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Local Policing

Volume 700: debated on Tuesday 7 September 2021

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

I am delighted to have secured this Adjournment debate. The safety and security of our people and their property is one of the primary roles, if not the primary role, of any Government. In this country, we are lucky that we have in our police forces, a body of dedicated, professional men and women, ready and willing to take upon themselves the heavy duty of policing our country, by consent of the public, and ensuring their safety. In the Conservative party, we have a Government who are committed to supporting the police service, and all those who serve in it, to carry out their increasingly complex and difficult job—it is in our DNA. It was Sir Robert Peel, the father of the modern Conservative party, who, through his Metropolitan Police Act 1829, created the first civilian, professional, centrally organised police force for Greater London, established on the principal of policing by consent. This is about recognising

“always that the power of the police to fulfil their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.”

That is why the Conservative party has committed itself to putting 20,000 more police on the streets of England and Wales, backed by a £750 million recruitment campaign, and we are giving police enhanced powers to crack down on violent crime. As a party, we are committed to maintaining the local, democratic accountability of police forces throughout England and Wales through elected police and crime commissioners.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for initiating this debate. The simple and sad reality in the west midlands is that in 2010 we had 1,821 community officers but by 2018 we had 716. Despite the efforts of our PCCs, David Jamieson and Simon Foster, all that the Government are promising in the next stage is 1,000 officers. That means we will be more than 1,000 police officers down on where we were in 2010. Does the hon. Member understand the real concern that there is on behalf of beleaguered communities such as Stockland Green in my constituency, which is seeing serious rises in crime and antisocial behaviour? In all honesty, the Government have let the police service and the public down.

The hon. Gentleman raises an incredibly important point. All of us who represent communities across the whole breadth of the United Kingdom understand the importance of having a locally visible police service so as to maintain public safety and, in essence, make people feel safer. That is why the Government are investing so much in the recruitment of more police officers. If the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, as I think he is, that more could be done and more police officers should be recruited in the west midlands, I absolutely support him in that call and urge the Government to listen to him. If more police officers are needed in the west midlands, that is exactly what the west midlands should get.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate and support what he just said about community policing. The difficulties to which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) referred are replicated throughout the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that community policing, to which he has referred, with local faces and compassion, understanding and an unwavering desire to serve the local community, is what is needed? Furthermore, does he also agree that the creation or enhancement of such a force needs the necessary investment and funding?

I absolutely agree with everything that my hon. Friend said. Given that we are speaking about police forces throughout the whole United Kingdom, we should pay special recognition to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which does so much on a daily basis, in incredibly difficult circumstances that are not faced by any other police service in this country, to maintain the peace and safety of the people in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Strangford and, indeed, throughout the whole of Northern Ireland. I am glad that he brought that point to the House.

Policing is, of course, devolved. That decision was taken in 1999 and is one that I wholeheartedly support, for I believe that, just as with our continued support for locally elected police and crime commissioners, the power over such things should lie at the level that is the closest possible to the public. But that does not mean that policing exists in a vacuum or silo, and that is even more true in the digital age. Our forces co-operate on a number of fronts, up and down the country. That being the case, I envisaged this debate as an opportunity for MPs from every part of the United Kingdom—we have heard from the west midlands and Northern Ireland—and of all parties to reflect on the challenges faced by local policing in their constituencies, whether because of geography, financing or the impact of covid-19.

Let me give some examples. In my constituency, following the tragedy on the railway at Carmont last year, we saw the British Transport police keeping passengers safe and working closely with Police Scotland to secure the site and assist the investigation. In the largest joint operation to take place in Scotland—and perhaps throughout Britain—Operation Venetic involved police forces throughout the UK and the National Crime Agency. It resulted, in July last year, in 59 arrests; the seizure of £7 million of laundered cash, along with guns, ammunition, explosives, stolen vehicles and industrial pill presses; and a major haul of drugs of every classification. It ended in the takedown of a digital platform, EncroChat, used by criminals around the world to get poison into all our communities—technology that did not respect borders, political or geographical.

In the north-east of Scotland, which is my part of the world, we have seen many examples of what is known, perhaps too blithely, as cuckooing. It is the last step in what is often referred to as county lines drug trafficking, where dealers from large cities expand their operations into smaller towns. They endeavour to exploit young and vulnerable people to sell drugs, carry cash and weapons, bringing violence, coercion and abuse. They may also take over a vulnerable person’s house. Again, this is where policing blurs lines between public protection and being present and knowledgeable in the communities where officers live and work, acting on intelligence that has been passed on by colleagues in the north of England or the Metropolitan police.

