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West Midlands Police

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Newmark.)

Thank you for granting this Adjournment debate, Mr Speaker. This is my third encounter today with the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice. I assure him that I am not tiring of it, even if he might be getting a little fed up with the sight of me. I am glad that a number of colleagues have stayed for the Adjournment debate, which shows their concern about this issue.

Alongside many of my west midlands colleagues, I have spent quite a bit of time recently discussing the likely effects of cuts and reductions in policing. We have talked with the Minister, shadow Ministers, police officers of various ranks, members of the police authority and other key stakeholders. We all know that reductions in police funding are going to be at their worst in places such as the west midlands, and that there may well be consequences that have so far been overlooked.

Inevitably, talk of police cuts leads to discussions about the risks of rising crime and arguments over how the police use their time. Depending on the audience, it is not uncommon for young people to figure in the discussions, as if they are a major cause of crime and antisocial behaviour and the entire nature of their relationship with the police is one of conflict. I do not accept that—hence tonight’s debate. It is easy to forget that the police are often the first port of call for worried parents when youngsters go missing or run away from home, when youngsters fall into bad company or when parents feel they are losing control. In my constituency of Selly Oak, it is common to see the police playing an active role in working in schools and youth clubs. They take a very hands-on approach.

Does my hon. Friend agree that school-based police officers are crucial and make a huge difference that is noted by parents, teachers and local residents and, in particular, by students themselves? He might be interested to know that I was lobbied last week by year 7 and 9 pupils from Small Heath school in my constituency—incidentally, it is my former school. They were lamenting the loss of their local police constable, PC Inglis, who had been based at their school for a number of years and had made such an impact on the students and on antisocial behaviour, the rates of which had declined significantly.

I agree with my hon. Friend. At Highters Heath school, it is not unusual to see officers taking part in lessons or accompanying children on school trips. That is part of a project developed by the head teacher, Jan Connor, in conjunction with her local police inspector and sergeant. They recognised that contact with the police had to be about more than warnings, inquiries or witnessing arrests, so they set out to break down the barriers and build a long-term relationship with the community. That is important, but it will be hard to measure when the accountants want to balance the books. As with my hon. Friend, the young people and constituents whom I speak to tell me that it is making a difference.

I often get complaints from constituents about antisocial behaviour on the Chinn Brook recreation ground, especially during the lighter nights. The solution in the old-fashioned, vehicle-led reactive policing days might have been to send out a car and issue a few warnings or round up the loudest. That does not really solve the problem and risks alienating young people from the police.

Last summer, I attended a barbecue organised by a local inspector and a sergeant and her team. They sent invitations to families across the area. They made it clear that the recreation ground could be used for fun and family events, but that it had to be shared and the needs of others respected. They worked hard to sign up every youngster who attended for a sports challenge or some other activity to keep them busy on summer nights. That is the kind of policing that my constituents want, and it is the kind of policing that pays dividends with young people.

West Midlands police have been one of the pioneers of a return to what is sometimes called autonomous or common-sense policing, whereby the police set out to resolve community conflicts, antisocial behaviour and sometimes intergenerational tensions by using their guile and common sense, rather than boosting their arrest figures. Using that kind of policing, minor vandalism can be dealt with by perpetrators putting right the damage, or a punch-up in the school playground not automatically being recorded as an assault. For me, that is the foundation of neighbourhood policing.

Many years ago, when I worked with young offenders, I can well remember the juvenile court packed with cases that might have been dealt with differently with a bit more common sense and desire for a just solution. That is why I am anxious to protect this model of policing. I am not alone in that view. More than 600 of my constituents have been in touch with me to express their anxieties about what might happen if there is a huge reduction in officers and less time for community engagement.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that what he is referring to is replicated in a great many places across the United Kingdom, including in my constituency. It involves community policing, new ideas—sometimes, midnight football—and flexibility with children. It does not necessarily apply the rule of law and use prosecution, but it shows how we work with them and take them away from the attractions that sometimes lead them astray.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is right that the police should try to forge links with those young people whom we sometimes describe as “hard to reach”. The police should work with charities, voluntary groups and youth groups to help young people to feel safe and to enjoy themselves, while remembering to respect the needs of others. That is as important for front-line visibility as anything else that Sir Denis O’Connor might comment on.

