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Police Stations (Overnight Staffing)

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2011

I am grateful to have the opportunity to ask the Minister a series of questions about the proposed evening closure of Dudley police station, and, as we can see from the presence of other Labour Members, other stations in the west midlands. I want to express my admiration and support for West Midlands police, led by our chief constable, Chris Sims—[Interruption.]

I think those in the public gallery have done their bit. They have every right to have their case heard.

Led by Chris Sims and his senior colleagues, the force has seen crime across the region fall over the last few years, but many of us are worried that the force will find maintaining its performance impossible, because it is being forced to cut its budget by £126 million over four years. It is losing 14.5% of its funding, one of the biggest cuts in the country. As a result, the force is losing 1,250 officers, recruitment has been frozen, and experienced and valuable officers are being forced to retire early because they have completed 30 years’ service. Other savings are being made in back office functions and administrative functions as well.

The force is now proposing that the front desk at Dudley and a number of other police stations be closed to the public during the evening or overnight. Dudley’s front desk has been closed to the public between 10 pm and 7 am for the last four years or so, but under the new arrangements the front desk would close at 6 pm and not open again until 10 am the next morning. I think it is fair to say that were it not for the need to save £126 million, West Midlands police would not have put this proposal forward. However, they have to make savings and they have put forward a number of arguments, which I will set out and deal with.

First, it is said that

“The review of front offices found that public demand is very low in the evenings and overnight and recommended that staff be redeployed back into contact centres to increase the efficiency of call handling.”

Secondly, the force will

“continue to provide 65 front offices open to the public; a service to local communities far wider than most other police forces offer across the country.”


“households will never be more than four miles from a 24/7 police station”.

Finally, the force is looking for other locations in which to meet the public and more modern ways of communicating, such as Twitter and Facebook. The force has established a new appointments system so that officers will visit the public instead of expecting the public to come to them.

I am all in favour of new ways of communicating with people and having more locations in which the public can meet the police, but there are specific factors in relation to Dudley which I am not convinced the current proposals have taken into account. As soon as the proposals were brought to our attention, my colleague Councillor Shaukat Ali and I launched a petition asking that the proposal for Dudley police be dropped. The fact that more than 2,000 residents signed our petition in just a fortnight illustrates the level of local concern. Residents, businesses, publicans and students in the town all expressed their concern. The Central Dudley Area Committee held an emergency meeting and unanimously called for the proposal to be dropped.

There are a number of specific factors in relation to Dudley. First, the nearest station run by Dudley police for many will be at Brierley Hill, five or six miles away for many residents. Secondly, I receive frequent complaints about antisocial behaviour on estates near the town. Much of this obviously occurs during the evening, and people strongly value having a station open should they need it. Thirdly, Dudley is the largest town on the list and I do not think there is anywhere of similar size in the region that would not have a station open to the public in the evening.

I am all in favour of using new methods of communicating with people, but it is to the West Midlands force’s credit that it operates so many more open front desks than other forces. The fact that there is a busy and active, fully staffed station is very important to traders and shoppers.

My hon. Friend knows that we are in the same position in Coventry. It will be difficult for the public to get access to a number of police stations, particularly over the weekends, as a result of the reduction in hours. Not far from where I live is Chace police station, which is a major station for Coventry. More important, when anyone is arrested for alleged terrorism, they are normally held there until they are moved somewhere else. It is vital that the Minister take a serious look at this.

I do not know whether my hon. Friend has experienced another problem. At weekends, when crime is more likely, it is difficult to get a senior officer at these stations to talk about certain incidents that may happen in the centre of Coventry or in different locations in Coventry. Several police stations in my constituency, but equally in the other two MPs’ constituencies, will be experiencing the same thing. It is vital that people have an open police station at the weekends so that they can get to the people they want. It is no good leaving sergeants in charge.

My hon. Friend is correct. There are various ways in which his and my stations could be kept open in the evenings and, in his case, at weekends by looking for savings in other areas. It would help if the force was not being forced to find this level of savings in the first place.

