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Rural Crime (Mapping Scheme)

Volume 576: debated on Wednesday 5 March 2014

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone.

Those of us who represent rural and semi-rural constituencies face something of a paradox. We rightly want to promote their natural beauty, what seems like a timeless way of life, and the strong sense of community, but we must not shy away from the other side of the coin. What sometimes appears when we flip over to the darker side of the coin is poverty, social deprivation and sometimes isolation, poor transport and, as I will discuss today, rural crime. Rural crime is undoubtedly a very dark side of the coin, and it is made even darker, as the Countryside Alliance rightly pointed out in its manifesto for the police and crime commissioner elections, by the fact that the police face large cuts while being expected to provide the same levels of service.

Rural crime is unquestionably a negative aspect of rural life, but I come to the debate with a sense of optimism born of the story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme, which for the purposes of the debate I will refer to simply as the mapping scheme. It is the story of how a few communities came together and produced what I believe to be a unique programme to tackle rural crime. I hope that the Minister will allow me and the people involved in the scheme to be even more optimistic, and will agree to investigate the roll-out of the programme in rural communities across England and Wales.

In this country, there are a number of examples of local success stories being transformed into national programmes to tackle the menace of crime, and in the United States, a fledgling community safety scheme of the 1960s called Neighbourhood Watch was adopted nationwide in 1972 by the National Sheriffs Association; it was adopted in our country fairly soon after that. An excellent initiative of my party’s in government was the role of the police community support officer, which was first introduced throughout the country in 2003. That idea came from south-west England, but the value and impact of the programme, which totally revolutionised community policing in this country, is now felt nationwide.

In case the Minister is worried that I have not yet mentioned the coalition parties, a Conservative Home Secretary, albeit one from a little while back, Sir Robert Peel, established the Metropolitan Police Service for London in 1829. That creation proved so successful in cutting crime that in 1857 all cities throughout the country were obliged to have a police force; the idea went from local to national. The Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme is worthy of being rolled out nationally.

Only a couple of miles from the centre of Wrexham, one is in the heart of the countryside, much of which is beautiful. In addition to the scenery and the fresh air, however, local farmers, residents and the police were finding something else—something that was happening far too often. I am referring to a specific set of unwanted crime-related problems, which included the theft of farm machinery, fly-tipping, illegal hunting or lamping, car crime, including the burning of stolen cars, and thefts from outbuildings, sheds and gardens. The local police realised from the outset that it was vital to have the support of local residents in tackling these and other related crimes. I cannot praise highly enough those residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who battled away and organised with much-needed ferocity to tackle the problems head-on.

How did the project come about? Local residents and the police recognised the police’s lack of rural knowledge. Let me make it clear that I am strongly of the view that our local police officers and PCSOs are outstanding, especially given their financial constraints, but they faced an awareness that not even thousands of rural versions of the characters from “Inspector Morse”, “Bergerac”, “Kojak” and “The Bill” all rolled into one could have possibly dealt with the situation on their own without the collective knowledge of the local communities.

To start with, we are talking about an area too large geographically for visible policing. Then, to take the example of hunting rights on a plot of land, in many cases it is simply unknown whether such rights exist. There were instances of people who claimed to be lampers making bogus claims about a right to hunt. They were not bona fide hunters, because no such rights existed, and in many cases they were not even any sort of hunters at all. They were finding an excuse to be on land, in the dark, that they had absolutely no right to be on so that they could commit theft or other crimes. The situation was made worse by the fact that there were inevitably delays in tracing landowners when there were incidents.

A new programme was needed to deal with the situation. The ideas formulated came from local residents, councillors, PCSOs and the police at monthly community police meetings at the Aberoer Institute. It is fair to say that the mapping scheme was able to develop because the area in question already had a Farmwatch and OWL—Online Watch Link—alert system, through which members can contact police with information or be warned if thieves are about. OWL is used by North Wales police and local co-ordinators to build and communicate with thousands of other watch schemes.

