[Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Police.
It is, as ever, a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I am grateful to my hon. Friends from across Merseyside who have joined us for this Westminster Hall debate this afternoon.
I begin by paying tribute to our Merseyside police officers, police community support officers and police staff, who do a fantastic job in extremely challenging circumstances. Police officers across the country take enormous risks to keep us safe. I pay tribute to our officers for their service. In particular, I thank Andy Cooke, our Merseyside chief constable, and Jane Kennedy, our excellent police and crime commissioner, for their leadership through a tough time.
The police on Merseyside have been struggling with almost a decade of year-on-year real-terms cuts in funding. Since 2010, Merseyside police has been required to make cuts of £110 million. We have seen a cut of one third in the police grant to Merseyside, so it came as no surprise to my constituents last September when the National Audit Office confirmed that Merseyside police is the third worst hit force across England and Wales in terms of cuts in funding. As a consequence of those cuts, we have lost 1,700 staff and police officers since 2010. That translates to one in four—25%—of police officer posts gone. At the same time, Merseyside fire and rescue service has seen its budget cut in half by the Government. Liverpool City Council has faced some of the most savage funding cuts of any local authority.
The impact has been felt in every area of policing. Chief Constable Andy Cooke has warned that Merseyside police is reaching breaking point as budgets are “stretched to the limits”. Of course, the situation is not unique to Merseyside. Last year, the Home Affairs Committee issued a stark warning that policing in this country is at risk of becoming “irrelevant” amid falling staff numbers and rising crime.
The additional £8.4 million in Government grant to Merseyside police for the coming year will be consumed entirely by meeting the pension shortfall. While the additional funding is of course welcome, there is no guarantee that the pension grant will be repeated in future years. When the Minister responds, will she give an assurance that the additional funding, which is welcome, will continue beyond 2020? The settlement provides no new money from Government for the day-to-day running of our police, the cost of which increases every year with inflation, particularly wage inflation. Yet again, our PCC Jane Kennedy has had no alternative but to ask local people to pay more in council tax to keep police on our streets and in our communities.
Clearly on the Wirral, we do not have some of the more dramatic issues that those on the other side of the river have, but does my hon. Friend agree that local taxpayers are asked to fund increases well above inflation, yet there is no extra money for putting frontline officers back on the beat to improve the visibility of the police presence? They are being asked to pay more, yet the service they receive seems to carry on disintegrating.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure her constituents say to her as mine do to me that there is that sense of having to make an increased contribution, yet not seeing an improvement in service.
With the increase in precept this year, there will be some new officers, which is very welcome, but it comes after almost a decade of considerable cutbacks. During the consultation on this year’s council tax increase, about three quarters of respondents indicated that they were willing to pay the additional money to protect police officer numbers and to put some extra officers on the beat, so our commissioner took the reluctant—I think—decision to propose an increase in the precept to generate an additional £10 million.
That increase, for most households—most Merseyside households are in band A for council tax—is £16 a year; for a band D property, it is £24 a year. Families across Merseyside, in our constituencies, face tight finances, so that kind of decision taken by local politicians is not one that is taken lightly. In an environment of increasing crime, however, with increasing calls for help from the public, politicians were left with no alternative. We simply cannot afford to lose any more officers, police community support officers or police staff in Merseyside.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On the Wirral side, we have begun to have shootings. I hope that it is only a temporary blip; it is very important that it does not become a way of settling disputes. We will therefore need extra resources. I will see the chief constable on Thursday afternoon, and I will take the results of this debate with me and make the very point that my hon. Friend is making.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that important intervention. We have seen an increase in shootings on the Liverpool side as well, and he is right to emphasise the real risk to our communities. I represent Croxteth and Norris Green which, a decade or so ago, suffered very serious issues to do with so-called gang violence, including the use of firearms. The strong sense in those communities is that they do not want to go back to those days. One of the ways to ensure that they do not is to resource our police service properly.
I think they would probably still say that.
For the record, my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore) would like to be present to take part in this debate, but he is on a parliamentary trip to the Falklands with our armed forces. Like me, he voted to increase the funding for all police—as we know, across the country there is a mixed funding model for the police—and for Merseyside police by up to £18 million, we hope.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that many changes are going on in the police force, in particular the access to lots of technology? From going out with my police force, I know that there are a lot of changes, so straight-on comparisons of the amount of resource are difficult, because the whole nature of policing is changing across the country.
There is no doubt that the nature of policing is changing and that technological innovation is providing opportunities, but I think that bobbies on the beat are still a fundamental part of what our constituents expect of policing. I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the impact that almost a decade of austerity has had on neighbourhood policing across Merseyside, including in my constituency.
The increase in the precept enabled the chief constable to avoid a planned further cut of 100 police posts and provided the opportunity for an increase of 40 police officers across the whole of Merseyside. That is a modest increase, but welcome, and it is the first time that officer numbers have increased in nine years. In a sense, this relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan). If we contrast the position in a place such as Liverpool with that in her constituency, the Merseyside police force is heavily reliant on central Government for funding—77% comes from central Government. As that funding has been reduced, the only way in which the impact can be ameliorated is for local people to step in through the council tax. As a result, Merseyside police is more dependent on hard-working local taxpayers, whose contribution to its funding has risen from 15% in 2010-11 to 23% in the coming year. Even with that increase in council tax, the force’s overall funding has reduced, as I said.
Let me contrast that with Surrey, one of four police forces that raises more funds locally than it gets from central Government, simply because it has a much more affluent council tax base. Surrey raises 57% of its funds through council tax, compared with 23% on Merseyside. As a result, although its budget has fallen, it has fallen by a lot less than Merseyside’s. The same story could be told about other areas with high levels of social and economic deprivation. Surely, that is inherently unfair. Does the Minister recognise the unfairness of passing the burden on to the local taxpayer where the ability to raise more locally is demonstrably regressive, meaning that the system itself compounds existing inequalities?
