I hope to keep my remarks brief and not to trouble the time limit that you, Mr Deputy Speaker, might impose.
I refer first to the National Crime Agency. My right hon. Friend Keith Vaz rightly highlighted concern about budgeting, following the change in the landscape that he described. In our Committee discussions, it seemed clear that there would be a nigh-on halving of the total funding for the NCA to discharge its functions in relation to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, the Serious Organised Crime Agency and the UK Border Agency. That needs further attention, and I am sure it will not escape my right hon. Friend’s notice.
I very much welcome the tone of recent exchanges in the debate; it is a marked distinction from some of the opening remarks. I do not want anybody to think that I, as a new Member, or anybody else on the Labour Benches has anything but the greatest respect and admiration for our police force, or that we want anything other than to celebrate the reduction in the crime rate. It has been established during the debate that since the days of John Major’s Government the trend is for a continued decline in the crime rate, but we stand by our record: we were the only Government in modern history to leave office with lower rates of crime than when we came in. Perhaps we can nail that issue and celebrate the reduction in crime, although we must for ever be on our guard.
It would be remiss of me not to thank the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane, for the welcome assurance he gave in Committee about the preservation of regional organised crime units. I was concerned that the intelligence and successful operation of those units could have been lost in the changing landscape. I am very much aware of the success of my own regional organised crime unit in recently bringing to account a significant class A drugs crime ring.
For some time, the Opposition have been warning the Government that cutting police budgets by 20% will have an adverse impact on front-line policing. To say that such cuts can be imposed without impact is simply unrealistic. In Cleveland, the number of officers lost between March 2010 and September 2012 was about 234, reducing the total number of police officers from 1,724 to 1,490. According to Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary, that translates into about 15,000 police officers nationally, which will result in the lowest number of police officers for more than a decade. As at September 2011, 11,500 officers had already gone.
All of that necessarily has an impact on the ability of officers to respond to emergency calls, and will result in less visible policing in our communities and on our streets. I took on board the comments of Dr Huppert, who said it was not simply a question of numbers, but I respectfully suggest that it is self-evident: if the critical mass of police officers is too low, it will bite into effectiveness.
The people of this country do not expect politicians to go about their business by reducing the number of police officers. That is evident from the manifestos at the last election, which were couched in completely opposite terms. The Government will plead that crime is down, so the reduction in the work force is manageable, but that does nothing to address the fact that fewer crimes are being solved: 30,000 fewer crimes are being brought to justice, including 7,000 offences of violence against the person. This is the wrong moment to relax and take our foot off the gas. Pressures building in our society may lead us to regret scaling back our state of readiness.
The reduction in grant has consequences. In my constituency, the police and crime commissioner, Barry Coppinger, is doing what he can to mitigate the impact, but it still necessitates asking council taxpayers to pay more. None the less, the commissioner is determined to ensure that every community in the four districts retains its neighbourhood police team. That is a very welcome commitment.
The Government’s offer, which is equivalent to a 1% precept increase for the next two years, will only defer problems and pose significant financial problems down the track. The Cleveland commissioner advises:
“We know that we will be facing a potential funding gap of over £5 million by 2015-16. Finding the further savings…will be a tough challenge…if we were to take the grant for the next two years, it would mean that from 2015-16 onwards there would be a further shortfall of over half a million pounds…that’s equivalent to 11 police officers or 18 Community Support Officers.”
Total Government funding for police was reduced from £9.74 billion in 2010-11 to £8.66 billion in 2013-14. That is a cash reduction of nearly £1.1 billion, equivalent to 22,000 police officer posts. In Cleveland, the result is that savings of £24 million will have to be made. If there are then plans to cut a further £2 billion from police budgets over the next funding period, as discussed today, that is equivalent to 40,000 police officers. In my area, that would track down to a further impact on the
£24 million savings figure. That is nearly 20% of the money Cleveland receives from all sources, and would be the equivalent of 480 police officer posts. Mention was made of where funding comes from; it is not all from a single source. It is interesting to put that into perspective. We would be talking about an increase in precept of between 90% and 95% to make up for the loss.
In conclusion, I urge the Government to think and pause. There is a real risk that the cuts will lead to problems in the months and years ahead, and that may challenge our front-line police officers too far. I urge the Government to revisit the Opposition’s proposal to limit the cuts to the budget to 12%, which Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary thought workable without damaging front-line services.