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Royal Commission on Police Funding

Volume 657: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2019

I beg to move,

That this House has considered a Royal Commission on police funding in the 21st century.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Moon, and it is excellent that I am three minutes ahead, so we have 33 minutes for this debate. I am delighted to have secured the debate and to see the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service in his place. I am sure that his father is watching Parliament with great interest, but I will not go on about that.

The purpose of the debate is to implore the Government to implement a police royal commission. The last one was in 1962, which was before the Beatles; it is that long ago. It was the time when Elvis Presley was in his pomp, but this country has changed quite a bit since then, to put it mildly. In the ensuing 57 years, some elements of policing have remained the same—for example, there are 48 forces, all of which are very independent—but much else has changed. Governments of all complexions have made a few piecemeal adjustments here and there. Funding has gone up and down; it has been feast or famine. Now we are in 2019, and the vista for crime-fighting and the police force is completely different from how it was 57 years ago.

The idea of having a police royal commission has been around for about seven or eight years. My view is that over the last year or so, it has really begun to gain traction. The public understand it, and more than 370,000 people have signed a petition on it. In Parliament, there is growing cross-party support for it. In total, 51 MPs—from, importantly, all the different political parties—have signed my early-day motion. My objective in calling on the Government to establish a royal commission is not partisan, because I am absolutely certain that in this Parliament, in particular, anything partisan has absolutely zero chance of happening. My whole approach is to make this cross-party call; to engage with the different representatives of the police forces, from the national Police Federation to the superintendents to the Association of Chief Police Officers; and to engage with the media.

This is all about securing a royal commission, but why? I have talked about how it is 57 years since the last royal commission reported, and crime has changed so much in that time that I am not even going to labour the point—the Minister knows about that very, very well. In those days, we did not have cybercrime or the supranational, global crime that we are dealing with today. Equally, on a basic level there have been significant changes in how the police deal with crime. The Minister will be aware that research tends to indicate that the fêted bobby on the beat does not make a huge difference in driving down crime. He will also be well aware that there are good reasons why the public like to see police on the beat, so that they feel secure. The job of our police forces is to serve us and the public, and to ensure that the public feel secure.

To be blunt, in today’s climate, morale within the police is, as the Minister knows, perilously low, and it has been for the past couple of years. I do not want to say that it has never been lower, because that sounds like grandstanding.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for securing the debate. About 25 years ago, I served as a policeman in Greater Manchester police, which last summer ran a scheme that enabled MPs to go and experience what it is like. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that things have changed; things have changed since I was a police officer, and we can see that even more clearly if we look further back. How can we engage more Members so that we can go ahead with his good idea?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, particularly as he used to be a police officer. His intervention is really useful, because he has hit the nail on the head. To make the idea work and to put enough pressure on the Government—they have one or two other things on their mind at the minute—we need to grow the number of Members who back it in Parliament, and grow it in the media. We have a good support base of 51 Members. I was talking to some peers last night, and we are looking to push this in the Lords as well. To me, it is self-evident that policing has transformed, and that policing needs have completely changed in almost 60 years.

As I said, the changes in police forces have been piecemeal. It is difficult for politicians today to understand what the real issues are, because so many different groups give us different ideas and solutions. Only a week or so ago, we had the Prime Minister saying that the cuts in police numbers bore no relation to the increase in knife crime, and the following day the Metropolitan Police Commissioner saying that they did.

I am not making a political point. I believe we need this royal commission because the public yearn to have a group of independent experts—not politicians or the media, but people from policing around the world—taking evidence from a whole range of groups. On a royal commission, such people would be recognisably independent and expert. Using the evidence that was given, they could assess what was fact and what was fiction. I use those words advisedly, because when I and other politicians try to understand policing issues, be they about resourcing or about what we ask the police to do, one problem is that we are told so many different things.

I am not an expert. Unlike the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton (Afzal Khan), I have not been a policeman.

In my police force, a lot of what the hon. Gentleman is talking about already happens. The force is already changing how it delivers police services; for example, there is a much bigger emphasis on rural crime. I am not sure how a royal commission would link into that, and what effect it would have on our very different constabularies.

That is a moot point, but the hon. Gentleman’s intervention reflects precisely my point: we can no longer have piecemeal changes, with one force doing one thing and another force doing another. A lack of consistency is at the heart of the problem of poor morale within police forces and a lack of engagement, support and trust among many of the public.

