Police Station Closures: Solihull and West Midlands
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the proposed closure of police stations in Solihull and the West Midlands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I am sure I am not alone in saying that crime is one of the issues that people most frequently raise on the doorstep and in constituency surgeries. Few things matter more to my constituents than knowing that the streets are safe and that Solihull remains a peaceful, welcoming and vibrant community. That is why I have made standing up for local police services one of my top priorities. Since being elected in 2015, I have fought successfully to prevent cuts to our local team of police community support officers and I have supported calls for Ministers to increase police funding across the west midlands. In that same period, David Jamieson, the police and crime commissioner, quite clearly has been running down police services in Solihull, cutting the number of patrol cars in the borough and closing one of my constituency’s two police stations in 2015.
Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that West Midlands police has lost £145 million in funding, through decisions made by the Tory Government and, before them, the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition from 2010?
The Government have been pretty clear that police funding has been protected in real terms once local funding is taken into account, and they are investing £1 billion more in policing in 2017-18 than in 2015-16, despite continued pressure on public finances. Labour always likes to insist that someone else will pick up the tab, but if PCCs want the power to help their police forces, they must expect the responsibility that comes with it, including questioning by Members of Parliament.
Mr Jamieson has announced plans to close Solihull police station, leaving my constituency without a single proper police space. The commissioner claims that it is under-utilised, but why should that come as a surprise when he has been paring back our local police services for years?
I strongly believe that for local politicians to be held accountable, the devolution of power must be accompanied by the devolution of responsibility, including financial responsibility. The public elect representatives to take decisions, not simply to shift blame and demand more money from someone else. In 2015, I joined my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley South (Mike Wood) in urging Mr Jamieson to take responsibility for his powers and to raise the funds needed by the West Midlands police, and lobbied Ministers to grant our region an exemption from the usual 2% ceiling on raising the precept.
The hon. Gentleman says that police funding was protected. He has just referred to the precept—the precept flexibility raises £9.5 million. The police service needs £22 million to stand still. It is not true, therefore, that police funding has been protected, is it?
The £9.5 million is a significant sum in that respect; I will move on to where, specifically, I think the money should come from, in terms of the police and crime commissioner.
Devolution does not mean leaving each region simply to sink or swim on its own. At Westminster, we help to oversee the pooling and sharing of resources across the UK. I was therefore pleased that the Government recently announced hundreds of millions of pounds in extra cash for policing, including a £9.5 million boost for the West Midlands police, which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) has just referred to. I was confident, along with many of my constituents, that that had put our vital police services on a secure footing, so hon. Members can imagine my shock when I learned that the commissioner plans to close Solihull police station and many police stations across the west midlands.
Let us be clear: there is no good financial case for this closure. According to the press, Mr Jamieson is sitting on a £100 million reserve. On top of that, he recently spent an extra £10 million on non-frontline staff, many of whom do very valuable work but cannot substitute a strong, local police presence. In such circumstances, extra cuts to frontline services are completely non-justifiable. We must not underestimate the significance of this: until recently, our town had two proper community police stations.
I want to ask about the £10 million for non-frontline staff. Will the hon. Gentleman confirm that we are talking about fraud investigators, child abuse investigators, 999 call handlers and forensic scientists? Does he think that getting rid of those will help to drive crime down or up?
Of course, I recognise that the non-frontline staff do very valuable work. However, as I will explain shortly, the police and crime commissioner cannot say that his cuts will make a substantive difference either to frontline services or to these non-frontline staff.
In my view, what Mr Jamieson has done is a straightforward breach of trust. When Shirley police station closed its doors in 2015, local residents were reassured that the Solihull branch offered a long-term future for a properly resourced local police presence. Now, less than three years later, it is to go, too. Instead of the Solihull branch, the commissioner proposes to have a front desk somewhere in the borough, but even though the consultation on that proposal is under way, we have not been told where that will be or what precisely it will comprise. Before Solihull police station is closed, I strongly believe that local residents have a right to know exactly what will replace it. At present, they are simply being told to trust Mr Jamieson—as I have already explained, they have no reason to do that.
Worse, research by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton), who is here today to show her strength of feeling and support—as a Whip she is not permitted to speak—raises serious doubts about the extent to which the money raised from the sale of our police station can be redirected to frontline staff. According to the Library, police and crime commissioners are allowed to move funds from their capital to their revenue accounts only in very limited circumstances—primarily to deliver structural changes and to unlock long-term savings.
