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Policing (Mid-Surrey)

12.30 pm

Chris Grayling (Epsom and Ewell): I thank the Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs for attending the debate, in which I proposed to draw his attention to funding for police in Surrey, the increasingly overstretched nature of the local force and the growing worries of many of my constituents.

I shall start with a positive point. Surrey has the good fortune of being an area that enjoys one of the lowest levels of recorded crime per head of population in Britain. My constituency of Epsom and Ewell is a low-crime area in a low-crime county, as I am sure that the Minister will tell me. However, it is easy to look at headlines and spot an area that is not a problem and put it at the bottom of the priority list when considering next year's budget and resourcing. That is happening to Surrey and I ask the Minister to think more carefully about Surrey's future police resourcing. That attention is needed not only because of the internal issues within Surrey that I will describe, but the international practicalities of having the two largest airports in the United Kingdom on our doorstep. If there is a major incident at Heathrow or Gatwick, Surrey police inevitably form a major part of the response. The Minister's decisions on funding in Surrey have a direct impact on the ability of the emergency services to deal with major events quickly and effectively, should the unthinkable happen.

Surrey is at the bottom of the pile when it comes to funding. In a recent written answer, the Minister kindly provided me with details of the grant per capita provided by the Government to forces throughout the country. Surrey's per capita grant in the current financial year is £77.04. The force area that receives the next lowest amount is Dorset, which receives £85.83. By comparison, Northumbria receives almost twice as much—over £140 per head—despite lower living costs for officers in that area. Surrey has one of the few forces in the country in which the number of officers is falling.

The relative support that the Home Office provides to Surrey has worsened considerably in recent years. Since 1997-98, Essex police have received a 20 per cent. increase in grant funding, Thames Valley police a 22 per cent. increase, and Hampshire police a 23 per cent. increase. Surrey has had a 1 per cent. cut in grant funding.

This year, the Government have announced a small increase of 2.3 per cent. for Surrey in the coming financial year. However, there has been a 4.9 per cent. increase in Surrey's cost base, which was largely made up of an extra 3 per cent. for police pay and additional costs for police pensions. All that means that the funding squeeze on police in Surrey has become tighter.

What are the consequences on the county of the funding squeeze? To start with, they are structural. From January, the force has had to streamline its operations from seven divisional headquarters to four. That means that fewer senior officers have operational roles. An example from my constituency is that Epsom always had its own local superintendent, but it no longer does. Our local police must now report to the divisional headquarters of a superintendent in Staines, which is a considerable distance from the town. However, the

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previous report by the inspectorate cited that one of the Surrey force's few weaknesses—the report was otherwise glowing, which does great credit to senior officers and those on the ground—was that local knowledge in control centres was rated as "poor" by operational staff. A financial process that creates a tighter structure with fewer operational centres can only make that worse.

In my constituency, Epsom police station's custody suite will now be open for only part of the week, rather than the entire week, to save money. Officers will have to transfer prisoners to Reigate, which is perhaps 10 miles away. That development is especially worrying in view of the changed nature of Epsom town centre, which is one of those centres on the fringes of London that are increasingly becoming dominated by pubs, clubs and restaurants. Unruly behaviour on Friday and Saturday nights is becoming worse and there are signs of violence that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Only a few weeks ago, there was a serious stabbing outside a club in the town. Considering such developments, my guess is that in the years ahead Epsom town centre will become more rather than less difficult to police.

The Surrey police are scaling down their responsiveness to 999 calls, as they very publicly announced a few weeks ago. From now on, only calls that meet clear criteria will receive a response. For example, police will refuse to attend burglar alarms in the absence of clear signs of activity on a property. In fact, the problem is much worse than that. Already the pressures on front-line officers in dealing with 999 calls are manifesting themselves. Several of my constituents contacted me to express anxiety about how difficult it is to receive a 999 response to all but the most significant incidents. In one case a few weeks ago, a gentleman in my constituency had his car vandalised by a gang of local youths. He knew who they were. He contacted the police and asked for an officer to come round immediately, but he did not receive a response for a couple of days. That is an operational issue for Surrey police, but it reflects the day-to-day pressures on officers, which manifest themselves in the first signs of a service that is poorer than my constituents would choose to receive.

Officers' pay is an issue not only for the police in Surrey but throughout the south-east. Officers in Surrey are paid perhaps £6,000 a year less than their counterparts just over the border in London, who have the advantage of London weighting. There are signs that Surrey is losing officers to the Met, which is aggressively expanding its rolls. Such officers go because they can earn a bit more money for travelling not very far. The Minister needs to be mindful of that trend in the next few months, as there is a danger that force levels outside London will suffer as a result of the drive to recruit in the Met.

