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It is a genuine pleasure to follow Peter Aldous.
Norfolk constabulary has been forced to endure eight consecutive years of inadequate funding settlements, adding up to £40 million in cuts by 2020. In that time, more than 100 officers have been lost from our streets, all of our PCSOs have been abolished—we are the first force in the country to do that—10 police stations have been shut and the last one open in Norwich does not even open for a full week. This has left Norfolk with one of the lowest per capita number of police in the country.
The consequences in our area and nationwide have been stark. Never since records began has police-recorded violent crime been as high as it is today. Never since records began has knife crime been as high as it is today. Arrests have halved in a decade. Unsolved crimes stand at an almost unthinkable 2 million cases. Police and Home Office violent crime figures show that Norfolk has experienced the largest four-year surge in knife and gun crime anywhere in the country. That is topped off by serious crime being predicted to increase by up to 29%.
The Home Secretary, in presenting this statement, was looking to position himself as the man to clear up this mess, but he has voted for every single police cut since 2010. He is as much responsible for the crisis in Norfolk as the Prime Minister. It is a consequence of their political choices.
The Minister will no doubt claim that this year Norfolk will get an extra £3.2 million from central Government, but that will be totally wiped out by the £3.4 million cost of pension contributions imposed by the Treasury. Norfolk constabulary will be left with a cut in cash terms, never mind real terms. As is so often the case with the Government, they offer you a penny with one hand, while the other is in your pocket taking a pound.
Today, I want to reveal the latest twist in this tale of cuts and underfunding. As I told the House earlier, Norfolk constabulary has already taken the unprecedented decision to entirely abolish police and community support officers. At the time, both I and my hon. Friend Louise Haigh, the shadow police Minister, warned that that set a dangerous precedent. Now, we have discovered the next step. The constabulary has advertised for civilians, on £10 an hour and zero-hours contracts, to fulfil the role of guarding crime scenes. It describes the role as an “alternative reserve style model”. According to the job advertisement, the main activities of the role include “preserving crime scene integrity” and dealing with
“enquiries from public and media”.
Guards will also be expected to perform duties such as running the scene log and recording details of any witnesses who come forward. Criteria such as
“experience of working with confidential and sensitive information…dealing with confrontation” and
“working in a police environment or similar” were listed as desirable but not essential skills for applicants. As the chairman of the Norfolk Police Federation stated:
“with austerity, standing at a cordon is a luxury we cannot afford.”
These employees will save the force money, of course, but as we have warned the Government time and again, policing on the cheap will only put public safety at risk. Not only will it mean that there is no job security or guarantees for those employees, but our local police force will be hugely vulnerable to employees simply saying, “No thanks,” when they are called to ask for help. They are not and cannot be expected to be obligated to be there at every beck and call if they are not going to be given the respect of a real working contract that works in their interest.
In reality, where does this leave our police force? Who will be responsible if there is nobody to cover the vital role of protecting a crime scene? Who will be liable if a crime scene is breached, a witness lost, or any other eventuality where a civilian contractor is responsible? How do we avoid the risk that an ever-expanding casual civilian workforce is an easy target for criminal exploitation, infiltration or corruption? How long can it be before this becomes a path to the full privatisation of entire roles that are currently the responsibility of the police? Perhaps the Minister could answer that in his summing up.
The next step will inevitably be either an erosion of the status of the police, no doubt including their pay and conditions as public sector workers, or a slow shrinking of their role, downgrading it one function at a time. This is the first move of its kind in the country, but I fear it will not be the last. Responsibility lies squarely with the Government, not just in their political choices but in the ideology that underlies them. Here we can see all the elements of that approach in one disturbing example: never-ending austerity and cuts to every public service, forcing them into permanent retreat; the attacks on those public services and public servants, and the creeping privatisation of their functions for corporate profit; the burden of taxation and priority for spending gradually shifting in favour of the more affluent and against the poorest; and the driving down of terms and conditions and pay for ordinary workers to save money for their employers—all at the expense of the public good.
We have seen it before and we have seen it elsewhere, of course, but even in the 1980s Thatcher did not touch the police. Under this Government, no public service is safe. Unfortunately, the consequences are that the public are less safe. I will not stand by and watch. I reject the Minister’s mantra that the cuts and their consequences are inevitable and unavoidable. I urge the House to do the same.