I beg to move,
That this House has considered funding for community policing.
Policing in our communities and neighbourhoods is
“the cornerstone of the policing model in England and Wales”—
not my words, but the judgment of Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary in March this year.
Good community policing responds to the needs of local people with a consistent, visible police presence; it involves working in partnership to gain trust, gather intelligence and get to the heart of a community’s concerns, in order to prevent and fight crime. Yet cuts to community policing across our country have stretched most local police forces to their limit at a time when crime is rising significantly. My constituency has lost more than 40 police officers since May 2015, so it should not surprise us that last year, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary found that
“local policing is the area of operational policing that shows the greatest decline in performance”;
that is linked to the budget cuts. For those reasons, I feel that Ministers need to be held to account for the growing crisis in community policing.
I have three arguments to make, which I hope the Minister will address in turn. First, it is clear that crime is rising. We need to recognise that fact and act. Secondly, the falling police budgets were set before the emerging trend of rising crime took hold; the facts have changed, however, and so must police budgets. Thirdly, a good part of any significant increase in police funding must go to community policing, given its vital role as the cornerstone of policing.
First, I want to persuade the Minister to accept in this Chamber that crime is rising, and alarmingly so. There can be no dispute about recorded crime, which is up 13% in the year to June. What should worry us in particular, however, are the categories of crimes with the largest recorded rises: the rise of 19% in violent crime, of 8% in murder and manslaughter, of 26% in knife crime, of 27% in gun crime and of 19% in sexual offences. Recorded crime is what the police have to deal with, and what they have to investigate and clear up, and it drives their activity, so when Ministers counter accusations of rising crime by pointing to the crime survey, which is the other main way that we assess the level of crime, they should be careful.
While it is true that the crime survey suggests that crime last year fell, Britain’s top statisticians at the Office for National Statistics make interesting comments about how we should interpret the mixed signals from recorded crime and the crime survey. John Flatley, who heads on crime statistics and analysis for the ONS, said on the release of crime stats last month:
“Today’s figures suggest that the police are dealing with a growing volume of crime. While improvements made by police forces in recording crime are still a factor in the increase, we judge that there have been genuine increases in crime—particularly in some of the low incidence but more harmful categories.”
My right hon. Friend is making some excellent points. Will he acknowledge that the police themselves are often victims of crime? Recently I was in my local police station in Kendal; three officers were on long-term sickness because they had been sent single-handed to dangerous incidents, when normally they would have been sent as a pair. The cuts in police numbers meant that those officers could be sent only one at a time, and they are off sick as a consequence. Last year alone, 5,000 hours were lost to police sickness in Cumbria. Does he agree that that paints a picture of the police bearing the brunt of the rise in crime and the reduction in resource?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. As the number of police officers declines, they have to work overtime and, as he described, put themselves in greater danger, which is not acceptable.
When Mr Flatley, the ONS’s leading crime statistician, says
“low incidence but more harmful categories”,
he means murder. He means rape. He means knife crime. He means gun crime. Those relatively low-volume crimes—relative to, say, burglary—are poorly reported in the crime survey but reasonably well recorded by the police. In other words, it is a fact that the most serious crimes have risen steeply in incidence in the past two or three years; Ministers cannot hide from that.
The ONS makes another key policy and evidence point about the comparison between the crime survey and recorded crime: recorded crime is much better at spotting emerging trends—short-term fluctuations in crime that can easily become long-term trends if action is not taken. Police-reported crime rose by 13% in one year alone, and I hope that Ministers will not dismiss that. They need to ask themselves and their officials some deep questions about that trend, because if it continues and they wrongly dismiss it, people will pay a heavy price.
Another reason why the recent upturn in crime demands urgent action is the complexity of the rising crime we are seeing. Complexity can demand significant police resource for just one difficult crime. Counter-terrorism is the obvious example. The record spate of terrorist attacks and plots this year clearly marks a shift in terrorist activity, and the intensity of the demand that that makes on the police requires a response from Government. It is no good Ministers saying that police reserves can sort that out, as the Home Secretary claimed recently. First, some police forces have very small reserves; secondly, those with large reserves have them because they have so many unfunded and unpredictable cost pressures, from unfunded pay decisions to terrorist attacks.
The police also face other examples of similarly resource-intensive complex crimes: cyber-crime, child sexual abuse, fraud, modern slavery and human trafficking. The UK has among the highest proportions of complex reported crime in the world, demanding ever more resource, yet police resources have been cut.
I fully admit that those cuts are not new. The Prime Minister, when she was Home Secretary during the coalition, presided over cuts, which she continued after the 2015 general election. As a result, today we have nearly 17,000 fewer police officers and more than 4,500 fewer police community support officers.
A recent poll that included my local police force showed that more than 70% of officers were stressed, many citing excessive workloads because far fewer officers are on the street. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we should bear in mind the impact of the cuts on police officers, as well as on the communities they serve?
I totally agree. As my hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) said, police officers are bearing the brunt, not only because they are stretched and having to do more, working longer hours and overtime, but because they and their families are facing the impact of the cuts. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Barnsley East (Stephanie Peacock) for making that point.
Recently the chief constable of Bedfordshire police said that the funding cuts had left him without enough officers even to return 999 calls. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the situation is so serious that the Government need to look into the funding urgently, so that the police can at least attend 999 calls?
I agree strongly with the hon. Gentleman. I had an example of just such a case in my constituency recently. The gentleman concerned phoned my office because he was getting no response from 999. We answered the phone, I am delighted to say, and got on to the police. The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, and those fewer police officers and PCSOs are what the debate is about.
When we look at the history of the cuts, and the reduction in police officer numbers—over a long time, as I said; this happened during the coalition—it is worth remembering that for the first four or five years of the cuts, during the coalition, crime was falling. Crime, whether measured by recorded crime or by the crime survey, went down during the first few years of the cuts, but it is not going down now; that is the point that Ministers have to grasp and act on. Crime up and police down will not keep people safe.
I have been doing the tour in my constituency of the local area commanders, as all new MPs do. They tell me that burglary is up, especially in the south-east, but that local people do not feel that the police have the resources they need. An email I recently received from a resident in Yarnton says:
“I'm afraid the only beneficiary is the criminal and their chances of arrest are slim, the insurance companies who have to increase premiums and the Government who gains additional tax on the insurance premiums.”
Is not how local people perceive the police just as important as whether they can respond, and should we not recognise the intense resource pressures that they are under?
My hon. Friend is right in so many ways. She pointed to the issue of burglary; I have knocked on doors in my constituency, and it is the rise in burglary that has most hit people. In many ways, burglary has the largest impact on ordinary people, and it can be quite dramatic, so she is right to say that. The example I gave of the police not responding was to a burglary, and the impact that has on the fear of crime is amazing. When the police do not respond, because they are so stretched, that has an impact on people’s view of the police, and their concerns that the police are not there for them when they expect them to be. She is absolutely right to say that the public want more local police to respond to their needs and to deal with the fear of crime, but we are seeing quite the reverse.