My constituents deserve to know whether—and how—Mr Jamieson actually intends to use the sale to boost local policing, as I have certainly heard nothing about new capital projects in Solihull or in any of the constituencies of my hon. Friends. It will not do for our police station to be sold to finance new programmes in other parts of the west midlands. My constituents should be given clear assurances that any revenue savings made by closing the station will be spent to boost local police services, and that there is not carte blanche to redirect them all over the place.
Not that local residents have had much of an opportunity to have their say—stakeholders have been offered only 18 working days to respond to the consultation, and originally no point of contact at all was provided for the general public. Only after a lot of chasing by my office was an email address finally provided for the public. Other concerned MPs, including my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills, and I were not even given the courtesy of a call before the details were released to the press. My colleagues and I find that the commissioner is growing ever more autocratic in his dealings with us and our communities, issuing diktats from the centre against the will of local residents.
Solihull is a large town with a distinct character. Residents expect to see that fact reflected in their public services. Local Conservatives and I fought hard over the past few years to secure a devolution deal for the west midlands that brought power down from Westminster, while protecting the authority and independence of our local council. Decisions such as these will only confirm many of my constituents’ worst fears about how communities like Solihull risk getting short-changed by regional institutions that focus too heavily on major urban centres.
The hon. Gentleman must realise that West Midlands police received £444.1 million in 2017-18 and will receive the same amount under its budget for 2018-19. By any logic, that means there has been a cut somewhere. We are faced with the likely closure of at least three police stations in Coventry: Willenhall, Canley and Foleshill. Something has to give, and he should recognise that there has been a cut somewhere.
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is arguing for the closure of his local police stations. I certainly would not do that in this respect. I agree that there needs to be a reallocation of resources, and perhaps there are older properties that might be used more usefully, but at the heart of this issue and of the real anger in my community is the arbitrary way closures have been made, the lack of proper consultation and the fact that there seems to be no real path for the future of policing in Solihull. If the police and crime commissioner had come to us and said, “This is what will replace it. We recognise that your town has a large population and a growing issue with certain types of crime,”—I am about to touch on those—I would have said, “Okay, let’s have a conversation,” but he did not call. He just decided to make closures and release the details to the press.
The difficulty is that that brings devolution into a little disrepute. Of course Birmingham has its own policing needs and the commissioner has a duty to see that those are met. I am sure that the centralised and reactive policing model he appears to favour is better suited to urban trouble spots than to suburban and semi-rural communities, but boroughs such as Solihull face discrete policing challenges of their own. Residents often tell me of their serious concerns about so-called acquisitive crime, such as burglary, and vehicle crime, which is on the increase in the borough. Another potentially serious public order problem that Solihull has faced over the years—certainly since I have represented it in this place—is the repeated occupation every summer of our parks and open spaces by unauthorised encampments. Those events are a source of enormous disruption and distress for local residents, many of whom bring their concerns to my office or tell me about them on the doorstep. A strong local police presence is crucial to protecting communities such as Solihull from unauthorised Traveller encampments. When it comes to that, the reactive approach is the wrong approach.
I will close by saying that this is not the end of the fight. Mr Jamieson may have tried to push decisions through without proper consultation, but both in this place and on the ground in the west midlands, my colleagues and I will keep his proposals under the closest scrutiny, bring him to account and continue to make the case for a wiser and fairer deal for our constituents from this police and crime commissioner.
Several hon. Members rose—
Order. I am obliged to begin calling the Front Benchers at seven minutes past five. Five Members are seeking to catch my eye, so I am going to impose a five-minute limit so that everyone can get in. I call Jack Dromey.
Thank you for calling me to speak, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship.
The last Labour Government built neighbourhood policing. We put 17,000 extra police officers and 16,000 police community support officers on the beat. We did so because we took seriously the first duty of any Government: to ensure the safety and security of their citizens. That model of detection and prevention was popular with the public and saw crime fall by 43%. That was slammed into reverse when this Prime Minister was Home Secretary. The number of police has fallen by 20,000 overall, and by 2,000 in the west midlands. Crime is up 14% overall, with gun crime up 15%, serious acquisitive crime up 17% and burglaries up 8%.
The Tories frequently praise the police but then fail to stand up for them in this place. Do they not hear what we hear in our constituencies? I organised a public meeting for local people who were deeply concerned about rising crime, and one woman had spent 66 years—
The hon. Gentleman said that the Tories do not do a lot in this place to try to get the best deal for the police. He and I, and my colleagues, have worked together on this issue for a long time. Does he not recognise that decisions such as these and the way they are taken break the bonds of trust between us?
The decisions are actually proposals from the chief constable in the first instance—I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman is criticising the chief constable—and then they go to the PCC. The simple reality is that our police service in the west midlands faces increasingly impossible pressures because of the cuts that have been made by the hon. Gentleman’s Government, and he has not once stood up and opposed those cuts or voted against them.
