I inform the House that Mr Speaker has selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
I beg to move,
That this House notes with concern the estimated 23,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales each year; and calls on the Government to implement statutory guidance on sentencing uniformly across the country which reflects the seriousness of the issue, to accurately record the number of assaults on police officers in England and Wales and, noting the fall in numbers of police officers by 20,000 since 2010, to ensure that police officer numbers and funding are not cut further.
The Opposition have called for this debate because the question of assaults on the police is an important matter that has received too little attention, and we are happy to begin to correct that. For too long, police victims of violence have felt like second-class victims, but there is no more important duty than their duty to protect our citizens, and there is a social contract between the public and police officers, which can be summarised as follows: society as a whole confers on policemen the unique powers of detection, prevention, arrest and detention in order to uphold the rule of law and all our rights; in return, police officers are entitled to all reasonable co-operation from the public, free from violence and the threat of violence. Any assault on any police officer is a breach of that social contract and an injury to all of us.
Is my hon. Friend surprised to learn that, in relatively peaceful Devon and Cornwall, there were 267 assaults on the police in the last year, more than doubling the associated costs in one year? Does she agree that one of the reasons that the police and other services are so vulnerable is that, because of cuts, they are increasingly operating on their own and not in pairs?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his important intervention. I agree with him and will come to cuts in police numbers later.
Does my hon. Friend agree that another problem is that we are simply not robust enough in collecting data on the number of assaults on police, and that we need to do that in order to find a solution?
My hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I will come to the question of data later.
I must acknowledge the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who raised this issue in an earlier debate and has arranged for representatives of the Police Federation to be here today.
Sadly, the police are not the only group of dedicated public service workers who are coming under physical attack. Violence against NHS staff has rocketed in the past five years, with 186 attacks on doctors, nurses and paramedics every day.
Fire crews, which attend emergencies and save people’s lives, are also coming under attack. It is outrageous that our police, fire and emergency ambulance services, which are all on the frontline, are being discussed not because of the positive work that they do, but because people think that it is fair game to attack them.
My hon. Friend must be clairvoyant, because the next thing I was going to say was that fire crews in the UK have come under attack 1,000 times in the past two years, and attacks on ambulance workers are also on the rise. Although the main purpose of this debate is to discuss violence against the police, I could not let it pass without referring to other blue-light services with similar issues. All assaults on the police are unacceptable, and we will discuss how to address them. The sad thing is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds) said, there is no clear, reliable evidence of the number of assaults on the police, because the data are still recorded in a haphazard and irregular fashion.
On Merseyside, the most recent figures equate to almost 16% of the entire force being subjected to an attack in one year. Not all those attacks would have resulted in injury, but very many of them did. Does my hon. Friend think that it is an urgent matter for the Government to collect proper statistics on such assaults?
It is indeed urgent that the Government collect proper statistics. We need reliable, uniform data so that we are clear about the extent of the problem, the trends over time and the differences between forces. To address a problem, it is first necessary to identify it correctly.
There is a further point in relation to the collection of data. Even without data that are as robust as we would like on assaults, there are things that we could do now to address violence against the police to the benefit of the police force and for the reassurance of the public. One of those things is the adoption of body-worn cameras by all police officers who come into contact with the public. I will return to that subject later.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will make a little more progress. There were 9,055 recorded assaults on police officers in 2015, and the number of convictions was 7,629. That represents an increase on the 2014 figures, but the 2014 total was the lowest that it had been for a number of years. However, according to the Home Office there were 23,000 assaults on police officers in 2015-16, including assault without injury and including the British Transport police. There are big discrepancies in those data. No one claims—I do not imagine that the Minister will do so—that the data are wholly reliable. Obviously, we hope that the latest rise in assaults may possibly be a consequence of higher levels of reporting, and that the long-term downward trend will resume. The data on assaults without injury to a constable are more robust, because there is more uniformity in their collection across forces. They have fallen over the long term, even though there was a rise last year. It would be surprising if assaults without injury fell consistently, but assaults resulting in injury were on the rise.
One thing we can be sure of is that the data need to be more reliable and robust. There is a clear and simple reform that we can introduce. We can insist that all police forces, working with the Home Office and the Office for National Statistics, provide the highest quality data on assaults on the police. It is a serious matter, and it needs to be taken seriously.
May I, too, pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for her outstanding work in bringing this debate to the Floor of the House of Commons? In the West Midlands police service, where the statistics are sound, 2,000 police officers have gone, violent crime is up by 20% and three police officers a day are being assaulted. Does my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) agree that the price being paid, as a consequence of Government cuts, for the thin blue line becoming ever thinner is not just putting the public at risk—
Order. The point about interventions is that they are meant to be short. We have a very large number of people who want to make speeches this afternoon. If people make interventions, it prevents other people from making speeches. May I also point out that if someone intervenes in this debate, it is expected that they will remain in the Chamber for most of the debate and be here for the wind-ups? I am not looking particularly at the hon. Gentleman, who is an extremely well-behaved Member of Parliament, but I am just pointing out that it is extremely discourteous to take up time in a very short debate by making a long intervention and then to leave. Nor am I criticising the hon. Lady, who is perfectly right to take interventions because that is what makes the debate interesting.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is a correlation between cuts in police numbers, the rising tide of crime and the increasing number of assaults on police officers. Whatever the precise quantum of the data on assaults and whatever the precise trends over time, we have a duty to foster the social contract between the police and the public—I mentioned that at the beginning of my remarks—and to protect them both.
I want to tell the House about the very important eight-point plan recently adopted by the Metropolitan police. It reflects an initiative by the Hampshire Police Federation, and the Met has called it Operation Hampshire. We hope that this very important plan will be rolled out across all police forces. The Met’s plan states that a member of the operational command unit’s senior leadership team should be informed of all assaults; a MetAir form should be filled in for every assault; the total victim care and victim codes of practice should apply to officers and staff, just as they do to the public; officers should not investigate their own assault; officers should not write their own statements; the best evidence must be presented; learning from each assault should be captured; and being assaulted should not be seen as part of the job. It is excellent that the Met has adopted this plan, and I hope it will be rolled out in every police force around the country.
In the light of that plan, I am interested in the new developments with body-worn cameras for police officers. The Metropolitan police, under the leadership of Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe and my former right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, has embarked on a programme of rolling out body-worn video across the London boroughs. Where that has been trialled elsewhere, there has been a sharp reduction in the number of complaints against the police. There can be little doubt that the presence of a camera will lead to an improvement in behaviour by all parties in what are often stressful or even dangerous incidents. The police can be reassured that any assailant will be recorded, and of course members of the public should be reassured that the actions of the police officer are also being recorded.
As a party, we believe in investment, not austerity. We believe that capital investment in our policing will improve it. Investment in body-worn cameras will save money by reducing the number of complaints against the police and the costs of evidence collection. There is of course a need for safeguards on the use of body-worn cameras—in relation to civil liberties, such as whether their use should be compulsory, and who has access to what is filmed—but the principle is correct. Body-worn video leads to better policing and fewer complaints against the police.
There have been several studies on the use of body-worn cameras, and I will give a flavour of some of the results. One US study showed a 50% reduction in the police use of force. A UK study showed greater levels of prosecution in cases of domestic violence. In a Scottish study, there was a higher incidence of early guilty pleas. In many cases, there has been a reduction in the number of complaints against the police, while in many others, there has been a lower level of assaults against the police. That is why we are raising this question in this important debate. We need better processes and procedures—that is what the Metropolitan police is seeking to introduce—but we need capital investment, in the Met and in police forces up and down the country, in things such as body-worn cameras. [Interruption.] This is not humorous; this is about police officer safety and the public being reassured that Ministers are doing everything they can to keep our police officers safe.
The most recent figures show that the number of assaults on police is falling, but the fact is that there are increasingly fewer police to be assaulted or to protect us. Home Office statistics show that there were 19,700 fewer police officers by March this year than there were when the coalition came to office in 2010. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) said, the numbers are falling in the west midlands. Police officer numbers have fallen every year under the coalition and under this Government: one in seven police officers have been lost. I recently met Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe of the Metropolitan police, who told me that, at this point, the cuts imposed by this Government have largely been absorbed by a reduction in non-police staff, selling old police stations and asset shortfalls. Now, however, for the first time, the biggest police force in the country is looking at a reduction in police numbers. It seems to the Opposition that under this Government the thin blue line keeps getting thinner.
In cases of serious assault involving injuries to police officers and in the extremely rare incidents of firearms or deadly weapons being used against officers, we believe that the culprits should expect the stiffest sentences.
We believe that the issue of assaults on police officers is very serious. It needs to be taken seriously, including in the gathering and collating of reliable data that are consistent across all police forces. While that is in progress, we should address measures that will tackle such assaults now, such as the introduction of body-worn cameras across all police forces in England and Wales, and encourage our colleagues in the devolved Assemblies to do the same.
Before I conclude my remarks, I congratulate the chair of the Hampshire Police Federation, John Apter, on his work. I am sure that we will not always agree, but his campaigning on the issue of violence against the police deserves the commendation of the whole House. We need to protect the protectors. The Opposition are glad to have brought this issue to the Floor of the House and we urge Ministers to consider some of the measures that I have suggested.
I beg to move an amendment, to leave out from “notes” to the end of the Question and add:
“that any assault on a police officer is unacceptable and welcomes the work of the independent Sentencing Council in producing guidelines that specifically highlight the increased seriousness of an offence committed against anyone providing a public service; further welcomes the Government’s commitment to accurately record the number of assaults on police officers in England and Wales to better understand the scale of this issue; and further notes that the Government has protected police spending in real terms over the Spending Review period.”
I welcome the opportunity to debate such an important subject as police safety. I join the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) and others in congratulating the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on the work she has done. I am sure that the Adjournment debate on this subject played a part in bringing about this debate. It is important to raise this issue, and she is right to stand up for her constituency force.
As I told the House in a recent debate on police assaults, called by the hon. Member for Halifax, this is an area that I have great concern about. I am determined that we have a clear position that unites us across the House. I want to ensure that we are doing all that we can to support front-line police officers and police staff, as well as the public sector more generally. There needs to be a clear message that assaults on and bad behaviour towards people who are serving the public is unacceptable in any form.
I was delighted a few weeks ago to join the Home Secretary in celebrating achievements in all areas of policing at the annual Ferrers awards, which celebrate the achievements of special constables, cadets and the whole police volunteer family. Along with the police bravery awards, they are undoubtedly among the highlights of the policing calendar. Both events give us the chance to pay tribute to the brave men and women and the cadets for all they do, whether in a voluntary capacity or as full police officers and staff, day in, day out, to keep our country and our residents safe.
Just last night, I attended a police training exercise in Wiltshire, where I saw at first hand how officers prepare to deal with attacks against them by protesters. I was hugely impressed by the way in which officers handled themselves in fast-paced scenarios based on spontaneous public order situations and was struck by the level they must train to, to be ready for the kind of attack that can come upon them from members of the public. It was a stark reminder of the way in which they put themselves at risk every day for us.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that in such situations, police dogs and horses are sometimes attacked and that police officers can be bitten and spat at? Does he agree that people who spit at and bite police officers should be automatically given blood tests to check whether they have transmittable diseases and that there should be sanctions for people who attack police dogs and horses?
The hon. Gentleman’s point relates to something that may be considered by the Backbench Business Committee as part of the petitions process following the petition on Finn’s law. I am keen to meet the organiser of that for a conversation. Any kind of assault on police officers or on the animals and people who work with them is completely unacceptable. He mentioned spitting and there has been coverage recently of the view that the Mayor of London has taken on that. I think that any such behaviour is completely unacceptable.
I have talked quite a lot in recent speeches about the value we should place on policing as a profession. It should attract not just the bold and the brave but the brightest and the best. The new recruits taking their first steps in policing following the tremendous recent recruitment drive made possible by this Government are doing so at an exciting time.
I am afraid the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington got her figures a little confused in a few areas. I suggest that she look at the difference between recorded crime and actual crime, and crime and assaults against police officers rather than overall crime—and indeed the figures on police funding, which I will come to directly in a minute, where I am afraid her facts were a little off.
The crime survey of England and Wales shows that crime is down by more than a quarter. It is at its lowest level since that independent survey began some 35 years ago. But we recognise that crime is changing. Although this Government have always been clear that we do not seek to run policing, nor to decide from the centre how many officers are needed in Hackney or in Halifax, we want to make sure we are playing our part in helping the police to do their job. Where it is right for Government to act, we will, and have done so.
I want to raise the increase in assaults on police officers at the Notting Hill carnival. What can the Minister do to make that event safe for our good thin line, which works so hard at it?
Public events such as that one pose an extra challenge for our police forces. That is the exactly the kind of event I was seeing police officers, from a number of areas, training for last night. That training has been going on over the past few weeks, so if the people of Wiltshire have been seeing flashing blue lights recently they do not have to panic—they were for training exercises. It is important that we make sure the police have the support and funding they need to continue not just the recruitment drives to make sure their forces are at the right level—London is at the right level, as, in effect, the highest funded police force in the country—but that sort of training. The College of Policing has a hugely important part to play, which I will come to in a moment. Changes in crime bring with them a need for officers who can adapt—who have up-to-date skills and the energy and innovation to keep renewing them, who are committed to protecting the most vulnerable in our society, who can follow criminals online as well as they can on our streets and who put victims at the heart of what they do.