The right hon. Gentleman’s point was about falling crime when numbers were being reduced, and about that trend apparently changing. That implies that the two are not directly linked, but surely we have to try to understand the factors causing that trend to change. Will he outline the steps that he thinks should be taken to ensure that, if we increase numbers, there is still productivity and crime is reduced?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point. To say that only police numbers are related to crime is clearly not true, and the figures that I mentioned suggest that.
It is fair to say, from looking at police budgets and how the police have reacted to this difficult time, that they are becoming more effective. In response to the recent debate on Metropolitan police funding, the Minister talked about the efficiencies that the police are already making, including through technology; the use of cameras on lapels has a good impact on reducing tensions when making arrests. In my experience, the police are being more effective and efficient, and are thinking of new ways of doing things, and of smarter and more intelligence-led policing, but we still need the officers; that is my fundamental point.
The right hon. Gentleman makes an excellent case. The demand on our police service comes not just from the increase in crime. The assessment of police resources by the National Police Chiefs Council and the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners, which was sent to the Minister, talks about non-crime demand, including increasing 999 calls, incidents involving people with mental health issues, missing persons, suicides, ambulance-related police demands where problems in the health service have an impact on them, and police demand from unexpected death in care homes. Do all those things not need to be taken into account in looking at the demands placed on our police forces?
The hon. Lady makes an excellent point. Budget cuts in social services, the health service and local authorities and the impact on youth services are all part of the picture that right hon. and hon. Members will see in their constituencies.
The police settlement of 2015 was a real-terms cut—flat cash. When a budget is frozen, the compound impact of inflation bites harder and harder over time. In other words, if the Chancellor does nothing in this Budget, we ain’t seen nothing yet.
However, the 2015 police settlement was agreed by the Prime Minister, as Home Secretary, before the emerging trend in recorded police crime really took hold, before the rise in serious violent crime, before the step change in terrorist activity and before the rise in gun and knife crime. In other words, the assumptions on which the 2015 police settlement was made were wrong. The Liberal Democrats are offering Ministers a chance to change their minds, because the facts have changed. I sincerely hope that the Home Office makes that case to the Chancellor and sets out what it would do with the extra hundreds of millions that are urgently need. The Liberal Democrats are clear that one of our top police funding priorities is more funding for community police, and we are not alone. The National Police Chiefs Council set out four clear priorities for additional funding before the Home Affairs Committee just two weeks ago, one of which is neighbourhood policing. That is because chief constables view community policing as essential to their counter-terrorist effort, because of the police’s role in helping to prevent crime and because the public expect and demand the police to be proactive and responsive.
When I came back from my enforced sabbatical from this House, I was struck by how incredibly stretched the police in my constituency are—far more than they were even just two years ago—and this picture is widespread. Liberal Democrats in Kingston upon Hull told me earlier this week that additional community police were the top priority for more than 70% of the residents whom they recently surveyed. My right hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb) told me of the shock in his constituency when it was announced that every single police and community support officer in North Norfolk was going.
We should always remember that our police do one of the toughest jobs imaginable, with courage, skill and dedication. We have seen time and again, especially in the recent terrorist outrages, that the police do not run away, but put themselves in harm’s way to defend our way of life. That imposes a heavy responsibility on all of us in this place, and especially on Ministers, to make the right calls for the police and for the public. When crime rises, especially violent and complex crime, police budgets need to rise, too, starting with those of our local community police. To do anything else in the face of that evidence is just wrong.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on his timely and important debate. I do not think that anyone would dispute its importance, given how the election and terrorist attack in Manchester focused the nation’s attention on policing, police numbers and the key priorities that we face for policing.
I want to primarily give the Suffolk perspective. When we talk about funding in Suffolk, we always talk about the way the pie is divided more than the overall pie. Whether it is school funding, early years or other areas, we seem to be a long way down the league table, and that is certainly true in police funding. The Minister will know that, because he has received a letter from the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner setting out the fact that we are one of the lowest funded police forces in England. It is not a coincidence that we inevitably compare ourselves with Norfolk, a county in many ways very similar to us. If we received the same spending as Norfolk, our budget would be up by £3.5 million per year, which is a significant sum. We receive 44p funding per day for policing compared to a national average of 50p.
The hon. Gentleman mentions Norfolk, but I wonder if he is aware of the comments from Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary about the role of PCSOs in the area. It says:
“Where dedicated local policing teams exist, too often the warranted police officers on them are routinely taken away from their local policing duties to handle immediate tasks elsewhere. That leaves police community support officers…as the mainstays of these teams.”
Is it not extraordinary, therefore, that the chief constable of Norfolk has chosen to completely disband the PCSO workforce?
I was referring to the broader pay settlement, and how the chief constable spends that is obviously his decision. I will come on specifically to PCSOs very shortly, but I think that the message from the Suffolk police and crime commissioner in particular, who came to Parliament recently to meet Suffolk MPs—unfortunately I was not able to attend—is that we want to see a fair share of funding or some very difficult decisions will have to be made.
We have to be even-handed in this. We all know the financial pressure that the country is under—there is no point pretending that we are not. The national debt is still extremely high, and despite the declining deficit, all the Office for Budget Responsibility’s public spending predictions for many years hence show that it will go only one way, partly because of changing demographics. A responsible approach would balance those things.
I am interested in parish policing—I do not call it neighbourhood policing—which is the idea that rural communities might fund their own PCSOs. I accept the point that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) made about the importance of PCSOs. I would not rationally expect the chief constable of Suffolk to take on lots of fully warranted officers to prioritise shed theft. Shed theft sounds fairly unglamorous, and it is; it is certainly not as important as terrorism or cyber-crime. However, in rural communities that suffer from it—sometimes many sheds are targeted at once—it is a cause of great concern, particularly to farmers. A farmer near my village recently had a brand new vehicle stolen from a shed. That does not sound like a headline crime, but it is distressing for the communities concerned. Realistically, the chief constable of Suffolk is not about to get his officers to prioritise that sort of crime, so we need to look at the idea of communities being able to fund their own PCSOs.
I have liaised with Suffolk constabulary about that idea. We could do it on a ward basis; parishes could come together along ward lines. It would cost £10 per voter per year—in other words less than £1 a month—for Brook ward, which is one of my largest wards, to have a dedicated PCSO. That would provide very visible policing. Parish councils commonly complain that the police no longer go along to parish meetings. When I was a district councillor in a rural ward in my constituency, the police tried to come along. They do their best, but that is obviously a big burden on their time—as it is, by the way, for district and county councillors. The point is that if we pursued a parish policing model, we would empower communities at least to have the choice to think about how they could sort this issue out themselves and have a greater police presence, in the form of someone who could prioritise matters such as shed theft and reassure rural communities.
