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House of Commons Hansard
Police, Fire and Rescue Services: Funding Reductions
20 February 2019
Volume 654

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the effect of reductions in funding of police, fire and rescue services.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I declare an interest as a member of a number of trade union groups, including the Fire Brigades Union parliamentary group. I start by placing on the record my appreciation for and gratitude to our police officers, firefighters and, indeed, NHS staff. I am sure that those sentiments will be shared by all Members.

The focus of the debate relates to the funding of the police and fire services, as pressures affecting those services in my constituency have been more acute in recent months. However, I in no way seek to downplay the funding challenges facing our health service and, in particular, the ambulance service. In many respects, they face similar pressures.

The last Labour Government had a well-known policy; it was a kind of catchphrase: “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. And they had a proud record. Indeed, finance, resources and police numbers were all increased. Being tough on crime was not just a slogan. It meant more visible policing, a priority being placed on community policing, intelligence gathering and the detection of crime. I well recall attending PACT—Police and Communities Together—meetings at which there were consultations with community safety partnerships and local priorities were determined. There was a real sense of partnership.

In 2010, when Labour left office, there was a record number of police officers; it was in excess of 143,000. However, in the last decade, we have seen a systematic reduction in funding and what amounts to a downgrading of the police service. In every community, we can see the effects of the missing police officers who once patrolled our streets.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing the debate. He is absolutely right. Greater Manchester police have lost nearly 2,000 police officers since 2010, and across south Manchester the problem is that the police are so stretched that they struggle to fulfil their duties, including proper investigation of the crimes that are happening. Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the biggest effects of the reduction is a loss of confidence among the local community that crimes will be properly investigated, and that that is not the fault of the police?

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Trust and relationships are built over many years. Sadly, the impact of sustained funding cuts over nine or 10 years has been that much of the good work from the partnership arrangements, and often valuable intelligence, have been lost. It will take a colossal effort to regain that.

There are many implications from having fewer police officers. I am thinking of the reassurance that comes from seeing a police officer talking to residents in Peterlee town centre in my constituency, seeing officers walking down Church Street—a rare occurrence in the current climate—or community police officers gathering intelligence to combat drug dealing or engaging young people to tackle antisocial behaviour.

It is the view of many that the Conservative Government have abandoned their support for law and order by cutting more than 20,000 police officers, taking us back to numbers that we have not seen since the 1980s. Crime is now rising as a result. In my own policing area, Durham, the number of police officers is down by 25% since 2010; we have lost 360 police officers. The National Audit Office report on the financial sustainability of police forces identifies Durham as having lost more resources than any other provincial force between 2010 and 2018-19, with its funding from central Government cut by one third.

I hope that the Minister will join me in acknowledging that, despite every funding challenge being placed before Durham constabulary, credit must go to Chief Constable Mike Barton, Police and Crime Commissioner Ron Hogg and all the officers, staff and support staff of Durham constabulary. It has been rated as the only outstanding force in the country for the past three years, and has the highest crime detection rate in England and Wales. It has endeavoured to overcome its difficulties. Nevertheless, the fact that we have fewer police officers is manifest, and the consequences are there for everyone to see.

I want to say something about Grenfell. The County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue service is experiencing the same financial pressures as the police in my constituency. Before I move on to the circumstances that apply in my constituency, I want to comment on the Channel 4 “Dispatches” episode that aired on Monday night. It was called “Grenfell: Did the Fire Brigade Fail?” Unfortunately, the episode had the same flaw as some of the questioning in the Grenfell inquiry, and was blinkered from the wider context of the incident that led to the dreadful loss of 73 lives because it focused solely on the night of the tragedy.

On 14 June 2017, the London fire brigade was confronted with a fire spreading at an unprecedented rate. The crews’ experience and training would have taught them that, in a high-rise building, a fire would be contained within a flat in an individual concrete unit built to contain the fire. In such cases, it is clear why a policy of “stay put” would work. On that night, as the fire developed, the crews on the ground had to make decisions in that moment of pressure, panic and uncertainty. I ask everyone to consider what they would do in that moment, with a fire spreading rapidly in an unexpected manner, with lives being lost in front of them, watching colleagues and friends entering a building in the belief that they might not return. Are we to expect a fire chief on the ground instinctively to change established policy and procedures that had been ingrained into the service through training, and to develop new strategies on the spot?

To scapegoat the firefighters—the men and women who bravely risk their lives in a service whose purpose is to preserve life—is nothing short of a scandal. It will not get us any nearer finding those responsible for the tragedy. In the opinion of many people, including me, the fire service and the firefighters did not fail. The building and the policy failed. Policy fails when faulty and unsafe electrical appliances are not tested, when building regulations fail and when substandard windows do not contain the fire. A local authority fails when the cheap cladding that was used to wrap the high-rise building is actually made of flammable materials. Business fails when the companies that installed the cladding and produced it do not act when their product fails to meet safety standards.

It is easy to attack the fire service for decisions made in a moment of extreme pressure, but at some point those who made the decisions with time and forethought that placed residents in a dangerous building will have to be held to account. Perhaps that is not for this debate, but that programme raised such questions that I felt that I had to put something on the record.

I am offended when the fire service and firefighters are unfairly attacked. I have seen that in my constituency. County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue service is currently consulting on changes, as it is trying to manage excessive Government cuts. It has set out a number of options and is asking the public for their views. I have never met a fire chief or a firefighter who does not want to recruit more firefighters. The barrier to recruiting more firefighters is finance, which is determined by central Government, combined with the local authority precept. Our problem is that we are being systematically underfunded, and as a result, the fire service in our area is being downgraded. The Minister may disagree, but how can the loss of 11,000 firefighter posts nationally—one in five posts—be described as anything other than a downgrade of the service?

The scale of cuts to the fire service is nothing less than a national scandal. County Durham and Darlington fire and rescue service has lost 58% of its Government funding since 2012. In the current four-year settlement, its Government funding will reduce from £10.9 million to £8.9 million, and Government support for new fire appliances and other vital equipment has been almost totally axed. Hon. Members may recall that, some years ago, we were actually encouraged to develop resilience and to acquire equipment, particularly pumping equipment and boats, which might not be used so much in our area but could support neighbouring brigades during flooding incidents.

