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Policing (Northamptonshire)

Volume 458: debated on Tuesday 13 March 2007

I rise on behalf of my constituents in Kettering to discuss policing in Northamptonshire, and I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to do so, and the Minister for listening to my constituents’ concerns. Law and order and the fight against crime are the No. 1 priority for Kettering residents. There is huge concern about criminal activity and antisocial behaviour, at every level, and I am sad to report that many residents now do not report more minor crimes because they believe that nothing appropriate will be done about them. That is true in the towns in the Kettering constituency, and across Northamptonshire, but also in rural areas. Ahead of the debate I received a letter from Mr. Paul Tame, the east midlands regional environment and land use adviser to the NFU. He made the good point:

“Many farmers in the county have lost confidence in the police to detect and deal with the high levels of rural crime, much of which goes unreported because land managers feel, rightly or wrongly, there is no longer any point in reporting incidents. I know the police are under pressure from all sides but we do not feel that enough resources are expended on solving and combating rural crime in the county.”

That, I am afraid, is a widespread feeling in the rural community. However, it would be remiss of me not to praise officers in Northamptonshire for their hard work. I spent 22 days last year on the police parliamentary scheme, with the Northamptonshire force, and I know first hand how hard police officers work and the effort that they put into their role. I thank them for their endeavours. Nevertheless, things are serious for policing in Northamptonshire. As always, I suppose, it comes down to finance. Yes, record amounts of money are spent on police there, but there are problems with the way the funding is allocated.

This year, with the roll-out of the safer community teams and the expansion of the Government’s police community support officer programme, there are an additional 25 PCSOs in the county, bringing the total to 163. That is 50 short of the Government’s original target of 213. However, although we have 25 more PCSOs we have a net loss of 11 police officers, as well as 28 support staff, to pay for them. I have raised that situation in the House many times and the Policing Minister is on record as saying that it is not Government policy to replace police officers with PCSOs. Nevertheless the effect of Government policy in Northamptonshire is precisely that.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on obtaining this debate and standing up for the people of Northamptonshire, as he always does. Is not the crux of the issue—so it appears to my constituents—the fact that we are losing police officers and getting more police community support officers, and the Government are trying to get policing on the cheap?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and congratulate him on all the hard work that he does in this place to represent his constituents’ concerns. Our constituencies are both covered by the north Northamptonshire basic command unit area and, going by our experience, we will have more PCSOs on the beat, but we will also have fewer police officers. Recruiting and paying a PCSO is less expensive than recruiting and paying a full-time police officer. I know from first-hand experience that PCSOs do a wonderful job and are dedicated to their task, but they are unable in law to arrest suspects. They can only detain them while they await the arrival of a police officer with full powers. Residents are rightly concerned that they see fewer such officers on the streets of Wellingborough and Kettering.

The police authority is bending over backwards to fund the roll-out of the safer community teams. The early signs are that the community teams are working extremely well, but the police authority has had to dip into its reserves to the tune of some £600,000 this year. An extra £500,000 has been made available from the county council and the police authority has also identified efficiency targets of £3 million for 2007-08. However, it simply is not enough, and next year will be worse than this year, with, currently, the likelihood of a £5 million gap. The police authority has done extensive research on how it will fund policing in Northamptonshire, and has made projections to 2011 on the basis of the following assumptions: an annual increase of 2 per cent. in the central grant support; an annual precept increase of 5 per cent.; general inflation at 2 per cent.; pay inflation at 3 per cent.; and the continuation of the Government’s PCSO grant at 75 per cent. When it has crunched all its numbers, which it has made available to the Home Office, the shortfall by 2011 is some £20 million. That is the potential crisis facing us in Northamptonshire.

Of course, the force is already overstretched. There are about 490 people per police officer, whereas the England and Wales average is about 370, so already in Northamptonshire each police officer must do far more than the national average. That is before taking into account the huge increase in the county population that is projected by 2031. As a result of the Government’s housing expansion programme, Northamptonshire has been included in the Milton Keynes and south midlands sub-regional spatial strategy growth area. The population of Northamptonshire is due to rise from 660,000 people today to just short of 1 million by 2031. Today Northamptonshire has 1,347 police officers. To keep the police officer to population ratio the same, it will need just short of 2,000 police officers by 2031. There is very little evidence at the moment that the Government have the plans and strategy in place to fund that expansion in police numbers.

