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Policing in South-West London

Volume 681: debated on Wednesday 7 October 2020

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Rebecca Harris.)

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue on the Floor of the House. I want to start by paying tribute to our fantastic police officers in the south west command unit, who continue to provide exceptional service to local residents and who have gone above and beyond to keep our communities safe during lockdown. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commander Sally Benatar for her years of service and wish her well in the future. I welcome Lis Chapple, the new lead of the south west command unit, and look forward to a productive working relationship with her.

Within the four boroughs that make up the south west command unit of the Metropolitan police, we have three of the four safest boroughs in London, including Richmond and Kingston, which I represent. The relative safety of our streets is, of course, something that local residents value highly, and is part of what makes south-west London such an attractive and popular place to live, work and study. Those three relatively safe suburban boroughs, however, share the command unit with Wandsworth, with all the complexities and additional demands on policing that an inner-city borough represents. The resources of the south west command unit are therefore frequently skewed towards one borough, with implications for the remainder.

I want to state clearly that I support the Met’s goals in targeting violence reduction and that I absolutely want to see it putting all the resources needed towards saving young lives. The recent, tragic case of Archie Beston in my constituency has highlighted how quickly and unpredictably violence can occur, the devastating impact it has on those who are left behind, and the importance of a rapid police response. My heart goes out to Archie’s family and friends, and I pray that the sentencing of the perpetrators later this month will help them to feel that justice has been done.

I remain concerned that, with scarce resources being targeted towards the most serious crimes, we lack sufficient officers to provide the kind of everyday policing that is so necessary to keeping our streets safe. I have written to the Mayor to share my concerns, and he has responded with information about the various measures that he has taken to increase police resources across the capital. He was unable to reassure me that we might see a future boost to police numbers in Richmond and Kingston because of the impact of the coronavirus on local authority budgets. That is not, of course, a problem confined to the capital, but in London, a shortfall in funding will mean that our police budget has to be cut. The Mayor’s estimate is that, unless the deficit can be addressed, our policing budget will be cut by £109.3 million over the next two years. This means even scarcer resources being targeted, by necessity, at the most serious crimes, leaving comparatively safer boroughs, such as those in the south-west, with even fewer resources for everyday policing.

In addition to the impact on funding, it is important to consider what impact the coronavirus has had on demand for policing. It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that footfall in central London has dropped dramatically since March, and has not yet recovered, and the considerable resources that were once dedicated to policing the shops and leisure outlets of central London are not required in the same numbers that they once were. By contrast, footfall in suburban areas such as south-west London has increased considerably. During lockdown, in common with many other areas across London and the country as a whole, south-west London saw a big increase in antisocial behaviour.

On Richmond Green and the Barnes riverside, and in Canbury Gardens in Kingston, crowds gathered to play loud music and get drunk, and—most distressingly to local residents —private gardens were used when no public toilets were available. Large crowds attracted drug dealers and drug use, and those were only the most noticeable changes. Local police report an increase in cases of domestic violence, and incidents involving mental health issues. Crime, antisocial behaviour and other incidents requiring a police presence have shifted from our city centres to our suburbs. A policing demand profile that prioritises city centres may not be an appropriate template in future, and I urge the Home Office to work with the Metropolitan police and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to review how resources are allocated.

I wish to speak about how the absence of a physical police presence affects communities. Although we are far from unique in having this issue, the rise in antisocial behaviour that we experienced in Richmond and Kingston over the summer has made residents extremely anxious about their safety. Public drunkenness is extremely intimidating for everybody, but especially for lone females and the elderly. It is frightening to imagine that there is nobody to protect someone confronted by an unpredictable and aggressive individual. The same is true of drug dealing and drug taking. It takes only one incident to make people feel afraid of walking in their own streets and neighbourhoods, and that can have an incredibly repressive effect on people’s lives.

