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Police Funding: Bedfordshire

Volume 631: debated on Monday 13 November 2017

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

I am grateful to Mr Speaker for granting me this important debate, and I am honoured to have the chief constable of Bedfordshire present.

Keeping the public safe is the highest duty of any Government, which is why I take this issue so seriously. Back in 2004, the concept of “damping” was introduced to the police national funding formula. As a result, Bedfordshire police receive between £3 million and £4 million a year less than the Government’s own funding formula says it should. Bedfordshire police already have one of the smallest budgets of any force in England and Wales, at £102 million, and are in the lowest quartile of all forces for both budget and number of officers per head of the population.

For many years, Bedfordshire police managed to reduce crime on a reducing budget, and I understand, of course, that the Home Office has to play its part in helping the country to live within its means. Back in 2011-12, however, Bedfordshire had 1,264 police officers. It now has 140 fewer—only 1,124. In 2011-12 we had 128 police and community support officers. We now have 53, which is a reduction of 75. In 2011-12, we had 864 members of police staff. We now have 758, a reduction of 106.

Jon Boutcher, the Bedfordshire chief constable, is here tonight. About two months ago he said that, because of funding cuts, he did not have enough officers to respond to 999 calls. The situation is very worrying. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it is time the Government listened to the chief constable?

I hope that the Government will listen to the chief constable, because damping—which, as I think the hon. Gentleman would admit, has been happening under Governments of both parties for a long time, starting in 2004—has had a cumulatively serious effect on Bedfordshire police.

Between 1 April 2016 and 31 August 2017, Bedfordshire experienced a 12.2% increase in crime, a 24% increase in the number of calls requiring an immediate response and a 48.9% increase in burglary, compared with the same period in the previous year. In my constituency, in 2013-14 Houghton Regis had an average of 391 crimes per month, which has risen by 13% to 440. In Dunstable an average of 235 crimes a month has risen by 24% to 292, and Leighton Buzzard’s average monthly crime has risen by 57%, from 136 to 214. I am acutely aware of the impact of rural crime, particularly on people in isolated communities. Many years ago, Bedfordshire police officers lived in the villages for which they were responsible, but that is no longer the case. We are also dealing with an unprecedented level of unauthorised Traveller encampments, which further increase the demand on already overstretched police resources.

Between 2011-12 and 2017-18, the Bedfordshire police force has already achieved savings of £34.7 million, but Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services has spoken of

“an inability to maintain a preventative…presence across Bedfordshire.”

Given the number of police officers who have lost their jobs and the number of forces whose size has decreased, I assume that community policing also faces a downturn. Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about that? Does he recognise the importance of policing that not only interacts with the community, but serves as the eyes and ears of the police force?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. Community policing plays a vital role in prevention.

In Bedfordshire, 40% of the force’s activity takes place in Luton. While there is insufficient police capacity to deal with the challenges in that town, it means that the rest of Bedfordshire has less than its proportionate share of police cover, for which its residents also pay. A small police budget that has suffered from 13 years of damping would be serious enough even without the fact that Bedfordshire faces unusually high levels of serious threats and criminality which are not normally dealt with by a force of that size.

Let me spell this out. Bedfordshire has the third highest terror risk in the country, and its police force must deal with the fourth highest level of serious acquisitive crime in England and Wales. It has a higher proportion of domestic abuse offences per head of population than the much larger forces of Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Thames Valley and Hertfordshire, and 40% of all firearms discharges in the eastern region take place in Bedfordshire. The number of reports of missing persons between April and June this year was 350% higher than the number during the same period in the previous year. As a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament, I am not happy that the people of my county do not enjoy the same levels of police protection and response in an emergency as are available to the people of Hertfordshire and Thames Valley. We pay no less tax than they do, so what is fair or right about that?