When the population rises, council tax and precepting will bring in additional revenues, but those are historic revenue streams, after the event. The Government need to identify some funding ahead of the increase in population, so that police numbers in relation to population do not get worse. It is alarming to think that with that increase in the population there will, unfortunately, be an increase in the number of crimes committed in the county. At the moment just short of 70,000 crimes are committed a year. On present trends that will be just short of 100,000 by 2031. Antisocial behaviour will increase likewise. People are very worried; we do not have enough police officers now, and the number is already starting to fall. Things are likely to get worse before they get better.

I want to focus today on the matter of prolific and persistent offenders. They are particularly nasty individuals, who commit the bulk of crime throughout the country. That is especially relevant in Northamptonshire. In the north Northamptonshire basic command unit area, probably about 50 individuals commit the bulk of the crime. At every opportunity, when I was taking part in the police scheme, I asked officers what could be done for policing in north Northamptonshire if those people were somehow taken out of the equation. Every officer, at every level, said, “There would be no problem at all, Philip, because those people commit the bulk of the crime. If they were locked up or taken out of the equation we could concentrate on the zero tolerance measures that everyone wants.”

I bring to the House’s attention the case of a persistent and prolific offender, whom I shall call William. The police had to jump through hoops to bring him to justice. He is a real person, but I have disguised his identity. He is a 26-year-old male with 20 convictions for 62 offences. He was released from prison in early October after serving just under four years in prison for burglary and possession of controlled drugs. In October, after his release, the Kettering area suffered a significant increase in dwelling burglaries—double the number of the previous month. Police intelligence indicated that William was responsible for those burglaries. At the end of October, William and an associate were arrested on suspicion of burglary after, bizarrely, voluntarily handing themselves in at their local police station. They were released on bail pending further inquiries.

Six days later, William was arrested again on suspicion of carrying out another burglary in Kettering. That home owner was able to name him as the offender. In custody, he was searched and found to have a knife concealed in his underpants. He was then further arrested for being in possession of an offensive weapon and charged with that offence. He was bailed to appear in court and released. Within two days, he was arrested again and charged with witness intimidation because he had visited the burglary victim’s home and made numerous threats, including that he would burn the victim’s house down.

On another occasion, William was arrested for breaching his bail after being stopped in Kettering within his curfew time. In his possession was a bladed article. When he appeared before the court, the remand application was turned down, despite his long record of bad behaviour, and he was bailed to his brother’s address in nearby Corby. However, that was in direct breach of his brother’s tenancy agreement. His bail conditions also included a curfew and the conditions that he should not visit Kettering except to attend court and should not communicate with the victim.

In early November, police officers acting on received information attended an address in Kettering and found William asleep in the rear of a vehicle, in direct contravention of his bail conditions. He was searched and found to be in possession of a small quantity of jewellery and some white tablets. He was arrested on suspicion of the handling and possession of controlled drugs. In a further search, in custody, a piece of foil with what appeared to be heroin stains was found in a cigarette packet hidden in his trousers. In his cell, he tore apart his mattress and was charged with criminal damage. He also refused to move his arm from the hatch on his door and assaulted a police officer when police attempted to move his hand. He was charged with assaulting a police officer and held until his court appearance in early November, when he was at long last remanded in custody by magistrates.

Regrettably, four days after initially being remanded in custody, William was released on conditional bail by magistrates at his next hearing. Again, his bail conditions specified that he should not enter Kettering. The bail address was that of a relative in Northampton who confirmed to the police that William did not have permission to live at his address. A statement was taken, and William was again sought for breach of bail. Two weeks later, he was found hiding at an address in Kettering and arrested for breach of bail. In addition, a warrant was issued when he failed to appear at court on 15 November, and he was wanted for questioning about further burglary offences. When he was brought before the courts, he was finally remanded in custody. Eventually, at the end of February 2007, Northampton Crown court sentenced him to a total of 27 months in prison for burglary and other offences.

Throughout the period that William was at large, not only was he was arrested six times, but police intelligence and crime patterns suggest that he was criminally active. Substantial police resources were used to try to curtail that activity, but that would not have been necessary had he been remanded in custody earlier. That example was very detailed, but it shows how a known persistent and prolific offender alone accounted for a doubling in the burglary rate in Kettering when he was released from prison. The police had to jump through hoops to bring him to justice, including by arresting him six times.