Let us take the numbers. Our ratio of policemen and women to members of the public is the third lowest in Europe. I do not know whether that is acceptable; perhaps it is, or perhaps we should have more, or less. The point is that it is incredibly difficult for politicians and the Government to understand accurately the needs of modern-day policing and what the resources should be. That is because when it comes to policing and resources, there is so much noise, and so many noises off, from the different interest and lobby groups, and we must draw a line.

No one in the Chamber can fail to recognise that policing and crime have changed so much in 57 years; we know they have. With a royal commission, we want to get the politics out of it. Policing is too important—I will not even get on to police and crime commissioners; that is for another day—for politics. Politics goes straight through policing, from top to bottom, be it about resourcing—too much, or not enough—or what the police should and should not be doing.

I think I am offering the Government an opportunity, because I believe that if a Government, of whichever kind, set up a royal commission properly and robustly, the public will be grateful to them. The findings and conclusions of such a commission will set policing for the next 40 or 50 years. Because of the respect in which a royal commission is held, the public will listen to it and believe what it says in its report. That is crucial, because all the spin, disingenuousness and vested interests around policing mean that the public do not know who to believe. They do not believe us any more, and I do not blame them. What the hell do I know about policing?

As it happens, I have family members in the police and I work closely with the force in Eastbourne, which is brilliant. I was out with Sergeant Scott Franklin-Lester only a few months ago. After four hours, in which he arrested two people, I said, “I hope your mum doesn’t know how dangerous your job is.” I asked that excellent police sergeant for guidance and advice, and his feedback was really helpful and productive. I am not going to drop him in it, but his feedback reminded me how huge the issue is, and that there is a lack of consistency and public trust, as well as low morale in the police. It seems to me that a police royal commission, which I am convinced would get wide cross-party support, is one answer.

At its heart, the matter is complex, and things have moved on. The Home Affairs Committee has said that the

“current model for police funding is not fit for purpose”.

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that relying on council tax is a particularly unfair way of raising that funding, because areas that have been hardest hit by cuts will raise the least funding? There are clearly complex areas that need to be considered, and a royal commission would be the right way forward.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his excellent intervention on that specific point. I have a lot of respect for the Select Committee. However, he identifies, as did the hon. Member for Henley (John Howell), that there are many different issues around funding, resources and what we want our police to look like over the next 40 or 50 years. That is why, in my campaign to get the police royal commission off the ground, I am deliberately trying not to pinpoint specific problems. I know them and I see them, and the hon. Member for Manchester, Gorton is absolutely right. But I do not simply want the Government to fix one issue, and then next year—or in six months’ time, after Brexit, if we are not in “Groundhog Day”—fix another little problem. As the hon. Member for Henley has quite rightly pointed out, for example, his own force recognises that rural crime is an issue, so it has fixed it. I am saying, “Stop.” We need to draw a line in the sand.

We need to get the right people on the commission. We need them to take evidence for, say, a year, from all the vested interests and from people with opinions, be they representatives of police forces, academics or possibly even politicians. Following that, we need to come up with a report that, depending on what we want for 21st-century policing and what areas we want to focus on, shows us the resources and the number of police officers required to keep the public safe. That would allow the public—and the politicians, but in this instance the public are key—to give real buy-in to what the commission propose, and also to our police force. I am not going to use clichés: our police force is highly respected as one of the best in the world, and the public have a lot of time for it, but I am concerned that that is fraying. That is wrong for the men and women who are in uniform out there, trying to keep us safe, and it is also wrong for our country.

It is absolutely crucial for the Government to make this decision while we are still slightly ahead of the game. A royal commission would not cost a ton of money—it is not a Chilcot report, or anything—or take an awful lot of time, but it would make a huge difference to the value that the public will put back into our police force. Most importantly, it would improve the police’s delivery and their capacity to fight crime. I urge the Government to recognise that a royal commission is going to happen; I am sure of it. With respect to the Minister, I know why the Government will push back: the line will be, “It will not be for a few years. We need to do something fast.” I do not know about the Minister, but frankly, I am pretty fed up with every Government bringing in new changes to the police here and there, and continuing with that piecemeal process. Let us get this done properly.

A royal commission would mean that other things, such as the excellent rural initiatives, stop. I think, however, that it would be worth the 18 months or so that it would take to put a commission together and compile a report, and the two or three years it would then take to roll out its conclusions. Let us prove to the public—particularly at the minute, with Brexit—that we are not just focused on short-term fix and mend; let us get this one right. If the Minister puts his name to a royal commission, I am sure that he will be much loved and appreciated across the length and breadth of the country, and that such a commission will have an enormously positive impact on our police forces, our public, and, most importantly, fighting crime in all its different forms. Let us not wait another 20 years; the time has come, and I urge the Minister to push the forward button now.

