Our police forces have played a critical role during the pandemic and have been quick to respond to the changes and challenges that we all face. The Government have been clear that they will provide police forces with the support, both moral and physical, that they need to continue protecting the public and keeping communities safe through the coronavirus pandemic. This has included £30 million of additional covid surge funding.
I welcome the approach that my hon. Friend and the Home Secretary are taking to support brave police officers up and down the country. Lawful protest is the cornerstone of a democracy, but does my hon. Friend agree that it is wholly unacceptable for groups of protesters to come together and put police officers at risk by breaking social distancing rules, given that the police have a responsibility to keep the public safe?
It is no surprise that my right hon. Friend should put the welfare of police officers to the front of his mind, as should everybody in this country. Our police officers are out there on the frontline keeping us all safe, and it is true that a large gathering has the potential to expose them to a greater possibility of infection by the virus than would otherwise be the case. We have seen extraordinary resilience from our police forces throughout the whole pandemic. Indeed, absence has often been below business as usual. That is important because, besides covid compliance enforcement, we still have crime to fight, and if people want officers to be there at the other end of a 999 call and available to come to their aid in an emergency, they need to ensure that they do not expose them to a greater risk of infection than they would otherwise face.
In the first lockdown, we saw a number of large demonstrations and protests, including in Henley, that threatened frontline officers. In this lockdown, are we going to abolish them or try to prevent them from happening to protect officers and, indeed, the public?
I know that Henley has seen its fair share of problems over the past few months, and it is no surprise that my hon. Friend should raise them, as he often does, in this House. All large gatherings are now illegal under the coronavirus regulations, and I am afraid that that includes legitimate protests that would otherwise be tolerated. We are facing an extraordinary challenge as a country, with many vulnerable individuals, older citizens and others exposed to risks that they have never seen before, and we all have an individual duty towards our collective health. We hope and believe that the police will be able to encourage the vast majority of our fellow citizens to observe the regulations, but where they do not, enforcement is an option, as we have seen over the past weekend.
Lancashire has 750 fewer police officers than it did in 2010. Let us compare that with Surrey, which has only eight fewer officers. The discrepancy is because Lancashire is more reliant on Government grant than Surrey, which, as a relatively affluent area, is more reliant on council tax precepts. Given that the Government have promised to recruit 20,000 police officers in the next two years, when is the Department going to recruit them and base them in areas that have seen the biggest cuts, such as Lancashire?
I am pleased that our pledge to recruit 20,000 extra police officers is so popular, particularly in Lancashire. The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that 100 of the 153 that were allocated to Lancashire out of the first 6,000 had already been recruited by 30 September. They join the 5,834 that we have recruited towards our 6,000 target, which was due by next March; as Members can work out from the maths, we are well ahead of target. As for where those officers are based, that is a matter for the chief constable, who makes that operationally independent decision, in collaboration with the police and crime commissioner in the county.
Let me start by thanking the Minister for meeting me and the Daniel Fox Foundation, which is based in St Helens, does great work on knife crime in my constituency and was very encouraged by his support. We know the impact of coronavirus on our health and the economy, but it also has serious implications for public safety and the country’s security. There were anti-lockdown protests on the streets this weekend, but we see deliberate, harmful disinformation online all day, every day. So when ensuring that the police have what they need to meet all covid-related challenges that they face, what resources is he providing to them and the security and intelligence services to robustly counter the false online conspiracy theories, which are designed by nefarious elements, at home and abroad, to undermine our collective efforts to beat this virus?
First, let me say that I enjoyed our meeting with the Daniel Fox Foundation. I am pleased that in the hon. Gentleman’s part of the world, St Helens, as in the rest of the country, we are standing shoulder to shoulder in the fight against knife crime. Sadly, we are having to do so once again, but it is a fight that we will and must win—I am sure there will be more about it later today. On misinformation and disinformation, he is right to say that unpleasant and untrue stories are circulating, whether anti-vaccine stories or the crazy stuff about 5G. Both the National Crime Agency and the security and intelligence services are engaged with our partners in the private sector in removing as much of that disinformation as we can. We have a role to play in this House as well, in standing together as democratically elected politicians and recognising that we charge others with assisting us in providing advice and data and that we must respect and acknowledge their views as being the basis on which decisions are made legitimately. That is the right way forward. I welcome the Opposition Front-Bench team’s support on that thus far, and indeed into the future.