Does my hon. Friend recognise that my constituency, which neighbours his, has lost more than 15 community support officers, numerous police officers and a huge number of support people due to police stations closing? That is purely the responsibility of this Government, who have failed to fund the police service properly.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He hears in his community what I hear in mine. He hears, for example, about elderly residents’ fear of going out at night. Local retailers increasingly complain that people do not come out when it is dark, such is people’s fear of going on to the streets in some of our communities.
Do Government Members not talk to police officers like we do? One officer said to me, “Jack, criminals increasingly have free rein to do what they want, because there are simply not enough of us to keep our community safe.” Do Government Members not know that response times are going up, including for victims of domestic violence? Do they not understand that the hollowing out of neighbourhood policing undermines the struggle to combat the growing and uniquely awful threat of terrorism?
The Prime Minister said, “We cut police and cut crime, we protected budgets, and our approach is fair.” Yes, the Conservatives cut police, but she is wrong that they cut crime and protected budgets. Some £145 million has been cut overall and there has recently been, in effect, a £12.5 million real-terms cut. As for fairness, the west midlands certainly has not been treated fairly compared with Surrey, the Thames valley or Hampshire, for example.
The police also have paid a price. We do not hear Government Members standing up for them. The thin blue line is being stretched ever thinner. There are mounting problems of sickness and stress. Officers frequently put their lives on the line to protect the public, and some are seriously injured as a consequence. The hundreds of officers in the west midlands who were forced out under regulation A19 paid the price with their jobs.
What cheek Conservative Members of Parliament have to come here and protest about the impact of police cuts when they are guilty of a lamentable failure to stand up for the police service. They supported the biggest cuts since the war, including recent real-terms cuts. To blame our chief constable and our police and crime commissioner is completely wrong. We could give numerous examples of Conservative attacks—my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) mentioned back office staff—but let me quote what the Minister said about head office at Lloyd House:
“Officers and staff in the West Midlands do an excellent job keeping our communities safe and this refurbishment will not only save money, but will also mean they will have an improved working environment to carry out their vital duties.”
The Conservatives have sought every spurious way possible to escape responsibility, but they cannot. The people of the west midlands know that the Conservative party has failed to stand up for them and that Labour always will.
Mr Hollobone, £145 million has been cut from the West Midlands police budget since 2010—a truly staggering cut for a police force to absorb. To set that in context, that money could have paid the salaries of 750 police constables over the past eight years—police constables who could have been patrolling our streets, tackling crime and antisocial behaviour.
Since the Conservative Government came to power in 2010, West Midlands police has lost 2,000 officers, taking their number to its lowest since 1974—the year the force was established. The demands on our officers, however, have not fallen in a similar fashion. If anything, they have increased, with emerging issues such as cyber-crime and the persistent threat of terrorism adding to the force’s already heavy workload.
The constant pressure exacted by the Conservative Government’s never-ending diktat to do more with less is taking its toll on our overstretched and under-resourced officers. On one day last summer, a check of the force sickness system revealed that 612 officers and staff were booked off sick, with 176 suffering mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress. Given that West Midlands police now requires an additional £22 million simply to stand still, the chief constable is left with two choices, each as unpalatable as the other: to reduce manpower further or close police stations.
Let me be clear: despite efforts to blame the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner for making difficult decisions, the cuts have been inflicted on our constituents clearly and unambiguously as a result of the Conservative Government’s ideological austerity programme. As a result, the chief constable has proposed to release 24 buildings, which will save £5 million a year: enough to protect the jobs of 100 police officers. While I accept that the majority of the buildings to be closed are not open to the public, their closure will still have a detrimental impact on officers who will have to travel further to use essential services, wasting valuable police time.
We cannot ignore away the fact that the police grant settlement confirmed real-terms cuts, including a £12.5 million reduction in spending power for West Midlands police. The police and crime commissioner, David Jamieson, recently summed up the situation rather succinctly. He said:
“West Midlands police has suffered the biggest cuts in the country and now the Tory MPs who voted for those cuts recently are complaining about the consequences in their constituencies.”
It seems the irony is indeed lost on some.
The Government have argued that council tax can be increased by the PCC by up to £12 for a band D property, a measure that has been adopted by all but three PCCs. Despite that, West Midlands police has the lowest budget increase per head of population in the country, further damaging its ability to carry out its full range of duties. It has also been claimed that back-office costs have risen by £10 million, but, when one looks a little deeper, one sees that those so-called back office costs include nationally mandated pay increases, the hiring of specialist staff to allow police officers to carry out warranted duties such as arresting criminals and the hiring of call handlers to deal with the surge in demand faced by the police force.
