Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr Dunne.)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Brady. You and I have known each other for many years, and at one stage we had offices not far from each other.
There is concern in the west midlands and in its seven districts, but people should realise that that is against a background of economic difficulties that started with Lehman Brothers in America, and that should always be borne in mind when casting aspersions. At present, even with the situation that the Government inherited, we still have our triple A credit rating throughout the international monetary system, which tells us that although there were financial difficulties they were not on the scale that the present Government portray. Some of the measures that the Government have recently taken are unnecessary to deal with a situation that we had planned to deal with over the next four or five years. It is not generally realised that we had about 14 years to pay off our debts. It should also be borne in mind that when Labour came to power in 1997, 50p in every pound was spent on paying off the national debt. That tends to be forgotten; we had a two-year pause. However, the purpose of this debate is very much to discuss the impact in terms of police cuts in the west midlands.
The west midlands is a vital area for the British economy. This Government have taken a series of measures that have affected the region, where one in 10 people is unemployed. We have had cuts in education, and we have only to look around the seven districts to see what has happened as a result of the cuts in education capital programmes and in universities. Against that background, when trying to understand where the Government are taking the country, one is sometimes puzzled.
For the purposes of today’s debate, we should bear in mind that figures released in July this year show current police officer numbers at 143,734, which is nearly 17,000 more than in 1997; the Labour Government also introduced 16,000 police community support officers. Our manifesto guaranteed central funding to maintain those record police numbers. However, in a statement delivered by the present Chancellor, it was announced that central Government police funding will be reduced by 20% in real terms by 2014-15, which will have a direct impact on policing on local streets.
It is of interest that Chris Sims, the chief constable of West Midlands police, has stated that, for his force,
“20 per cent equates to over £100m.”
When asked about job losses, he said:
“As more than 80 per cent of our budget goes on staffing costs it is inevitable that we will lose jobs. The funding cuts will be phased over four years, with a disproportionate impact on years one and two.”
Clearly, the west midlands, including my borough of Walsall, will suffer a lot as a result of what the Government have stated.
My hon. Friend is spot on, and I shall probably come to that point later.
A July 2010 report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary stated:
“A cut beyond 12% would almost certainly reduce police availability”.
There is concern about the future of specialist police units, such as those for domestic crime and child abuse, which are no longer considered front line by the coalition Government. If we look at the regional impact, West Midlands police will be unfairly and disproportionately hit by the 20% cut to its police budget, due to its higher reliance on central funding: 83% of its funding comes from central Government, whereas only 17% is generated from council tax. Those cuts go way beyond what can be achieved through efficiency savings and better procurement. Some predict that West Midlands police could lose more than 1,200 officers and a similar number of police staff over four years. In real terms, it is expected that 400 police officers and 400 police staff will lose their jobs by March. In comparison, leafy Surrey, which has a lower crime rate, will get a better deal.
My hon. Friend has made a really good point. It is very likely that Ministers will say, “Well, west midlands is getting exactly the same impact as everywhere else,” but he has made it clear that that is not the case. In reality, the impact on police officers, police civilian staff and services will be disproportionate. One thing we will be looking for from Ministers today is that they address the actual cuts that will take place in the west midlands, not just the notional ones.
My hon. Friend makes a very interesting point. Anyone who works in local government, as I have, can tell us, as can experience, that an arbitrary cut across the board can be very punitive and disproportionate. What we have here is a punitive and disproportionate measure, because like is not being compared with like. That is one of the major problems with the proposals.
In the west midlands city of Coventry, as many as 40 police officer jobs will be lost over the next four years. These are only rough figures, and I am sure that they can be changed and contradicted, but we have the resources only to make some rough guesses about what is likely to happen. A combined total of about 29 police officers and staff could lose their jobs in each west midlands constituency before March, according to the chief constable, Chris Sims. If we look at the figures for police officers in Coventry, in 1997 there were 628; today, there are 843. That shows that the previous Government certainly tackled some of the crime problems in Coventry.
Let me take hon. Members back to 1997 and the years prior to that, which I certainly remember. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) will substantiate what I say next. During the Thatcher years, we had a problem in Coventry with youths terrifying neighbourhoods. My right hon. Friend experienced that in his constituency, and I am sure that he will recall that we had a number of meetings with the then Home Office Minister Lord Ferrers and my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who eventually became Home Secretary, on issues such as witness protection. In those days, in line with the record of the previous Conservative Government, people were left to their own devices. I remember visiting some flats in Stoke Aldermoor, which was in my constituency at the time, and seeing that old people there had steel doors for protection. We did not have an adequate witness protection scheme at that time; as a consequence, old people, or anyone, giving evidence had to face the person they had accused in the anteroom before they went into court. They were terrified. If they did give evidence but the culprit got away with it, they got a second visit. That gives us a rough idea of what things were like before 1997, and we should not forget that.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East will also remember that we heavily lobbied Ministers to bring in antisocial behaviour orders, which everyone—certainly everyone on the Government Benches—describes as discredited now. At the time, however, they came as a welcome relief to those families and neighbourhoods, and I am sure that my right hon. Friend will confirm that.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to recall that the entire antisocial behaviour agenda was led in large part from Coventry, as a result of some of the very serious problems that we had on one or two council estates. People were systematically intimidating others and believing that “on their manor” they could do what they liked. The ASBO agenda was all about breaking the power of those local thugs to impose themselves on the neighbourhood in which they lived.
I thank my right hon. Friend for substantiating my argument.
Another measure introduced locally in Coventry was area co-ordination, which, for example, allowed the council to appoint wardens, who in turn got involved in local communities, won their confidence and gave them the confidence to go to the police if there were serious problems. Right hon. and hon. Members may remember that, at that time, a lot of members of the public were reluctant to talk to the police because they were intimidated and knew exactly what would happen to them.