I do not underestimate the job of our police forces. They are widely and rightly acknowledged as the best in the world. Policing is a hugely challenging career. Police officers will see more than most people would ever wish to. It is clearly not a job for the fainthearted; it needs strength, resilience and a commitment to making our society a better and safer place. But that does not mean that getting assaulted in the workplace is part of the deal or that being abused or hurt while doing the job should be part of the cost of doing business as a police officer. It is not and must not be.
Only this morning, a police officer was seriously injured after an incident in Lancashire. My thoughts—and, I hope, those of the whole House—are with the officer involved and his family. Just yesterday, it was reported that officers were attacked with fireworks by a group of youths in north London. That incident is obviously now being investigated by the police.
The Minister has just raised a really interesting point—namely, attacks by youths. Will he comment on the fact that sentencing guidelines with respect to aggravated offences for assaults on police officers do not apply to young people under the age of 18?
If the hon. Gentleman bears with me, I will come to sentencing in a few moments.
Those kinds of assaults, and assaults of any kind, are unacceptable at all levels. Unfortunately, they happen in all parts of the country: whether in Worcester, South Yorkshire, West Yorkshire or Warwickshire, there have been examples in just the past few months of assaults that people should not have to put up with and we should not tolerate as a country. Let me be very clear, then, that assaulting a police officer is completely unacceptable, and anyone found guilty should expect to face the full force of the law.
I assure the hon. Members for Hackney North and Stoke Newington and for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) that tough penalties are available to the courts for those who assault police officers. Sentencing guidelines rightly provide for assault on a police officer to be treated more severely in appropriate cases. I note the hon. Gentleman’s point about youths, and I will touch on that in a moment. However, it is right that we remember that courts are independent and must have discretion to take account of all the circumstances of each case in determining an appropriate sentence.
Why, if there is no discretion in relation to victims of knife crime, does the Minister believe the police deserve less protection than that?
I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises that the point I am making is that the police deserve our protection and that the sentencing is in place to ensure they have the right protection. Sentencing is not only about protection, but ensuring people who commit an unacceptable offence against a public servant feel the full force of the law. I will come on to that in a bit more detail.
I do not doubt the Minister’s sincerity and fine words, but there is a gap between them and the reality. Today, I spoke to Bryn Hughes, the father of Nicola Hughes, who, as the Minister will know, was murdered in Greater Manchester a couple of years ago. I do not know if he has seen the Daily Mirror today, but the headline is “Cop killer’s life of luxury behind bars”. What message does he think that sends out to people who commit these appalling acts against police officers? I do not doubt his sincerity, but he needs to act on the reality, which is that those people are not being treated harshly enough.
I will hold my hands up and say I have not read the Daily Mirror today. I appreciate that that might be a shock to the right hon. Gentleman, and I will make sure I read it later. That offender is in prison. I am happy to look at an individual case and talk to colleagues at the Ministry of Justice about what is happening in that prison, if he thinks that there is an issue, but it is clear that the offender went to prison and it is right that people face the full force of the law. I was slightly surprised by comments made by the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington. If the right hon. Gentleman speaks later, perhaps he could outline why the data she referred to as being haphazard were not dealt with in 13 years of Labour government. I will come on to that in more detail in a moment.
We will continue to provide the Sentencing Council with data and evidence on assaults on police officers, as the council reviews its guidelines. We need to better understand the circumstances surrounding assaults. The College of Policing has provided financial support to fund a project, as the hon. Lady rightly outlined, led by Hampshire police to gather and analyse a sample of internal records of assaults against officers. I am working with ministerial colleagues across the Government, such as the Solicitor General, on a range of these issues to ensure that individuals are appropriately prosecuted to the full extent of the law. I fully agree that we need better data to help us to understand the scale of assaults on police officers. We have been working for some time to improve the numbers available.
The Minister mentions 13 years of Labour government. When Labour left office, there were 143,734 officers. There are now 124,000 officers. I should know that because I was the Police Minister in the last Labour Government. I will tell him this, too, while I am on my feet. Under the Labour Government, body cameras were trialled and introduced, with a plan for them to be rolled out in full. I know that, because I was the Police Minister in the last year of that Labour Government. Why do we not have body cameras on all officers, when the plans were there in 2009 to achieve that objective?
I will come on to body cameras in a moment, but I can only confirm what the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington said, which is that the data are not there. I do not know what the right hon. Gentleman and other Labour Ministers were doing in not collecting the data, but I will come on to that.
Will the Minister give way?
I will finish answering the right hon. Gentleman’s question. He can stand up all he likes, but I will finish answering his question whether he likes it or not.
As a first step, we published provisional statistics on officer assaults in July, despite the limitations of the data. The figures indicated that there were an estimated 23,000 assaults on officers across all forces in 2015-16. The data also indicated that nearly 8,000 of those assaults involved injury reported by officers, with 270 reported by police community support officers. On the right hon. Gentleman’s initial point, he might be right about the police numbers, but he has to accept that crime is down since 2010, when he left office.
The Minister should know, in his role, that policing is not just about crime. Policing is about public order. Policing is about flooding. Policing is about dealing with public issues on the streets with people who are alcohol-intoxicated but have not yet committed a crime. Policing is not just about solving criminal activity. If there are fewer police on our streets, that is more dangerous, particularly if shifts are not working double-manned because of the cut in numbers.
Crime is down; the police are working more efficiently and effectively; they are finding new and different ways to work. That is a good thing, and I think the police should feel proud of their work.
Let me make a bit of progress before taking some more interventions.
We are publishing these provisional statistics because it is important to shine a spotlight on this issue and help to encourage the sort of discussion we are having here today. However, to improve the accuracy of these data, the Home Office has continued to work with police forces to build on this work, and I can announce that from next year we are asking police forces to provide data on the number of assaults with injury on a police officer as part of their recorded crime data. Creating this new crime classification is an important step in providing a more complete picture of assaults experienced by police officers. This additional information will help chief officers to understand what is happening in their forces and to protect their officers and staff.
My right hon. Friend will know that here in Westminster we are often accustomed to seeing police officers dressed rather as we would have expected Jack Warner to dress in Dock Green. However, what I think is encouraging is that when we come across police officers out in Hampshire, for example, we find them dressed and protected against the very assaults to which my right hon. Friend has referred. That is vital.
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point, which goes part of the way to answer an earlier point: it is important that we do not control policing centrally; we should resist the urge to centralise everything on the assumption that we know best. It is for local police forces and local chief constables to know their areas best and to look at what they need to do with their police forces for the benefit of their community and indeed their staff.
It is the responsibility of chief constables, as employers, to keep their workforce safe. In that aim, we fully support their making best use of new technology, wherever possible. Although it is an operational decision for chief officers, the use of body-worn video can be a powerful tool. As rightly outlined by the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington—we do not often agree, but we agree on this—it can provide reassurance to both the police and indeed the public about the way in which both parties are working and acting.
In this vital task of keeping their workforce safe, chief constables are held to account by their democratically elected police and crime commissioners, and supported by the College of Policing, which sets the standards that the chief constables are charged with implementing. That is why I have written today to Chief Constable Sara Thornton, the chair of the National Police Chiefs Council, to encourage forces to adopt the new crime classification as soon as possible. In my letter, I have taken the opportunity to stress the importance that this Government place on police officer safety, as I did in my conversation with her earlier today.
Will the Minister for Policing put right what he said a few moments ago? It is not true that crime is falling; crime is changing. The Office for National Statistics includes online fraud and cybercrime in its figures. The figures are clear: crime is near doubling on the one hand, at a time when the police service is being cut by 20,000 on the other hand. This is the legacy of the Prime Minister from when she was Home Secretary.
I know that the hon. Gentleman would not consciously get something wrong, so let me suggest that he look again at the facts. He is completely wrong. The ONS is for the first time publishing the figures on cybercrime. This is not extra crime; it is crime that has never been published in the figures before. I have to tell hon. and right hon. Members that recorded crime going up is a good thing, showing that the public are gaining more confidence in reporting crime. The reporting of crime is getting better, but actual crime is down since 2010.
I apologise to both Front-Bench teams, as I will miss their closing speeches on account of my son’s parents’ evening. I would like to press the Minister on what the Government are doing about body-worn cameras. Given the evidence that such cameras not only reduce the incidence of assaults on police officers about which we are all so concerned, but improve detection and make for a better response to victims of crime, and in light of the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Delyn (Mr Hanson) that plans were in place to try to roll out the provision, what is going to be done now and how fast will it be rolled out everywhere?
I agree with the right hon. Lady, in that I believe body-worn cameras could be a vital tool, providing a good example of a technology that can help. However, it is a matter for the police and crime commissioners and chief constables to decide what is right locally. We do not run policing from the Home Office. Although the transformation fund comes from the Home Office, and is enabling police forces, chief constables and police and crime commissioners to work together closely on IT development for the future, it is for them to decide how to do that, and how to spread the fund and share best practice.
I will take some more interventions in a few moments.
I welcome the work that is being led by chief officers, and by the College of Policing under the leadership of Deputy Chief Constable Andy Rhodes, to consider the broader health and wellbeing of officers who are undertaking a stressful and demanding job on a daily basis. It is encouraging to note that all forces have signed up to the workplace wellbeing charter, and to hear about DCC Rhodes’s work with the charity Mind to give officers better access to the care that they need. Last week I was delighted to meet Gill Scott-Moore, chief executive officer of the Police Dependants’ Trust, to discuss, among other things, the mental health and wellbeing of police officers. Home Office officials will continue to work with those organisations and with the Department of Health, and to consider what more we can do.
There has already been a great deal of talk about resources today. I am proud of the Government’s record on tackling the deficit, and I am clear about the fact that policing has its role to play in meeting that challenge. I remind the House that in 2016-17—notwithstanding what the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington may believe—police spending has been protected, and no police and crime commissioners who maximised their precepts have seen a reduction in their cash funding. That is a good deal for policing. Moreover, on top of that protection of direct resource funding for PCCs, counter-terrorism police funding increased in real terms to £670 million in 2016-17, and transformation funding provides an opportunity to invest in digitalisation, a diverse and flexible workforce, and new and more efficient capabilities to tackle cybercrime and other emerging crimes and threats. Ultimately, all decisions about local policing resources and roles are for chief constables, held to account by their directly accountable police and crime commissioners.
I commend the Minister for telling us that the funding situation is great while keeping a straight face—it is an admirable performance—but how can he possibly square that with the fact that chief constables, the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, borough commanders and the Mayor of London all agree that funding and resources are the key challenge to tackling street crime and the other crimes about which my constituents complain?
The hon. Gentleman has raised a key point. First, we have protected funding in real, cash terms, as is clear from the spending review, so if PCCs are using their precepts, they have that opportunity. Indeed, in certain areas we have increased funding. What really matters is not the tired old debate about officer numbers, much as some people may want to engage in it. What people should be thinking about is the way in which officers, staff and volunteers are deployed, and the results of that approach are showing in the fall in crime that has been taking place since 2010.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman is very keen to intervene again. I look forward to the speech that he is bound to make later this evening.
Chief officers also have their sights set firmly on how effectively they are using their resources. We should, I think, be focusing on what the police are doing with their time. The proportion of officers in front-line roles has increased across England and Wales since 2010 to 93% in March 2016, and more than 50% of all police officers now work in local policing functions. We have seen forces across the country collaborating to make savings and pooling resources to improve effectiveness without sacrificing local accountability and identity, and they should be proud of having done that.
Does the Minister not recognise the following description? According to the Nottinghamshire Police Federation, officers
“are more often on their own dealing with these situations with back up miles away and with no TASER resources anywhere near them”.
Is that not the reality? Front-line police officers are trying to deal with things, but they do not have sufficient numbers to be properly backed up.
Obviously, the crewing and structure of any organisation is rightly the responsibility of the chief constable, along with the police and crime commissioner. We have ensured that the necessary funding and protection are there this year.
Does my right hon. Friend share my feeling that some Opposition Members might have benefited from reading last year’s Public Accounts Committee’s report on the demands on the police, which shows that those demands are not related to crime?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are a few areas where Opposition Members might want to look at some of the facts and figures, and not confuse them as much as they seem to be doing.
The tremendous fall in crime I have mentioned already this afternoon was achieved while bearing down on budgets. Central Government funding for the police has fallen in real terms, and we and the police should be proud of the fact that it has saved £1.5 billion of taxpayers’ money.
I am aware of some great examples, such as the strategic alliance between Warwickshire and West Mercia Police. The alliance can now more effectively surge resources to deal with unexpected demand; 24-hour cover is available across more policing functions; more officers and PCSOs are based in safer neighbourhood teams than in pre-alliance days; and a wider pool of expertise and experience can be tapped to respond effectively to policing challenges.
