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Policing: Somerset

Volume 657: debated on Monday 25 March 2019

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

For many reasons, I am pleased to have secured this debate, even though some of what I have to say may be distressing to hear because crime, unfortunately, knows no boundaries.

It will come as no surprise that policing in Somerset is a matter of enormous concern to my constituents and to hundreds of thousands of others across the county. To an outsider, Somerset conjures up the image of a peaceful backwater, full of cider orchards and friendly folk with old-fashioned values. Unfortunately, as in so many other parts of our nation, life is no longer like that. Rather alarmingly, the National Crime Agency says that there are 90 organised crime groups operating in the Avon and Somerset area. It is no longer a few light-fingered thieves we have to worry about; it is big-time crooks. Organised crime in the United Kingdom costs £37 billion every year—that is almost as much as the Brexit divorce bill to Brussels. Organised crime causes more deaths than terrorism, wars and natural disasters put together, and there are 90 organised crime groups in my county alone. Frankly, it does not bear thinking about.

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction has just named Bristol the cocaine capital of Europe. That is not an accolade that any of us locally are proud of. The city has shot up the international cocaine leader board. Twelve months ago, Bristol was No. 5 in the charts; now it is No. 1. There is widespread drug misuse in so many corners of Somerset, which the police confess is way beyond their capacity to handle, let alone solve. Users frequently get off with a caution if they are caught at all. Dealers have to be major players to warrant anything approaching a crackdown. The force simply does not have the manpower to do anything other than cherry-pick at a huge, disastrous and growing problem.

Just a fortnight ago, the Avon and Somerset chief constable admitted that his force was “losing the war” against drugs. That is a very scary public statement to make. I have enormous respect for the foot soldiers of our overworked police force. I have watched them do their jobs in difficult circumstances. I have joined them in civvies on patrol and see them risk life and limb in action. The men and women in the ranks perform miracles, and they defy the odds, but I fear the odds are stacked against them. They are not always well led, and they suffer from the slings and arrows of erratic decision making by the office of the police and crime commissioner.

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Policing and the Fire Service will probably know that I have had several bitter spats with the Avon and Somerset police and crime commissioner, Mrs Sue Mountstevens, who has the uncanny knack of opening her mouth and inserting both feet into it—a remarkable achievement. On her first day on the job, she fired the chief constable. A few months later, she fired his successor—the very candidate she had hand-picked as a replacement. The present chief constable must consider himself lucky to have survived a couple of years.

Nobody can relax when the commissioner starts talking. Last week, she offered the benefit of her wisdom on the subject of drug smuggling—“Don’t risk Dover,” she told her audience, “because you might easily get caught.” She added that if anybody was smuggling drugs, her personal recommendation was somewhere safer, like Lyme Regis in Dorset. I am sure that Members representing Dorset are pleased.

The local town exploded with justifiable anger. They call Lyme Regis the pearl of the Jurassic coast, which it is, but Mrs Mountstevens has now renamed it Dope-on-Sea. Bang go her chances of getting a glittering career with the Lyme Regis tourist board. Mrs Mountstevens used to run the famous Mountstevens family bakery. I suspect that it will not come as a great surprise to the Minister that the bakery went bust when she was running it. Last week, after the Lyme Regis booboo, she baked an incredible humble pie and was forced to eat the lot.

Frankly, anyone would find it a bit of a challenge trying to run an effective police force with Sue Mountstevens permanently peering over their shoulder, especially when the arithmetic of crime is rising against her. Everything seems to be going up. Knife crime is up 52% in a single year. That amounts to 634 additional crimes in Avon and Somerset in which knives were used. The police response was to organise Operation Spectre, a campaign aimed at educating young people, targeting hotspots and putting out knife surrender bins. That may sound like the sort of thing that officers should be doing all the time, but Operation Spectre lasted for only seven days, which is nothing like enough to make a difference.

I do not believe that these major problems can be tackled with tokenism. Serious crime demands serious answers. Avon and Somerset police and its commissioner have been trumpeting Operation Remedy, which claims to make 100 extra officers available to fight drug dealers. It certainly looks like the first significant increase in manpower in Somerset for several years and will be paid for by a £24 average council tax rise, but I doubt whether Operation Remedy can ever provide an effective remedy, because it only lasts for three months. The chief constable promised that it would make a “big splash”. Really? Operation Remedy comes to an end in June. Unfortunately, as we all know, whether one is a northern or a southern MP, drug barons never stop.