When I was first elected, we had a spate of lead theft from churches in Suffolk. South Suffolk has some of the most beautiful churches in the country, a prime example of which is Lavenham church, where I walked on the roof to see for myself the way the lead had been stripped from it. I am pleased that there was recently a significant arrest—of a Romanian gentleman, I believe—in connection with lead theft in East Anglia, but the point is that these are specific crimes in rural communities.
My concern—I add this caveat—is that I have not detected a great deal of enthusiasm from Suffolk constabulary about communities recruiting PCSOs. One of the reasons they give for that is that they struggle themselves to recruit. We can talk about how wonderful it would be to get those extra police and so on, but as far as I can see, Suffolk police are struggling to recruit. My point is that if we had a more local focus, we could attract people to apply—people who live in and know the community—who would not apply for a more regional post.
I really have two points. I emphasise again to the Minister—I know that he has heard about it many times—the dire funding position in Suffolk relative to other counties. This is not about the overall allocation; it is about the way that allocated funds are divided. I would also be interested in his thoughts about what more can be done to allow communities to fund their own officers, who would provide reassurance and deal with lower priority crimes that the warranted force will never be able to prioritise. There are those of us who recognise the funding pressures and acknowledge that there is no magic answer, but there are reforms that can make a real difference in rural communities.
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on bringing it forward and setting the scene.
I want to bring a Northern Ireland perspective to this issue to give a flavour of what is happening elsewhere, although I know that Northern Ireland policing is not the Minister’s responsibility. I also want to back up what the right hon. Gentleman said, which I believe is correct. I will give some examples of what we are doing in Northern Ireland—or perhaps of what we are not doing in Northern Ireland; that is a better way of putting it—and thereby underline the importance of community policing.
I have always been a strong advocate of community policing. Seeing police on the beat helps people to feel safe. When a police officer is able to come to a school, youth group or event, that helps young people to create bonds of respect and appreciation, and to build up a rapport with officers. On many occasions in the past, people came to be on first name terms with officers, as I found before I came here during my time in local politics as a councillor and a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is also useful for people who are intent on doing wrong to be aware that there are police officers on the streets who are able to respond in short order. There is a twofold purpose to community policing: building up relationships and reminding people of police officers’ role.
Our local Police Service of Northern Ireland officers used to be able to attend youth groups, church groups and mums and toddlers groups, they used to be well-known figures in local residents’ associations, and they were accessible, but funding cuts have left us with a community policing team that simply does not possess the time to be part of the community. That is a central theme, which almost everyone who speaks in the debate will mention. Relationships with the local PSNI meant that more people felt able to give anonymous information. That was one of the great things about such relationships in Northern Ireland; on many occasions, young people and adults were able anonymously and confidentially to pass on information to the police that was important to catching people who were involved in criminal activity, because they knew the officers and were happy to trust them. That is one of those things that takes a bit of time to build up; it is hard to do when contact is by phone and someone is unsure about their anonymity.
There really can be no reasoned argument against community policing. The issue is not the need for community policing but how to fund it. If we revert to direct rule—there is the spectre of that happening, if I may use that terminology—the general issue of police funding in Northern Ireland may well be before us all soon. Back in May, the news was full of reports that the PSNI was to lose 238 officers over the next two years due to severe budget cuts of £20 million. We cannot ignore the financial reality.
To give an example of how that issue was portrayed, one news article stated that those cuts are the equivalent of the annual cost of all the region’s neighbourhood policing teams. Why did the newspaper mention the issue in that way? It was because people needed to understand the impact. Every one of us in Northern Ireland and, I suspect, across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland understands what a neighbourhood or community policing team is and the presence and availability that it provides on the ground. Community policing is vital to most people. Funding cuts that mean less community policing get a reaction in the media and across the board. It was therefore important for the media back home to give that explanation.
The number of officers in Northern Ireland will drop by 138 in the next year to 6,700, and the resilience level will fall to 6,600 the following year. That is in direct opposition to the review of police strength in 2014 that concluded that a minimum of 7,000 officers were needed for a resilient and effective PSNI. The community policing team will be the first thing to go; community police will feel the brunt early on. It is easy to say that we should do away with them or cut their numbers without knowing the full implications of doing so.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) referred to the need for officers who are able to respond to rural theft. My community has a mixture of urban and rural areas, but I live in a rural area, so I understand the issues of agricultural and rural crime. The crime prevention officers in my constituency have a good scheme for marking vehicles such as tractors. He might suggest that traceability method to his police, if he has not done so already. That has been effective in my constituency, and other Members might consider it if they do not already have it.
I am blessed in my constituency with a fantastic police team who seek to attend the meetings they are called to and who seek to build rapport, but all too often I am told, “Jim, I simply don’t have the manpower to attend, but please let me know how the meeting goes and what the outcome is, and then I can respond to that.” I do not believe for a second that officers cannot be bothered to attend an annual general meeting of a community group; they just are not able to. That does not foster good relations. Too many communities feel ignored and unable to access police help and guidance. That alienation means that there is less possibility of compromise in scenarios where there is tension, and more communities feel that they have to take things into their own hands. I am not sure whether that scenario occurs on the mainland, but in some of my communities in Northern Ireland it sometimes falls to others to take action. I do not condone or support that in any way, but people are frustrated whenever things are not seen to happen.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point that in many ways goes to the heart of the debate. Of course we do not want people to start resorting to vigilante action, but that is what can happen when we face the loss of legitimacy of community policing. It is deeply worrying, and he is right to raise it.
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. She understands the point clearly and what can happen whenever police are not available to respond in the way that perhaps they should.
The people who are losing out are the police officers, who want to do what they are capable of doing in the communities but are prevented from doing so, to the detriment of all. While this debate is specific to England and Wales, it is clear that community policing does work if it is funded and allowed to work. The situation in Northern Ireland shows that.
Ms Dorries, I am conscious that you are looking at me in relation to time, so I will try to come to a conclusion as quickly as I can. To bring us back to England and Wales, I read a report that highlighted that the police workforce has reduced by some 36,800, with workforce reductions ranging from 23% in Cleveland to 1% in Surrey. It is clear that, no matter what the postcode, the sweeping cuts must be reconsidered. The cuts are not sustainable and cannot continue.
While we must cut our cloth to suit our needs, and I am all for trimming the fat, the cuts are not trimming the fat or the excess of the cloth; they are comparable to making a hat with no head covering. For me, as someone who is follicly challenged, it would be a great disappointment to have a hat with nothing on the top. A police force that has no community links does not possess the ability to police properly.
Quite simply, with respect, I ask the Minister that the matter be looked at. I will continue to address the issue with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, as I have in the past. It is a matter of ring-fencing additional funding both on the mainland and in Northern Ireland. For the safety and security not only of the community but of the police officers themselves, I urge the Minister to pledge to undertake a real and serious review of community policing funding as a matter of urgency.
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on arranging the debate. I want to make a couple of points because the debate is timely, given the approach of the autumn Budget in a couple of weeks’ time.