Our own chief fire officer in Durham, Stuart Errington, described a £1.3 million stealth cut, stressing:

“I’m not worried about PFI, I’m worried about capital spending.”

I place on the record my thanks to Stuart and to our firefighters for the work they do under the most difficult circumstances. I know from my conversations with the chief fire officer that he has raised concerns with the Minister about cuts and their implications for public safety. He said to me:

“I think everyone thought the cuts would stop after four years.”

He added:

“I’m still lobbying with the Home Office really hard to stop the cuts, because we’re getting to the point where we’re going to see some really big cuts, which will increase the risk to the public.”

I ask Ministers to look at the cuts to the police and to the fire and rescue service and to recognise that they have gone too far and are now endangering the public. The idea that fire services covering Seaham and Peterlee in my constituency could be reduced, at a time when they are actually dealing with more incidents, defies all logic and common sense. It makes the likelihood of death and injury greater, which cannot be acceptable.

I ask the Minister to address funding cuts. One issue in Durham is that the precept is not an effective means of raising finance. As a relatively deprived area, we have a low council tax base. Some 55% of households in County Durham and Darlington—it is more in my constituency—are classed as band A, whereas nationally a typical property is classed as band D. That limits the capacity to increase funding for the fire and rescue authority via the precept, compared with more affluent areas.

An example used by my own police and crime commissioner is that, if Thames Valley police increased its precept by the same amount as Durham, it would raise £17 million a year more. At some point we will have to question the sustainability of the precept as a means of financing both the police service and the fire and rescue service, particularly in the current climate, where the principle of resource equalisation—that more affluent areas should provide support to less affluent areas—which has stood since the second world war, seems to have been abandoned. We increasingly see a postcode lottery in resources and funding.

I point out to the Minister that the demands on policing and fire and rescue services—particularly in areas of high deprivation, such as mine—are complex and need to be funded appropriately. That will require the Government to recognise the needs of communities like mine and the limited ability of local areas to raise the necessary funding via the precept.

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing this important debate. We are discussing some of the most important services in our constituencies—people who are there to keep us safe and who come to our rescue when we are in peril. I am pleased to put on the record my thanks to the police and fire services in West Yorkshire. Regrettably, the lives of the people who work in those services are being made harder by the Government’s decisions. Ultimately, resources are the burning issue.

Our police have to do more work than ever before. Most hon. Members will be familiar with complaints in their inboxes about illegal moped use and related antisocial behaviour, but I am now receiving a growing number of complaints about fighting, threatening behaviour, drug dealing and armed robberies. Violent crime is increasing in West Yorkshire and it feels as though robberies and burglaries are becoming more common. Regrettably, there is also an ongoing investigation into historical child sexual exploitation in north Kirklees.

In such circumstances, one would rightfully expect an increase in our police numbers and resources, so words cannot fully explain my frustration that West Yorkshire police is about to enter its ninth consecutive year of real-terms cuts. West Yorkshire has lost 1,100 police officers and 152 police community support officers, and its overall budget has been reduced by £113 million since 2010. Between 2013 and 2018, there was a mind-boggling 227% rise in violent crime—the largest rise in the country.

It goes without saying that the visibility of officers has reduced, and local anger and blame is increasingly put on the shoulders of the police. We will all have experience of constituents who have been victims of crime and complained about response times or, worse, given up calling the police altogether.

That gets worse when there is a spate of crimes. In Birstall in my constituency, a number of small local businesses have been the victim of repeated burglaries, which put livelihoods at stake and drive local people to distraction. My mum used to have a café in that community, and if it had been burgled, that would have been the end of her business. These people’s businesses are hanging by a thread because of the criminality of thugs. However, I am left in little doubt that if the police were able, they would have a greater presence in communities such as Birstall, Gomersal and Cleckheaton. That is why the Labour party’s pledge to employ a new police officer for every community is important and resonates with victims of crime.

We cannot wait for that, however. People deserve to have faith in their police, and businesses need to know that their premises are secure for the good of our local high streets. The Government missed another opportunity in the most recent funding announcement, but they cannot continually leave communities such as mine out in the cold.

The debate about the resources of emergency services often focuses on the police, for good reason, as I have mentioned, but our fire services do inspiring work too. They have not been exempt from the harsh reality of austerity and continue to suffer. Hon. Members may have recently read in the news about a large domestic explosion in Batley in my constituency. It was an exceptional circumstance that received an exceptional response from the fire service. No fewer than 10 fire engines from across West Yorkshire were quickly on the scene and they dealt with the fire swiftly and professionally. I remain impressed that even when resources and numbers are tight, the fire service manages to be there when we need it most.

Having viewed the figures provided by the Fire Brigades Union, I am concerned that we will reach a tipping point where the cuts become too much to handle. Between 2010 and 2018, West Yorkshire fire service has faced massive cuts, which has led to 572—33%—fewer firefighters. By 2020 the overall national budget for fire services will have been nearly halved.

Our police and fire services are an absolute credit to our country. They constantly work hard for us and run towards danger when we run away, but we cannot take them for granted. For too long, all they have known are budget cuts and ever-tightening resources. I encourage everyone in this House to spend time, if they can, out on the frontline with both police and firefighters, as I have, to see the pressures that our brave men and women have to cope with. If austerity is over, it is vital that we start supporting the services immediately and guarantee that the fire and rescue services will suffer no further cuts to their funding.

I have several asks for the Minister. Will he please look again at the precept that unfairly hits communities such as Batley and Spen in the north? Will the Government guarantee future funding beyond 2019-20 for the increased employers’ cost for the firefighters pension scheme? With the firefighters not having any real pay rise in the past eight years, will the Government make funding available so that firefighters’ pay can at least keep pace with inflation? Will the Government now acknowledge that West Yorkshire in particular needs extra support for its police to deal with the exceptional rise in crime in order to ensure that people and my constituents feel safe as they go about their daily business?

