My Lords, this information is not collected centrally. Decisions about resources are, rightly, matters for chief constables to take locally with their police authorities. What is important is how visible and available the police are. We want to see police officers on the streets, preventing and cutting crime, rather than behind their desks. Modern policing reaches people through many means, not just through police stations.
My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord for that illuminating Answer. Could it be that the Government do not collect this information centrally because the information is too embarrassing to them? Can the Minister confirm that the recent Sunday Times survey that showed 350 public counters due for closure in the next few months is accurate? Can he also confirm that his ministerial colleague in the Home Office, Lynne Featherstone, has been running a campaign in her constituency against police cuts and the closure of public counters? Does he agree that this is somewhat hypocritical, and does it not show that she knows that these cuts are going to have an impact on the police’s ability to fight crime?
My Lords, I am aware of the research in the Sunday Times to which the noble Lord refers. I am not sure it was conducted on the most scientific basis and therefore we will not take much notice of it. I am also aware of what my honourable friend Ms Featherstone had to say about issues in her own constituency. I understand her views were purely about her own constituency, and she is a very good constituency MP. I can assure the House that, like all government Ministers, she is fully committed to what the Government and the Home Office are doing to make the necessary savings—savings forced on us by the profligate manner in which the party opposite behaved when they were last in government.
My Lords, I declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Does the Minister agree that the economic situation and budget cuts may force the new police commissioners to choose between maintaining police numbers and selling police properties?
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that question, and I am aware that she is a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. The question is about police contact, and the important thing to remember is that police contact is not just about stations; as I made clear in my original Answer, it is about police stations and all other means by which we can achieve that police contact. Police stations are not necessarily always the best means of doing that.
My Lords, I, too, declare an interest as a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. Given that contact is the key issue, how does the Home Office view the decisions by the Mayor of London and his deputy for policing to cut by nearly a half the number of sergeants responsible for safer neighbourhoods and liaising closely with local communities? Is that not a significant reduction in contact with the community?
The noble Lord is a member of that police authority and will no doubt put those questions to the mayor in due course. The important point is that those decisions are made by the appropriate authority. It is not for us to micromanage these things; it is for us to make the appropriate resources available to the police. We accept that the cuts that we are having to make, which were forced on us by the previous Government, are difficult. However, they are challenging but manageable, and all police authorities will manage to achieve them.
My Lords, will my noble friend the Minister encourage chief constables to use those early-retired persons who are prepared to volunteer their services both to man desks in police stations and to carry out other non-police but essential back-up tasks? This is working extremely well in a number of areas of the Metropolitan force, and I believe that it should be widely extended across the country.
My noble friend makes a very good point indeed and I will certainly take it on board. It is quite right that we should make use of the expertise that we have to make sure that policemen who are still available for front-line duties can do them and are not wasted behind the doors of the police station doing bureaucratic jobs.
My Lords, perhaps I can help the Minister, who said that he does not know how many police stations have closed. In my county of Essex, seven police stations have closed, but, worse than that, we now have no more 24-hour police stations, and most police stations are open only between noon and 6 pm. Given that the Chief Inspector of Constabulary said that a 12 per cent cut in police budgets was the most that could be saved, how can the Government justify a 20 per cent cut in Essex? What impact will this have, and why did they not listen to the chief inspector?
My Lords, that is obviously a matter for the authorities in Essex. We accept that things will be difficult, as I have made clear in all the supplementary answers that I have offered to the House. The noble Baroness will be aware of the most recent report from HMIC, Adapting to Austerity, which was published in July this year and which sets out a summary of forces’ workforce plans for the spending review period. The number working in front-line roles is expected to fall by just 2 per cent on average, but it must be for each force to decide how to do that itself.
Since the Official Opposition are leading with their chin, does my noble friend recall that under the doctrine of collective responsibility Labour Ministers were seen on the picket lines and at the protests against the closure of hospitals in their constituencies?
My Lords, it is not unusual for the Opposition to lead with their chin, so perhaps I ought to remind them of what one of their own former police spokesmen said only too recently. Vernon Coaker, the former shadow Police Minister, said:
“Ideally, you want the station to remain in the town but if that's not possible and they don't have the money then we have to look at alternatives … A lot of areas do operate without a station but they all have a presence”.
My Lords, I am not aware of such a suggestion, but, if it was made, obviously I would want to discuss it with the chief constable of the authority I happen to live in. However, it would be for him and not for me or for any other Home Office Minister to decide what was appropriate for Cumbria policing and policing in Penrith.
My Lords, would the Minister care to comment on the Government’s priorities for the police service in this country, given that they are introducing, at great public expense, an untried and unpiloted new system that replaces police authorities instead of using that money in the way the overwhelming majority of the public want it to be used: on the police service in their locality, including police stations?
I will not rehearse the debates that we had at some considerable length on the police Bill when it recently went through this House. This House and another place, Parliament as a whole, decided in favour of police commissioners, which we feel is the right way forward and is what we will do. It will create much greater local accountability. If the noble Baroness looks at what we have at the moment in the form of police authorities and what we will have in the future with police and crime commissioners, she will, in due course, recognise that that will be a great improvement.