For young people, the threat of being mugged in our boroughs is real. I applaud some of the community initiatives that have sprung up to help young people protect themselves and their belongings, especially the excellent Mothers Against Muggings initiative in my constituency. Young people should not be made to feel they are responsible if they become victims of a crime, and neither should they have to curb their educational, sporting or social activities because of a fear of going out. A police presence, or at least the knowledge that the police are nearby, can go a long way towards helping people go about their lives with confidence. We can also deter people from crimes committeding. That is not just better for those who avoid becoming victims of crime, with all the mental and physical anguish that results from that; it is good for those who are deterred from committing an act that may burden them with a criminal record.

These are anxious times everywhere, and it is not surprising that people are more concerned than usual about their safety, or that police should have had more demands on their time than before the pandemic. However, the feeling that the community is not being well served by the police has, in parts of my constituency, reached a point at which some residents are canvassing support for a privately funded police force to patrol specific areas. I wish to state publicly and clearly that I am completely opposed to any such initiative. Everybody has the right to safety and justice, regardless of their background or income, and it should not be reserved specifically for those who can pay for it. I am deeply concerned about the implications of the interests of customers of a private police force being enforced against those who have not paid for it. Will the Minister join me in opposing such initiatives, and reinforce the Government’s commitment to provide sufficient resources to maintain the safety of our streets?

If people do not live in fear of going out into their communities, they are more likely to engage with people from different backgrounds, to provide support to their neighbours, to shop in local shops, and to contribute to a safer, friendlier neighbourhood that is the best possible deterrent to crime and antisocial behaviour. Will the Government make a commitment to neighbourhood policing as the best way of building strong communities that prevent crime and support all their residents? Will they review policing demand profiles in response to the pandemic, and—above all—will they ensure that policing authorities across the country, and especially in London and the four boroughs of the south-west, have the resources they need to police effectively everywhere?

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) for initiating this important debate and for allowing me to make a speech so that I did not have to intervene on her constantly, and I thank the Minister, too, for allowing me time. Let me add my thanks to the local police, who are fantastic and try their best, and send my best wishes to Sally Benatar and welcome Lis Chapple.

The point that I want to emphasise, which has already been made, is the desperate need for a stronger visible police presence locally, which for me includes Twickenham, Teddington, Whitton, St Margarets and the Hamptons. As my hon. Friend mentioned, lockdown, combined with the good weather, has attracted an awful lot of crime and antisocial behaviour over recent months, particularly in our green spaces. For me, that includes Twickenham Green, Murray Park, Heathfield Recreation Ground and Udney Hall Gardens. That crime and antisocial behaviour ranges from urinating and defecating outside people’s houses to intimidation, drug use, criminal damage of vehicles, opportunistic theft and assault. The common theme I hear from residents is that the police were called and either did not show up or were too slow to show up.

Between 2016 and 2019, we saw police numbers across London decimated. We have lost 299 police community support officers across London and almost 1,500 special constables. We desperately need a more visible police presence and a return to community policing. Although the local police have made great efforts to engage with the local community, the council and me, I am dismayed to hear from them that the problem with trying to step up patrols locally is that our already short-staffed local police are called away regularly to shut down illegal raves and deal with protests and other issues in other parts of London because police resources are so stretched. Although I am sure the Minister will echo the point, which has already been made, that we are a low-crime borough in Richmond, if the policing presence continues to be eroded in this way, criminals and others who wish to get up to no good will simply take advantage of the situation, as they already are.

One Twickenham town centre resident said: “I’m beginning to not feel safe at all here now. I have gone most of the 58 years of my life relatively unscathed, only to be directly affected by four crimes committed in just four months.” We heard that residents in Richmond have taken matters into their own hands by hiring private security. I hear chatter on local community forums that people in my constituency are looking into that too. My concern is the same as my hon. Friend’s: that those living on the poorest estates in my constituency, where crime and antisocial behaviour are higher, are the ones least able to afford that, quite apart from the fact that I disagree with the whole concept and I think it is dangerous and wrong. I hope that the Minister will condemn it.