We should remember that the operation is being paid for entirely out of a hefty hike in council tax. The Somerset County Council police panel has given Mrs Mountstevens a hard time, demanding justification for the spending. It wants to ensure that it is not a waste of money, and I think it has very good reason to be cautious.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way; I spoke to him beforehand and he will understand where I am coming from. A great benefit of community policing in my constituency, and perhaps in his as well, is having police officers in the community—in the estates, on the streets and in the rural communities—bringing in the intelligence on drugs and other things across the constituency. Does he think that the police force in his constituency could do more of that? If so, what would he like the Minister to do to ensure that it happens?

I welcome that intervention. This debate is about policing in Somerset, but the issue applies to the whole country. It does not matter whether it is Northern Ireland, Wales, Scotland or England: we are all suffering in the same way. There is an epidemic and we are not yet controlling it. I am not blaming the Government, because the issue goes back over the 18 years I have been in Parliament. I think knife crime has gone up, but the rest has not greatly changed. The hon. Gentleman’s point is that this is about frontline services and frontline officers. I have spoken to the Minister, who has championed the issue during his time in office, and I welcome his commitment to continue to fight at every level. This has to be about the community, as the hon. Gentleman has rightly said, but it also has to be led from the centre so that it ripples out, even to bad police and crime commissioners, as in my case. That was a great intervention.

South Gloucestershire, of course, falls under the Avon and Somerset constabulary. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we are unable to get a handle on bigger issues such as knife crime and drug-related organised crime, it is much more difficult to tackle low-level antisocial behaviour issues, which are the ones most raised by constituents in South Gloucestershire?

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. We cover very similar areas and he makes a valid point. I will come on to that, because the Somerset area has some exciting news and I hope we will be able to reach across the border into South Gloucestershire. I know that his area suffers the same problems as we do: crime takes place up and down the motorway, and he will also find that Bristol sucks in loads of resources.

Bath also falls under the Avon and Somerset constabulary. I do not share entirely the hon. Gentleman’s criticism of the police and crime commissioner. Bath experienced a problem when our police station was completely shut, but fortunately, we will get it back. Does he agree that it is important that it is open 24/7 because that is what makes people feel safe and looked after by the police?

That is an interesting comment. I do not know the situation in Bath, so I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her intervention. I know the feeling that she is experiencing. We lost the police station in Minehead and then in Bridgwater, but a purpose-built police station has been built in Bridgwater. It has been highly successful and that is where the custody suite for Somerset is located. The hon. Lady is right to highlight the fact that we need local policing in our areas, no matter whether it is Bath, South Gloucestershire or elsewhere. I agree with her about that, but I cannot agree with her about Sue Mountstevens. I think she is quite appalling, but that is a personal view.

Of course this is not, and should not be, just a matter of policing. Clearly, as I have said, many agencies need to be involved if the root causes of rising crime are ever going to be tackled. I therefore welcome the approach that the Home Office is pushing.

Sedgemoor, which is part of my constituency, has been selected as one of five national pilot projects to help combat the threat of serious and organised crime. That is no great surprise to me; it is just another justified feather in the cap for Sedgemoor District Council, which works incredibly closely with the police. As I said in response to the hon. Lady, that is where the police headquarters are located.

The project will tackle the impact of organised drug networks, including the recruitment of vulnerable local youths to push drugs supplied by national dealers—a relatively new threat known by the catchphrase “country lines”.

I hesitate to correct my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, but the phrase is “county lines”. We share a border along constituencies and counties and therefore constabularies: Avon and Somerset police and Devon and Cornwall police. Will my hon. Friend briefly reflect on two things? First, it is vital to tackle the county lines drug running that he mentioned across borders. Secondly, will he join me in thanking the rank and file officers who do such hard work in my constabulary and in his to try to counter that crime?

My hon. Friend and I share the beauty of Exmoor. He is absolutely right. It is a remote area and there are too many rogues. We know that it is not just drugs, but sheep and cattle and other things. I am grateful for his correction—I meant “county lines”.

The project will also work with health partners to combat the illicit sale of alcohol and cigarettes and review the impact of rural crime. That is a good idea, particularly the rural crime review. Rural crime has become a forgotten crisis in many parts of Somerset. Some people feel that it is forgotten and ignored. Believe it or not, sleepy-sounding places such as Stogumber and Crowcombe have some of the highest crime rates outside Taunton, and they are tiny. I invite hon. Members to listen to what one farmer’s wife said when she wrote to me about life in rural Somerset:

“The countryside is under siege. We’ve been subjected to threats, physical and verbal assault, trespass and criminal damage sometimes on a daily basis, but the response to 999 call outs is absolutely dismal. My husband was tending his livestock when he came across two individuals. He was punched severely in the face, but despite ringing 999 no officer showed up for three hours. How much do we have to be injured before rural crime is taken seriously?”

I assure my right hon. Friend the Minister that, unfortunately, that was by no means an isolated example.

