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Police Numbers (Wales)

Volume 593: debated on Tuesday 24 February 2015

Mr Caton, thank you for allowing me to speak so early. I am glad I arrived early, because otherwise I could not have done so.

I called for this debate because everybody cares about police numbers. Everybody wants to feel safe in their homes and safe on the streets, and everybody wants to walk the byways free of antisocial and other nuisance behaviour. I am concerned that, as a result of decisions taken by this Government, Wales in particular has lost 500 officers from its service: North Wales police has lost 92 officers; South Wales police, 154; and my force in Gwent has lost 226 officers. The reductions in police numbers across Wales is the equivalent of Gwent police losing a full third of its officers. The fall in numbers is having a dramatic effect not just on our police, but on our constituents and businesses. In fact, police officers have said unequivocally, “Public safety is at risk.”

Last Wednesday, public safety was in the minds of people in Newbridge, when I attended a public meeting there. We talked about problems relating to antisocial behaviour in particular. I felt sorry for a police officer who told me that, unfortunately, due to cuts he could not bring in the CCTV they wanted and could not cut down on the antisocial behaviour, and that there was a real problem that impacted on public safety throughout Newbridge.

Research by the Police Federation has found that crime is not falling. Instead, it is not being reported or is being recorded incorrectly. In Wales, overall, crime has risen by 3%. Violent crime is up a fifth, with 38,000 violent attacks and 14 murders. Sexual offences are up by a shocking 30%. It is not as though Ministers can claim they did not know this would happen. Back in 2011, the Welsh Assembly launched an inquiry into the impact of policing cuts. The evidence taken during the inquiry came from a wide range of civil society. The advice was compelling and the outcome clear. The cross-party committee in charge of the investigation stated in its report that cuts to police numbers would be damaging, would impact on communities and would reverse progress made in the past decade. Equally, the Welsh Local Government Association said that reductions in police numbers would present a

“huge challenge for community safety and in continuing to tackle and reduce crime and disorder.”

It is clear that the loss of police officers has had a dramatic effect on the safety of our communities. The Government have claimed that officers have been lost only in respect of back-office functions. Although this may be so, it is shocking that Ministers do not recognise how important so-called back-office functions are to combating crime. Back office is more than just admin and human resources: it is, among other things, anti-terrorism intelligence, child protection, domestic violence units, family liaison, witness services and, crucially, 999 call handlers. Can the Minister honestly say that these functions are not vital to tackling crime?

The reduction in police numbers is not just making our communities more unsafe; it is harming their prosperity. It is making it more difficult for businesses to succeed. This is especially true in retail. I know so many shop owners in Islwyn who tell me of youngsters outside their shops who cause nuisance, and whose antisocial behaviour makes people fearful of going into the shops to make purchases. When they send those youngsters away, they usually get a mouthful of abuse.

Equally, large supermarkets, including Tesco and Asda, tell me that there is an increase in the number of shoplifters. In fact, shoplifting cost retailers more than £600 million last year, with an average incident costing companies £241. Now who is anti-business? That sum is a 36% increase on previous years. This is happening against the backdrop of police in Wales being forced to prioritise some crimes over others.

Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has recognised that police forces with reduced numbers of officers are having to make very difficult decisions. As a result, businesses are suffering, including from the unchecked increase in online and credit card fraud. I raised this matter with the Prime Minister. We are talking about gangs putting together nuisance mail, tricking older and elderly people into giving up their life savings through letters coming in the post. What is happening about that crime? People are suffering from that as well.

This damage to public safety and the impact on businesses will only get worse if these plans continue. In my own area, as I said, Gwent police has already lost 226 officers and 175 civilian staff. With £22 million more to be cut by the force, a further 200 officers could lose their jobs. That would take the force—policing one of the most deprived areas in Europe, covering a geographical area of over 1,500 km, with a population of 556,600—to just over 1,000 officers. I give the Minister the opportunity to guarantee here and now that this further reduction will not harm public safety.

I fear that the increases in crime we have seen in Wales, and particularly in my local area, are just the beginning. To put it bluntly, the police in Wales, including in Islwyn, Gwent, and all over the country, are being stretched to breaking point. Many forces are now at critical mass level, meaning that police numbers going any lower would put the public in serious danger. This Government’s approach to policing has been described by the Police Federation as chaotic and foolish.

Such aggressive reduction of police budgets is putting the public at serious risk of crime. Ministers should take the advice given to them by HMIC. Worst of all, these cuts to budgets and police numbers have been done without any consultation. For a Government who talk about localism, that is absolutely amazing. The Welsh Government were not asked for their view on what policing should look like. The people of Wales were not asked what they would like from their police service. It is a disgrace that wide-ranging funding changes, impacting our communities, were made without consulting either the people of Wales or their representatives.

