, also need to be addressed. The hon. Gentleman did refer to them, but the simple relationship that he postulated between resources and crime levels is not sustainable.

I shall spend a moment considering resources. The provisional funding settlement for Staffordshire was £121.7 million, as the hon. Gentleman said. The final figures were published yesterday and show an increase of 4.2 per cent. in real terms over this year. In addition to that money, the police authority will receive £1.943 million from the crime fighting fund to recruit extra police officers--a fact mentioned by the hon. Gentleman--and £275,000 from the rural policing fund.

That allocation was made following the submission of a large number of rural police authorities, including Staffordshire, which argued that, for the reasons outlined by the hon. Gentleman, particular costs are involved in rural policing, which the Government should meet. That is why we allocated £15 million in the current year and £30 million a year for each of the next three years. Staffordshire's share of that was, as I said, £275,000 in the current year.

Mr. Cash: I shall not repeat what I have already said, but the Minister would accept, I am sure, that, even with the announcement made yesterday, there will still be a substantial shortfall. Reserves in Staffordshire, if not nil, are certainly well below Audit Commission levels,

30 Jan 2001 : Column 54WH

and the burden will therefore fall on my council tax payers. The Government are doing nothing, as far as anyone can see, to sort out the standard spending assessment, which is so unfair to my constituents.

Mr. Clarke: I am not trying to evade the point, but, as the hon. Gentleman should know from his long experience of European and civil matters, the standard spending assessment is a matter not for me, but for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. The issues will be debated generally.

In total, Staffordshire has been awarded almost £3 million--£2.914 million--from the crime reduction fund for 16 projects, so there has been a significant resource increase in Staffordshire. It would be wrong if the hon. Gentleman did not have the courtesy to recognise that.

I acknowledge one point that the hon. Gentleman made in relation to resourcing, which I have acknowledged privately to him and his fellow Staffordshire Members of Parliament. The pensions issue has hit Staffordshire particularly hard. All forces are affected by the way in which pensions spending is allocated, and the problems may not be easily resolved, given the various interests involved and the way that pensions have been dealt with over many years.

Staffordshire does have a pensions issue, as I have acknowledged frankly since the first of my meetings with Staffordshire Members. All I can do today is reassert the commitments that I have previously given to the hon. Gentleman. We are considering what can be done to address the matter.

The chief constable has pointed out an additional factor, which I am sure he has also raised with the hon. Gentleman. In the chief constable's remarks to me, he states:

The chief constable goes on to state:

I have spoken to the chief constable about the matter, and his force has committed itself to legal action following reports of incidents of domestic violence, in order to banish the idea that crime in the home is marginal and acceptable, and to assert the idea that crime in the home--domestic violence--is entirely unacceptable.

The police are making every effort to root out this form of crime. That is why the chief constable is able to write to me that

30 Jan 2001 : Column 109WH

The chief constable also points out improvements in performance on house burglaries and car crime, which it is important to put in context, and he explains what he is doing in respect of rural police stations, to which the hon. Gentleman generously referred. The chief constable notes that the force has actively used the money from the Government's rural policing initiative, which I mentioned earlier, and has tried to increase visibility in villages. He tells me that there are encouraging signs of the effect that that has had. He reports that most of those officers are deployed on foot, but some on bicycles.

Violent crime is an issue, and the increase is not explained by what is happening with regard to domestic violence. There are real problems of street crime, to which the hon. Gentleman rightly referred. We are trying to address that, and some elements of the increase are down to a highly desirable increase in the reporting of violent crime. I congratulate the force on its efforts to increase reporting.

I conclude by referring to an important point in the relationship between crime levels in different police areas and parts of the country. We are publishing, for the first time, data on crime and disorder reduction partnerships, which compare partnerships that are

30 Jan 2001 : Column 111WH

broadly statistically similar. Table 5 of Home Office Statistical Bulletin 1/01 on crime levels breaks down two crime reduction partnerships, which are statistically comparable on the standard basis that has been established over a long period.

The table shows that East Staffordshire, which is part of a group of about 25 to 30 crime reduction partnership areas including Derbyshire, Kent and Nottinghamshire, has the highest number of crimes in the group, at 17.9 crimes per 1,000 of the population. That endorses the hon. Gentleman's general point that there is a serious issue in relation to violent crime.

Staffordshire Moorlands, another Staffordshire police district in the same police authority, is in the same family of broadly comparable areas. Violence against the person per 1,000 people in Staffordshire Moorlands is 9.8, compared to 17.9 per 1,000 in East Staffordshire. In other words, the figure is about half. I have no immediate explanation for that. We need to understand more about what is happening in particular communities and in particular forces if we are to understand why there are dramatic differences in performances.

I am sure that I can count on the hon. Gentleman's support, and that of his colleagues in Staffordshire, to ensure that when the Government seek to improve police performance and to put more resources into the police--as we are doing in order to drive crime down--no one will seek to make party political capital. I am sure that he will do what he can to help us drive crime levels down.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate, which has provided us with a good opportunity to consider some of the issues.

30 Jan 2001 : Column 55WH

30 Jan 2001 : Column 57WH

Next Section

IndexHome Page