It is a huge pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Moon, for what I think is the first time. I congratulate the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) on having secured this debate, and on presenting a good case in an extremely beguiling manner. He has promised me the love and admiration of the nation if I accede to his request; he took me back in time to 1962, and he mentioned Elvis, but obviously the most important feature of that year is that it is the year I was born. He did his very best to beguile me, but he has not entirely persuaded me of his case. However, since we are in the mood for finding common ground, let me establish some, because it is important.

The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we are recognised as having one of the best police systems in the world, and that the public still have relatively high levels of confidence in the police. He is right to point out that the public are increasingly concerned about crime, and are, I think, primarily unsettled by the terrible cycle of serious violence; that is not just an urban issue, but is deeply unsettling for everyone. The hon. Gentleman is also right about his fundamental point: we are working through a period of profound change in the nature of crime, the risks to public safety that we are trying to manage, and the nature of the demand on the police and the resources available to them. He did not mention this, but one of the defining features of our age is the growing power of technology to do both good and evil, and the make-up of our country’s communities and the cultural norms and attitudes that underpin them also continue to change fast. The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I do the fundamental power of the seventh Peel principle:

“the police are the public and the public are the police”.

All of those are fundamental truths, and arguably the core challenge facing any Government or police leadership at any time.

We are living through a process of accelerated change, but I wholly support the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Henley (John Howell): the police are managing that change. There are ways in which we can improve, but just as the country and crime are changing, so are the police. My local police force, the Met, is unrecognisable from what it was 10 years ago. A lot of rubbish is talked about the police and their attitude to change, and some people have fallen into the trap of talking about them as one of the great unreformed public institutions. The police are managing a huge amount of change in what they do and how they work.

The point that I was trying to make was that if we compare Thames Valley police with the Metropolitan police, for example, they are completely different organisations tackling different sorts of crimes. I wonder whether the differences in the make-up of constabularies are now so great that a royal commission would not be able to work across all those different activities.

That is a valid and important point. I understand the temptation to say, “There are lots of difficult things going on and there is a need to take a long-term view, so let us ask some sensible people to take some time, go away and talk to people, and think about this.” My concern is not just that which my hon. Friend the Member for Henley expressed, but that a royal commission feels like a rather outdated and static process, given the dynamic situation that we are in.

The practical point is that we are approaching an extremely important point in defining the future of policing in this country, which is the next spending review. We cannot be certain, because we live in uncertain times, but the Chancellor has indicated that all being well with Brexit—I know that is a big “if”—that will be a summer for autumn event. For me, that spending review is the next critical point for shaping the immediate future of policing in England and Wales, and there are some things that we just do not need royal commission advice on.

Quite rightly, the hon. Member for Eastbourne talked about resources and officer numbers. If we cut through all the smoke, fire and political heat, there is cross-party recognition of the need to increase the capacity of our police system. We can argue about how fast and how far, but the Government and Labour Front Benchers recognise the need to do that, and we are moving in that direction. Next year, as a country we will be investing £2 billion more in our police system than three years ago. Police forces up and down the country are recruiting more than 3,000 new officers, in addition to staff. It is not only about increasing investment and officer numbers, but about looking hard at how police time is managed, the power of technology to free up time and internal demand and external demand, not least of which are the demands of looking after people on the mental health spectrum. A huge amount of work is going into looking at how we can increase capacity through increased investment and looking again at how the valuable time of frontline officers is used. We do not need a commission to help us in that critical work.

The commission being proposed has a lot of weight. In a sense, two fundamental issues make the difference: the ability of people to move around and the ability to communicate. That has opened up a world of things on the crime side in terms of how criminals operate across counties and internationally, on the internet and through fraud. It would be helpful to have a commission to look at the totality and to help us have a police force that is fit for the 21st century.

I understand the point, and I will address it, but my point is that I am not sure that a royal commission is the right solution at the moment for addressing some of the challenges that we know about. We have the capacity among the Government, the political process in this place and police leadership to work through them ourselves. I mentioned the spending review, and that is the major opportunity in the short term. We must not lose sight of getting it right or be distracted by the idea of royal commissions.