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It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hosie. It will come as no surprise to anybody in this place that emergency services feel stretched; it is extremely challenging for them to operate within the constraints of nearly a decade of austerity, and that is the context of the debate today. The link between austerity and different types of crime has been well established. There is the global context of an increased risk of terrorist attacks, and forces across the UK are now also preparing for a no-deal Brexit. It is a perfect storm, and it can be remedied only with sustained investment from the UK Government.

The Scottish Government have been instrumental in ensuring that Scotland is protected from the austerity cuts that emergency services have faced in the rest of the UK. The Scottish Parliament does not have all the powers we require to increase our revenues in the way my colleagues and I would like, but we can make spending decisions that lead to much better outcomes for the people of Scotland.

Police numbers in Scotland are up by more than 5% since the Scottish National party took power at Holyrood in 2007. That is despite the wider context of nearly a decade of austerity cuts from the UK Government. In the same period, police numbers in England and Wales are down by nearly 14%. The headcount in Scotland is 17,175 officers, which is still 941 full-time equivalent police officers, or 5.8%, more than the figure we inherited when we came into office, which is significant. In September 2018, there were 32 officers per 10,000 people in Scotland, compared with 21 officers per 10,000 in England and Wales. That reflects not only our geography, but investment in our service, which needs to be protected, given the issues that have emerged in England around knife crime and so on.

The Scottish Government do not have the powers to mitigate absolutely everything, and emergency services are increasingly concerned about the impact of leaving the European Union. Police Scotland has said that a no-deal Brexit could have numerous consequences, such as officers being deployed elsewhere and a considerable risk of harm to the public if there were incidents of civil unrest. Nobody wants to see that, particularly not in Scotland, where we did not vote for Brexit, but we are at the end of the supply chain for many things, and if supplies start to run out, it could have a significant impact in terms of civil unrest.

I am absolutely appalled that our emergency services are having to squander public resources on preparing for civil unrest and other eventualities associated with crashing out of the EU without a deal. It is entirely within the Government’s gift to take no deal off the table and offer reassurances to those on the frontline that such a catastrophe can be avoided. The Government have allowed internal politics within the Tory party to escape into the lives of ordinary citizens, and Scottish taxpayers and citizens are picking up the tab.

Scotland has its own distinct challenges that must be met by our emergency services. In a diverse geographical landscape, they respond to incidents and various challenges within our cities and towns. We have our own cultural challenges and a separate legal system, but our police force has, in good faith, acknowledged that there may be a need to provide mutual assistance to other forces in the UK should that be required. The only circumstances in which that would be necessary as a result of Brexit would be if the Prime Minister continues her reckless course towards a no-deal cliff edge.

There are also challenges in the funding of fire and rescue services, and I say that as a former councillor who sat on the Strathclyde fire board before it was merged into the single service. There were good and legitimate reasons for doing that; many like to see the pooling of shared resources, and it made sense for the service. It meant a change in nature, and there were challenges in coming together as one, but nobody would change back, and there was broad cross-party agreement for the merger.

One benefit of the change for fire and rescue services has been their ability to adapt to the changing nature of the fire service. Recent FBU figures stated that non-fire rescues now considerably outnumber fire rescues. In 2017-18, more than 3,000 rescues were at non-fire incidents, compared with around 500 rescues from fires. Before the Strathclyde board was dissolved, it invested considerably in a state-of-the-art training centre at Cambuslang just outside Glasgow, and I recommend anyone who can to go and see that fantastic service. Firefighters can access a range of training opportunities, and all services in Scotland can come and use the centre, which is of huge benefit.

Scottish fire and rescue services have tried wherever possible to make savings to reduce the burden on their services, and the West Dunbartonshire service recently worked hard to reduce by 23% the number of unwanted fire alarm signals, which can cause call-outs that do not need to happen. That is 23% fewer times that the service had to turn out when it did not need to, which is important.

I would be remiss not to mention funding, and the UK Government must do the fair thing and adequately compensate Scottish police, fire and rescue services for the expenditure involved in contingency planning for a no-deal Brexit. We should not be out of pocket because of the decisions of this Government. That additional expenditure is likely to amount to £17 million in policing costs alone—around the same amount that the UK Government have provided to Northern Ireland to cover its Brexit-related policing. Why should Scotland be treated any differently?

The UK Government have shown political discretion in funding the devolved nations in the past, and it is deeply unfair that the people of Scotland and those struggling on the frontline of the emergency services should miss out. Last year, we were successful in finally persuading the Chancellor to stop charging VAT to emergency services in Scotland, which was a result of moving to the single service. That came about because of the intransigence of the UK Government as regards fixing that situation. Some have said that we chose to go forward with that merger, which we did, and the cost savings made it worthwhile. However, it was a political decision by the UK Government not to treat our services in the same way as they treat Highways England, or other services in England, and that should not have happened in the first place.

As things stand, compensation is overdue. Our emergency services paid £175 million to the UK Government before the decision to scrap the VAT obligation. That funding could have gone to the frontline, saving lives and improving the service. When will the UK Government give back the money that we are entitled to? If VAT is exempted now, it should have been exempted in the first place, and we are due our money back.

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It is a pleasure to speak in this debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) for securing it. It is also a pleasure to follow the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who made their contributions forcefully and gracefully on behalf of the fire and rescue services and the police.

An attempt to lower the deficit has clearly led to cuts and losses, but I believe that a few areas must be untouchable, including frontline healthcare, funding for schools to provide basic education, defence spending to secure our nation and its interests, and—lastly, but no less importantly—the police, fire and rescue services. The fat on all those things can be trimmed, but I believe the emergency services are as lean as they can be. In fact, we are too skinny, and without the ability to do what the body is capable of doing if it is well fed. We have tremendous talent and ability, yet we cannot do what a well-funded body can do.

We also have a police service and a fire service that train the world, yet they are precluded from giving their best, due to a lack of funding. I pay tribute, as others have, to the fire and rescue services of Northern Ireland and the whole nation. I also pay tribute to the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I know the debate is not about the ambulance service, but I also put on record my thanks to those who work in it for what they do. In many places, they are hard-pressed financially and resources-wise.

