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Police: Reduction in Numbers

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment has been made of the impact on community safety of the reduction in police numbers, including the reduction in traffic police.

I am realising the disadvantage of immediately following on when the previous Question went short on time. Decisions on the size, composition and deployment of the police force’s workforce are for individual chief officers and police and crime commissioners to take. They have clearly demonstrated that, with reform, it is possible to deliver more for less. Crime has fallen by more than a fifth under this Government according to the independent Crime Survey for England and Wales, making our communities the safest they have been since records began.

My Lords, chief constables can act only within the budget given to them by the Government. The stock response is that crime is falling. But, having lost 17,000 police officers, does the Minister regret that, of 100,000 crimes last year, fewer than 28% were solved? That is less than one in three. Reported rapes are up by 30% but there is a 14% fall in prosecutions under this Government. Violent crime is up by 16%. Overall prosecutions are down and 9,000 fewer crimes have been solved. Does he not consider that the police and the public deserve better if we are really serious about having safer communities?

I certainly agree about the importance of having safer communities. That is why it is not a stock answer to point out that fewer crimes are happening than at any time since that survey came into being in 1981. It is not something to be complacent about. It is due to the tremendous efforts which the police are making. Nor are we simply saying that reductions in budgets are not a serious matter. We are saying that there needs to be those reductions. As the Police Federation recognised, there needed to be reductions to make sure that we balance the economy. We have reduced bureaucracy by 4.5 million hours, which is the equivalent of 2,100 police officers. Also, we have said that we do not want police officers in back offices but on the front line. We have increased the proportion of police officers who are now serving on the front line. The combination of those two things is why crime is falling.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that, even if economic necessity justifies the 17,000 reduction in the number of police officers and the 23,000 reduction in civilian support staff, nevertheless, the next Government should have as an aspiration the renewal of neighbourhood policing and reassuring uniform police patrol? Despite the best efforts of the Government, crime commissioners and chief constables, neighbour policing and reassuring uniform patrol are threatened and are in danger of being relegated to our history books—and they are the foundation of the relationship with the public.

I totally agree with that, which is one of the reasons why, between March 2010 and March 2014, the number of neighbourhood police officers increased by 5,918. Total neighbourhood policing is up by 1,919, which reflects the change in the number of PCSOs. It is a vital part and there is no doubt that policing can take place effectively only when it is with community consent, working together with the police and law enforcement agencies to ensure that we reduce crime.

My Lords, is it not important not to look at these things in silos—and not just at police numbers alone? Community safety partnerships are made up of police local authorities, and fire and rescue, probation and health services. In times of financial difficulty, does the Minister agree that it is important to do things together, differently and holistically, and that community safety partnerships are good for community safety?

I agree with my noble friend in respect of that. There are a number of examples where emergency responders, including the ambulance service, the fire authorities and the police, share back office and communication facilities to reduce costs and improve the effectiveness of the service. That is one of the changes behind the falling crime rate that we are seeing.

My Lords, are there not increased difficulties facing the public in locating police officers at the present time? A lot of police stations have been shut. Does the Minister agree with that? Does he recall that there is an increased number of complaints from police officers about what is happening?

I am aware that the police are doing a tremendous job. They are working under significant pressure. However, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector of Constabulary, in his report called Policing in Times of Austerity, said that the police were holding up and doing an amazing job in serving local communities by readjusting the way they work to ensure that officers are deployed on the front line and effectively rather than sitting and filling in forms.

My Lords, just before the Christmas Recess I asked the Minister what the Government’s strategy was on policing. I was not very satisfied with his answer, so I will ask him again. Has he seen the comments of Chris Sims, the well respected chief constable of the West Midlands, about what he expects his force to be doing in the next five years? It is to withdraw largely from neighbourhood policing and patrol for reassurance and to introduce a new form of public contact like internet banking. Is that a counsel of despair or is it a strategy? If it is a strategy, is it the strategy of the Government?

If I recall, the answer I gave the noble Lord was that the strategy was to cut crime, and that that was behind everything we did. When we came to power people had myriad targets and quotas. Now we simply have one, which is to cut crime—and crime is falling.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that during the Northern Ireland Troubles the absence of traffic police and marked police cars for security reasons was accompanied by a significant increase in the number of fatal traffic accidents?

That is an interesting point. I was not aware of that particular fact but, on looking at the figures again, the number of fatalities from road traffic accidents, fortunately, has been coming down. The noble Baroness said that that was in relation to Essex, but the number of fatalities has come down from about 1,900 in 2010 to 1,730 last year. We want to continue that downward progress.

Is the Minister aware that the Scottish Government want Police Scotland to take over responsibility from the British Transport Police in Scotland? Will he or the Home Secretary—I presume he has her ear—have a word with the Scottish Government and explain the importance of cross-border policing as far as the transport police are concerned?

That is a very important point which ought to be considered. Certainly I shall mention it to the Home Secretary when I have her ear this afternoon.

My Lords, the All-Parliamentary Group for Children looked at the relationship between children and police in its last session and produced a report. In that report the police told us time and time again that they were finding it increasingly difficult to send police officers into schools. If we take a long view of the reduction of crime, we know that the education of children and the influence of police on children who are already starting down a path of crime are very great. Does the Minister not agree that it is crucial that these projects are protected?

The noble Baroness is right. This relates to the earlier question about the importance of neighbourhood policing, where the connection with schools is vital to ensure that people grow up respecting the role of the police—not fearing them but realising that they are there to protect them.

My Lords, I saw out of my window a car being broken into. I dialled 999 and was answered by a lady from Bombay. Those doing the break-in took their time but the police arrived two days later. What does this incident say about the Question asked?

I am happy to meet the noble Lord later to find out where he was living and the particulars of the incident. One of the measures that we have introduced, of course, is to differentiate—it does not apply in this case—between non-emergency calls and real emergency calls. The ability to triage calls is an important way of ensuring that the police respond to incidents where they are desperately needed as fast as possible.

My Lords, have police and crime commissioners been effective in driving through efficiencies in police forces, particularly with respect to adjacent forces?

I can think of some very good examples. In fact, some former colleagues of the noble Baroness have been instrumental in driving forward this type of co-operation. I am thinking particularly of West Mercia and Warwickshire where there is a much closer relationship because of the public visibility of a police and crime commissioner providing that connection with the community that we talked about earlier.

My Lords, I was interested to hear about the experiences in Northern Ireland with fatalities on the roads. A reduction in roads policing officers has been experienced in most forces, and two forces have reduced their traffic officers by more than 70%. The Minister gave us figures for road deaths, but in fact the most recent figures have shown an increase. The total cost of a fatality is more than £1.75 million. Given that figure, is it worth reducing the number of police officers?

I think that that is right—and if I misheard the noble Viscount and he was asking about fatalities in Northern Ireland, I will get the figures broken down specifically for him. On the particular point that he raised, this is where greater use of technology and surveillance cameras on our motorways and road networks has helped to target resources better on reducing deaths and accidents on our roads.