It is worthwhile mentioning such things to encapsulate what happened before the Labour Government got anywhere. These days it is easy to rubbish everything that we did, but, on the contrary, we did a heck of a lot to make life easier for people in some neighbourhoods.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, despite the challenges to do with resources, effective policing is not necessarily a function of absolute police numbers? The police—even West Midlands Police Federation—would accept that. It is important that we build on inter-agency working, because a lot of problems in the west midlands, including antisocial behaviour, are related to health inequalities and deprivation. We need to ensure that the police in the west midlands continue to work effectively in partnership, because the nature of policing in the west midlands is changing to deal with some of the underlying problems we face.
The hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) makes the same claim as the Home Secretary—that, in some way, there will be no impact on the street as a result of the cuts. It is nonsense to say that we will be able to get police out of the back office and on to the streets and that we will be able to cut the number of police by as much as is proposed for the west midlands without there being an impact on our neighbourhoods. That is ridiculous—it is nonsense. Surely my hon. Friend agrees.
Chris Sims is a sensible and intelligent police officer. He has reiterated that, despite his resourcing challenges, it is perfectly possible for him to deliver the same levels of neighbourhood policing, even in the challenging situation that he faces. Even the West Midlands Police Federation has said that it thinks there can be better allocation of police resources to maintain levels of neighbourhood policing.
Would not it help the case for policing in the west midlands if Conservative Members joined us, instead of just echoing Government policy? From time to time when my party’s Government was in office I criticised them when I considered it appropriate, as did other hon. Friends. New Conservative Members may take that lesson on board if they wish.
My constituents complain that there are not sufficient police officers. In certain places in my constituency, which is not unique by any means in terms of antisocial behaviour, residents want to see a physical police presence. The cuts that are coming will make that situation even worse. It is regrettable that West Midlands police will be so adversely affected as a result of Government policy.
Not only that, but areas that are used to seeing a high police profile, including some more affluent areas, will now be badly affected by the measures. People in those areas will experience what people in the deprived areas that my hon. Friend is talking about have experienced. We accept that some of the newer Government Members are enthusiastic, but those of us with the benefit of experience know that, once they have seen the policies unfold and seen the impact at the sharp edge, they will really squirm.
I should like to return to the point made by the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, because it is important that we are all sensitive to the position of a chief constable. A chief constable cannot get involved in political debates. It would be wrong of the chief constable for the west midlands to do so. He will inevitably do everything that he humanly can to safeguard services, because he is an excellent chief constable—there is no doubt about that. But the mathematics are clear. The reorganisation—the chief constable’s undertaking Paragon—was founded on a solid number of neighbourhood police officers, backed up by police community support officers, with specialist teams at force level dealing with issues such as child abuse and domestic violence. If a chunk is taken out of that, something will have to give, whether that is the front line, or specialist work, or a police officer turning up at the community meetings held in all our constituencies and making the difference between their being successful and less successful. Unless all parties recognise that, we will be doing our constituents a disservice.
My hon. Friend is right. I could not put it any better. We have always to remember that a chief constable is a professional person and that, as far as his job goes, he has no political opinions. If he is a good professional, he will make do with what he has, which is often not adequate, to say the least, and it will be less adequate as a result of the new measures.
It is not generally appreciated that Warwickshire police force often relies on West Midlands police to come to its assistance when needed. For example, the West Midlands police anti-terrorism squad will be involved from time to time in dealing with potential terrorist activities in Warwickshire. So Warwickshire has not escaped; the cuts will have an impact on the police force there. It is not my job to put the case for Warwickshire police, but it is my job to point out the impact on that police force as well. The results of the cuts will not be confined to the west midlands; they will flow across the borders.
The coalition has not chosen to prioritise the police. Since 1997, Labour added 1,423 police officers to the west midlands force, but that increase will be all but obliterated by the predicted cut of 1,200 officers over the next four years. The House of Commons Library—nobody would dispute these figures, would they?—estimates that crime in the west midlands has fallen by 35% between 1997-98 and 2008-09. Once again, the burden of the cuts will fall on those families who rely on these services the most—inner-city families. Anybody who lives in the inner cities knows that.
I hope that the Minister will answer the following questions. How will he explain the regional unfairness of the cuts to inner-city families in our constituencies, who see low-crime areas such as Surrey get a better deal? How will he assure the most vulnerable in our society—victims of child abuse and domestic violence—that they will continue to be prioritised when they are no longer considered front-line cases? Will he acknowledge the direct correlation between Labour’s investment in police officer numbers since 1997 and the 35% reduction in west midlands crime? How does he intend to ensure public confidence in the police service, while jeopardising their basic safety and security?
Consumer Focus research has shown that rank and file police officers cannot do their job as well without good community relations or the active support and co-operation of the public. Has the Minister considered the implications of fewer officers on neighbourhood watch groups, and the work of PCSOs? Has the Minister considered efficiency savings in the day-to-day operations of the police force before axing jobs? How can our police officers be expected to continue to protect and serve people in the west midlands to the same standard, when they have the burden of even more paperwork as a result of having fewer office staff?
That is as much as I can say at the moment, because my hon. Friends want to contribute to this debate. It was remiss of me not to declare an interest at the start of the debate, Mr Brady. Sorry about that.
I am proud to represent Erdington. It is a community that is rich in people, even if it one of the 10 poorest in Britain. It includes the great communities of Kingstanding, Tyburn, Castle Vale, Pype Hayes, Stockland Green—including Slade road—and Erdington itself. The area has seen huge investment under a Labour Government with more police officers on the beat being supported by more police community support officers in the streets of Erdington. It is a community that, like the rest of the west midlands, has seen a 35% fall in recorded crime. Over the past 15 years, it has seen an immensely welcome development—community policing. I remember attending the Castle Vale tasking group and seeing excellent engagement between the police service and the local community on how they would deal with problems together, including that of antisocial behaviour.
However, if the community is safer, there are serious residual problems. The police are a friend of Erdington, but they are also firm on crime and antisocial behaviour. Earlier this year, there was an upsurge in crime in Stockland Green. I met with the chief superintendent, the admirable Jim Andronov. He deployed an immense effort, including the use of intelligence, and as a consequence a number of charges were brought. Although there are still problems, it was a model of the police responding to the concerns of the community.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. That was intelligence-led policing; it was not about flooding the area with a large number of police. Labour Members are making a direct correlation between numbers of police and falling crime, but the two do not necessarily match up. Many countries have larger police numbers but higher rates of crime. It is more important to use the number of police officers efficiently. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the situation in 1997. In 1997, I was a serving police officer in Lothian and Borders police, so I come with a certain amount of experience. The level of patronising talk directed at new Members by those in the Labour party who say that we are just parroting phrases that we are given is poor.