The Minister paints a rosy picture, but what about the families who have lost loved ones because of drivers using mobile phones at the wheel? The Minister clearly does not read newspapers, but quite a few papers today are carrying pictures of drivers using mobile phones. Drivers are killing people, and they are not stopped because there are no traffic police out there to stop them. What does the Minister think of that? Is that somebody else’s responsibility as well?
The hon. Gentleman should check his facts and have a look at what I said earlier. What I said was I do not read The Mirror and I have not read it today. That is not quite what he was saying. He is right, however, that people who commit an offence of any description against an officer should be feeling the full force of the law. That is why I am working with colleagues across other Departments. We have sentencing guidelines, and an offence against a police officer is an aggravating factor. Even with the sentencing of youths, the fact that it is an offence against a police officer is taken into account. The difference in the sentencing systems does not mean that such issues are not taken into account.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that all Members of Parliament who have any concerns about police being attacked have a responsibility not to address organisations that claim that there is a problem with police brutality, as some Members of the Opposition Front Bench have done?
My hon. Friend has front-line experience of what police deal with every day, and I congratulate him and everybody who takes on these roles both in that capacity and any other. That goes to the heart of why the changes I announced earlier today are so important. I told the Police Federation what I would do when I first met it just a few months ago, and I am delighted that we will be able to deliver on that. It will give us the information and the certainty the police need and want.
I have been impressed by the speed at which policing has taken the lead in driving the police transformation fund, which provided £23 million for transformation work in August and £13.8 million in October. It is right that the sector takes ownership of law enforcement transformation, shaping the needs of the future. The fund provides a once-in-a-generation opportunity to transform policing through direct investment into a wide range of projects from body-worn cameras to workforce diversity to increasing digitalisation and technology.
As I have said, the Home Office does not believe it runs policing—nor should it. It is for police and crime commissioners and chief constables, working together in the interests of policing as a whole, to lead and implement the next stage of police reform. The Government will continue to provide support to the police, doing what only we can, such as making the important change I have announced today. We will look to police leaders to play their full part in keeping the police, as well as the public whom we all serve, safe. That is why I ask the House to support the amendment.
First, I want to thank my Front-Bench colleagues for putting this issue into the spotlight by making it the subject of our Opposition day debate today. I also want to join the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service, the right hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) in paying tribute to the brave officer who was attacked in Lancashire only this morning. That attack is a stark reminder of just how important today’s debate really is. To those who attended my Adjournment debate on police officer safety on 11 October, I apologise for repeating myself.
My interest in this issue stems from the time I spent with West Yorkshire police in my constituency over the summer recess. On Friday 5 August, I joined the police in Calderdale for a 2 pm to 10 pm shift to get front-line experience and to see how the demands on our local police are changing. I was keen to see for myself how well police officers on the frontline in West Yorkshire were coping with cuts of £160 million over five years, resulting in the loss of 1,200 police officers—a reduction of 20% of the force. I spent the afternoon visiting community projects with neighbourhood policing, but I moved over to response policing in the evening, where I joined PC Craig Gallant in reacting to 999 calls.
I had already discussed with the Police Federation and senior officers my concern that, due to a combination of reduced numbers and the ever-expanding responsibilities of the police, officers are regularly being asked to respond to emergency calls on their own as a single crew. Only days before my shift, a female police officer had responded to a domestic call in my district and, disgracefully, been head-butted by an offender, breaking her eye socket and knocking out her teeth. It was not long into my time with PC Gallant before we attempted to stop a vehicle and speak to the driver. The driver initially sped away but after a short chase he eventually stopped. When PC Gallant got out of the car to speak to him, the situation quickly escalated and he was surrounded and forced to draw his baton. I was so concerned for his safety that I rang 999 myself, believing that that was the fastest way to make contact with the control room and stress just how urgently he needed back-up. Thankfully, other officers arrived at the scene to help to manage the situation. Amazingly, no injuries were sustained on that occasion, but I saw for myself just how quickly situations can become dangerous and just how vulnerable officers are when they are out on their own.
The danger that our brave officers face was brought home to me when PC Suzanne Hudson was shot at point-blank range in Headingley in my constituency in 2013. Thankfully she survived and is now back at work, but the impact on her and her brave colleague, PC Richard Whiteley, has been huge. PC Whiteley saved his colleague but was then threatened himself. If they had not been working together as a pair, goodness knows what would have happened. Does the hon. Lady agree that working in pairs should be part of operational police procedure?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think we will hear similar stories from MPs all around the Chamber in the debate today.
During the 30-minute Adjournment debate, to which the Minister referred, I had so much to say, and took so many interventions from hon. Members, all keen to share stories from their own constituencies, that I left the Minister only six minutes to respond, and even then I could not stop myself intervening on him. So I again thank my Front-Bench colleagues for facilitating this opportunity for the Minister in this debate, although I must confess that I am disappointed with the content of the Government’s amendment and with the Minister’s remarks, which simply did not go far enough in addressing this issue.
An assault on a police officer is an assault on society. It is totally unacceptable that public servants who are working in their communities to protect people and help the vulnerable should be subject to assaults as they go about their jobs. Since taking up this campaign, I have been contacted by police officers from all over the country, most of whom have themselves been on the receiving end of violent attacks. They feel that the failure to take the incidents seriously has just compounded their frustration. I shall give the House some examples. A man who assaulted four officers in the south of England earlier this year, causing serious injury to one officer in particular by gouging his eyes, was ordered to pay compensation and received a two-month suspended sentence. In Nottinghamshire, an officer was punched unconscious while trying to arrest a prolific offender who was already in breach of a suspended sentence. The offender was detained only after assaulting a second officer. He received another 15-week suspended sentence and was ordered to attend a “controlling violence in drink” course.
Increasingly, and terrifyingly, we are seeing acid being used as a means of assaulting police officers. Last year in Warwickshire, a PC was patrolling alone on her bicycle when she saw three men breaking into a property. When she stopped and identified herself as a police officer, she was attacked by the men who pushed her from her bike, kicked her and poured acid on to her face before other police officers could arrive. In my force, a police sergeant who responded—again, alone—to a dispute at a garage in Bradford had acid thrown in his face by an offender who was trying to evade arrest. The offender had nine previous convictions for 19 offences and was already on licence for a four-and-half-year jail term. He was sentenced to 20 months, yet the officer was lucky to keep his eyesight.
Police officers who are assaulted deserve the full backing of the justice system. Since my shift with West Yorkshire police, I have been made aware of at least five more assaults on officers in my constituency in the days that followed. What shocked me, and what thoroughly depresses police officers, is that sentences handed down to offenders for assaulting the police often fail to reflect the seriousness of the crime or, more crucially, serve as a deterrent. We make the laws in here, but we ask the police to uphold and enforce them out there. To assault a police officer is to show a complete disregard for law and order, for our shared values and for democracy itself, and that must be reflected in sentencing, particularly for repeat offenders. I therefore ask hon. and right hon. Members to support the motion today, which calls on the Government to implement statutory guidance on sentencing to reflect the seriousness of the crime.
In west Yorkshire—this has been reflected in comments about forces across the country—the police have had to weather staggering cuts at a time when their case load is becoming increasingly complicated. I have seen the thin blue line stretched desperately thin as the demands on officers continue to grow. Any officer will say that one of the biggest challenges that is putting additional pressure on the police is the changing nature of dealing with vulnerable young people and adults. In the 24 hours leading up to my time on duty, Calderdale police had safely recovered nine vulnerable missing people, and they were involved in looking for an additional seven the following day. The weekly average for missing people in Calderdale is 43, with 416 a week going missing across the force, 114 of which are deemed to be high-risk individuals.
I have done a series of shifts with front-line services in my constituency and I would recommend it to all MPs. Just last Saturday I spent the evening with out-of-hours mental health services—a whole other debate for another day—and two people were detained under the Mental Health Act, with police crews unable to leave either patient. One patient who had already been assessed required an appropriate bed, and the second required an assessment suite. With neither available owing to pressures on mental health services, the police officers were tied up all night, putting extra pressure on their colleagues who had to prioritise 999 calls on a Saturday night on Halloween weekend.
We have a responsibility to the most vulnerable people to keep them from harm and away from exploitation, but the police cannot be the catch-all for every problem. That is simply not sustainable with reduced numbers. To be honest, they are also not the most appropriate agency to be doing that work. The reality of not having the right answers to such questions is that the police are stretched like never before and, as a result, lone officers—single crews—are regularly asked to attend emergencies and potentially dangerous situations on their own or with fewer officers than are necessary to safely manage the situation.
I want to return to the unpleasant issue of spitting, which I covered in my Adjournment debate. I am all for informed debate about the use of spit hoods as a means of protecting officers from spitting but, to reiterate what I said in that debate, if we are politically uncomfortable with the use of spit hoods, I promise that a police officer somewhere right now will be being spat at and is even more uncomfortable. As well as being thoroughly unpleasant, spitting blood and saliva at another human being can pose a real risk of transmitting a range of infectious diseases, some of which have life-changing or even lethal consequences. We have a duty of care to protect officers from that, wherever possible. Hon. Members may be aware of the tragic case of a policewoman in Kiev in Ukraine, who died earlier this year after having contracted TB from an offender who spat at her while she was arresting him. Only this week in West Yorkshire, a man with hepatitis C was jailed for eight weeks for spitting in the eye of a police officer. If the answer is not spit hoods, it could again be tougher sentencing, but let us have that debate. Let us have it quickly and let us ensure officers on the front line are protected.
Finally—there is a lot more that I could cover, but I want to give others the opportunity to speak—having taken up the “protect the protectors” campaign, I have been contacted by those behind the Finn’s law petition, which was referred to by the Minister and has now secured well over 100,000 signatures. Finn is a police dog who was stabbed in the head and chest last month while chasing a suspect. I was not aware until now that if a police dog or horse is assaulted, the offender can be charged only with criminal damage. I am delighted that the Petitions Committee has allocated time for a debate on reforming the law to look at ways of giving police dogs and horses more protection to allow them to continue their vital duties of supporting officers and keeping us safe.
It worries me that the ever-growing demands on the police, combined with cuts in numbers, are undermining their ability to do even some of the basics. I call on the Home Secretary and the Minister for Policing to recognise that officers are routinely deployed on their own. When an officer calls for back-up, only boots on the ground will do and numbers matter. I urge all hon. and right hon. Members to support the motion and help to keep our police officers safe.
I rise to support the Government’s amendment, and in doing so I mean no disrespect to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is a good person leading a good campaign on police officer safety. As a barrister, I have represented numerous police officers in courts and tribunals, which has brought me into contact with many police officers and cases where they have done work in exceptionally challenging circumstances, day in, day out. Since becoming an MP, I have focused my work with the police in Kingston, and I wish to put on the record my thanks to the Metropolitan police officers there, led by borough commander Glenn Tunstall. They do an amazing job keeping us safe, day in, day out, and this year Kingston became London’s safest borough. We are not as good as we should be at publicising the everyday heroism and excellence of our police officers, which I saw when I went on a ride-along with PCs Donna Hatton and Sarah Skultety, two fine officers who are a credit to policing.
Police officers volunteer to do a fundamentally dangerous job—to walk towards danger where most of us would run away—but they are entitled to have the best protection possible, through kit, training and legislation, and through the full weight of the law being felt by those who assault them.
Kent police and our excellent police commissioner have ensured that all police officers have body-worn cameras to ensure that their safety is taken into account and that those who commit the crimes we are talking about are brought to account. As a result, the number of complaints against the police has also been cut. Does my hon. Friend think all police forces should do that?
I most certainly do; this is a matter for local police and crime commissioners, but there has been a reduction in the number of complaints against the police when body-worn cameras have been used, because people know that they cannot try it on when there is evidence. These cameras also provide fantastic evidence in court when a police officer is assaulted. There has been a big improvement in the personal protective equipment available for the police, although there has been an issue with procurement, which I am glad the Home Office is looking at. When I see people from the Police Federation, one issue they raise is that officers want to be armed more routinely with Tasers, so that they can protect themselves. There is sometimes a misunderstanding about Tasers, as they are not non-lethal weapons, but less-lethal weapons. Unfortunately, people have died after being tasered, but Tasers are to be used only where the officer faces a lethal threat.
Another piece of police protective equipment that has been in the press recently is the spit guard. It is clear to me that if an officer faces being spat at in the face, they should be able, where appropriate, to use a spit guard. Liberty describes spit guards as “primitive, cruel and degrading”, but what I think is primitive and degrading is a police officer being spat at in the face. Perhaps the hon. Member for Halifax would like to send a copy of the Hansard report of her speech to the Mayor of London, who seems to have the same problem that Liberty has with spit guards.
The quality of training is another issue that police officers raise with me. Our police officers want to do a first-class job, and to do that they need first-class training so that they can do their job safely and well. I see an increased role here for the College of Policing, which currently validates training. That role would include registering officers who work in specialist areas, and providing syllabuses, validation and re-validation. I hope that that will be done under the banner of a royal college of policing, so that our professional police officers have the professional badge that many others working in professions have.
Police officers also raise the issue of police numbers. Does the hon. Gentleman think the last Labour Government were wrong to increase police officer numbers by 14,000?