The crime figures for Surrey do not sufficiently reflect the increase in antisocial behaviour in the county and the social upheaval that it creates. We already know about the impact of such behaviour in inner-city areas. We must not allow it to take hold in suburban and country areas as well.

Against that background, I cannot praise Surrey officers on the ground highly enough for the commitment that they bring to the job and for their work in keeping crime figures down. They do an

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excellent job. However, in dealing with the growing menace of antisocial behaviour, there simply are not enough of them to provide adequate protection for my constituents and people throughout mid-Surrey.

I shall describe some of the incidents that take place every week in my constituency and with which the police simply do not have the numbers to cope. One case involved a woman who ran a small upholstery business in a building adjoining Banstead station. Her premises were probably originally the offices for an old coal yard—a detached building in the middle of the station forecourt. She has been there for nearly 30 years, but she is now leaving, having been terrified by a group of teenagers who, day after day, week after week, would vandalise her building and harass her in her place of work, banging on the side of the building and smashing windows while she cowered inside. Inevitably, before the police could come, they had melted away into the surrounding area. When one night they forced their way into her building, through strong iron bars, smashed up the inside and wrecked her business, she decided that enough was enough. She is on her way. None of that ever showed up in the crime figures. It might have showed up as a one-off, but the figures did not reflect the harassment that that woman faced week after week.

A second case involves a gang that has systematically vandalised Ashtead station in the past year. They hung around on a Saturday night, covered the walls with graffiti, jumped on trains, wrecked carriages and stopped off to commit acts of vandalism at various stations along the way. My local beat constable has done sterling work in trying to tackle the problem.

All credit to Surrey police. On a couple of occasions they have mounted operations to remove the ringleaders, but that has not solved the problem of that gang and others from all over the county going up and down the railway line on a Friday and Saturday night causing damage near the stations. The resources do not exist in Surrey to mount a systematic campaign to deal with the problem. The reality is that one or two local officers are confronted by a gang of 30 young people, who basically say, "Up yours!" Those officers cannot deal on an operational basis with such problems.

Very little of what the gang does will show up in official crime figures, but the fear that it causes is real. The bulk of our law-abiding teenagers, who live in one of the safest areas in Britain, as the Minister would tell us, are afraid to walk around Ashtead after 6 pm because of the gang. Gang members cause damage and harass commuters and young people in the area.

A similar problem occurred in Stoneleigh broadway, where another gang has harassed shopkeepers and committed acts of vandalism for months. In the past couple of weeks, the gang's activities have stepped up a gear and it committed an unpleasant assault on a local shopkeeper—an example of antisocial behaviour turning into criminality. Other incidents in my constituency involve shopkeepers on Tattenham corner and some of the smaller parades.

There are now widespread reports that the gang culture that has grown up in suburban areas is beginning to attract youngsters from the cities and other parts of the south-east who are looking for a Friday night session of vandalism and violence. That is especially true

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of the areas along the railway line in my area—as it is for others, I suspect. It is easy to jump on a train, cause trouble and get away quickly.

To some degree, the problem is showing through in crime figures. If the Minister studies the incidence of recorded crime in Surrey, he will see that criminal damage rates are now much higher than in other counties, especially in rural areas. The same is true of drug offences and, more worryingly, violent crime. For example, in Surrey there are three times as many acts of violence against the person as in Warwickshire. Therein lies the rub for the Minister. Surrey is a low-crime area that lies alongside the high-crime area of London. I understand that it has not been a priority for the Home Office. However, if the financial squeeze on Surrey police makes it impossible for them to deal with the rising problem of antisocial behaviour, we risk the tougher battle fought in the inner cities being brought out to the suburbs and a broader area of society, which cannot be desirable.

I have two requests for the Minister. First, although I do not expect him to get out his cheque book for long-term funding here and now, when his Department reviews future funding requirements for forces, will he reconsider Surrey's case and ask whether we merit such a low settlement in comparison with other counties? My second request concerns antisocial behaviour and vandalism on the railways. I have already discussed with the chief constable the possibility of mounting a systematic campaign this spring and summer to try to stamp it out once and for all. Inevitably, on a tight budget the chief constable does not easily have the resources to do that. Does the Home Office have discretionary funds? Can Surrey police, together with British Transport police and the railway companies seek the resources to mount such a campaign from the Home Office?