Having drawn that case to the Minister’s attention, I ask two things of him. First, will he please find the time to meet the commander of the northern Northamptonshire basic command unit to discuss how the police and criminal justice systems can get to grips with known persistent and prolific offenders in a more time-efficient manner? Secondly, given the huge scheduled increase in population in Northamptonshire by 2031, will he meet the Milton Keynes and south midlands inter-regional police board to discuss how on earth we are to overcome the under-funding of the police in Northamptonshire? They should also discuss sensible funding increases for the next 25 years.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr. Hollobone) on securing the debate and on opening it so eloquently, and I thank him for the way in which he put his points. I shall address his last points first. I am sorry to hear about the problems with the prolific and persistent offender he mentioned. I can imagine the frustration that his constituents and others must have felt about that case. Such matters are a concern, but they are for the courts to deal with—not me.

Of course, I am happy to meet the BCU commander whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am also happy to meet the police board, but I need to check that that is appropriate in terms of ministerial responsibility. As I say to my office, I will always meet people to discuss matters, even if the outcome is not what they want. Sometimes, the least that MPs want is to put to Ministers the case of their constituents or area, which is perfectly fair and proper. I am happy to meet them for that reason if I can.

The hon. Gentleman has properly spoken out for his police force, and I am grateful for this opportunity to put on record the Government’s perspective on the funding of Northamptonshire police. I shall give a few statistics to set the debate in context, and I apologise to the hon. Gentleman if he has heard these figures before, but it is important to go through them.

The grant settlement that the House approved earlier this year, without a Division, provided all forces and police authorities, including Northamptonshire, with an increase in general grant for next year of 3.6 per cent., which is above the rate of inflation. Since 1997-98, Government funding for Northamptonshire police has increased by more than 55 per cent., which equates to 22 per cent. in real terms. That is an unprecedented investment in the police service of which we can all be proud. The results of that investment are clear to see. Northamptonshire now has 1,325 police officers, 148 more than in March 1997. In the same period, the number of support staff increased from 554 to 989—an increase of more than 78 per cent. Those support staff enable officers to be released for front-line duties, where the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and hon. Friends want them to be. Northamptonshire also has 62 police community support officers. As hon. Members know, they have been an innovation under this Government, and I shall say a bit more about that later.

We should consider outputs as well as inputs, because these results are also impressive. In the past year, overall recorded crime in Northamptonshire fell by 7.9 per cent. That is a big and impressive drop, notwithstanding the point made by the hon. Member for Kettering about people not recording crime. There was a particularly welcome fall in violent crime. I, like him, pay tribute to all in Northamptonshire who have contributed to achieving that impressive result—not only the police but others who have been involved in the various partnerships. I am sure that he is aware that crime fell by 11.5 per cent in the northern basic command unit area, which includes Kettering. We are talking about big reductions in crime as well as the issues that he has raised.

I shall say something about the distribution of Government funding to the police. Some police forces have suggested that they are relatively under-funded when compared with others, so it is worth setting out the principles. As the hon. Gentleman will know, funding for police forces is based on a formula that was drawn up in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Association of Police Authorities. It takes account of the demographic composition of the population, including wealth and employment status, together with factors such as population density. All those elements are factored into the relative needs formula, which forms the basis of the distribution of the available funds between the police authorities in England and Wales.

Funding has never been based purely on population; indeed, a moment’s thought would demonstrate why that would be a very inaccurate way to determine the relative needs of different police authorities. The operation of the formula is subject to a damping mechanism to ensure that no forces suffer a dramatic change in funding from one year to the next.

The hon. Gentleman comes from the same region as I do, so he will know that some in the east midlands complain because, as a result of the damping mechanism, their forces receive less than they are strictly entitled to under the funding formula. That point was made by several hon. Members in a recent Westminster Hall debate on funding in the east midlands. I know that the hon. Gentleman attended that debate. Northamptonshire, in fact, gains from the operation of the damping system. In 2007-08, it will receive £600,000 more than it would if the funding formula were to be fully applied.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Security and Community Safety has made it clear on a number of occasions, including during the debate to which I have just referred, that we are very willing to engage on a cross-party basis to see whether we can come up with a system of police funding that is equitable and ensures that we get the best possible services across England and Wales. That is notwithstanding the fact that there will always be a debate about the amount.

We are clearly prepared to have an ongoing discussion about this. We have held several very informative meetings with hon. Members, chief constables and representatives of police authorities. I am happy to reiterate the point that I made at the beginning of my remarks: Ministers’ doors remain open. There is a need for dialogue on these issues to accompany the party political point scoring in which we sometimes indulge.

