Rural policing can no longer be left to PC Plod

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I first lost faith in my local Humberside police force when the Conservative government abolished the 37.5p dog licence. The law on dog licences had been in disrepute for years and like three million other dog owners, I had not bothered to buy a licence. During the passage of the legislation, I mentioned this in Parliament, while speaking to commend the government's proposals and my speech was duly reported in the local rag, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. Two days later, PC Plod arrived at my constituency home, having driven a 50-mile round-trip from Scunthorpe, armed with the news cutting to interview me, for an hour, with a view to prosecution. By the time he got back to Scunthorpe and processed the paperwork, the law had been changed.

I first lost faith in my local Humberside police force when the Conservative government abolished the 37.5p dog licence. The law on dog licences had been in disrepute for years and like three million other dog owners, I had not bothered to buy a licence. During the passage of the legislation, I mentioned this in Parliament, while speaking to commend the government's proposals and my speech was duly reported in the local rag, the Grimsby Evening Telegraph. Two days later, PC Plod arrived at my constituency home, having driven a 50-mile round-trip from Scunthorpe, armed with the news cutting to interview me, for an hour, with a view to prosecution. By the time he got back to Scunthorpe and processed the paperwork, the law had been changed.

This minor petty incident coloured my judgement towards local police attitudes for the rest of my time in Parliament. As the growing tide of rural crime progressively dominated my discussions with the local chief constable, it became clear to me that the normally law-abiding are always a softer touch for police bureaucrats with a "jobsworth" attitude.

Until my general election defeat in 1997, I lived in a typical nondescript overspill village with a population of about 1,000, 10 miles from Grimsby, which was (and probably remains) plagued by vicious teenage yobbery. Most of the yobs were locals, known to police and villagers alike. The crimes they committed were petty and irritating, such as bricks through my retired neighbours' windows and the destruction of their front garden.

This kind of crime has a debilitating effect. After a lifetime in the same house, my neighbours moved. Plod and his colleagues would turn up 40 minutes after a burglary or a ram-raid at the village shop. Often the yobs would even be apprehended but few witnesses would be prepared to give evidence in court for fear of retribution. The surrounding area is remote and the local police stations have been closed down, while the village police houses have been sold off. As the MP, I had no influence whatsoever over the decisions taken by the local force. Representations to successive Tory home secretaries were met with "this is an operational matter for the local force" responses.

Tories were supposed to be the party of law and order. We passed Criminal Justice Acts, Crime and Disorder Acts, Theft Acts, and sprayed words at party conferences like confetti. I voted for "short, sharp shocks", "boot camps" and all sorts of pathetic punishment wheezes, which proved to be a total waste of time.

I suspect that the recent court case in Norfolk will have filled MPs' mailbags to bursting with anecdotal evidence concluding, overwhelmingly, that our present approach to policing, crime and deterrence is failing. Frustrated and exasperated, most MPs will offer sympathy, burble on about police numbers and how "the other lot cut them but we will (or are) increasing them". The replies will be received with grumpy dissatisfaction. Some, on the Tory side, will be inclined to make much of the right of the victim to have a go by using "reasonable force" and support Ann Widdecombe's "bash the burglar" solution.

More restrained Labour members will print off the standard Millbank line about Jack Straw's "tough" line on teenage curfews and his own set of wheezes, which will be as ineffective as those tried by Michael Howard. Mr Straw will find the difference between his rhetoric and public perception as great as that encountered by Mr Howard and his predecessors.

The truth is that the delivery of security services to the private citizen by county police forces, especially in rural areas, is failing. Chief constables and their henchmen, down to PC Plod, are just as incapable of delivering their commodity as the providers of other nationalised services.

Why must we automatically accept that only the state can provide law and order services? It is common practice for industrial sites, building sites, office blocks and posh London flat developments to provide for their own private security. Even nightclubs provide their own police forces by engaging "bouncers". Surely, say the radio phone-in brigade, the rest of us have the right to take the law collectively into our own hands as well? I am now convinced that local town or parish councils should also be entitled to run their own local police forces for small populations, contracting out the provision of such services if they think appropriate.

Earlier this month every householder received their council tax demand with a precept for the local county police force. This compulsory demand for payment for a failing service irks most of us. Surely the time has come to recognise that, at the local town or village level, at least, there is room for an alternative arrangement. Most of the crime that affects rural people is confined to theft, burglary and teenage yobbery. So why not try a two-tier system of policing?

First, get rid of the county forces and set up, instead, a national police force under the direct supervision of the Home Secretary to deal with serious crime and law enforcement. I have never understood the suggestion that a national police force would intrude on our civil liberties. To the average citizen a policeman in Humberside looks the same as a policeman in Lincolnshire. The individual whim of the local chief constable determines, however, the priorities, he sets for his force. At Christmas time, one force will make more of drink-driving than another. This force targets drugs while that one is worked up about gay sex in public toilets.

If certain law enforcement areas were to be confined to the national force, answerable through the Home Secretary to Parliament, MPs who are currently powerless would have an opportunity of influencing the policing system. I found it tiresome that I could question the Home Secretary about the Metropolitan police but had no similar power regarding the Humberside force.

Second, local communities in rural areas could choose to pay, additionally, for local policemen, possibly provided by private security companies, covering small, cohesive geographical areas. The companies could employ uniformed officers trained to a national, government-set standard. Perhaps insurance companies could be encouraged to offer blanket cover to whole village communities, at a discount, if the parish council bought in a security police community service the companies recommended. Failure to deliver results would mean forfeit of the contract and an invitation to another provider.

My proposals are a way of heading off the otherwise inevitable slide to vigilantism. It is a natural human condition to seek to protect our property. Most of us are too frightened to "have a go" at a thug caught in the act of ransacking our homes, so there will be few, like Tony Martin, who will respond with a shotgun. But the desire to subscribe to informal groups dishing out summary justice is already manifesting itself. A few more policemen added to the current county force structures will make little difference.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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