These issues are only a snapshot of the systemic and unprecedented pressures faced by our police service. Police officers exude many of the most admirable characteristics of our society. Brave, caring and committed, they do their duty to allow us to go about our daily lives, safe in the knowledge that we and our families are safe.
Recently, in the Willenhall area of Coventry there have been public meetings where the public have voiced concern about increases in drugs, burglaries and so forth. As a result, the police have looked at the possibility of using surge tactics in those areas. That demonstrates how the public are becoming aware of the under-policing in Coventry—we have lost between 200 and 300 officers—and they are uneasy about the policing and crime situation in the west midlands, starting in Coventry.
I absolutely agree. Police officers join the force because they want to make a difference, serve their communities and help people. We accept their service gratefully, but, in so doing, we also accept a responsibility to offer them the same protection and support that they provide us. Policing cannot be done on the cheap; the safety of our families is worth too much. That is why I will continue to stand up for my local police force and my constituents by continuing to oppose the Government’s damaging and dangerous cuts.
Good afternoon, Mr Hollobone. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. There are mixed views about the value of police stations. Paul Kohler, a London university lecturer who was subject to a savage beating when a gang broke into his home, has stated that he is still alive only because of the rapid response from the police station, which is 300 yards from his home in Wimbledon. It is pretty understandable that someone who has had that horrendous experience takes that view. However, my neighbours live about 3.2 miles from the nearest police station, so they could not possibly benefit similarly. The current Met commissioner, Cressida Dick, stated that she believes having police out on the streets is the best guarantee of a rapid response.
What we know about the west midlands is that the latest settlement means a real-terms cut. Even after we increase the precept for some of the poorest families, we are left with a £12.5 million gap. Forcing us to rely on the precept to fund policing means that we end up with less than Hampshire, despite its smaller population and lower levels of crime.
“Closure of police stations” is not always accurate as a description. In some situations, it refers to the closure of public desks rather than an actual facility. To return to the plans for the west midlands, I understand that only two of the 24 buildings for closure are police stations open to the public. As we have heard, the purpose is to save £5 million a year in order to protect 100 police officer posts. Given that we now have 2,000 fewer officers than in 2010, I am anxious not to see any further loss of personnel.
There are currently 10 publicly accessible front desks across the west midlands, and the proposals set out to retain 10 publicly accessible front desks. We must bear it in mind that some 361 police stations closed between 2010 and 2012. The police, to be fair, point out the cost of keeping such buildings open and the often low level of usage by the public.
Back in 2012, a report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary warned that 264 police stations would close to the public over a three-year period, as chief constables attempted to balance the books. The then Policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Arundel and South Downs (Nick Herbert), responded by saying that what mattered was that frontline policing was preserved. That same view was expressed three years later by the right hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Sir Mike Penning), then the Policing Minister. He said in a Westminster Hall debate in 2015 that it was not about buildings but about people. However, the Tory police and crime commissioner for Thames Valley threatened legal action against the Home Office over cuts to his budget in the same month of that year, because he said they would force him to close three police stations with the loss of 147 jobs.
When the right hon. Member for Ashford (Damian Green) was Policing Minister, he considered the closure of police stations to be an operational matter for chief constables. And, of course, in a famous memory lapse, the former Mayor of London—now the Foreign Secretary —complained about the closure of a police station in his constituency, having forgotten that he had ordered the closure of 65 police stations.
Arguments about the closure of police stations are not new. The received wisdom of the Government to date is that it is an operational matter; that it is about putting police on the street rather than in offices and adapting to new ways of working. That is, it would appear, until we are talking about the west midlands and a Labour police and crime commissioner.
We should not be mourning the closure of police stations. The problem before the House is not local mismanagement but the culmination of a series of untenable cuts that started when the present occupant of 10 Downing Street was the Home Secretary and which continue today, destroying the capacity of our police to control the streets and protect the public from violent crime.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. Not so long ago, the Government invited us to believe that it was possible to cut crime and cut the police at the same time. Over the last couple of years the idiocy of that idea has been exposed for all to see. The truth is that crime—violent crime in particular—is now rising, and on the streets of my constituency there is real concern about the growth of dealing in drugs out on the streets, often in broad daylight. When people report that problem, the police simply do not have the resources to respond in the way that the community wants and expects.
In the west midlands, as I know from my constituency, we are blessed with some of the greatest police officers in the business. It was five years ago that I had to go and give thanks to PC Adam Koch, who had literally thrown himself onto a knifeman in one of our mosques in Ward End. He put his life on the line to protect the lives of the worshippers in that mosque. Today, we have great police officers such as Sergeant Hanif, who leads an extraordinary team across east Birmingham, cracking down on drugs and drug dealing, seizing the proceeds of crime and taking firearms off the streets at every opportunity. The relationship of trust that he has built with the community has transformed the amount of intelligence coming in to the police and the effectiveness of the police in response.
