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Policing (Telford)

Volume 522: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2011

It is good to see you officiating in the Chair this afternoon, Mr Gale.

I begin by paying tribute to the officers, community support officers and civilian staff who work so hard in my constituency. I have always felt that being a serving police officer or CSO is one of the toughest jobs in our community. When they go to work, they know that they might place themselves in harm’s way, on a daily basis, to uphold the law and protect local people. May I say to those people that we are grateful for their work and the commitment that they show?

We have an establishment figure of 290 police officers and 49 CSOs in the Telford and Wrekin area. Those officers are backed up by civilian staff. In many police stations today, the person we meet, who will help us and point us in the right direction as we go up to the front desk, is often a civilian member of staff. The support they give front-line officers and CSOs is very important. Approximately 20% of the officers who work in Telford are in CID and specialist teams, 20% work in local policing teams and 60% of officers and CSOs work in the response unit. We saw a significant rise in police numbers in the previous decade, and the introduction from scratch of CSOs, who provide a valuable visible presence in the community and have proved to be a successful addition to the strength of divisions across West Mercia. I remember that when CSOs were brought in, people were somewhat sceptical, but they have worked very well in Telford. We often see CSOs paired up with police officers so that they can work jointly and provide cover for each other. They are often seen in our local centres, such as Dawley, Madeley and Oakengates, and provide a valuable, uniformed presence in those areas. People value them and the numbers have risen significantly in recent years. A range of partners, not just mainstream Home Office funding from the police authority, is involved in funding CSOs. Other partners are contributing to provide CSOs in our area. For example, we have seen partnerships with parish councils, which helped provide sponsorship for vehicles and individual CSOs.

The local policing teams serving my constituency operate out of Donnington, Malinsgate and Madeley police stations, and their ethos revolves around four key themes: access, influence, intervention and answers. It is their job to be the direct link and connection with communities in our area. This initiative was one of the best undertaken in policing during the lifetime of the Labour Government. It ensures that people can identify their local police officers and CSOs and engage with them directly.

In Telford, we also have the Partners and Communities Together process, which enables local people to engage with the police and other agencies to identify and tackle issues in their community. I have attended some PACT meetings. They are large meetings: they are often packed—different spelling—and very positive. Local police officers come and talk about policing priorities, and the community can say to police officers and CSOs, “Actually, in the next few weeks we need you to focus on this area or this particular type of crime in our community, because it is particularly troubling us.” Those meetings are very positive and provide a link back to the public. The public get frustrated sometimes when they see that police officers are active, but do not receive any feedback on results or actions that have been taken. This is, therefore, a two-way process—a dialogue between the community and agencies that are attempting to tackle crime in our community. I regularly meet officers in Telford, both at Malinsgate and out on the patch. In a recent meeting with Superintendent Gary Higgins, he said that, in relation to Telford, in 30 years in the police force, he had

“never worked anywhere with such a positive can-do attitude”.

I am pleased to say that crime has been falling in the Telford and Wrekin area in recent years. The overall number of crimes fell from 13,655 in 2006 to 11,444 in 2010. There have been falls in all types of crime, notably violent crime and antisocial behaviour. That is good progress, but every single figure in those statistics relates to a victim, and we need to do more to drive down crime and crime levels in our town.

Local policing teams are contributing to success and alongside this we have some excellent partnerships involving organisations such as Telford and Wrekin council, Wrekin housing trust, local parish councils and wider community groups. One particularly interesting initiative is focused on antisocial behaviour, where West Mercia is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead. We have a co-ordinated antisocial behaviour team that encompasses staff from the police and local authority, in partnership with agencies such as the Wrekin housing trust. That ensures that people who are repeatedly targeted by antisocial behaviour get a tailored response, and we also have an antisocial behaviour vehicle that can be sent to incidents. That activity is then integrated with the work of the local policing teams and fed back through the PACT process, confidentially of course. It allows resources to be targeted effectively.

Antisocial behaviour is a blight on communities. It is a significant problem in urban areas such as Telford. It disproportionately affects different people in communities. When one person feels that they have been affected by antisocial behaviour, their perception of antisocial behaviour may be different from someone else’s. For example, if a gang of young people is kicking a ball against the wall outside an elderly person’s house or bungalow, that may be perceived as a big antisocial behaviour problem for the individual resident. You or I, Mr Gale, might find that perfectly tolerable to an extent, but an older person might feel significantly intimidated. The antisocial behaviour team can consider who is being repeatedly affected by antisocial behaviour and how it impacts on their life.

