Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted to have secured this debate on policing in Hampshire. As is my custom in Adjournment debates, I have given the Minister a rough idea of the points that I intend to make. They are not partisan – indeed, the only party political references that I shall make are at the beginning.
The Government's heart is in the right place on low-level community crime. The 1997 New Labour manifesto said:
"We will tackle the unacceptable level of anti-social behaviour and crime on our streets. Our 'zero tolerance' approach will ensure that petty criminality among young offenders is seriously addressed."
In 1998, the then Minister of State at the Home Office, the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael), stated:
" 'Zero tolerance' policing is one of the tactics available to the police to tackle criminal activity ... We have given our full support to such strategies, whether they operate under the term 'zero tolerance' or not." [Official Report, 4 February 1998; Vol. 305, c. 716W.]
In 1999, the then Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Jack Straw), declared:
"We are insisting on ... zero tolerance of anti-social behaviour." [Official Report, 29 November 1999; Vol. 340, c. 21.]
In the 2001 Labour manifesto, however, there was no mention of zero tolerance. Perhaps the Government thought that the deed was done and that the problem had been solved. It was not, and it has not been.
I refer to two very different stories from the national press. On 26 September this year, the Daily Mail ran an uplifting story entitled "Supercop" and described the
"PC who slashed sink estate's crime rate by 80 percent in a year".
Police constable Tony Sweeney took over the beat on a rundown estate. Within a year, he had slashed crime on the Lincoln Green estate in Leeds by a staggering 80 percent, thanks to walking the beat and an old-fashioned approach to law and order. He said:
"I contacted the local council and the other agencies because people who are prepared to break into cars and rob people are also generally the sort who are prepared to claim benefits when they are doing a bit of work on the side, or not pay their road tax.
"It was a question of looking for every avenue that allowed us to apply pressure to these people – to show them we meant business and that their anti-social behaviour would not be tolerated."
"It was high visibility policing. The idea was to reassure the community, the law-abiding people, that we were taking action.
"Around 30 people were arrested in the first week and nearly 100 vehicles found to have defects.
It led to a great many prosecutions and many people's benefits being stopped where they were found to be cheating."
So far, so good. The Government recognised Constable Sweeney's achievement. The article described how that week he was congratulated in person by the Prime Minister at a reception held at Downing Street.
Let us contrast that story, however, with "Tormented to Death", a story in the Daily Mail today:
"Night after night, for seven years, the youths gathered on the playing fields behind Ronald Gale's house.
"They drank, shouted and screamed, and threw things about. Several times vandals damaged his fence.
"When the pensioner told them to go away and stop disturbing him and his wife, he was met by a volley of abuse ... The final straw came when the fence was burned down for a second time. Three weeks later Mr Gale hanged himself at home".
His wife said:
"Ninety-five percent of the people living on the Nunsthorpe estate are honest and hard-working but it's just a small element who ruin it for everyone."
The local inspector from Humberside police, in whose jurisdiction this took place,
"denied that officers had failed to take anti-social behaviour seriously. He said: 'The problems on this estate are no worse than anywhere else in the country. We deal with problems of youth nuisance as they arise in a positive manner'."
There is the nub of the problem: those two very different approaches to policing. There are the people who go out, are proactive and take firm steps against youngsters who are causing disruption and distress, and there are the people who wait for things to happen and then react as best they can, instead of deterring the menace in the first place.
Let me move the debate into the context of my New Forest, East constituency, 80 percent of whose population live in the town of Totton or in the villages along the Waterside. I have here a note written as an open letter to unknown parents by a Waterside pensioner who lives in Hythe. She asks them:
"Do you know where your child is at night or what he or she is doing. I know and I am going to tell you. A large group of youngsters gather outside 'Fairview Parade Shops'. They use the telephone booths as shelters, yelling and shouting all night long. They take over the pavements, kerbs etc. intimidating local people. As the evening progresses so does the noise as they get more and more high on drink and possibly drugs ... your wonderful child or children, apart from all the noise and broken bottles ... take a great delight in using my front garden as a toilet, quite openly, and the steps to the flats above the shops are used for free-for-all sex shows, urinating onto my kitchen window, banging and spitting onto my front windows, just making my life hell ... The 'Police' do come when called but they say there is not much they can do."
This is not a party political matter. The local Liberal Democrat district councillor for Hythe, Maureen McLean, has been quoted in the local press as saying:
"There's a rather volatile situation at Hythe, where children aged between six and eleven are intimidating a lot of elderly neighbours".