Merseyside has consistently been recognised as one of the best performing metropolitan police forces in the country, but the combination of cuts and rising crime inevitably has serious implications. That brings me to the latest crime statistics. Office for National Statistics stats show that crime across Merseyside increased by 12% in the year to last September. That does not paint the full picture. Robbery was up 18%, violent crime was up 16% and knife crime was at its highest level in 10 years, with more than 900 serious incidents reported last year. My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field) talked about the threat of shootings and firearms offences. I pay tribute to our police force for the priority it has given such offences in recent years, which meant firearms offences on Merseyside fell from 258 in 2012 to 199 in 2016. Very sadly, that trend has reversed: in 2017, the last full year for which we have figures, firearms offences increased sharply to 353.
People in Merseyside are bearing the brunt of police funding cuts, of which the most visible example for many is the loss of neighbourhood policing. Neighbourhood police are the eyes and ears in our communities. Although crime trends have changed, the importance of a visible policing presence on our streets surely has not, so one of the many areas of concern is that we have lost 46%—almost half—of our police community support officers since 2010. Neighbourhood policing is at the heart of tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour, the low-level crime that so often makes people’s lives a misery. The loss of PCSOs, combined with the rise in more serious violent crime, has had the inevitable effect that, despite the best efforts of officers on the ground, they so often do not have the resources to respond to that blight on our communities.
One example of that is the impact of so-called scrambler bikes. I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) is on the Front Bench, because she has led on that issue in the House. Those nuisance bikes are noisy, intimidating and frightening. They affect the quality of life of our constituents and pose a real threat to safety on roads, on footpaths and in parks. They endanger the safety of both pedestrians and other road users, and increasingly are used to carry out serious crime. I have worked with our commissioner and the local force to try to tackle the issue. Merseyside police is doing good things to identify and prosecute people for the illegal use of off-road bikes, but it tells me it needs the resources and powers to do more to tackle that appalling scourge.
I welcome the Home Office’s proposals to help tackle motorcycle-related crime by providing police officers with better legal protection when they pursue suspects. Those long-overdue proposals went out to consultation last May, but as I understand it, we have not yet had a Government response to that consultation. I hope the Minister can provide an update on the Government’s plans to tackle the scourge of scrambler bikes and motorcycle-related crime.
Another area of great concern in my constituency and across Merseyside is road safety, and the impact on road safety of the loss of funding. Across the country, the number of dedicated traffic police officers has fallen by nearly a third in the past decade. In that time, the decline in the number of deaths on our roads has stagnated; indeed, the number of deaths on our roads last year was at its highest since 2011.
In Merseyside, there has been a concerted effort to keep those numbers down, with the ultimate aim of nobody losing their life on our roads. More than 500 people were killed or seriously injured there in 2017, which was a significant drop from 599 the previous year. I pay tribute to Jane Kennedy for the personal lead she has provided in seeking seriously to reduce those numbers. Every single death or injury is one too many, and I fear that spending cuts could compromise the vision of zero deaths and serious injuries on our roads.
I briefly pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Bobby Colleran Trust, which campaigns for road safety around schools. It was set up by the family and friends of Bobby Colleran, a little boy who died on his way home from Blackmoor Park Infant School in West Derby in my constituency. They have dedicated themselves to working with schools, the local authority and others to limit the number of injuries and deaths, and to make our roads—especially those near schools—safer.
Rising crime and police cuts affect our communities, but they also directly affect those who work in the police service. Last week, a national Police Federation survey of 18,000 officers of all ranks found that nearly 90% of officers say that the police are understaffed. Responses from Merseyside reveal that 84% of officers say that not enough officers are available for the job to be done properly; that 72% are often or always single-crewed; and that 76% experienced stress and anxiety in the previous year. The survey paints an all-too-familiar picture to those of us who talk to police officers working in our constituencies. They are over-burdened, stressed out and often exhausted. They work under immense pressure with fewer resources at a time of rising crime.
Tragically, we have seen in Merseyside several shocking incidents of officers being targeted while carrying out their duties, including the tragic example of PC Dave Phillips, who was killed in a hit and run in Wallasey, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). Other incidents include a petrol bombing at a scene in Anfield and an officer being stabbed in Huyton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth).
There remains a lot of uncertainty over future funding levels for Merseyside police. I am told that the force’s own forecast is that, over the medium term, it may need to make further savings of around £22 million to balance the books. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that the Government recognise the scale of the challenge facing Merseyside police, and that there is the potential for new money to bridge this funding gap and provide the force with the resources it so desperately needs to tackle rising levels of crime.
It surely cannot be right that the largest cuts in police funding hit the communities with the greatest social and economic need. I urge the Home Office to engage with Merseyside police to address this serious funding crisis as a matter of urgency.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg), whom I congratulate on securing this timely debate. I agree with much of what he had to say, particularly on the consequences of year-on-year real-terms cuts. There is no doubt that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government from 2010 and the Tory Governments that succeeded them from 2015 slashed the capacity of Merseyside police to do the job that it does so well and that we all need it to do. My hon. Friend is correct that there has been, in effect, a 32% reduction in central Government funding in that time.
Even if we take into account the extra income raised by the allowed increase in the precept—he set out some of the issues relating to that, which I will come back to—there has still been a 21% reduction in real terms. My hon. Friend made it clear that it is not easy to raise the precept, partly because there is a low council tax base across Merseyside, and partly because the people who have to pay it face other cost pressures—they not only have to pay other precepts, but they are already hard-pressed to pay their ordinary bills. We therefore cannot simply keep saying that the precept can be raised.
It is a particularly deplorable trait—I do not blame the Minister personally for this—that the Government have tried to claim in the figures they put out that the increase in the precept is an increase in the money from them. The Department and Ministers—perhaps the Minister could address this—should stop including the money raised from the precept, if it is all collected, in the grant money, which gives the idea that the Government have handed over the money, when they have not. The difference it makes to Merseyside this year is between £8 million—the additional money that the Government have given—and £18 million. The Government cannot claim that they have given Merseyside police an increase of £18 million, as they repeatedly do.