With the greatest of respect, the hon. Gentleman may once have been a police officer, but he is clearly not in contact with the modern police service. Locally, the police told me that they had the time and resources, including front-line officers backed by support and intelligence, to tackle quickly and effectively a problem that was giving rise to serious concern in the Stockland Green area. Precisely because the community welcomed such an initiative by the police, real anger is now being expressed about what is happening.
On the point raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), I do not think we are being patronising; we are passing on experience. More importantly, the hon. Gentleman may have been a serving police officer, but he was not the chief constable. The chief constable has the total overview and knows the picture. It is easy for someone lower down the ranks to have a perception about something.
I am guided by what serving police officers tell me about their concerns, including what they predict will happen over the next stages. I will come to that in a moment.
There is real anger because of a 20% cut to the police service and the consequences of that cut. Is it true that 2,500 jobs will go in the West Midlands police service over the next four years? Is it true that 1,200 police officers will go? Is it true that there will be 40 fewer police officers in each of the 10 constituencies in Birmingham? Are numbers of police community support officers already being cut back? An excellent PCSO came up to me on Saturday in Erdington high street and said, “Jack, there used to be six of us. Are they now going to cut it down to three?” Will the Minister confirm those facts? They are undeniable truths.
Is it not also an undeniable truth that even if there had been a Labour Government, there would still have been 20% cuts in policing? Will the hon. Gentleman enlighten us as to how he would have gone about implementing the cuts that would have been introduced anyway?
I will come to the contrast between the pledges made at the general election in a moment—they are revealing. During the general election, the Liberal Democrats said that there would be 3,000 more police officers. They did not add, “On the dole.” The Conservative party said that there would be less paperwork. The reality is that if numbers of police officers and PCSOs are reduced, they will have less time on the beat and less of the support they need to do their job, and therefore more time will be spent doing paperwork. That in turn will lead to less detection, as I am sure the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) knows from his own experience. It will affect the work that goes on in the back room by way of intelligence gathering and sifting. There will certainly be more paperwork, including more P45s for police officers and PCSOs.
The impact on the west midlands, as highlighted by my hon. Friends, will be disproportionately harsh. Whereas 51% of Surrey’s police service comes from the central Government grant, the figure for the midlands is 83%. Will the Minister acknowledge that there is a major problem for the midlands, and that the consequences of a 20% cut across the board nationwide will hit the midlands disproportionately hard?
I am proud of my local association with the police service, and I know that it will do its best. Chris Sims is an admirable chief constable. However, serving officers and PCSOs have said to me in no uncertain terms that simple realities will flow from what the Government are proposing. That is not least because, as one police officer said to me, history tells us that the combination of soaring unemployment—it is estimated that up to 400,000 people will lose their jobs in the midlands—and falling police numbers will lead to more crime, less-safe communities and criminals who are more likely to get away with it.
In conclusion, the first duty of any Government is the safety and security of our people and our communities. It is absolutely wrong for the Government to put at risk the safety of the people of Erdington. There is real fear about what will flow from the cuts unless the Government change course. Will the Minister be prepared to change course?
I will be as brief as I can because some of the points that I wanted to make have been raised. However, I would like to reiterate one or two of them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has just pointed out, the way that the cuts are being brought in is disproportionate. I asked the Home Secretary about the underlying reason for that, and I got no answer whatsoever, despite the fact that she claimed that she had prior notice of my question. Why are the high-crime areas being disproportionately hit in comparison with low-crime areas? The Minister knows that to be the case because of the proportion of policing that is paid for by grant. The cuts have been structured in such a way that the high-crime areas—including the west midlands, which has bigger problems although it is not the only such area—are being disproportionally hit by the way that the Government are making the cuts. I thought that we were all in this together. Why are people not being affected in proportion to the size of the problem that they experience?
It is disingenuous to say that there will be no cuts in the front-line service as a result of the measures being taken. There is no perfect organisation, but the West Midlands police service is recognised as one of the more efficient in the country. We are being borne down on all the time in terms of efficiency and pushing harder and further to get more police on the front line. That needs to continue under any regime, but I want to challenge Conservative Members. They will find over time that of all the organisations that they deal with as Members of Parliament, the police—more than any other organisation, in my experience—are under-resourced in terms of clerical support and back-up. When we write a letter to a police officer, we wind up with front-line officers having to respond to us because they do not have the back-office staff to anything like the extent to which some other organisations have them. Therefore, the cuts in back-office staff being planned in the west midlands—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington referred to a figure of more than 1,000—will drag police officers off the streets and into doing those jobs to an even greater extent than is the case now.
I also want to point out some of the difficulties that will be experienced in implementing the measures. We cannot make police officers redundant. Therefore, we shall probably have to enforce regulation A19 of the Police Pensions Regulations 1987 and discontinue police officers’ service at 30 years, thereby losing disproportionately extremely experienced police officers whom we can ill afford to lose. Does the Minister believe that the West Midlands police service will be able to cope with that without doing what I think the chief constable will have to do, which is freeze recruitment to that police service? I think that that is being planned and that that freeze will continue for the next four years, leaving a gap in policing that will move slowly through the force, giving it problems for a generation, never mind the next couple of years.
I want to make a point off the back of what my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) said. This issue does not affect only the west midlands, although the west midlands will really be in difficulty because of the proposed cuts. I do not know whether hon. Members are aware that a month or two ago Warwickshire police authority, fearful of how on earth the Warwickshire police force would cope with the agenda being imposed on it—it is one of the smallest police forces in the country—proposed an amalgamation with the Coventry police service. It did so because it simply did not see how the Warwickshire force would cope. It is not only big forces such as the West Midlands force, serving high-crime areas, that will have huge problems. Smaller police forces, carrying a disproportionate overhead because of their size, will wind up with the problems that have been described.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I shall be going to the Select Committee on Home Affairs shortly, Mr Brady, which explains why I cannot stay for the winding-up speeches. Is it not the case that the only people who will get any satisfaction from what is going to happen in the west midlands will be criminals, who will hope, despite all the efforts of the police, that they will not be caught for committing various offences? They are the only people I can imagine who will get any satisfaction from what the Government intend to do.