We can argue another time about the intensity of the Government cuts and whether their scale and timing are right. For the purposes of this debate, however, I simply want to highlight my fears about some of their unintended consequences. Birmingham council’s antisocial behaviour unit will be a victim of the cuts. It will lose most of its staff and might have to close. Although I have not necessarily agreed with its approach on everything, I recognise that its trailblazing work is designed to prevent the growth and persistence of the antisocial behaviour that wrecks communities and destroys lives. In 2010, the unit was able to work with the police on a spate of gang-related activities, as well as the identification and closure of premises that were being used as brothels in a dark world where young women are often lured into a life of depravity and despair. The police have worked with local charities to create safe havens to help to take youngsters off the streets and to develop opportunities for the police and others to work with them constructively. We have one safe haven in the Quinton area of south Birmingham. The police officers I speak to are positive about the value of that work. They intend to create a network of havens, but now we might be fighting to prevent the closure of the one that already exists.

In some parts of Birmingham, the authorities have made good use of money available from pots such as the working neighbourhoods fund and safer city partnerships. They use that funding with the police to tackle antisocial behaviour, to reduce gang activity and to act on neighbourhood tensions and intergenerational conflicts. Bodies such as the centre for conflict resolution have been part of that, but what is their future as their partners find their budgets slashed?

At least three youth groups in Selly Oak are expressing concern that the work they do with the police is at risk. The 641 group might have to close, and the Den and St Mary’s youth group are also in a precarious position. Yesterday, I received quite a sad letter from two young men in my constituency—Kieran Greenway and Tom O’Rielly—who wanted me to know that they had started a petition to try to stop the closure of their youth club: Masefield youth club. They feel that the club is teaching them about co-operation and teamwork. It is providing assistance in their search for work or training opportunities, which is no mean task for a young person in Birmingham at the moment. The club encourages them to look at their own behaviour. It helps to divert them from trouble and from being blamed for causing trouble. It also reduces the chance that they might be drawn into acts of vandalism or exposed to violence and drugs, or that they might develop relationships with the police that are wholly hostile and confrontational. They want to keep their club in their area because they do not have to travel far to get there and, as a result, they are less likely to be exposed to street crime. Violence and robbery are real problems for many young people these days, and those under 25 are much more likely to be victims than perpetrators.

For a big city, Birmingham does not do that well in youth provision, although I pay tribute to the countless dedicated individuals who give up their time to help and support our young people. They are part of the Prime Minister’s big society, but they are fighting a very tough battle and they increasingly think that the little support that does exist is being steadily removed.

Birmingham city council’s own overview and scrutiny committee recommended in its November 2006 report that decent youth services required an average spend of £100 to £110 per youngster per year. In the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden), the spend is about £60. In Selly Oak, it is about £45, and in the constituency of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), it is about £30.

Our young people are already being short-changed. They need people to advise them on the dangers of smoking and to provide honest advice on relationships and sexual behaviour. They need to know about the risks of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They need places to go where they can feel safe and form relationships with adults that are not destructive and exploitative. The police play a crucial role in supporting many of those services. We should not overlook the superb work they do in partnership with others.

Police cuts do not affect only the elderly, home owners and businesses, all of whom have reason to fear the scale of cuts in the west midlands. They also affect youngsters who deserve the chance to develop decent relations with the police, who need access to challenging activities to absorb their energy and exuberance, who come from violent homes or who have no home, and who want to feel safe and deserve a chance like everyone else. Now is not the time to reduce support for young people. Future generations deserve better from us.