There has been a switch from central Government funding to a reliance on hard-pressed council tax payers to pay for basic policing needs and to try to ameliorate the declining ability of the police. The force is down a quarter of its officers—1,120 police officers have gone on Merseyside. Although the increase of 40 that the police and crime commissioner is hoping to introduce this year is incredibly welcome, that does not make much of an impression, given that 1,120 officers and half of our PCSOs have gone.
Neighbourhood policing is particularly hard hit when hard choices have to be made about what the police can afford to do, because something has to give. That stores up problems for the future in a way that cannot be calculated at this stage. PCSOs and neighbourhood policing are the eyes and ears of the police. Neighbourhood policing prevents future crime and diverts young people and those who are going off the rails from the path they are choosing. It can lead to less crime in the future. To get rid of neighbourhood policing and make it impossible is a false economy. It is stupid in policy terms. It is damaging to the police’s future capacity to do their job.
Investigations have also been hard hit. If the police cannot investigate crime, crime does not get solved. People get away with crime, and lives of crime can continue with some reward. That is not a good way of dealing with possible future difficulties.
There has been an overall increase in all crimes on Merseyside of 29% in the past five years, and 12% in the past year. We are seeing an accelerating increase in crime on Merseyside. After 10 years of year-on-year, real-terms cuts in resource, that is not surprising. It is accelerating and will accelerate more if the Government do not realise that they cannot have policing in an area like Merseyside on the cheap. They must resource policing better, otherwise this will get worse.
That is without taking into consideration the new types of crime that we are beginning to see: there is masses of cyber-crime and online fraud, and people in our society have other vulnerabilities and need to be protected. New crime is coming along to challenge traditional policing, but old types of crimes are also coming back and increasing on Merseyside. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred to knife crime, as did the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), and it has increased by 31% in the past year—a huge increase that includes fatal stabbings.
A number of us, including my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) and other Merseyside colleagues, have met Ministers from this Government and the previous one for three or four years. We have raised issues of gun crime and gangs, but we have received not one iota of help or one extra penny to deal with those issues. It is about time the Government ensured that Merseyside police, which is excellent at dealing with criminal gangs, gets the resources to turn back the tide which, at present, is rising.
Last week, the Liverpool Echo reported that there have been nine incidents of firearm discharge on Merseyside streets so far this year. The year is not very old. Those incidents include one fatal shooting. Another chap was shot while holding his child in his arms, and it would not have taken much for that incident to have been even worse than it ended up being. There has been a 29% increase in demand for police services on Merseyside in the past five years, but at the same time the overall police establishment has reduced by 22% and we have had year-on-year cuts. It is not rocket science, and it does not take a genius to see that that situation will lead to more, and worse, problems in future.
Merseyside police is consistently recognised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services as one of the best performing metropolitan forces, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to do the job. Is it any wonder that those Merseyside police who took part in the Police Federation capacity and welfare survey, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred, reported a job satisfaction rating of four out of 10? Some 84% of police said that there were not enough officers to do the job properly, 67% said that their workload was “too high” or “much too high”, and 72% stated that they were often or always single-crewed. More than three quarters of those surveyed indicated that stress, low mood, anxiety or other health and wellbeing difficulties were assailing them and had done so in the previous year.
The Government claim that they have increased funds to Merseyside police—that is what we heard in the debate on the police grant report on the Floor of the House last week. Merseyside police has received a 5.8% cash increase for 2019-20, which is the joint lowest in the country together with Cleveland police. Therefore, the £8 million extra—that is £8 million, not £18 million—simply funds the police pension gap that has opened up because of the change in Government policy. What the Government are giving with one hand has already been taken away with the other before it is given. That £8 million will not lead to one extra police officer on our streets, and no Government money has been given to the police on Merseyside to help with policing on the streets next year. There has been no new money to provide policing services on Merseyside since 2010-11, only cuts. That is the reality, and it is simply not good enough.
Despite the horrendous and ongoing challenges, I commend Merseyside police and our police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, for making good things happen when they can. They are using the extra precept money—the £10 million they hope to raise—to balance the budget and recruit an extra 40 police officers. That will make a dent in the 1,120 who have gone, but not much of one.
Through the careful use of inadequate resources, they can still do some good. Last year, a concerted focus on reducing burglary in dwelling houses, known as Operation Castle, resulted in a 22% fall, which equates to 1,616 fewer crimes of that distressing kind. In the last year, perpetrators of burglaries on dwelling houses have been sentenced to 130 years for those offences, which has taken dangerous and often repeat offenders off our streets. There is always more to be done, but that is a real achievement.
I commend the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable for recognising that police stations in communities that need them are a valuable resource. In that respect, they have recognised the campaigning efforts of Labour councillors and campaigners in Halewood and have undertaken to refurbish Halewood police station and open an new community police station in that building later this year. I welcome the extensive refurbishment of an asset once earmarked for closure. I commend the efforts of local Labour councillors on Halewood Town Council and Knowsley Council for their excellent and focused campaign, which has resulted in that good news.
In closing, however, if the Minister cannot offer Merseyside police far more resources, the crime issues that are building and worsening on Merseyside will only worsen further.
May I, too, say how good it is to serve under you in the Chair, Sir Edward? I add my thanks to Jane Kennedy, the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside and to Merseyside police. My hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) have given us a comprehensive survey of the current situation, particularly the financial problems that Merseyside police faces, which I will say a bit about in a moment.
My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby made the point that a police officer was stabbed in my constituency, which brings home, sharply and regrettably, the risks that police officers face when going about their everyday business of trying to keep us safe. I will return to knife crime in a minute.
As has already been said, Merseyside police has had to make more than £110 million of savings since 2010 and as a consequence, the police officer establishment has been reduced by 1,120, which is a fall of 24.4%. That must have consequences; it cannot simply be brushed aside as, “Well, we don’t need them.” I want to talk about how some of those consequences affect my constituents.
