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Rural Areas

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 22 May 2003

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11.

What initiatives they are taking to combat the drugs problem in rural areas and market towns. [114228]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. Bob Ainsworth)

All areas are covered by the drugs strategy, including those in rural locations. Funding is made available pro rata to need for every local drug action team to buy a wide range of services to meet the needs of rural communities.

Is the Minister aware of the increasing problem in the small market town of Thirsk, together with Sowerby, in Vale of York? Drugs-fuelled crime is rising to an alarming extent, with young offenders in particular turning to prostitution to fuel their drugs habit. That is a source of great social concern, but it is especially worrying to the local community and residents. What action do the Government propose to take to give the police more powers to clamp down heavily on the crime of prostitution?

We are trying to increase the number of police on our streets. Thankfully, we have achieved record numbers and the rate of recruitment to the police force is the highest since 1976. We are trying to supplement police numbers by growing the extended police family through the addition of community support officers, accredited schemes and neighbourhood wardens to give people reassurance and a visible presence in their neighbourhoods and in areas where there is a serious crime problem. I am not aware of the problems in the villages to which the hon. Lady refers, but I am aware that there are particular problems in rural areas. The Home Office is conducting studies on how young people in rural areas are affected by drugs to assess whether methods need to be used in rural areas that differ from those that are necessary in the urban environment.

Only last Saturday evening there was a murder in my home town—the first time in many years that a crime of such significance had taken place there. We have also had a spate of suicides by young people, some of which have been linked to the drugs scene.

I want to mention the outstanding success of Operation Emperor in Dumfries and Galloway, which led to the arrest of more than 70 people in the town of Stranraer, some of whom received hefty jail sentences. It was a joint operation between Dumfries and Galloway constabulary and Strathclyde constabulary during an 18-month period. However, there are many other parts of the locality where people are frustrated by what they consider to be significant inaction.

Does my hon. Friend agree that public confidence can be renewed only when operations such as Emperor are carried out? Of course, they can succeed only with the support of and information fed in by the general public.

My hon. Friend touches on a couple of important points. No matter how good the police force is on its own, there is a need to establish good and effective working relationships with the community. Intelligence and feedback are essential to the investigation of serious crime and we need to work at lowering the barriers. Different police operations in different parts of the country are designed to build those links and grow that confidence.

My hon. Friend raises the issue of deaths and suicides as a result of drugs. For the first time, we have seen a drop in drug-related deaths, which is very welcome. There is a new emphasis on harm minimisation in the updated drugs strategy, but we have a lot further to go, as other jurisdictions have a better record over many years than this country on drug-related deaths.

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), the Minister made much play of record police numbers. Is he aware, however, that once one adjusts those supposed record numbers to account for shifts and for the fact that people may be in training, on courses and off ill, one finds that the number of deployable officers is going down, particularly in my constituency? What does he say about that?

We have to have a figure of some kind so that we can compare trends. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is prepared to accept that there was shift working in the police force when the Conservatives were in government. There is still shift working, but there are record numbers of police. That may be an uncomfortable fact for him, but it is a fact none the less.

The hon. Gentleman knows that we are carrying out a programme of work as part of the police reform agenda. The Conservative party has supported some elements, but has been less supportive of others. The programme is designed to free up police time and to put as much of that resource into the front line as possible. I ask his party to continue to engage positively with the reform agenda, because it is right that we have the necessary police numbers and that we relieve officers from unnecessary duties so that as many as possible are on the streets doing the job that our constituents want them to do.