In the west midlands, our police force has lost £145 million in real terms from its budget since 2010. That has resulted in a loss of 2,000 police officers and a further loss of a considerable number of civilian non-uniformed policing staff. Crime in the region is up 14% in the latest figures, and some crimes are up by more than that. Burglary is up 31% and car crime by a similar amount, all at a time when the country is having to cope with a significant terrorism threat, which requires significant police resources.
The effect of all that is obvious, deep and profound. If people do not feel safe in their community, on their streets or in their homes, they are not free to go about their lives. Fear of crime destroys liberty. Nor does it apply equally: lower-income communities and people on lower incomes suffer the most, because they do not have the options available to some wealthier citizens. They cannot live in a gated community. They do not have the option sometimes of moving to a more expensive property, perhaps in an area with lower crime levels. Crime is therefore an issue not just of safety but of liberty and of equality, too. That is why we should be deeply concerned at the juxtaposition of falling police numbers and rising crime, which is what the country now faces.
I want to stress my support for what the right hon. Gentleman has just said. It is an argument that is not heard enough that policing and police resourcing is an issue about social justice and freedom. We have to make that argument, because whether it is the newspapers, the House or the establishment, there is not an understanding of the significance of extra police in our communities for the poorest and most vulnerable in our communities.
I wholeheartedly agree with the right hon. Gentleman. As I said, this is an issue of liberty and it is an issue of equality, too. I want to make an obvious political point. Let us imagine the roles were reversed here and we had a Labour Government presiding over a huge cut in police numbers and a significant rise in crime. Do we honestly think that Conservative Members would be saying, “It’s got nothing to do with police numbers”? I do not think so. I know that opposition can do strange things to a political party and the conclusions it sometimes reaches, but so too can government make Government Members—particularly Back-Bench Members—end up defending the indefensible.
It is simply indefensible to continue with police cuts after what we have had in the past seven years, in the light of both the terrorism threat and now the recorded crime figures showing the rises that I have set out in the west midlands. I want to use today to make my appeal to the Minister to consult with the Chancellor, to say, “Enough is enough.” Cuts in policing have gone too far. They are affecting people’s liberties, and it is an issue of equality, too. We want to see fair funding for police forces right around the country so that we can give the community both the visible presence and the real protection against crime that they deserve.
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on bringing this important debate forward. I will try to keep my comments concise. I want to look specifically at community policing in Scotland and draw a few comparisons with the rest of the UK. As many Members will know, policing is a devolved issue in Scotland, but that does not mean that we should not consider how policing is handled in Scotland, draw conclusions and perhaps pull out a few lessons from Scotland for other parts of the United Kingdom.
As many Members have already said, community policing is an effective way of tackling antisocial behaviour. It helps to build community relationships through officers’ visits to schools, local businesses and local community groups, and it means that police officers are not a faceless voice of authority when dealing with troubled people in our communities. They are known, they know the individuals and their backgrounds, and they can often recommend a more informed course of action than many centralised or unknown police forces. Crucially, as has been stated, we can steer away from having a police force controlled by politicians many miles away.
In Scotland, we used to have eight regional police forces, which were centralised into one: Police Scotland. Sometimes, centralisation does make sense. When we are looking at issues of national security—we have touched on terrorism—we need to co-operate across the entire country, so a centralised force makes sense. That is also right in transport, with the British Transport police—it is important that we do not change forces at certain parts of the country when trying pursue a criminal from one area to the next. However, it is far less effective when we are talking about policing in our towns and villages, especially in rural constituencies such as mine. In Ochil and South Perthshire, I have a number of small towns and villages, which require a car and a fair bit of journey time between each. Therefore, having local officers who know the towns and streets is very important.
A lot of the people and officers who work in Police Scotland are very hard-working, as I am sure they are in other parts of the United Kingdom. They give their best, working under stressed conditions, and they have to deal with many difficult situations on a regular basis. However, since the centralisation of Police Scotland, it has unfortunately faced a number of high-level blunders. There have been address mix-ups, especially when it came to the closure of the Aberdeen control centre. There was also a horrific incident near my constituency where a call handling error left a couple in a car wreck on the side of the M9 for three days. That is not acceptable.
When Police Scotland started out, it had the Strathclyde model—it was very centralised—and I am pleased that gradually we are moving back towards more of a community-based model. However, it has not been embraced quite as fully as some community policing measures have been down in England and Wales. We have heard examples of where that is effective.
A couple of weeks ago I had the great fortune of accompanying two officers in Clackmannanshire, which is part of my community. I shadowed them on a Friday evening, and we walked through the high-street in Alloa and the estates in the Hillfoots, and I was able to see at first hand some of the challenges that they face, and some of the issues that blight our communities. Some of those issues are more extreme, such as the increase in knife crime, but others include lighting and the use of CCTV, where through underfunding—that is not necessarily all the Scottish Government; it is local government as well—some of our CCTV cameras are not working in the town centres, and police officers do not have the support and coverage that they require when dealing with situations, especially on a Friday night.
One major cause of crime, certainly in my constituency, is mental ill health. Again, community policing can help with that—this does not need to be a devolved or centralised matter, and it is probably something that colleagues across the United Kingdom will experience. In almost every situation that we encountered on that Friday night, whether talking to young people or attending incidents in residential flats, it came back to issues of mental ill health. When I asked the officers whom I was lucky enough to be accompanying, they told me time and again that the biggest cause of crime was mental ill health.
Mental ill health was not just the cause of crime; it also had a knock-on effect on community policing because of resource restrictions in the area. If a person who has committed a crime has mental health issues, they might require some form of medical treatment, and the officer will have to accompany them to the local hospital, taking the officer off the beat for two to four hours that evening. Mental ill health is an enormous issue, and I encourage the Minister—I would be more than happy to engage with colleagues in the Scottish Government and in Westminster—to consider what we can do for community policing across the whole United Kingdom to try to improve mental health services and prevent crime, and to consider how we can help the treatment of mental ill health once a crime has been committed so that we do not put a further drain on frontline police forces in our communities.
One of the downsides of centralisation as part of Police Scotland is that there are now no local cells in Clackmannanshire or Stirling. Police officers in my patch have to go to Falkirk to take someone to a cell, and if they have to queue that takes them off the beat for a considerable time. On a busy night—we were out on Halloween weekend, although I was not dressed up—with eight to 10 officers out for the evening, if one or two had to take someone to the cells or deal with a mental health issue, the rest of the team was put under significant pressure.
Community policing is incredibly important. It is not just about money—I know a lot of colleagues in England and Wales are facing money constraints, but in Scotland the block grant has gone up by £612 million in real terms—it is about choices. The SNP Administration in Edinburgh chose to centralise all police forces into one. They were warned about the impact that would have, and the fact that a centralised police force would incur VAT payments, but they still went ahead and did it. That took upwards of £25 million from Police Scotland. Instead of focusing on community policing as we should, they are fast-tracking the scrapping of the British Transport Police which, as I said at the beginning of my speech, is one area where centralisation and co-operation across our country is incredibly important.