What great police officers such as Sergeant Hanif and PC Adam Koch need is a Government who are on their side, rather than a Government who are determined to cut their service to ribbons. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) so eloquently put it, West Midlands Police is now the smallest it has been since it was created in 1974. It has suffered real-terms cuts of something like £145 million. The idea that somehow different decisions on the precept could have corrected a cut on that scale is frankly fanciful. Given the rise in crime that we have in the west midlands, and the fact that we are one of the most dangerous hotspots for counter-terrorism policing in the country, it beggars belief when we put that risk of harm alongside the cuts we have had, which are so different from the financial settlements that other police forces have enjoyed.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will happily give way; perhaps my close neighbour can tell me how it is that Hampshire can enjoy a different settlement from the West Midlands police force when we have a threat assessment that is so very different.
I just want to be clear: the right hon. Gentleman refers, quite rightly, to the fact that the west midlands is a hotspot for some of the specialist terror policing, but will he also acknowledge that the Government have, quite separately, given significant increases of funds for that very purpose?
There has been a provision for counter-terrorism policing, but, as the right hon. Gentleman knows better than I do, neighbourhood policing is the front line of the fight against terrorism in this country. The stronger the front line, the safer we are. In the west midlands, our front line is being cut to shreds.
My right hon. Friend will notice that in an intervention earlier I mentioned Willenhall in particular, where there have been public meetings. It is strange when we talk about fighting terrorism that there is a police station in that area in which high-profile prisoners are kept. I wonder where in the west midlands they will put them if there are any further arrests.
Exactly. Those threats are now multiplying across the region.
I respect the task that the Police Minister has to try to perform. He has taken the time to listen to representations from west midlands MPs of all political stripes. I am afraid that he was not backed up by either the Prime Minister or the Chancellor; they did not give the Home Office in general, and him in particular, the financial settlement that we needed in order to safeguard our communities. For us in Hodge Hill, that means that we now have the proposed closure of the Shard End police base—something that both Councillor Ian Ward and I disagree with.
We need a police base in Shard End, because—as was explained to me during my own glorious fortnight as the Minister for police and counter-terrorism, before I went on to serve a further two years as a Home Office Minister—neighbourhood policing creates a different kind of relationship between the police service and the community. It unlocks a level of trust, intelligence and insight that makes it much easier to crack down on crime. When we shut down police bases, we weaken the front line in that fight. I do not want to see crime, drug dealing and violent crime rise any further. That is why I call on the Minister today to fix the problem in the West Midlands Police finances, give us the money we deserve and let our brave men and women of the West Midlands Police service get on with the job they are so dedicated to doing.
It is a pleasure to follow my parliamentary neighbour, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), and to congratulate my other parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight).
I will add a few points to those that have already been made. Of course it is common across the Chamber that we support and praise the excellent work that the local police do. I pay particular tribute to Jane Bailey, who is responsible for policing in the royal town of Sutton Coldfield and is the latest in an excellent line of chiefs of police. This is also a community of Members of Parliament who, on the whole, work quite well together on common themes. I think of GKN, of homelessness and our common purpose—I say this particularly to the Police Minister—in trying to ensure proper funding for the families of those who suffered so grievously and have not yet got closure following the terrible bombings in Birmingham, many years ago.
We do co-operate, but today there is a raw party political difference between us, which was set out clearly by my parliamentary neighbour, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey). I agree with quite a lot of what the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill said about the nature of policing. My principal complaint, however, and the reason why I am pleased to support the case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull, is that does not appear to have been any proper consultation. Indeed, I learned about the proposition of closing the royal town’s police station through a leak from a Labour councillor, which then appeared in the local press. That is not the proper way to consult.
There is a consultation going on now in the royal town, through the town council, and this is the motion that was passed very strongly last week. It said:
“This Council is extremely concerned that the West Midlands Police Crime Commissioner (PCC) is proposing to close Sutton Coldfield Police Station…The Council notes that the PCC has made a number of budgetary decisions, such as investing heavily in buildings elsewhere and cutting front line policemen, that materially disadvantage our Town no longer meeting the needs of our community and demands in the strongest terms that the closure decision is reversed immediately.”
It went on to say:
“The Council further registers its disappointment that there has been zero engagement by the PCC with the residents or their elected representatives.”
It is that lack of engagement that I wish to bring to the Minister’s attention.