In the past couple of generations, we have seen a steady erosion of standards of behaviour throughout too much of our society. Too often, it has led to criminal activity. Crime rates today are much higher than when our parents were children. In Surrey and similar parts of the country, the trend is not the massive social problem that we face in many of our inner cities, but we cannot afford to ignore it. I do not want to return in five or 10 years to try to shut the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Police in Surrey need sufficient resources to stamp on the unwelcome trend in antisocial behaviour. I fear that they are far too thinly stretched at present because the overall crime figures give a veneer that all is well. Surrey police deserve the credit that they get for their work from the police inspectorate and the public, but the pressure on resources is already making the service that they offer a little ragged around the edges. The Minister can help to change that, and I urge him to do so.

12.45 pm

The Minister for Police, Courts and Drugs (Mr. John Denham) : First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) on securing this debate on policing in mid-Surrey. It gives us a good opportunity to air local concerns and allows me to outline what the Government and the police are doing to reduce crime further and make Surrey a safer place in which to live.

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I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not mind if I chide him a little. He spoke about declining standards of respect and behaviour in society. He is a member of the Conservative party, which told us not so long ago that there was no such thing as society. If we had not gone through such a long period of dismantling the things that make our society cohesive, we might not face some of the problems that we do. Let us not forget that, according to the British crime survey, which is generally regarded as the most authoritative measure of crime—a better measure than reported crime—in the year up to April 2001 the chance of being the victim of crime in England and Wales was at its lowest since the survey began in 1981.

I do not dismiss the seriousness of the incidents that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, nor do I deny that there are significant problems still to be faced and overcome. However, the surveys do not reflect his description of everything falling apart around our ears. I shall consider some of his arguments before I cover financial and staffing issues.

It is true that Surrey has relatively little crime and has experienced falls in crime. Even recorded crime fell by just under 1 per cent. in the 12 months to last March, and it has fallen by more than 10 per cent. since 1995. Both those statistics exclude the effects of the boundary changes. The detection rate for crime in Surrey for the past year was 28 per cent., compared with 25 per cent. in the south-east region, which suggests that the police are doing a good job.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about antisocial behaviour. Of course it is important to have more police on the beat to respond to crimes and I shall talk about the Government's reform program in that regard. Most antisocial behaviour and vandalism of the sort that he describes requires—and the police deserve—a partnership between the police and local authorities and other agencies. His local authority should have an antisocial behaviour co-ordinator, who should work with the police to ensure that full use is made of the antisocial behaviour orders, curfews and legislation that the Government have introduced to tackle the problems.

The Police Reform Bill will both simplify and extend the scope of antisocial behaviour orders to make them more flexible. One of the changes will enable the British Transport police to seek antisocial behaviour orders. That will be of significant use against those who are behaving on trains or at stations in the way that the hon. Gentleman describes. I hope that he will welcome those moves.

The hon. Gentleman asked about resources. There is no central pool of funds for antisocial behaviour work, but just as we have had a crime reduction program this year, next year we will have a safer communities initiative, which will fund priority crime reduction activities in local areas. For some of the problems that he describes, money from the communities against drugs initiative can be used, which crime reduction partnerships and local authorities will have received. That can be used to fund policing activities or deal with the consequences of drug misuse, or for closed circuit

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television. A range of funds that did not previously exist is being made available to communities to help to tackle those problems.

Let us consider the wider issues. We recently debated next year's police settlement in the House. There was a 6.1 per cent. overall increase in provision for police spending through Government grants in England and Wales, which builds on a 10.1 per cent. increase in the current financial year. That is good news. Surrey police were allocated a Government grant of £82.9 million—an increase of 2.4 per cent. on the current financial year. On one of the more discretionary matters, I decided to continue to pay the costs incurred by the Metropolitan police boundary changes in April 2000 for another year. Therefore, Surrey police will receive an additional £800,000 to meet those costs in 2002-03.

Aside from discretionary decisions of that sort, the distribution of grant is intended to reflect the relative needs of forces. The formula is weighted so that forces that serve larger populations receive more money. It also takes into account the socio-demographic nature of the population. Surrey is fortunate because it has experienced a large decrease in young male unemployment, which is a significant indicator in the formula that establishes the likelihood of crime taking place. It has also had a lower than average increase in resident and daytime population. That is reflected in the grant distribution for the current year.

The 2.4 per cent. increase in grant is not the only additional money that Surrey will receive this year. It will receive a further £3.3 million from the crime fighting fund to meet the costs of recruiting extra police officers, as well as the costs of those it recruited last year. It will also receive £11,000 from the rural policing fund and it is expected to benefit from additional funding to help meet the cost of the Airwave communications system.

It is for police authorities to set the final budget and they must determine the precepts. Government grant is just one indicator of police performance. The Audit Commission's figures on spend per capita for 1997-98 to 1999-2000 show that Surrey police spent more than the other forces in the south-east, although I accept the hon. Gentleman's figures with regard to grant per capita under the police grant.