As in Coventry, specific factors in Dudley mean that it is important to have a station open in the evening. We have got £30 million being spent right now on new college and sixth-form buildings in the town centre, which will result in hundreds more young people in and around the town during the evenings. The new college includes a theatre, which will bring hundreds of visitors to the town at night. Our town centre market is about to be rebuilt, strengthening the town centre economy with, again, more activities in the evening. Several pubs and cafés and a wine bar are currently being refurbished. Much of the regeneration of the town centre is based on driving up trade and activity in the evening. Finally, there is strong public support for my campaign to open up the castle in the evenings during the summer for concerts and plays, which would bring thousands more people to Dudley during the evenings.

On the number of visitors, the force’s own figures show that a third of front desk enquiries come between 6 pm and 10 am. That is bound to increase as a result of our ambitions to boost the town’s night-time trade and visitor economy. In the light of these particularly local factors, I want the Minister to ask the force to reconsider this particular proposal. Not unreasonably, the chief constable says that if front desks are not closed, savings will have to be made elsewhere. I understand that, but I need to be convinced that all possible savings have been found from administrative and back office functions before front-line services such as Dudley’s front desk are cut.

Forces across the country buy pretty much the same cars and other vehicles, uniforms, protective clothing and equipment. They use similar computer systems and so on. Will the Minister explain why individual forces are still procuring cars, vehicles and equipment individually and separately instead of driving down costs by purchasing centrally and getting bigger and better deals for the taxpayer? Will he tell me why we have police, fire and ambulance services in the west midlands operating separately instead of merging some common functions? Why do they all need separate finance, human resources and PR departments, for example? Why have we got 40 separate local or regional police forces across England—four in the west midlands alone—all providing different and separate services instead of sharing expertise and knowledge, as well as administrative functions and computer systems, for example?

Rationalising such functions would save a fortune, but I can think of other savings that we could be making, too. Many of the areas I have listed are precisely the areas that we identified as part of the 12% efficiencies that we would have made over four years, rather than the 20% cuts that have been front-loaded and that are being imposed on police forces at the moment. Is it not the case that the Government’s decision to go much further and much faster has probably impeded forces’ abilities to make efficiency savings, which would take time to work out with other police forces, but would limit the impact on the front line? They are being forced to do these things more quickly and more severely. That has forced them into quicker but more damaging savings, such as reducing the number of front-line officers and closing stations in the evening instead of the administrative and procurement savings that I have suggested.

We should also consider why the police authority and force are based in costly offices in the middle of Birmingham city centre, which is probably the most expensive place to run a service anywhere in the west midlands. Like me, I am sure my hon. Friends the Members for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) and for Coventry South (Mr Cunningham) could identify offices in their own constituencies where services could be provided much more cheaply.

The Minister will no doubt say that he cannot do much about where the authority is based, but he ought to be ensuring that it has found savings from all the other areas before touching the front line. He can certainly do something about the way the police force is funded.

The police authority and leaders from all parties in councils across the region have made representations to Ministers on two specific issues. Although all police authorities have been subject to some reduction in the Government grant, authorities such as the West Midlands police authority have effectively been penalised because they kept precept increases to a minimum over the past few years. They are, therefore, more reliant on the Government grant compared with authorities such as Surrey, which increased precepts at a faster rate and are therefore less reliant on the Government grant.

My hon. Friend makes a comparison between the west midlands and Surrey. In the west midlands the authority relies on an 80% grant from central Government, whereas in Surrey it is the reverse. That shows a real disparity.

My hon. Friend also mentioned efficiencies. I do not have a lot of evidence, but once or twice I have noticed that during an incident such as the arrest of a person for causing a problem on a bus, it can sometimes take six police cars to surround that bus and remove the individual. When talking about efficiencies, perhaps that practice should also be examined.

My hon. Friend is correct. Total spending power—the Government grant and the precept—in the west midlands will reduce by over 4% in 2011-12, compared with only 1.5% in Surrey. As the Minister will know, that position is exacerbated further by the application of grant damping, together with the “floors and ceilings” that have been applied every year since the last funding formula review. As a result, the West Midlands police authority will receive £27 million less than its full formula entitlement, whereas Surrey will receive £4 million more. It means that the West Midlands police authority, which has one of the highest policing demands in the country, will be forced to make the biggest percentage reduction in spending, while areas such as Surrey that have much lower need and demand will make the smallest reductions. As the West Midlands police authority says,

“this is neither fair, reasonable nor indeed equitable.”