Yes, I fear that that will be the case. Conservative Members say that there is no direct correlation between police numbers and crime. Yes, of course other issues impact on the police and we have to push the police for efficiencies, as we have to push every area of public service for efficiencies, but something that has a major impact on crime levels is the level of unemployment, and unemployment levels are about to go up considerably. We shall therefore see more people without work and fewer police officers to protect our communities. There is an inevitability about that, and this is where Chris Sims is caught. He wants to reassure the community that he represents. He is a good man, trying to do a job. He does not want to make people fearful, but frankly he does not know how he will cope with the levels of cuts that are being imposed on him and still be able to provide the level of service that he has been able to provide in recent years.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing this important debate. I know perfectly well that the aim of the coalition—its ideological ambition—is to achieve a smaller state and that it has concluded that it can do that by cutting deeply into public services and blaming the previous Government for that reckless gamble. I understand that. The reality is that the people of the west midlands will deliver the final verdict on the coalition’s plans, but my fear is that we may witness a law-and-order disaster and an explosion in crime before the electorate are afforded that opportunity.
I have been involved in policing matters since I first came to the House in 1997. I have always believed that it is the duty of Government to give the police the numbers and the resources to do their job. I am proud of the Labour Government’s record in raising police numbers to record levels and in leaving office with crime lower than it was when we came in. Ours was the first Government to achieve that since the first world war. In addition, like everyone else here, I am proud that 16,000 police community support officers were put on the streets.
I do not know what happened to the review of the future of PCSOs that was to have been conducted by the former shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). Some people may recall that it was announced with great fanfare at the Police Federation conference last year. I do not know whether it ever reached a conclusion.
Actually, I was referring to the right hon. Gentleman’s proposal to review the future of PCSOs. I do not know whether that reached a conclusion, but the reality is that unless the west midlands force receives the grant necessary to sustain PCSOs, they will disappear from the streets of places such as Selly Oak. We shall suffer the folly of front-loaded cuts, as my hon. Friends have said. We shall see the destruction of a decade of improvements.
We are likely to see two effects on West Midlands police. The funding cuts will result in job losses for civilian staff. It will be called the reverse civilianisation policy. That means that the previous policy of recruiting civilians to perform crucial support but non-direct-policing tasks, thus freeing up police officers to fight crime, will be put into reverse. As a result, civilian staff numbers will fall and officers will be taken off the streets to perform clerical and administrative duties—and that is from a Home Secretary who claims that there is too much bureaucracy and she wants crime fighters rather than form-fillers. People will ring up only to be told that no officer is available; they are all too busy manning the CCTV cameras, typing up reports and answering the phone.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said, it will not stop there. As the budget tightens, the chief constable will be forced to pay off some of his older and most experienced officers in a desperate attempt to save money. The West Midlands force risks being reduced to the status of a reactive response unit. Some estimates suggest that we will lose as many as 40 officers per constituency in Birmingham.
Initiatives that are the cornerstone of community-based and partnership policing—the very thing that the hon. Member for Halesowen and Rowley Regis (James Morris) supports—will be the first to go. Youth programmes that are designed to attract young people to sporting activities, such as those that I have witnessed at Chinn Brook recreation ground, and to prevent them drifting into vandalism and mindless antisocial behaviour will be lost. Local innovations such as police reward cards, which the police have pioneered in the west midlands to engage young people at a level that they appreciate and understand, will go. Social programmes, through which officers have worked with schools such as Kings Heath boys’ school and Highters Heath, Billesley and Hollywood primary schools, will be lost. Finally, as the force shrinks, crime will of course rise.
It is not too late for the Government to rethink their priorities. It is not too late for the coalition to wake up to the enormous gamble that it is about to take with law and order. It is not too late to recognise that having created an age of austerity, the last thing we should do is cut the police. There is still time to accept that the political gamble of police commissioners does not make sense when every spare penny should be used to keep police officers on our streets. Who else would pick this moment to blow £100 million on a reckless political gamble, when we should be trying to keep the force at a strength that will enable it to do its job?
The picture that I have painted is not inevitable, but it will be the inevitable outcome of the decisions that the coalition is taking: it will be the consequence of a Government who, by their choices, have demonstrated that they misunderstand policing. For the sake of our communities in the west midlands, I hope that the Minister will tell us that he is prepared to listen and to think again about the measures that are necessary to preserve high-quality policing in Birmingham and the west midlands.
I will make three brief points before the winding-up speeches.
First, it is easy in debates in the main Chamber, and sometimes in Westminster Hall, to get into political knockabout, where the role of the Opposition is to attack and the role of the Government is to defend, but at the end of which, nothing comes out. It is fair to say that Opposition Members have made political points in this debate—that is unsurprising, given that we are politicians. However, a serious question has been put to the Minister and I do not want to get to the end of the debate without hearing an answer. This question is vital to the service that our constituents receive. Several of my hon. Friends have posed the question, but allow me to pose it again, Mr Brady.
The west midlands is a high-crime area and a deprived area. Because of the structure of police funding, it relies on Government grant to make ends meet to a greater extent than many other parts of the country. It receives £579 million a year from the Treasury. Although we agree with inter-agency working and that policing is about more than numbers, 20% cannot be taken out of the budget without having a serious effect on deprived communities in the west midlands. Does the Minister recognise that problem? Does he think that a 20% cut is the same for Surrey and the west midlands? If so, he needs to say that and the public need to hear him, because they know that it is different. If he recognises that there is a disproportionate effect and that the reality on the ground will be different in the west midlands, we need to know what the Government will do about that. It is not unknown that when budgets are restructured, one should consider using mechanisms such as floors and ceilings in local government spending to ensure that the effects are dampened in certain areas. Will the Government do anything to recognise the specific problems in the west midlands, or will they just say, “It’s 20%, that’s it. It’s up to you to sort it out in your region”? We need to know the answer to those questions at the end of the debate and I hope that the Minister will give it.