In her opening speech, Janet Cairns made a truly excellent point. She said:
“I understand that the service could move to another area or to another building but it would not be the same, it would not be the bespoke service that we have now. It would not give us confidence as residents”.
The other councillors who spoke made the same point. There is a strong feeling that a party political point is being made here in identifying Solihull and Sutton Coldfield as the two key targets that lose their major police facility. Councillor David Allan said, “It’s a political attack on the Tory heartlands.”
I am concerned at the lack of consultation and very specifically at the way in which it appears that Conservative areas are being targeted. No one doubts that this is a tough settlement, but I will ask the Minister three very brief questions.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
I will, yes—
Order. It is not for me to interfere, but I am afraid that the right hon. Gentleman simply will not have enough time if the hon. Gentleman intervenes.
I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. I have three questions for the Police Minister. First of all, will he confirm that, although we can do almost anything with statistics, funding this year over last year is up by £9.5 million, so those who referred to this year’s “cuts” are either innumerate or deliberately deceiving our constituents? Secondly, will he confirm that the West Midlands Police has reserves of £121.1 million, or 20.2% of overall funding—the average figure across England and Wales is 15.1%—and there has been an increase of just under £27 million in those reserves since 2011? Thirdly, and finally, will he confirm that there is scope for greater efficiency, and that the report by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services on the efficiency of West Midlands Police downgraded the force’s overall efficiency level rating? As I understand it, the professional opinion is that West Midlands Police was not as efficient in its use of taxpayers’ money as it should be—
Order. We come now to the Front-Bench speeches. I call Louise Haigh.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) for securing the debate, as it allows us to set the record straight on police station closures—not only in the west midlands, but across the country.
I start by zooming out for a second and taking a look at what has happened to police stations and front counters over the last eight years. More than 40% have been shut during the time the Conservative party has been in government. In 2010, there were 901 front counters able to deal with the public; the figure today stands at just 510. West Mercia, just next door to the west midlands, now relies on only three front counters, down from 31. Warwickshire has four, down from 14. Bedfordshire has just two to serve the entire county. In Cambridgeshire last month, Jason Ablewhite, the Conservative police and crime commissioner, was forced to announce the closure of one of only two police stations open to the public left in Cambridge as part of a massive savings drive.
Collectively, that handful of stations now serve millions of people. In those counties, stations were a fixture in each town. They have disappeared. The face-to-face contact and the trust that that engendered, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) said, has gone, as officers have been reduced to offering a purely responsive service. Officers now routinely have to travel large distances to book in suspects or take evidence. Preventive and proactive crime prevention, which would have taken place out of a community hub, has now been diminished.
We could make party political points in each of these cases. After all, the closures mentioned in all those examples were under Conservative PCCs. However, the public would recognise how absurd that is—they would call me disingenuous—because the chief constables, in consultation with the PCCs, can only play the hand they have been dealt by the Government in Westminster. That hand has been anything but helping. More than £2.7 billion has been cut from the overall police budget in real terms since the Conservatives came to power, with more than 21,000 police officers lost. Meanwhile, crime has soared and demand has rocketed. Communities have noticed it; they see police officers less and they feel increasingly insecure.
The force in the west midlands knows that as well as any. The last eight years have been truly unprecedented in its history, as we have heard. It has reached the bare bones—of that there can be no doubt. The choice facing the West Midlands chief constable, and indeed the PCC, is now an unenviable one. Do they add to the toll of 2,000 officers lost, when more than 80% of the force’s budget is for staffing, or do they make savings in the estate? Is that a choice any force would like to face? Of course not, but it is a choice that has been imposed on them.
Does the hon. Lady not recognise that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) said, with £121 million in reserves, the police and crime commissioner could at least wait and show us precisely what he plans for my borough and its policing?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has spoken to either the PCC or the chief constable recently, but I have a detailed plan from the chief constable of what he plans to spend his reserves on. The force currently has £106 million in reserves. By 31 March 2019, it will have £54 million, of which £12 million is required by the National Audit Office to be held for general reserves, and £10 million will be held for an insurance reserve. By 2020, reserves will be held only at levels legally required and necessary for day-to-day operational policing.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned earlier that he had not heard of any capital projects going ahead in the west midlands. In fact, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary has praised West Midlands police for preparing for the future and investing in a huge IT transformation project and data-driven analysis, so it is interesting that he does not know of those projects, or indeed what the reserves are being spent on.
I did not actually say that there were no capital projects; I said that the money from the sale of the police stations could not be used to directly fund capital projects unless they could be shown to be money-saving.
I think the hon. Gentleman said that he was not aware of any capital projects benefiting Solihull. There are two that will directly benefit Solihull and indeed will replace the front station access that is being closed down.
