It is a great pleasure to be called so early in this debate.
Violent crime is a matter of serious concern to every Member, and increasingly so to my constituents in Solihull. Although we rightly cherish our town’s reputation as a fantastic place to live—it often tops the polls of the best places to live in the United Kingdom—there is no getting away from the shadow that such offences cast over my community, and that has increasingly been the case in recent times.
Since the start of last year, the local press has run a series of stories on a spate of terrifying armed carjackings across the wider borough of Solihull—not just in my constituency but in that of my right hon. Friend Dame Caroline Spelman. I mentioned in Prime Minister’s questions the murder of a mother and daughter in Shirley. Just on Saturday, a man and a 15-year-old boy were shot in broad daylight. Fortunately, in this case, the police reported that the pair received only leg injuries, but it could easily have been very different.
These are not isolated cases. The west midlands has some of the highest knife crime figures by population in the entire country—98 offences per 100,000 people against a national average of 69. The 2,850 recorded knife crimes represent a 72% increase in just four years. Meanwhile, earlier this year, new figures revealed that gun crime across the region had risen to its highest level in years, with 681 recorded instances—the highest figure reported since 2010-11. Sometimes the sterility of raw statistics hides the true human cost of this sort of crime, but there was no masking my horror when, in March, The Guardian revealed that there were almost 700 child victims of knife crime across the west midlands last year, as well as more than 800 young people caught with a knife. Of course, this problem is not confined to the west midlands, and the Government are right to make the matter a national priority. The serious violence strategy, backed by tens of millions of pounds of Home Office funding, is just the sort of broad-spectrum approach that we will need to make the sort of progress that this country expects, nay demands.
The emphasis on prevention and early intervention is particularly welcome. As I know from my experience with the efforts to combat homelessness in Solihull and the wider west midlands, it is nearly always more effective—not to mention more cost-effective—to solve a problem before it starts. We must pair these measures with a renewed commitment to effective rehabilitation. I am all for putting public safety first and helping those who deserve it, but we have a duty to ensure that the criminal justice system does not just erode someone’s prospects of legitimate employment while honing their criminal skills. We need to look again at strategies such as stop-and-search, ensuring that we are not allowing good intentions and dogma to undermine effective policing.
The serious violence strategy is a chance to lead the way, and I look forward to giving it my full support, but these things cannot be solved by Whitehall alone. Any effective strategy will require the full participation not only of the Government and the police but of devolved decision makers, third sector specialist organisations, local communities and volunteers. I pay tribute to the many volunteers in my constituency who play a role in trying to stop this epidemic. It is almost as if my town exists because of a sea of volunteering—it is awash with volunteers. Yet in Solihull, too often all we get from the police and crime commissioner is excuses. I know from speaking to people on doorstep that local residents are deeply concerned by persistent rounds of cuts to local frontline policing, and they do not understand how the PCC justifies it while sitting on enormous cash reserves of, as I understand it, over £100 million.
People are also furious at the decision to sell off our town’s last police station, with no commitment that the money raised will be reinvested directly in policing in the town. I urge the Minister once again to reconsider that decision, especially in the light of the promises made to the people of Solihull during the closure of Shirley police station only a few years ago. Just to put this into context, 160,000 people face direct uncertainty over the future of policing provision in their borough. I understand that the site itself is potentially very valuable, and that it is frankly not as well used as it once was. I have also been given assurances by the chief constable that there is an intention to effectively migrate services to another front desk in the constituency, particularly in the town centre. However, the reality is that the services in the main police station have been wound down over time. That is key when it comes to intelligence, which is vital in combating knife crime and serious violent crime. I hope that this speech will be a further message to the police and crime commissioner, the authorities and the town of Solihull that we need a guarantee of a police station in Solihull to combat the rising tide of serious violent crime, which unfortunately seems to be coming over the border from Birmingham.
The concentration of police resources in Birmingham has continued despite the Government providing a funding boost to the West Midlands police. One of my constituents’ biggest fears about devolution was the risk of seeing Solihull overshadowed by Birmingham, and it is difficult to argue that that is not the case given the actions of the PCC, who is taking police resources from Solihull and placing them in Birmingham. My constituents are doing what they can to plug the gap, with groups such as Shirley Street Watch bringing residents together and giving them a chance to make a difference, but they cannot hope to compensate for the sale and potential closure of all on-the-ground police bases in Solihull. The serious violence strategy will be seriously undermined if the police and crime commissioner does not reconsider his policies and listen to the people of Solihull.