Stations such as those in my constituency would not be faced with closure in the evening if the Government introduced arrangements that properly reflected the need and demand for policing services in the west midlands, and which treat that area and the people who live and work in it fairly and equitably.

I will suggest one other saving. Although I am not against elected police commissioners in principle, I am not sure how they will find enough things to keep them busy and in particular to justify their enormous salaries—I thought about that when I visited the police authority last week, and it is an interesting point. One argument that was recently advanced for police commissioners cited the great job that we were told the Mayor of London did during the recent riots. The Mayor of London, however, looks after a whole range of services and functions across the city, and has a much bigger area of responsibility than simply the police. I am not sure what police commissioners will do to justify being paid £100,000—as I understand it, the police commissioners in the west midlands will be paid £100,000, and they will be the best paid in the country. That seems an odd priority when resources are so scarce that we are losing 1,200 officers and face the evening closure of stations such as that in Dudley.

Finally, does the Minister think that the officers in question and my police station’s front desk are front-line services? I would have thought it difficult to identify anything more front line than a full-time police officer and a public inquiry desk. At the election, the Prime Minister promised that there would be no front-line cuts, and that any Cabinet Minister who proposed them would

“be sent straight back to their department to go away and think again.”

Does the Minister think that the cuts in question are front-line cuts, and will he do what the Prime Minister promised would happen under such circumstances and think again?

I welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) has secured this debate because Bloxwich police station in my constituency is affected by this issue. My hon. Friend is right.

Order. May I check that the hon. Gentleman has the permission of the Minister and Opposition spokesperson to speak?

I certainly will, Mrs Riordan. As the Minister knows, the West Midlands police force faces a devastating cut of 26% over the next few years. That is bound to affect it adversely both in the west midlands as a whole and in individual constituencies. As indicated, there will be 1,250 fewer police officers as numbers fall from 8,627 to 7,377. Moreover, there will be fewer members of police staff in other roles. That is the background to what is happening and the reason why certain cuts are taking place at the moment.

The decision to close Bloxwich police station after 6 pm each day cannot be justified. My figures show that on average, more than 30 residents visit the station at some stage during the time it will be closed. Furthermore, the fact that the police station is closed will lessen the feeling of security among the residents. There may be alternative ways of contacting the police, but that does not alter the fact that the police station will be closed when previously it remained open, and people are concerned about that.

We started a petition to protest about what was happening, and there was not the slightest reluctance by anyone to sign—I would have been surprised if there had been. I know that the Minister is checking the figure I gave about the number of people who go to the station—that is the average figure that has been publicised; if it is not the most accurate figure, so be it. The fact remains, however, that until now and before the cuts were announced, the police station remained open and its closure was never suggested. The only reason the station will close after 6 pm every day is that indicated by my hon. Friends. I hope that, when looking at the situation in Dudley and Coventry, the issue of Bloxwich station and whether it can remain open will also be considered.

Finally, I sent the petition to the police authority with a supporting letter, and I believe that there should be a genuine consultation exercise in which people are asked their views. If the Minister wishes to challenge what I have said about the need for Bloxwich police station to remain open, let a genuine consultation exercise be held in Bloxwich, and other areas of my constituency that use that station, so that people can express their views.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dudley North (Ian Austin) on securing this debate. I recognise that the availability of the police is a matter of concern to his constituents, and the Government share that concern.

Police visibility and availability is important, and we want to see more police officers on the streets preventing and cutting crime, rather than sitting behind their desks. We must, however, recognise that policing today reaches people through many means, not just police stations, and we must be careful not to confuse buildings with the visibility and availability of the police, which I fear may be behind public concern.