Crime has scarred the beautiful countryside and invaded the respectable areas too, including the county town of Taunton. I have achieved some notoriety in this House for my strident criticisms of Taunton and the way it has been ineptly run by an incompetent council. I recently cited crime figures for parts of Taunton which, without doubt, are shocking. However, tonight, I have come armed with an excellent report and offer a great deal of praise to its cross-party authors. It was compiled by five Taunton Deane borough councillors—two are Conservative, two are Labour and the committee was chaired by an Independent councillor. It throws a harsh spotlight on the way crime is being handled or, in some cases, mishandled.

The councillors were given the task of assessing the impact of crime on the town and recommending action. They took the trouble to obtain evidence from residents and shopkeepers. One shop in Taunton town centre has been broken into twice by the same man in the last two months, costing £1,000 a time. The shopkeeper said:

“I have had to update security because the insurance people aren’t happy. The security fitter said it was absurd because the only place you’d find this kind of security is a bank.”

A retired policeman, who had served for 23 years, said:

“I feel that it is unsafe to take my young family into the town given the presence of aggressive beggars, street drinking and drunkenness.”

One branch of a big name national clothing store in Taunton reckons that it loses £100,000-worth of goods every year through aggressive shoplifting. Many people related their stories of abuse, assault and harassment from drug pushers, rough sleepers and vandals. It happens even in broad daylight, right in the historic heart of a once proud town.

The evidence in the report is grim and depressing. The council committee’s conclusions are equally blunt:

“Neither the council—as the elected custodians of Taunton’s town centre—or the Police are taking the lead to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour. Both need to take robust and expedient action”.

Taunton Deane Borough Council rightly introduced public space protection orders three years ago to get a grip on that. But guess what? There is still no shortage of louts in the town but there has not been a single prosecution. That affects us all.

The committee calls the situation “woeful”. It is appalling. Those Taunton councillors concluded that the police lack presence and do not respond to crimes as they should. There is also criticism of Ms Mountstevens. As for the partnership between Taunton council and the police, the report states:

“It lacks leadership, strategy, and accountability”.

The councillors deliberately grilled Taunton council’s antisocial behaviour team. That was an eye opener. The report concludes:

“The team lacked credibility due to their lack of knowledge and understanding of the issues. Taunton’s antisocial behaviour team suffers from a skillset deficit and poor management.”

I do not blame the council for that. I did not make this stuff up. It is one of the very few decent pieces of work to come out of Taunton council for years and for that reason alone, I wonder if anyone in a position of leadership will take it seriously.

Taunton has many more rough sleepers than anywhere else in Somerset. Taunton has a town centre full of boarded up shops and derelict building sites. No wonder travellers invade with their caravans and no wonder drug dealers congregate there. It is such a shame, because big problems should have simple solutions, but they are not being done.

Order. I am a little bit concerned. I have the greatest respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I am a bit worried that he is discussing somebody else’s constituency and the Member is not here. I understand that it is a part of what is being said, but I do feel it is a little bit unfair to the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow).

Mr Deputy Speaker, I wrote to my hon. Friend this afternoon to say that I would speak about this. I also made it clear that I would talk about other areas. The report is very good because it reflects on my area, as well my hon. Friend’s. It shows that all of us have a problem. It is the only report I have seen in 18 years as an MP that has taken this issue in our county to this level. The report is cross-party and I therefore think I have the right to talk about it, but I have made it clear to my hon. Friend in writing. I thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, because Mr Speaker has had his concerns about that as well. I will conclude and allow my right hon. Friend the Minister a couple of minutes to respond.

The same council hired street wardens in 2014, but only for a month. The committee report says it would cost less than £114,000 to employ a proper team for a whole year. Taunton Deane Council wants to spend almost £1 million on fences to hide a very nasty site. I do not disagree with that, but it wants to borrow £16 million to build a hotel. Surely it helps my area and all of us to find the money for town wardens.

Policing in Somerset is not cheap: it costs the whole county £284 million a year. I believe it could do more with officers and money. Perhaps they could do that without too much interference from police and crime commissioners. We need much more than a token operation. A one-week clampdown on knife crime does not cut any mustard with anybody. Sticking plasters are not enough. There is a clear role to be played by local authorities. Some are doing it well, but others are lagging way behind. I hope my right hon. Friend the Minister will agree with what I have said.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger) has been in this place for 18 years and we know him to be a tireless champion of the interests of his constituents, as well as the interests of rural areas and the need for, as he put it, a fair share for the shires. I congratulate him on securing the debate.