I think this Government were right to preside over a regime that has seen crime drop to an all-time low, which is why I come on to the subject of budget. All of the things that I have just mentioned and which the hon. Member for Halifax mentioned do require money—there is no getting away from that. This Government have difficult decisions to make about the policing funding formula, which they are currently considering. It is important to remember that, in the last Budget, police funding was protected. The police said that they were grateful for that, and I am pleased that Conservative London Members were able to meet the Chancellor and put their case at this time of unprecedented threat from terrorism. Yes, I accept that the police need money, but as well as money they also need us in this House to give them the tools they need to do their job.
As a Member of Parliament, I stood on a platform of giving the police the tools they need to do their job. We did that in this House with the Psychoactive Substances Act 2016. We have all heard stories from police officers in our constituencies about having to deal with somebody who has taken a novel psychoactive substance, has gone berserk, been impossible to restrain and assaulted them. We provided the police with the tools to do their job there, and we are trying to do so again with the Investigatory Powers Bill. We want to give them the tools to tackle the current technology that criminals are using.
I hope that when the hon. Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) winds up, she will reflect on how the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) came across to police officers when she made a litany of complaints about that Bill at the Dispatch Box yesterday. How will police officers have felt about that when this Government are trying, through that Bill, to give them the tools they need to do their job—the powers that they have asked this Government to provide for them? For my part, I will continue to support our brave police officers, and I know that the hon. Member for Halifax will as well. I will continue to ask the House to give the police the tools they need, and I will support the Government’s amendment tonight, to do our bit to keep our brave police officers safe, so that when those officers face danger, they know that our laws and our politicians are behind them to keep them safe.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to make my maiden speech.
I was not elected in a conventional way, and it was in the darkest of circumstances, through the loss of my friend and inspiration Jo Cox, that I came to be here. What happened was not only an attack on a woman, a family and a community; it was an assault on the principles and basis of our democracy. That is why I must first pay tribute to all the political parties that did not stand in the by-election out of respect. There will be many occasions when I passionately disagree with them about a whole host of issues, but today is not that day. I also thank the voters in Batley and Spen—those who normally support my party and those who do not—who lent me their vote this time because, as one woman said with quiet determination:
“We can’t let them win.”
As the manager of a local bar told me while fringe parties leafleted outside her pub:
“That’s not who we are, or what we believe.”
The loss of all those deposits on election night confirmed it, and I will stand tall against those whose only mission is to divide our community.
The election result was a victory for democracy, and the acts of kindness that I saw along the way defined this campaign. Many in this House came to help with the campaign, and they will have seen our vibrant and dedicated voluntary and community sector, which shines even brighter than ever before. They will have seen it in the cups of tea; the cake; the pakoras and samosas; the smiles and the tears; the people in the polling station who donated that day’s pay to Jo’s charitable fund; the stories of Jo’s kindness; and the quiet determination of our community to not let hate divide us. So many groups give support, friendship, assistance and opportunities to others. As one woman from the local Salvation Army put it:
“We have two hands, one to help ourselves and one to help others.”
That is the attitude of our constituency. We understand and enjoy our obligations to each other.
One special highlight during the election campaign was the Walky Talky community event organised by leaders of all faiths, Kirklees Council and Batley Bulldogs. People of all faith and none walked alongside each other, chatting in the sunshine from the town centre to the rugby stadium. When it was finished, people did not want to leave; they were hanging around, not ready to let this warm moment of community connection end. It was in her maiden speech that Jo said that
“what surprises me time and time again as I travel around the constituency is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”—[Official Report, 3 June 2015; Vol. 596, c. 675.]
It was true then and it is even more the case now. We will never forget the difference that Jo has made and, through her legacy, continues to make. She was and is unforgettable. One gentleman from the community reflected, “Jo was a small woman with a big kick.” I witnessed that kick campaigning alongside Jo and the community to successfully defend Batley and Birstall’s local libraries.
This was a personal campaign for me. As a child growing up in a two-bedroomed council flat, those libraries were my solace, and anyone who is a fan of Ken Loach’s films will notice that more often than not, the turning point for the hero is always when he or she goes to a library to find the information they need. As the world gets ever more confusing and decisions taken about our lives seem further out of our hands, we need those libraries now more than ever.
I also think back to the time when I was six and our local council prevented my family from becoming homeless. Dad had been unemployed for a while and we had fallen behind in the mortgage repayments, so my mum had to hand back the keys to the building society. We would have been homeless had it not been for the council, who found us a roof over our head. But that was not an act of charity. It was a combination of political will and solidarity from local and nationally elected representatives. Today, there are now 14,000 people on the council house waiting list in Kirklees. Affordable housing is further out of reach than ever, and I will work hard to ensure that other families do not suffer the stress and anxiety that we did.
As someone with unique experience in the arts, as an actor and writer, culture will be of particular interest to me, and I know that it can be an engine of change for communities, bringing regeneration and jobs. Our young people in particular deserve nothing less. During the campaign I visited West Yorkshire Drama Academy, watching many working-class kids find their confidence and their voice. I saw myself there.
When I was a young actor and I went to castings, I would be asked where I was from. When I said, “Batley”, more often than not people would say, “Oh yeah, Batley Variety Club!” The fact that this little club could attract international stars such as Louis Armstrong, Shirley Bassey and the Bee Gees meant that there must be something about us that others want! Young people’s futures are more uncertain than ever, but whatever their ambitions, we must give them hope and belief that they can be the best. We have the power and responsibility in this place to help.
I am determined to use my time in this place to do everything I can for our community, whether campaigning to retain access to local NHS services, pursuing policies to end the need for food banks, or doing whatever I can to bring decent jobs and new investment to the constituency. Like so many in this House, I want to create a society where everyone can contribute and reach their full potential.
Jo continues to inspire me and so many others every day, as does the dignity shown by her husband Brendan and her loving family. I am among her friends, of whom there are many in the constituency, her trade union and this House.
I make this speech during a debate on policing, so I wish to finish with a tribute to the brave officers of West Yorkshire police, who reacted so swiftly and professionally on that awful day in June. A community that could have become overrun with panic, with such a terrible act taking place in broad daylight in the sleepy village that I grew up in, was looked after admirably by our police, in no small part because of the swiftness with which they made an arrest. What happened in Batley and Spen was a violent attack on a Member of this House, but I would like to take this moment to thank the police officers themselves who put their lives on the line every single day. I would also like to congratulate my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for her hard work on raising this issue.
I take this moment to thank you, Mr Speaker, for your excellent leadership in the aftermath of Jo’s tragic death. Coming to Batley, recalling Parliament, arranging ceremonies and giving people space to grieve and mourn together was a kindness much appreciated by all in this House and beyond.
I am honoured to have the opportunity to do my bit and give a voice to my constituents through this Parliament of ours. That day will stay with everyone in Batley and Spen for the rest of our lives, but Batley and Spen will be defined not by the one person who took from us, but by the many who give. [Applause.]
It is a great honour to follow the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). I think I speak for the whole House when I say that that was a truly outstanding maiden speech, and done in the best traditions of the House. Thinking back to my maiden speech, I wish could have made it as well and as competently as that.
I also ought to say that the hon. Lady showed a massive amount of dignity in the election campaign she fought—not just in the campaign itself, but particularly at the count, when she faced some deeply unpleasant barracking during her speech, which she should not have had to experience. She should probably get used to that in this place, but she certainly should not have had to put up with it then.
Having listened to the hon. Lady’s speech, it is fair to say that Jo Cox could not have hoped for a better successor, and I am sure the people of Batley and Spen feel that they could not have hoped for a better successor to Jo Cox. She clearly is going to be a rising star on the Labour Benches, and somebody the Conservative party will have to watch out for in years to come. I commend her on an excellent first speech.
This is a very important subject for me. I asked for a debate on assaults on police officers in business questions a few months ago, and on the back of that I wrote an article on the issue for the Yorkshire Post. Therefore, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who has done a fantastic amount of work on the issue—I commend her wholeheartedly—has persuaded her party to have a debate on it, and I commend the Labour party for that.
I have to say right from the outset that I am rather sad that the Government have tabled an amendment to the Labour party motion; it seems to be rather splitting hairs, if I may say so. This was an opportunity for the House to speak as one on police assaults. I welcome the fact that the Government have committed not to cut police funding any further, but I do not really see why they could not have supported the motion. Therefore, if we do divide on this issue, I will happily vote for the Labour party motion, because I cannot see anything in it with which I disagree.
I should also say at the start that I actually voted against any cuts to the police budget every year when cuts were proposed, because I believe that the first duty of the Government is to protect the public, and the police budget was not the budget the Government should have been cutting. I therefore endorse everything that the Labour party has said on this issue.
Like the hon. Member for Halifax, I have spent an awful lot of days going out with West Yorkshire police—about 60 or 70 since I first got elected. I have the greatest respect for the officers and the sacrifices they make on a daily basis keeping us safe. One of the most serious consequences of being a police officer is the threat of personal injury, or actual injury, and occasionally worse, in the line of duty.
As has been mentioned, the recording of assaults is not necessarily uniform, and is clearly a bit haphazard. The charging procedure also makes it difficult to follow through on the number of assaults that there actually are. An assault on a police officer will be charged as an assault on a police officer only if it meets certain criteria; otherwise, it could be charged as another violence against the person offence, even though the facts show that the victim was a police officer.
I put in a freedom of information request about two months ago to the Metropolitan police, which showed that there have been broadly 2,000 assaults on police officers in the Metropolitan police area every year for the last three years. When we take those in which injury occurred, there seems to have been an increase from 536 in 2013 to a worrying 869 in 2015, and that is just in London. The figures also show that the most serious incidents—wounding or grievous bodily harm—have increased from 81 in 2013 to 211 in 2015. I have been trying to establish the relevant number in West Yorkshire but have not had as much joy. I have also been wondering whether there should be a specific offence of assaulting a police officer that would cover all assaults and not just some. The name of the offence could encapsulate all offences against police officers. This would certainly make identifying the numbers involved easier, so at least we would know the true picture.
Crucial in this is sentencing. My biggest concern is that while we want to get the numbers right, it is also very important to make sure that the sentencing of such offenders matches the seriousness of the offence. I called for a debate on this not long ago. Again, having one offence could help, but whatever happens, we need tougher sentences. The sentencing guidelines relating to assaulting a police officer were amended a few years ago. We should all be concerned about those guidelines. At the time, I was told that someone who committed an assault on a police officer that involved a punch to the stomach that winded the officer, where there was an attempt to evade arrest, and where the individual had previous convictions, could in theory be punished only with a fine. I was concerned about that then and I am concerned about it now.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
My hon. Friend and I have spent probably 10 years calling for tougher sentences and often being rubbished and criticised by Members in various parts of this House. Is he surprised that so many people are now calling for tougher sentences and saying that prison works and offers a deterrent?
I am delighted that people are calling for more people to be sent to prison. I have been arguing that case for an awfully long time, and I am delighted that I seem to be getting some traction on it.
The problem with the sentencing guidelines is just the tip of the iceberg. I have asked parliamentary questions about this for a while, and have been shocked to find out that only one in seven criminals convicted of an assault on a police constable in the execution of their duty received a prison sentence at all. In the latest year shown in the figures, 7,829 assaults on police officers were recorded as being dealt with in our courts where the offender pleaded guilty or was found guilty, and yet only 1,002 of the offenders were actually sent to prison. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.
Other parliamentary questions I have asked revealed that someone with an astonishing 36 previous convictions for assaulting a police officer managed to avoid being sent to prison for a further assault on a police officer.
Will my hon. Friend give way?
Will my hon. Friend give way?
I am going to press on, if my hon. Friends do not mind, because other people want to speak and I want to crack on.
This kind of soft, lily-livered approach to sentencing is simply not on. I want to mention a recent example of a case before Bradford Crown court that was not charged as an assault against a PC because of the nature of the incident. It demonstrates the problem that we have. The hon. Member for Halifax mentioned this issue, but I want to emphasise it. Sergeant Andrew Heald, who was arresting a criminal who had an armful of previous convictions and was out of prison on licence, had acid thrown in his face and feared that he had been blinded or disfigured. I cannot imagine how frightening that must have been for that police officer doing his job of protecting the public. The sentence handed down to the lowlife who threw the acid in Sergeant Heald’s face was 20 months for the attack and a further 10 months for the offence for which he was trying to arrest him.
I want to be clear that this derisory sentence was not the fault of the judge, as having looked carefully at the sentencing guidelines, it is obvious that he had acted to the best of his ability given the constraints that the guidelines placed on him. This meant that because he was out on licence, this thug, who should not even have been out of prison in the first place, will serve just 10 months in prison for this vicious attack on a police officer doing his job. There should be a clearly defined additional sentence for anyone who attacks our police officers, and generally the sentences need to be much more severe. The police put their lives at risk to protect us, and the least we can do in this place is to make sure that the law better protects them.
I have also been looking at the use of Tasers by the police. It seems to me that Tasers are currently underused and that if more police had them they might be better able to prevent assaults on themselves in the first place. According to my recent FOI request, just 13% of police officers in West Yorkshire are authorised to carry a Taser. If the police want to carry a Taser to better protect themselves, we should make sure that that is facilitated.
