Police and Crime: House of Commons Debate

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary  6:27 pm, 24th February 2020

I listened with interest to the Minister’s presentation. In particular, I listened when he described the Conservative party as the natural party of law and order. Not all of our constituents would agree with that, having seen the relative cuts in funding and the spike in violent crime. I shall return to that later.

I wish to say at the outset that the Opposition will not be opposing the police funding settlement, but we remind the Minister that it is not just about the total settlement but about the police funding formula. For five years Ministers have been promising to revise the police funding formula, and I argue that that is a concern not just for Opposition Members but for Members of all parties. Ministers have had five years. Perhaps they can make greater haste in something that is so key to the effective fighting of crime in all parts of our country.

Although we are far from satisfied with the Government’s plans for policing overall, the Opposition believe that this is the first time since the Labour Government that there has been a funding settlement for the police that does not in real terms undermine them further, so in the circumstances it would be wrong to oppose this particular funding settlement. Let me be equally clear, though: I do not want to be cruel, but the Opposition have no confidence in this Government to restore policing to its proper strength or to tackle serious crime. I strongly doubt—I shall explain why—that the Government will even meet their own pledge to recruit an extra 20,000 police officers. I see Government Members who are new to the House looking shocked, but I remind them of this Prime Minister’s track record on policing and police recruitment.

When the current Prime Minister was Mayor of London in 2012—those of us who are London MPs remember that well—he sent a list of nine promises to every household in London. His political marketing claimed that it was his “nine-point plan for Greater London”. No. 4 on the list was:

“Making our streets and homes safer with 1,000 more police on the beat”.

I have to tell the House that this pledge was never met, even though it was signed by the current Prime Minister himself, so I do not think that his record on policing provides much confidence that he will meet his manifesto commitment to recruit 20,000 extra police.

Secondly, I want to turn to an issue with the funding settlement, which is inadequate even in its own terms. When the Minister announced the funding settlement, the Home Office claimed that it was the biggest for a decade, but that was a decade of cuts in police funding—cuts made by Ministers now on the Government Front Bench. It is not much of a boast when the settlement represents an uplift only when compared with the cuts made in previous years.

Photo of Steve McCabeSteve McCabe Labour, Birmingham, Selly Oak

Does my right hon. Friend agree that what the settlement actually means for West Midlands Police—the second largest police force in the country—is a funding gap of about £10 million, so it will have to make savings despite the settlement?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing some reality to the discussion.

The Opposition have learnt that police chiefs have also recently been told to find another £165 million in 2019-20 and up to £417 million in 2020-21 as a result of the overhaul of pension schemes recently announced by the Treasury. We of course support better police pensions, and indeed better public sector pensions in general, but we do so by arguing that they should be properly funded, whereas Ministers want the money to support them to come out of the extra moneys that they are announcing today. The amount provided in the funding settlement to cover the pension changes is nowhere near the amount it will cost the police. There is a real risk that, with this poor beginning, the Government will fail to meet their total recruitment target. I hope that Government Members are taking due note.

Thirdly, I want to question the Government’s entire approach to this matter, because although police numbers are a key factor, they are only one aspect of combating serious and violent crime. The Government’s goal must be to keep our citizens safe, but their track record is abysmal. I know that this set of Ministers like to pretend that the record of the past 10 years has nothing to do with them, but most of the Ministers now in office voted for the police cuts that have been made. This is continuity Toryism, and they are continuity Tories.

Photo of Tom HuntTom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich

Is the right hon. Lady very proud of the Labour Mayor’s record on tackling crime in London?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

As we know, the Labour Mayor is ultimately dependent on funding from the Government. Given the funding available, I am confident that Sadiq Khan has done the very best he can. The issue comes back to the totality of funding and the police funding formula.

The Tories cut the police and they should own it—cuts have consequences. But they also did much worse: they presided over soaring serious and violent crime, and an abysmally low detection and sanction rate—cautions or charges—even for some of the most serious crimes. The latest crime data for the year ending September 2019 was recently published. It shows a 7% rise in offences involving knives or sharp instruments recorded by the police. That is 46% higher than when comparable recording began—in the year ending March 2011—and the highest on record. That is the Government’s record.

Offences involving firearms hit a low in March 2015 but have risen since. Robbery offences are at a 10-year high. Fraud incidents are up sharply and now there are almost 4 million fraud crimes a year, often impacting on some of the most vulnerable members of our communities. Over the long term, the trend in total crime had been downwards, but under successive Tory-led Governments since 2010 that overall progress has stalled. A key part of this is the fact that central Government funding for police and crime commissioners has fallen by 30% in real terms since 2010-11.