My hon. Friend asks me where I agree with him. I certainly agree with him and my hon. Friend the Member for North Devon (Peter Heaton-Jones) in expressing admiration for the work of frontline officers. They are extremely stretched at the moment. We ask a lot of them. They have to do difficult work under difficult circumstances. It is good to hear local Members of Parliament stand up to express their admiration and thanks for their work. I also thank my hon. Friend for recognising the importance of serious organised crime in the fundamental shift in the threat to public security that we are trying to police and protect our constituents from. He understands that, and I thank him for reflecting it in his comments. I hope he will welcome the updated Government serious organised crime strategy and the increased resources going into that area. They are necessary for exactly the reasons he sets out.

My hon. Friend left the House in no doubt about his view on the police and crime commissioner. All I would say is that she was elected. I hope that he agrees with me that the introduction of police and crime commissioners has sharpened the local accountability of the police. The bottom line is that the police and crime commissioner for Avon and Somerset has a job to do. She is accountable to the public and if the public of Somerset do not like what she does they can vote her out. That is the strength of the system we have introduced.

My hon. Friend talked about the task and finish group, and the report on Taunton. I very much take on board your point, Mr Deputy Speaker, that my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) is not in her place. I also accept, however, that my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset is clear that there are ramifications for his constituents. There are clearly mixed views about the accuracy of the report. I have read it and it raises important questions, both for the police and crime commissioner and the local borough council, about how resources are allocated across the county, the effectiveness of the local crime partnership and the efficacy of the response to 999 calls in rural areas. I am sure that they will be responsive to that report.

My hon. Friend is passionate about the need for proper attention to be paid to rural crime. I hope that he takes some satisfaction from the fact that the National Police Chiefs’ Council, which, in my experience, is an extremely powerful body for driving change across the police system, published a rural affairs strategy last July that reflects operational and policing priorities on rural crime. There are six priority themes: farm, machinery, plant and vehicle theft—I know my hon. Friend will welcome that—livestock offences, fuel theft, equine crime, fly-tipping and poaching. I know that the police chiefs are very aware of the need to give appropriate priority to rural crime.

On the specific report, as the House would expect, these are local decisions in a local debate on which it is not for me to opine. In response to my hon. Friend I can say what central Government are doing to support the battle against crime and disorder in Somerset and South Gloucestershire. My hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall) is entirely right: the research is very clear about the importance of bearing down on what is sometimes misleadingly called low-level crime, because all the evidence says that if we do not get on top of that, it can escalate to bigger problems.

Since being police Minister, my priority has been to get more resources into policing, because I recognised from a very early stage that the system is too stretched. The reality is that as a result of the actions that we have taken, as a country we will be investing almost £2 billion more next year in our police system than we were three years ago. Police forces up and down the country are recruiting additional officers and staff—almost 3,000, including at least 100 in Avon and Somerset—so we are heading in the right direction. I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset and other colleagues who are concerned about this issue that this is a stepping stone towards the spending review, which is the next major event in shaping the resources available to our policing. I have given the undertaking, as has the Home Secretary, that police funding is an absolute priority for us in the spending review. Within that, I have also undertaken to look again at the issue of fair funding. I note, for example, that Avon and Somerset has fewer police officers per head of population than the national average. These are issues that we need to address through the comprehensive spending review.

In the meantime, the Government are investing money to support the police in better co-ordinating their efforts on county lines—that point was raised in the debate— because of course this crosses borders. We are already seeing the impact of additional investment through increased arrests and increased safeguarding of vulnerable children. Our support for the police—not just Avon and Somerset, but the whole system—goes further than that in terms of additional powers for the police, as they have requested, whether those are knife crime protection orders or the Offensive Weapons Bill, which is moving through Parliament and will make it even harder to buy and possess the most dangerous weapons. I know that the theft of vehicles is an issue particularly on farms and in rural areas. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are disturbed by the increase in vehicle crime. In fact, I have convened a taskforce to look specifically at it. The taskforce brings together industry, including the insurance industry, and all stakeholders to bear down on the problem.

Finally on our support for our police and our ability to hold them to account for their performance, we continue to attach enormous importance to the system of accountability we have set up, not just with police and crime commissioners but with independent inspection, which means that we can identify what good looks like, where it is and where things need to improve.

Finally, I would point out that Avon and Somerset police, stretched though they are, are rated by Her Majesty’s independent inspectorate as good for efficiency, legitimacy and effectiveness. They are also probably best in class across the system for their work in exploring how the police can better manage and use data to predict demand on them, which will be a large part of the future of policing, and we are supporting them actively in that, with significant investment over recent years. I congratulate the leadership of the force and its officers on their leadership in that area and their achievement in being rated good across all pillars of Her Majesty’s independent inspection regime.

I acknowledge the points that my hon. Friend has made, which will have been noted in Somerset at the top of the force and by the police and crime commissioner, and I close, as he did, by commending the work of frontline officers across Avon and Somerset for the excellent work they do under extremely demanding circumstances.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.