The scale and pace of police cuts in Wales is greater than that of any other public sector cuts in Wales or England. Ministers are right that in these times, we face difficult situations and have to make hard choices. However, I believe that government has only one duty, and that is to ensure people’s safety. The truth is that by choosing to reduce the numbers in our police services, the Government have failed.

In 2010, the Home Secretary was publicly warned that a reduction in police numbers would damage public safety. Sadly, this warning was proven correct. For more than four years, our communities have been becoming less safe. In the dying days of this Parliament, will the Minister, who is a Liberal Democrat, admit that the Government simply got it wrong? Will she apologise to the victims who might never have experienced crime if there were more police? Will she commit the Government to changing course? I look forward to her responses. Our dedicated police officers deserve that change of course, as do the people of Wales.

What a pleasure it is to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Caton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Islwyn (Chris Evans) on securing this debate. I recognise that issues connected with the strength and capability of policing in our communities rightly continue to be of interest to all Members. I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing, Criminal Justice and Victims, who was unable to attend today because of prior diary commitments.

I will respond to the points made by the hon. Gentleman in a few moments, but before I do, I will reflect on some significant achievements by police forces in Wales. First, it is worth highlighting the contribution of Welsh police forces to the overall reduction in crime that we have seen since the coalition Government took office. As we have said a number of times, crime as measured by the independent crime survey for England and Wales is down by more than a fifth since 2010, and now stands at its lowest level since the survey began in 1981. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners have demonstrated that it is possible to deliver more for less and to prioritise resources at the front line. Communities in Wales are safer than they have been for decades.

Like forces elsewhere, Welsh forces are collaborating with one another and with other public services to transform the policing landscape. That is helping not only to achieve necessary savings, but to deliver better outcomes for the public. For example, North Wales police and Cheshire constabulary have recently merged their armed policing units to improve response times and cut costs. Dyfed-Powys, Gwent and South Wales police forces collaborate across a number of areas, including firearms, crime recording, mobile data, forensics and procurement.

I apologise for not realising that the debate started early. I am very concerned and would like the Minister’s opinion on the fact that the police and crime commissioner for Dyfed-Powys has withdrawn his funding for the monitoring of CCTV cameras. That was a partnership with the county council, which clearly cannot make up the shortfall. Does she agree that that decision is short-sighted? We have low crime figures now, but that could start the reversal of the trend.

As the hon. Lady knows, it is a matter for decision locally by the PCC. That is the whole point. The PCC has to judge the correct way to proceed on the spot. I am sure that she is more than capable of taking the matter up with the PCC directly.

The police and crime commissioner for Gwent, Ian Johnston, has announced plans for a new victims’ hub, which will bring together a range of agencies and organisations to enable the force to work more effectively and efficiently with victims of crime. Through the police innovation fund, we have provided funding that will further enhance collaboration, as well as improve digital working and introduce new means by which the public can make contact with their forces. In 2014-15, Gwent and South Wales police forces received £837,000 from the innovation fund to develop an app that will allow officers to record and upload statements from a crime scene to a shared system. That will free officers from having to return to base, allowing them to spend more time on patrol.

A collaborative bid from all four Welsh forces to create a pan-Wales women’s triage scheme received £235,000 from the innovation fund. That scheme will help to rehabilitate female offenders and divert them from a life of crime. Dyfed-Powys was awarded £95,000 from the innovation fund to introduce a new computer system that will allow the force to share information securely with the ambulance and fire services during emergency incidents, helping to improve response times. Those pioneering projects are exactly the types of schemes we want to see forces doing. They show that innovation and collaboration make the police even better at doing their job and solving crime.

I pay tribute to Gwent police for their successful policing of last September’s NATO summit, supported by mutual aid officers from across the country. Let us not forget that it was a significant international event, which saw one of the largest gatherings of world leaders ever seen in the UK. The hard work and dedication of all the officers involved in that substantial operation ensured the safety and security of local residents and delegates.

I thank the Minister for giving way, especially since the earlier start to the debate caught me somewhat unawares. I agree wholeheartedly with her comments on Gwent police and the policing of the NATO summit. It was an excellent example of community policing in action. I know that all the communities I represent greatly appreciated it, so I thank her for making that point.

The hon. Lady speaks very well for her community.