I will make three points. On gun crime, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby has already stated the statistics, but I will repeat them for emphasis. In Merseyside, there were 79 firearm discharges in 2018 and 94 firearm discharges in 2017. Of the discharges in 2018, 13—16%—were in Knowsley, and in 2017, 22% were in Knowsley. That means that guns are now considered something relatively normal in some sections of the community, which was unthinkable when I was growing up in the area and cannot be right. There must be some connection between that and the level of policing that Merseyside police can provide.
Knife crime has become commonplace, and 88 knife incidents in Knowsley in one year is really frightening. It is frightening, first, that the knives seem to be readily available, and secondly, that the—mainly young—people who use them seem to think that doing so is perfectly normal. Again, that must be linked to the level of policing provided. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby rightly referred to the policing model. Neighbourhood policing has now been abandoned, so the intelligence needed to deal with this problem, such as who has the knives, where they are getting them from and all that important information, is not being gathered to the same extent. That is not the police’s fault; they simply do not have the resources.
I will make one further point on knife and gun crime before I move on. This is not unique to Knowsley or to the Merseyside police force area; to a different scale in different places, it exists everywhere. There are a group of young people in this country who will probably not get any GCSEs. Most will get an apprenticeship, find work and make their way in the world. However, there is a sub-group within that who, maybe because of family influence or other influences in the neighbourhood, see a life of crime as being a perfectly normal progression. We need to do much more with those young people, to make them appreciate that, first, that is not normal; secondly, that they have the potential to do other things—really good things in some cases—with their lives; and thirdly, that they need to be in a position where they can provide for a family in later life, and not by the haphazard means of the proceeds of crime.
My second point is on antisocial behaviour. Merseyside police says, and the statistics show, that there has been a recent 32% reduction in the number of reported incidents of antisocial behaviour—[Interruption.] I have to say that that is not my experience as a local MP, and I can see from the reaction of my hon. Friends that they feel the same. I simply say that I held two advice surgeries on Friday evening—one in Huyton and one in Kirkby—and most of the cases brought to me were in some way related to antisocial behaviour.
I also think that the term “antisocial behaviour” often does not properly describe the sort of problems we are talking about. For example, with the local social housing provider, Knowsley Housing Trust, I have been dealing with a case of a woman in north Huyton who cannot step out of the door without a volley of abuse being thrown at her by neighbours. The police might classify that as a neighbourly dispute, but when someone is literally afraid to step out of the door because of the abuse they will get from neighbours, that is serious.
People have a right to a reasonably quiet life in which they should not expect daily abuse to be normal, yet in some cases it is. There are people in housing need who might be in a perfectly nice, well-maintained house that they pay the rent on, but they want to move out to get away from the trouble. That cannot be right. There cannot be places in this country where those subjected to antisocial behaviour feel that the only way they can escape it is to move house. Again, it comes back to whether the policing resources are there to deal with the problem. The police are honest about that and say there are not.
There is some light at the end of that particular tunnel, certainly in Knowsley. Knowsley Council, as my hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood is aware, is looking within its resources to see what more support it can provide to the police to get on top of antisocial behaviour. However, should that be the responsibility of the local authority?
The Minister nods her head and says yes from a sedentary position. Perhaps up to a point she is right, but at the end of the day Knowsley Council does not have the powers to intervene in such cases without the support of the police. All it can do is to help to point the police in the right direction, perhaps building up a case with some evidence, but in the end it has to be a policing matter.
Finally, I agree with my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby and for Garston and Halewood in that I welcome the increase in the precept and that it is not how policing should be paid for. The increase will not have the impact that we need, but nevertheless I welcome it. Late last week, Merseyside police announced that they were going to downgrade Kirkby police station in my constituency, so that it will be open to the public on only two days a week. I recognise that we do not want police to sit in police stations; we want them out on the streets doing things. To be honest, however, if people want to report a crime, to get into a dialogue with the police about antisocial behaviour that they are experiencing or to give information on gun and knife crime when PCSOs are not out and about on the streets, the only place they can do so is at the police station.
I also question the way that the announcement was made on social media. The local councillors and I were alerted to the announcement on social media, but was that any consultation whatever? Is that any way in which to do it? I know why the police had to do it—because they have problems with resources—but I question the method.
A group of local councillors has been invited to meet Merseyside police tomorrow. Those councillors will put the case against the downgrade strongly. The leader of the council, Councillor Graham Morgan, has written to Jane Kennedy, and I will quote from what he said, because I agree with him. This relates back to the decision about the increase in the precept:
“The Chief Constable, and yourself for that matter, had the opportunity to let Cllr Aston know that you were planning the same thing for Kirkby ahead of her formally considering your Precept proposal on Knowsley’s behalf. Nothing at all was mentioned!
As you know, Cllr Aston moved the proposal and Knowsley reluctantly supported you, noting that colleagues in St Helens were not in a position to do so given the issues relating to Newton Police Station”—
which my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) raised in a debate in this very Chamber. The letter continues:
“I ask myself would we have taken this course of action”—
to vote for the increase in the precept—
“if we were made aware that we too were going to see a reduction, almost identical to that faced by our colleagues in St Helens?”
For the leader of Knowsley Council, the sort of person who tries to be reasonable with everyone, to write in such strong terms is an indication of how annoyed the community are about that. I share that annoyance. When the police meet the local councillors tomorrow, I hope that they will reach a solution that does not involve virtually closing down Kirkby police station for most of the week.
Unless Ministers appreciate the terrible circumstances in which the police have to operate throughout the Merseyside police force area, and do so quickly, I am afraid that we will have this debate repeatedly, with some of the problems that we are concerned about just going up and up. That cannot be right.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Edward. I will not repeat the stark figures that my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) and for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) put on the record, which show the terrible difficulties the Government’s decisions about police funding have left both the chief constable, Andy Cooke, and our PCC, Jane Kennedy, in over the years. Suffice it to say that we have seen an increase in demand, a rapid acceleration in crime, a significant reduction in the resources to deal with that demand, and a huge reduction in numbers, which has led to the loss of those eyes and ears that all our communities were so used to seeing when the Merseyside force pioneered the introduction of neighbourhood policing.