The hon. Gentleman raised several questions about the police funding formula. Although it has many strengths and the policing community retains a high degree of confidence in it, we are working on updating it in line with the needs of policing for the next five years. I also want to ensure that the formula supports the reform and modernisation processes upon which we have embarked.

A working group has been established to examine the formula. Its members include representatives from the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Association of Police Authorities and other interested bodies. The group is considering a range of options to update the police funding formula, particularly with regard to the police activity data that underlie the formula and the additional costs that might arise from policing especially sparsely or densely populated areas.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the proximity of Gatwick and Heathrow airports. I cannot give any guarantees about the outcome, until the exercise has been completed. However, as such questions are raised

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every year throughout the country in consultations about the police grant, I hope that we will be able to answer them and show people that at least we have examined them, even if we have decided that they should not influence the formula.

Chris Grayling : Will the Minister also ask the people who are engaged in that work to examine the potential impact of cross-border movements? Some young people board a train and travel a few stops down the line to Surrey to commit antisocial acts because policing is tougher in the Metropolitan police area. Such cross-border flows of trouble could become a problem.

Mr. Denham : I am unsure whether it would prove possible for a formula to reflect such movements without it becoming incredibly complex. The Metropolitan police might point to criminal activity that is committed by people who come into the city from places such as Surrey. However, the type of one-way traffic activity that the hon. Gentleman mentioned might be addressed, if there was an evidence base to show that it was taking place. Some formulas are so complex that nobody understands how they operate. The new formula must avoid that pitfall if it is to command respect.

On police numbers, the public rightly feel reassured by the sight of police officers on our streets—it helps to reduce the fear of crime. The police reform process that we embarked on is designed to achieve record numbers of police officers in England and Wales by this spring and 130,000 officers by spring next year, and to make better use of their time. Our own research shows that just under 50 per cent. of a typical police constable's time is spent in the police station rather than out on patrol, for a variety of reasons.

On a recent visit to the police headquarters in Surrey, I was interested to see the new call centre that had been established with the specific intention of enabling officers to report directly the details of crimes, such as burglaries, that they had dealt with. They no longer have to travel back to a police station to enter the details before setting out on the next visit. I was impressed by that change when I visited the force with the chief constable. It is just one example of the ways in which new investment can free up officer time and, in part, it is the answer to the hon. Gentleman's question about response times for particular types of incident. The public can also use the call centre. As public confidence in that way of contacting the police grows, police time will be freed up.

In general, investment in information technology, reduced bureaucracy, better liaison with the courts and more effective use of civilian staff—the chief constable

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of Surrey is keen on that—will all help to deliver more police officers in the community, not just wandering the streets but devoting their energy to getting underneath and behind the underlying problems that the hon. Gentleman described and solving them. That is the wish of the public and the Government.

The overall number of police officers in Surrey on 30 September 2001 was 2,018. That is just under 400 more officers than in March 1997, although about half of the increase resulted from boundary changes with the Metropolitan police on 1 April 2000—none the less, it is a significant increase. I referred to the support that the chief constable gives to civilian staff. Their numbers have increased since March 1997 by 230 to 957 in September 2001. Many of the extra civilian support staff are used to free police officers from paperwork and from jobs that can be as effectively undertaken by civilians.

Surrey recognised that it would be affected by the boundary changes around London in April 2000. It had Met secondees, but recognised the need to recruit early. The force recruited strongly in 1999-2000 and in 2000-01 and expects to be at its target strength of 2,043 by 31 March 2002, which reflects a slight decline over the past 12 months. The force and chief constable deliberately decided to get ahead of the game and recruit extra officers so that they were not overly affected by the return of the secondees; I certainly would not criticise that judgment.

Under the crime fighting fund, Surrey police were allocated an additional 134 recruits over and above their previous recruitment plans for the three years to March 2003. In the first year, the force appointed 240 recruits, including 94 funded by the CFF. Last year, in addition to the force's allocation of 46 CFF recruits for 2000-01, the Government allowed it to recruit this year's allocation of 48. Similarly, we have allowed the force to recruit several CFF officers this year who should have been recruited next year. The Government have given significant support to the recruitment of extra police officers in Surrey. Overall, we expect the Surrey force to recruit more than 200 new recruits in the current financial year and, through the CFF, it will be able to recruit another 32 officers next year, over and above any planned recruitment of its own.

The hon. Gentleman talked about pay. I do not have time to set out details of the extra allowances, but as he knows a significant number of officers in Surrey received for the first time an extra payment of £2,000. Surrey also benefited from help with low-cost housing.

We are aware of concern about recruitment and retention issues; we are working with Surrey and other forces to get to grips with the matter and to find the best way of tackling it.

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