Officer numbers are a key issue. I understand that there are concerns about reductions in police numbers in Wales, as elsewhere, and that is reflected by the level of the debate we have had today. We recognise the enormous impact that seeing officers on the street has in reassuring the public and deterring crime. While we remain absolutely committed to the principles of visible community policing, we have had to be realistic about the tight financial constraints within which we have to operate public services. The Government inherited the largest peacetime deficit in the country’s history, and we have had no alternative but to address that. I am sure that would have been true whoever had come into government. We were spending £14 billion on the service at the start of the current spending review period, so it was inevitable that we had to look to the police to deliver their share of the savings needed, and they have done so. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary’s recent “State of Policing” report reinforced that, over the spending review period, forces have been successfully balancing their books while protecting front-line services and delivering reductions in crime.

We have always been honest about the fact that, with 80% of police spending being on the work force, reduced budgets will inevitably have an impact on the numbers of officers and staff that forces can employ. The key has been to maximise the savings that can be delivered from the remaining 20%, in such areas as procurement and IT, and to prioritise available resources where the public expects to see them: at the front line. We know that that is happening in Wales, and I have already mentioned some of the examples of collaboration between Welsh forces that are helping to drive greater efficiency. I am pleased to note not only that a greater proportion of police officers in Wales are in front-line roles than in 2010, but that the measures have enabled Welsh forces to reinvest savings in increasing their officer numbers over the past 12 months.

I recognise that that picture is not wholly reflected in Gwent, which is the local force of the hon. Member for Islwyn. The published statistics show that it lost 73 officers in the year to September 2014. The inspectorate has expressed concerns on the extent to which the force’s change plans are focused on work force reduction, without a full understanding of local service demands and the impact such reductions will have on the skills and rank mix. It is clear, however, that Gwent has resolved to address that and build a sustainable position for the future, based on the sorts of activities that other forces are successfully implementing.

In addition to the promising collaborative work with other Welsh forces and local services that I have already mentioned, the PCC has announced the decision to reopen or extend the opening hours of nine police stations throughout Gwent that had previously been closed to the public or had limited opening hours. The force is also developing a new operating model that aims to protect and improve front-line policing by allowing greater flexibility in how it deploys the available resources. From April, teams of officers will be based in local police stations, rather than operating from response hubs. Each station will be managed locally by a neighbourhood inspector, who will have their own team that they can deploy to tackle issues. Such local ownership will enhance the service that the force provides to communities by increasing police visibility, local knowledge and problem solving in those neighbourhoods. Front-line policing will further be bolstered in numbers by devolving operational support officers to front-line duties.

Ultimately, decisions on the size and composition of a police force’s work force are for individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners to make. They will take account of the needs and views of their local communities. Full-time officers are only part of the story. Police staff and police community support officers are an integral part of the policing family, as are special constables and other volunteers. For example, North Wales police, which already has more than 120 special constables, is running a recruitment drive to expand that number, particularly in rural areas and among Welsh-speaking communities.

A vital part of how policing is delivered today is the technology that officers have at their disposal. Technology has the power to transform and maximise the impact and effectiveness of the resources that forces have at their disposal. Supported in part by the police innovation fund, which I mentioned earlier, forces are investing in mobile technology to give officers instant, on-the-street access to the systems that they need, thereby reducing the need for officers to spend time in the station. For example, the police and crime commissioner in Dyfed-Powys has stated that officers will spend an additional 100,000 hours—a huge amount—on the beat this year, owing to IT improvements implemented by the force.

Turning to some of the points that were raised, fraud has tended to be under-reported. We have worked to increase reporting through Action Fraud, a specialist reporting and advice service for fraud victims. The rise in police-recorded fraud is likely to reflect the improved reporting that has been introduced to the system over time. The crime survey data on plastic card fraud suggest a small rise in the year to September 2014, but the proportion of card users who suffered fraud was 20% lower than in 2009-10.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned recorded crime in Wales being up 3%. The Office for National Statistics analysis suggests that increases in recorded crime have been driven by improvements in crime recording, particularly of violence. He also mentioned the fact that incidents of violence against women have risen by 30%; we at the Home Office welcome their being recorded. The Home Secretary commissioned Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary to review crime recording in all 43 forces, and that has clearly had a salutary effect because crime recording is improving, as it had to.

We recognise the importance of vital back-office support functions. HMIC has found that forces are prioritising available resources in not only visible policing functions but key non-visible front-line roles, such as intelligence and the safeguarding of vulnerable people.

I thank hon. Members for participating in an informed and well-reasoned debate. It is clear that the police reforms delivered under this Government are working. The take-home statistic is that, according to the independent crime survey for England and Wales, crime has fallen by more than 20% and we are all safer than we have been for decades, including in Wales. The Government recognise that the funding settlement is challenging for police and crime commissioners and forces, but it also brings opportunities, particularly for those prepared to innovate, collaborate and transform to drive efficiencies, and to deliver even better policing across Wales.

Sitting suspended.