As I have said, I have seen community policing first hand with officers in my constituency, and as colleagues have said, it is incredibly important and must be correctly resourced. However, this is not just about money; it is about where the police forces put the resources. I hope that we can work together as MPs, MSPs and councillors to find solutions that ensure not only the right frontline resources, but the right policies to look at the causes of crime, especially those involving mental ill health.
Since 2010, Avon and Somerset police has had to make drastic savings in services, including £65 million of cuts and the resulting loss of more than 600 officers. The way it has dealt with that challenge has been exceptional and is to be commended. Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has judged Avon and Somerset to be “outstanding” at understanding demand and delivering efficiencies, and it has done all it can to try to cope with the level of cuts that has been imposed. It has tried to innovate where asked, and to make all the back-office savings required. Despite a strict curb on pay increases, police officers and staff have shown tremendous resilience, professionalism and commitment in carrying out a really tough job in increasingly difficult circumstances.
In a major conurbation such as the Bristol area, sometimes even the strictest financial planning can be disrupted. All too often we have major traffic incidents on motorways around Bristol, which require a substantial clean-up and a huge amount of police time. Tragic cases, such as the murder of my constituent, Becky Watts, involve a long police investigation, and obviously a lot of police time. The volatile nature of police work sometimes makes it difficult for the police to plan financially, but nevertheless they have managed to cope with that.
Avon and Somerset police has been impressive in the way it has dealt with these challenges, and that adds a lot of credibility and weight to the concerns raised by Sue Mountstevens, the police and crime commissioner, and Andy Marsh, the chief constable, in their recently published report, “The Tipping Point”. The force is now being asked to make another £17 million of cuts by 2022, which is the equivalent of another 300 officers. The report states that that is simply unsustainable without extremely serious consequences. They are stating clearly to the Government that their ability to prevent harm, keep the public safe, protect the vulnerable, and respond to escalating threat levels depends on having enough resources to do so. Having done all they can to try to manage within tight budgets, they cannot go on like this.
We have heard from other speakers about the more complex problems facing police services across the country, with new priorities such as tackling child sexual exploitation, modern slavery, and technological advances that provide new challenges. I recently spoke to the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner about the huge rise in online fraud. That is not easy to police and often requires a great deal of expertise. We also have the ever-present threat of terror and the need to keep us safe. The way that police work is conducted has changed.
I pay tribute to the police’s recent efforts to highlight modern slavery in the Bristol area. Police officers were ridiculed on the front page of The Sun for wearing bright blue nail polish in an effort to draw attention to the fact that many young people in nail bars are being exploited, but that was important and a good example of community policing, and as a result, people have been arrested. Serious work is also being done on female genital mutilation. We have not yet seen a prosecution, which is sad, but it involves a lot of outreach work and knowing communities, and communities being able to trust the police enough to go to them and say what is going on.
The problem is that most people’s experience of policing now is a less visible police presence, an inadequate response to less serious crimes, and in many cases, the closure of their local police station. I am concerned that we are seeing a real erosion of community policing as we understand it, but it is a core part of how policing works. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) said, this is about people trusting and feeling safe in their communities, feeling valued and protected, and knowing where they can go to voice their concerns.
In the past, some communities have had strained relationships with the police, and we cannot underestimate the value of community policing. I do not represent the area of St Pauls, which saw riots in Bristol many years ago in the early 1980s. However, I know how important it is for community policing to be visible and proactive in that area, and police and community support officers have played a crucial role in that.
In conclusion, in “The Tipping Point”, the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable stated that the situation is simply unsustainable and will have extremely serious consequences. They have written to the Home Office, but they were not happy with the response, which pretty much just outlined the current financial situation. I urge the Minister to listen to them.
It is good to see a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament in the Chair, Ms Dorries. Bedfordshire Members from all parties have always worked together, under Labour, coalition and Conservative Governments, to stick up for Bedfordshire police; and I hope that we shall carry on doing that.
For many years, Bedfordshire police were adversely affected by what the Home Office called damping. That meant that they got between £3 million and £4 million a year less than the Government’s funding formula said they should receive. Bedfordshire is in the lowest quartile, for both budget and officers per head of population, of all police forces in England and Wales. It also has one of the smallest budgets in England and Wales, at £102 million. As a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament, I am not happy that residents of Hertfordshire and the Thames valley area receive higher levels of protection and response from their police forces than the people of Bedfordshire get from theirs.
In meetings over the years, we have met five, six or perhaps seven different police officers, and you have commented in the past that I make the same speech every time, Ms Dorries. I am frankly getting tired of wasting my breath. Enough is enough as far as the people of Bedfordshire are concerned; things are getting serious. Comparing the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 August 2017 with the same period for the previous year, there was a 48.9% increase in the number of burglaries of residential homes and dwellings in Bedfordshire. That is a massive increase. There has been a 24% increase in the number of calls to the police requiring immediate response by officers, and a 12.2% increase in crime. On the increase in calls requiring immediate response, a businessman in Leighton Buzzard was recently threatened with a metal bar, but when he called 999 no officers were able to attend. As the Member of Parliament I am not happy for that situation to continue in my area.
As I mentioned in an earlier intervention, the Bedfordshire police chief has said that he does not have enough officers to attend 999 calls. In his interview with The Daily Telegraph he also mentioned that he does not have enough officers to protect children and vulnerable adults. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Ministers need urgently to look into the funding of Bedfordshire police? If we do not do something about it, the people of Bedfordshire will really suffer.
I am grateful to my county colleague for his points, and would simply return to my point that the effect of damping on Bedfordshire police—the £3 million to £4 million every year that the Government’s formula said we should get, but which we have never received—has come home to roost in an ugly and unacceptable way.
Something I want to say to the people of Bedfordshire is that a couple of years ago we all had the opportunity to do something about the situation, because we had a vote to increase the police precept. I voted for it, because I want more officers on the streets, and I know that it must be paid for. I do not want to go over ancient history, but unfortunately the vote was probably not put to the people in the best way, as they were charged and then asked for permission. I do not think that people liked that; we were not able to get things the right way round. However, I voted for it, and if the vote had gone through there would be more funding for Bedfordshire police, and more officers. To be fair, I think that the people of Bedfordshire need to think about that, should the opportunity come around again. In Leighton Buzzard, at the police station that we used to have, many more sergeants and officers than now used to be based there on a regular basis; yet we are all paying more tax as a nation.
In 2011-12 there were 1,264 police officers in Bedfordshire. There are now 1,124. That is a decrease of 140. We used to have 128 police community support officers; we now have 53. That is a decrease of 75. There used to be 864 police staff; there are now 758. That is a decrease of 106. We need to remember the stresses on police officers. There is burn-out and real strain; and people leave the force as a result. I give credit to our current police and crime commissioner, Kathryn Holloway; in her project of boosting the frontline, she managed to get an extra 96 officers on to the streets last year, and another 100 this year. That is the right thing to do.