The Conservative Government pledged at the last election to put 20,000 more police officers on our streets. We have seen a fraction of those funded so far, so I hope the Minister will address when he expects to fund those additional police officers for the Met and provide a long-term settlement so that it can plan for the future. I would also welcome his assurances on how we can ensure that Twickenham, in particular, gets the policing and the protection that its residents need and deserve.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Sarah Olney) on securing this important debate, and I am grateful to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson) for her contribution.

I have to say that I am surprised that in more than 12 months as Minister for Crime and Policing, this is the first Adjournment debate that I have done on crime. There have been lots of other debates about process-type issues, or issues of concern to Members, but not about crime, which is a frustration I find myself expressing about much of the policing family. There is lots of talk about process, computers and human beings, and all that is very important, but in the end the product, which is fighting crime, has to be our primary concern.

I am therefore pleased that the hon. Member for Richmond Park has raised this issue from her part of the world. Although it is a very safe part of London and, indeed, a very safe part of the country, that does not mean that we should not pay attention to the concerns of her residents. She should be assured that wherever and however a crime occurs in this country, it is a personal offence to me that it has, and I will be stretching every sinew in the time that I am allowed in this job to do something about it.

I start by offering my congratulations and thanks, along with the hon. Lady’s, to Chief Superintendent Benatar, who is moving on to pastures new. Presumably she is no relation to the pop star of the same surname from my youth, Pat Benatar, whom the hon. Lady may well know; it is an unusual name that sticks in the memory. I also welcome Lis Chapple, who is coming along hopefully to do as fine a job. We should recognise that south-west London in particular has been rocked by a tragedy in the policing family—a terrible, heinous crime that occurred a couple of weeks ago with the death of a police sergeant in Croydon. That is deeply, deeply regrettable and is something that we all mourn.

Moving on to the broad issues, the speech that I was given to read out today, as Ministers are wont to do in Adjournment debates, is not entirely appropriate to what was raised by the hon. Lady, notwithstanding the steers that were given to us. I am going to do what I think is known technically in the trade as winging it.

Broadly, I think the hon. Lady raised four issues. On funding, I am sure she will understand that we stand apart slightly from the police funding in London. The best we can do is provide significant and generous funding to the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime through the police funding settlement, and that is exactly what we did last year. The overall police funding package went up by about £1 billion to £15.2 billion, and a very significant proportion of that went to London. Much of that was to fund an uplift in police officers, as part of the 20,000 extra police officers we will be recruiting over the next three years. The Met allocation is 1,369, which is a lot. I know that recruitment has gone extremely well in the Metropolitan police, and numbers are up 4-point-something per cent. year on year. I am pleased to say that over 92% of those police officers are dedicated to frontline duties, which is a very high proportion.

The hon. Lady rightly pressed me, and there will be more to come. That number is just the Met’s share of the first 6,000, and there are another 14,000 to recruit. I am hopeful we will be announcing the allocation of those soon. It has obviously got wrapped up in the discussions with Treasury colleagues in the spending review, but our commitment to recruiting those 20,000 is rock solid. Indeed, it is a bigger job than 20,000, because we actually have to recruit about 45,000 to backfill those who are retiring during that period to make sure we reach an extra 20,000. That will give us an extremely high number of police officers, not least in the capital.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of covid being a distraction for the police and said it had been a huge burden for them, and indeed it has. The police have frankly done a brilliant job of dealing with a fast-moving and very complex backdrop to their job. They have had to embrace a new role over the past few months that they have never performed before. They have done it with alacrity, and happily.

The resilience of the police has been incredible. In many parts of the country, absence in police forces has dropped below pre-covid levels. It is almost as if police officers across the country wanted to step forward and do their bit at this time of national crisis in a way that they perhaps have not done in the past. Many a detective has squeezed into their uniform and got out on the frontline to do their bit for the national effort to fight crime.