That brings me on to the subject proper of local policing, particularly the presence and visibility of local officers. Even today, I have obtained figures that show a serious reduction in the number of beat bobbies since 2017—almost 80 officers in A division of Police Scotland alone. Of course it can be shown that the number of national officers has increased, but that is of little value to someone who has been broken into in Kemnay or in Laurencekirk in my constituency. Our hard-working officers on the frontline in Aberdeenshire, which I am lucky to represent, deserve to be fully resourced, and I am sorry to say that the closure of stations across my constituency will only heighten the problems. Communities such as Portlethen, which I represent, deserve more police patrolling in their streets, just as they do in the west midlands and in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if Portlethen police station closes, officers will be based 10 miles away in Stonehaven.

Sadly, despite the excellent work of individual officers and cross-border working on so many issues, we have seen over the past few years an increase in the centralisation of police services in Scotland. In 2013, we saw the loss of local accountability following the merger of eight police forces in Scotland into Police Scotland, which is governed by the Scottish Police Authority and accountable solely to Scottish Ministers. In 2017, we saw the closure of the Aberdeen and Inverness Control Rooms, which followed Dumfries, Stirling and Glenrothes, with the whole country now covered by Dundee, Motherwell and Glasgow.

It is now questioned whether Peel ever said that

“the police are the public and the public are the police”,

but that very principle is at the heart of how the police in the United Kingdom operate. Very often, it is about the presence of the police in the community that can make people feel safer and more secure. At the very heart of that principle—at the very heart of how we police this country and of how our people are protected from harm—is the idea of local community policing, by which I mean a police presence in each local community.

Police Scotland, especially the north-east division, is an excellent police force. Its officers carry out their duties diligently and with commitment to the people of the communities they serve. I am proud to say that I often hear constituents praising police officers, but I fear that the work that they do, particularly in the Old Grampian police area in the north-east of Scotland, is being undercut by decisions being made elsewhere.

Across Scotland, since 2015, 134 police stations have been closed, including five in Aberdeenshire, a large part of which I am privileged to represent. In Aberdeenshire, notwithstanding the incredible work of local police officers, crime has increased by 5% in this period. Figures show that police numbers have dropped by almost 80 since 2017. How is the main priority of local policing—keeping people safe through a community-based approach—to be achieved if we do not have the numbers or the proper resources? Our communities and our hardworking officers on the frontline deserve better.

I know that the Minister on the Front Bench has no responsibility for these decisions being taken in Edinburgh, but as a constituency MP, I have had hundreds of emails and letters about local policing matters since my election to this place in 2017. Although I know that, by the powers of his office, he cannot effect most of these decisions, I believe that I have a duty as a locally elected representative to raise these concerns brought to me by my constituents in this sovereign parliament of the United Kingdom, to which I have been lucky enough to be elected.

In response to a local consultation on the proposed closure of its police station, more than 100 residents of Portlethen, a large and growing commuter town on the edge of Aberdeen, expressed their concern that a permanent presence in their community would be lost. Many people expressed their concern that, on the occasions that they had knocked on the door, there was no one in; and few people had called in due to the common knowledge that it was unstaffed most of the time. However, to me that is a result of understaffing and a lack of investment, not an argument to close the station and create a hub at Stonehaven, 10 miles further down the coast. Portlethen is a growing town, close to Aberdeen city, on the east coast main line.

I am not for one minute suggesting that I or the community are wedded to the existing building—having visited it, it is clear that it is not what the public expect of a modern police station—but to remove the permanent physical presence of the police from Portlethen altogether is a move based on budgetary decisions in Edinburgh rather than on the needs of the local area. It will mean that police officers will be worked even harder than they are; that they will, by necessity, provide a more reactive service with less ability to provide proactive intelligence gathering; and, ultimately, a reduction in the level of community policing that we know is valued by all our constituents across the UK.

The North East division of Police Scotland is 60 officers under establishment. We know the pressure that police services across the country are under, not least in this year of dealing with enforcing covid regulations, securing the G7 and preparing for COP26, on top of all their usual duties. The closure of Portlethen police station, as an example of a move away from having a permanent police presence in our communities, is a worry to many people. I urge those in charge to look at alternatives—not necessarily maintaining the present building, but using imagination and investment to build a better and more visible police force in my part of the country.