My second point follows on from those of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham). Actual crime gets to communities, but the fear of crime can sap their confidence and eat away at them. We all know the paradox that the higher one’s fear of being a victim of crime, the more chance one stands of being a victim of crime. As I said earlier, we need to give the chief constable space to recognise the difficult position he is in and to do what he has to do. He will do everything he can to ensure that communities are not scared or worried by what is going on. He is doing everything he can to keep service levels up, but the fear of crime will rise.
One reason for the rise in the fear of crime will be visibility. A great thing about police community support officers is that the police are seen to be on the high streets and in communities talking to people. The hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart) spoke of the importance of intelligence-led policing, but where does the intelligence come from? The best intelligence often comes from informal, chance conversations, which tell the police that so-and-so lives in such a place and that they talk to someone else. That is an important reason to have visibility in service terms, but it also reassures local communities just to see the bobby or the PCSO on the beat.
The dilemma for the police, when faced with such cuts, is whether to maintain that visibility and reassurance or whether to ensure that they are available to respond to incidents that occur. That would probably be done by car because that is the quickest way to get to incidents. That might be the realistic response, but the result would be the loss of local contact on the street and the reassurance that that brings. That worries me. Again, I ask the Minister whether I am right. If I am wrong, he should tell me, but if I am right, what will he do about the situation through the funding for West Midlands police?
My final point is about community engagement, which hon. Members from all parts of the Chamber have said is important. It is important in my area of Northfield, where there is a local strategic partnership. Such partnerships exist across Birmingham with greater or lesser degrees of success. One of the strong elements of our constituency strategic partnership is that we decided at the start that it would be chaired not by a local councillor or politician, as many are, but by the local senior police officer. There have been a number of chairs over the years, and their role has been incredibly positive. They have sometimes brought a reality check to the debate and to discussions on inter-agency working. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has spoken about local tasking meetings, which have been important in his area. Such local engagement is important.
Although I know the police will do all they can to continue with local engagement, I fear that it will suffer in the face of the coming pressures. When it starts to suffer, we should remember that the cuts in policing do not exist in isolation; they exist at the same time as other agencies that are part of the inter-agency working that Government Members have mentioned also face cuts. For example, Birmingham city council has rightly been criticised over the issue of child protection and safeguarding. Big changes are happening in Birmingham as a result—whether fast or effective enough is another matter. The pressures on the local authority to act are real.
Some of what is being done makes sense. Procedures are being built on procedures, to ensure that some of the real tragedies we have seen in Birmingham do not happen again. However, my worry about that—the relevance to policing will be seen in a minute—is that, in the process, something will be lost when we are only focusing on the crisis: when we are just stopping crisis after crisis. With so much emphasis on putting in place procedures to stop the crises, we will start to lose the low-level stuff, the real preventive stuff.
I entirely agree with my hon. Friend about the dangers for child protection work. Is it not also the case that Birmingham has a low-funded youth service, one of the poorest in the country? Exactly his argument about engagement and child protection and safety is our argument for engaging young people and diverting them from crime.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Such issues interrelate. If we have the children’s services department chasing and trying to prevent the crises—rightly, in many ways—we lose the low-level stuff. If, simultaneously, we are cutting back on the youth service, we will be causing problems. If the local police are under pressure as well, the inter-agency work that all those agencies want to do will start to suffer.
Ultimately, what will suffer is not this or that committee or tasking meeting and whether or not it happens, but the reality of service to our constituents and the people we represent. If we are to do something about that, if we expect Birmingham city council, the police service and others to respond properly, they must be given the chance. I conclude where I started: if they are to be given the chance, we must recognise the specifics of the problems. It does not mean denying the fact that economies must be made, or arguing that somehow, the problems the country faces will just go away; but it does mean recognising that areas such as Birmingham, Coventry and other parts of the west midlands have specific and extreme problems. Those problems, such as getting the youth service properly staffed or the children’s and police services working properly, are interrelated. The idea that, in the middle of that, taking 20% out of the Home Office grant of £579 million will not have a grave impact is simply a cloud cuckoo land idea.
I accept that, when the Minister responds, he will doubtless make his riposte to the political points and say, “The Labour Government did this, and we are going to do that.” However, before he gets to the end of his speech, will he please answer this question: do the Government recognise that there will be a disproportionate effect on the west midlands, yes or no? If the answer is no, is he prepared to say that to the people we represent, as well as to those in the Chamber? If the answer is yes, what will he do about it?
I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate today and on setting out so clearly why it has been called. I also congratulate other right hon. and hon. Members from the area covered by the West Midlands force for clearly setting out their views and concerns. I also pay tribute to the hard work and dedication of all police officers and staff in all the police forces throughout the country, but in particular in the West Midlands police force.
I feel fortunate to be standing here, because my right hon. and hon. Friends have set out with great passion and determination the reasons why the proposed cuts, for the west midlands in particular, are unfair, wrong and need to be looked at again. My hon. Friend set out his long experience and knowledge of policing, and gave practical examples of what policing was like before 1997. He talked about the need for a proper witness protection scheme, which did not exist before 1997. He also set the scene of what has happened since the record investment in policing. We are all keen to hear the Minister’s responses to the long list of proposals and questions clearly set out by my hon. Friend.