I want to tell the Government, however, that things are serious. A few days ago, I saw that they had allocated £5 million for a 100th anniversary celebration. The event in question is worthy, and I am not quibbling as to its worth. However, I should like the Minister to take the message to the Treasury that we are now in an era of hard choices. I am sure that the anniversary is worth while; but the £5 million is half of the £10 million that Bedfordshire police need. Other colleagues present would fight me for it, and of course there must be a rational and fair way of allocating sums; but in an era of hard choices, when we need money for frontline police forces, can we really afford £5 million to celebrate a centenary, however worthy it may be? I should say that we cannot; we need to put the money where it is really needed.
We have wonderful officers. I want in particular to give credit to Inspector Craig Gurr. He is a terrier on behalf of my constituents, and I rate him highly. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) about the efficiency of officers. A few years ago Bedfordshire police were one of the first forces to issue officers with BlackBerrys. I remember hearing from the chief constable and the Police Minister at the time that issuing those BlackBerrys led to a 12.5% increase in the time that each officer could spend on the streets. Of course efficiency and productivity are important. However, the figures show that recorded crime is rising in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis. I am also well aware of the crime that isolated rural communities face; so I welcome the new rural crime force that our current commissioner has brought in.
I shall return to this issue, because I have a half-hour Adjournment debate on the funding of Bedfordshire police on Monday evening, when I shall expand at further length on their needs. However, I am grateful for today’s opportunity to stand up for my constituents.
I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) for bringing the debate to the Chamber this morning. I pay tribute to my local community police in Partick and Drumchapel police stations, who work together with police across Glasgow to get to know the communities, and attend community council meetings and local events. That is all about building relationships, which is important in dealing with local issues.
The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton painted a picture of rising crime and budget cuts, and some Conservative Members seemed to suggest that possibly those two things are not linked. I think there is probably a delay: when budgets are cut it takes time for crime to build up, and when they are reinstated it will take time for it to disappear. I suggest that something must happen now if we want a reduction in crime over the next 10 years. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned violent crimes and high levels of complex crime, and the fact that many police forces in England and Wales are stretched operationally.
The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) talked about parish policing, which is an important point. Across the UK there are many diverse communities and one size certainly does not fit all. An urban police force will not have the same expertise in particular areas as a police force in his constituency, or indeed in many areas of rural Scotland. It is important that communities are not defined necessarily by geographical boundaries but by the demographic issues particular to them.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) mentioned that budget cuts have meant that the Police Service of Northern Ireland is less able to attend the community events that I have already spoken about. He also talked about the importance, especially in Northern Ireland, of members of the public being able to pass on information confidentially and the fact that relationships had to exist for that to take place: we all understand the seriousness of that. He mentioned that dropping police numbers were affecting police resilience and wanted to see some ring-fencing of police budgets to ensure there was no further erosion in that area.
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) talked about the massive budget cuts in the West Midlands, coupled with massive cuts to the number of officers on the beat. I think he mentioned a figure of 2,000 officers being cut. He made an important point about the fear of crime that some people experience and how that affects their liberty, especially in less affluent areas. That is something we can all understand. In possibly one of the best points of the debate so far, he also asked what would happen if the tables were turned, his party were in government and the Government were in opposition. That certainly made a number of hon. Members sit up and think, so I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that.
I was surprised to hear the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) start with some positive comments about Police Scotland; that was good. I am also glad that the police have now shown him around his constituency. However, he struggled to stay positive, and started to get caught up in minutiae. I will talk a little more about the picture in Scotland—
I was not referring to that particular incident. We can all agree that that was a failure, and obviously bereaved families were left extremely upset and angry about that particular incident.
The hon. Gentleman made some good points about local and community police dealing with the challenges of mental health, and how that took them out of action for a period of time. That is very important work that they do. He also mentioned that he did not see centralisation as a success in Scotland. I argue that the centralisation in Scotland has brought the crime rate down to its lowest level in 43 years, and I would say that is a massive success.
The hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) talked about how Avon and Somerset police have made all possible efficiency savings and are now finding that their ability to keep the public safe is in jeopardy. That is a serious claim, but from listening to other hon. Members I think it is one we can all accept and understand. The hon. Lady also mentioned the great work that Avon and Somerset police were doing on dealing with modern slavery and raising issues on female genital mutilation.
The hon. Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) talked about damping and how Bedfordshire is now in the lowest quartile for budget and officer numbers. I think he quoted a figure of a 48.9% increase in burglaries, which is deeply concerning. He also made an important point about the operational stress on the remaining officers, and the increased pressure that that puts on them.
In Scotland, we are committed to supporting our police service and have protected the police budget in real terms. We have also committed £61 million to support the transformation of the service. The Scottish Government have set out strategic policing priorities, which seek to strengthen the focus on community policing. I have said that we are reaping the benefits of that in Scotland. We have 1,000 additional officers in Scotland since 2007, and recorded crime is the lowest that it has been in 43 years—a great success story. Of course, there is always more we can do but, crucially, people in Scotland feel safer and police officers are visible out and about in the local community.
I was pleased that the hon. Member for Ochil and South Perthshire raised the fact that Police Scotland is the only authority in the UK that is unable to recover VAT on its expenses. That is something that we have been pushing for, and I hope we will see some shift from the Government on that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I too congratulate the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey) on securing the debate. I concur with him and with my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) that policing and tackling crime are fundamental issues of social justice and equality. People are far more likely to be victims of crime if they are poor, an ethnic minority or living in a vulnerable community.
Crime and antisocial behaviour can make people feel under siege in their community. We cannot tackle, prevent, investigate or bring to justice offenders without a robust, well-resourced neighbourhood policing presence, as we have heard clearly today. If we speak to chief constables and policing leaders across the country, as I have done, they tell us exactly that. The model for policing in this country was developed on that basis, and it makes us the envy of the world.
Is that not precisely why the very people my hon. Friend talks about—police chiefs and police and crime commissioners—write:
“The legitimacy of policing is at risk as the relationship with communities that underpins all activity is fading to a point where prevention, early intervention and core engagement that fosters feelings of safety are at risk of becoming ineffective”?
Is that not precisely why we need today’s debate, and why we need the Minister to respond to their calls for extra funding?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The neighbourhood policing model, which I will come on to, is not just a “nice to have”. It is a fundamental component of our policing model in this country. It is therefore completely disingenuous for the previous Home Secretary, now the Prime Minister, to tell the police that their only job is going out there and reducing and attacking crime. The police do much more than that, as I will come on to shortly. Our police, and our police staff, who are often excluded from the debate around police officers, are the eyes and ears of the fight against crime and terrorism. Neighbourhood policing is an irreplaceable component in the battle to keep our communities safe and prevent crime.