I have a file full of similar individual complaints, but lest what I say be dismissed as anecdotal, I shall refer to one or two of the letters that I have had from more organised sources. The Marchwood Parish Council deputy clerk, Mrs. Jane Kitcher, wrote to me as follows:
"The members of Marchwood Parish Council are very concerned and frustrated regarding the constant vandal damage in Marchwood. Large groups of youths gather late at night at Lloyd Recreation Ground causing a long list of damage to the play area, football pitch, all-weather courts and sports pavilion and being generally abusive to the neighbours. Many phone calls have been made to the police but mostly no-one arrives. Neighbours fear that drug dealing takes place in the car park as a large number of youths gather around a vehicle many times a week."
So it is hardly difficult to spot those people or take action, if one is so minded. The letter continues:
"The Council has expressed its concern"—
to the police at Hythe—
"but there are never enough officers to cover this area".
At the other end of the Waterside is Fawley parish. In the Southern Daily Echo of 10 October, Eddie Holtham, an independent parish councillor, listed the events that take place in "A week in the parish of Fawley". Day by day he sets out the gangs, the troubles, and the ineffective response of police when summoned.
The Totton and Eling Community Association has written to me saying:
"At our executive meeting held last night the question of policing in Totton was discussed. We have only one community beat policeman (PC Derek Warwick) and he is excellent but with the best will in the world he is not able to be in all places at all times. We hear from our members quite frequently that a visible police presence on the beat is required and would make them feel safer".
I shall pass over the other individual cases, but I assure the House that I have plenty more in that vein.
I do not accept that the police cannot do more. There is a tendency towards centralisation. There is a tendency to see loutish behaviour as a relatively low priority, and to be reactive rather than proactive. That means that the trouble occurs before the police are seen, instead of visible policing deterring the troublemakers in the first place. Just because the police cannot be on beat patrol everywhere all the time, that does not mean that they should not be on beat patrol somewhere some of the time.
A proactive strategy, involving selective strikes against known troublemakers and gangs, would pay dividends in terms of deterring crime and reassuring my long-suffering constituents.
I accept that there cannot be much incentive for undermanned police units to take action against low-level community crime if the end result of all the preparatory paperwork that they have to undertake is an ineffective court punishment, laid down by people who have little direct experience of the misery caused to ordinary folk. If that were not enough, the judicial framework has so been twisted in recent years that if a policeman or teacher is accused of using even the most limited physical chastisement on a misbehaving child the result is likely to be suspension, prosecution and professional ruin.
I know that the Chief Constable of Hampshire, Paul Kernaghan, is fighting hard to improve recruitment by stressing the inadequacy of the outer London allowance of £1,000 granted after the abolition of the rent allowance. House prices in Hampshire are high. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) has endorsed that view, pointing out that policemen are drawn either to London with full housing allowances or to areas such as the south-west where housing costs are lower than in Hampshire.
I repeat that this is a cross-party issue. My near neighbour, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (David Chidgey), does not dissent from my view that there is serious concern in the community about the adequacy of grass-roots policing. My hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Mark Hoban) tells me that only two policemen are responsible for 50,000 residents at night in the western half of the town. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, West (Desmond Swayne) adds that police numbers in the Forest area have declined from 80 to 60 during the past four years and that the task of those remaining is not made easier by what he describes as
"the Human Rights culture which constrains the ability of the Police to meet the legitimate expectations of the public".
My hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Andrew Turner) reports that the Chief Constable
"is having great difficulty recruiting officers to the island"—
and that –
"burgeoning paperwork wastes the time on duty of those whom he can recruit and retain".
My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Peter Viggers) has had some success in addressing the problem in his constituency. Before I conclude and enable the House to have the benefit of his experience, I refer to one further matter of which I gave the Minister notice. It relates to the Netley Marsh Steam and Craft Show, which is held annually and is one of the biggest voluntary events in my constituency. The show's chairman, Brian Shillabeer, and its secretary, Tony Greenham, raise more than £20,000 every year. The money is donated exclusively to local charities, sometimes including the police benevolent fund and the police sport and social fund.
In 1996 and 1997, it cost only £840 a year to police the event. In 1998, the figure jumped to £1,536. In 2000, a further increase to £1,920 put a stop to the additional donations made to the police funds. This year, a massive £3,574 is being extracted. The rally organisers have been told to expect that ratchet to continue to tighten until the horrendous total of £12,000 a year is eventually required. That would remove between a third and a half of the money that is raised for charity by that event.
I am unhappy that such events are, frankly, being over-policed, at a price that the organisers cannot afford, when constituents who are genuinely in fear for their safety are not getting the community policing service that they are entitled to expect. I hope that the Minister sympathises with what I have said, and that he can say something positive to reassure my long-suffering constituents.