Policing in Devon and Cornwall

– in the House of Commons at 9:56 pm on 6th July 2020.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(David Duguid.)

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay 10:01 pm, 6th July 2020

I am delighted to bring this debate to the House, to present and highlight the incredible work that Devon and Cornwall police do, and to raise a number of the very particular, in some cases unique, challenges that they face. I am delighted to be joined this evening by colleagues from Devon. It is one of the few occasions on which out-and-out co-operation and unity can be seen between Devon and Cornwall Members of Parliament.

I place on record very firmly my thanks to Devon and Cornwall police. Day in and day out, week in and week out, throughout the year they do an incredible job keeping the people of our two counties safe. As I am sure we are all aware, the covid-19 pandemic has brought a great number of new challenges to our police across the country. The pandemic has brought unprecedented challenges for our police, as they have had to adapt to new operational and resource pressures, and to a rapidly changing police environment.

Photo of Neil Parish Neil Parish Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, Chair, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee

I endorse the fact that it is great to be with Cornwall tonight—not always, but tonight. Seriously, the police are dealing with covid-19 and with lots of tourists coming into our area now. They have a greater challenge than ever, and I very much respect that they police by consent in this country, especially in Devon and Cornwall. Can we ensure that, as our tourists come, they please behave, because that will make the police’s job so much easier?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend. I suspect that not for the first time this evening another Member will make a point that I will go on to make, but I join him in acknowledging the very proactive but sensible way Devon and Cornwall police have approached the pandemic. They have indeed policed with consent, and even though they, I believe, have issued the fourth-highest number of fixed penalty notices in the country—I believe we are currently up to just under 1,000—it has been done in a very sensible way.

The police have continued, I believe, to enjoy the overwhelming support and respect of the people of Devon and Cornwall in the way they have gone about policing this pandemic. I want to say a big thank you to them, and I pay tribute to them. I also want to place on record my great thanks to both our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, and our chief constable, Shaun Sawyer, for the clear leadership they have provided during these past few months, as it has really helped the police on the ground to carry out their work so effectively. In my own constituency, I want to thank the inspectors in Newquay, Guy Blackford, and in St Austell, Ed Gard and the Cornwall commander, our very own IDS—Ian Drummond-Smith—for the way that they have provided the pragmatic and sensible approach that we have needed. I just want to say thank you to them all.

The image of Devon and Cornwall for most people is that of a picturesque, rural and coastal part of the world where people love to visit for their holidays. Policing in Devon and Cornwall is just as challenging as it is anywhere else in the country—in some ways, it is more so because of its very unique situation. Let me give colleagues an idea: the Devon and Cornwall police force area is the largest in England, covering more than 4,000 square miles. Our emergency services deal with more than a million calls per year, and their work is cut out because we have more than 13,600 miles of road, the highest in the country, 85% of which are rural. As we all know, rural roads are, in fact, the most dangerous and often the most challenging to police. The force area also has the longest coastline in the country. Cornwall itself has 675 miles of beautiful cliffs, beaches and coves. Devon is not quite so great or quite so beautiful, but, equally, that in itself presents a number of incredible challenges to our police force.

Photo of Simon Jupp Simon Jupp Conservative, East Devon

I cannot possibly let that stand. Does my hon. Friend agree that the state-of-the-art new police headquarters, based in my constituency of East Devon, is a prime example of the investment that our police need in Devon and Cornwall?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

Absolutely. Those improvements are very welcome. They represent, I believe, some of the investment that is going into the area, but, as I will go on to say, it cannot end there. We do need continued investment.

Another factor that is often overlooked when we consider all our public services, but particularly with regard to policing, is the fact that we are a peninsula and therefore not able to share resources with nearby forces or other county areas. That often means that our police are isolated from other assets. I believe that one statistic is that only 10% are within seven miles of another police asset, which in itself presents a number of very great challenges to the way the police operate.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

I would like to highlight, as my hon. Friend has done, the excellent work done by Devon and Cornwall police. The force really has managed huge influxes of visitors, so, despite what he says about Cornwall versus Devon, we have seen a huge influx of visitors to Devon in recent weeks, and we simply cannot borrow from our neighbouring forces given our geography and our extensive rural road network. We just need more local police. Unless visitors are going to start to bring their own, we need a more sustainable solution.