The mapping scheme in my area was developed to support our local policing team in cutting rural crime incidents. It is run by members of the local community, and information about key areas is compiled on one central digital map. The map includes details specific to local areas, such as information about land ownership, permissions for hunting, where household closed circuit television is installed, livestock and public footpaths. Contact is made with residents throughout the area, some of whom live in scattered communities and on farms. Residents are encouraged to complete an information form—in fact, they need to do so in order to participate. They give information about their land, state what they know about other land, say whether they have household CCTV, and give details about hunting rights, land ownership, livestock, public footpaths and more. The information collected is put on a digital map, which is issued to the North Wales policing team on tablet computers. With that equipment, police officers may open the map, which is fully compliant with data protection laws. Details are constantly updated, and that is integral to the success of the project. An updated map is issued monthly on the tablet devices.

I draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that the mapping scheme has resulted in a major resource to assist rural policing teams. The data device at the heart of the project has provided police officers with information on demand—things such as a contact name and telephone number when they are dealing with an incident. This has proved extremely effective when officers need to ascertain local land ownership in order to get in touch with the owners of the land. The scheme has already proved useful when animals have been reported loose on the public highway and the police have needed to ascertain the name and telephone number of the animals’ owner. Details on hunting rights are also provided, so the project has enabled police officers to check up on lampers, real and imagined, and to stop certain individuals who have claimed that they were rabbiting. Officers confirm that no lamping permissions are in place and then move the individuals from an area. That happens quite frequently.

The programme is also able to orientate police officers and give specific geographic details about rural areas. The resource might be used, for example, to locate a reservoir. The project can provide potential back-up intelligence from available CCTV coverage. To clarify, the mapping resource has a number of household cameras highlighted, and officers have used that information to view CCTV data on several occasions.

The mapping resource has proved extremely useful in many incidents, and although, understandably, it is not always possible to link the pilot scheme directly to a successful outcome on a specific crime, it has undoubtedly assisted the policing team, at least indirectly, with rural crime incidents. Indeed, some situations have not involved an actual crime, but have been ones in which reassurance or intelligence gathering has been required. That too is, of course, vital.

Since its inception, two police officers have been piloting the mapping scheme. On average, the resource is referred to two to three times per week. It is highly significant that crime in the rural area implementing the programme is in decline. One sage community member, who has taken a leading role in the project, rightly makes this point:

“Word has got out, and many offenders and potential offenders now get the message that we know more about the area than they do!”

As anyone who has had the misfortune of dealing with any element of the criminal fraternity in rural Britain will know, that in itself is no mean feat.

One local farmer who is very involved in running the programme made this point:

“If there is theft of farm machinery, sheep worrying or a breach in a livestock boundary, it will help the attending police team to have immediate access to know who the field belongs to.”

Another local resident observed:

“The aim is a police officer or PCSO attending a rural crime will have this tablet to hand making it quicker to orientate themselves to the outlying rural areas and giving them immediate access to data.”

Meanwhile, a local PCSO has described how much local PCSOs and the police have welcomed the project and the approach of the local residents who have worked collaboratively with them on it. In the PCSO’s own words,

“They have a ‘can do’ attitude which has led to this great development, and it is important that we have as much information as possible, and as quickly as possible”.

The team that runs the programme continues to develop the scheme by introducing their objectives at monthly community police meetings, and by visits to rural households and farms to promote the system and sign up residents to the pilot scheme.

Although I am delighted to have the opportunity to share the success story of the Esclusham and Ponciau strategic community-assisted mapping pilot scheme with the House and the Minister, my purpose in this debate is not merely to provide a good story. I would like to ask the Minister three specific questions. First, will he agree to meet representatives of the scheme? Secondly, will he investigate the feasibility of rolling out the programme across England and Wales, and then report back to the House? Finally, will he investigate new funding streams within his Department to support community programmes that help to tackle rural crime? I look forward to hearing his response.

It is always a pleasure to serve under you, Mr Bone. I congratulate not only the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones) on introducing the House to what she rightly describes as a good news story, but the residents in Esclusham and Ponciau who developed the mapping scheme.