I do not think anyone in the room—I certainly hope that includes the Minister—would have anything other than praise for the Merseyside force and the individuals who make up the service. Merseyside police regularly outperforms other police forces. It has made huge efficiency savings over the years and was ahead of the curve in that respect, but it appears to have been punished for that by the scale of the cuts it has had to make. Merseyside police feels very much that it has been made to suffer for entering into the spirit of making efficiency savings and transforming the service. The Minister needs to recognise that my hon. Friends and I—some of us more than others—all represent areas of very complex and difficult policing challenges, particularly with organised crime and gangs, the like of which it is rare to see outside the Met.
The Minister will probably make all the usual arguments about how, really, the Government have massively increased resources and everyone should be able to manage with a bit of snipping and efficiency here, there and everywhere. However, the false economies of the cuts to prevention that decisions by the Minister and her Government are forcing on the Merseyside force will come back to haunt us in the not-too-distant future. Because many of the officers who remain are forced to do so much more with far fewer resources, they are becoming overstretched, and that is affecting their ability and capacity to do their job, their enthusiasm for the job and their mental health. Some of them are approaching burn-out, as demonstrated by the review my hon. Friends mentioned.
Aside from storing up trouble for the future, what do the cuts and pressures that the Minister and her Government colleagues are presiding over mean for our communities? What kind of society are my constituents in Wallasey and everyone else in Merseyside expected to put up with? It is one where respect for the law is decreasing rather than increasing; one where communities are cynical about reporting what is going on because they never get an adequate response; one where the police have to make really difficult choices about who to respond to and whether to respond in any meaningful way at all; and one where the wrong incentives are demonstrated day in, day out. It teaches that crime can pay and that the police are so overstretched that they will not arrive and deal with issues, so low-level crime begins to escalate, and that they are beginning to lose control of the streets.
There have been incidents in my constituency, which by some definitions is at the quieter end of the Merseyside area, of thugs arriving at people’s doors and threatening them if they have complained about scrambler bikes and low-level crime. The police have been to visit, and the thugs have come back and threatened members of the household for supporting each other and trying to do the right thing. The fact that the police do not have the resources to follow up makes previously law-abiding citizens, who believed that the police were there to help them, frightened to stay in those areas. They become increasingly cynical about reporting anything because they do not think the police can respond properly, and it makes them really question their values. That is what the Minister and her Government are presiding over by not funding our services properly.
What kind of society are we building if the cuts to the Merseyside force have stretched it to that extent? Given the emergence of county lines problems, no one should think for a minute that the issues that people have to live with in inner-city areas will not spread. They will, and we are now beginning to see them spread down train lines to areas that were previously untouched. We are seeing the increasing exploitation of people by organised gangs for drug purposes and the spread of really bad behaviour, which wreaks havoc in formerly quiet and law-abiding communities. That creates even more difficult problems and provides the wrong incentives.
I urge the Minister to give us some comfort that the Government will not continue unfairly expecting people on council tax band A and in poorer, more deprived areas to pay for the increasing cost of policing in areas that were difficult to start with, but that the Government will take their share of responsibility, step up to the plate and fund the forces of law and order that keep our society safe and secure. That would give people the confidence to plan, to be out on the street, to talk to each other and to have a proper community, rather than cower behind their doors, worried about antisocial behaviour and thuggery, which is spreading. The Minister must assure us that she has heard what we are saying and that her Government will respond in a way that will make a difference. They must reassure us and our constituents that they will fund our police services properly and will not resort to the unfair practice of putting the biggest burden of policing on those who are least able to cope with it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I completely endorse everything my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this debate.
Sam Cook, my constituent, was murdered in Liverpool city centre just over a year ago on the night of his 21st birthday celebration. He was in a bar, somebody shoved his girlfriend, he stepped in to intervene and was stabbed. He died, despite desperate attempts to save his life. Sam’s dad, Alan, spoke to me recently about his son. He said that he received that knock on the door that no one ever wants to receive. I left a message for him before the debate and said that I would be thinking of him throughout it. He wants to pay tribute to his son in the best way he feels able to—by succeeding in his campaign to reduce the number of knives on our streets. Let me set out what he said about Sam:
“He would come in and make everyone laugh. He was a joker and he always had a smile on his face. He was a decent kid too. All his friends went to Sam if ever there was an issue. He was sensible in the head.”
That was the glowing tribute paid to this young man by his dad, but however decent he was, he was still a victim of appalling knife crime.
We have heard already from my right hon. and hon. Friends the figures for the increase in violent crime that we face across Merseyside. I have the figures for knife crime over the past year. There was a total of 914 crimes involving knives on Merseyside between April 2018 and January 2019. That is an increase of 217 such crimes—an increase of 31%—compared with in the same period in the previous year. There have been two fatal stabbings, within the figures, in the past two years. One of the victims was Sam Cook, whom I have mentioned.
What Alan Cook is calling for is no more knives. What he is calling for is the action that the Government could take to increase the opportunity, through legislation, to reduce the number of knives on our streets and to reduce the potential for what has happened to his family happening to anybody else. That is uppermost in the mind of Alan and his family. He says:
“I don’t want any other family to go through what we have had to go through”,
because it is the worst thing in the world. I am sure that we would all agree wholeheartedly with that.
The problem is that the increase in knife crime has corresponded with a reduction in the number of officers on our streets. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have reminded us, central Government funding has seen a real-terms reduction of 32%, and there has been an overall reduction of 21% in real terms, after account has been taken of precept increases. Since the 2010-11 financial year, the precept element of funding for Merseyside police has risen significantly, going up from 15% of the force’s funding to 23% by next year. This is all because of the low council tax base that we have across most of the boroughs of Merseyside.