I know that the hon. Gentleman recently attended a meeting of the West Midlands police authority at which it considered a report by the chief constable on the proposed operating hours for the force’s public inquiry offices, and he also mentioned the petition that he presented. As I understand it, the views expressed by petitioners will be taken into account as a response to the police consultation. The consultation period will continue until 15 January, after which time all responses will be considered. Such decisions are taken locally and not by the Government.

In his report for the authority meeting, the chief constable made plain the force’s commitment to a visible and accessible service to the public:

“Providing a visible and accessible service to the public is core to the approach West Midlands Police takes in delivering its mission of ‘Serving our communities and protecting them from harm.’ West Midlands Police must deliver reductions in its budget of £126 million, but in making these savings we have been clear that we will still offer the protection the public demands, but the way services are delivered must change.”

The approach described by Chief Constable Sims reflects the core challenge that the police service faces—to reduce costs while maintaining and, indeed, improving public services. The Government have no option but to reduce public spending. As a service spending £14 billion a year, the police can and must make their fair share of the savings needed. I think that there is cross-party agreement that the police can make savings; we may disagree about the amount.

The hon. Member for Dudley North and his hon. Friends raised the issue of the funding for the west midlands. Of course, I will revisit the damping decisions to be made in relation to the third and fourth years of the spending review. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is trying to make. I have said before that we decided that an even cut across police forces was the only fair solution, because otherwise we would be penalising forces that were already taking more from local taxpayers than others. These are difficult decisions, but we decided that that was the fairest solution. I repeat that we want to move away from damping to full implementation of the formula as a proper reflection of policing need. It is difficult to do that when funding is falling, because it means that other forces would have to pick up the bill and receive a deeper cut than the level proposed by the Government, and those forces would not regard that as fair. Nevertheless, I will continue to consider these matters and have just reassured the chair of the police authority and the chief constable that I will do so. As I continue to take the decisions about individual allocations, I will pay the closest attention to the points being made.

My absolute priority is to ensure that the police service retains and enhances its ability to protect and serve the public, but for that to happen, business as usual is no longer an option for police forces and authorities. A fundamental redesign of police force organisation is needed. This cannot be about salami-slicing police resources. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has shown that a significant proportion of the police work force are not working in front-line roles—that is certainly true in the west midlands—and that there is wide variation among forces when it comes to the availability and visibility of officers to the public whom they serve. That is evidence that forces can do much more to manage their resources better in order to prioritise front-line services. I know that the very good chief constable in the west midlands has embarked on that mission. He is focusing on the redesign of policing that is necessary to deliver a high-quality service to the public, given that resources are diminishing.

The test of the effectiveness of a force cannot be the total amount being spent on it or the total number of staff it employs—or how many police stations it has or when front counters are open. There is no simple and automatic link between those things and how accessible the police are or how crime is being fought. The effectiveness of a force depends on how well the resources available are used.

It is plain from the report provided by the chief constable to the police authority last week that West Midlands police have devoted more of their resources to managing contact with the public than similar forces have, but without reaching the productivity levels that could be achieved. The cost of that approach is not only financial; it constrains the ability of the force to return officers to the visible policing that the public want. The changes proposed will enable the force to deliver a £1 million saving on the cost of managing contact with the public. They also involve redeploying officers and staff to make better use of their time and skills, rather than staffing police counters at times when few people use them—I will come to that point. Staff from the sites with reduced hours will be redeployed into contact centres, which will improve call handling, and police officers will be released to other duties, so the proposals about which the police are consulting involve changing the balance of resources to improve the way in which the police respond to the public through the channels by which and at the times at which the public actually contact the police, rather than preserving a service in places where and at a time when the public rarely use it.

West Midlands police have found that, during the daytime, on average only two people an hour visit each front counter. Many of those visitors are solicitors visiting the custody facilities or are people whom the police have asked to attend, such as in relation to bail or production of documents. The proposed new opening hours for a number of station front counters will meet two thirds of existing demand, which is concentrated in daytime hours.