I am sure that that is what the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), now Minister for Universities and Science, had in mind when he talked in his excellent book “The Pinch” about the contract across generations and the responsibilities of the baby boomer generation to the subsequent generation. We need to recognise the important role that the police can play and not treat our young people as voiceless individuals—those without a vote who can be left at the bottom of the pecking order when these cuts are imposed.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) on securing the debate. I am delighted to be discussing these issues with him once again—I think for the third time today. I have also met him to discuss the funding of West Midlands police, and I know that he speaks with genuine concern, passion and interest about the subject, which is also motivated by the interests of his constituents and by wanting the best possible police service in his constituency and more widely in the west midlands. That is an ambition that the Government share. It is the first duty of the Government—of any Government—to ensure that the public are safe, and it is important to us all that we have an efficient and effective police service. However, the Government also have to deal with the deficit. The hon. Gentleman recognised that in his comments. We can disagree about the pace at which the deficit is being dealt with, but Government Members argue that it is essential that it is dealt with as fast as we are proposing.

Nevertheless, I think that both sides agree that the police would have to make savings irrespective of how fast that deficit was reduced, and there is indeed agreement on both sides that the police can make substantial savings, so what we have is a discussion about the scale of those savings and how they can be delivered in a way that does not affect or damage the service that people are entitled to expect in their homes, in their workplace and on the streets. I believe that it will be possible for police forces across the country, including the West Midlands police, to restructure, make savings and drive down costs in a way that will enable them to deal with the reductions in grant that we have had to announce, without producing a service that is worse for the public. We are asking the police to make savings to meet a challenging funding settlement. We have always said that it would be challenging; it was announced in the spending review that the central Government grant to police forces is reducing by 20% in real terms over four years.

Not every force is affected in the same way, because the amount of resource that is available to forces depends on how much they raise from council tax payers. Every force raises some money from council tax payers. On average, that is about a quarter of the funding that they receive, so it is a highly significant share. The West Midlands force receives the second lowest amount from the council tax payer, a point that has been well made by the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues. That means that the 20% reduction in real terms is more challenging for West Midlands than for other forces.

As I explained to the Home Affairs Committee today, we looked closely at whether it would be right or possible to adjust the grant reduction to take into account the fact that some forces, such as the West Midlands force, raise less from their precept, but there were a number of objections to that. One is that by doing so, we would be penalising council tax payers in other areas who already pay far more for their policing services and have had a big increase in council tax over previous years. That would be unfair. Also, by subsidising forces, including large forces such as West Midlands, in that way, we would be asking other forces to take a larger cut in central grant than 20%. They would have regarded that as very unfair.

It seems right and fair to treat all forces in the same way and ask that they deal with a 20% reduction in real terms. The implications of that are not the same in cash terms. The cash reduction for forces in the first year is 5.1%. In the second year it is 6.7% on average. Taking account of the specific grants that are added, the average reduction is 4% in the first year, 5% in the second, 2% in the third and 1% in the fourth. Those are cash figures and do not take into account inflation, but they illustrate the fact that although these are challenging reductions, they are manageable, provided that considerable savings can be achieved.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary says that forces together can save more than £1 billion a year—that is some 12% of their funding from central Government—while protecting front-line services. They can achieve that by redesigning their services, and specifically by making changes in their back and middle offices, including by outsourcing. That has happened to differing degrees across forces, but the West Midlands police are now looking at such a radical service redesign.

I met the chief constable again today. Indeed, I have just been with him, discussing these very issues. The kinds of project that the force is considering are those that would save large sums of money as it attempts to meet the budget reductions, but I do not believe that those changes would mean a reduction in service that would be felt by the public.