The motion touches on police numbers. As I have made clear, I have voted against cuts to the police budget every year they have been proposed. This should be a priority for the police. If the Government had to save money—which they did—they would have been far better off cutting the overseas aid budget, which lines the pockets of corrupt politicians around the world than cutting the police budget when the first duty of the Government is to protect the public. The fact is that police officer numbers in West Yorkshire have fallen from 5,817 in May 2010 to 4,552 today. That is just not good enough or at all helpful. We need more police officers.
In conclusion, every attack on an officer should always act as a reminder of the bravery of our police and the price that they sometimes pay to protect us. It is only right that the Government and Parliament totally support them in return. Clearly, establishing how many police officers are assaulted is helpful, but toughening up the sentences of those who attack the police as they do their duty is the best thing that this House could do, and this debate is a very good start. For those reasons, I support the Labour motion.
Order. I thank very warmly the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for a quite outstanding maiden speech, and I would like in turn very warmly to thank the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for a typically gracious and poignant response to it.
I am afraid that it will be necessary now to impose a very tight time limit to try to accommodate colleagues, for which I apologise. Some senior Members are affected, but I think they are gracious in acknowledging the need. Four minutes.
The outstanding speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) was a truly memorable parliamentary occasion, as was the fine speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch). I do not often say this, but the other side of the Pennines has a lot to be proud of, including even the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). To elicit from him an emotional reaction and support for the Labour party is a truly big achievement, and my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen has managed that today.
This is an important and well-timed debate, because it provides me with an opportunity to put into proper context the recent work that I have been doing on policing. I am sure that some people might see challenging past injustice as in some way anti-police, but nothing could be further from the truth, and I am glad to have the chance to say that. I am pro-police, and I want to do whatever I can to strengthen the position of those out there on the frontline.
There are three ways in which we can do that. The first relates to police numbers and funding, and the second to protecting police officers through the powers we give them and through sentencing. The third is that we can build public trust in our police force by challenging past misdeeds. Unresolved past injustice can infect the present and unfairly leave a cloud hanging over officers on the frontline. It is right to remove it.
I want to touch on each of those three issues briefly. First, on funding, I am afraid that the Minister is wrong to say that the police budget has been protected. It has not been protected; it has been cut in real terms. Greater Manchester police’s revenue support grant was cut by £8.5 million this year, and the precept powers that it was given raised only £3.5 million. Let us get these facts straight, because otherwise the public will get confused. About 1,800 officers have already been lost from the frontline. We cannot take these cuts anymore. A story in The Mail on Sunday over the weekend said that the thin blue line of Greater Manchester is the thinnest of them all—it is the thinnest in the country. The cuts cannot continue. We need a commitment from the Government to honour their promise of no real-terms cuts to police budgets, because that has not happened.
Secondly, on protection for police officers, body-worn cameras need to be introduced now, because they can protect police officers today. We need a debate about the greater use of Tasers, and we really need to look at sentencing. I have mentioned the Dale Cregan situation previously, but there are other examples. An off-duty police officer, Neil Doyle, was killed in Liverpool. His attacker also committed a violent offence against two other individuals, but he only got three years and will soon be moved to an open prison.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one area that really affects police officers and the public is drink-driving and driving while disqualified? Repeat offenders can only be given sixth months’ custody—it does not matter whether it is a second, third or fifth offence—so we have to review the sentencing on that. My previous private Member’s Bill was designed to increase the maximum sentence to two years. Does he think that that is a good idea and that we should do it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have always been too lenient on motoring offences, particularly death by dangerous driving.
I was talking about police officers, who need greater protection in law and in the sentencing guidelines. The Police Federation said today that the sentences that are handed out are often inadequate and inconsistent, and they simply do not provide the strong message that is required. We must resolve across the House to strengthen those sentencing guidelines, and I want to make my support for that absolutely clear.
I will finish on the point of public trust in the police. I believe we are all sent here to challenge injustice wherever we find it. Where we have evidence of it, we have a moral duty to act. Failure to do so corrodes the bond of trust between public and police, and it damages policing by consent. The decision on Orgreave this week was, in my view, wrong, and it makes it harder for the South Yorkshire police to move forward. That decision does not help officers in South Yorkshire who are out there on the frontline, because it leaves a cloud hanging over them.
Let me give the House a quick quote:
“Historical inquiries are not archaeological excavations… We must never underestimate how the poison of decades-old misdeeds seeps down through the years and is just as toxic today as it was then. That’s why difficult truths, however unpalatable they may be, must be confronted head on”.
I could not agree more with those words—the words of our Prime Minister to the Police Federation this year. She is right, so what has changed? Why are we now pushing away those things and leaving them unresolved?
The Government have made their decision, but this House should make a different decision. I have today advanced the idea, based on the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), that a Select Committee should look at Orgreave. In my view, that is the right thing to do. I appeal to Members from all parts of the House to back that suggestion, so that we can build trust in our police and give them proper funding and protection.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this important debate, and I am glad that the Opposition have secured it. I spent nine years as a special constable, during which time I was assaulted—once in a police station, of all places, although not by another police officer. I echo many of the comments that have been made by Members from all parts of the House.
I am particularly keen on sentencing. It is fantastic that Members from all parts of the House are saying firmly that they want stronger sentences for people who commit assaults on police officers. I have stood here many times over a decade or more, as a Government Member and an Opposition Member, and argued that prison works, prison is effective, prison keeps people safe and prison acts as a deterrent. Many times, I have been intervened on by Opposition Members—and, sometimes, by Government Members—who have told me otherwise. There seems to be a strong consensus here, however, and I thoroughly support that.
I thoroughly support the use of Tasers. At the moment, all police officers are equipped with pepper spray or CS gas, as was the case when I started, and a long, retractable stick of metal called an ASP, which is basically a long baton. The problem is that the baton has to be used quite close up, and there is a risk of causing a severe injury by striking somebody in any way with a baton. Police officers are trained to use a baton against the legs and arms, but that is difficult to do in the sorts of situations where those batons are pulled out. The advantage of Tasers is that people can stand 10 or 15 feet away and point it. The vast majority of times when a Taser is used, all the police officer has to do is to draw it and draw to the potential offender’s notice the fact that there is a red dot on their chest. The potential offender will very often desist from whatever they are doing and comply with the instructions they are given, without receiving any injury at all.
When I was a special, there was at one point a debate about the possibility of police officers being armed. I felt that I would never be able to do the job if I was armed with a firearm. I simply could not do that. I have the utmost respect for the highly trained officers who do, but the decision to use it is not something that I would ever want on my conscience. Using a Taser is something else. It is a far less offensive weapon than the retractable iron bar with which all police officers are equipped.
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman’s argument, but he will be aware of a case earlier this year in Telford where the footballer Dalian Atkinson was killed in an incident. We do not know all the circumstances, and generally I support the use of Tasers, but does the hon. Gentleman not think that that case should give us pause for thought before we go for a major roll-out?
It should. We could go into the details of why people sometimes die as a result of Taser use, and it is very rare for that to happen, but that should certainly give us pause for thought. If the alternative is a police officer waving around an iron bar, which could easily strike somebody on the head and similarly injure them very badly or kill them, we have to look at what is the lesser of two evils. For me, the use of Tasers is the lesser of two evils.
I want to go quickly through a couple of other points. I, too, support the use of body cameras. They will enable people to see the problems that police officers face and help to bring more people to justice. I worry, however, that some people may see them as another way of being able to criticise the police. It is very important that people understand two things. First, police officers are under stress when they are threatened by a large group telling them, “We’re going to kill you. We’re going to attack you now.” That has happened to me and, frankly, it creates a certain amount of fear. I could not have admitted that at the time, but it does. Police officers cannot get away from the threat in front of them, and one of the ways they deal with it is to become quite aggressive in their language, and certainly in their gestures and sometimes in their behaviour. People must understand that when they look at camera footage. Secondly, it is a fact that when police officers have finished dealing with such a situation, they sometimes go back into the station and make comments or use language that some people, taking that out of context, may feel is inappropriate. We will have to be grown up and understand that when we look at camera footage.
I worry that the use of cameras by protesters at demonstrations is quite often a means to criticise the police very unfairly. For example, I have seen pictures in national newspapers of police officers looking very fierce and holding up an ASP as though ready to strike somebody. They are doing that because that is what they are trained to do. By the time a police officer has to draw a retractable baton, they are expected to behave in an aggressive fashion. There is no point waving it gently around saying, “Excuse me, sir, would you mind going home now?” By the time that thing is out, people must realise that the police officer means business, and they very often do so. I am worried about the way in which such cameras are used.
I will not be able to sum it up in one minute and 20 seconds, but there is a wider issue, which is the need to consider the whole way in which the police force is structured. It seems to me that we take everyone and train them to be out on the streets, but we can give them only two days training a year in how to use handcuffs, restraints, batons and all the rest of it, which is not enough for those who are going to end up in conflict situations.
I can absolutely say from bitter and true experience—most officers would reflect this—that all the stuff taught during those two days in the gym soon goes out of the window. It all looks very good in training, but once it happens for real, there is just a mass of arms and legs and batons and heavens knows what flying around all over the place, and it does not look good. Yet many police officers frankly do not need to be put in such situations. Those who deal with cybercrime need to be IT experts; they do not need to be able to run after people and catch them. Those who deal with financial crimes need to be accountants. Even those dealing with and investigating serious crimes need to have a lawyer’s mind, rather than be able to run 100 metres in 10 seconds. I sometimes think that we could look at the different jobs being done in the police force and consider whether we need police officers to have all the skills that we currently require them to have. I will not have enough time to go into further details, but I want to say one more thing. It behoves us all as Members of Parliament to support the police, not to pander to groups or organisations that are there to criticise them.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on her fantastic maiden speech? I want to tell her that I thought she did Jo Cox’s memory a fantastic service. The integrity and honesty with which she spoke brought tears to the eyes of many people in the Chamber. The words she said about you, Mr Speaker, and everyone else shows her integrity as an individual and how outstanding an MP she will be for Batley and Spen. I am sure that Jo Cox, if she is looking down on us, and certainly Brendan and all the family will have seen her speech and will treasure it. Her fantastic speech moved all of us.
May I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on obtaining this important debate? I say that as the son of a man who was a Metropolitan police officer for 30 years.
The Minister has some very real questions to answer at the end of this debate. Let us remind ourselves that we are talking about 23,000 assaults on police a year, which is more than 63 a day. Of those assaults, 8,000 involve an injury, which is some 21 a day. In my police force in Nottinghamshire, there were 45 self-reported assaults and 267 assaults without injury. To me, each of those is an assault not just on an individual police officer, as bad as that is, but on the symbol of the rights of us as individuals to live in a democracy under the law.
When the Minister responds, will she say whether she is satisfied that the law on police officer assaults is satisfactory? In particular, the hon. Member for Kensington (Victoria Borwick) mentioned the Notting Hill carnival. Many of those assaults were by young people who are not covered by the sentencing guidelines on assaults on police officers, which refer to people who are 18 or over.
The House deserves a better answer to the questions from the shadow Home Secretary and others about the Government’s policy on body-worn video cameras and how they will be rolled out. It is not good enough for the Government to turn around and say it is an operational matter. Surely the Government have a view on whether it should be accelerated or encouraged.
There were 864 assaults on police officers in Greater Manchester last year—a force that is seeing cuts to the frontline. To listen to the Minister this afternoon, one would think everything is rosy, but morale is very low. What does my hon. Friend think the Government need to do to lift morale, because I believe it is dangerously low?
My right hon. Friend makes a really good point. The first thing to do is to listen to what police officers are saying. The Government seem to be living in a parallel universe. They say the funding is fine, there is no problem with police morale and there is no problem with police numbers, yet, like my right hon. Friend, we all see very real problems in our constituencies around morale and policing.
As my right hon. Friend says, we see the backdrop of huge cuts to police numbers, with nearly 20,000 cut since 2010. In my force in Nottinghamshire, the number of officers is down by 122 and the number of PCSOs by 62 since 2012. The only response of Ministers to that seems to be that it has no impact whatsoever on policing on our streets.
I want to draw the Minister’s attention to an excellent article in The Mail on Sunday this week, which revealed the really low numbers of police on duty at night, when many of the most serious crimes are committed. It had a table obtained by a freedom of information request with the number of response officers on duty on the nightshift of 9 April 2016. Members of Parliament will be able to look up the figures for their own forces, but Nottinghamshire had just 75 or one per 11,000 people. That simply is not enough.
It is not good enough for the Minister to say that it is an operational matter. Do the Government not have a view on the number of front-line officers there should be protecting the public, rather than turning around and saying, “It’s nothing to do with us. It’s an operational matter”? Surely the Government should take a view on that matter and discuss it with chief constables.
It is important to draw attention to the article in The Mail on Sunday that refers to the number of response officers. It is clear that police safety is put at risk by the increase in police officers having to go out on their own. There are not sufficient officers and it is about time the Government took a view on that, rather than washing their hands of it. I look forward to the Minister’s response on that.