Alongside this type of work, the police in Telford and Wrekin have also been engaged in work that attacks organised crime networks. Telford is no different from any other town—organised criminals are active in our area. I receive briefings from senior officers on this activity and, although their work is often unseen by the public, I can inform the House that the effort and commitment shown by officers to those investigations is outstanding.

Crime has been falling and a range of local initiatives are producing results. I am, however, concerned about two key issues. First, police funding will be cut by 20% in the next four years and the Government are taking a big risk with public safety. The cuts could undermine the fight against crime and antisocial behaviour that we have been successfully waging in towns such as Telford. Helped by record numbers of police officers, crime fell by 43% under the Labour Government and the chance of being a victim of crime was at a 30-year low. However, the Government’s reckless cuts to policing and crime prevention will put all that at risk.

The cuts are front-loaded. They will be larger for the first two years of this Parliament, making it even harder to make long-term efficiency savings and putting more pressure on police forces to cut officer numbers. In West Mercia, which covers Telford, that will mean a cut of £20.6 million between 2010-11 and 2012-13. That will inevitably lead to pressure on front-line police and CSO numbers in areas such as Telford. Home Office statistics, which were revealed last week, show that in West Mercia there are nearly 150 fewer officers than there were a year ago. The force has announced significant job losses already, and I fear that there are more to come in the next four years. The fall in numbers was for the period before the Government’s 20% cut to police funding was announced, and I fear that it is only the thin end of the wedge.

In West Mercia there is a recruitment freeze, which means that, as people leave the service, they are not replaced. Very often, longer-serving officers leave, for obvious reasons, and they have often progressed up the ranks. Under normal circumstances, they would be replaced by officers from the front line, and new recruits would come in. That clearly cannot happen, so posts in specialist teams are left unfilled and force capacity is weakened, or the front-line force capacity is weakened if posts are filled through promotion. There is a Catch-22 problem with the recruitment freeze: we can see pressure on the front line but also on specialist teams.

Another concern to officers, particularly across West Mercia—I have spoken to officers in Telford about this—is regulation A19, which requires that officers retire after 30 years’ service. West Mercia is not implementing A19 at present, but, like several other forces, it will be looking at it. The real problem is that the force would lose officers with great experience if it were implemented.

It is not just me who is concerned about these issues—the police themselves are. Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the Police Federation, said on Sky News on 20 October 2010:

“So we know forces have a recruitment freeze on officers, we churn about 5,000 officers a year so we’re probably talking losing, by the end of this time, 20,000 officers and that’s going to have a big impact. Let’s have no doubt about that, that’s going to have a big impact and that doesn’t include staff officers that we lose as well. So this is a tough day for policing.”

He was talking about the broad arrangements around the settlement.

Rob Garnham, chair of the Association of Police Authorities, said on 13 December 2010:

“There is a risk that the positive momentum of the last few years on crime reduction and public confidence will be interrupted, at a time when communities are likely to be looking more towards the police for help when other public services are scaling back. The police service may find itself squeezed from several directions at once”.

That is interesting stuff, is it not? During the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said that we would have 3,000 extra police officers on the streets. That was clearly a campaign commitment. The Prime Minister said that he would send back to their Department any Minister who proposed front-line cuts to services so that they could think again. I would be interested to hear what the Minister has to say this morning. During the general election, my Conservative opponent said that the West Mercia police in Telford were “underfunded”. I do not know what he would think if he saw the figures today.

The second issue I want to discuss is directly elected police and crime commissioners. At the same time as we are looking at police cuts, the Government are committed to subjecting the police to an unwanted organisational upheaval, in which police authorities would be replaced by directly elected police and crime commissioners. It is estimated that that will cost more than £100 million.

In the nearly 10 years that I have been the MP for Telford, I have never met anyone in my constituency, neither a member of the public nor a party activist from any party, who suggested that that would be a good course of action. The fact is that we have a well-respected police authority model, which involves people from all parts of West Mercia—we do not want an American-style elected police commissioner.

There is a real danger that the position will be politicised, at huge cost to taxpayers. The Minister should take the money put aside for the project and give it to police forces such as West Mercia to spend on front-line services. The cash could come directly to Telford to be spent on front-line policing and on supporting police officers and CSOs. I urge her to go back to the Department and think again about the police commissioner idea. She should allocate the resources that have been ring-fenced for it to police authorities, and put them on the front line in towns such as Telford.

In closing, I once again pay tribute to the public servants in and out of uniform who serve our community as part of the police force in Telford. We ask them to do much on our behalf, and it is our duty to support them in doing their duty.

