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Emergency Services: Central London

Volume 767: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the availability of emergency services in central London, and what steps they are taking to reinforce them in the light of the attacks in Paris on 13 November.

My Lords, I draw attention to my entries in the register and beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

My Lords, working across government the Home Office has developed a police-led capability to deal with large-scale firearms attacks. We are reviewing the attacks in Paris to see if there is anything further we can learn. Further communications will be made in due course.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that Answer. No doubt he is aware that the London Ambulance Service has failed in virtually every London borough in every month to meet its emergency response targets, that the number of authorised firearms police officers has dropped by 760 since 2009 to below 5,000, and that the Police Federation says that the police would struggle to cope with an incident such as occurred in Paris if it were to happen here. Does the Home Secretary support the view of my honourable friend the shadow Chancellor that police emergency response teams and neighbourhood teams should be exempted from the worst of the Chancellor’s cuts to be announced next week?

On the specifics, the noble Lord will realise that we will have to wait for the announcement to be made as a result of the spending review next week. On the points that he made, he will be aware that since the 7/7 attacks in the capital there has been a counterterrorism strategy. There are regular operations as a result of the coroner’s report into those attacks in London. She recommended that there should be much greater interoperability between the different services. That has happened. Only this summer we had Operation Strong Tower, which was a 1,000 personnel strong exercise, following which the Metropolitan Police Commissioner said that he believed we were ready to meet the challenge should such attacks happen in the capital. We want to maintain that at all costs.

My Lords, over the past decade there has been an approximately 60% reduction in the number of fires and yet the Government apparently accept the fire service’s argument that it needs to retain resilience for the very rare occasions when a large number of appliances are required. Can the Minister tell the House, when deciding on police budget cuts, what account the Government take of the need to ensure police resilience to deal with Paris-like incidents and the riots that we have seen in 2015?

The noble Lord makes a good point about the relationship between the fire service and the police. At the present time we have out to consultation a proposal for greater collaboration between all the emergency services, but particularly between fire and police. That consultation is being undertaken by the Department for Communities and Local Government and will report shortly. That will have a bearing on our future ability to respond to emergencies in a more connected way.

Is it not right that our own defences in this country need to be strengthened as a result of the tragic events in Paris? Is it not right that those appalling scenes vividly depict the need for community action? What are we doing in that respect?

This is very important. If we are going to tackle these people who would threaten our liberties, we need to work with the communities. That is why we have put forward our counterterrorism strategy, which my noble friend Lord Ahmad is leading, and we will bring forward legislation on that. Louise Casey has been asked to look particularly at what can be done to improve community cohesion. I totally agree with the noble Lord that the police and everyone in these communities should be working together to tackle this scourge.

My Lords, while it is all very well for the Minister to say that he knows the value of community, the current Commissioner of the Met Police has said that three-quarters of intelligence, whether it is about drugs, trafficking in people or terrorism, actually comes from the community, and yet the Government are savagely cutting the police budget. How do we square that circle? I do not understand why, although we can see that community intelligence is of value, police on the beat are being reduced.

The key point to make is that of course we are not doing that. Neighbourhood policing numbers have increased by around 6,000 since 2010, and that is the straight answer. However, I have to say that a bigger thing is happening here. The nature of crime is changing and therefore the nature of policing needs to change. That is what the Inspector of Constabulary has said and it is the reason why a greater proportion of the budget is now being directed at cybercrime, which is dealt with by the intelligence agencies. They can provide surveillance, which is crucial to intercepting many of the terrorist attacks that have been planned in this country.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the public worry particularly about security issues and riots? In 2011 we had riots in London, and according to the Met Police we barely managed to get by. Last week, the Home Secretary announced that police forces could soon be without their own firearms units and should instead be moving towards creating regional firearms units. Given some of the transport difficulties we have in London when getting from point A to point B, are these regional units going to be effective if we are hit by big riots or security issues?

The armed side of things, a point referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Harris, is something on which the national policing unit liaises with the various chief constables and police and crime commissioners to check that the provision is adequate. I understand that the number of trained firearms officers is something that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner is discussing specifically with the Home Office at this time, in response to the Paris attacks.

My Lords, will the Minister agree to write to me explaining the precise use over, say, the past eight years, of the term “community police officer”? It is my understanding that he is comparing chalk with cheese and, inadvertently I am certain, misleading the House.

I do not think that that is the case. Of course, the noble Baroness is absolutely right in that a number of terms are used here. We have neighbourhood policing teams, police and community support officers, and special constables. Increasingly, those eyes and ears do not necessarily need to be constabulary members, they can be people who are brought in from the community to support this work. If the noble Baroness would like me to set it out in writing, I am very happy to do so.