I was struck by the comments of a number of my right hon. and hon. Friends about the knock-on effect of the cuts for smaller police forces neighbouring the West Midlands force. Again, I hope that the Minister will be able to put our minds at rest in his response.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) gave a clear example of what policing meant in his constituency, on the streets of Erdington and other areas, and of the anger felt about the proposed cuts. We look forward to the Minister’s response to his list of questions, too. Interestingly, my hon. Friend reminded us of the Liberal Democrats’ promise in their May manifesto of 3,000 additional police officers. I had a quick look through the coalition agreement this morning; sadly, there is no sign of any additional police officers. I am therefore not sure what the Liberal Democrats are bringing to the table on policing. I understand that they certainly do not support police commissioners.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry North East (Mr Ainsworth) clearly set out the disproportionate effect for the West Midlands police force of the cuts in funding and the discrepancy between what happens in his area and other areas of the country. He also spoke about the effect of losing the most experienced officers—those with 30 years’ or more experience will go, which will present problems for the chief constable and senior officers. He also made an important point about back-office cuts and their direct effect on front-line policing in the west midlands.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) set out his long interest in policing. He made clear his belief that, behind the cuts to the police service, is an ideological approach to a smaller state. He talked with passion about the youth projects and the local innovations in his constituency of which the police have been part and parcel.
My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) reminded us clearly, at the outset, of the professional role of the police officer and the need for the chief constable to behave in an obviously professional way. We need to be mindful of that. We expect the chief constable to work with the resources available, but it is clearly down to the politicians to make the case for why more resources need to be made available. My hon. Friend also set out the cases around funding and deprived communities in particular. He asked the Minister to respond to the particular problems faced by areas such as the west midlands and the disproportionate effect of the 20% cut. He also spoke about the problem of fear and the need to reassure the public, with the role of the police in community engagement and preventive work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) reminded us that the majority of the police budget—80%—is spent on staffing, so this debate is about jobs.
One of the things that we should not lose sight of when we talk about staffing levels—leaving aside the office staff about whom we have all expressed concern—is that we also have people such as cleaners. They are sometimes from one-parent families. Their jobs could be on the line, just as much as anyone else’s.
My hon. Friend makes an important point.
Turning to some general comments on the cuts, chief constables and police authorities in the 43 police forces around the country will be facing tough choices from this winter, following the announcement in the comprehensive spending review last month. It is quite clear from the 20% cut over four years that the Home Secretary has totally failed to stand up for policing in the Home Office budget. When compared with other public services and the money that has been provided for them, it is clear that the police are losing out disproportionately.
I believe that the coalition Government are taking huge risks with that approach. The cuts are too hard, too fast and reckless. The Opposition have made it clear that we would protect front-line policing, but it is clear that, under the approach taken by the coalition Government, it will be impossible for front-line policing to be protected with cuts at such a level. Safety on the streets should be a top priority for any responsible Government, and police funding should reflect that, as it did under the Labour Government. Proper support for our police is vital, which is why Labour believes that we need to keep every police officer we can equipped to do the job.
As we heard, crime fell by 43% under Labour, even through the strains of the recession, because of our three-pronged approach. One part of that approach was having more police, and I take issue with the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who implied that this is not about numbers, because it clearly is. It is wrong to say that having fewer police officers on the street will somehow not have an impact on the levels of crime. The other parts of that three-pronged approach were having more powers to detect crime and antisocial behaviour and sending more criminals to prison. That was our approach, but I worry that the coalition is putting all three elements into reverse with its cuts.
We have all waited patiently for the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Mike Crockart), who is a former police officer, to answer the point that several Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), have raised. Perhaps he has taken a monastic vow of silence. Why is it that his party committed to having 3,000 more police officers on the beat, but now supports removing 40 police officers from each of the 10 constituencies in Birmingham?
My hon. Friend raises an important question, and the Minister might be able to respond shortly.
Let me make one final point about policing in general. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak mentioned the politicisation of the police through the madcap scheme of establishing police and crime commissioners in each police force area. That will be done at an estimated cost of at least £50 million, at a time of savage cuts to front-line policing. I ask the Minister to think again, because the scheme seems to enjoy little support.
We heard that the number of police officers in the west midlands has increased from 7,113 to 8,536 since 1997.
Does my hon. Friend agree that if it is legitimate to have a referendum to determine whether people want directly elected mayors, it would be equally legitimate to ask them whether they would prefer scarce and precious resources to be spent on keeping police officers in their jobs or on electing a highly political animal to dominate the police and change the character of British policing? Would that not be a localism agenda?
As we know, the coalition Government are wedded to the idea of localism, so the Minister might feel able to respond to that suggestion, which would fit very much with asking local people what they would like.
As I said, we have heard about the increase in the number of police officers. We have also talked at length about the problems with the grant that the West Midlands police force receives, which constitutes 83% of its total funding and which is not raised from local council tax. I seek guidance from the Minister about his approach to the precept that local councils will be asked to agree for policing. Does he expect it to go much higher? That would not fit with the approach taken by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to restricting council tax increases. Perhaps the Minister can tell us what he expects from police authorities in terms of the precept.
We have heard a great deal about these issues not being confined just to the west midlands. I think that they will start appearing in the press almost every day. Today, we have heard that the Greater Manchester police force is looking at 3,000 job losses, including 1,500 police officers. Those job losses will be set out in a report from the chief constable to the police authority, and it looks as though at least a quarter of the force’s staff will go over the next four years.
It is worrying that there might, as we have discussed, be a push to remove officers with more than 30 years’ experience in the police force. The provisions that are being used were introduced not to bring about such a wholesale reduction in the number of experienced officers, but to be used in the interests of policing with particular officers. Will the Minister comment on that? There is particular concern about what will happen to the specialist skills of some experienced officers, particularly those in the specialist domestic violence units and rape units. The general public will have real concerns about the impact on their communities when we lose that specialist policing.
We know that efficiency savings can be made. A report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary entitled “Valuing the Police: Policing in an age of austerity”, which was published in July, said that there could be a redesign of the police system, with savings of about 12%, but cuts of 20% go well beyond that. West Midlands police has already taken action to streamline its operations and promote greater efficiency through the Paragon programme, which is set to save £50 million over four years. However, it does not look as if the coalition Government will work with police forces that are doing the right thing by looking for efficiency savings. Comments from KPMG and the Police Federation make it clear that 20% real-terms cuts across the country over four years—they will be front-loaded, so chief constables and police authorities will have to implement them right at the start of the four-year period, which will make it difficult to make plans—will mean that no efficiency measure that police authorities and chief constables can possibly introduce will be enough, and front-line policing will suffer.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to the long list of questions from my right hon. and hon. Friends. I hope that he will think again about the impact on the West Midlands police authority.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) on securing the debate. I will certainly endeavour to answer as many as possible of the questions that hon. Members have put to the Government.