It is a pleasure to stand before you this afternoon, Mr Gale. I congratulate the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright) on obtaining this debate, and I join him in paying tribute to the excellent and innovative work done by the police and other agencies in Telford. As he said, together with Telford and Wrekin council, they have set up a joint unit to improve action on the antisocial behaviour that can blight people’s lives. West Mercia is the Association of Chief Police Officers lead on antisocial behaviour, and one of the eight forces chosen to take part in a new trial to improve the police response to complaints about such behaviour. A pilot is taking place in Telford, and a risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable callers has been developed and is already being used. Such work makes a crucial difference to the safety of communities and the quality of people’s lives.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about key issues. If I may, I would like to start with police and crime commissioners. He and I differ on the impact of the Government’s proposals to introduce them. He said that the proposal would lead to politicisation of the police, whereas I believe that it provides an opportunity to open them up to democratic accountability. Police authorities are responsible for holding the police to account, but the introduction of elected commissioners will put power directly in the hands of the public.

The hon. Gentleman was concerned about the cost of the exercise, but the commissioners will cost no more than police authorities did. Moreover, I am not sure whether he is aware that in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill Committee, the hon. Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) proposed an amendment and then voted for having directly elected chairs of crime and community panels, which would involve an equivalent cost. For the election, £50 million has been especially allocated—it will not come out of the allocation for the police grant. The cost would be the same whether it were for an elected police and crime commissioner or an elected chair of an authority. Overall, the exercise would involve the same cost.

Commissioners will take over most of the functions of police authorities, and they will provide democratic accountability and be a visible and active force for community engagement. Meanwhile, they themselves will be held to account by police and crime panels for the execution of their duties. The panels will be made up of locally elected councillors and some independent and lay members. They will be able to veto a commissioner’s proposed precept by a three quarters majority and veto any candidate whom a commissioner proposes for chief constable by the same majority.

The public will also be given opportunities to scrutinise the performance of their police and crime commissioners directly through enhanced local crime information, including, from today, street-level crime maps. I am sure the hon. Member for Telford would agree that that will open up police information and crime statistics to the public, who will know what is happening in their street and area, and be able to hold not just police commissioners but their local police to account. He discussed the importance of local people being able to hold their local police, local ward panels and so on to account for what is happening on their streets.

The running costs and day-to-day expenditure of police and crime commissioners will be less than 1% of the total costs of policing. As I said, we expect them to cost no more than the current system of police authorities. However, what will be different is the value that the public get for that money. Police and crime commissioners will need to demonstrate value for money to local people or they will not be re-elected. The additional cost is the £50 million over four years for elections, but, as I said, that is the same as would result from the suggestion of the hon. Member for Gedling for directly elected chairs of panels.

The hon. Member for Telford spoke about value for money, police numbers and the importance of local policing. The core challenge for the police is not just to reduce costs but to do so while maintaining and, indeed, improving public services. The police are very “can do”, and I am constantly impressed by the determination of police officers and staff to do just that. After the provisional funding settlement was announced in December, the chair of West Mercia’s police authority said:

“Even after the planned cuts we will still be spending more than £200 million per annum on policing services. That is still a substantial sum and, given the strong position that has been built up over the last 10 years, we aim to do all we can to maintain an excellent police service into the foreseeable future.”

The Government’s priority is to ensure that the police service retains and enhances its ability to protect and serve the public. That is done by improving efficiency, driving out waste and increasing productivity.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was at Home Office oral questions last week, when my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) noted that there is a healthy appetite for more policemen on the beat—visible policing—with which I am sure we all agree. The chief constable of Gloucestershire has reorganised his force and increased the number of officers on the beat from 563 to 661—increasing his front-line ability to carry out visible policing—by looking at his back and middle offices. We know that there is much that chief constables and police authorities can do to improve services: improving deployment, getting officers out on the streets and smarter policing.

Only 11% of policing is visible at any one time. That has to be our focus: smarter policing, where we deploy police, and what they are doing when they are out on the streets. The broad strategy to improve value for money in the police service is about improving front-line services. I am sure we agree on the function that the police service performs in our communities, which is absolutely vital. The Government’s priority is to ensure a better police service, retaining and enhancing its ability to protect and serve.

Despite a rapid expansion of the work force, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that only 11% of officers are visible and available to the public. The Government are cutting bureaucracy so that the police are crime fighters, not form writers. The Telford and Wrekin section of West Mercia police’s website explains:

“Over the next year and beyond, our aim is to work smarter, operate using streamlined processes and focus all of our efforts on serving and protecting the public of Telford and Wrekin in the best and most effective way.”