I welcome this debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on her campaign to protect the protectors.
For the past year I have taken part in the police service parliamentary scheme, which I would wholeheartedly recommend to all Members of Parliament. It has given me a unique window on the world of everyday life in the police force and the tasks that the police have to undertake on our behalf. I have shadowed various departments in Essex police and seen the incredible work that members of our police service do daily, the challenges and dangers they face, and the frankly astonishing levels of commitment to public service they show. I put on the record my thanks to Essex police for helping me take up that opportunity.
Many of the brave men and women in our police recognise that we are in a challenging period for policing. At a time when the Government are asking them to do more for less, they have absolutely risen to the challenge. Front-line officers put their own safety at risk every day in order to keep people like ourselves safe. I have heard first-hand accounts of officers being punched, kicked, spat at and even bitten, not to mention receiving verbal threats.
Spitting has already been discussed. Although it is often not seen as causing physical harm, not only is it truly disgusting but, as has been mentioned, there are real health risks involved. I would like to have a wider debate on spit hoods. If anyone feels squeamish about them I encourage them to put themselves in the position of an officer being spat at.
I recently went out on a ride-along with officers from Essex police. I witnessed a suspect who was being restrained attempting to spit at a police officer. It was a really ugly thing to see. Does my hon. Friend agree that we must look more seriously at the option of spit hoods, because if we really want to protect our police officers we need to do something concrete?
Absolutely unquestionably—spitting is a revolting thing to do. Often the last resort for someone being arrested is to try to spit, out of spite.
We have already heard about the around 23,000 assaults on police officers across the country. I was shocked to learn that there were just under 700 assaults in Essex alone. However, many more go unreported, sometimes because officers feel the offence is so commonplace it will not be pursued and, more worryingly, that the sentence will perhaps not reflect the assault’s effect on the officer.
The innovation of body-cams has been very effective in its roll-out in Essex. The cameras have reduced assaults on officers and increased the possibility of prosecutions. But they do not in themselves deal with the inconsistency on reporting, sentencing or prosecution. I spoke to the chair of the Essex branch of the Police Federation about officer experience post assault. What I heard was largely very positive with regard to how the force itself supports its officers. However, the chair stressed again and again that there were incidents where the psychological effect on the victim of an attack was not taken into account in sentencing, whereas it would be for many other crimes.
It is right that the courts, through the independence of the judiciary, have discretion to take into account the circumstances of each case in determining the appropriate sentence, but in cases of assaults on officers, courts really need to consider the implications for the officer’s mental health. When a sentence is very low or non-existent, there is further psychological damage to the officer involved; they feel undervalued, unappreciated and not paid the respect they deserve for putting their lives on the line for us on a daily basis. That is not good enough. We must protect the very people who do so much to keep us safe. It must be clear that any attack on a police officer will be punished to the fullest extent of the law. The independent Sentencing Council produced the guidelines; it is important it recognises how seriously the public feel about attacks on serving police officers.
We should not fall into seeing attacks on police officers as a hazard of the job or as in some way so everyday an occurrence that they are less significant than assaults on members of the public. I urge everyone to take the contrary view: that such attacks ought to be judged more severely, as police officers deserve our protection and support in return. That point must be repeatedly stressed to the Crown Prosecution Service. Anecdotally, we know that there are concerns about the wide variation around the country in the approach taken by the CPS towards assaults on officers. The message needs to go out to the CPS loud and clear that assaults on police must be charged at the most appropriate gradation, and that that must be consistently applied across the country. Likewise, I would like the message to go to the judiciary that they must understand that we want the police to have the full support of the law behind them.
I warmly welcome the Minister’s announcement that police forces will be required to record offences against officers properly as part of their crime statistics. Our police service is absolutely second to none in the world, which is why they need support from us that is second to none.
I thank those on the Labour Front Bench for choosing this topic for debate today and my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for championing this issue. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on her brilliant maiden speech, which was very moving. We look forward to many more.
I put on record my thanks to hard-working police officers and support staff, both on the frontline and in the back office. From dealing with Gwent police as the local MP and from my time on the police force parliamentary scheme, I know just how hard police officers and support staff work. I know their complete dedication to serving the public and how tough their job is.
In the firm opinion of the people who contacted me prior to this debate with powerful stories to tell that deserve to be aired, the cuts have depleted numbers on the frontline and certainly impacted on front-line capabilities, as well as increasing the risks to officer safety. In Gwent, we have 1,127 police officers, whereas in March 2010 there were 1,437 full-time equivalent officers—a 20% cut. I am pleased that this year Gwent is recruiting new officers for the first time in three years, but we have had a loss of hundreds of experienced officers. Cuts of that severity are bound to have an effect. It will take time to bring the new people through.
As has been reiterated in this debate, we lack reliable data on incidents involving officers. We need that data, so we are better able to tackle the problem. Police officers have told me that they agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax when she says that the thin blue line is stretched far too thinly. Single-crewing is common practice and there is a heightened risk of harm because of that. Officers also tell me that numbers on a shift may look fine, but they do not relate to the numbers available to deal with crime. Shift numbers often include those on leave, on sick or on secondment. If we take off those waiting in custody or with injured people, the numbers are significantly lower.
Injuries sustained in the line of duty are far too frequent. They are becoming an acceptable part of the job and that should never be the case. It is not just a hazard of the job: it is clearly unacceptable. Officers report a noticeable reduction in respect for police officers and assaulting a police officer is not taken sufficiently seriously. I support the call in the motion for statutory guidance on sentencing uniformly across the country, which reflects the seriousness of the issue.
Police officers cannot protect us if they cannot protect themselves. I will just finish with this: a woman who is married to a police officer contacted me to describe just how the injuries her husband sustains in the course of his work affect the family. It has got to the point where, to stop their children worrying, the couple lie about how he sustains his injuries. She says:
“According to my children he is the clumsiest dad ever, as we have had to tell them ‘dad fell over a bin chasing someone,’ ‘dad walked into a cupboard door in the station,’ ‘dad caught himself on the police car door.’ I am tired of seeing my husband come home injured and having to lie to my children about how he sustained his injuries. I worry every time he is late home and grateful every time he returns home safely.”
It is time that we did more—to say that that is unacceptable for such families and to support our officers who are out there on our behalf.
In 2003, PC Patrick Dunne was a Sutton resident serving in Wandsworth when he arrived in Cato Road in Clapham on his bike to deal with a minor domestic abuse call-out. Hearing gunfire, he rushed out into the street and was hit by a single pistol shot in the chest, which killed him instantly. His murderer, Gary Nelson, laughed with his colleagues and fired a celebratory shot in the air, before driving off leaving two dead bodies behind, including the victim of the original gunshot. Nelson was caught, prosecuted and sentenced to 35 years. Sutton’s serious crime office, which is attached to our main police station, is named Patrick Dunne House, reminding us every day not only of his bravery, service and life, but the threat our police officers face each day.
In 2009, PC Paul Dalton, a member of the Wrythe safer neighbourhoods team in Sutton next to where I live, was on shift walking close to a local funfair on a Sunday. He was stabbed in the neck with a wine bottle in an unprovoked attack. He bravely managed to chase his assailant and make an arrest. Fortunately, his stab-proof vest prevented a more severe injury, and the person was arrested and jailed for five years. In London terms, Sutton is a low-crime borough, and residents do not expect that sort of violence, but police officers know that, however unlikely, something could happen at any time. As well as policing more dangerous areas than Sutton, Met police officers have to police public events and demonstrations, and face constant terrorist threats.
I have seen demonstrations turn ugly here in Westminster and the pressure that police officers come under when that happens. Six years ago, I watched from Bellamy’s café as protesters outside, right in front of us, picked up rubble from roadworks with the clear purpose of throwing it at police officers. I can only stand in awe of how police officers keep their nerve, as we heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), along with their patience and their discipline, and I have seen how pumped up they are at the end of their shifts. Parliament Square that day looked like a war zone, with fires all around.
Today, assaults on officers are still too frequent—frankly, just one is too many. Operational changes, as we have heard, as well as changes in sentencing and sentencing advice can help. Police officers face risks from spitting, including hepatitis, and may have to take courses of powerful anti-viral drugs, for up to three months, that can cause severe nausea.
I was very disappointed when the Mayor of London abruptly pressed the pause button at the last minute on the trialling of spit guards. As London’s equivalent of a police and crime commissioner, the Mayor is no longer a lawyer who represents people claiming against the police; he represents the police officers and their welfare, and he represents Londoners, so it is for him to maintain their safety. I hope he will look again at this issue.
As we have also heard, body cameras are a useful innovation for reducing complaints about police officers. I read an interesting report by the University of Cambridge, which suggested that incidents of assaults had increased for those wearing body cameras by 15%. The university acknowledged, however, that far more research needs to be done to explain what lies behind that.
A number of Members lobbied the then Chancellor of the Exchequer to protect the police budget and protect police numbers last time. We want to make sure that our brave police officers are out and about, acting as a visible deterrent, but also keeping us safe.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to today’s very important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) on spearheading this cause and on the powerful case that she made. A very moving maiden speech was also given by my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin).
In common with other hon. Members, I have the utmost respect for our police officers and for the job they do in keeping our communities and our country safe. Over the past few months, I have had the privilege of taking part in the police service parliamentary scheme. I have always felt, albeit from a distance, that police officers go over and above the call of duty when carrying out their role. During my time on the parliamentary scheme, as I shadowed police officers in the course of their duties, I was impressed at first hand by just how committed and passionate they are.
It is alarming that, last year, an estimated 23,394 police officers were assaulted while undertaking their duty. This equates to 64 assaults every day. Police numbers have been much reduced since 2010, with the loss of about 19,000 officers. Clearly, this reduction puts added pressure on police officers and has a detrimental impact on morale and officer safety.
Most people do their jobs in safe surroundings, while police officers face dangerous situations and risk their own safety every day. As people who work hard on behalf of society to keep us all safe, police officers deserve to have the full backing of the law in the event that they are assaulted. That assurance will give officers the confidence that they will be fully supported and protected by the criminal justice system.
In my experience, the vast majority of the public do respect the police and the job they do. Luckily, most people do not have direct contact with police officers, but are reassured that the police are there doing their job to keep them and their communities safe. Unfortunately, a few openly attack or assault officers. We must all send a strong message that that is unacceptable, and those who seek to harm officers will indeed face severe consequences and robust sentencing on conviction.
We know that police officers put themselves in harm’s way in the course of their duty, and they do it selflessly. However, the view that being assaulted is “just part of the job” cannot be right. An assault on a police officer doing their lawful duty is, as we heard earlier, an assault against society. Currently, such assaults are covered by section 89 of the Police Act 1996. However, although sentencing allows for a custodial sentence of up to six months, the reality of a conviction for assault on a police officer is rare. It is more common for a caution, a fine or a suspended sentence to be imposed. Latest official figures show that 7,829 criminals were convicted of assaulting police officers last year, but only 1,002 of them were sent to prison.
Most of my constituency is covered by South Wales police, but a third is covered by Gwent police. Both forces have recorded instances of assault, including biting and spitting at officers. As we know, the seriousness of assaults varies, but in many cases officers are off work for some time. Obviously much distress is caused to the individuals involved, but during the periods when they are off work an even greater strain is imposed on police workloads.
I support the motion, and I urge other Members to do so as well.
I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, and to have another opportunity to discuss this issue. I, too, pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is a strong advocate for police officer safety and who, as we have heard, initiated an Adjournment debate on the subject in which I was happy to participate.
When people become police officers, they understand that they will face risks, and I well remember the risks that I faced during my 32-year career in the Metropolitan police. I received a few pokes myself, but I am glad to say that I survived them. In my view, however, an assault on a police officer constitutes an assault on our values, on our civilised way of life and on our society, and should attract the strongest punishment that the criminal justice system can offer. It is vital for the system to use the strong sentencing guidelines and the full extent of the law to punish those who assault officers. I am sorry, but a caution, a fine or a suspended sentence is not adequate or appropriate. We must send the clear message that any assault on a police officer—on our society—will be met with the full force of the law. Moreover, it is imperative that we take our duty of care with the utmost seriousness, and that means giving officers the proper equipment and protection to enable them to deal with the myriad threats that they now face.
Many of us have areas in our constituencies that are major night-time hotspots, and there are problems in managing such areas. There can be hundreds of pubs and clubs in small areas in a city, with long licensing hours and poor management of drunken and aggressive behaviour. That puts the police in direct confrontation with people who have been allowed to drink to excess, have been thrown out of clubs or have been involved in violent incidents. It must be said that that culture only grew under the Labour Government, with the 24-hour licensing laws and the so-called pavement culture that was fostered under Tony Blair. We need to look again at those laws, at the management of certain premises, and at the way in which pubs and clubs deal with people who are violent if we are to change the environment that causes a large number of assaults on police. It is vital that we do that if we are to have a serious debate about tackling such behaviour.