The force has made more than £110 million of savings. My hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) made the point that it feels as though it is being penalised for doing so. Over the period to which I have referred, the consequence of the cuts in funding has been a reduction in the workforce overall of 1,614. That is a fall of 22%, which is higher than the national figure of 18%. There has been a fall in the number of police officers of 1,120—a reduction of 24.4%, which is way above the 15% national average. That has been accompanied by a 46% fall in the number of PCSOs. That figure is also above the national average, which was 40% in that period. There are 215 fewer PCSOs.
Police staff numbers are also down. Not just the frontline but the very important support staff are affected; no one should ever be in any doubt about the importance of support staff and the work that they do. I spent a very interesting morning at the force control centre not long ago. I watched just how hard the staff in that centre, both uniformed and non-uniformed, work in trying to keep Merseyside safe.
We have had the biggest cuts. We have the lowest tax base. We have the biggest cuts in grant and the smallest potential to raise funds from council tax, as we have heard from my colleagues. But we still face one of the lowest increases in central Government funding, despite having the greatest need for resources because of the scale of the problems that we face. All this is not in isolation, because it goes alongside cuts elsewhere in the public sector. The cuts to the youth service have been especially severe—hundreds of millions of pounds across the country—and probation service funding is down 30% in the past three years.
I mention probation because the man who has now been convicted of murdering Sam Cook was on licence, having been convicted previously of being in possession of an offensive weapon. He was wandering round the streets of Blackpool waving a machete. He was given 16 months but was released after serving half that period and was then able to go and murder Sam Cook. The problem is that the public sector does not have the resources to prevent reoffending and to keep tabs on individuals such as the one who carried out that appalling crime.
We have a problem not only in direct services, but in council services more generally. The police service has to backfill for the National Health Service, especially in supporting people suffering from poor mental health, and there are other examples where officers carry out duties that are not part of mainstream policing. All these things add up to huge pressure on police time and contribute to making it much harder for the police to respond. In the case of Sam Cook, the issue was about prevention and making sure that they played their part in ensuring that he was kept safe. The increases in the number of knife crimes are all linked to the wider picture.
Like my hon. and right hon. Friends, I want to pay tribute to Merseyside police, whose officers do a very good job. Andy Cooke and Jane Kennedy work extremely hard at keeping our communities as safe as possible. We heard reference to Operation Castle, which has had a significant impact in reducing the level of burglary and recognises the damage that it does both physically and psychologically to its victims. We have also been told that unless additional resources are forthcoming, such an approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain, just as it will become harder to reverse the increase in violent crime that we have heard about in the examples given by me and my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I looked at the Hansard from 4 February and the Minister’s response to the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker) on the proposed introduction of knife crime prevention orders. I said earlier that Alan Cook wants tougher laws introduced to help reduce knife crime, and I suppose knife crime prevention orders might be part of the answer. The Minister might remind us, as she did on 4 February, that the police want such orders introduced. I do not doubt that for one moment. However, if we see a continued decline in the number of police officers who can respond, and a reduction in the numbers of officers and their partners across the public sector because of continued pressure on public sector finances, who will carry out the knife crime prevention orders? Who will implement the new policy? Who will be there to police our streets and prevent knife crime and other violent crime from continuing to escalate?
I notice from the urgent question and the responses from the Minister that what is happening in Merseyside is repeated again and again right across the country. The same pattern is evident: a clear increase in the number of knives on our streets and in the number of attacks, as well as a fall in the amount of resources available. I want to be able to go away today and say to Alan Cook and his family and to Sam’s friends that the Minister agreed that Alan’s campaign for no more knives was the right campaign to support. Not only that, I want to say that she also said she would look seriously at giving an increase to Merseyside and other parts of the country where these things are a problem and where the resources that are needed are not there. We have those additional pressures, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have shown that the increase does not leave us at anything more than a standstill. I want the Minister to look very seriously at how our police are funded so that we can keep our communities safe and prevent any more Sam Cooks from happening.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. This has been a fantastic debate with some wonderful advocates from the Merseyside force area. We have had a true overview of the issues facing Merseyside police and its funding. I do not know whether we can call it a debate when everyone has agreed so wholeheartedly with each other, and it will not surprise the Minister that I am about to agree wholeheartedly with the points my right hon. and hon. Friends have made.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this vital debate. He passionately laid out the case that Merseyside has suffered significantly from being one of the forces worst hit by funding cuts, resulting in the loss of almost half of Merseyside’s PCSOs and more than 1,100 officers. As a result of its low council tax base and the increased cuts to the Home Office central grant caused by the political failure to review the police funding formula, it is continuing to receive a deeply unfair funding settlement.
The cuts have consequences, as we have heard. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby mentioned the increase in firearms offences, as well as off-road bikes and related offences. He also mentioned the number of people dying through cuts to the number of road safety officers and the consequential impact on the welfare of our police officers and staff.
My hon. Friend the Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) spoke about the 21% real-terms reduction, even including the allowed precept rise. She was absolutely right to say that an absolutely deplorable trait of this Government is to pretend that somehow they are being generous in allowing our hard-pressed ratepayers to pay more in council tax. The chair of the UK Statistics Authority agreed with her when he wrote to the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary last year to insist that they stop making such claims, because the claims were “misleading the public”.
My hon. Friend spoke about the consequences for neighbourhood policing and investigations, the huge demand caused by new crimes, such as cyber-crime, and the increase in traditional demand caused by things such as knife crime, which is plaguing so many of our communities. She mentioned the consequential impacts on faith in the police, and the Home Affairs Committee has found that, too. The very legitimacy of our police is at stake. The situation is undeniably leading to a lack of confidence in reporting to the police, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle) mentioned, and confidence that they will be able to act at all on those reports.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) spoke about the consequences that sadly resulted in a police officer being stabbed in his constituency. The safety of our officers and staff is increasingly being put at risk. More people are single-crewed when responding to crime. Guns are increasingly available and knife crime is increasingly normalised, particularly for young people on our streets. My hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) spoke about the tragic murder of Sam Cook on his 21st birthday. It is hard to escape the conclusion that that was not at least in part down to cuts to policing and prevention and the massive failure in the privatisation of our probation service.
