Carolyn Harris (Swansea East) (Lab)
Labour Members deplore the approach that this Government have taken to police funding. They have broken their promise to Parliament that they would protect frontline policing. They have left police forces across the country without the money they need to keep our citizens safe from crime. With funding cut every single year, there are now 21,000 fewer police officers than there were in 2010. That is what this Government have done for policing.
Moreover, the Government have persistently failed to introduce a funding formula that is linked in any meaningful way to the different needs of different areas. When they did try to do so, it literally did not add up and had to be withdrawn. Now we see in today’s motion that for another year they are simply salami-slicing the police budget again, with real-terms cuts of 2.7% across the force, regardless of need. They decided they could not run their own funding model because, they said, it was broken, but they have not been able to build a new one despite trying for four years.
This is incompetence. It is the action of a panicked and out-of-touch Government forced to make bad decisions that bear little relation to community needs because of the lack of capacity that is a problem of their own creation.
Gerald Jones (Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney) (Lab)
Does my hon. Friend agree that the 4.9% real-terms cut in Gwent police and 5.3% real-terms cut in South Wales police will put frontline policing at risk in those areas? I have spent some time with frontline police as part of the police service parliamentary scheme, and the frontline officers I have met certainly do not recognise the rosy picture painted by the Minister.
I certainly do agree with my hon. Friend. I appreciate the work that he has done with the police service parliamentary scheme and understand that he understands what real policing is really all about.
No wonder that only last week the outgoing head of the Metropolitan police said:
“It’s getting difficult…The bottom line is that there will be less cops. I can’t see any other way…There’s only so much you can cut and make efficiencies and then you’ve got to have less police…I’m not sure that’s wise”.
We do not believe it is wise either.
Mr Kevan Jones
Does my hon. Friend agree that the pain has not been distributed equally across the country? In Durham we have lost 25% of our police officers since 2010. Nationally, the average is 12%, although Surrey, I understand, has lost only 1% of its officers.
I certainly agree. I think the method is shambolic.
I turn to broken promises. Let me give a bit of history. In 2011, David Cameron said:
“There is no reason for there to be fewer front-line officers.”—[Official Report, 30 March 2011; Vol. 526, c. 335.]
Yet the number of police officers fell by almost 21,000 after he became Prime Minister. The total size of the police workforce has fallen by over 46,000 since 2010. Following a successful campaign from the Labour Benches led by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham), the former Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Tatton (Mr Osborne), told Parliament at the autumn statement in 2015 that
“now is not the time for further police cuts…There will be real-terms protection for police funding.”—[Official Report, 25 November 2015; Vol. 602, c. 1373.]
Today’s figures show that he has broken that promise to Parliament. In fact, between 2015-16 and, going forward, 2017-18, the total amount of real-terms Government grants for police forces has fallen by 4.4%. The real-terms cuts we have seen in the past two years come on top of real-terms cuts of £2.3 billion—25%—in the preceding five years, as shown by the National Audit Office.
Sir Oliver Letwin
I am interested in the hon. Lady’s argument. Is she asserting that local taxation is not a form of revenue?
The motion means that next year, after inflation, funding for London services will be cut by more than £48 million. The Northumbria police service will find itself in a position of having to increase the local tax burden by £6 million just to stand still, and funding for the South Wales police service will fall by over 5% in a single year.
This House has not been given an accurate picture. As my hon. Friend rightly says, the 2015 spending review promised real-terms protection. Local tax rises have not made up for Government cuts, so there are real-terms cuts to police services all over the country. Does she agree that, of all Government Ministers, the Policing Minister should tell the truth at the Dispatch Box?
That would be welcome.
Meanwhile, crime levels, which the Government keep telling us have fallen, are actually about twice what they were previously presumed to be, as we have learned since January, following the inclusion of cybercrime. In London, the proposed settlement does not include the full cost of policing ceremonial and other national events that take place there simply because it is our nation’s capital.
May I congratulate my hon. Friend on painting the correct picture, particularly in relation to London, which gets only half the money it should get nationally? Every Londoner pays a £61 subsidy through their council tax each year. One of the biggest costs relates to neighbourhood policing, which was destroyed under the previous Mayor of London and is being resurrected by the current Mayor, but that is happening under huge financial pressure and the Government’s failure to fund London properly.
I certainly agree with my hon. Friend. A London citizen will end up paying more for national events through their council tax than anyone else. I am sure that my London colleagues will be pleased to know that the funding for trips such as that by President Trump will come out of their pockets.
