My hon. Friend is absolutely right. If one looks at the profoundly worrying trends in violent crime and sexual crime, it is clear that, after a generation of progress, we are now seeing, in the words of Sir Hugh Orde, that a tipping point being reached, with worrying signs of some of the most serious crimes going up. Let us have an end to the protestation that crime is falling when it is doing nothing of the kind.
The sensible measures in the Bill—there are many—cannot hide the fact that the Government are failing to protect the emergency services and the public in the way they should. On the fire service, they talk of collaboration. The Opposition understand the power of collaboration. I have seen it first hand, and the Policing Minister will have seen it as a result of his previous experience, as well as now as a Member of Parliament and Minister. The Opposition absolutely understand the importance of greater collaboration and integration, not just between police and fire, but with the national health service, local government and a range of statutory agencies.
There are already some innovative and effective examples of blue-light collaboration across the country, many of which were initiated by Labour police and crime commissioners. One that I saw first hand in Coventry was led by the fire service and involved excellent joint working on getting vulnerable people and taking pre-emptive action to protect them. In Greater Manchester, local authority leaders have worked with fire, ambulance and health services to oversee excellent examples of joint working and more meaningful integration. Irlam fire station in Salford is one of the first in the country to host fire services, police and paramedics under one roof, which means that front-line officers are working together every day to improve the service to the public. The station also provides vital community health services.
Those are some of the excellent examples of the best practice in collaboration that we very much want to encourage, but there is a real risk under the Government’s proposals that the fire service will become a poor relation to the other emergency services, disappearing as a statutory service in its own right—the notion of a single employer being profoundly suspect—and potentially being taken over by a police and crime commissioner, whatever local people and locally elected representatives have to say. I was surprised, in what was a good contribution, that James Cleverly downplayed the importance of the voice of locally elected representatives being heard. The Opposition say yes to greater collaboration, but it must be led by local need and with local agreement from all parties concerned. That was why the shadow Home Secretary was absolutely right to say that a simple takeover by a PCC, supported by the Home Secretary, regardless of what local people want, cannot be right.
On volunteers, there is a long and honourable tradition —several Members on both sides of the House spoke to this—of specials on the one hand and neighbourhood watch on the other. I made a presentation on Friday to Maureen Meehan from the neighbourhood watch scheme in Stockland Green. She is an outstanding woman who has helped to run that scheme for 29 years in her local community, so there is a long and honourable tradition of voluntary contribution. However, as our brilliant police and crime commissioner for Northumbria, Vera Baird, has rightly said:
“Volunteers have a very important role to play in supporting policing, but not to place themselves in potentially dangerous situations…When the Home Secretary consulted on her proposals to increase volunteers’ powers, I said at the time she was trying to provide policing on the cheap.”
Moreover, the public demand it as absolutely vital that essential police functions are discharged by police officers. That point was made by Byron Davies, speaking from his experience as a former police officer. Many volunteers want to support the work of police officers, but do not want to do their jobs for them. As Vera Baird has said, the use of CS and pepper spray should be undertaken only by full-time officers who are regularly trained in their usage and, importantly, in the law surrounding their use. As such, we will probe the Government’s proposals rigorously. We will oppose plugging gaping holes in the police workforce with volunteers, as well as any further moves to privatise essential police functions.
Let me return to the positive, but stake out where we hope to go during the passage of the Bill. We genuinely welcome measures to change the police’s treatment of those with mental health problems, but mental health care still does not have the parity of esteem that the Prime Minister recently spoke about. My hon. Friend the Member for North Durham made a powerful contribution in that regard. As other services contend with funding reductions, there is a growing crisis in our mental health system, and progress on the concordat has been painfully slow. As a consequence, sadly, the police are still all too often the service of last resort. In January,
The Guardian revealed that they are spending up to 40% of their time on mental health-related incidents. We are glad that the Government recognise, as we do, that police cells are no place for those suffering from a mental health crisis. However, as the shadow Home Secretary said, banning inappropriate places of safety alone will not solve the problem of why police cells are used in the first place—a lack of beds and alternative places of safety.
There is a great national will to tackle the evil of child sex exploitation. The one measure in the Bill on that is a welcome step in the right direction, but it is not, in itself, enough. The most recent data from the NSPCC, which have been brought to the attention of us all, estimate that half a million children are being abused. Yet, as my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham has worked so hard to expose, and as the shadow Home Secretary said, one year on from the landmark summit held by the Prime Minister to determine a response to child sex exploitation, which was a very welcome initiative, many of the Government’s key pledges remain unfulfilled. The national child abuse taskforce still has not been established. As a result, the whistleblowing portal has no taskforce to report to if more large-scale child abuse cases arise.
On firearms, as the Chair of the Home Affairs Committee said, we welcome the Government’s proposals updating the existing law in line with the recommendations of the Law Commission. We are keen to work with the Government on the next stages, including on explicitly outlawing new threats such as the printing of firearms by 3D printing machines. The Home Office recognised that as a problem three years ago, but has failed to act thus far, so we hope that we can make progress in the context of the Bill. We will seek to amend the Bill to stop the sale of not only firearms, but something equally injurious to health and safety: zombie knives, which are terrible weapons that can have only one purpose—to inflict grievous harm on the individual.
I am pleased that we see in the Bill welcome progress that has been argued for on both sides of the House, as has been reflected in the debate. There is much common ground—of that there is no doubt—but, as the shadow Home Secretary said, we will try to improve the Bill, and there are fundamental issues in relation to fire, tougher police bail and more accountability in the complaints arrangements that we will seek to reach agreement on. Sadly, if that proves not to be possible, we will divide the House.
We cannot let the debate conclude without paying tribute to the people about whom we have been talking all day. We agree that the brave men and women in our emergency services are ordinary people doing often extraordinary things in the most difficult circumstances. They deserve nothing but the best from this House of Commons, and that is precisely what we intend to stand up for.