There have also been other impacts. Some of the demonstrations that we have seen, especially in central London, have had an impact on the police, particularly in terms of the extractions that the hon. Lady mentioned, not least because many of those disputes take place out of normal hours—at weekends or whatever—and require overtime, which means that rest days or holidays are missed that have to be caught up. There becomes a backlog of time not spent policing that is absorbed by that public order duty. We also find that has an impact on the workforce, because, frankly, they become tired. If an officer is busy out fighting crime and then they are called to a demonstration in central London to do their public order duty, it often means they miss that downtime with their friends, their family, or whatever it might be. They become tired and weary, and that has to be rectified, too.

The Minister makes the point about demonstrations this summer, and obviously I am aware that there have been quite a few. I just wonder whether there have been significantly more than there normally are in any given year. Should the resourcing plan perhaps take account of that, inasmuch as if people are being called to these additional duties, the resourcing plan should have enough in it to reflect, as he says, the rest days that they then need to catch up on?

I do not think that there have been appreciably more demonstrations. In fact, we may well have seen years in the past when there were bigger demonstrations. However, a lot of the demonstrations this year took place against the backdrop of covid and, as they say in policing, had “potential” and therefore required that a greater potential resource might be appropriate. If the police have intelligence or a sense that a public order situation might get a little out of hand, frisky, or even turn violent, there will often be police officers held in reserve elsewhere, away from the action, to be called up, should they be required. They may well be wearing more body armour or protective equipment just in case things, as they say, kick off. We have seen that once or twice this summer, sadly.

To be honest, that is part of the regret about some of these demonstrations, well-meaning though they may have been, such as the Extinction Rebellion demonstrations that cause so much difficulty. They do absorb police resource—I do not think people realise how much—and very many of those officers are drawn from neighbourhood policing and neighbourhood teams. They are trained to public order standards so that they can be extracted—or abstracted, if you like—and that does cause problems in neighbourhoods, not just on the day, but in the catch-up, because it absorbs rest days, holidays, training days and other days that are naturally part of a police officer’s cycle of existence. There is an element of tail—of absorption —that causes a problem. However, the Metropolitan police—we have been in constant touch with the force, on an almost daily basis—has done a fantastic job from top to bottom over the last few months. It has been really fantastic and I pay tribute to it for the work that it has done.

The other area that the hon. Lady mentioned is antisocial behaviour. While she is hearing from her residents that they have a particular experience that is causing them concern over antisocial behaviour, we have seen a fall in antisocial behaviour across the country over the last few years. During the covid lockdown, the Office for National Statistics could not do its standard crime survey, so it was doing telephone surveys throughout it on crime. The ONS’s results show that about 20% of the people whom it called during the lockdown witnessed antisocial behaviour during the three months of lockdown, but, at the same time, 21% said that they saw a reduction in antisocial behaviour during that period, so nationally, the figure is broadly flat. Nevertheless, I understand that in a low-crime area, such as Richmond or Twickenham, the impact of antisocial behaviour is amplified because people are used to existing with a much quieter background in that leafy part of London. Antisocial behaviour does have that impact.

While the police should and could play their part, I ask that both the hon. Member for Richmond Park and the hon. Member for Twickenham make sure that their local authority is making full use of the tools that were given to communities and local authorities in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014. There is a suite of tools there, such as civil injunctions, criminal behaviour orders, public space protection orders, community protection notices, dispersal powers and closure powers, all of which could be used. Some of the antisocial behaviour to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred is related to licensed premises and the consumption of alcohol, and making sure that local authorities have both their licensing policy and enforcement in good shape is critical to success.

Perhaps it would be helpful to clarify that some of what I described in my speech as antisocial behaviour has been referred to by the police, I believe, as unlicensed musical events or in that sort of category. It is my understanding that there has been a big increase in that across London during the summer, particularly as there have been no licensed musical events such as Glastonbury or other festivals, and nightclubs have all been closed. A lot of that activity has moved to open spaces. That is the experience that we have been having in Richmond and in Twickenham.