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

My hon. Friend makes the point very well. I will come on to talk about that in a bit more detail.

Before I go any further, it would be wrong of me not to mention the Isles of Scilly, largely because my wife hails from there. She was born and bred there and her family still live there. It is also another unique part of our force area. The five inhabited islands that are 25 miles off the mainland need to be policed by Devon and Cornwall police, and that adds further complexities to their work.

The Devon and Cornwall police area has a number of very particular challenges. When taken together, it is clear that no other police force in the country has to face this combined complexity. None the less, the Devon and Cornwall police do an incredible job. Devon and Cornwall is the second safest region in England and Wales and has the lowest rate of victim-based crime nationally. But what is incredible is that, despite all those challenges, the force provides an excellent service in keeping us safe with lower than average national funding. The Devon and Cornwall force receives 52p per day per person in police funding, compared with the England and Wales average of 61p per person per day, while having to cope with the challenges that our rural peninsula presents.

In addition to all this, as colleagues have mentioned, we must include the impact of tourism and the summer surge that we see every year. The funding gap is even more significant when we consider that Devon and Cornwall experience the highest level of visitors in terms of overnight stays, second only to London. In fact, I learned during the lockdown that the constituency I have the pleasure of representing has the highest number of overnight stays, at 4.7 million a year, of any individual constituency in the whole of the UK. During the extended tourism season, we experienced a 14% increase in the number of incidents, including an 11.7% increase in recorded crime. This represents the highest seasonal increase in recorded crime across the whole country. The intensity of calls for service seen in the extended summer period places considerable pressure on our services for the rest of the year, as staff seek to catch up on training and annual leave and to address the toll that the summer season pressure takes on their workloads. So the pressure of tourism is not just felt during the peak tourist season; it has an impact on policing across the whole year.

Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments and for securing this Adjournment debate. If he would like to have a vote on whether Devon or Cornwall is better, I would take our odds as a good chance. He is talking about the geographical issues as well as the population influx that we have in the south-west. Would he support what has been done by our police and crime commissioner in the councillor advocate scheme, which gives new mechanisms for people across the area to support their police officers and help to eradicate crime?

Photo of Steve Double Steve Double Conservative, St Austell and Newquay

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, because he highlights a point I was going to make. The pressures and the below-average funding that our police face mean that the Devon and Cornwall force is often at the forefront of innovation and finding new ways in which to work and use its resources in the very best, most efficient way. The example he highlights shows a way of working within the community to ensure that effective policing takes place despite having lower than average funding. We should praise our police force for the work that it does but at the same time make the case that it deserves better funding.

I also want to take this opportunity to mention the excellent piece of analysis that the office of the police and crime commissioner for Devon and Cornwall has put together. It is entitled “Understanding the exceptional policing challenges in Devon and Cornwall from tourism, rurality and isolation”. I am sure that the Minister is familiar with this piece of work. It shows in much greater detail the unique challenges that our police force faces.

I want to talk a bit more about funding. The current funding gap between rural and urban police forces needs to be addressed. This is something that I have raised continually since I was first elected five years ago, and I know I was not the first to do so. It is a long-standing issue that needs to be addressed. I would again draw the Minister’s attention to the fact that funding for Devon and Cornwall police is 9p per day less than the England and Wales average, and that when we factor in the adjustment to the population for tourist numbers, it is 13p per day. That situation needs to be addressed, so I seek confirmation from the Minister that any future review of police funding will factor in these different elements and ensure that police funding better reflects the position on the ground and the challenges that the police force actually faces. We need a better funding formula that really reflects the complexities that policing in rural areas, particularly in Devon and Cornwall, faces. The current formula fails to reflect the very high volume of calls for services faced by the police, which cover a very broad nature of incidents. Last year, as much as 84% of Devon and Cornwall police force’s total demand fell under the non-crime categories, many of which occur in rural and remote locations that are very time-consuming to get to, and so are an intensive use of resource. The role that our police officers play in rural areas, more than in urban parts of the country, is much broader than what is captured in the recorded crime figures.

