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Policing (Bassetlaw)

Volume 569: debated on Wednesday 23 October 2013

It gives me pleasure, or a level of pleasure, to introduce this debate on policing in Bassetlaw. However, that pleasure is tempered by what I have to say about the crisis in policing that is beginning to unveil itself in Bassetlaw. Other parts of the country are suffering a similar crisis, and they will continue to suffer it in the future.

A few years ago, I spent time with the police. I went around on the beat at night, at weekends and in the daytime, and I sampled the work of the local police. One sergeant told me, “The way we police in Nottinghamshire is that we know the criminals.” That approach raises two questions. First, if we know the criminals, why are they at large? Secondly, and more seriously, if “we know the criminals” has been the culture in the Nottinghamshire police over the years, what about the crimes that were not just undetected but unreported, because they were not known to be crimes at the time?

The classic, very real examples are historic sex and child abuse, along with domestic violence. Those problems were not recognised as existing, but in the aftermath of the publicity about Savile and others, case after case was raised in my constituency surgeries. I heard an extraordinary number of historic allegations. It is not for me to judge whether they are true, but, on the balance of probabilities, if a lot of people come forward with entirely unconnected allegations, confident that something will happen, some, if not all, of those allegations must be true. If a constituent comes to me with such allegations or other serious allegations, I take the approach, as I am sure other Members do, that we should take a rational approach and ensure that our constituent’s voice is heard.

If the police claim to know the criminals, there is a problem in the culture. I have challenged the approach of the Nottinghamshire police directly on many issues, including in the House, but that culture did begin to be seriously turned around. However, in turning around culture, working practices, attitudes and approaches, there is a huge imperative to ensure that specialism is built up. Yet, in Nottinghamshire, and specifically in my constituency, the wrong kind of cuts are taking place. This debate is not the place to discuss Government economic policy, so I will not go into that, save to say that I have suggested more than 30 alternative cuts that could be made in different areas, but not in policing, because the cuts to policing are the wrong kind of cuts.

In the past three years, the 999 service has been in crisis. However, those wishing to make cuts in Bassetlaw forget the nature of the people of Bassetlaw. We are not averse to standing up and defending our 999 services. When the fire service proposed closing Retford fire station at nights, there was a huge public campaign in 2011. That resulted in not only the reversal of the decision, but a decision to build a brand-new fire station and the shifting of fire training to Retford. We stood up for our public service.

When the ambulance service decided to close our ambulance stations, we did not stand by and have some intellectual argument; the people of Bassetlaw put in more than 90% of the submissions to the consultation, as we did with the fire service proposals, and the decision was reversed. When the hospital tried to close accident and emergency services, our response was, “No, that will not happen.” Last week, the Secretary of State for Health cited Bassetlaw hospital, with its new, seven-day A and E working, as the model for the rest of the country. Yet, in the past three years, the A and E has been under direct threat of overnight closure and a reduction in emergency services.

The same is true of the proposals for the police: we will not accept the prioritisation of the police being reduced to such a level that we lose a critical service. Let me give two precise reasons why. First—I cannot go into much detail, but I will on another occasion, if I am given the opportunity—disaster management planning is in chaos. Mine is one of the areas most at risk, with motorways, the east coast main line, airports and power stations. Disaster management is no longer properly planned. Should there be a major disaster in my area, there will be problems with ambulances and fire engines, given what we have seen already, and so it is with the police. The police cannot respond to a major disaster if they are not working at the time, and there are many times of the week when whole swathes of Bassetlaw are denuded of police.

The second problem—we have not seen many of these closures yet, but there will be more—is the closing of custody suites and police cells. At some stage, there will doubtless be an attempt to close the courts too. What does that mean? Let me give the bare statistics, because they are astonishing. Every local police officer tells me that the police do not make many arrests, because there is nowhere to put the person who has been arrested. If officers make an arrest, they have to take that person miles to Mansfield, which takes police officers off the job, leaving no police officers in Bassetlaw.

Miraculously, public order offences have collapsed in Bassetlaw—they are going off the scale. Clearly, peace and harmony have broken out overnight on the streets of Bassetlaw! No, they have not. The police simply cannot arrest people, because they have nowhere to put the brawlers, the drunks and the fighters on a Friday and a Saturday night; they have to take them to Mansfield and Nottingham.

Shoplifting, however, is booming, and the figures are going up. Why? Because there are no police on the streets deterring the petty, casual repeat offenders from stealing from shops, but people in the shops still have the integrity to report shoplifting. Frankly, people are not bothering to report shed break-ins and such things, because they never get the police to come. Someone attempted to break into my office last week and I am still waiting for the police to attend. What they say in my area is, “If that happens to the local MP”—and I expect no special privilege—“what on earth will they do for the rest of us?”

Since 2010, Nottinghamshire has lost 314 police full-time equivalents—gone. That is on top of the back office people who have gone; and my area takes the brunt of it. The police must concentrate on Nottingham, where there have been a record number, relative to population, of murders in the past decade. Of course, they need a strong and permanent presence there and I would not deny them that. It is a higher police priority than Bassetlaw, which is right, fair and proper; but we become the poor cousins, so that there are times when there are no police, or when the few who are there are so stretched that they cannot do the job.

