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Last night in Alum Rock in Birmingham, the shadow Home Secretary and I saw British neighbourhood policing at its best, and a community transformed from a troubled past to a safe place to live with a thriving economy. Why? Because of 10 years of the patient building of good community relationships, as well as outstanding neighbourhood police officers such as Inspector Chris Smith and Sergeant Ifti Ali, who both said, “We love the job”. Local residents and retailers were waxing lyrical about their relationship with their neighbourhood police officers—my hon. Friend Peter Kyle was right about the importance of good neighbourhood policing to strong local economies.
My hon. Friend Anna Turley is right to say that one of the great legacies of the last Labour Government was neighbourhood policing. The Labour Government provided 17,000 more police officers and 16,000 PCSOs. They introduced local policing with local roots, giving people a local say and creating strong partnerships with the community and other key stakeholders. We were given evidence of that by my hon. Friends the Members for Bootle (Peter Dowd) and for Dewsbury (Paula Sherriff), both of whom made excellent speeches.
The Home Secretary has described the police as crime-fighters, but we have a wider vision than that. Policing is about preventing crime and diverting people from crime. That model is celebrated worldwide and is often celebrated in the House, but now, tragically, a generation of progress in the reduction of crime is being reversed.
The first duty of any Government is to maintain the safety and security of their citizens, but in the last five years this Government have made swingeing cuts. A total of 17,000 police officers have gone, which broke a promise given by the Home Secretary, and 4,500 PCSOs have gone as well. We have seen the progressive hollowing out of neighbourhood policing. Communities complain increasingly that there is no longer any visible presence of police officers, and they are right. There are profoundly worrying signs that the Government are ignoring repeated warnings, and that—in the words of a past president of the Association of Chief Police Officers, Sir Hugh Orde—the “tipping point” is now being reached. I shall say more about that later.
It seems that the Government are determined to blunder on regardless, oblivious to the consequences of their actions. As for the Chancellor, who gives hubris a bad name, he appears to be impervious to criticism as he presses forward with his ideological agenda to shrink the state. The cuts of between 25% and 40% that are currently being discussed will result in catastrophic consequences for our police service in the next five years; indeed, forces have warned that they could reduce the service to its lowest level since the 1970s.
These cuts are not just huge but unfair, as is clear from the fiasco of the funding formula. Only this Government could acknowledge that the current formula was opaque and unfair, and then, having made a complete mess of the consultative process, replace it with a formula that was opaque and unfair. That process has been described by Conservative police and crime commissioners as unjustified, deeply flawed and shambolic. It now faces a legal challenge, and Seema Kennedy admitted that it gave rise to concern.
I pay tribute to the way in which the police service has coped with immense difficulties in ever more difficult circumstances, but we are now talking about the cumulative impact of the last five years and what is proposed over the next five years. What will that mean? As we heard from my hon. Friend Jeff Smith, it will mean the end of neighbourhood policing as we have known it. As we heard from my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, PCSOs are becoming an endangered species. And as we heard from my hon. Friend Barbara Keeley, we are seeing a return to a reactive and discredited model of policing, with Robocops touring estates in cars rather than engaging with the community.
The thin blue line is being stretched ever thinner. The police are ever more removed from the communities whom they serve, and fewer and fewer of them are struggling to do ever more. As cuts in public agencies bite ever harder, the demands on the police, as the force of last resort, are becoming ever greater. We have already seen some of the consequences. Chief constables talk increasingly of becoming a blue light service. In some forces, response times have gone up by 57%, and in a number of forces, police are no longer turning out to deal with reported crimes such as burglary.
The Government cannot say that they have not been warned. In recent weeks, we have heard a chorus of voices from London to Lancashire. Police officers have spoken out, and powerful contributions have been made to today’s debate by my hon. Friends the Members for Burnley (Julie Cooper), for Halifax (Holly Lynch), for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), and for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Cat Smith). The message is clear: the growing impact is serious, and will become ever more serious during the next stages of this process.
Thus far, the Government have sought to hide behind a false alibi. They say, “Yes, we cut police, but we cut crime as well.” It is true that, as is the case in the western world, volume crime is falling. We have also seen the benefits of a generation of good neighbourhood policing in reducing some crimes, but the statistics do not give a full picture. The latest ONS statistics show a 5% increase in police recorded crime, and increasingly as police recorded crime is cleaned up with more effective recording, we are seeing a 9% increase in knife crime, sexual crime up 12% and hate crime up 18%, but it is the crime survey of England and Wales that the Government repeatedly depend upon. The only problem is it does not reflect the full extent of rapidly growing fraud and cybercrime. It is now being said by the police—by the national co-ordinator for fraud—that as 5.1 million crimes are included from the first quarter of next year, the crime survey will show an increase of 40%.
This is the worst possible time to cut the police service, not just because fraud and cybercrime are rapidly growing—RBS has said by 40% a year—but also because of twin challenges. First, there is the generational threat of terrorism. Powerfully evidenced by Peter Clarke, former head of counter-terrorism, and Mark Rowley, the current head is the fact that neighbourhood policing is the eyes and ears of the police service engaging with local communities. I have seen the success of that in the west midlands, which I am proud to represent. Secondly, as my hon. Friend Holly Lynch said—she is from a police family—there are the immense challenges of child sexual exploitation and abuse. There is a great national will that we act, and the police are doing so, but in the west midlands alone the size of the public protection unit has gone up from 300 officers to 800 and they are struggling to cope. So it is the worst possible time to cut the police service.
The evidence is clear: the Government are putting public safety and the vulnerable at risk. I have searched high and low in the manifestos of Conservative Members and I cannot find one of them saying to his or her community, “Vote for me and I will support the cutting of 22,000 police officers.”
The time has come for the Government to listen to the growing chorus of concern, including from within their own ranks. The Home Secretary’s own PCC, the delightful old Macmillanite, Anthony Stansfeld, says he just cannot get home to the Home Secretary or the Prime Minister, who also lives in the Thames valley area, just how serious the mounting consequences are of what their Government are doing.
The Government may be impervious to the mounting concerns and oblivious to the consequences of their actions, but Labour is not. Of course, as the shadow Home Secretary has said, sensible savings can be made. We identified that ourselves in terms of a national procurement strategy, which was rejected by the Government. Of course we need a sensible reform agenda. We need to raise standards, hold the police to the highest standards and root out wrongdoing. We also need greater diversity. The Home Secretary was right to challenge the police to rise to the challenge of greater diversity, but it is wrong then to make it nigh-on impossible for the police to do that because, effectively, most police forces cannot recruit to achieve it.
The Government have to stop blaming the police for things that the Government are responsible for. All over the country I meet police officers who say to me, time and again, “They never have a kind word to say about us.” That remorselessly negative tone, combined with the growing pressures, is seeing morale plummeting and sickness and stress leave soaring. The Policing Minister says on many occasions that somehow Labour are criticising the police; on the contrary, we are standing up for a police service that is under immense and growing pressures from his Government.
We are rooted in the communities we serve and we listen to the voices of the police and the public because, ultimately, this is about the kind of country we want to live in and the kind of police service we want. We want policing by consent, in the great tradition of Robert Peel. The British model of policing is the expression of British values. Tonight, all Members have the opportunity to search their conscience and decide whether to stand up for the British police service. We will vote to do precisely that. Our position is clear: Labour is the party of public safety, and the Tories are putting public safety and security at risk.