Norfolk has been mentioned a couple of times. Other police forces across the country looked on in horror as Norfolk announced that it would be abolishing every single one of its police community support officers in the new year. I hope that Norfolk will look to examples such as my force in South Yorkshire, which merged neighbourhood policing with response two years ago, effectively abolishing it. It now has to divert resources away from response and restore neighbourhood policing because of the disastrous effect of abolishing it. The police chief and police and crime commissioner did that without consultation. Does the Minister think it is appropriate for such a major change to a police force, and such a divergence from a police and crime plan, to happen without consultation? It sets a dangerous precedent for changes to other forces.
As we have heard, crime is up. The crimes that most concern the public are once again on the rise: knife crime, gun crime and all violent crime are up, as is acquisitive crime. What angers us is that all of that was foreseeable and foreseen. If we look across Europe, only three other countries chose to cut their police force by proportionately more than we did. Two of those—Lithuania and Iceland—were reeling from chaotic and deep depressions. It was a political choice to preside over the erosion of neighbourhood policing, and when the police raised the alarm, it was a political choice to attack them for crying wolf, rather than listening to their legitimate concerns.
Only last week, we saw the Home Secretary castigating policing leaders for problems she had created, accusing them of not grounding requests for additional resources in evidence. As we have heard, there is a wealth of evidence. The country’s top counter-terror officer, Mark Rowley, told the Home Affairs Committee that there had been a 30% uplift in counter-terror work. He said that with the huge growth in the number of investigations,
“frankly…we have a bigger proportion of our investigations that are at the bottom of the pile and getting little or no work at the moment.”
It is not enough to say that funding has gone into counter-terrorism, because as we know, for every £1 spent on the Met’s counter-terror budget, £2 has to be spent by that police force on mobilising officers. On top of that, there is an £85 million funding shortfall in the armed officer uplift that the Prime Minister promised the Government would cover, which means that forces are picking up 50% of that cost. Is that the kind of evidence that the Home Secretary was looking for?
How about the document written by the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners and the National Police Chiefs Council, which my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) mentioned, and which laid bare the perilous state of neighbourhood policing in this country? Does the Minister accept that the funding settlement means accepting “higher risk for communities” and
“a reduction in the services resilience to cope with major emergencies”?
Will the Minister confirm, as the document laid out, that proactive crime prevention policing is down 25% on the last year alone; that local policing is fading to the point where it is ineffective, due to degradation in local intelligence collection; and that emergency 999 systems are failing too often? When exactly were Ministers planning to tell the public that the funding settlement risks a further 6,000 police officers being cut over the next three years?
The Minister knows the pressures the police are under; he has exactly the same conversations as I do. We have heard this morning about a wide range of forces— from large forces to smaller, rural ones—having record 999 and 101 calls, record levels of unsolved crimes and record mental health and missing persons call-outs. I was a special constable in the London Borough of Lambeth just five years ago, and policing has already changed drastically from what I experienced on the frontline.
As hon. Members have said, the facts have changed since the last budget settlement was agreed. It is time for the budget to change as well. Before the Minister responds and tells us that the police are sitting on reserves of £1.6 billion, £1.7 billion or £1.8 billion—it depends on which side of the bed he gets out of in the morning—will he take this opportunity to correct the record and confirm that, for all 43 forces across the country, just £363 million is genuinely usable and is not earmarked for capital spending? Will he also take the opportunity to tell us what models of local policing he has seen work across the country, and how important he sees neighbourhood policing as being to the fundamental British model of policing?
As I have said, neighbourhood policing is not just nice to have; it is vital to our policing system. It underpins the police’s ability to police by consent. It is almost wholly responsible for building and maintaining relationships with communities, and if we reduce our police to nothing more than a blue light that arrives only when the absolute worst has happened, we risk rolling back all the progress that has been made in police accountability and trust over the last generation. We have heard about the erosion of trust in officers and the police if they do not turn up when something as serious as a residential burglary—one of the most invasive and intrusive crimes someone can fall victim to—happens.
Finally, I refer to comments made to the House less than two weeks ago by the Policing Minister:
“we will…ensure that the police have the resources they need to do the job”.—[Official Report, 25 October 2017; Vol. 630, c. 132WH.]
We have heard categorically that the police do not have the resources they need to do their job. Will the Minister finally take this opportunity to announce that we will see an end to real-terms funding cuts, which have left our communities exposed?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Ms Dorries. I join others in congratulating the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Sir Edward Davey), not only on securing the debate but on framing it in a typically thoughtful way.
I start by completely agreeing with the right hon. Gentleman about the importance of community policing. As constituency MPs, we all know what matters to our constituents. He quoted Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary. I thought Matthew Scott, the police and crime commissioner for Kent, put it very well:
“Neighbourhood policing is fundamental to delivering policing in the county. By focusing on local problem solving, together with partners and local communities, it improves the quality of life within those communities, helps keep people safe, and importantly builds public confidence and trust.”
The right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) also made the connection between local policing and the counter-terrorism effort, and he was right to do so.
Neighbourhood policing matters enormously, and I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that it is obviously under a great deal of pressure at the moment. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) made a powerful case on behalf of Bedfordshire, which I know you will have listened to carefully, Ms Dorries. His example of Leighton Buzzard was powerful. The system is under a great deal of pressure. As the shadow Minister pointed out, we have a devolved system, so these are local decisions about how to allocate inevitably finite resources in very difficult circumstances.
However, I have to say to colleagues that, having just completed an exercise of speaking to or visiting every single one of the 43 forces in England and Wales, I am struck by the degree to which police and crime commissioners and police chiefs are absolutely determined to keep the community policing model as core business, as it were, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in saluting Kathryn Holloway’s work in Bedfordshire. However, as a London MP, I am also pleased to note that the Met, in its business plan for 2017-18, states it will ring-fence 1,700 officers to neighbourhood policing, providing two officers and one police community support officer to all 629 wards.
It is also striking how much creativity police chiefs and PCCs are showing to challenge and redefine the local policing community model under very difficult circumstances. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) had some interesting ideas about parish policing, and across the system forces are looking again at the model. For example, Durham has had success in blending safeguarding teams with neighbourhood teams. The inspector rated Durham “outstanding” for effectiveness and efficiency, and noted that
“Neighbourhood policing remains the hub of the constabulary's problem-solving activity”.
There is a huge amount of effort across the system to maintain and improve the community policing model.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton that the system is very stretched, but I do not think it is broken. The local police chiefs, in my conversations with them, have made that point: they are very concerned about sustainability and stretch—that is very clear—but no one is saying this model is broken at this point.
I believe that the Bedfordshire police chief has written to the Minister and other Ministers, and has also met them. He is really concerned that the system in Bedfordshire is not working, and he is worried about the safety of people in Bedfordshire. Will the Minister urgently look into the funding of Bedfordshire police and meet the chief constable again?
I have been to Bedford, been on patrol in Bedford, sat down with the police chief and have had numerous conversations with the police and crime commissioner. I assure the people of Bedfordshire that the case for its policing is well understood, as it has been for years; my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has been a tireless champion of this cause.