I and the police can name the streets in my constituency where they have lost control, and the criminals who run those streets because policing has reached such a low level. Those people are not being arrested for the minor offences that it would be easy to arrest them for, which would nip in the bud their attempts to bully and intimidate the community.

I also see what is happening alongside that, with the specialist police. For example, there is a wholesale failure to investigate historic sex abuse cases properly. There are plenty of examples, and it would be unfair and improper to list them, with the possibility of revealing identities; but that is the other side of the coin, and it affects my constituency dramatically.

My hon. Friend makes a strong and passionate case on behalf of his constituents. Does he believe that the establishment of the National Crime Agency will be helpful to Bassetlaw police, or will it take resources away? Alternatively, is the jury still out, because we do not know how things will work in the new landscape?

In my view the jury is out. One of the cases that I have told the police about, on six occasions, has never been prosecuted; but I am certain from the detailed evidence that I have given on six separate occasions, with different witnesses and different forms of evidence, that we have plenty of cases that fall between the national and the local. The problem is that if there are not resources and expertise in the local police force they do not produce the evidence for what, in fact—in the case that I have cited six times to them—is, for my area, very major crime with all sorts of criminal add-ons. Again, I cannot give details, because that would probably identify the person or persons involved. That shows, however, the problem that exists, and the dilemma for the Nottinghamshire police force.

There are have been £35 million of cuts so far, and 314 full-time equivalent front-line officers have been lost. If it is then announced that there must be further cuts in the next three years, which is what is being said, at least 100 more will have to go. We have some great police community support officers, but if all that is done is to replace the police officers with PCSOs, that is not the way to provide a police service in my area.

My demand to the Minister is something that is beyond his powers—to change Government priorities, and to fight for the police service with the Treasury and others. What I have been describing are the wrong kind of cuts. As to the things that he does have the power to do, it is his duty as a Minister of the Crown to stop the situation that means my constituency gets a second-class service compared with other places. It is not an acceptable solution to bring in G4S, with some mobile canteen operation to sling people into, and to privatise the making of arrests in Bassetlaw—as if that is appropriate compared with a well funded professional police resource, with police cells in the police station. On the streets they say—they will be singing it in Bassetlaw—“G4S, you’re having a laugh.”

That is not good enough for my constituents. It is not good enough to close our police cells. It is not good enough that the number of public order offences is going down because local police say they cannot arrest people because cells are not available; and that shoplifting rates are rocketing because there are not police on the streets and Nottinghamshire has been denuded of them. Of course, as I have always argued, Nottinghamshire has, relatively speaking, never had a proper police funding formula; but within that situation the good people of Bassetlaw are being let down. We are not prepared to accept that.

I am looking for vision and courage from the Minister. If he can achieve the reopening of the police cells that were arbitrarily closed and keep them going, he will get a warm and friendly welcome from the people of Bassetlaw, just as the hospital and fire chiefs who reversed their plans now do. Do the right thing, and set the right priorities, and we will be happy. At the moment, the Minister and the Government have a major fight on their hands.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) on securing this debate on policing in his constituency. He is always a firm and passionate advocate for his constituents, as he has shown today, even if I may disagree in several respects with the analysis that he has given.

The crime rate remains too high, but the reality is that it is falling, and has fallen. Recorded crime has dropped yet again, by more than 10%, under the present Government, and the recent crime survey reports that crime has more than halved since its peak in 1995. In Bassetlaw recorded crime fell by 4% in the 12 months from June 2012 to June 2013 and it is down 6% in the Nottinghamshire force area over the same period.

That is important, positive news, and shows that police are rising to the challenge of making savings while cutting crime and providing a better service to the public. England and Wales are safer than they have been for decades. However, I agree that the crime rate remains too high. That is why we will continue with measures that keep pace with the changing nature of crime and improve our ability to combat emerging issues. That is why the landscape that we have established is important—to make it possible to respond to those emerging challenges.

On 7 October the National Crime Agency was launched, to deal with the most serious national-level crimes. Just as importantly, it is intended to be a centre of expertise on dealing with specialist crimes such as cybercrime and organised crime, and to use its skills and capabilities to work with the regional organised crime units to provide linkage between the national, the regional and the local. The Government have put that landscape in place to ensure that the right skills are in the right places, and that some of the issues that have been confronted before—the gaps where regional or local criminality meets national capability—are more effectively joined up.

I pay tribute to the work of the Nottinghamshire police, of Chief Constable Chris Eyre and of Paddy Tipping, the police and crime commissioner. Many of the points made by the hon. Member for Bassetlaw this morning can be directed at the PCC and the local police, because we have put in place that direct reform of the landscape, central to which has been giving people a direct say in how their communities are policed. The election of police and crime commissioners represented the most significant democratic reform to policing in decades, giving the public a voice at the highest level, holding forces to account and helping to restore trust.

