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Part of Housing Benefit and Universal Credit in the Social Housing Sector (Regular Payments) – in the House of Commons at 4:00 pm on 12th February 2014.

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Photo of Hazel Blears Hazel Blears Labour, Salford and Eccles 4:00 pm, 12th February 2014

It is a great pleasure to follow Dr Huppert. It is fair to say that we do not always see eye to eye on a range of issues, but it is always interesting to listen to his point of view, which is always well backed up by a scientific approach that he embraces—I find it very useful indeed.

I rarely speak in the House at length on policing issues, partly because I spent three years as police Minister and I do not think that reprising my experience is terribly helpful for Members in that same role. Today, however, I have made an exception, because I am becoming increasingly worried about the direction of travel of our police service. Part of my concern is about finance, but many of my concerns are about the stresses and strains on neighbourhood policing. This is not particularly about my introducing neighbourhood policing; this is about neighbourhood policing being such a fundamental change to the way in which we did policing in this country. I say to my right hon. Friend Keith Vaz, the Chairman of the Home Affairs Committee that there was reform during our period of government, and neighbourhood policing was the biggest bit of reform that we introduced. It is now established not only in this country—for all time, I hope—but increasingly in other European countries and countries across the world, where it is recognised that sustainable policing must be done with people, not to them. It must be done with consent, gathering the community around who then become the eyes and ears of the police. Much more intelligence is obtained that way, and the police become far more effective in fighting crime.

Convincing the police service that neighbourhood policing was not a fuzzy, warm community development project but a hard-headed reform to make the police service more effective was quite a job in changing culture. I well remember that when I started talking to chief constables about neighbourhood policing and how we needed to build relationships—to get to know the head teacher, the shopkeepers, the children and the people in the community—some of them looked at me as though I was from Relate marriage guidance, talking to them about relationships. When I hear our shadow Minister talking in the House today about the need to have relationships, it shows how far we have moved on police culture—recognising that relationships are often far more useful than the traditional tools of policing.

I am speaking in this debate because I am very concerned about what is happening to our police service. Greater Manchester’s force has had a fantastic record over the past 10 to 15 years, but we are now seeing cuts totalling about £135 million over the five-year period between 2011 to 2015, and already 1,000 police officers have had to go. Sir Peter Fahy, who is a very respected chief constable, just as he was when he was at Cheshire during my time as Minister, and who is scrupulously non-partisan and non-political, has said:

“When I took the post the force had 8,200 officers and it is now just below 7,000. We are now on our way to 6,400—and that’s incredibly painful.”

Sir Peter Fahy is not a man to cry wolf and everyone in the House should take notice when he says that this process is incredibly painful.

It is fair to say that crime, antisocial behaviour, drugs and family breakdown were the scourge of our community of Salford and Eccles 15 years ago. It was incredibly difficult to attract business and investment to the city because of the huge amount of crime that was going on. People did not feel that the police were in control of the neighbourhoods; they felt that the criminal gangs were in control of the neighbourhoods in my city. That caused massive unemployment and a huge amount of family disintegration. Some 15 years ago my city was in a terrible state, but the fact that we have a grip of crime is the most fundamental reason why it has become a much better place to live. It is why we have been able to attract investment, such as the MediaCityUK—home to the BBC and ITV—and the regeneration programmes we have seen happen. It is one of the reasons why we had, until recently, the fastest falling level of youth unemployment in the whole north-west and why we get £200 million from visitors to Salford—who would ever have thought that it would be a tourist destination, with people wanting to come to our city? It is also why we have more people employed in the MediaCityUK area than we had when it was at its height as a docks.

Those are amazing transformations. Probably the single biggest issue was getting a grip of crime, making people feel safe in their homes, and tackling drugs and some of the serious and organised crime gangs that we had in Salford. We have been incredibly successful. Yes, the figures over the past three years have continued to be good on some of those crimes, but they are not as good as they were on burglary—we saw burglary go down by 54%--and some of the other crimes.

I saw a worrying statistic from Greater Manchester police this week which showed that antisocial behaviour has started to creep back up. Antisocial behaviour, before it was even defined by the previous Labour Government, was sometimes dismissed as petty or low-level crime—the sort of crime that we almost have to accept if we live in an inner-city environment. We had a massive drive to tackle antisocial behaviour, with a whole new set of powers and the Respect campaign. We said that we wanted to be on the side of decent people in communities and to drive out the antisocial behaviour that made people’s lives such a misery. There was long-term harassment and really serious crime, which could not be dismissed as low-level incidents.

Huge warning bells ring for me when I see a statistic that shows that that sort of crime is now beginning to break through again. I look at some of the evidence around the statistics, the veracity of which people are beginning to question. Lord Stevens has said that we could be on a tipping point for another rise in crime. If we start to see crime rise again in places such as Salford and Eccles, all of that good work over the past 10 to 15 years will be at risk. The business investment will be at risk. People will feel that it is not the kind of community in which they want to live. I am absolutely determined not to say that we need more money. I have no doubt that Dr Huppert will ask me the same question he asked my hon. Friend Jack Dromey. Yes, money is tight, and that means that hard decisions must be made. I would have supported a 12% cut, not a 20% cut, but we could argue that for the whole afternoon. There were things we could have done through collaboration and better procurement. Those were all on our agenda for making those cuts. In hard times, we have to use creativity, innovation and imagination. I am afraid that I am not seeing enough of that in the present Government’s approach.

When I was Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I used to say to local government that, in order to face the coming years of austerity, we would have to have community budgets and a “total place” organisation in which all the public sector pooled its budgets, rationalised its inspection regimes, shared the same targets and had a system whereby all that public money, whether it was for policing, regeneration or whatever, was in the same pot. We thought that that was the way to survive these years of austerity without having an absolutely disastrous effect on our public services. We said that to local government, and if I get a chance in the next debate, I will reinforce these matters for the Secretary of State.

Local government has stepped up to the plate. The 10 authorities in the Association of Greater Manchester Authorities have a community budget; they are pooling resources. The police in my area have co-location with the local authority, the health service and mental health. We have a system of sharing information, which is the multi-agency system for data sharing. It is in that way that we have been able to survive some of the tremendous cuts.

The Minister will know about Operation Gulf in Salford, which has been going on for three years. It tackles the serious crime gangs—there are at least 32 of them—and it has had amazing success. It has won the Home Office national award for an operation over the past two years. Much to my delight it has put some serious criminals behind bars for a good number of years, and it has done that because it has used smart policing, imagination and creativity. It has taken the Al Capone approach: if we cannot get the criminals on the particular crime we want them for, we can get them on money laundering, employing illegal immigrants and not having tax on their cars. The police can be in their face every single day of the week, and that is the way we get results. They have been able to do that because they have had co-operation from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, the local authority, the Department for Work and Pensions, the mental health services and every other bit of the system. That is the kind of creativity that is required now and over the next few years. It would mean Central Government saying to local government, “Get your act together. Pool your resources. Get yourself in shape. Line yourself up. Have a strategic objective, and that is how you make an impact.”