Incredibly, the outlook that I just set out is set to get even worse as a result of further real-terms cuts that Conservative Members from the west midlands voted for last month. David Jamieson has warned that, after receiving the biggest cut in the entire country, West Midlands will need £22 million just to stand still. This is not only at a time when crime is soaring: 999 and 101 calls have reached levels that only used to be received on new year’s eve; missing persons are being reported to the police at unprecedented levels; and mental health calls are being dealt with by the police at levels never seen before. Some 83% of calls to command and control centres are now non-crime, while crime and antisocial behaviour is soaring.
Counter-terror spending was also mentioned, as well as the reserves. Both are used by the Government and Government Members as a diversion, saying that money is being spent on policing when in fact, for every £1 spent on counter-terror, £2-worth of demand is generated for local forces. Neither of those can be said to be reducing demand and increasing funding to West Midlands police or any other police force across the country. The fact is that six Conservative Members from the west midlands voted for these cuts and are now crying foul when the chief constable has been forced to set out their consequences.
The 24 buildings that the chief constable plans to release will save £5 million per year. Regrettably, that will not make up for the real-terms cut in Home Office funding for West Midlands in the year ahead. Nevertheless, even while making those savings, which have been forced on the force, the plans will retain all 10 front counters, recognising the vital service that they offer to the public, while tech and data innovations will mean that the police are not required to return to the station as often as they used to.
However, with crime continuing to soar in the west midlands—14% in the last year alone—further real-terms cuts are reckless, and the public are clear that the responsibility lies with the Government and with Government Members who voted them through. It is the Tories who took a reckless gamble with public safety, and now communities in the west midlands are paying the price.
Will the Minister conclude his remarks no later than 5.28 pm, to allow the hon. Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) to respond?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) on securing the debate. In my experience, few Members pressed me harder on the case for more support for the police in the run-in to the funding settlement. He is a tireless advocate on that point.
I also associate myself with the remarks from my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell) and the former Policing Minister, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne), in praising the work of West Midlands police, which is recognised to be one of the most effective, innovative and important police forces in the country. My right hon. Friend asked for verification, and he is right that its efficiency rating was downgraded from outstanding to good. However, it is generally recognised that West Midlands police does an extremely good job under very difficult circumstances indeed.
What is the debate about? Labour Members have tried to make it a tribal debate about police funding. Listening carefully to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull actually said, the debate is about accountability and respect to the public whom we serve as elected representatives. The point made to the House is that there has been a deficit and a failing in that respect, which I will address in my remarks. The reality is that—again, Labour Members have tried to shift around on this—we operate in a system of accountability, in which Ministers are thankfully not responsible for decisions on police stations in Solihull or anywhere else.
The accountability to the public that we serve is through the directly elected police and crime commissioners. Whether Conservative or Labour, PCCs are accountable to the public for these kind of operating decisions, which matter because the public care about them. People are sensitive about police stations, as I know from my own area. We need to be clear about where accountability lies. The attempt to blame others is disingenuous. Accountability needs to be clear: the directly elected PCCs, whether Labour or Conservative, are accountable to the public for those decisions. We do these issues a disservice if we try to fog that.
In this context, let us be clear: the PCC in this case—I would say the same whether he was Labour or Conservative —has a very difficult job to do, because resources are constrained. However, the reality is that any PCC has active choices. When they have active choices, they have to make an argument to the public about why they are taking the decisions that they are. In this case, he has active choices because there is more money in the West Midlands police system.
Again, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield is absolutely right: as a result of the funding settlement, which Labour voted against, there will be an additional £9.5 million for West Midlands police, which is a 1.8% increase. As has also been pointed out, West Midlands police has significant levels of reserves—more than £100 million as of March 2017, which is 20.2% of its total cash funding and five percentage points above the national average.
Here is the critical point, which has not yet been made: those reserves have increased by £26.9 million since 2011. That is the context for all this doom and gloom about savage cuts to West Midlands policing: the police and crime commissioner has increased his reserves by £26.9 million. One can do that only by not spending the money that one has been given by the taxpayer. The police and crime commissioner has active choices at this moment in time; it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise.
Will the Minister give way?
In that context, I would suggest to the police and crime commissioner that instead of blaming the Government and everyone else, he has to make an argument to the people whom he serves, and there is an argument to be made. The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill and the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Steve McCabe) were actually almost thoughtful on the point about the debate that can be had about the role of police stations in 21st-century, modern policing. I am talking about looking at the data about how the public actually use them and at the potential for mobile working. There is a debate and an argument to be had. It is not good enough to fog that out by simply blaming the Government.
