Leading Article: Dogberry and son to the rescue

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IN THE countryside, criminals are making hay while the sun shines. They know that the long arm of the law is at full stretch covering towns and they have focused their attention on Britain's byways. Cars provide the light-fingered with the opportunity to roam remote parts and escape long before the police arrive. Few villages or suburbs are spared house break-ins and thefts, once commonplace only in urban areas. Rural crime has, in recent years, risen faster even than in the inner cities.

Last week's by-election in Christchurch offered a measure of voters' frustration. Michael Howard knows well that, among some elderly people, fear of crime was second only to VAT on fuel bills in their list of complaints. This explains the Home Secretary's decision to resurrect the old-style village guardian. Today, he will announce a competition to define the job description for the new post of parish constable. Incumbents are to be the unpaid eyes and ears of the community, liaising with the regular police, but not empowered to make arrests.

All this sounds hopeful, but is the exercise just a cheap gimmick, no more likely to cut crime than Dad's Army was to halt an invasion by Hitler? People in the countryside might fairly argue that, if the Government is serious about rural crime, Mr Howard should fund the experts, regular police officers, properly to tackle the problem. There are other grounds for suspicion: Sir Patrick Sheehy's recent proposals for police reform are likely to provide strong incentives for inner-city officers, but fewer for those in rural areas. Continuity in the same job and perseverance - the virtues most required of a country police officer - would not receive the highest rewards in a post-Sheehy police force.

Parish constables were last seen in Georgian Britain. They were an age-old institution replaced in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Act. Reintroduction of the post was suggested recently by Country Life magazine. In seizing on this suggestion, Mr Howard has tacitly acknowledged how bereft the Government is of money and its own thinking to tackle rural crime. Neighbourhood Watch is all very well when first introduced, but the long-term benefits of such schemes are difficult to prove.

However, the need for some government initiative is clear. Members of the public have shown that, otherwise, they are prepared to develop their own 'parapolice' forces. In a few areas, private security guards and vigilantes have filled the vacuum left by the inadequacy of locally based policing. The jailing of two Norfolk vigilantes who abducted a teenager suspected of petty crime shows how badly freelance efforts can fare.

So any well considered government initiative that invites members of the community to fight crime legitimately is welcome. However, the fear is that the scheme may be badly organised and funded: the countryside could find itself served poorly by unpaid amateur sleuths, while the towns are policed by professionals. Far from appeasing those worried by crime, Mr Howard could easily further anger a population that already feels badly neglected by the police.