I understand the passion with which hon. Members have spoken and their concern to secure the best possible policing for members of the public in their constituencies. Members on both sides share that concern. We want to ensure that the public remain safe, and it is, of course, the Government’s duty to do everything we can to achieve that. Nevertheless, there are two strands to this debate, which were correctly identified by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). The first concerns the political points that hon. Members have made, and I will respond to those first. The second concerns the specific position of West Midlands police, and I will endeavour to respond on that as well.
I cannot let the moment go by without observing that the reason why this Government have to make cuts in police funding is to deal with the deficit bequeathed to us by the previous Government. I must make that point because political points have been made by Opposition Members, who accepted no responsibility for the position in which their party left the country. Indeed, they appear to be proceeding on the basis that we can simply ignore the contribution that policing can make to delivering savings and that what is being announced now is somehow all the fault of the new Government, who have been in office for barely a few months.
I think that my party, when in government, faced up to that. The Minister is not facing up to the fact that the bankers started the problem; we did not. Until that is faced up to, there will be all sorts of problems, because nothing has been done about it.
I did not understand a word, I am afraid, that the hon. Gentleman said, but we are indeed facing up to the problem of the deficit that was bequeathed to us by the previous Government. We simply do not regard it as sustainable that we should, in a few years, be spending about three times as much on debt interest alone as we do on the entire criminal justice system. In the Government’s view policing can make its contribution to reducing the deficit, by making savings.
It is clear that Labour had a policy of halving the deficit over four years. It is clear as well, as I said in my speech, that we looked to efficiency savings, which we thought could bring about a 12% saving. I do not quite understand why the Minister feels that the Opposition do not have a policy on the matter. Clearly, we do.
I am intrigued to hear that the Opposition now admit that they would have been cutting the policing budget, if that is what the hon. Lady is saying. One would not have known that from any of the rhetoric used by the Opposition Members, who talked as though it were not necessary at all to deal with spending by police forces. Perhaps the hon. Lady should have a word with her hon. Friends and explain to them exactly the scale of the cuts that she proposed.
Is not there a contrast between the Liberal Democrat pledge of 3,000 more police officers, the pledge made by my party to protect front-line policing, and what the Minister said to his constituents at the time of his election? Did he tell them that there would be cuts to front-line policing?
Let me try to explain to the hon. Gentleman that it is our ambition, too, to protect front-line policing. We want policing to be maintained in neighbourhoods, in the form of neighbourhood policing and response policing, so that when people dial 999 they can be certain that officers will arrive. Of course we want that, and so does the chief constable of the West Midlands police—as do all chief constables. We believe that it will be possible to protect that front-line policing in spite of the cuts to the police budget that we have announced. I shall explain why, but first I wanted to get out of the way the point that we had to deal with the deficit; it is our responsibility to do so in the national interest. We have now had an admission from the Opposition that they would have cut spending as well. Of course they will not say how they would have allocated £40 billion of spending cuts, but there is no doubt—because they have admitted it before and repeated it today—that some of those cuts would have fallen on police budgets. Let us have less high moral outrage from Labour Members. Let us accept that, whoever was elected, policing budgets would have to be dealt with because of the deficit bequeathed to the country by Labour’s fiscal mismanagement.
The second issue that hon. Members raised was police numbers. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North said that “sadly,” there was “no sign” of additional police numbers in the coalition agreement. Do I take it from that criticism that she would have liked a commitment to an increase in police numbers, or that that is the Opposition’s new commitment? Apparently not. She was apparently saying that it was sad that there was no sign of additional police numbers—she is nodding at that. Can I have from her an assurance that she would like an increase in police numbers?
The Minister knows jolly well that I was referring to the promise in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in May of 3,000 additional police officers. I was looking at the coalition agreement—the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives coming together to set out their policy platform, so that we could all see their plan—to see whether the Liberal Democrats got that promise into the agreement. Clearly they did not.
The hon. Lady is indeed perceptive. There is no commitment to increased police numbers. Why? Because, in the words of the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, in the note that he left for us, there is no money. [Interruption.] No. Of course we cannot make a commitment to increase police numbers. I am making the point that the hon. Lady cannot make it either, and that in the run-up to the general election the then Home Secretary, now the shadow Chancellor, refused to give a guarantee that police numbers would remain as they were then.
Is it the Minister’s plan to talk until 11 o’clock without getting on to the central issue that has been raised in the debate—the fact that the West Midlands police force is being hit disproportionately, in comparison with many low-crime areas? Will the Minister spend some time between now and 11 o’clock attempting to justify the disproportionate hit that his proposal is making on the high-crime areas of the country, one of which is the west midlands?
I set out at the beginning of my speech the way in which I would respond, and my intention to discuss the situation of the west midlands. The right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends made the mistake of introducing a political tone to the debate, and they can hardly be surprised that I respond in kind. If they had chosen to approach the debate in a different way, they would have had more time for the specifics that they want covered. I suggest that they intervene less if they want me to get to the points that I certainly intend to deal with.
The question of numbers has been raised in debate among my hon. Friends and others. Certainly there are, or there were last year—police numbers were beginning to fall in some forces before the general election—a record number of police officers in the country. However, it is not possible to make the simple links between crime levels and police officer numbers that hon. Members have made. I have pointed out before the example of the New York police: the overall police work force contracted by 10% in the past decade—a significant fall—and crime fell by over a third in the same period. Of course they had to focus on making savings and working more efficiently.
I point out to hon. Members who want to make such a simplistic link that in the 12 months to June, most of which period fell within the reign of the previous Government, violence against the person without injury increased in the West Midlands police force area, and so did the number of domestic burglaries. If there is a simple link between the number of police officers and crime levels, why did that happen? The Opposition Members here today are experienced and they know perfectly well that there is not a simple link. The questions we should be dealing with are: how well are resources being deployed and, given that money will be tighter in the next few years, how can we ensure that efficiencies are driven towards getting what the public want—the maximum visibility and availability of policing on the streets?