The point about the reserves is incredibly important. It was made eloquently by the experienced Conservative town councillor in Sutton Coldfield, Councillor Ewan Mackey. The people of Sutton Coldfield demand an answer to the question—one of the three that I posed to the Minister—about why the reserves have had to be increased so much.
It is an active choice made by the police and crime commissioner. The irony of the situation is that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who speaks from the Front Bench for the Labour party on the police, has more information about the police and crime commissioner’s plans for the use of reserves than the elected Member of Parliament for Solihull does. What does that say about the flows of information between the elected police and crime commissioner and the elected representatives for the west midlands? That is why I am pressing police forces across the country to be more transparent about their use of reserves—because they are sitting on £1.6 billion, and the figure has increased since 2011 by more than a quarter of a billion pounds. It is the public’s money, and they have a right to better information about how it will be used, particularly when they are being confronted with hard choices and decisions.
My final point is about the consultation. I am arguing that the PCC has to take an argument to the public. There is an argument to be made about rationalising the police estate and about the role of police stations. It is not good enough to blame others. The PCC should make the argument and—I do not want to be accused of being tribalist, because that would be unfair—he might want to take a lesson from the Labour Mayor of London, who also went out to consultation on closing police stations. He made a complete hash of it, I would say, but to his credit and that of his office, when confronted with evidence of the hash they were making, he changed his mind. He planned, in my constituency, to close all police stations apart from one.
Faced with the evidence that we presented about the folly and the lack of preparation, the Mayor has actually changed his mind and is re-consulting on Pinner, is keeping Ruislip station open and is working with Hillingdon on its plans to buy Uxbridge police station. He has been open-minded. That is a Labour Mayor of London—I do not want to be accused of being tribal—showing some genuine flexibility in the face of public opinion.
I have heard from my colleagues about the consultation. If the PCC has gone into the consultation in the way described—I have heard about Members of Parliament hearing things at second hand, from other people; I am hearing the words “zero engagement with people”; and I am hearing about a short consultation period—I suspect that he is going to fail on this, and therefore I would urge him to listen quite carefully to the people who represent the people whom he serves and to recognise that on the issue of people’s police stations, which is one of great sensitivity, he has not taken people with him. I therefore urge him to think again.
I am delighted to give way to the hon. Gentleman, who has been patient.
On accountability, which is very important, does the Minister accept responsibility for £145 million-worth of cuts to the West Midlands police service budget, the loss of 2,000 police officers and, more recently, a real-terms cut in funding for the police service? That is surely a matter for the Government, because the Government have made the decisions. Does the Minister accept responsibility for those decisions?
I accept responsibility for a funding settlement that will increase police funding by £450 million next year. That means that we will be spending £1 billion more next year on our police system than we were in 2015-16. It is a settlement that the hon. Gentleman and others voted against.
However, the point that I am trying to make in this debate is that I do not think that this is an issue about funding in the west midlands, because we are talking about relatively small sums of money in the context of an organisation with a budget of over half a billion pounds a year. I think that this is an issue of accountability and a flawed process of consultation with the people whom we serve and the police and crime commissioner serves. Therefore, I urge him to listen very carefully to the representations made by Conservative Members of Parliament: my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield and my hon. Friends the Members for Solihull and for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton). Clearly, something has gone wrong in the process of consulting and engaging with the people whom the PCC represents.
This matter should not be shrouded in tribal rhetoric about funding the police. Funding for West Midlands police has gone up. They are sitting on large reserves that have grown since 2011. There are active choices. In that context, the police and crime commissioner should show some respect to the people whom he serves and engage in a meaningful dialogue and engagement with the people on an issue on which they are clearly very sensitive.
I thank the Minister and, indeed, everyone who has spoken in a debate that has been interesting and, at times, quite feisty—that is right, because passions are running incredibly high. Police stations are hugely important to our communities. They are a focal point; they are a reassurance to our communities, and it is right that we look to defend them. At the same time, though, we must always be cognisant that there can be options whereby this can shift; things can change over time. I am very willing to talk with the police and crime commissioner properly about what we do with policing in Solihull.
However, as the Minister stated, there has been a failure of respect. That is such an apposite phrase—“a failure of respect”. That is what the consultation process has shown. The police and crime commissioner has made an active choice to close my constituency’s final police station—a police station in a borough of 200,000 people that will no longer have a police station because he has chosen to close it. He can make another choice today, after hearing this debate—to pause, to reflect, to consult properly and to use the reserves in order to have time so that he can properly map out for my constituents, and for all those who also face police station closures, what precisely he is going to do, rather than, frankly, relying on a wing and a prayer.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the proposed closure of police stations in Solihull and the West Midlands.