I shall say something about the future. We have made it clear that following the successful introduction of a two-year settlement, we intend to move to a three-year settlement covering the years of the next comprehensive spending review—2008-09 to 2010-11. As the hon. Gentleman said, the Home Office will receive a flat-rate increase over the CSR years. No decision have been taken on how the overall pot of Home Office money will be distributed between the various services that the Home Office supports, and I am not making any announcements about that today.

What I can say is that there are real pressures across all areas of Home Office business, and the days of the police receiving above-inflation funding increases are probably over. The funding that we have provided in recent years, to which I have referred, has put police finances on a very sound footing, on which they can build. We will also be looking to the police to make substantial efficiency savings. They have made very impressive productivity gains and efficiency savings in recent years. That work must continue to ensure that the maximum possible resources are devoted to front-line policing.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the recruitment of PCSOs has had the effect of reducing the number of police officers. May I again clarify that PCSOs are not a replacement for police constables? They are an additional resource for the police service in support of the implementation of neighbourhood policing. May I say to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone) that they are certainly not policing on the cheap? They play a distinct and complementary role. To be fair to the hon. Member for Kettering, he paid tribute to the work that they do.

PCSOs are most effective when deployed as members of teams led by police officers, providing a highly visible and responsive presence. They are generally concerned with community engagement rather than enforcement, as that area of work remains, for the most part, the preserve of sworn police officers. This is the nub of the debate about how we use police officers and PCSOs.

I am sure that a debate will take place in Northamptonshire, as it will in the rest of the country, about the appropriate balance between police officers and PCSOs. The police service is actively recruiting PCSOs. That is rightly a matter for local decision making, which is why we have changed the funding arrangements for next year. Determining the best mix is far better done by the local chief constable, his local commanders, community representatives and the police authority. I am sure that that is what is happening in the hon. Gentleman’s area, as it is in areas across the country.

I appreciate the good intentions on PCSOs. Does the Minister recognise that although it is not the intention, the effect of the Government’s funding rules is that Northamptonshire has ended up with more PCSOs but fewer police officers? It was never the Government’s intention that that should happen.

Again, this is the nub of the debate. We have had this debate before, but I should say something that is worth repeating. If there is local decision making, money is not ring-fenced and people are allowed to have greater flexibility over how they spend it, different decisions will inevitably be made about how it is spent and about the distribution between different areas of work. Across the country, some areas of work would be fully funded by the police and huge activity would be undertaken, but other specific areas of crime would not be as fully investigated or would not be as fully dealt with as possible. This is a matter for local decision making, because such things are best done at local level.

I am confused because my local police told me that PCSO money was ring-fenced and they did not have local decision making as to how they spent it.

The commitment in respect of 24,000 PCSOs was going to be ring-fenced, but we moved away from that. Instead of telling forces next year that they would get an additional sum but would have to spend it to move towards the target of having 24,000 PCSOs across the country, we changed our approach so as to put the money into the general policing pot. That will give forces the flexibility next year to determine how to use it, and I hope that that answers the hon. Gentleman’s question. We could have kept that money ring-fenced, and the numbers of PCSOs would have continued to rise, but we decided not to, because we felt it more appropriate to allow local decision making to apply.

The result of that decision is that the Northamptonshire police have been allocated £2.8 million towards the cost of neighbourhood policing in 2007-08. That is an increase of 33 per cent. over funding in 2006-07. The force will have 138 PCSOs in 2007, which is an increase from 40 in 2006 and will contribute to the roll-out of neighbourhood policing across Northamptonshire. I cannot remember the exact number but we are not talking about the figure that the hon. Member for Kettering would have added on to the 138 to be Northamptonshire’s part of the 24,000.

There will not be an expectation to increase PCSO numbers further, although the force is free to do so if it wishes, depending on local needs and circumstances. We have therefore extended much more flexibility for local decisions to be taken, both to Northamptonshire police and across the service generally. That is important because community safety is a shared responsibility and local decision making, with the involvement of the community and local partners, is crucial to the success of neighbourhood policing.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Kettering on securing this debate, the hon. Member for Wellingborough on his contribution and Northamptonshire police on the work that they have done. I look forward to having the meetings that the hon. Member for Kettering requested, so that we can continue the dialogue about how best to take things forward. May I also ask his constituents, as well as others in Northamptonshire and across the country, to report any and every crime to the police, because that way we can get a true picture of what is happening, and the police can divert the necessary resources accordingly?