That takes me to my third point. The independent inspectorate of constabulary recently reported on police officer deployment and made two crucial points. The first was that, on average, the proportion of police work forces that is visible and available to the public at any one time is 11%. There is a significant variation between forces, but that tells us that roughly nine tenths of police resources are not visible and available to the public at any one time, which raises concerns about deployment and should make us look at the efficiency with which resources are being deployed, and at such factors as bureaucracy. Opposition Members made very little mention of that.
Yes. I am, I hope, coming to all the points that hon. Members made. I want to address them, but I am making the crucial point that the test of police effectiveness is not just to do with the overall sums of money that are spent, or even the overall numbers of officers. It is what is done with the officers.
The inspectorate made a second crucial point, which is that police forces between them could save more than £1 billion a year by improving the way they work. As the hon. Lady said, that would represent about 12% of their budget, once the ability of forces to raise precept was taken into account. As a result, the cut that we announced would be reduced to an average of 14% in real terms over four years. However, I accept that that is an average figure and that some forces have a greater ability to raise money from precept than others—a point made by the right hon. Member for Coventry North East. I shall come shortly to how we can deal with that.
The figures I have just given leave a funding gap of two percentage points. The matters that the inspectorate report did not cover will also need to be addressed. For example, forces could procure collectively rather than separately, which would save hundreds of millions of pounds; and savings will accrue from the announced two-year pay freeze across the public sector that, subject to the police review board’s agreement, will apply also to police officers. We believe that significant savings can be made by police forces, including by the West Midlands force—that is on top of the Paragon programme, which is already delivering savings—while protecting front-line services and, crucially, the visibility and availability that concern the public.
We heard nothing—literally nothing—from the Opposition about procurement or other areas where savings could be made. They made the simplistic assumption that a reduction in budget was bound to lead to a reduction in the number of officers on the streets or available to the public, but that is an assumption that they should not make.
If we take what the Minister says at face value—I am prepared to accept that he must be right—will he tell us how many officers we in the west midlands can safely afford to lose before he would be concerned? Will he also answer the point about the disproportionate grant, which all of us have raised?
I have told Opposition Members of the structure that I wish to apply, and I have said that I am seeking to answer that point.
The deployment of resources is a matter for the chief constable and the police authority. It is not for the Government to decide; it will be the chief constable’s decision. The task now falls on him to drive the savings that are necessary, particularly the savings in the back and middle offices, to ensure that the front line can be protected. I repeat that we believe that it can be.
The crucial point is that we have not yet announced the grants for specific forces. The cut that we announced was therefore an average. Within a few weeks, in early December, I shall announce a provisional grant settlement for each force. In considering the level of grant that should be made available to each force, we will go through the proper processes and take account of things such as damping and the needs of forces. That process is under way, so the sensible points by Opposition Members were well made. However—this is something that Opposition Front Benchers will have to address—if some forces are to be given a degree of protection because they raise less money from council tax than others, two questions arise.
First, why should forces in areas where people are already contributing more through the council tax suffer a bigger cut in Government grant? Why should they be punished by a bigger cut? Secondly, if forces such as the West Midlands police were to be given a smaller than average cut, which is what I think the Opposition are asking for, which forces do they say should be made to suffer a greater than average cut? Will the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North confirm that it is Opposition policy for forces that receive more through the council tax to suffer a bigger than average cut? Will the hon. Lady confirm that now?
The House will have noted the resounding silence, and seen that the hon. Lady’s head is down.
Ordinary people listening to our debate will have noted that the Minister is playing silly political games rather than acknowledging that the Government grant is provided to areas that have higher levels of crime. That is the reason for them. Saying that that should not be taken into account when allocating the size of the cut does not address the central problem. People need policing proportionate to the scale of the problems that they face. Does the Minister not accept that?
Of course these things are taken into account. I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that if he does not want to play silly political games, he and his hon. Friends should not have started in that vein. Now that he is making a serious point, however, I remind him that we are going through the formal process of allocating grant. Need, of course, is a crucial factor, but that is already reflected in the way in which grant is allocated, particularly for urban areas.
The particular point that I am making to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North and to the right hon. Gentleman is this. If it is argued that a disproportionate share of the savings should fall to the West Midlands police—in other words, that its share of the savings should be lower because the local precept contributes less—the question to be answered, not by the right hon. Gentleman and Opposition Back Benchers, because it is outside their remit, but by Opposition Front Benchers and others is: which forces will therefore have to pay more? As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is a perfectly fair point.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. Will he confirm that the consequence of the disproportionate impact on the West Midlands police service will be that 2,500 jobs are to go over the next four years, including 1,200 police officers? Will he confirm that that is a fact?
No, I cannot confirm that that is a fact. The hon. Gentleman seems to misunderstand the position. First, the grant settlement has not been announced. Secondly, these decisions are not announced by the Government. It is not for me to say; I therefore cannot confirm that what he describes as a fact is indeed a fact. These are decisions for the chief constable and the police authority.
It is clearly unrealistic to suggest that the Government can guarantee the number of police officers, and nor can the Opposition. The question is what the Government can do to ensure that police forces are in the best possible position to make savings and to protect the front line. We believe that it is possible, including in the west midlands, to make significant back and middle office savings so as to ensure that resources go where the public want them.
I have attempted to reply to that question. We will be considering all the proper criteria, including the needs of each area, questions on the damping that has been applied and all the other factors that Opposition Members have raised. I have always been willing to discuss sensibly with right hon. and hon. Members the particular needs of their local forces, and I have discussed them with the chief constable.
Another important aspect to this debate is that reducing bureaucracy will help to ensure that police officers are released for front-line duties. We will save hundreds of thousands of officer hours through measures such as reducing the national requirement on stop-and-search and scrapping entirely the stop-and-account form. The Government are determined to do everything that we can not only to make savings but to protect front-line policing and the number of officers in the neighbourhood. We believe that if police forces work constructively, they can help to achieve those savings and protect front-line policing.