Importantly, PCCs are best placed to understand the needs of victims in their communities and to work with the police to cut crime. Indeed, the commissioner in Nottinghamshire is working closely with the chief constable to find innovative solutions to deliver better and financially sustainable policing to the people of Nottinghamshire. They are looking at ways to increase police visibility and the number of police constables and PCSOs involved in neighbourhood policing, which can only be good news for the people of Nottinghamshire and of Bassetlaw.

Is it not the case that the chief constable and the PCC are doing so with a reduction in their budget since 2010 of £20,184,000, with further reductions to come, making their job somewhat more difficult?

As with all parts of the public sector, the police must play their part in helping to tackle the deficit. I understand that this debate is not about economic policy, but the Government are having to take measures to deal with the financial problems that were left by the previous Government.

Unquestionably, the police will still have the resources to do their important work. What matters is how officers are deployed, not necessarily how many there are. All forces need to look at how front-line services are delivered, so that the quality of service provided is maintained and improved. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has made it clear that there is no simple link between officer numbers and crime levels, between numbers and the visibility of police in the community, or between numbers and the quality of service provided. Budgets are falling, but forces are prioritising front-line delivery and crime continues to fall.

The police and crime commissioner is looking at ways to increase police visibility in Nottinghamshire; his work has seen an increase in the number of PCSOs, and there are also ambitious plans to do with the recruitment of special constables, which I strongly endorse. Those are examples of how PCCs can work together with their chief constable to deliver real impacts in the communities that they serve. Moreover, PCCs will become stronger as people become more used to their existence and see their effect locally.

The hon. Gentleman made some sweeping comments on the ability to cope with major disasters. There is, however, detailed planning, led by the Cabinet Office, with exercises and other steps escalating from the local and regional all the way up to Cobra and the national-level response that can be triggered. There is just such a detailed approach—the risks are analysed and assessment is made of whether the right capabilities are in the right place to deal with them. Indeed, joint working is taking place between the police, the ambulance service and the fire service to ensure a strong response to serious terrorist incidents, to take one specific example.

Furthermore, it is right for the Government to continue to reflect on the important role that PCCs have in ensuring good, solid emergency response in their local areas. The hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware of the recommendations contained in the Knight review, which looked at whether police and crime commissioners should have a more direct role in the context of the fire service. The Government are considering that—we are examining the recommendation from the Knight report, to see whether it would be appropriate, and we will be providing a formal response in due course.

It is also important to stress that we have scrapped targets for the police and done away with the myriad types of meaningless and counterproductive box-ticking that the police were subject to for far too long. The Government announced a reducing bureaucracy package in 2012, seeking to save up to 4.5 million officer hours nationally—the equivalent of more than 2,100 additional officers on the beat. A programme of work is being developed, with the aim of further freeing up police time in a context of diminishing resources, so it is about how best to use technology and process modernisation.

We are working towards transformational change, which will be recognised on the front line. The approach of scrapping targets, therefore, is important, as is the use of technology and the work to do with better co-ordination and commissioning of services between forces. Rather than wrapping the police up in bureaucracy, we are driving increased transparency and accountability. Our reforms are making the police more responsive to the public. Thus, the police.uk website—of which the hon. Gentleman is no doubt aware—has had more than 600 million hits since its launch in January 2011. On average, the site receives more than 300,000 hits per day. It strengthens accountability, as well as the information available to the public, so that they can hold policing in their area to account.

Another of our reforms is the College of Policing, which is about driving up standards and developing policing as a profession among officers of all ranks. That is central to a new focus on evidence-based policing—distilling and identifying what works in fighting crime and spreading it throughout all 43 forces. The College of Policing will devise a code of ethics to be issued to every officer, which will equip the police with the leadership skills at every level to ensure that it is followed. Good leadership, like anything else, is born of hard work and professionalism. Leadership can and must be taught, in particular when the ramifications of police decision making can mean the difference between life and death.

Will the Minister comment specifically on the loss of the police cells in Worksop police station, the only cells in the whole district?

As a Minister, it would be wrong of me to comment on that, because that is precisely the role of the police and crime commissioner. In conjunction with the chief constable, the PCC determines such local priorities and what works well in the context of policing in Nottinghamshire, and that is the right place for a response to be provided on the appropriate way to ensure that front-line policing operates effectively within the hon. Gentleman’s constituency and in Nottinghamshire more generally.

The hon. Gentleman also commented on getting resources in the right place, and Chief Constable Chris Eyre has led in establishing and supporting the east midlands special operations unit, which represents an important way to draw together the strands of expertise and to share and collaborate with other forces so that the specialist capabilities to support neighbourhood and front-line policing are in the right place. The PCC also continues to explore further options for collaboration, including with the other emergency services, to create even more opportunities to provide a better and more cost-effective service.

Neighbourhood policing can and will be preserved through the innovation and ingenuity of forces in changing how they work to deliver the same or better outcomes with less. We will all see and reap the benefits of a well-managed, self-confident, open, transparent and scrupulously honest police force. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s debate this morning for holding policing to account and for raising the issues that he identified as important to his constituents. It is right and proper that we have had such a debate.

Sitting suspended.