In one incident of gang-related violent disorder this year, no response resources were available and CID detectives went to the scene with no uniform or protective equipment, and a number of officers were injured as a result. In one incident in Luton recently, a single female officer made three arrests on her own and called for assistance, which took eight minutes to come while she was in danger. At present, each Bedfordshire police officer is expected to investigate 12 to 13 crimes at any one time. The level of stress affecting Bedfordshire police officers is leading to burn-out and psychological and physical illness; that is unacceptable, as we owe them a duty of care.

Bedfordshire police are not able to respond to all the daily calls seeking a fast response, nor to all the daily incidents requiring a community response. Recently a Leighton Buzzard businessman being threatened by a man wielding a metal bar dialled 999 and officers failed to attend.

As guardians of taxpayers’ money, the Government are absolutely right to demand efficiency, effectiveness and value for money from our police forces. Bedfordshire police have already achieved £34.7 million of savings between 2011-12 and 2017-18. Bedfordshire also already has one of the most extensive blue-light collaboration programmes in the country, and its tri-force collaboration is improving effectiveness and delivering savings. Some 25% of its resources are already allocated to tri-force and regional collaboration.

Last year, four shootings took place in one night in my constituency, and the police helicopter took more than an hour to respond. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that gun crime is on the rise because of a shortage of police officers?

I set out the increases in crime on the record for the House just now.

Bedfordshire Police’s unearmarked reserves are only £3 million, the absolute minimum they should be allowed to fall to. Merger with Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire would not be agreed by those two counties on the current level of Bedfordshire police funding. Further savings could only be made by reducing the already inadequate frontline resource.

Planning is already under way for over 50,000 new homes across Bedfordshire over the next three years and a large number of those are likely to be rated at less than band D council tax, which leads to a much reduced income from the police precept. Bedfordshire police believe they need a minimum of 300 more officers and 80 more detectives in order to provide an acceptable service. An increase of 300 officers would only be a net increase of 160 officers on the number the county had in 2011-12.

I am indebted to the Leighton Buzzard Observer newspaper for printing a few years ago an article by former Leighton Buzzard police officer Neil Cairns, who pointed out that in 1988 Leighton Buzzard and Linslade had 12 civilians, one inspector, six sergeants and 27 constables; that is a total of 34 warranted officers in the town’s station. Today, 29 years later, Leighton Buzzard has eight officers and three PCSOs; that is a reduction of over three-quarters in the number of warranted officers in the town, which is the third largest in Bedfordshire. Bedfordshire Police has also recently stated that Leighton Buzzard has a larger number of officers than are currently based in Dunstable or Houghton Regis.

I have run out various statistics this evening, but statistics are dry. Let me illustrate the impact of burglary on one of my constituents, a Dunstable resident who wrote to me last week:

“My young daughter arrived home this week to find we had been burgled and it took the police more than an hour to attend. During this hour anything could have happened to my child and this situation is completely unacceptable. Please note that we have been burgled four times within the last five years and I now fear for the safety of my family.”

He goes on to ask whether he should consider leaving the area, as he does not feel supported as a contributor to the town. I want to be able to give that constituent, and indeed all my constituents, the reassurance they need and deserve.

In 2001, when I was first elected to this House, I stood on a platform of restoring the 88 police officers that had been lost to Bedfordshire under the previous Government. In 2005, when elected to the House for the second time, I stood on a platform that committed the Government to recruiting an extra 5,000 police officers nationally every year. By holding this debate tonight, I am holding true to the pledges I made to my constituents when they first gave me the honour of serving them in Parliament.

It is a great pleasure to reply to the debate, particularly given the way in which it has been framed by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), who we know to be highly respected in the House for his moderation, his reasonableness, his long-standing passion for fairness and for pressing for reassurance on the resourcing of the police in Bedfordshire. I know from our private conversations that he has now reached a point of extreme frustration. He has had a number of conversations with various Ministers on this subject over many years, and he has been tireless in championing this cause, for reasons that we wholly understand.