I note that the hon. Member for Dudley North has said that one third of front-desk inquiries come between 6 pm and 10 pm. It is worth him looking at the graph produced by the police that shows the actual demand at Dudley police station. I have just been looking at it. He may be right that one third of the inquiries come between those times, but let us look at the actual number of people making visits—those who choose to come in, not those who have been asked to come in by the police, because clearly they could be asked to come in at a different time. I think that the hon. Gentleman knows what the numbers are. At 6 o’clock, the average number was 0.3—0.3 people came in. It was 0.4 at 7 o’clock, 0.4 at 8 pm and 0.2 at 9 pm. At 10 pm, it was zero. During daytime hours, when the counter will remain open, the peak number of visits to Dudley police station came at 2 pm. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman knows how many people came in at that peak time. One person came in. We need to understand the scale of the numbers of visits, what hon. Members are asking for and the impression that may be being given to local people of what the changes to the service mean.

The hon. Member for Walsall North (Mr Winnick) referred to Bloxwich police station. He is right: there is a little more demand on Bloxwich police station out of hours. I do not know whether his figure of an average of 30 is right. It does not look correct on the figures that I have, but I am happy to take what he says at face value. I can tell him that the peak number of visits in the daytime occurred at 4 pm and that two people came in. At 10 pm, the start of the out-of-hours service that he was concerned about, it was one person. Therefore we need to get all of this in context.

I have consistently said—this view is shared by chief constables—that we must find a new range of strategies for the police contacting the public. There are very good examples up and down the country of forces doing far more with their money—getting more bang for the buck—by finding new ways of contacting the public. Whether that is through the new opportunities that various media present, whether it is through contact centres on our new non-emergency number, 101, where people can get hold of the police, whether it is through the internet or whether it is the contact that the police can have through things such as supermarket surgeries, where they can meet thousands of people, rather than the very few who may come in to a police station, it is incredibly important that we realise that there are many more innovative ways by which contact can be maintained.

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must make one or two final points in response to the hon. Member for Dudley North. I hope that he understands.

I agree with the hon. Member for Dudley North about the importance of driving savings where we can to ensure that front-line activity is protected. That should be our shared ambition. I am committed to it, and so, I know, is Chris Sims. All the things that the hon. Gentleman mentioned are exactly the areas where we are doing that. We are driving hard on procurement. On police vehicle procurement, which he mentioned, the Police Act 1996 (Equipment) Regulations 2011 came into force in March. That means that all forces must now buy vehicles through a national procurement framework. We have identified some £380 million-worth of savings that could be achieved by police forces through better use of IT and procurement. That is a very good example of what the hon. Gentleman was talking about. The point about interoperability was also right. He mentioned interoperability between the blue-light services. We are encouraging forces to collaborate and share services. He will know about the innovative proposals that West Midlands police have in relation to business partnering. We are encouraging the 43 forces to share services and reduce back-office costs. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman about all that, and chief constables are working on it.

The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of police and crime commissioners. I am pleased that he said that he was not against them in principle. I know that Labour is now calling for candidates, and I have no doubt that we will be putting up a candidate in the west midlands. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman plans to run. The truth is that there will be no greater running cost with the police and crime commissioner than there was with the authority. We are absolutely determined about that. There is no reason why the police and crime commissioner should cost more. I believe that it will be a full-time position, because it will involve the important job of holding the force to account, which the authority currently does. It will be vested in one person, rather than the whole authority, so I think that it will be a full-time job in a big force area. We have just decided that it will involve responsibility for victim services as well.

The police and crime commissioner will do the very important job of holding the force to account and being the voice of the people. They will provide a voice for exactly this kind of exercise and pay attention to public concern, but if I were the police and crime commissioner for the west midlands, I would be looking very hard at the proposals that the chief constable has made. I would be looking at the numbers and saying, “Actually, they make sense, given that we need to make savings and improve the visibility and availability of officers by innovative means.” When we look at the actual number of visits that hon. Members have talked about, does it really make sense to be saying that making the changes is scandalous and wrong and that the service will not be the one that the public need? I suggest that, if people re-read the report, they will see that the proposal is not an unreasonable one for the chief constable to make. I understand why hon. Members raise these issues. I believe that our objectives are the same, but I also believe that in this case they should be supporting the chief constable in his endeavours.