As we have heard, nine years of brutal cuts to our police service have led to stark consequences on the streets of Merseyside. The precept increase will raise just £8.4 million, in comparison with Surrey, which has a smaller population and substantially less violent crime, where the police force will be able to raise £3.5 million more. As has been said, almost all additional funding from central Government will be spent on covering the cost of pension increases that have been passed to Merseyside police by a changed Government policy. That is completely and utterly unacceptable.
From 594 incidents of knife crime in 2010 to more than 11,000 today, Merseyside police have suffered one of the highest rises in violent crime of any force in the country. It has one of the highest rates of gun crime per head, and it is little wonder that its chief constable, Andy Cooke, stated:
“So have I got sufficient resources to fight gun crime? No, I haven’t. I will put all of the resources I have available to it and we will continue to see some excellent convictions…but if I had more staff would I put them to deal with gun crime? Yes I would.”
At the heart of the inequity in the Government’s approach to funding our police, particularly in Merseyside, is the fact that it is based on the ability of an area to pay—it is based on the number of large houses that that police force happens to have in its area. When we consider the picture for police forces nationwide, that is not only unfair but reckless. The greatest challenges facing our police forces are the surge in violent crime, child sexual exploitation, risks from terrorism, county lines and cyber-crime. Those challenges do not present an even picture across the country because crime rates are higher in metropolitan areas such as Merseyside. It is therefore completely perverse that forces such as Merseyside police, which have suffered the greatest cuts, should receive least from the funding settlement.
Last month the Government should have presented a funding settlement that meets need and demand, but instead of using any of the investment provided by the Home Office to help meet the operational demands caused by missing persons, child sexual exploitation and serious crime, every penny of central Government funding will be sunk into pension costs that the Government have imposed on forces. That is perverse and will create a postcode lottery in policing, meaning that those communities that cannot afford to pay will see policing get worse and worse.
As has been said, Merseyside is an excellent police force with exceptional officers from the chief constable, Andy Cooke, to the frontline and the hardworking police community support officers and staff. The force has fantastic advocates in its parliamentary representatives and its police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, who consistently make the case for a fairer funding settlement. It seems, however, that with this Government in office Merseyside police will never get the funding that it needs or deserves.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I congratulate the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) on securing this important debate, and I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for contributing.
Before we get to the rough and tumble of political debate, I wish to reflect on the cases that colleagues have raised of deaths in their constituencies. The hon. Gentleman spoke about Bobby, which is a terribly sad case, and our thoughts are with his parents and his family. The right hon. Member for Knowsley (Mr Howarth) spoke about Police Constable Dave Phillips, and again our thoughts are with his family. Any murder is a terrible event, but to my mind, the killing of a police officer goes to the heart of our society and values, and we are reminded that police officers are on the frontline every day.
We heard movingly from the hon. Member for Sefton Central (Bill Esterson) about Sam Cook—about the terrible loss of that young man’s life on his birthday, and his father’s extraordinary strength in setting up a charity to help other families and ensure that they do not suffer as his has. If it would meet with his approval, I would be delighted to meet Mr Cook and learn more about the work that he does in his local area.
I am extremely grateful to colleagues for the way they have conducted this debate. One point on which we can all agree is our wish to thank officers and police staff who work to protect people and communities in Merseyside. I pay tribute to them and thank them for their work, just as I thank colleagues across the country for the work they do day in, day out to keep us safe and fight crime.
I am struck that many colleagues raised the welfare of officers. The Policing Minister cares deeply about that, as do I, not least because particular types of crime, such as child sexual exploitation, can be incredibly trying for any human being to work on. I am always keen to ensure, as are the Policing Minister and the Home Secretary, that our officers are looked after in the course of doing their jobs, which are often very stressful. Hon. Members may be interested to know that the national police welfare service run by the College of Policing will commence in April, which I hope will bolster and consolidate all the efforts that happen at the local level. We want to spread good practice nationally as well.
I must mention my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Damien Moore), who is on an armed forces visit at the moment but who spoke to me last week, ahead of the debate, to emphasise his thanks and to pay tribute to his local police officers and staff. I am sure that he would want that to be reflected.
The first role of Government is of course to protect citizens. The Government are determined to ensure that the police have the powers and resources they need to keep our citizens and communities safe. We absolutely recognise that there are major pressures on the police, including in Merseyside. There has been a major increase in the reporting of high-harm crimes such as child sexual exploitation and modern slavery, many of which were previously hidden behind closed doors. We absolutely acknowledge that violent crime in Merseyside has sadly risen recently. I hope in a moment to go into a little more detail on the national strategies to fight serious organised crime and serious violence, what we are trying to achieve at the national level, and the impact that I hope that will have at the local level.
The title of the debate requires me to talk about funding. I know that there is not agreement across the House on the approach to funding. I feel obliged to remind people, as I do on such occasions, that these tough decisions were taken in 2010 and thereafter because of the financial situation that the country found itself in. They have been very tough decisions, but as of 2015, at the insistence of the then Home Secretary, who is now the Prime Minister, we have been in a position to protect police funding.
There is a great debate in my home constabulary of Lincolnshire at the moment, which, although very rural, has its crime demands and faces similar pressures. The problem, as we have discussed before and as the Policing Minister has gone through in detail, is that the funding formula needs reform.
The hon. Lady says, “Do it then.” We tried to do it in 2017 and sadly were not able to achieve that. We have tried since the general election to consolidate the formula as it is at the moment. The Policing Minister has spoken to every single chief constable and police and crime commissioner about the needs in their local area, to try to make the existing formula work and to reflect the rising demand. We are conscious that the demands on the police are changing, which is why the Home Secretary has made dealing with police funding a priority in the next comprehensive spending review.