A few years ago, I was in Afghanistan with the armed forces parliamentary scheme. We had a chance to visit Lashkar Gah in Helmand province. It was remarkable to be in a camp and all of a sudden to hear a Northern Ireland accent—former police officers were being seconded to train the Afghanistan army and police. That incident told me a number of things. Those gentlemen had done their stint in the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the PSNI. They then had the opportunity to train people in other countries, and they did that. The husband of the lady who works in my office is a retired police officer, and he trains police officers in Serbia, Montenegro and other parts of the Balkans. The expertise, commitment and ability we have through our police forces is being used to train police forces in other parts of the world. That is an indication of just how highly thought of they are.

In Northern Ireland in 2017, the fire and rescue service of Northern Ireland warned that any more cuts would almost certainly result in preventable deaths. We are not playing with figures; we are playing with people’s lives—the lives of families and children. That is backed up by findings from the Local Government Association. Many of us know the LGA from our days on councils. The hon. Member for Glasgow Central spoke about her time on the council. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) and I have been councillors, too, and I suspect others have the same expertise and knowledge. The LGA represents more than 370 councils and fire authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is a massive body with a lot of knowledge and expertise. It highlighted the latest fire statistics, which show that although the overall number of fires has fallen steadily, the rate of decline has slowed and certain types of fire have increased. Deliberate primary fires are on the rise, which is incredibly concerning.

The LGA further outlined a 22% increase in fire-related deaths involving those over 65 in the past two years. There is a need to raise awareness about elderly people on their own in their homes. In Northern Ireland, we have regular advertising on TV about smoke alarms, saying, “Check your smoke alarm on a Monday. Press the button. If it goes off, you know the batteries are not done.” It is important that people do that, because some elderly people probably do not have that ability. It is about how we raise awareness.

The LGA also said that, in deciding fire service funding, Ministers should consider the rising over-85 population and the increasing numbers of people renting houses. When it comes to raising awareness, landlords should be reminded of the responsibility they have, and elderly people should be helped. It is not hard to look out for our elderly neighbours and to call in and see how they are. In two minutes, we can check their smoke alarm and make sure everything is all right.

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The hon. Gentleman is making an excellent point about the importance of people using their smoke alarms and ensuring that they work. Is there a system in Ireland, as there is in Scotland, of home fire safety visits, where the fire brigade will come out and check someone’s house for fire safety and install smoke alarms if they are needed?

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I am not sure we have that same service. I think it is left to many other organisations. The hon. Lady has highlighted what we can do, but we also have fewer resources. The fire service will call if it is asked to, but resources are stretched, and the services do not normally have the time or ability to do that. Fire and rescue services have had their funding cut by around 40% over a four-year period. That perhaps indicates why such things sometimes cannot be done.

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Does my hon. Friend agree that the funding reductions we are debating have an effect on the morale of emergency services? Another thing that has a massive impact on their morale is attacks on them—attacks on police officers, on those in A&E and the wider health service, and on firefighters. We need to send the message regularly that that is totally and utterly unacceptable.

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My hon. Friend may have read my script and known that I was going to mention that. I have become very alarmed by attacks on the fire and rescue service, the PSNI and the ambulance service—and, indeed, on A&E staff, which he referred to—across Northern Ireland. There is something grossly morally wrong and evil about people feeling they can attack our rescue services when they are out doing their job of responding to a fire or to someone who is hurt. There is also the issue of the theft of property from ambulances and fire engines. Defibrillators, for instance, are stolen from the back of ambulances, as is other equipment. That all has to be paid for. Whenever people lay their lives on the line to save others, they should be shown an element of respect.

My hon. Friend referred to accident and emergency. Again, there is something grossly offensive about people feeling it is okay to go into A&E and verbally abuse nurses, doctors or other people who are there to help. There is something criminally wrong with those who would attack people in A&E. My hon. Friend underlines how we as a nation feel. It is time to respect our fire and rescue service; it is time to respect our police; it is time to respect our ambulance service; and it is time to respect the nurses and doctors in A&E. We must send that message from the Chamber today.

I agree with the chair of the Local Government Association fire services management committee, who said:

“Projected rises in both the elderly population, including those living alone, and the number of people living in privately rented homes will only increase the risk of more fires putting people’s lives in danger.”

We have a duty to focus on elderly people who need help, and I look to the Minister for a response to that. The FBU says the number of firefighters has fallen by 22% in the past 10 years. The fire service is not sufficiently funded, and that needs to be changed.

The hon. Member for Easington mentioned electrical wiring, which he, I and others in the Chamber have spoken about before. That is about not only upgrading and checking the wiring in houses, but identifying faulty electrical equipment. We have had many Westminster Hall debates about that issue, and he is absolutely right to underline it. I back up what he said, which was important.

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I want to make a small point about that. It is a very relevant issue, and it reminds me of the public health argument. The hon. Gentleman mentioned firefighters being involved in identifying areas of high risk and installing or checking smoke detectors. There is a payback for that, but resources are so tight that the fire service and the police service are now just completely reactive. Good work was being done, and we perhaps were seeing the benefit of that in reduced incidents. Since we are no longer investing in education, installing smoke detectors and so on, we will see a higher incidence of crime and fires that could otherwise have been avoided.

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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. It is not sufficient to be reactive; we should proactively address these issues. That should be one of the key messages from the debate. Many Opposition colleagues have participated in Westminster Hall debates about electrical safety. It continues to be a massive issue, and we need to be proactive about it.

The same can be said for policing. We have some phenomenal officers, who work hand in hand with community workers to address problems on estates, yet the funding is not there to ensure that there are community workers on shifts at all times. I am a great believer in community policing—I always have been. I was probably reared in community policing, in my former life as a councillor. The relationship between the community officers, the estates and the people was phenomenal. Unfortunately, when those officers retired or moved on, that relationship fell by the way, which was a loss and a sadness.

The funding is not in place to ensure community workers are on shift at all times. Regular officers who are not up to speed with dynamics and who act as they are trained flare tensions, whereas a team who have built up a relationship would have been able to settle those tensions. How much of a talent it is to be able to solve, or salve, problems, rather than inadvertently inflaming emotions. That is down to a lack of funding. The losers are entire areas.