We are working closely with the police to look at demand and cost pressures and to ensure that the bid into the spending review is properly informed. With the police we are working through the question of how much further we can go in making the police more efficient and productive on behalf of the taxpayer. We are looking at the balance between crime prevention and the reaction to crime. We are looking at how we can give better support to frontline officers, because it is clear that we can and should do that. We are looking at system issues—issues that have rolled down through the ages, but that continue to be relevant, such as the balance between the centre and the local, the question of how we build and deliver national capabilities and the fundamental question of how we learn from the past for the next stage of upgrading police technology across this fragmented system.

How do we develop more consistent standards across the fragmented system? How do we do a better job of spreading innovation and best practice? Some of that best practice is frankly brilliant, but it exists in pockets. How do we ensure that it is spread across the system? How do we ensure that the fragmented system takes a more systemic approach to tackling some of the perennial problems that it faces? How do we ensure that we allocate resources in the fairest possible way? Those are challenges that we know we have to address, and we are working together with the police to do so. I simply am not persuaded that a royal commission will help those things in the immediate specific context, but I will come back to the point. First, I will give way to the hon. Member for Halifax (Holly Lynch), who is a great supporter of the police.

I thank the Minister for giving way and the hon. Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd) for eloquently setting out the challenges facing the police. Will the Minister give us a little more information on the points he was making? I am aware of the work Tom Winsor is undertaking with forces as they go through their assessments of what crime demand will look like in the coming years, with a view then to look at the resources required to match that. What might the timeline and the process be? However we approach having to meet resources in the future, that information and analysis will be important.

The hon. Lady is superbly informed and passionate about policing. She makes a good point and illustrates something I was trying to capture: the degree to which the police are changing and responding to challenge. The challenge to police leadership from Her Majesty’s independent inspectorate was, “You don’t do a good enough job of anticipating and managing future demand.” That sounds critical, but we know the reality. Police leadership is stretched in dealing with the demand in front of it.

The challenge from the inspectorate is that we need to do a better job of anticipating future demand, and the instrument was the force management statement. There were some grumblings and criticism at the start of that process, but every force complied with it. The inspectorate handled that process very well. We have all our first force management statements in, and we are now into a second iteration of that process. That is a good example of where the police have recognised the need for change, prodded by external eyes and external challenge. The system is now working together to improve on the first iteration, and I am encouraged by that.

I recognise the clarity of the argument made by the hon. Member for Eastbourne, and I understand its drivers. I have tried to explain why I am not persuaded in the short term that a royal commission is the answer to some of the challenges we have to work through with the police in the immediate context, which is the critical spending review. We have to get that right, because it will shape the future of policing for the next three to five years.

I want to close on a more constructive and positive note. Looking at the history of police reform in this country going back centuries, it is striking that the same questions are always asked. They tend to come back to, “What is the right balance between the centre and the local?”, “Who are the police accountable to?”, and, “How do we strike the right balance between law and order and the protection of individual liberties?” Then there is the fundamental question of, “Have we got the right structure of policing?” That tends to come back, as it has over the years, to the question of, “What is the right structure in terms of the number of police forces?” If we look at the length of history, we have come down from 200-odd forces to 43, and the question whether it is the right structure is still being asked.

The reality is this: the system has real strengths in local accountability and ensuring that local police forces are attuned to local need and accountable to the residents and citizens they serve. The hon. Gentleman spoke about piecemeal reform, but I would argue that the reforms to the police system since 2010 have not been piecemeal. They have been extremely significant, not least the introduction of police and crime commissioners to further sharpen local accountability. That is a real strength in the system that the public understand and respect, but the reality—it is heard from every police audience—is that the system is extremely challenged by the current environment of policing, not least because more and more crime simply does not respect borders, because it is either online or physically runs across borders, such as county lines. The fragmented police system struggles with this environment of rapid change. Although a lot of change is going on, it is driven at a slow and unsteady pace across the system, and the police recognise that.

As it has been over time, the whole question of whether this is the right policing structure continues to be valid, and it will continue to be asked. I happen to think that we can do a great deal to make the system work smarter, and that is one of my major priorities, but the political reality is that no party—Conservative, Labour or any other—has a mandate from the British people to take a big-bang approach to restructuring policing, even if it wanted to. I have no doubt that whoever is in power, we will come back to the question whether we have the right structure to combat modern crime and modern demand on the police as the police evolve, as we understand it through the police’s own understanding and as we build capability in the system to look ahead a bit further, which is one of my priorities. In that context, there may well be merits to and an argument for an independent look at that.

I have to intervene otherwise the debate will run out of time. All I will say in answer to the Minister is that the fundamental thing the police royal commission would give, which we lack, is trust for the public.

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6)).

Sitting suspended.