Like the hon. Lady, I represent a semi-rural constituency, so I know all about the tensions between the policing of rural and urban areas; people in each area feel that those in the other area get more than their fair share of the cake. It is always difficult for police forces to decide where to point their efforts. However, it is obvious that in rural areas local information such as land ownership and livestock details can be important to police attending incidents. I pay tribute to the hon. Lady’s constituents for gathering the information to provide the digital map that she described, which will help North Wales police tackle rural crime in the area. The other key element to the scheme is that the information can be accessed via a tablet, helping the police to get the information while they are out on the ground. That keeps police on the street—perhaps in this case, in the field, but certainly out of the station—for longer than would otherwise be the case.

The hon. Lady rightly laid great stress on what wider applicability there can be for this type of local initiative. The answer is, “a great deal.” As I set out in a speech to police and crime commissioners in January, and again at a recent conference we held for digital pathfinder police forces, one of the biggest opportunities for the police to improve the service that they give the public is through embracing new technology. It allows the police to address not only the challenges posed by rural crime, but new emerging threats.

I will talk about the wider national scene first. Clearly, technology of the type the hon. Lady has described is shifting people’s behaviour and expectations of public services. Policing is responding to that, as the example of the mapping scheme shows, but the question that I pose regularly to those running individual forces and to PCCs is whether we are responding fast enough. Technology will be a significant key to the police continuing to cut crime in the future, and the intelligence input from the local community will continue to be vital in ensuring that technology is a success.

The hon. Lady referred to Sir Robert Peel; his famous dictum was:

“The police are the public and the public are the police.”

Part of that is an instinctive daily—hourly, if necessary—information flow between the police and the public. Technology makes that much easier than it ever has been, not just through social media but by various other means. The capacity of an informed, intelligent and helpful citizen to tell the police that something is going on somewhere where we could not remotely expect a police officer to be at that moment is greater than ever before.

The other side to that is that officers should have access to information while out on the streets, so that they can make quick decisions and avoid having to go back to the station to fill in forms or access IT systems. In a world of apps that allow people to book a taxi, find out when the bus is coming and do their banking on a smartphone, online police services and information should become business as usual. All forces now provide information via their website and Twitter; nearly all forces provide information via Facebook, and two thirds do so via YouTube. The public can contact individual officers or specific neighbourhood teams in many forces directly.

It is disappointing, however, that people cannot routinely do relatively basic things, such as reporting individual crimes, online. There are exceptions. Sussex police force allows the public to report crime online, and in Avon and Somerset, victims of reported crimes can track the progress of the police investigation online. I would like to see that spread across all forces.

We want to be ambitious, not simply doing old things with new tools but harnessing the potential of technology to bring about transformational change. That is what digital policing is about. Many forces are serious about digitisation, and I am delighted that 32 forces have signed up to be digital pathfinders. The College of Policing digital pathfinder programme is about bringing together forces that are serious about forging a digital path to share innovative ideas and identify collaboration opportunities. The programme will identify what a fully digital force will look like, highlighting how technology can improve the public experience of dealing with the police, and how officers can be more efficient and effective while out on the beat and can streamline processes to link up with their criminal justice partners. I hope that North Wales police will consider becoming a digital pathfinder, building on the innovation the debate today has highlighted. I am sure that the hon. Lady will want to challenge her local force and PCC on this matter.

One of the hon. Lady’s questions was about funding. She may be aware of the Home Office innovation fund. Recently we allocated over £11 million to IT projects from the 2013-14 precursor police innovation fund. There will be another round of allocations next year, for which the fund will be two and a half times the size. Much of that money is used on precisely the type of development in IT that she has described today.

For example, Avon and Somerset will use the funding to set up a citizen portal, which will allow the public to report and track non-emergency crimes. Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire were successful in their joint bid to support their work to build innovation in IT into their end-to-end business transformation project to make all possible processes digital. South Wales is using global positioning system technology linked to police data to provide officers with relevant information and intelligence about the area they are in, or a person they encounter. Building on that money, the police innovation fund will have £50 million available next year to support further innovation, including digital projects.