As I said, there are things that we cannot scrimp on, and the police and the fire services are one of them. I add my voice to those of Members who have called and will call for appropriate ring-fenced funding.

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It is my pleasure and privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on bringing the debate to the Floor of the Westminster Hall Chamber. I share his tributes to the police, the fire services and the emergency services of all the nations of these islands. I also take the opportunity to commend him for his comments on the dangers of making the fire service a scapegoat for the Grenfell fire. The thrust of what he was saying was that if we want to know who was responsible for the Grenfell fire, we should follow the money—see who benefited from the cheap cladding and the poor upkeep of the building—rather than blaming the men and women who risked their lives to save lives that night.

We have heard a number of interesting and diverse contributions, from the hon. Members for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). My hon. Friend raised in particular the role that the fire services play in Scotland, with their proactive preventive measures, such as offering to go into people’s homes to assess their anti-fire readiness. That proactive strategy is reflected in the way the Scottish police force, the Crown Office and some Scottish social services have approached the problem of knife crime in Scotland, treating it as a public health emergency. My hon. Friend has spoken about that eloquently on a number of occasions.

This debate is really about funding. The hon. Member for Easington painted a concerning picture of the effect of the reductions in police and fire and rescue services across England and Wales. Those concerns are clearly widely held. As the Scottish National party spokesperson for justice and home affairs, I want to contribute constructively to the debate by offering an overview of the somewhat different position in Scotland. In an era of severe funding cuts to police and fire services across England and Wales, the UK Government would do well to look to the example of the Scottish Government, who have managed to protect such vital public services from the worst excesses of the UK Government’s failed austerity project.

Let us look at the stats on crime in Scotland, from the Scottish crime and justice survey. Since 2008-09, crime has fallen by 32%. The vast majority of people in Scotland—87%—say that they experience no crime. That is not to diminish the severe experiences of the 13% who do but, again, the Scottish Government have leading legislation for the victims of crime and for vulnerable witnesses. Since 2006-07, recorded crime in Scotland has fallen by 42%, and non-sexual violent crime is at one of its lowest levels since 1974, and represents a 49% fall since 2006-07. That is largely due to the public health approach to the problem of knife crime in Scotland, in which the police and emergency services collaborate with other healthcare and social services professionals to reduce violent crime at a time when it is sadly on the rise in England and Wales.

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My hon. and learned Friend makes a good point about the impact of that approach to tackling knife crime, particularly in relation to young people. Does she agree that that investment over an extended period of time has been valuable in dealing with knife crime and the impact of violence on young people?

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Absolutely, and I am pleased to say that the UK Government have recognised that, by coming up to Scotland to study the approach that we have taken. Cressida Dick from the Metropolitan police has been up to Glasgow to see the approach that has been taken there, and I know that UK Government Ministers have been to my constituency and to see Scottish Government Ministers in Edinburgh to discuss these issues. Witnesses have also given evidence to the Select Committees on Home Affairs and on Justice about the approach taken in Scotland.

However, key to the approach in Scotland is protecting the budget of the police and fire services from the consequences of austerity. As we all know, the Scottish Government’s budget has been squeezed over the past few years. Between 2010-11 and 2019-20, Scotland’s discretionary resource budget allocation will have been reduced by 6.5%, which is almost £2 billion in real terms. However, the Scottish Government’s decisions on tax and borrowing have reduced the real-terms reduction to the total Scottish fiscal budget from 5.5% to 3.4% between 2010 and the current year, and their decisions on income tax alone in this coming year mean that we will have an additional £68 million to invest in public services. Such measures have enabled the Scottish Government to mitigate the worst of austerity in very challenging circumstances.

For example, while spending on police forces in England and Wales has dropped by 17% since 2010, and the number of officers has dropped by 14%, in Scotland we have gone in the opposite direction. As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central said, since the SNP Government came to power in 2007, there are now 5.8% more police officers. There has also been modernisation, with one police force for the whole of Scotland. It is important to remember that in London there is one police force for the whole metropolitan area, whose population is nearly twice that of Scotland, so having one force for Scotland was a no-brainer. I will come back to that point when I address my hon. Friend’s comments on VAT. In September last year there were around 32 police officers per 10,000 of population in Scotland, compared with around 21 officers per 10,000 of population in England and Wales.

The commitment to protect public services in Scotland from the effects of the UK Government’s austerity project extends to fire services. The recent Scottish Government Budget—for the year 2019-20—introduced increases in the money available for fire and rescue services, as well as for the police. There has been a real-terms uplift for Police Scotland. The overall Scottish Police Authority budget will increase by 3.7%, meaning an additional £42.3 million. The police revenue budget will increase by 2.8%, meaning an additional £30.3 million. The police capital budget will increase by £12 million, meaning a 52% increase. Also, the Scottish Government remain committed to protecting the police resource budget in real terms in every year of the current Scottish Parliament, which means a boost of £100 million by 2021. So it can be done when the right choices are made by Governments.

Likewise, this year will see the budget for the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service increase by £5.5 million, and that is in addition to increasing the service’s spending capacity by £15.5 million in the previous financial year. The Scottish Government’s Budget also confirmed that the £21.7 million increase in capital funding for the service announced in the 2017-18 Budget will be maintained.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central said, the Scottish National party, after much campaigning during this Parliament and the last, was successful in persuading the UK Government to end the VAT obligation on Scotland’s police and fire and rescue services. However, more than a year on, the UK Government have still not repaid the £175 million taken by way of VAT before scrapping the unfair charges. They need to reverse that decision and return the money to Scotland’s emergency services. Scotland’s police and fire and rescue services were the only territorial forces in the UK asked to pay VAT—as my hon. Friend said, other national public organisations south of the border were not asked to pay VAT. Make no mistake about it: that was a political decision. It has now been reversed, and the money that was wrongfully taken should be paid back.