Long custodial sentences are imperative, not just for the purpose of punishment but, in particular, to protect society from this loutish conduct. However, for the sake of officers throughout the country, we must also try to tackle the behaviour—or the lack thereof—that is at the root of some of the problems. There are, of course, other problems, but I wanted to introduce that issue to the debate in the hope that it will be discussed further.
There is much to agree with in the motion, but we need to be clear about the issue of police numbers. It is, of course, incredibly important for us to have sufficient officers to tackle and prevent crime and antisocial behaviour. However, as one who has managed resources and police officers and who remains in constant contact with former and current officers, I know that it is far too simplistic to concentrate solely on the issue of numbers. This is about giving the police the proper technical resources and equipment, and about the correct management and deployment of those resources. Senior management must use the techniques and resources that are available to 21st-century police forces to manage their forces properly and deploy them in the right way if we are to continue to cut crime and tackle the root causes of criminal and antisocial behaviour.
In the case of police assaults, there is no substitute for strong custodial sentences. If we are to tackle assaults on those who protect and maintain our society— which, in turn, constitute attacks on that very society —we must ensure that the police are secure in the possession of the very best equipment, and are themselves protected by determined prosecutors who deal with these cases in a way that ensures that serious and severe custodial sentences ensue.
The average police officer will be assaulted every five or six years that they serve. It is easy to forget that those officers, despite their exceptional work, are regular people; they go to work to earn a living, to put food on the table and a roof over their family’s head. They should not have to put up with the threat of not coming home in one piece. We owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to all who put themselves in danger to protect us, and, as this debate has shown, we are extremely grateful for the work they do. However, it is our responsibility not only to recognise the problem before us, but to deal with it, too.
The Police Federation has claimed that lenient sentences given to those who assault officers are one of the main reasons that so many officers are harmed. Every force in the UK has incidents each week of police officers receiving punches to the face, bites to the arms, and cuts to the head, but the perpetrators are often let off without custodial sentences. On the occasions when a sentence is given, they can be woefully short. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) and the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) have already raised this, but it is worth repeating: in one instance, a man found guilty of throwing acid in an officer’s face to avoid arrest was given a sentence of only 20 months. I do not think any Member of this House can contemplate how that must make the officer and their family feel.
Officers in our community have been clear time and again that they believe their safety is endangered by the weak sentences given to those who assault officers. We must take those claims seriously and consider tougher sentences for those who attack the police.
We should also consider the increased danger that officers can be in during single staffed patrols. I know that many officers are concerned that they are at increased risk while on their own and it is not right that they are so often forced into such situations. As police numbers have been cut under this Government, single staffed patrols have increased. By the end of the last Parliament, budget cuts meant that my police force, South Wales police, had 500 fewer officers. The result of this is increased single staffed patrols that put officers in danger, as well as those whom they work to protect. Single staffed patrols too often leave officers in serious peril. If we do not listen to the warnings about budget cuts and the consequential increase in officers working on their own, we will see the effects on police officer safety.
Over the course of this debate alone, some nine police officers will have been assaulted. There will always be instances of police officers being in danger, but those instances need not so often lead to our officers being physically harmed. The police are clear that there are solutions to improving police officer safety—and whether through less lenient sentences or increased funding—we should listen and take note of what they are saying; after all, they are the experts.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Ogmore (Chris Elmore) and also the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), which reminded me of 18 months ago when I was on this Bench listening to her predecessor, someone who was so full of energy, so full of passion and so full of life—a life that was, sadly, taken away. It is apt that we were reminded earlier today that more unites us than divides us when we are in the Chamber. It is the heart of our democracy, and we are surrounded by reminders of past Members who have given their lives for those principles.
This debate on police officer safety is welcome, and I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who has done so much work on it. Our police officers have a long history of dealing with difficult and violent individuals, and it is right that they should feel they have the protection of the law when they do so. I am thinking particularly of those who show bravery every day on the streets of south Devon and Torbay and those who have in many cases put their own lives at risk to try and save others, either when dealing with a criminal situation or when coming across someone in distress or need.
The right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) talked about Devon and Cornwall being a sleepy area, and he may not have meant it in the way it came across, but although Devon and Cornwall have beautiful areas and villages, Torbay has its share of issues and difficulties, like many other coastal communities, and the level of assaults we have seen on officers is concerning, with 267 in an 11-month period and a—thus far unaudited—further 26 assaults last month. To see people who are serving the public being dealt with in that way gives all of us cause for concern.
I welcome the way in which this debate has been conducted. Most police forces around the world carry firearms for protection, and it is a huge compliment to our own police that they stand firm behind the principle that we police by consent and not at the point of a gun. We see far too many incidents in the United States that would never warrant the use of lethal force or firearms being drawn in this country. It is a real compliment to our officers that the vast majority of them go out there every day without being armed with a lethal weapon. That said, it is right that police forces in places such as Devon and Cornwall are considering the expanded use of Tasers and spit hoods to deal with those who use violence, those who will not co-operate when arrested and, crucially, those who put others at risk.
It is worth dwelling for a moment on what we ask our officers to do. Some contributions to the debate seemed to suggest that they deal only with crime. The nature of crime is changing, and last year’s Public Accounts Committee’s report drilled down into that subject. We considered the situations that we are now asking response police officers to go into. I ask the Minister to tell us when we can look forward to a revised funding formula, particularly in the light of the benefits that that will have for Devon and Cornwall. I also want to highlight the Bills dealing with animal cruelty that will be debated here on Friday 24 February. They might help to deal with some of the issues relating to assaults on police dogs and horses. It is bizarre that at the moment someone can be charged with such an offence and receive a similar sentence to one that they would receive for damaging property. The Library notes show a worrying decline in the average custodial sentences given to some offenders, and I hope that the new sentencing guidelines will help to deal with that. I welcome this debate, and I welcome this opportunity to pay tribute to the officers who show such bravery each and every day.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on her excellent maiden speech. I should also like to thank the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for securing this debate and for doing so much work on this matter. I am sure the House will appreciate that assaults on police officers cannot be brushed off as an occupational hazard. Figures obtained from South Wales police show that a total of 631 days were lost due to work-related assaults in one year. North Wales police say that assaults on officers are a daily occurrence.
The first problem that we should address is the lack of accurate recording of assaults against police officers. The Plaid Cymru police and crime commissioner for the North Wales police force, Arfon Jones, has secured sufficient budget allocation to ensure that he can realise his manifesto pledge to supply every police officer with body-worn video equipment while on duty. Body-worn cameras collect evidence that has proved beneficial in securing domestic violence convictions as well as protecting individual officers from malicious complaints and physical assault. There is thus a justice result in having these cameras. It became evident to me, during the time that I was lucky enough to spend with Sergeant Alex Baker and other North Wales police officers on the police parliamentary scheme earlier this year, that body-worn cameras were greatly welcomed for those very reasons. Powerful initiatives such as these should be extended as a matter of good practice. The Government cannot use the police and crime commissioners as an excuse for shrugging off such a fundamental responsibility.
The other point that I want to make is about cuts to front-line policing. It is not a fair response on the part of the Government to say that police spending is now protected. The police are suffering from the previous budget cuts, whose effects are now becoming statistically evident. We have seen a reduction in police officer numbers of 1,300 in Wales since 2010. Last year’s police funding formula would have resulted in a £32 million cut to Welsh forces, which would have caused Welsh police severe difficulties, as I am sure Members can imagine. Last year’s review of police funding sought to place greater emphasis on socioeconomic data and more general crime figures, but such a formula does not properly consider the workload differences of each force.
Figures provided by Dyfed-Powys police indicate that funding for Welsh forces in line with population would result in an additional £25 million for Wales. Of course, if policing were devolved to Wales—a position supported by all four police and crime commissioners in Wales—the overall Barnett formula for funding public services would indeed be based on population. As an aside, I would observe that Welsh forces are facing these significant cuts only because control over policing is retained in Westminster. This is particularly important when we consider that policing is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland, where the new formula will not apply.
When I have been out with the police, particularly the armed response and dog handler units, I learned about real concerns that the drive to work in alliance with neighbouring forces, arising from the long-term cuts agenda, would result in yet more police officers being put in dangerous situations without sufficient back-up. Of course, there are advantages to co-operation, especially for training, but there is also a tendency to locate officers in areas where the likelihood of certain types of crime is highest. That intrinsically disadvantages officers and the public in rural areas, where they can run the risk of finding themselves unreachable in emergency situations, which is beyond the pale.
In conclusion, I am in favour of the motion, but with one big caveat: that, in line with police and crime commissioners in Wales, policing is devolved and sufficiently funded to ensure that police officers are able to continue their excellent work in Wales.
This issue has always been of personal importance to me. For nearly 30 years, my father was a West Midlands police officer, serving in the mounted branch and the firearms unit. In the 1980s, I remember kissing him goodbye as he went off to police football matches and riots, city centre riots and, yes, Orgreave. Having seen all that makes watching footage of assaults on police officers that bit more real. It is even more devastating when the person going home injured is one’s own father.
West Midlands police officers do a heroic job under consistent pressure to perform. Any assault on any police officer or PCSO is clearly totally deplorable, and those convicted of such assaults must expect a strong and lengthy prison sentence. Ever since the reforms of Robert Peel, we have policed by consent. It is right that the Minister reiterated what he said in the Adjournment debate called by the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) about the public having to
“understand that a police officer is to be respected and is there to serve the community.”—[Official Report, 11 October 2016; Vol. 615, c. 283.]
Police officers are not there to stand by while they are abused and assaulted. Any use of force must be proportionate, but assessing that cannot be done with the cold rationalism of someone based in an office; it must be viewed from the standpoint of someone who genuinely feels that their personal safety and that of those around them is at risk.
During the summer recess, I did a night shift on patrol with West Midlands police around Dudley borough. The officers explained the difference that body cameras, 1,600 of which have been bought with co-funding from the Home Office, are already making as they get issued to all neighbourhood and response officers. Many Members will have seen the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology’s briefing from last year, which highlighted several benefits from the initial trial that have now been backed up by the experience in the west midlands. In fact, since the camera roll-out there has been a 10% increase in cases proceeding to charge, a 9% increase in early guilty pleas and, staggeringly, a 93% fall in complaints against police officers.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
I am afraid that I cannot.
Late last month, I attended the Dudley council for voluntary service awards, at which Chief Superintendent Richard Fisher of the Dudley local policing unit talked of a future in which new technology could not only allow officers to spend more time on policing rather than filling in their pocket notebooks, but enable body cameras to record automatically if an officer draws out their Taser or CS gas. Such technology would improve the safety of both officers and the public.
Our police officers put their safety at risk every time they go out. We owe it to them to do everything we can to keep them safe and to ensure that those who do cause them harm receive the punishment they deserve.
Let me start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for her outstanding work in pursuing this issue and to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for her wonderful maiden speech today. She spoke with supreme confidence, sincerity and empathy, and I am sure she will be a great champion for her constituency, just as Jo was.
As we have heard today, the thin blue line keeps getting thinner, which threatens the safety of not only the public, but the men and women working all hours to protect us. Only today, the front page of my local paper, the Ellesmere Port Pioneer, pays tribute to officers who stopped a man setting himself on fire. The truth is that a cut in the number of officers of nearly 20,000 from 2010 to this year has led to the police sometimes being simply unable to attend certain incidents, and to response times at night getting longer and longer. Many constituents tell me that they no longer report incidents because they know the police do not have the resources to respond; this is creating a serious crisis of public confidence in the capacity of the police to respond to incidents.
Ahead of this debate, I asked a number of local officers for their views. One told me:
“Along with every officer that I know; I joined the Police to help people, even those people who hate the Police—we are there for everyone. I’m now surrounded by demoralised colleagues desperately trying to put a brave face on things, but completely overstretched and unable to carry out their jobs to the level that they would like to. This is not an accident; it is a political choice and one which I am concerned will lead to the injury and death of officers and members of the public.”
It should be noted that this officer sent their message during a week of night shifts working alone.
Another officer raised similar concerns about the numbers of officers, but also raised the issue of the impact of cuts to youth justice, diversionary projects, youth workers, social services and mental health services on the workload of the police. He told me that too often officers who should be working to protect the public are filling in the gaps left by the underfunding of other public services. The experience of police officers I have heard from is similar to that of those in the NHS and other areas of the public sector, where cuts to numbers are leaving services stretched to breaking point. This is perhaps most striking in the case of the NHS and social care, but it can be found across the public sector as a whole; we know that cuts to one budget often have an impact on many other services, and because it is often left to the most expensive services to pick up the pieces, these cuts can often be a false economy. I hope the Government will reflect on that.
Finally, I want to discuss the estimated 23,000 assaults on our officers in England and Wales each year, each one of which is an attack on all of us. In my area of Cheshire, there were 442 recorded assaults on officers in 2015-16, which equates to one in every four and a half officers being assaulted during the year. If workers in any other profession were asked to face such a risk while going to work, there would be a national outrage, and we should look at our police officers no differently. We need to send the message out to the police and other public servants that we know they do a tough job, which is sometimes dangerous, but we value them and want them to be safe, and we want the full force of the law to be used against those who would use violence against them.
