The rise in rural crime

March 16, 2009

I recently blogged about the fear caused by rural crime and the need for vigilance against it. I called for a strong and visible police presence in our rural areas. I pointed out that ‘neighbourhood policing’ is the current buzz, but it doesn’t sound very rural – what about village crime too?

Figures out today show that the down-turn has seen a rise in violent crime and rural areas are bearing the brunt of this. Rather than saying ‘I told you so’, my reaction is to welcome the fact that this evidence is coming out into the open and to hope that it informs policing. An article on the front page of the Daily Telegraph goes into more detail, reporting that violent crime such as assaults and burglary is up a shocking 20 per cent in the countryside. Neighbouring Cambridgeshire is badly affected. I am going to write again to our Police Authority asking for the Hertfordshire figures and stressing the importance of this issue.

Taking sensible precautions can help reduce the likelihood of being a victim of crime, whether that be rural or urban crime. Getting into good habits such as keeping valuables out of sight as much as possible and keeping a watchful eye out for who is looking at your and your neighbour’s property can all help keep crime at bay. Rural crime has the added dimension that properties are often located out-of-the-way with few people around to witness the perpetrators of violent theft. The prospect that help could be a long way away leads to fear of crime.

I would urge constituents to report crimes, as the incidence of crime reports affects police priorities – the more crime reported, the higher up the scale it goes. I have also been pressing the minister not to cut back on police numbers in rural areas.

50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Tibet

March 13, 2009

This week was the 50th anniversary of the Chinese invasion of Tibet and on Tuesday there was a mass lobby of Parliament by the Free Tibet Group.

I met constituents who are staunch supporters of the Tibetans. They were very concerned about the fate of the people of Tibet and mentioned Human Rights’ abuses during the run up to and since the Olympics. We had a long talk about Tibet, and I was able to say that in the past I had heard the Dalai Lama speak and been introduced to him. I heard him speak at Cambridge University many years ago, when I was a student. He was calm, logical and very impressive. He recognised the power of China. Even after all these years, he is not calling for independence for Tibet, but for more autonomy within China, so that Tibetans can enjoy their culture and religion. David Cameron has recently met the Dalai Lama and my colleague David Lidington, Shadow Minister, has recently made representations to the Chinese at a high level.

Last year at the General Assembly of the Inter Parliamentary Union, the British delegation held a bilateral with China and I was able to raise my own concerns about Human Rights and Governance in Tibet. Sad to say, the Chinese just did not seem to get it. They were banging on about feudal religious practices with no understanding of the importance of a regional culture and religion. Happily, there are now talks between China and the Dalai Lama’s representatives and we will have to see if they do any good. It seems odd that a State which was able to provide a separate regional autonomy for Hong Kong is so blinkered about Tibet. Of course, Tibet has important natural resources they want, but it is hard to see why that means the Tibetans can’t fully enjoy their culture and traditions.

Campaigners want a thorough and independent inquiry into the reported excessive use of force, including against peaceful demonstrators in Tibet in Spring 2008 and Britain to establish a Tibet Desk at the British Embassy in Beijing, China.They also want us to appoint a UK Special Representative for Tibet. I have written to David Miliband, Foreign Secretary about these issues, asking his response. Given the realities of power, I believe the only way to resolve this is through dialogue between the Chinese authorities and the representatives of the Dalai Lama. In that light I welcome the new round of talks.

Our policy towards China and Tibet should be hard-headed and practical, and we must deal with the situation as it is and not as we wish it was. But to anyone who has read “Seven Years in Tibet”, “Land of a Thousand Buddhas” and other books about Tibet, visited and admired the peaceful Tibetan way of life or met Tibetan monks as my constituents had, the continuing failure of the Chinese authorities to be reasonable is a source of regret and must hold back that great country’s progress in opening to the World.

Bad news for jobs

March 5, 2009

There are two striking pieces of news on employment today. The latest figures for monthly job vacancies show the lowest figures for years and the Work and Pensions Select Committee of which I am a member has produced its Report on Commissioning and the Flexible New Deal, pointing out that increases in long term unemployment will swamp the scheme if extra funding is not provided.

Ministers like to point to the number of job vacancies as evidence that there are jobs available for the unemployed. Indeed, Conservative Ministers used to make similar claims in past recessions. Whilst true, the vacancy levels now are very low historically. Even as recently as 2007, monthly vacancies were running at 689,000, higher by 200,000.

Yet many of these vacancies are not readily available to job seekers. The National Employers’ Skill Survey shows that thirty per cent of vacancies are in the category “hard to fill” and twenty one per cent are in “skill shortage” areas. Many job seekers would simply not be qualified. There is no doubt that the Job Market is tightening sharply and unemployment will rise.

The Work and Pensions Committee has been looking at the implications for long term unemployment in our Report published today. In 2004 I proposed that the New Deal should be reformed to concentrate on those with real barriers to work and a flexible approach using private contractors – “The New Deal: What figures for the Future” with Mark Waldron (Politeia). The Government is now to implement such a scheme later this year – the Flexible New Deal – but all the evidence is that the scheme will be overwhelmed without more funding. There will simply not be enough money for each long term job seeker to be found a proper job.