The underfunding of our police services must stop. Our citizens deserve a police force that is fit for purpose, and our hardworking policemen and women deserve a Government who support them to do a job. The Minister is being disingenuous if he tries to imply that the cuts will not have a negative effect on our ability to police. In fact, we are starting to see real evidence that neighbourhood policing is suffering as a direct result of the Conservative party’s actions.
In its latest annual report, Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary states:
“Neighbourhood policing is one area where the danger of across-the-board reductions in resources is apparent…As chief officers reduce their workforces, they will need to…include assurances that a smaller police workforce will not compromise public safety and explain any effect there might be on neighbourhood policing.”
I share those concerns. Neighbourhood policing matters. It is not just reassuring to local communities, but crucial for crime prevention. Unfortunately, however, I fear that the damage is already being done. Last year’s HMIC annual report went on to say that
“we found that there were too many forces where there were signs of an ever-larger proportion of the workforce being drawn into responding to incidents, leading to a reduction in crime prevention activity.”
I do not believe that the cuts that we are being asked to approve today will not lead to further reductions in neighbourhood policing. I can only assume that that is a price that the Minister is prepared to pay.
The problem is compounded by cuts to other frontline services. As local authority and mental health services are also pared back, it falls to the police to pick up the pieces when preventable problems become emergency incidents. That is a problem for police resourcing, but more than that it is a tragedy for the individuals, families and communities concerned.
The HMIC assessment continued:
“Society should no longer tolerate conditions in which these illnesses and disorders are neglected until they land at the feet of the police, in circumstances of violence, disorder and desperation.”
Under this Government, those desperate situations are tolerated because they have got their priorities wrong. As a result, police resources are used to respond to individual crises that do not count in the crime figures. Forces themselves estimate that crime accounts for only 22% of the number of emergency and priority incidents. When the Minister says that crime is falling, he is wrong. It is wrong to use that as the justification for funding cuts.
The Minister argues that it is okay to cut, because forces can raise local precepts to fill the gap, but that misses the point. Raising the precept, which most forces, for understandable reasons, are attempting to do, is simply a way of asking the public to pay more because of the Government’s political decision to give less from general taxation.
Sir Oliver Letwin
I am going to make progress. The Government are passing the buck on a monumental scale. More than that, it is unfair because some forces will be unable to raise as much as others.
Steve Double (St Austell and Newquay) (Con)
I am going to make progress. The ability of forces to raise funding will depend on local circumstances and the prevailing level of council tax, neither of which necessarily bears any relation to policing needs. In fact, initial results from a current research project at the London School of Economics, which is examining the factors that drive demand for policing, suggest that, in general, crime levels are significantly higher where house prices are lower. If that is correct, it means that shifting towards greater funding through a council tax precept is precisely the opposite of what is required. The communities with the greatest need will have the least ability to meet that need through higher tax rises.
All of that suggests that the Government’s policy on policing is wrong. My real concern, however, is deeper: I do not think that the Government have any idea whether or not the cuts are jeopardising public safety. There is no analysis behind the proposals that we are being asked to approve today.
In its 2015 report on the financial sustainability of police forces, the NAO concluded that police forces have “insufficient understanding” of the demand for their services and what affects their costs. It said that that made it
“difficult for them to…show how much resource they need, and demonstrate that they are delivering value for money.”
If the National Audit Office finds it hard to work out whether the service is offering value for money, how can the Conservative party reassure us that the cuts are safe? Frankly, this is a mess.
We need to understand how the police force of the future will protect the public in a way that offers value for money for the taxpayer, but the Minister appears to have no idea how to do that. That is no wonder, for when the Government cannot even come up with a formula that funds the force fairly on current need, I can understand how considering how to respond to future needs must be way beyond their capability.
Even worse than that, the Government are ignoring the work that has already been done. In 2014 a group of senior police officers explored how policing should work in an environment of austerity. Their report, “Reshaping policing for the public”, discussed a wide restructuring of the police force to get greater bang for the taxpayers’ buck. However, I fear, as predicted by the police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, that the report just made its way on to a shelf in Whitehall and is collecting dust.
In summary, the Government present themselves as the party of law and order, but their policing policy is a shambles. They do not know what forces need or whether taxpayers’ money is being spent properly. They cannot say at what point efficiency gains become a threat to public safety. They blithely promise Parliament that they will protect the frontline, just as they take away the cash that is needed to do so. They pass the buck to local taxation, even though the areas that need more resources are those with the least ability to raise funds. In the absence of any credible policy, the Government just keep cutting year after year in the hope it will all be okay. But it is not okay. The Government’s incompetence lets down the taxpayer. Their broken promises about further cuts to frontline services let down the public and are insulting to the hard-working and brave police officers right across this country.
Read full debate here.