The context has changed. My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk reminded the House that we are still in an environment in which public finances remain constrained; we know the reality of that and so do the police chiefs. This is what we have to manage our way through. However, we are also in a situation in which the operating context has changed in a striking way in recent years. The right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton is right that demand on the police has risen, but it has also shifted. As the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton South East mentioned, we have seen the escalation of the terrorist threat.
We have also seen a big increase in digitally enabled crime and increases in areas of high complexity, where frankly, as a society, we are now at long last turning over the stones. On modern slavery, sexual abuse and domestic violence, people are at long last coming forward, which we should welcome, but it means increased demands on police time in areas of greater complexity and required resource. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) said, an increasing amount of police time is being spent safeguarding the vulnerable, particularly those on the mental health spectrum.
That is the reality of modern policing that we must be sensitive and tuned to in this House, and it raises some powerful questions. First, are the Government on top of emerging crime? I could take the House in painstaking detail through all the new laws on knife crime, domestic violence and modern slavery. I am proud of what we are doing to try to stay on top of emerging crime, particularly in some of the murky areas where what we find when the stone is turned is very alarming in terms of the reality of life, particularly in some of our great cities. For example, I saw yesterday the statistics on modern slavery in Manchester, and they were very powerful.
In terms of what Government can do through regulation and law, I think we are on top of emerging crime. We have to ask ourselves whether the police have the resources they need, which I will turn to, but we also have, on behalf of the taxpayer, to continue to be rigorous in pushing the police and asking, “Are you making the best use of the resources you’ve got?” That is not just about efficiency. Police have done an incredibly impressive job over years on taking out unnecessary cost, but HMIC is very clear that there is more to go for, through procurement and collaboration. There is still opportunity.
There are questions about demand management and workforce planning, but there are also tough questions about whether we are really embracing the full power of technology, which can be transformational. I have seen in Lincolnshire and Surrey, and I saw yesterday in Manchester, the power of mobile working, game-changing technology such as body-worn video and changes to operating systems that give police much better information and therefore the scope to make better decisions. Those are areas where we will continue to probe and push the police and support them in their capability-building, to stay on top of this change.
In relation to resources, which is the focus of the debate, the reality is that this year, the taxpayer will be investing just over £11 billion in our police system, through direct force funding. That is an increase of just over £100 million on 2015. The way that that money shakes down is that some of it is held at the centre for strategic investment through vehicles such as the police transformation fund, where the taxpayer invests to upgrade the capability of the police and to fund innovation. Avon and Somerset police were a recent beneficiary of that funding, I am delighted to say.
I am listening carefully to what the Minister is saying. Would the Home Office consider having a look at what the Department for Education did in managing to take quite a lot of money from the central functions of the Department and get it out on to the frontline? I do not know if there is scope to do that in the Home Office, but it would be hugely welcome.
I will return to that.
We invest strategically from the centre. We have a system of 43 individual police forces. It makes sense to have a strategic investment capability to invest in things that can have an impact across the system, and we must continue to invest in innovation, not least given the context we are dealing with. The settlement at the moment is flat cash for all police forces. We recognise, as I have said publicly, that demand has grown and is changing. We are also extremely sensitive to the strain that the police are under. This is a can-do organisation that is saying, “We are very concerned about stretch and sustainability.” I have heard that directly from police commissioners and cops.
Flat cash is flat cash, which means there are cost pressures that police forces have to absorb, and I will come back to that. However, there is no getting away from the fact that the overall amount of money that taxpayers are investing in the police system has grown, not shrunk.
May I push the Minister on the difference between what the crime survey and police recorded crime are telling us and the lessons that he, as a Minister, is drawing from that? I sought to argue in my contribution that there is a real concern that the previous trend of declining crime that we saw for quite a number of years has changed. If it has, that demands that this House and this Government change policy.
I could not have been clearer in my remarks; demand on the police has grown. We have two sets of data, which is sometimes confusing. We track people’s experience of crime through the crime survey. That shows a long-term decline in people’s experience of crime, which I hope every Member will welcome. In terms of police recorded crime, which is trying to capture something different, we are seeing an increase. Part of that is a genuine increase in crime, which I totally accept, as the Office for National Statistics does. Part of it—I know the right hon. Gentleman will welcome this—is people feeling more comfortable to come forward about crime, particularly in some of the murky, difficult, complex and often tragic areas, and police getting more effective at recording crime. It is confusing. People’s experience of crime is down, according to the official survey that has run for many years, but recorded crime is up. There are two sets of data trying to do different things.
I want to address the point about stretch. Whenever I visit a police force, I have a meeting with frontline officers, and the message from those officers could not be clearer: they feel extremely stretched. They are working very hard under very difficult circumstances indeed. As I say, the fact that that message is coming out of a can-do organisation means we have to listen to it.
That is why we are conducting a demand and resilience review, led by myself. I will be visiting or speaking to every single force in England and Wales. The review will update our understanding of demand and how it is being managed, the implications of flat cash force by force and the strategy for reserves, which are public money. The last audited numbers in 2016 showed reserves of £1.8 billion. That figure is now down a bit, to perhaps around £1.6 billion, but it is still public money, and we need to know the plans for it.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will not, because I want to finish my remarks.
That review will be assessed in parallel with the fair funding review that colleagues will have tracked and that is of particular interest to Suffolk, Bedfordshire and other counties that feel they have been on the wrong end of the allocation in recent years. It will come together as a piece of analysis and work with the provisional grant report and provisional settlement for 2018-19, which I expect to come to the House before the year end.
I would like to assure colleagues who are concerned about whether the Government are listening to the messages from their local police chiefs and police and crime commissioners that we feel strongly that we have to take decisions based on evidence, not assertion, and that is feeding into the review. We owe that to the taxpayer. We are determined to ensure that the police have the resources and the support they need, without giving up on the challenge we have to give them to ensure they are using that money in the most effective way.
For this Government, as for any Government, public safety is the No. 1 priority. I assure the House that in the work we are doing, we are determined to ensure that hard-working police forces up and down the country doing incredibly difficult work under very difficult and often dangerous circumstances have the support they need. With that, I close, in order that the right hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton can conclude.
I thank all Members who have contributed to the debate. The Minister will have heard concern from Members on both sides and from the grassroots and our constituencies that this is having a real impact on people’s lives and our communities. He will also have heard that there is huge support for the model of community policing; and, to be fair to the Minister, he acknowledged that.
Many of us have listened to the Minister over many years in different guises, and we know his support for strong, healthy communities. I end the debate by saying that community policing is fundamental to that strength. I saw in my constituency the impact that more investment in community policing had on tackling low-level crime and antisocial behaviour, helping on the estates, driving out serious crime and being really strong against the drug pushers and so on who make the lives of some of our constituents a misery. Community policing is a fundamental part of what this House, this Government and this country should be about, and I hope that in the forthcoming Budget later this month we will see extra support for our community police services up and down the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered funding for community policing.