The Home Office has recently awarded a contract for the provision of evidence-based decision support, a service that will enable the right team of experts from industry, small and medium-sized enterprises and academia to be assembled to focus on the customer’s specific problems before making critical decisions. It will ensure that transformation programmes are fully sighted on the latest technical innovations. By using the service, forces can be confident that they are investing in the right things and not just the latest gadgets. Those things combine to provide an opportunity for forces to bring about real, transformational change.

The hon. Lady was right to praise the innovative work that the PCSO did in partnership with her local community in developing the system in Esclusham and Ponciau. PCSOs have played a huge part in providing effective neighbourhood policing, and they are a highly visible presence in communities. As that work shows, PCSOs have proved an invaluable link between the police and the communities that they serve by understanding and identifying local priorities, solving local problems and low-level crime, and engaging with the community. That is even more important in rural areas, which, as the hon. Lady knows, can present different challenges because of their size and the remoteness of their communities.

Lasting success in tackling rural crime will lie in local police and communities having a tailored joint response to the problems that they face, as we have seen in the partnership in north Wales. Although crime rates in rural areas tend to be relatively low, it is right that rural communities can know what crime looks like in their area and can hold somebody to account for doing something about it.

We provide the public with local information about crime and what the police have done in response to it. That information is regularly updated, so the public are able to hold local forces to account., the national crime and policing portal, provides rural communities with local information about crime and antisocial behaviour. information is presented clearly and concisely, which enables the public to access crime and policing information in a way that is useful to them. The number of hits on since it was set up is evidence of how useful people find it.

We have shifted power to local communities through locally elected police and crime commissioners, who ensure that the public have a stronger voice in determining local policing priorities. A national rural crime network has been set up to tackle countryside crime, and it has been endorsed by 18 police and crime commissioners. It is good that PCCs in rural areas are coming together to discuss issues of mutual concern, and, as with the system that the hon. Lady spoke about, to spread best practice. As she rightly said, local initiatives can turn into national or international initiatives, which need to start somewhere.

I am grateful to the Minister for much of what he said. May I gently turn him to my question about whether he will meet with my constituents who are involved in the programme?

I was saving that for the end. I promise the hon. Lady that I will get there.

The rural crime network includes organisations dedicated to rural communities, which will be able to learn from one another and work collaboratively on new ideas and solutions that will benefit local people. Several PCCs have prioritised rural crime, which shows concretely that rural communities are able to have an effective say. In North Wales, the PCC has put in place a rural crime plan to engage with the rural community and address their concerns, including theft from rural areas of equipment and livestock. The force is providing a presence at farmers’ markets and agricultural events, and a rural crime team, comprising four full-time police constables and a sergeant, has been created.

Such schemes are not restricted to Wales. In Suffolk, the PCC has introduced a dedicated team of special constables to work with safer neighbourhoods teams to tackle offenders who target farms and rural communities, and rural crime police officers who will focus on hare coursing. The PCC in Thames Valley, Anthony Stansfeld, has also prioritised rural crime, and has introduced the “Country Watch” messaging system. So far, more than 7,500 people have signed up to the system to receive crime alerts and witness appeals, to see galleries of wanted criminals or suspects, and to receive information on community groups, events or meetings and details of operational work, by e-mail, text or telephone. Those examples from around the country illustrate that there is welcome new thinking and activity in the hon. Lady’s constituency and other parts of the country to deal with the problems that rural crime creates, and to enable police forces around the country to become more effective in stamping it out.

The hon. Lady asked whether I will meet her constituents. Of course I will; I am happy to do so. As I said, spreading best practice is an effective way of ensuring that good ideas have benefits beyond the local communities in which they were created. I hope that other communities will be inspired by the initiative that she spoke about and some of the others that I have mentioned. Rural crime is one the key examples where the use of new technology can, and will, transform policing, so that we deliver a better, more efficient service to the public. I hope that the good idea in the hon. Lady’s constituency will bring benefits to not only her constituents but many others around the country.