Town Centre Safety

– in the House of Commons at 1:22 pm on 5 December 2023.

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Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing) 1:22, 5 December 2023

I beg to move,

That this House
condemns the Government’s failure to tackle town centre crime;
is concerned that shoplifting has reached record levels, with a 25% rise over the past year and 1,000 offences per day, while the detection rate for shoplifters has fallen;
believes that immediate action must be taken to stop the increasing number of unacceptable incidents of violence and abuse faced by shop workers;
notes that the number of neighbourhood police officers and police community support officers has been reduced by 10,000 since 2015; and calls on the Government to back Labour’s community policing guarantee, which includes scrapping the £200 limit on crown court prosecutions for shoplifting in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, creating a new specific offence of violence against shop workers, rolling out town centre policing plans and putting 13,000 extra police and community support officers back in town centres to crack down on antisocial behaviour.

It is a pleasure to open this debate on a motion in the name of the Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Home Secretary, myself and colleagues.

Safety in our town centres is a subject that the public are deeply concerned about. It has a totemic impact on how we feel about where we live; people love their community and hate it when a small number of people are able to wreck it for everyone else. Nevertheless, it is an undervalued aspect of public policy and we are currently being let down by the Government’s lack of ideas and lack of interest in tackling this scourge.

Criminal damage in our town centres increased by 30% last year. There were 150 incidents of damage in public places each and every day. Every one of those incidents is another reason for people to stay at home, shop online or not go to the pub, and contributes to a sense that it is just not worth the bother of leaving the house. That is devastating for local bricks-and-mortar businesses, destroys the viability of our town centres, runs down patronage of public transport and creates an inexorable sense of decline.

Those who perpetrate such incidents do it because they think they can get away with it. In this country we now tolerate 90% of crimes going unsolved; last year there were 2 million crimes unsolved. Criminals are now half as likely to be caught as they were under the previous Labour Government. What an extraordinary indictment of 13 years of Tory leadership.

Photo of Helen Morgan Helen Morgan Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Levelling up, Housing and Communities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Local Government)

In a rural area such as my constituency, where the town centres are small and spread out, one of the problems the police have is getting from place to place, partly because they have a shortage of basic kit such as police cars. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that this is not just about community policing, but about resourcing the police with the physical things that they need to get about?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Lady for her question. It becomes more pressing, as she says, with rural communities, because the thin blue line can feel very thin indeed. It is important that we have the right number of officers and the right kit to meet the needs of the community.

Levels of retail crime, alongside violence and abuse towards shopworkers, have increased substantially in recent years. Figures provided by the British Retail Consortium, the retail trade body, show that retail crime was up by more than a quarter in England and Wales last year. Again, that is terrible for business and creates a public environment that people do not want to be part of—another reason to stay at home.

Similarly, violent and abusive incidents in stores have risen significantly. In aggregate, we are talking a staggering 850 incidents every single day. That is goods being lifted and staff being abused physically, threatened, intimidated or spat at—all those horror stories This is theft and violence on an epidemic scale, happening across every town centre, every single day.

We have a special duty in this place to stand up for shop workers—yes, because everybody should be able to go to work without fearing violence and abuse; yes, because while we told everyone else to shutter themselves away during the pandemic, they still went out to work so that we had the food and supplies we needed; but particularly because we ask them to restrict the sale of dozens of products that in the wrong hands could be dangerous, such as acid, knives, alcohol and cigarettes. In that moment they are of course working for their employer, but beyond what it might say on their name tag, they are public servants, and we know that that creates potential flashpoints, each decline of sale a possible moment for violence or abuse. The continued lack of action is failing these people.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

May I check something with the shadow Minister? What is the difference between his proposal and that which was enacted under the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2023, which upgraded offences against shop workers, who do very brave work indeed, to aggravated offences?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for seeking to explain to me my own amendment to that legislation. I promise him that I will get to that point. I will not break that promise; I will explain the difference in detail shortly.

Retailers, unions, representative bodies, staff and management are totally aligned on the need for action—action that I will set out shortly when I detail our alternative, which is expressed in the motion. But first we must address this question: how did we end up here? The blame lies squarely at the door of this Government, following 13 and a half years of making the lives of criminals easier. Take first the disastrous decision to cut 20,000 police officers—a decision so damaging that they have spent the past five years desperately seeking to plug the gap. The loss of each officer from the frontline emboldened those who seek to do down our town centres. Those who cause disruption and crime today learned their skills and gained their confidence in an environment of hollowed-out policing.