May I start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) for an excellent maiden speech? I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for pushing this important issue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for saving me from going through a whole lot of statistics in three minutes and 46 seconds, and I praise my hon. Friends the Members for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) and for Gower (Byron Davies) for both having served in the police service. I pay tribute to Dorset police, who do the most fantastic job, in a part of the country that many people think is affluent but which is not; we have our share of problems and the police do a wonderful job down there.
I wish to talk briefly about police safety and then move on to police numbers. Before I say anything more, may I pay tribute to our Front-Bench team, who are doing an excellent job, given the financial problems that, as we all know, we face? My comments are therefore in no way aimed at the job they are doing; I make them because I simply must speak up on behalf of my constituents, as that is my job and my duty.
I spoke today to an officer of some 28 years’ service, and his view is that the charging standards have been watered down. His solution, which I am sure the Government would appreciate, is not more police officers, but simply upping the ante in the courts. All too often where police officers or other members of the public services—those in the fire and ambulance services, and prison officers—have been assaulted, they find that the police do a fantastic job getting their case to court, but the courts simply do not have the power to follow up and impose a suitable sentence. Perhaps when she sums up, the Minister could tell the House about using not a caution for assaulting a police officer, which is not acceptable under any circumstances, but the offence of aggravated assault, which of course carries a far more serious sentence, for any assault, including spitting. Unfortunately, if we do not do that, the yobbish element, or those who attack police officers and other members of our public service, will have no deterrent. They will not be discouraged from behaving in the way that all of us in this House find unacceptable.
On police numbers, there is no doubt that, in Dorset, we need more officers. What I hear from the police officers on the ground, and from senior officers, is that the nature of crime has changed. There is less crime on the streets, and more crime on the internet. Sadly, we have to deal with more terrorism. More specialist officers are being trained and therefore taken off our streets to meet that threat, and quite rightly so. As a consequence, officers on the street in rural communities such as mine are few and far between. They have no axe to grind politically—they are simply trying to do their job professionally—but the police are finding that, on many occasions, they do not have the officers to do the job. One comment I hear is, “If you don’t see an officer, that’s good news.” I am afraid that I have to say to the House that I disagree, because if we do not see an officer, you can bet your life that the burglar, the thug or the yob will not see an officer either, and that opens up territory for them to exploit to the disadvantage of our constituents. What we need in addition to the specific resources and specialist officers are officers on the beat. That demand and need has not gone. In fact, if anything, as the world changes—often to the detriment of our constituents—we need them more.
When I was a special constable traipsing the streets of Cheshire, the desk sergeant always said to me that wlking the streets was reassuring to the public. Does my hon. Friend agree?
I do. As a former soldier who, along with other Members in this House, served in Northern Ireland, I can say that all the information and intelligence that we got from the streets came from guardsmen, soldiers and riflemen or whoever was on the ground. No amount of cameras or specialist equipment could feed back what we needed to know—who was in the pub, what they were dressed in and why they were there. Personal checks—or p-checks as we called them—were about going up to someone and asking them what they were doing on the streets at the time. That all provided valuable information and acted as a deterrent to stop terrorists doing things against us and the civilian population. Similarly, more officers on the beat would do this and safeguard our constituents.
I end by paying tribute to the Dorset police force, which does a fantastic job, to all police forces in this country, and to all those who serve us in uniform. They should be protected, and I hope that we hear more from the Minister when she sums up.
I join the whole House today in wishing the officer who was stabbed in Lancashire a very speedy recovery. I also add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on her moving and poignant maiden speech. She has done the memory of Jo, her constituents and this House proud by her contribution today. She also made me cry.
In this place, we make the laws, but we depend on police officers to go out into our communities and enforce them. This relationship places a special duty on us all in this place, and indeed in the Government, to ensure that police officers can do their job safely and free from fear of attack. As demonstrated by the horrific stories that we have heard today from my hon. Friends the Members for Halifax (Holly Lynch), for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney (Gerald Jones), for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), and for Ogmore (Chris Elmore), all too often we are failing in that special duty.
I was particularly affected by the story told by my hon. Friend the Member for Newport East (Jessica Morden) of the clumsy daddy. Nobody should have to experience that level of violence in their job and then have to lie to their children in that way.
A couple of weeks back, as I do every possible year, I attended a memorial service for PC Nina MacKay, who was attacked and stabbed 19 years ago when she went to arrest a wanted man in his home in my constituency. Her wounds were fatal. She was just 25 years old—a young woman with her entire life ahead of her, murdered as she went about her job.
Although police officer deaths are mercifully rare, almost all officers are violently confronted at some point in their careers. I have been looking at the case logs of attacks on police officers in the London borough of Westminster, to see the situation faced by the police working in the borough in which we sit. There have been 80 attacks on police officers in Westminster since May. Of these, 22 were classified as actual bodily harm and five as grievous bodily harm. The vast majority of the attacks were on the streets of Westminster, a few were in residential premises and 14 took place while the perpetrator was in police custody. I know that there were 80 attacks in Westminster since May because the Metropolitan Police Service has kept what are called the Operation Hampshire databases for each borough since April. Every time a police officer is attacked in London, there is now a strict protocol.
The incident is recorded as a crime and registered in the human resources log. A welfare officer—that is important—an investigation officer and someone from the senior leadership is immediately notified of the attack. The attacked officer is kept up to date with the progress of investigations. Most importantly, they are provided with welfare support, someone to ask how they are and provide support if it is wanted or needed. The process is designed to ensure that officers know that an assault on them is taken as seriously as an assault on any member of the public. Experiencing violence should not be accepted or expected as part of their jobs. They should not be considered second-class victims.
I was told by one officer about an attack that he endured when he was a young man and new to the police. It was long before these new protocols were even thought of. He was surrounded by a group of men. They punched him, kicked him and spat at him. He was shaken up. I can imagine that it frightened him, and it certainly dented his confidence. When he got back to the station the very next day, his colleagues congratulated him on a job well done and on the fact that he was in for the night shift, but one boss had the emotional intelligence to come to him, ask why he was there and encourage him to go home and spend the night with his family. He told me, “It was the smallest thing, but it was the most important thing.” I hope that officers in London are receiving that small but important thing now that Operation Hampshire is in place. If an officer in London is attacked, the protocol ensures that there is welfare support. They will not have to rely on the judgment and kindness of one decent boss.
Welfare care is important, but so is recording. We are told that there were an estimated 23,000 assaults on police officers in England and Wales last year. As we have heard, this is a number that we can have absolutely no confidence in. I have been told that it is not much better than a back-of-an-envelope job. The Home Office says that it has
“worked with police forces to try and improve the data further”,
as the Minister reiterated today. However, I heard him say only that he wants to add an additional category of assault with an injury to the recorded crime data. I would like him to go further—he is not a bad man. I want him to ask all police services to adopt the comprehensive and systematic approach taken by the Metropolitan and Hampshire police services. The Hampshire approach includes recording every incident in human resource logs, and integrating data collection with welfare provision. As my story of that young police officer shows, good systems are not just about collecting data, but about offering support.
Proper recording of assaults may give us a better idea of the scale of the problem we are facing, but it will not reduce the number of attacks. For that, Government action is necessary, so I come to sentencing. The Police Federation has raised concerns that a man who punched a police officer in the face and kicked them to the floor received just a 12-month community order. My hon. Friend the Member for Halifax highlighted a case where a man assaulted four police officers, gouged their eyes and inflicted serious injury. He received only a two-month suspended sentence. Will the Minister commit to reiterating to the Sentencing Council, which I obviously respect the independence of, the seriousness with which we in this place treat attacks on police officers?
It would be wrong of me to speak on this matter without acknowledging the substantial cuts the police have had to absorb since the Conservatives came to power. There are 20,000 fewer police officers in the United Kingdom than in 2010—a reduction of 11.7%. My right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) told us how this is really stretching services in Greater Manchester, as it is elsewhere. That thin blue line has been getting thinner and thinner.
The cuts are leading to under-reporting by the public as their confidence is dented, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Justin Madders). There are concerns that the cuts are also leading to an increase in single crewing, which may well make police officers—particularly at night and when responding to emergency situations—even more vulnerable. But there are no reliable statistics on the amount of single crewing each police force is undertaking. We do not know definitively whether it is becoming more common and in which situations it is used. We do not know whether it has made officers more vulnerable to attack. PCCs and the Home Office need to know the answers to these questions if they are to make informed strategic decisions and, most importantly, keep our officers safe from unnecessary danger.
Today, we have had calls for the Government to improve the recording and reporting of these attacks. The Minster has been asked to work with the Sentencing Council to ensure that appropriate punishments are meted out. He has also been asked to look at the way police cuts are stretching our services. I hope that he will take these requests seriously and act on them urgently. Our police officers deserve to know that their welfare is paramount.
This has been a lively debate on an important subject of great concern to us all. I have listened with great care to the thoughtful speeches made by Members on both sides of the House. Sadly, there is so little time for me to speak that I will not be able to address all the questions, but I will write to Members with answers.
I am sure that you will agree, Mr Deputy Speaker, that there has been one absolutely stand-out speech this afternoon, and that was the maiden speech of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin). We will never forget the contribution that Jo made; she was, indeed, a small woman with a big kick. I am sure that the people of Batley and Spen will be extremely well represented by the hon. Lady, as we have seen from her speech today. I join her in paying great respect to West Yorkshire police for how they have dealt with an incredibly difficult time for her community and the broader community of West Yorkshire.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch) for persuading her colleagues to secure this important debate and for enabling us all to highlight this important issue. Like the hon. Lady and many Members we have heard this afternoon, I have spent time on the beat with officers in my constituency. My sister was a police officer, and my nephew—I am proud of him—is now serving our community as a special. I know at first hand of the dedication of police officers, keeping us safe, day in, day out, all around our country.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) for his long and distinguished service as a special, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Byron Davies) for his more than 30 years of service as a police officer. I congratulate him on his recent election to the Home Affairs Committee, where I am sure that he will do an excellent job.
This afternoon, there have been calls for more and stronger sentencing. We agree that sentences must be tough. Although sentences are a matter for the courts, I want to assure all Members that sentencing guidelines already provide for assault on a police officer to be treated more severely. Assaults on police officers resulting in injuries will often result in a charge of actual bodily harm or an even more serious offence. In these cases, the fact that the victim is a police officer delivering this vital service is taken into account.
An assault can be treated more severely if the court so chooses, and there are offences relating specifically to police officers even where there is no physical harm. Right at the other end of the spectrum, in the most serious cases where an individual is convicted of the murder of a police officer in the course of his duty, a whole-life order will now be the sentencing starting point, thanks to the provisions introduced by the Government in the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015.
As the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service stated, the Government will continue to provide the Sentencing Council with data and evidence on assaults on police officers as it reviews its guidelines. We must make sure that any assault on a police officer is treated with the gravity it deserves. As he said, we will continue to work with ministerial colleagues across the Government, such as the Solicitor General, to ensure that individuals are appropriately prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
It has been agreed right across the House that sentencing for assaults on police officers is not sufficient. Would it not be a good idea for the Minister to send a transcript of this debate to Lord Justice Treacy, the chairman of the Sentencing Council, to ask him, on the back of this debate, to look once again at these guidelines to make sure that they are more appropriate?
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I will make sure that members of the Sentencing Council read the record of this debate and fully understand the strong feelings in this House about having really tough sentences for these absolutely appalling and totally unacceptable offences.
I will touch briefly on the issue of equipment to support police officers because that was raised by a number of Members. I want to underline the fact that the Home Office supports chief constables in their operational decisions. This includes the funding of research on and guidance about equipment that might be helpful, including body cameras and spit hoods. I am sure we all agree, however, that the police must maintain their operational independence. It is not for the Home Office to run the police from Marsham Street. Chief constables and police and crime commissioners are accountable to the local communities they serve.
Will the Minister give way?
I am afraid that I cannot because of the time.
I want to assure the whole House of the absolute seriousness with which the Government regard assaults on police officers, as demonstrated by the better data that are going to be made available, including the new reporting announced today, through the leadership of the College of Policing. I know that chief constables will continue to do whatever they can to keep their people safe. We will enable them to work confidently to tackle the challenges of modern crime, and we will absolutely continue to support them in doing so.
It is really important to go back to what my right hon. Friend the Minister said right at the beginning of the debate: assaulting a police officer is completely unacceptable. It is indeed an assault on us all and all our society. Police officers should be able to carry out their duties without fear of assault, and anyone found guilty of such an offence can expect to face the full force of the law.
Question put (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the original words stand part of the Question.
2 November 2016
The House divided:
Question accordingly negatived.View Details
Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 31(2)), That the proposed words be there added.
Question agreed to.
The Deputy Speaker declared the main Question, as amended, to be agreed to (Standing Order No. 31(2)).
That the House notes that any assault on a police officer is unacceptable and welcomes the work of the independent Sentencing Council in producing guidelines that specifically highlight the increased seriousness of an offence committed against anyone providing a public service; further welcomes the Government’s commitment to accurately record the number of assaults on police officers in England and Wales to better understand the scale of this issue; and further notes that the Government has protected police spending in real terms over the Spending Review period.