Photo of Kevan JonesKevan Jones Labour, North Durham

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is also moving money from the most deprived areas to some of the wealthiest? For example, 50% of properties in County Durham are in band A, so the ability to raise a great deal of money locally is quite limited, unlike in Surrey or Woking, where, given the larger council tax base, further money can be raised. This is moving money from poor areas and giving it to wealthier areas.

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

My right hon. Friend raises a key point about the precept. Ministers like to claim that by generously allowing PCCs to raise a greater precept, they are somehow doing them a favour. The truth is that reliance on money raised by the precept hits poorer communities that have lower house prices harder. It is not equitable to be endlessly praying in aid the precept, rather than providing proper funding from the centre.

Photo of Matt WesternMatt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

My right hon. Friend is being generous in giving way. To elaborate on her point, in Warwickshire there was a 12% increase in the precept last year, and I think we are now seeing an increase of another 5%. Of course, wages increases are way off those increases, so the public are facing a really regressive tax. It is unfair, as my right hon. Friend Mr Jones explained.

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

The precept is a regressive tax, and the Government should think twice before making out that their increasing reliance on precept-raised funds is some sort of progressive move.

Photo of Richard HoldenRichard Holden Conservative, North West Durham

With a 6.6% increase for Surrey and a 7.9% increase for County Durham, does the right hon. Lady not agree that this is a down payment on the Government’s levelling-up agenda for police forces across the country?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

What can I say—nice try?

The National Audit Office recently said that the Home Office

“does not know if the police system is financially sustainable.”

That is the National Audit Office talking about Home Office Ministers.

However, the Government did not confine austerity to police officer numbers; they also cut thousands of police community support officers and thousands of police support and administrative staff. That has had two consequences. First, there has been a huge detriment to community policing, which is often the first eyes and ears on everything from vandalism and petty crime all the way through to terrorist threats. Secondly, the cuts to admin staff, often dismissively called “backroom staff” on the Government Benches, have meant that police officers have had to do more of their own admin work, so less time is available for police work as such.

The consequences have been terrible, as most of our constituents know. Compared with the previous year, the proportion of crimes resulting in a charge or summons fell by one percentage point, from 8.7% to 7.4%—the lowest ever recorded. That continues a downward trend since March 2015, when 15% of crimes were resolved with a charge or summons. No category of crime registered a majority of prosecutions. The sad fact is that too much crime goes undetected, largely because of a shortage of police officers, and therefore unpunished, and the public are all too well aware of that. It is truly shocking that the very lowest prosecution or summons rate was in cases of rape, with just one in 70 cases leading to charges. In all cases of violence against the person, just one in 13 cases led to charges or summonses. As we have argued consistently, cuts have consequences.

Photo of Alex CunninghamAlex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. She is outlining the things on which all this extra money needs to be spent. In his response to me, the Minister suggested that the extra £10 million for Cleveland—that is half of what we have lost since 2010—should be used to tackle violent crime, but other areas where violent crime is actually lower get specific targeted resources from a separate fund. That is not fair. Does she share my bewilderment as to why Ministers seem to be blind to the needs of Teesside?

Photo of Diane AbbottDiane Abbott Shadow Home Secretary

I entirely share my hon. Friend’s concern that the people of Teesside do not appear to be treated fairly. Cuts have consequences—in Cleveland as well as everywhere else. Over the past 10 years, almost every conceivable social factor has contributed to rising crime. Ministers did not mention these things, but let me remind the House that youth services have been slashed, schools have been encouraged to exclude pupils, inequality and poverty have been made worse, some of our young people have become resigned to a life of zero-hours contracts, and drug and alcohol rehabilitation funding has been slashed. Mental health funding has been decimated, as, too, has the probation service, which we have seen in the probation activities in relation to recent terrorist activity. The criminal justice system is in crisis. Our prisons have become places where a person is more likely to become a hardened criminal, a drug user, or radicalised.

It is an abysmal record of failure. Ministers cannot expect their claims of being the natural party of law and order to be taken seriously when they have allowed the criminal justice system to fall into this state. It is no use these Ministers simply partially making good some of the police cuts that this Tory Government have made—that is all that has been claimed of this policy. They are not even restoring all the cuts that they have made since 2010. Effectively tackling crime is not just about funding the police properly, but about funding all those services, such as the youth service, education and the NHS, which help to bear down on crime. The Government do not intend to do that, and we on this side of the House believe that without a proper level of funding for the police force, for schools, for youth services and for the NHS, we will continue to see the negative consequences. There will be a spiral of violent crime, which causes so much fear in all our communities.

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