Yes, the hon. Lady is right. We have seen a surge in unlicensed music events across the whole country as two things happened. First, young people have a natural desire to be sociable, but for them, the rock concert/festival schedule was abandoned. However, at the same time, in one or two instances, there is perhaps initial evidence to show that those involved in the drugs industry are co-ordinating these events as a natural place in which they can sell drugs. Dealing with that was behind the regulations that the Government introduced to impose £10,000 fixed penalty notices on those who organise such gatherings. As she will know, a number of those penalty notices have been handed out. With unlicensed music events, the police have powers to confiscate equipment, and they very often do so. Sadly, however, despite the fact that such equipment costs several thousand pounds, they are under a duty to return it in time. I did wonder whether we could either take our time returning it or find some other use for it, to act as a suitable disincentive to organising such events, but the £10,000 fixed penalty notice was apparently more powerful.

Since then, there has been a reduction in unlicensed music events. Some of that has related to—let us say—assertive action by the police, and the change in the regulatory environment. It has also, frankly, related to the weather. As the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies), who is sitting in the Whip’s place, will know—he has been, in the past, a special constable of some note—the police often refer to their greatest friend and ally in fighting crime as PC Rain. The weather will, we hope, have a depressive effect on such events over the autumn.

Alongside all the powers, however, the hon. Lady is quite right to say that there is an urgent desire in London, in particular, and in the whole country for a greater sense of police presence. People want much more assurance that public space is governed and controlled. That desire is a large part of what lies behind our pledge to recruit 20,000 more police officers.

I want to pick up on the point about councils being equipped with tools to tackle antisocial behaviour. Will the Minister clarify whether local councils have also been given the funding to do so? We know that local government has suffered cuts year on year. In Richmond, where there has been a lot of trouble in green spaces, the council has tried to step up its own park patrols where possible, but it has been hampered by a lack of finance, which has been hit by covid.

I recognise the issue that the hon. Lady raises, but although as a former cabinet member for finance in a London borough for five years, I understand the funding pressures on councils, much of their financial fate lies in their own hands. During my time in local government in the capital, we saw, let us say, variable performance from a financial point of view. There were those who managed their finances well, and those who did it not so well.

I have not looked recently at the balance sheet of Richmond Council, and I would be happy to have that discussion if the hon. Lady wishes. Nevertheless, it is not terribly expensive to put in place, for example, a public spaces protection order. Such an order could be used somewhere like a park, where antisocial behaviour is taking place. The order can insist either that certain activities do not take place or, indeed, that certain things should take place, and the breaching of it is an offence. If Richmond Council wanted to focus on that, I am sure that it could. The council has, obviously, changed hands politically a number of times, but in my day it was never known for being on the back foot, under either Conservative or Liberal Democrat control, when it came to protecting its residents. I hope and believe that it will step forward this time as well.

Both hon. Members raised the issue of privately funded police forces. I am a Conservative, and I believe in freedom of association. I would therefore not want to restrict the ability of private individuals to gather together to protect themselves in a particular way. We see that happening in other parts of our world. For example, the Jewish community in this country has its own protection organisation called the Community Security Trust, which mounts guards and protection outside synagogues every Saturday because they are a particular community who feel that they might be targeted when they are on their way to worship their God. That is legal, allowable and perfectly reputable, as far as I am concerned.

Does the Minister not accept that there is a difference between arranging a private security firm to protect private property and arranging a privately funded police force to patrol a public area?

Actually, the Community Security Trust is not a security organisation. It is a voluntary organisation and, as I understand it, members of the community volunteer to be part of the CST to protect their own community. It does require some funding, but it is nevertheless very organised and they train very well. It is a remarkable organisation. In fact, it has worked with other faith groups and talked to them about their own safety, because sadly, many faith groups are often the target of extremists.

Of course, we have private security firms who cater to businesses and others at events and concerts—like those rock concerts that have not happened this summer—and who do that kind of work, so I am hesitant to condemn it. However, the situation that the hon. Lady is talking about, which we have seen elsewhere in the capital, not least in St John’s Wood over the past 10 or 12 years, is undesirable. It would be great to be in a position where people did not feel a compulsion to do those things because the police presence was such that they felt a sense of governed space and security, and my hope and ambition is that, over the next three years, that is exactly where we will get to.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.