Let me make three points in response to my hon. Friend. The first is that the Government get it: the challenges facing Bedfordshire police are well understood. I am delighted to see the chief constable, Jon Boutcher, in the Gallery tonight listening to the debate. Both he and my hon. Friend will be aware that these concerns about the funding of Bedfordshire police have been raised for some time. Indeed, the Home Office sent in a batch of officials in July 2015 in response to previous concerns that had been expressed about the stability of the police effort there.

It was largely for that reason that one of my first visits, having been made Minister for Policing, was to Bedfordshire, back in July. I met the chief constable and the police and crime commissioner, Kathryn Holloway. I also patrolled Bedford with officers. I feel that I left with a good understanding of the challenges facing the police force, which is managing a large rural area and two major towns. It is an area with considerable challenges relating to the counter-terrorism effort and to serious organised crime. It has also seen a significant increase in demand on a system that already feels stretched. The force has felt strongly for some time that it has a shortage of officers and detectives. In this debate and on previous occasions, my hon. Friend has used the good example of Leighton Buzzard as a place where the profile of policing has changed considerably over the years. That message is well received.

Secondly, I want to congratulate Bedfordshire police, and I hope that my hon. Friend will join me in that. I congratulate not only the current leadership of Kathryn Holloway and Jon Boutcher but the frontline officers and detectives who are working under considerable pressure at the moment. It is worth noting the commitment to frontline policing that has been demonstrated by that leadership. I note that there are slightly more police officers in service now than there were in 2016—there are 36 more—and that the force is actively recruiting. There is a commitment to maintaining frontline policing.

I also note that considerable savings have been made since 2011 by Bedfordshire police, as is the case in other forces as well. I can see what is happening with the force’s quality improvement programme, the estate rationalisation, and the extensive collaboration with other forces, notably Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire, all of which is to be applauded. I note that reserves are being used and that when Bedfordshire is asked to lead, whether in the context of the Eastern Region Special Operations Unit, the counter-terrorism intelligence unit or the joint protective services in the tri-force, it does so excellently and is highly respected for its leadership. All that is important to recognise, particularly given the context of considerable stretch and strain on resources.

From my conversations with Commissioner Holloway and the chief constable, I know that they both work tirelessly to challenge and improve the independent inspectorate’s judgments on efficiency and effectiveness. It is a source of controversy and challenge in Bedfordshire, but the facts are that the independent inspectorate, which has an incredibly important function in terms of driving improvement across the police system, judged Bedfordshire in its 2016 assessment as requiring improvement for efficiency and inadequate at effectiveness. Those judgments have been challenged, and the leadership is working tirelessly, as I said, to improve those ratings. However, we must recognise the challenging context and that comparable forces in what we call the most similar group—Essex and Kent—are rated good in all those categories while receiving funding per head that is equal to or lower than Bedfordshire’s. That is not a criticism; I simply want to place it on the record that there is continued room for improvement in efficiency and effectiveness. Everything that I have heard from the current leadership is that they are absolutely up for that challenge and working towards it.

My third point relates to what the Government are doing about this situation. Although actions will speak louder than words—I hope actions will soon be forthcoming—let me try to reassure my hon. Friend that we are determined to ensure that the police have the resources that they need while continuing to challenge them to be more efficient and effective. I am delighted that he recognised that it is the Government’s role on behalf of the taxpayer to continue to hold police forces’ feet to the fire and to push them to be even more efficient and effective. We are determined to ensure that they have the resources they need, which is why police funding was protected in the 2015 settlement. As proof, direct resource funding going into the police stands at over £11 billion, which is up £100 million on 2015.

I note the Minister’s typically fair comments about the comparator forces, but does he agree that what distinguishes Bedfordshire’s case is the unusual level of challenge coming from Luton, from the terror issues and from the particular and serious nature of the crime mix within the county? When those things are put together, Bedfordshire’s case is genuine.