My hon. Friend also raised the funds required for policing in Scotland in relation to Brexit, which has been estimated at £17 million a year, including capital costs for uniforms, equipment and vehicles of around £800,000 a year. The UK Government need to recognise that when allocating spending. The majority of people living in Scotland did not vote for Brexit, and the Scottish Government’s sensible, compromise solutions for ameliorating the effects of Brexit have been ignored. If the British Government are intent on imposing Brexit on Scotland against our will, the least they can do is meet the costs of the extra policing, as I believe they intend to do for Northern Ireland. Although there are special considerations in Northern Ireland that must of course be respected, that does not mean that differing considerations in Scotland should not be taken into account.

I will end by putting three questions to the Minister. First, will she look carefully at the position in Scotland, to see what lessons can be learned for England and Wales, bearing in mind the crime figures I have quoted and the fact that the Scottish Government have managed, in a time of austerity, to find the money necessary to properly fund the police and fire and rescue services? Secondly, will she intercede with the Treasury to ensure that the £175 million wrongfully taken in VAT from Scotland’s police and fire and rescue services is paid back? Thirdly, will she explain who will fund the extra policing needed in Scotland as a result of her Government’s Brexit plans, which the Scottish people did not vote for?

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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. This has been an incredibly thorough, if somewhat depressing, debate on the state of funding of our police and fire services. It is testament to how strongly Members feel about the issue that we have heard such passionate speeches and that it is frequently raised, both here in Westminster Hall and when the Government are dragged to the Chamber to answer urgent questions and through Home Office questions.

My hon. Friend the Member for Easington (Grahame Morris), in his usual mild-mannered and constructive way, gave a thorough overview of the issues facing our police and fire services. He is fortunate to be represented by an outstanding police service in Durham and, by the sounds of it, an excellent fire service as well. However, they are under exceptional and unprecedented pressure and demand. He made a powerful speech, particularly on Grenfell, and spoke about the regulatory failings of that local authority and of businesses. There was in no way a failure of those firefighters—those men and women who risked everything to go in and save others.

My hon. Friend spoke about the madness of funding our police service through the precept, which I will come on to. He is particularly affected by that, representing, as he does, Durham, which has an exceptionally low council tax base and is therefore less able, even than other metropolitan areas, to fund the police to the level needed. He also asked the Minister whether the Government have abandoned the principle of resource equalisation. It certainly feels that they have, given that we are faced with a funding settlement that bears no relation to demand, need or operational resource—instead, it relates only to the number of houses in an area that are over band D. How can any sane Government allocate resources to the police service in such a way?

My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) made an important intervention about the resilience and legitimacy of policing, which undeniably is being undermined by cuts. They have left communities feeling that there is no point in reporting crimes, because they do not believe that the report will be acted on or that the police will be able to respond.

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) is a constant fighter for our police. In her usual impassioned way, she spoke about response times and said that people are giving up on reporting. Entire communities feel abandoned, which has led some areas of the country to turn to vigilante responses, because they feel that the only way to deal with crime is to deal with it themselves. She gave some shocking statistics, such as the fact that West Yorkshire has experienced a 227% increase in violent crime in the past six years, which is the highest increase in the country. That is truly shocking. Yet again, West Yorkshire receives one of the lowest funding settlements. How can that be right?

My hon. Friend the Member for Batley and Spen explicitly asked the Minister to guarantee the pension costs for police and fire services after 2019-20. The Home Office barely covered them for 2019-20 in this year’s funding settlement, and police and fire services across the country still have no guarantee beyond 2020. I would be grateful if she could respond to that point.

The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) made important points about the potential consequences of a no-deal Brexit and the demand being placed on our police services in preparing for them—not just the potential consequences of coming out of systems such as the Schengen Information System II or the European criminal records information system, or the potential impact of withdrawing from or playing a lesser role in Europol, but the potential for widespread civil unrest and for officers to be deployed to ports that they are not currently asked to police.

The lack of resilience in our police force to deal with unpredictable and large-scale disruption was highlighted when police were deployed all over the country to cover the visit of President Trump last year. If there had been a terrorist attack, a spike or even a murder during that time in any area covered by a police force that had deployed significant numbers of officers in mutual aid requests, it would have shown how stretched to breaking point our police services are.

The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) made important points about the demand on the police and fire services. We had a debate about the important role the police and fire services play in prevention, and how the cuts have reduced our emergency services to nothing more than responsive or reactive services that turn up only when the absolute worst has happened. Again, that not only means that we are storing up problems for the future and failing to prevent crimes and fires from happening in the first place, but undermines the legitimacy of our emergency services and erodes the ability to police by consent, because that vital neighbourhood policing model has been eroded.

All hon. Members have rightly paid tribute to the police and firefighters in our emergency services, who we rely on in times of need. The Government’s twin failure to invest in the police and fire services must represent one of the most chilling consequences of a decade of Tory rule. When the Government unpick the safety net and undermine the last resort—when they take such risks with public safety, as they have done—they must be held to account for the consequences of those fateful decisions.

In the aftermath of the financial crisis, no other major economy in Europe cut their police by proportionally more than we did—we are one of Europe’s leading nations when it comes to police cuts. The zeal with which the Conservative Government slashed our emergency services is unmatched. Our once proud police service, which was one of the best in the world, has been critically undermined by the party that once called itself the party of law and order. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) is absolutely right that different political choices can be made. We have seen the effect in Scotland of a Government making different political choices.

Despite an increase in the number of incidents that firefighters attend, funding for fire services has been cut by 15%. As the fire brigade says, one of the most important aspects of its work is to minimise risk and prevent fires in the first place. It is therefore staggering that, 19 months on from the tragedy at Grenfell Tower, there are still buildings in this country wrapped in Grenfell-style cladding, whose residents do not know whether their home is safe. There were 437 tower blocks with the same or similar cladding, and 370 have yet to be replaced. The Government must get their act together on that, and fast.

