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Police: Crime Rates

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 19 January 2011

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact of cuts in police funding on crime rates.

My Lords, I welcome this familiar Question, which I think I have answered in one shape or another from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, several times already. The Government do not accept that reductions in police funding will impact on crime rates; what matters is how resources are used and prioritised. We believe that police forces can make savings while maintaining or improving the service that they provide to the public.

My Lords, under Labour, police numbers rose and crime fell. We are now seeing thousands of police posts being lost and front-line officers having to take on admin duties because of reductions in back-office infrastructure. What does the noble Lord have to say to the Civitas report of two weeks ago, which concludes that the public will face a greater risk of crime because of the actions of his Government?

My Lords, I am not sure whether the noble Lord has read the report as well as the press release—which, incidentally, said only that police cuts “could” lead to a surge in crime—that Civitas produced. I quote from the report:

“The data suggest … A nation with a larger proportion of police officers is somewhat more likely to have a lower crime rate”.

When one examines the statistics—as an academic, I usually try to look at the statistics—one sees that, according to the report, crime in Romania is 10 per cent of the scale of crime in Britain and Cyprus has three times as many police officers per head of population as Britain. I suspect that the data are not entirely reliable.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the example being set by Surrey Police, whose chief constable has introduced efficiencies that allow him to combine significant savings with an increase in the number of police officers on the beat? Does the Minister believe that that is a model that other police forces could follow?

My Lords, I am sure that everyone here is aware of the HMIC report, which suggests that there is potential for a 12 per cent cut in police spending without damaging police resources at all. In the other place, Vernon Coaker speaking for the Labour Party said,

“we would have accepted what the HMIC report says”.—[Official Report, Commons, 8/12/10; col. 358.]

That is to say that he admits that Labour was committed to at least a 12 per cent cut. I think it likely that, if Labour had won the election, we would have been talking about 15 to 20 per cent cuts in overall spending, so we are not talking about a vast partisan divide here.

Does the Minister assert that there will be no rise in crime, or will there be some rise? Can he be sure about the present situation? The view that he has expressed is not shared by all the police officers. Would he like to comment on that?

My Lords, if I were a police officer, I am sure that I would argue exactly that point but, having looked at some of the evidence on this, I think that the simple relationship between police numbers and crime that parties in opposition—including my own, I regret to say—tend to argue for is not borne out by the evidence. In Sweden and Spain, there has been over time an increase in both police numbers and crime; in New York and in Northern Ireland, there has been over time a substantial reduction in police officers, which has been accompanied by a reduction in crime.

My Lords, given the relationship of central government to the devolved Administrations, will the Minister elaborate on what he has just said regarding the particular position of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, given the level of security risk to the people of the Province?

My Lords, in answering this Question, I am responsible for police services in England and Wales only. Policing in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter.

Would the Minister care to consider, if fewer police are to be seen around our homes and streets, what effect that will have on people’s feeling of security and safety in and around where they live and work? Is he saying that there will be no impact at all on that?

My Lords, the evidence is that police concentration on hot spots for crime has a great deal more impact than police numbers overall.

My Lords, detection uses forensic techniques quite extensively these days, yet the Government have announced the winding down of the Forensic Science Service, which is making a considerable operating loss. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Government have any concerns about the risks inherent in such a move, in particular whether commercial forensic science services are likely to concentrate on the more routine and easier cases? We may lose out as a result if such services do not use more expensive techniques. There is obvious potential for miscarriages of justice or, indeed, failure to prosecute.

My Lords, the Government are working very closely with ACPO and with the National Police Improvement Agency on managing the transition for the wind-down of the FSS. That includes identifying whether there are any needs that cannot be provided by the forensic market.

My Lords, will the Minister comment on the fact that in my experience—this is shared by police officers, police authorities and members of the public—although Surrey Police may be able to make the cuts at the speed that this Government want, other police forces will not be able to do so. Would not the general public prefer to see more police officers on the street than the costly introduction of police commissioners?

My Lords, police commissioners will cost money, but police authorities cost money. Adjustments have been made for the election of police commissioners. We will come at a later point to the question whether police accountability is sufficient—I know that some people are concerned about police accountability and undercover officers—but police accountability is one of the things that elected police commissioners are intended to serve.

My Lords, in so far as those of us who have served in, and in support of, the police recognise the need to sustain that support, is it not important to remember that the Justice Minister wants to reduce the number of people who become victims through their lack of communication and land in prison? When we talk of the funding of the police, we must also recognise our responsibility to those, for example, who are on the autistic spectrum who find themselves in trouble and whom we have a responsibility to help.

I agree strongly with the noble Lord. In the prevention of crime, working with deprived children and disturbed teenagers is clearly an important part of reducing the crime rate and holding it down.