I reassure my hon. Friend that I totally understand why he would say that, and it is an argument that is made by the leadership of Bedfordshire police. Comparisons are always a little awkward, but Kent does have additional counter-terrorism demands due to the presence of major ports and Essex has responsibility for Stansted, which is the fourth-busiest airport in the UK—those forces do have pressures. I do not necessarily want to labour that point; I am trying to reassure my hon. Friend. After years of pressing the police to find savings and efficiencies, to which they responded extremely impressively, the decision in 2015 was to try to protect police funding. The total amount of taxpayers’ money going into the police system money is significantly up on 2015, but—

I take the point about Essex and its airport, but I am sure that the Minister is aware that Luton is the country’s fifth-largest airport and is rapidly expanding.

I totally accept that point, and I think I said in my earlier remarks that we have to recognise the challenges specific to Bedfordshire police.

The “but” I was coming to, having said what I said about the decision to protect police funding, is that we recognise that the context is changing, although not necessarily dramatically. Since 2015, the state of the public finances remains very constrained, as my hon. Friend well knows. There is evidence that demand on the police is rising and changing. The police are having to spend more time on safeguarding the vulnerable and on responding to increased demand in areas of complexity, such as domestic violence, modern slavery and counter-terrorism, and as a Government we have to recognise that.

We also have to recognise that there are very real cost pressures on the police system, not least in the recent pay award. That is why, as my hon. Friend knows, since my appointment in June I have personally led a review of every single police force in England and Wales. I have spoken to or visited all 43 of them, including Bedfordshire, to make sure that, alongside the other work we are doing, the Government genuinely understand what is happening out there: the shifting demand on the police; how the police are responding to manage that demand; what their current plans are for improving efficiency and effectiveness, because that matters a great deal; and what their plans are for managing their reserves, which are considerable.

I recognise that Bedfordshire is using its reserves, and I recognise that, as a percentage of revenue, Bedfordshire’s reserves are below the national average, but across the police system something like £1.6 billion of public money is tied up in reserves. The public and the taxpayer deserve to know about those plans in a lot more detail than we have had in the past. That is part of the review process I am leading.

Two months ago, the chief constable said that he did not have enough resources to attend 999 calls and that, as a result, the people of Bedfordshire were not safe. Is it not now time for the Government to act urgently on the chief constable’s call for more funding so that the people of Bedfordshire are safe?

I am not a tribalist, but every time someone asks for more money, Labour’s answer is, “Yes. How much?” We will be more demanding in that respect, because we also act on behalf of the taxpayer. Public safety is priority No. 1 for any Government, and particularly for this Government, and although we are determined to make sure the police have the resources they need, we will continue to challenge them as to how they are using existing resources and how they can improve their efficiency and effectiveness ratings, as in the case of Bedfordshire, because that is what the public demand and deserve.

The point I am trying to elaborate is that the Government are listening. We recognise that the operating context has changed. There is a consistent message across the police system about that shift in demand and the strain on the system, and not just from Bedfordshire. That is why we are listening very carefully. We want to take decisions based on evidence not assertion, and those decisions will come before the House in the Government’s provisional grant settlement proposal, which I hope will come in early December. That will be the fruit of this review and the discussions we have had over many months with police leadership and the independent inspectorate to update our understanding of what is happening out there in terms of demand on the police system.

My hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire has been very tenacious and persistent on this front, so let me reassure him that public safety is the Government’s No. 1 priority. We of course have a responsibility to make sure the police have the resources they need. We have a responsibility to adapt if we have a clear picture of what is happening out there in terms of shifts in demand and cost pressures. We are grateful to the police for their co-operation in that process. I ask for a little more patience from him on the long journey he has had since being elected here. I hope that before the end of the year we will be able to come to this House with proposals for the 2018-19 police funding settlement. We are absolutely determined to make sure that this country has the most effective and trusted police force in the world. That is what we want for this country and that is what we want for Bedfordshire.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.