It is a matter of deep regret that, as the inquiry into Grenfell continues, phase 2 continues to be delayed. That is the phase in which answers will be sought from the building owners, the local authority and politicians—the very people who, as my hon. Friend the Member for Easington and Matt Wrack, the general secretary of the FBU, said, allowed public safety to be undermined. The one thing we know about the Grenfell fire is that the firefighters, in impossible, unimaginable conditions, showed bravery beyond what any of us could imagine. They put their lives at risk and risked their children and families growing up without them in order to save other families. In my mind—I am the granddaughter of a firefighter—and the mind of my party, they are absolute heroes. Those who are casting aspersions, as the disgraceful documentary did on Monday, long before the inquiry has concluded, should take a long, hard look in the mirror. Our firefighters and police have not let us down; they have been badly let down by the Government.

The consequences of the Government’s actions are stark: more than 21,000 officers, nearly 7,000 PCSOs and 17,000 police staff are gone, recorded violent crime and knife crime are at record levels, arrests have halved in a decade, and there are almost 2 million unsolved crimes. With that as a backdrop, it was almost unbelievable that the Government chose to bring forward the funding settlement last month. The reaction to it from police leaders across the country has been stark. The chief constable of West Midlands police has calculated that it will mean another real-terms cut. In North Yorkshire, the police and crime panel has rejected the imposition of another council tax increase. In Lincolnshire, the chief constable has been forced to make £3.2 million in savings this year as a direct result of the funding settlement. Despite asking local rate payers to pay the full whack of £24 a year, it is still cutting officers this year. People are paying more for a lesser service.

At the heart of the inequity in the funding settlement, which hits policing hard, is the fact that it is basing increased funding on the ability of an area to pay. It is basing operational improvement on the number of big houses in an area. Why was each force asked to put together a management statement? Why did the Policing Minister go around every force to assess the level of demand and then apparently completely ignore it? Serious crime is expected to increase substantially in many forces, as are areas of protection for vulnerable people. That means big increases in demand due to cases involving missing persons, stalking, harassment, cyber-crime and managing sexual offenders. The challenge is massive and is expected only to increase. People will be in utter disbelief that, once again, the Government are causing the police to suffer a ninth consecutive year of real-terms cuts, once the Government-imposed pensions black hole is taken into account.

The Policing Minister promised that he would help forces manage the pensions black hole. He said:

“Every police and crime commissioner will have their Government grant funding protected in real terms”.—[Official Report, 13 December 2018; Vol. 651, c. 432.]

I am afraid that was disingenuous at best, and demonstrably false at worst. Nationwide, there will be a cut in central Government funding in cash terms, never mind real terms. That investment will not be used to help meet the operational demands from cases involving missing persons, child sexual exploitation and serious crime; rather, every penny of it will be sunk on pension costs. The Government are giving with one hand and taking with the other. It is perverse, and it is creating a postcode lottery.

These arguments are well rehearsed; hon. Members have made them in this Chamber time and again. It appears that there are fundamental differences between the two sides of the House on how our police and fire services should be funded. I ask the Minister to justify this if she can. How can West Yorkshire, which has experienced a 227% rise in violence crime, receive just 13% of the money that it has lost since 2010, in comparison with Surrey, which has seen half that rise in violent crime but is receiving 36% of the money that it has lost since 2010? How can Durham, which has seen one of the largest increases in police recorded crime, receive just 13% of the money that it has lost since 2010, in comparison with Wiltshire, which has seen one of the lowest increases in police recorded crime but is receiving 29% of the money that it has lost since 2010? Can she confirm that this Government have abandoned the principle of resource equalisation and that, instead, their philosophy is that only those areas that can pay deserve to be kept safe?

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It is of course a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame Morris) on securing the debate and giving me what I think is my first opportunity to listen to a debate on police funding. I am conscious that, as the spokesman for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), said, many hon. Members have been in this Chamber and the main Chamber discussing this issue on a number of occasions.

I start, as the hon. Member for Easington did, by paying tribute to our police officers and fire and rescue officers across the country for their tireless work in keeping our communities safe. He mentioned in particular Durham’s police and crime commissioner and chief constable. I was reminded the night before last, when an officer was threatened in Romsey in my constituency—an individual has now been charged with possession of a knife in a public place—that such incidents occur across the country and even in the most unexpected locations. Although I cannot comment further on the incident in my constituency, it reminds us that every day and every night officers face significant threats and dangers. I also cannot add to the comments that hon. Members have made about the “Dispatches” programme on Grenfell. The inquiry is ongoing, and I am conscious that I am not the fire Minister. I am not going to say anything that might in any way affect that inquiry, but it is absolutely right to point out that on that night it was our brave public servants who yet again were rushing towards a dangerous situation, not away from it. They were, as the shadow Minister said, putting their lives on the line, and we owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

I will seek to respond to the comments made by hon. Members in this debate; I think it important to reflect on some of the comments that I have heard and respond to them. Of course, the recent funding settlement represents the biggest rise in police funding since 2010. There is not just more for our local police forces, but more for counter-terrorism and dealing with serious and organised crime.

It is important that the public have trust in the police and that we work as a Government to ensure that the funding is in place to enable the police to carry out their important roles. The ability to raise council tax, which a number of hon. Members mentioned, is taken into account when calculating the amount of Government grant, and the same is true for business rates. Areas that raise low levels of council tax receive higher levels of settlement funding. Reductions in Government funding do not necessarily show the full picture. Council tax has been a significant part of fire funding—on average, 60% of funding for fire and rescue authorities.

We heard interesting comments from—he is now back in his place—the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who talked in particular about preventive work and the impact on loneliness. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) is here, and of course her predecessor in the House was Jo Cox. I mean no disrespect to the hon. Lady when I say that we still miss Jo every single day, and perhaps more at the current time than previously. She did an enormous amount of work on loneliness, and I am delighted that we now have a loneliness Minister, who has made much of the issue of loneliness among the elderly, the legacy of Jo Cox and the importance of our continuing to emphasise it.

I am struck by the fact that our fire and rescue services up and down the country often do important preventive work with elderly people who live alone in their own home. The importance of checking smoke alarms was mentioned, and Hampshire fire and rescue service has provided me with—I do not know the technical term for the device; I refer to it as “the prodder”. It is a long stick with a hand on the end of it, so people do not have to stand on a chair to test their smoke alarm, which is a crucial way of avoiding accidents. It might seem a simple, straightforward and slightly odd-looking device, but it serves two purposes—not only is it easier for people to check their smoke alarms, but they are not putting themselves at risk by climbing up to do so.