Let me be clear that I do not blame Police Scotland. I do, however, point the finger of blame at others with responsibility. For example, one of the biggest barriers to keeping police offices open, even for a few hours a week in more rural areas, is actually non-domestic rates. This issue is not specific to Scotland, but Police Scotland’s capital spending is ranked at 38 out of the 42 UK forces when considered per employee. I wonder whether we would be seeing these decisions in Scotland today if we had more local accountability in Scotland—elected police commissioners, or even local authority police boards with a connection to local communities.

Every constituency in this House is represented by passionate, committed Members of Parliament. We know and hear the concerns of our constituents on a whole heap of issues every day. I could not not raise those concerns when presented with this opportunity today. I therefore thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for indulging me in raising on the Floor of the House what is nominally a devolved issue. I also thank the Minister, who I know will join me in thanking all those in the police service across the entire UK for keeping us safe; will commend the police forces for their incredible cross-border work across our one nation; and will reiterate our commitment to and our championing of local policing, be that in Aberdeenshire or anywhere else on these islands.

I heartily endorse my hon. Friend’s closing remarks. We offer our eternal thanks to those who keep us safe on a daily basis. I am privileged to see them in operation at close hand, and have done so for more or less the past decade. My admiration for them grows every day. As he said, they have our thanks both individually and collectively, as a United Kingdom body of men and women to be admired and protected.

I commend my hon. Friend for bringing his constituents’ concerns to the Floor of the House. One of the great characteristics of our democracy, which I have outlined to my constituents again and again—not least during the Brexit debates that raged in this country—is that somebody can get hold of us by the lapels in the high street in Andover or in Portlethen, and give us a good shake; then, on a Tuesday evening, we can show up in the House of Commons and grab the Minister responsible by the lapels, and give him or her a good shake; and the Minister in turn can grab the Home Secretary or, indeed, the Prime Minister, and give them a good poke about something that matters to people in a relatively small community. I am hesitant to raise the spectre of Brexit in this debate, but as I said to my constituents at the time of the referendum, “What would the Interior Minister of a new United States of Europe care about the police station in Portlethen or the number of police officers in Andover?” It is marvellous that we are able to bring these issues to the Floor of this House and to debate them with the people who are responsible.

Sadly, though, as my hon. Friend pointed out, in this case I am not my proxy, for policing runs only in England and Wales. I am therefore obviously twice removed in the situation. First, it is obviously a devolved matter. Secondly, it is a matter that falls under operational independence. It is effectively for the chief constable in each area to decide on strategy, workforce planning, and the buildings and vehicles deployed in aid of the protection of the communities they serve. Although they will obviously listen closely to local communities, it is fundamentally their decision. Having said that, I do understand the strong concern that my hon. Friend has raised about the notion of presence. One of the key concerns that we all hear as constituency Members of Parliament is this concern about police presence: the idea that there should be governed, guarded space in the public realm; that every street in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should be safe for public use so that people can go about their business unmolested; and that the guardians of that should be the police.

This was illustrated to me very strongly back in 2011, when I was deputy Mayor for policing in London and Assembly Member for West Central. There was a horrible murder in Shepherd’s Bush, and the then borough commander in Hammersmith and Fulham—a chap called Kevin Hurley, who went on to be the police and crime commissioner in Surrey—called a public meeting that I attended. There was a row of people at the front of this very large public meeting, with 300 people there, and one of the issues that came up was the fact that Shepherd’s Bush Green police station was not open 24 hours a day; it was closed at night and people were concerned about it. Kevin said, “That’s great: I will reopen the police station if you want me to. Now tell me, which police officers would you like me to bring in off patrol to man the desk?” Of course the audience said, “No, no—we don’t want you to do that.” He then said, rather smartly, “Well, why don’t we leave the lights on so it looks like it’s open?” They thought that was a jolly good idea because the police station was a proxy for presence. It was as important to them as I know the police station in Portlethen is to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

By the way, while that might not be a suitable building, it is a small, handsome stone building with a great history to it, as my hon. Friend said, as part of the former Grampian police, so I can see why there is disappointment locally that it may be closing. I know that he is engaging very closely with Police Scotland and has been quite innovative in his suggestions of a replacement—not least, I understand, some presence in the local Asda, which might also be a useful proxy for a police station and somewhere that police officers could operate from. However, as I say, I am twice removed from that decision. I urge him and his constituents to keep up that engagement with Police Scotland, not least because, if the police station does go, that underlines the need for, exactly as he said, a strong presence on the streets of Portlethen, as he wants across the whole of his very beautiful constituency.