The Government have never been able to give a guarantee about police numbers, and nor were the previous Government. We recognise that police forces are having to institute a recruitment freeze and that some forces, including West Midlands police, are using the A19 procedure so that police officers who have reached 30 years of service retire. There will be reductions in the size of police work forces, and that is true for West Midlands police. However, that is not the same as saying that there will necessarily be a reduction in the quality of service for the public. The task for chief constables and their managers in the police force, supported by their policy authorities and the Government, is to find ways to drive the kind of service redesign that will mean that the public still see their police officers on the streets and still receive a good response from them and that the police are still able to engage in the kind of partnership activity that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, which is so important in dealing with youth crime.

In addition to the savings that the inspectorate of constabulary identified, we believe that further savings could be made by police forces. I rehearsed some of those briefly with the Home Affairs Committee today and will be happy to do so again. For instance, we think that procurement of non-IT goods and services could save another £200 million a year, bearing in mind that police authorities currently spend £2.8 billion a year on equipment, goods and services. We also think that savings from IT will be possible if police forces collaborate. We have a new approach to procuring and managing IT. There are 2,000 IT systems between the 43 forces, employing around 5,000 staff. The general view in the service is that savings will be possible by managing that better, and the Government are determined to help drive that.

Furthermore, we have set up an independent review of pay and conditions under Tom Winsor, the former rail regulator, and it will produce its first report shortly. That will advise us on the right and proper balance between pay and conditions and whether we have the right arrangements in relation, for instance, to overtime, special priority payments and such matters. That will enable us to ensure that we have an affordable service, but also one that fairly remunerates officers, who do such an important job, recognising that they cannot strike and that many do a difficult and often dangerous job. We await Tom Winsor’s report and will then advise on our position. Any changes that might be made, including the possibility of a two-year pay freeze, which would also save significant sums of money for police forces and which we expect the rest of the public sector to undergo, would have to be agreed by the police negotiating board.

Despite the fact that we expect the overall size of the police work force to be reduced, including in the west midlands, we are absolutely determined to protect front-line services.

I recognise the difficult job that the Minister has. Does he have any plans to issue guidance or advice to the police on the significance of young people when considering their budgets? That group cannot vote and does not have a voice in the same way as adults, and that is part of the purpose of raising the matter.

I was going to move on to young people. I have no specific plans to issue that kind of guidance, partly because I do not think that I need to persuade chief officers or police forces about the importance of such work. They know that the significant investment that has been made in the development of neighbourhood policing and the growth of partnership working, whereby police officers are engaged with local authorities in crime reduction measures, particularly those affecting young people, has been a really important move. It has helped to reduce crime and to build public confidence, and my understanding is that chief officers, including Chris Sims, the chief constable of West Midlands police, are committed to it.

We need to send a message to local authorities. They of course face equally challenging reductions in funding, but, as they too have to take very difficult decisions on how to make savings, it is important that we remind them that community safety is one of their statutory responsibilities, and that the partnership work that we have seen between local authorities and the police locally has helped to make communities safer and must continue.

As local authorities consider how to achieve those aims, we want to ensure that local partnerships have a purpose, that they are non-bureaucratic and that they do not waste time. They should not simply involve meetings between council officials and police officers; they should be places of real action-orientated policing, with a strong focus on preventing crime and all the measures that we know to be successful, particularly in youth services.

I pay tribute to the West Midlands police and its partners in the community safety partnership for their work in tackling youth crime and violence in Birmingham. Birmingham has worked closely with the Government on a number of programmes to tackle youth crime and violence, and the city pioneered the use of civil injunctions to tackle gang violence, an approach that was subsequently enshrined in law and will go live on 31 January. This year the Home Office will provide Birmingham with £350,000 for work to tackle youth crime, in addition to £85,000 for work to tackle youth violence. So we are doing what we can.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to all the people who work in Birmingham and elsewhere to prevent and tackle youth crime and violence: local communities, police officers, police community support officers, youth offending teams and others. The Government’s aspirations for policing in the west midlands are the same. The chief constable could not have put it better when he said on 11 January:

“My task is to protect delivery at all costs, to protect the frontline, to protect neighbourhood teams which have been such a success, to keep our ability to deliver the policing people want.”

We share that ambition.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.