When my daughter was in year 2 at school, she went on a visit to a fire station in Salisbury—the shadow Minister mentioned Wiltshire fire and rescue service— and she was given a fridge magnet. That might seem a simple thing for a year 2 child, but she is now 20 and that magnet is still on my fridge. Every month I have to write in the date with a specially provided pen that indicates when I last checked my smoke alarm. Such important preventive work continues across the country, and many fire and rescue services continue to do such work. Our fire station in Romsey has an annual “check the safety of your electric blanket day”. Perhaps we are particularly soft southerners who need electric blankets, but they can pose a significant fire risk and it is important that they have an annual health check.

Part of our fire reform programme is about establishing the independent fire inspectorate service, and although only the first 14 service reports are complete, questions have been raised about the extent of the focus on fire prevention, which is part of the inspection process. In a speech in January my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service raised with fire leaders the importance of preventive work.

The changing nature of rescues was rightly mentioned by the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss). Although traditional fires are fortunately decreasing, rescues of different types are on the increase—for instance, the crucial work done by fire and rescue services on our motorway network, or in more recent years the work with flooding and assisting those who have been flooded out of their homes. As well as saving individuals, those services also do important pumping work.

The changing nature of crime has also had an impact on our police forces. I was struck by the comments of the hon. Member for Batley and Spen about child sexual exploitation, and sadly we have seen increasing reports of that horrific crime. There has been not only an increase in crime, but an increase in the confidence of victims to come forward. These are incredibly complex, difficult and sensitive crimes to investigate; we must ensure that our police can respond whenever such occurrences are reported and that they have the resource and ability to investigate. I am routinely struck by the increase in cyber-crime, which a few short years ago was not even heard of. Criminals are incredibly resourceful and adaptive and they will find opportunities wherever they exist. Our police forces must be equally adaptive and able to take important preventive action.

I am sure that hon. Members will comment on what I say about funding, but the House has approved total funding for policing of up to £14 billion for 2019-20, which is an increase of up to £970 million compared with 2018-19, including the precept pensions funding and national investment. We reviewed the changing and increasingly complex demands on police; the settlement will enable them to meet the financial pressures they face next year, while continuing to recruit and fill capability gaps, such as the shortage of detectives. If all police and crime commissioners use their precept flexibility in full next year, there will be a total increase in police funding of £2 billion between 2015-16 and 2019-20.

We are increasing Government grants to police and crime commissioners by £161 million, with every police and crime commissioner’s grant funding protected in real terms. They are being empowered to raise council tax contributions for local policing by up to £2 a month per household, which could raise up to £509 million. Elected PCCs have made the case for raising local tax from their electorate, and they are accountable for delivering a return on that public investment. That additional funding of up to £970 million will enable the police to manage their additional pension costs of approximately £330 million next year, while continuing to address capability issues. The police need to use that money well, which means every force saving money on procurement and back-office functions so that it can be invested in the frontline. The Home Secretary has been clear: he will prioritise police funding at the spending review.

Turning to the issue of fire funding, fire and rescue services have the resources they need to do their work and keep people safe. Fire and rescue authorities will receive about £2.3 billion in 2019-20. Single purpose fire and rescue authorities will receive an increase in core spending power of 2.3% in cash terms in 2019-20 and an overall increase of 0.3% from 2015-16 to 2019-20. We are also providing additional pension funding in 2019-20 to fire and rescue authorities to ensure that their additional pension cost is limited to £10 million. Financial reserves held by single purpose fire and rescue authorities increased by more than 80% to £545 million between 31 March 2011 and 31 March 2018, which is equivalent to 42% of their core spending power. The sector has made efficiencies, but as by the first tranche of inspections by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services indicated, it can do more to work smarter and to reduce costs. It is important that fire services continues to receive the right level of resources, which is why we work closely with the services to build the evidence to develop a clear proposition for the spending review.

Some issues were raised about neighbourhood policing. I want to put on the record how much we value neighbourhood policing and the vital role that officers play in keeping the public safe. That is why we are enabling police and crime commissioners to increase their cash funding next year, and many PCCs have set out their plans in that regard.

On top of protecting 2019-20 general grant funding in real terms for all police forces in England and Wales, the Government have increased funding for counter-terrorism policing and to combat serious and organised crime.

There was mention of the impact of Brexit, which is not only topical but of real concern. The Government have provided additional funding to Kent police for the particular pressures that they might face with Operations Stack and Brock in their area. Rightly, as part of Brexit planning, we look closely at police resourcing and the additional pressures that might be put on the police. In common with every other Minister, I am working hard to ensure that we get a deal—that is the best way forward for the country—but it is important to plan for all eventualities, and the Government are doing that carefully.

In conclusion, the Government support policing and fire and rescue services to do their vital work by providing the resources that they need. I pay extreme tribute to their very hard work.

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Before the Minister finishes, I was paying attention to what she was saying but she does not seem to have picked up the issue of VAT in Scotland. Will she give us our money back?

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That is a question that the hon. Lady might best put to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service when she next gets the chance. I am conscious that Home Office questions are on Monday, and I am sure that she will take that opportunity. With that, I will say no more.

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I thank all Members who participated: my hon. Friends the Members for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) and for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin), and the hon. Members for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell). I also thank the respective Front Benchers, my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), and the SNP spokesperson, the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), who made extremely powerful and incontrovertible contributions.

Funding cuts are putting public safety at risk. Injuries, deaths, tragedies such as Grenfell, crime and community safety are all compromised when the emergency services are not properly funded. This Government have made political choices—there were alternatives—and they have made the wrong ones. I want to know when we will return to a level of funding that will restore the numbers of police and firefighters that our communities need. The consequences of cuts can be seen in communities in every constituency in the country. I urge the Minister to reverse the cuts and to provide the funding needed properly to support our emergency services.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the effect of reductions in funding of police, fire and rescue services.

Sitting suspended.