I urge my hon. Friend to keep pushing on this, not least because in England and Wales there is a desire, as the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Jack Dromey) mentioned, that we are trying to fulfil with the recruitment of 20,000 extra police officers. Of course, that is 20,000 gross. The overall recruitment over three years will in the end, to backfill retirements, need to be about 45,000. That will push many police forces up to levels of policing that they have not seen for some time. On top of that, a lot of police and crime commissioners are recruiting beyond their allocation from the police uplift so that some parts of the country will have more police officers than ever before. The Kent constabulary, for example, can already boast that it has the highest number of police officers that it has ever had in its history.

In response to the hon. Gentleman’s challenge, which is a fair one, I urge him to look to his police and crime commissioner to do the same as a number of other commissioners and put their money behind their own part of the recruitment campaign. West Midlands is doing well. There is a large allocation of new police officers coming, but there is always more that can be done. I urge him to support us in trying to get the maximum number of police officers we can for the money that is allowed to us.

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend underlined the integral nature of Police Scotland—the vital part that it plays in the architecture of UK policing. It is absolutely the case that, while the governance and accountability framework for Police Scotland is devolved, its role in the safety of the whole United Kingdom is absolutely critical. UK policing can only succeed or fail as a whole. This was neatly outlined to us—I was pleased that he mentioned it—with the advent of Operation Venetic. This extraordinary operation—a magnificent achievement by the National Crime Agency, which of course works across the whole of the UK—cracked open the bespoke criminal communications system known as Encrochat. It revealed some awful horrors across the whole of the United Kingdom that we were able to get ahead of. Chief among them was the targeting of Scotland by organised crime specifically for the trafficking of drugs. My hon. Friend mentioned some of the remarkable results that continue to come from the intelligence gathered as part of that operation.

The most impactful result for me was that, as part of Operation Venetic, Kent constabulary was able to bust open a factory in its county that was manufacturing street benzos—benzodiazepines—specifically for use in Scotland, where they are a plague in places such as Glasgow, causing so many drug deaths, which are a terrible tragedy in Scotland. They were being manufactured for export to Scotland. As part of that raid, the police recovered 27 million tablets, which for a country of 6.5 million people is quite a few tablets each and a hell of a lot of money that would have been drained out of Glasgow, all of it leading to degradation and misery north of the border. The role that UK policing can play together, particularly to suppress drug supply and take on organised crime, and the critical nature of Police Scotland in that, has never been more important.

I was very pleased just a few weeks ago to pay a very interesting visit to Police Scotland to see the work that it is doing, not least at Gartcosh, its crime campus. I am very impressed by the work it does and by the leadership of Police Scotland at the moment, but I am convinced that there is always more we can do together, not least because the drugs problem in Scotland—the solving of which is as dear to my heart as solving it in Andover or anywhere else in England and Wales—is one we will only crack together. Scotland has some advantages, in that the ability of gangs to get drugs into Scotland is restricted. There are basically two roads in and two rail lines in, give or take, which gives us enormous opportunities for interception, but the greater sharing of technology, the putting together of our heads and the binding of our efforts as one United Kingdom to confront this plague and crime will be successful. That is a key part of our “Beating crime plan”, which we published just before the recess, making sure that we work together as a whole country in fighting crime, at the same time as getting the basics right.

One of the chapters in our “Beating crime plan” is about excellence in the basics, and it speaks to the desire of local policing. You, Mr Deputy Speaker, I and every Member in this House want to ensure that our constituents know they are safe, feel safe and see that they are safe on a daily basis, because the brave men and women of Police Scotland, Hampshire police, West Midlands police, the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those police forces are able to be out there, visible, doing their job and protecting us all for the good of the whole.

I do not think that my hon. Friend should in the slightest apologise for bringing this matter before the House. This is what we are here for. If we are not here to talk about the problems, worries and concerns of our individual constituents, what on earth is the point?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.