I would like to make reference to the allocation of police numbers. I believe that all colleagues here will have welcomed the 141 new police officers that Devon and Cornwall was allocated out of the initial 6,000 tranche of the 20,000 new officers that we are going to put on to the frontline. However, we await the Government’s decision regarding how the remaining 14,000 of this 20,000 uplift will be allocated. If we are truly to deliver on the Government’s levelling-up agenda across the board, we need rural areas such as Devon and Cornwall to get a better share of new police officers in future. An allocation model based on population, for instance, would provide a truer reflection of the universal service demands placed on policing, given that the vast majority of all emergency calls do not in fact result in a recorded crime, particularly if such calculations include the increase we face through tourism. We do not want an approach that is largely based on recorded crime or levels of specific crimes such as serious violence, because that is urban-centric and favours inner cities over rural areas. When it comes to allocating the new police officers we are recruiting, I ask the Minister to consider these matters carefully to ensure that new officers are deployed in the best way to meet the challenges our police are facing.

I again pay tribute to our police officers across Devon and Cornwall for their hard work and dedication as they continue to work to keep us safe. I am grateful to the Minister for taking the time to listen to this case this evening. I hope he understands the unique challenges and circumstances that we face in our two counties. I look forward to working with him positively, going forward, to ensure that we get the results that we need in Devon and Cornwall.

Photo of Kit Malthouse Kit Malthouse The Minister of State, Home Department 10:17 pm, 6th July 2020

Can there be any greater pleasure than to gather together late at night to talk lyrically about such a wonderful part of the country, second only in its beauty to the North Wessex downs, which I happen to represent? It is a remarkable part of our heritage and a part of the country that is very well policed and guarded by my hon. Friend Steve Double and his colleagues, but also by the police officers who serve in that part of the country.

I want to join my hon. Friend by starting with a tribute to Shaun Sawyer and his team in Devon and Cornwall. I know Shaun of old. He was the head of counter-terrorism at the Metropolitan police when I was chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority and deputy Mayor for policing in London. He and his team have done a remarkable job over the past few years, but most particularly over the past few months, when, as my hon. Friend said, they have coped with extraordinary circumstances with aplomb. They have stayed resilient, with low absences and a commitment to keeping their fellow citizens safe in the face of all sorts of hazards—seen and, as we are learning from this pandemic, unseen. It has been a fantastic job all round.

Among the officers my hon. Friend thanked, I would also like to single out Deputy Chief Constable Paul Netherton, who has been leading the local resilience forum and has done fantastic work in pulling together all the organisations that have been engaged in dealing with the pandemic. We should also thank, as my hon. Friend rightly did, the police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, who has been a voluble voice in the weekly calls I have held with PCCs from across the country, putting the case for her police force with vigour but also with reason and proportion. She serves both counties extremely well and has shown exactly the kind of leadership that one would expect from a police and crime commissioner.

That has been reflected in all sorts of areas. Obviously we have seen crime reduce very significantly, but personal protective equipment, which one might have expected to be an issue in such a large, rural part of the country, has actually been managed with aplomb. The force has been rated consistently green on the red, amber, green rating scale for PPE, which is very reassuring for everybody.

My hon. Friend, as usual, puts a powerful case for his force and his county colleagues. He shows a passion and commitment that one would expect from a true Cornishman. I have seen that in previous roles. When I was Housing Minister, I made a wonderful visit to his constituency and those of his colleagues. He dragged me down there, as no doubt he will again, to see the police in action. He rightly pointed out that alongside the new headquarters in east Devon, significant investment is going into Devon and Cornwall policing from central Government, alongside the flexibilities that the police and crime commissioner has used to raise the precept.

The budget for D and C is moving up to £338.4 million, which is £23.2 million large on last year. That is the biggest funding increase in a decade. As part of that, there will be an uplift in police officers of 141 across the force area, as he rightly pointed out, of whom I am pleased to say 61 have already been recruited to the end of March. Recruitment is going particularly well despite the pandemic, not least because Devon and Cornwall is one of the 22 forces in the country that have adopted the virtual assessment centre that the College of Policing put together in double-quick time so that applicants to be police officers were able to go through the process online, rather than face to face. That recruitment will obviously continue.

I hear what my hon. Friend says about future allocations. No decisions have been made yet on the future allocation of police officers, but we are hoping the decision will come before the summer recess, because one thing that has become clear from forces across the country, including Devon and Cornwall, is that a number want to run ahead of the target. A number have already reached their annual allocation with nine or so months to go, and some wish to recruit beyond their allocation, but they need certainty on what they will get in years 2 and 3 so that they can commit to those bright, shiny, new police officers with confidence. We hope and believe that will help them to do that.

