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  Police funding in Norfolk

 

 
This speech was given as part of a debate in the chamber of the House of Commons on 22 October 2003
 
Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak, and add my congratulations to the hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb). I am grateful also because it is not often, after one takes part in a debate and the Minister has wound up, that one has a chance to wind up on the Minister's winding-up. In the debate on the police the other day, she mentioned the question,  referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), of extra burdens on the police. She was worried about my description that

"the need to introduce diversity in the police force and to deal with child protection" [Official Report, 15 October 2003; Vol. 411, c. 219.]

were bureaucracy. I was quoting from the chief constable of Norfolk's report to the police authority, and I hope that she will accept that I was enumerating a list of burdens. Whether good or bad, they are still burdens. I shall not list them all again, but they are at column 208, and include everything from best value - which is of questionable value, as my hon. Friend said - —to things such as activity-based costing, the recommendations of the Climbié report, and equal opportunities. I was making the point that whether such things are good or bad, if the Home Office requires local constabularies - including Norfolk - to do them, they impose extra time and resource costs.

I also want to pick up on my hon. Friend's point about helicopters, and the fact that we do not have air cover. I have read a study published by the Public Accounts Committee on the royal family's air and rail travel. By adopting a more flexible approach, and by starting to lease and charter more, the royal family succeeded in more or less doubling the miles that they flew while cutting overall costs from about £17 million to £5 million. The Government constantly remind us that they are accruing assets for the future by paying for them over a period, such as the private finance initiative building for the Home Office, never mind that for the Treasury, so what is sauce for the goose should be sauce for the gander. During our visit to the chief constable of Norfolk's top team, we were told that the Home Office had said, "We will give you a cheque now for half the capital costs of the helicopter, but the rules do not allow you to lease or charter". That seems insane. I hope that the Minister will take that seriously.

I want to raise four issues: first, the effect of under-policing in rural areas, such as parts of my South Norfolk constituency; secondly, custody provision in the central area, including the city of Norwich, the urban parts of Broadland district and all of south Norfolk; thirdly, the special constabulary; and fourthly, Government targets.

The central area is central to the operation of Norfolk constabulary because it includes the city of Norwich. As one officer told me, if central area is performing well, Norfolk constabulary is performing well. The central area comprises the urban parts of Broadland and all my constituency, which includes some very rural areas, down to the Waveney valley and along the south-east to the borders of Yarmouth, some of the most rural and sparsely populated parts of Norfolk. Under-policing has an even more dramatic effect in those rural areas. The majority of crime occurs in the area around Norwich, so the biggest gains are made by deploying most of the central area's resources in and around Norwich. As a result, there is a constant battle in my constituency of South Norfolk to get anything even approaching adequate cover. The police sector that is managed from Diss, which excludes the north-west of my constituency around Wymondham but includes almost all the rest, covers a population of some 70,000 people and an area of about 270 square miles, but has only two police vehicles and four officers. Greater London is just over 600 square miles, so the area is about half the size of Greater London. To use an example closer to the Minister's home patch, the city of Manchester - not Greater Manchester - is 45 square miles, so the area is six times bigger than the city of Manchester. As I said, there are four officers in two vehicles, and that is assuming that nothing happens. That thin cover can be removed when there is the slightest problem.

The entire custody provision for the central area is undertaken in Bethel street police headquarters in Norwich. I visited those facilities to see the conditions in the early hours of the morning, and I can vouch for the fact that the quality and quantity are insufficient. On a busy night, it is not uncommon for the Bethel street custody suite to be closed simply because it is full, so that officers who apprehend people have to take them elsewhere.

A few months ago, a police night crew arrested someone in Loddon in my constituency and had to transport the individual to King's Lynn, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Mr. Bellingham). That is some 55 miles by road, so it is a three-hour return journey, which more or less renders the crew inoperable for the rest of the shift. If we add on the processing time once they get there, they are not only inoperable, but out of area for the rest of the night. If there is then just one extra incident in the city of Norwich that requires one extra crew to be called in from South Norfolk, as sometimes happens, an area half the size of Greater London has no police cover at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk was correct to say that this is sometimes a matter of perception, but unfortunately it is also sometimes a reality that very large swathes of rural England, covering many tens of thousands of people, have no police cover for long periods.

That brings me to my third point, which is about specials. In Diss, there used to be 12 members of the special constabulary; there are now eight. Nationally, the figures have fallen significantly—by several thousand. The Government should look into that seriously, because apart from anything else, providing specials is financially smart. It is also good recruiting ground for the regular constabulary. It may be appropriate to pay a bounty. I think that some forces are doing so. When I was in the Territorial Army, a bounty was paid. It was not significant and I certainly did not join the Territorial Army because of it. I joined because I wanted to play my part in ending the cold war, and I am pleased to say that within five years of my joining the Territorial Army, the cold war had ended. I felt, therefore, that I could leave.

My fourth point is about Government targets. There are targets for burglaries, robberies and vehicle crime, as has been said, but one officer said to me that when he meets people in my constituency, in police forums and at parish councils, he finds that for the most part those are not typically the crimes that people worry about. He said that people worry mainly about crimes such as graffiti, vandalism and the other low-level crime that we hear so much about, and certainly people complain directly to me about that sort of incident. The problem is that the targets lead the police to take those issues rather less seriously, even though they know that those are the main concerns of local residents. The incentive is to prioritise other crimes, which people do not necessarily complain about quite so much.

Those are the key issues that I wanted to raise. I again congratulate the hon. Member for North Norfolk on initiating this Adjournment debate, and I look forward to the Minister's reply.
 



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