Labour criticisms of Government schemes for the long-term unemployed in the 1980s concentrated on lack of substance to the training, advice and placements on offer. It would be sad for Britain if the current Labour Government failed to learn the lessons of past recessions, which they were then so willing to embrace.

Taxpayer bail-out for pensions next?

March 4, 2009

As Sir Fred rides off into the sunset with his financial future secure, are pension funds next in line for a massive bail-out by hard pressed taxpayers?

It may be too early to be sure, but the question being asked increasingly is what effect the downturn and the recent sharp falls on the Stock Market will have on pension funds, the biggest investors.

Most final salary schemes were already in deficit. In January the total deficit was thought to be £190 billion. These latest falls reduce the value of the assets they hold still further. This is concerning for all those with a pension. It also highlights the damaging effects of Gordon Brown’s management of the economy and his Pension Raid in 1998, when he ended Dividend Tax Relief, taking £5 billion per annum out of pension schemes.

Just as asset values are falling, companies sponsoring schemes are facing the most challenging trading conditions for years and in some cases this raises the question of whether they are able to live up to their obligations under the scheme.

With an ageing population and people living longer, occupational pensions are vital to ensure that there is money saved up to pay for retirement, rather than simply relying on state benefits and so that individuals can have the sort of retirement they want.

Over the coming months three yearly valuations will take place of some of the biggest pension schemes and we will see the extent of the losses. We will also be able to gauge the extent to which pension funds have been exposed to “toxic assets”. The Pensions Regulator has suggested that direct exposure is “relatively limited”, but despite this, reports suggest that there is still an unanswered question about how far individual schemes are exposed to derivatives and other complex investments. The example of our biggest banks is not encouraging with each new disclosure adding billions of pounds to the losses.

The Pensions Regulator is helping schemes to make recovery plans over a period of years, but this raises difficult issues for trustees, who must assess the chances of their employer surviving. If a company is given easy terms to rebuild the scheme and then goes bust, there will be less money for members, but if a company is put on tough payment terms, it may be pushed over the edge, resulting in no future pension contributions.

Ministers point to the Pensions’ Protection Fund (PPF) as a guarantee of payment if the employer sponsoring the scheme goes bust. But it is the best pension schemes which pay the levy so the PPF can help out those which fail. If a significant number of companies go down in the recession, there must be a risk that the levy will be increased, adding further burdens to good schemes.

So as the pressures build, there is an assumption that the Government will not let our big pension schemes fail and stands behind the PPF. But the amounts of money involved in the pension funds are huge. We must hope that another massive taxpayer bail-out is not in prospect.

Rural Crime

March 3, 2009

In deepest rural Hertfordshire – one of the safest parts of the country statistically – fear of crime is rife. As fewer people live in rural areas it is easy for their concerns to be overlooked in setting police priorities.

Police plans talk of “neighbourhoods”, anti-social behaviour, even terrorism – all important – but the rural dimension of crime is largely ignored and not simply the epidemic of fly-tipping. A constituent recently told me about four hooded men coming at night to the yard of his gardening business, brandishing weapons and demanding to steal the new trailer and mower needed for work. The owner and his father felt forced to back down and he lost equipment worth thousands of pounds. This was a terrifying ordeal, after which his father found difficulty sleeping for some days.

Gangs come on to farmland with four-wheel drive vehicles, guns and dogs to do illegal hare coursing and threaten anyone who tries to stop them. There is also dog stealing and illegal shooting.

A survey of local residents in rural East Hertfordshire produced comments such as: “…garage broken into and motorbike, riding leathers, crash helmet… stolen…” “…picking up one of our dogs and taking it back to their vehicle…” “…a victim myself on numerous occasions…” “…very little police presence round here so villains can do pretty much what they like…” “There is not nearly enough police presence.”

Now, this is not just about Hertfordshire Police with their miserly budget from Government, but also about understanding that it is very frightening to be subject to crime many miles from a Police Station in a small rural community, particularly when a number of criminals are involved.

That is why local Police who know the area and are visible are vital. We need more of them. I know from my time spent with police that there are cars out patrolling, but police drivers have a difficult challenge in Hertfordshire with such a network of small lanes between villages and towns. When a police car is called to a rural spot, the police driver needs to know the roads as well as the criminal.

One initiative by a community police officer has been to send mobile phone messages to local people if criminal activity is taking place and coming their way. This allows local residents to secure their valuables and has led to crime being prevented and detected. Now it seems a central decision may see the mobile phone taken from the officer as a cutback. This must not happen.

So, I will continue to press for a strong police presence in the rural parts of the Hertfordshire as well as the urban and proper attention to rural crime. Police training needs to ensure that Hertfordshire Police know the rural area well.

It is vital that crime is reported and I always worry when told that a resident didn’t bother. Police effort is partly directed by an analysis of where crime is happening, so it is vital to report crime. It is also important that Police treat the report seriously and as more than an opportunity to hand out a crime number.

Rural crime matters and sentences for those convicted should reflect the fear these crimes engender in victims.