All that means that the relaxation of the lockdown, which ordinarily would bring significant challenges that are not to be underestimated, has been dealt with extremely well in Devon and Cornwall. The tourism industry is vital to that part of the world. I think I read in the paper that the estimates are that the two counties have lost something like £665 million in income over the two or three admittedly off-season months. That is still a huge amount of money for businesses to bear in losses, and it shows the urgency and the need to restore something of normality to that industry, on which my hon. Friend’s constituents and others rely so heavily.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the unique geography and beauty of that region attracts people in numbers from across the world, and we want them to come. I know that the police in that area are standing up strongly to ensure they can enable those people to come safely and sensibly, rather than, sadly, what has happened in other parts of the country, where people have been greeted with hostility. They have been greeted with proportion, sense and good management in Devon and Cornwall, which is exactly what we want to see.

My hon. Friend laid down a number of challenges to me, first to appreciate the nature of rural crime in his part of the world. Given that I represent a constituency that is about 220 square miles in size—not far off his —and is largely rural, he will be pleased to know I am well aware of the problems that rural crime can create. He will have noticed that in our highly successful manifesto for the election last year, we had a commitment to allocate some of the extra resources to tackling rural crime. While the allocation of police officers in a particular force is obviously a matter of operational independence for the chief constable to decide, nevertheless at the Home Office we can influence some of the priorities across the country. We hope to turn to rural crime relatively soon.

The funding formula has been a persistent issue for all Members of Parliament, who I think universally claim that it is unfair to their force. That cannot mathematically be correct. Obviously, in any funding formula change there will be losers and winners, yet we seem to have a House of Commons where everybody believes they can be a winner. If there is a review of the funding formula—I cannot give a commitment on that—I would anticipate that there would be a large and vigorous consultation process, in which my hon. Friends here tonight would doubtless participate.

The current funding formula is old and has been around a long time. We have had one or two abortive attempts at reform, and no doubt we will turn to it in time, but before we do so there are important tasks to do—more important to the people we represent—such as fighting the uptick in crime that we have seen across the country in the past few years. Dealing with the county lines problem, which plagues all the constituencies in Devon and Cornwall, is high on our list of tasks to complete first. I am pleased that in the past few weeks, during lockdown, given the drop in volume crime—robbery, burglary and so on—police forces have to been able to concentrate on targeting the villains out there who perpetrate this trade. We have seen some extraordinary results, not least with Operation Venetic, which Members will have seen details of in the newspapers. It broke into a huge international communications network used by the criminal fraternity at a very senior level, and this resulted in 700-odd arrests last week. The data that has been collected from that system in the past few weeks and months means that there will be arrests into the future as we piece together the picture of serious and organised crime, which is delivering drugs into my hon. Friend’s constituency and mine, and damaging our neighbourhoods and, in particular, our young people.

We will see much more such work, including dealing with murder—we have set that as a National Policing Board priority. We will drive down murder and reach back into the crime types that often result in a murder, such as domestic violence, drugs, serious youth violence and gangs. We will be asking police forces to think about whether they can not just detect someone who commits a murder, but prevent them from committing it in the first place, by finding that route towards the crime.

We will see much more of that, too. On acquisitive crime, which I know is a problem in parts of Devon and Cornwall, we have launched our £25 million safer streets fund, which is targeted at particular geographical areas that show they have a problem with acquisitive crime, be it robbery or burglary, but where physical alterations can be made, such as through alley gating, CCTV or better street lighting, which we know can deter crime. The police are then able to concentrate on prolific offenders in both those areas.

There is a huge amount for us to do before we get there. Happily for my hon. Friend, his police force adopts new innovations with alacrity and works hard to try to innovate for itself. Nowhere is that clearer than in its leadership on modern slavery, which has, unfortunately, plagued both counties in the past few years but on which they have taken a lead across the country and shown the way for many other forces as to how the issue should be tackled.

On that note, I congratulate my hon. Friend for gathering us all today to talk about these two beautiful counties and my second favourite subject, which we know is close to the hearts of our constituents: the power and efficacy of their local police force. Although we see from time to time in the newspapers heavy criticism of our police force, we all know that if anything untoward happens to us, they will be our first call.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.