The primary responsibility for improving value for money is local, but the Government will ensure real leadership where national organisation is required, which will enhance policing at the local level and enable it to function better. Transparency of data and comparative data are key to enabling and driving change. Data on costs and services accessible to the public reinforce behaviours that drive value for money.

On pay and conditions of service, the Government have asked Tom Winsor to review the remuneration and conditions of service of police officers and staff, and to make recommendations that are fair to, and reasonable for, both the taxpayer and police and staff officers. Procurement and IT will have a concerted and nationally led approach. There will be a step change in collaboration between forces, providing the right support for forces and helping the police service to organise, so that it gains maximum benefit from working with the private sector. We estimate a potential £2.2 billion saving, which outstrips the £2.1 billion real reduction in grant.

The Government are taking a direct interest in ensuring that savings are realised. The Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice now chairs a high-level working group, with representation from chief constables and police authorities, to identify the right change programmes and agree that they should be taken forward. We all recognise that it is no longer business as usual. The time for talking about IT convergence, collective procurement, collaboration, sharing and outsourcing services is over. We cannot afford any longer not to do those things.

I think we would all agree that the savings the Minister is talking about, through collaboration and working with other forces, are important. In fact, West Mercia is looking to work more with Warwickshire police. Will the Minister give a commitment today that the establishment police and community support officer figures for Telford will not decrease over the next five years—front-line police and CSOs?

That is a matter for the local chief constable—to organise the West Mercia police force as he can best deploy them, to the best of their ability. It is within local command to decree what the deployment must be. The Government’s loud and clear message is that deployment should be to the front line for visible policing, by making back office and middle office savings. The front line should be protected and the Prime Minister would be very cross with those police forces that did not strive to make the effort and succeed—as Gloucestershire has done—in putting police on the front line.

There is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, as shown by the examples of other cities and countries, such as New York and Northern Ireland, and as shown in England and Wales during certain periods. We have all talked about the numbers. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Deputy Prime Minister, when talking about the Liberal Democrat manifesto, putting 3,000 extra bobbies on the beat. In the event, many of the successes—where police numbers have fallen and crime has fallen—have been due to technological advances such as better burglar alarms and car safety. There is not a direct and absolute correlation between those two things.

I want to touch briefly on the issues the hon. Gentleman raised concerning antisocial behaviour. The Government would agree with him that antisocial behaviour blights lives and the public expect us to fight it. It is crime, however it is labelled. We know the damage that such behaviour can do to communities. It can be more disruptive than other types of crime, because it so often targets those least able to look after themselves. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are planning to reform the toolkit for dealing with antisocial behaviour. Our aim is to reduce the bureaucracy, delay and costs that hamper the police and their local partners. We will be consulting shortly on new measures and proposals.

A trial for handling antisocial behaviour complaints was launched in eight police force areas, including West Mercia, on 4 January. That change in the way that forces respond to calls, involving IT improvements, uses new systems to log complaints. The trial aims to put into action the recommendations of HMIC’s report on the police response to antisocial behaviour. The police and Telford council have already introduced an innovative joint ASB team. They are using and helping to develop the risk-assessment tool that identifies high-risk and vulnerable antisocial behaviour callers. The trials are being supported by the Home Office, ACPO, HMIC, social landlords, and crime and nuisance groups, which illustrates the point the hon. Gentleman made about the importance of partnership working.

In conclusion, I pay tribute to the police and all the agencies and individuals who work with them in Telford and across the country. They perform an immensely valuable service in often difficult circumstances, and the Government are committed to doing everything we can to support them. We recognise the challenges caused by the unprecedented budget deficit, but we have every confidence that front-line services can be protected. We will provide real national leadership, with the National Crime Agency, in giving the police the powers they need and in helping to cut unnecessary costs and bureaucracy where a central role is needed. Our reforms will make them freer to develop local responses to local problems, without being hampered by unnecessary targets and regulations imposed from Whitehall.

I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing the debate. I am sure we have the same aims in policing the safety of our communities and giving everyone the confidence to go about their daily business without fear.

Order. We will now move to the debate on funding for schools in Worcestershire. Before that debate commences, I notice that, quite properly, there are a number of Members from Worcestershire present. It seems appropriate to remind Members that while any Member may at any time seek to intervene on a speech, if anyone wishes to make a speech during a half-hour Adjournment debate, that has to be with the consent of the Member in charge and the Minister, and the Chair must be notified first.