Progress on the formula would be very welcome, particularly to meet the point that several hon. Members raised about areas with high deprivation. Can the Minister respond to my specific point about the fact that the additional funds this year essentially cover the pension shortfall? What prospects are there that that money, at least, will be available again in future years?
We have been conscious of the impact that the rule changes would have on constabularies. That was discussed in 2016, I think, and there was an expectation that forces would be able to go some way to ameliorating the increase. Following the conversations that the Policing Minister had with chief constables, we have secured more money from the Treasury to try to cover the majority of that pension increase. I accept that a proportion still falls on local forces, but we have managed to secure some assistance towards the overall cost.
I will ask the Policing Minister to write to the hon. Gentleman about next year. We are working towards the comprehensive spending review and I imagine that the message from this debate and others will be heard loud and clear by the Policing Minister and, importantly, by the Treasury.
I return to the fact that we have tried to increase police funding; last year, we increased it by up to £460 million. Contrary to allegations from Opposition Members, I have always been clear that it has been with the help of police and crime commissioners that we have helped, as a society, to inject that further money into policing.
Similarly, this year, we are injecting up to £970 million more, again with the help of police and crime commissioners. That is why I am pleased that the police and crime commissioner for Merseyside has conducted her consultation, won the support of more than 74% of respondents for her proposals, and can raise council tax by £2 per month on band D households.
Will the Minister recognise, on the record, that by doing things in that way and by bringing local taxpayers into the formula, she is saying to my constituents and the constituents of all hon. Members on this side of the Chamber that people in the poorest areas, who are least able to cope with tax increases, have to pay them because they happen to live in an area with greater demands on policing? Why is that not the national Government’s duty? Why should our constituents have that unfair burden put on them?
That is where the hon. Lady and I part in our political philosophy. There is no such thing as Government money; it is taxpayers’ money, collected centrally, that is paid to police constabularies. None the less, we have been careful to protect and increase Government grants where we can.
I am sure we could have many a philosophical discussion about what taxpayers’ money is, but that would be for another time. Even with that difference of view, will the Minister not admit that using the council tax system puts a greater burden on the people who are least able to pay, because of the regressive way that council tax is worked out? We have many constituents in band E properties who are, by definition, asset poorer and generally poorer than those in higher council tax bands, but she is suggesting that there should be a redistribution from people in better-off areas to those in poorer areas, who will be forced to pay more. How is that fair?
There is still funding from central Government. We are concentrating on the direct funding formula for the force, but there are other ways in which police forces receive money to target particular needs in their communities. For example, with the issue of serious organised crime, which has been raised today, I am delighted that Andy Cooke, the chief constable, is in fact the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on serious organised crime. He brings his expertise to that role.
Through the funding settlement, there is a national grant of £90 million to tackle serious and organised crime. Regarding the local area, I think the hon. Member for Garston and Halewood (Maria Eagle) said that there was not a penny being put towards serious organised crime—I hope she will forgive me if I have misquoted her, but it was something along those lines. We are funding a serious organised crime community co-ordinator in Merseyside and Cheshire, as one of five pilot areas with a specific focus, and through this pilot programme we are looking to increase significantly our focus on diverting people away from serious organised crime and on building resilience.
In addition, the North West regional organised crime unit is providing specialist serious organised crime policing capabilities and advice to its six host forces, which include Merseyside. We want very much to help local PCC funding across those forces by supplementing their funding through core grant funding, as we did last year. The hon. Member for Garston and Halewood specifically raised the point about cyber-crime. The North West ROCU has been allocated £434,000 of specific funding for cyber protect and prevent officers, and an international standards officer, so there is funding from sources other than the grant.
I did actually say that as a consequence of the meetings—the repeated meetings—that we have had with Ministers, and despite having been given many promises, not a penny-piece extra has been forthcoming. Merseyside police is an acknowledged expert at dealing with guns and gangs. It does not need “advice”; it needs money in order to do things. It is good that the chief constable is the lead, but that does not give him an extra penny-piece to deal with the issues.
I am conscious, Sir Edward, that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby will want to respond, so forgive me if I race through.
On serious violence, a great deal is being done at a national level. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle), who specifically mentioned the rise of county lines. She will know—having, I am sure, read our serious violence strategy—that we are very conscious of the impact of drugs as a driver of serious violence, which is why we are doing so much on early intervention, including providing a £200 million youth endowment fund for the next 10 years.
The right hon. Member for Knowsley mentioned antisocial behaviour. Powers are available to councils as well as to the police, because we are conscious that the police are not always the right people to deal with antisocial behaviour. I encourage him to look at the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014; I am obviously happy to discuss it with him.
I will now sit down to give the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby two minutes to respond. I thank everyone for their contributions.
I thank the Minister for her response, and I thank my hon. Friend the shadow Minister and hon. Friends from across Merseyside for their contributions to what has been a comprehensive debate on this important matter.
This morning, I was on BBC Radio Merseyside, ahead of this debate. The presenter said, “There have been loads of these debates and all the issues get aired, but nothing ever changes.” One of the frustrations of being in Opposition is that, sadly, that is often how it feels.
I appeal to the Minister and to the Policing Minister, who cannot be with us today: I think that my hon. Friends and I have made the case that there needs to be an increase in spending on the police nationally and that the distributional impact of the system fails areas such as Merseyside. The very small amounts of money that the Minister just referred to for co-ordinators and particular programmes are a drop in the ocean compared with the scale of the reduction that we have seen.
We need a fair funding formula in the future that recognises that in areas with a low council tax base, it is simply unjust and wrong to shift the burden on to hard-pressed local taxpayers in the way the Government have done. Nationally, we need policing to be given a higher priority in the spending review. I think that a powerful message from today’s debate is that in a context of rising crime, especially given what we have heard regarding the horrors of the impact of gun and knife crime on our communities, Merseyside needs a fair funding formula, but we also need a spending review that gives due priority to fighting crime and policing our communities.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the funding of Merseyside Police.