Photo of Rushanara Ali Rushanara Ali Shadow Minister (Investment and Small Business)

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a link between the 10,000 cut in the number of neighbourhood officers and police community support officers since 2015 and the increase in shoplifting? Does he also agree that it is irresponsible of the Government to call for citizen’s arrests instead of being tough on crime and the causes of crime?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I am grateful for that intervention. The causality is there: the lack of availability of neighbourhood policing has created an environment in which people feel that they can steal without consequence. On citizen’s arrest, I share my hon. Friend’s view that it is not something that we should be asking people to do. I know that the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire is enthusiastic about it, but is it practical? Take the Co-op, a retailer that is making huge strides to protect its staff. In general, it does not ask its staff to detain shoplifters, but some of its covert teams do. In incidents where they detain someone who has committed or is alleged to have committed a crime, four times in every five, having taken them to the back, they have to let them go again because there is no one to make the arrest. The idea that we can citizen’s-arrest our way out of this is for the birds.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Armed Forces), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

It is a pity that the Scottish National party Members are not here, because normally they would waste no opportunity to stand up and say how well they do things in Scotland, and how much better they do them than the rest of the UK. We have six police officers for the whole county of Sutherland, which is 2,028 square miles. I can tell hon. Members that in the biggest conurbations in my constituency, such as Alness, Wick and Thurso, we do not see cops on the beat and old people feel very vulnerable indeed. I know that it is a devolved matter, but I will not waste this opportunity to point out that things are far from right in Scotland, and I wish that the Scottish Government would catch a grip.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

Policing is a reserved matter, as the hon. Gentleman says, but the experience of communities like his is reflected across all our four nations. That is why I said to his hon. Friend, Helen Morgan, that we ought to have that staffing kit as well as the equipment in order to try to protect the public.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I represent the Labour and Co-operative party and I have great sympathy for shop workers who are being harassed and attacked, and having a really tough time. Does my hon. Friend agree that we need not only more community police, but far better co-operation with the big supermarkets and their staff, and for them to bring together a whole team to protect both shoppers and those who are serving?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I am grateful for that intervention from my Co-operative party colleague, because I can express our pride that the Co-operative party is spearheading this work in Parliament. I agree that there needs to be work between retailers and staff, but we should take pride in the work that has already gone on between retailers and the unions. They are in lockstep on this, which is not always the case, and that co-operation is a great asset in this fight.

Even when the Government have attempted to reverse the disastrous implications of cutting 20,000 police officers, they have failed, because in adding back officers, they have squeezed out police staff and moored warranted officers away from the frontline, so we are 10,000 neighbourhood police short of the previous figure, as my hon. Friend Rushanara Ali said. Each officer is another gap in that thin blue line, allowing criminals to run amok. Half the population say they rarely see police on the beat, a figure that has doubled since 2010.

However, we know that the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire has a cunning plan, which he unveiled last week at Home Office questions. To beef up the number of neighbourhood police, the Government are now going to count response police as neighbourhood police. That is risible nonsense. The clue is in the name: neighbourhood police are out on the streets, in their communities, providing a named presence, and building trust and relationships. The dynamic is different.

Neighbourhood police can be proactive, go to local community projects, get to know people, and build trust and relationships. That is a different dynamic from response police, who might attend a community event, but then a day later be in a situation down the road where they have to put in someone’s door or supervise a significant or difficult moment in a community. The relationship with the community is inherently different.

Similarly, response police can be called away at a moment’s notice, to the other side of the force area. It is simply not the same and it is deeply worrying that the Government think that it is. It represents a triple failure: officers cut, officers added back in the wrong place and now other types of officers being rebadged. They are failing communities and failing our hard-working police.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

My hon. Friend talks about rebadging officers, but our wonderful police community support officers are worth a shout-out. They do day-to-day work and often stay in the job for a long time. When I am on doorsteps in Hackney, the residents often know the name of the local PCSO. Obviously, we need more police, but it would be good to have more PCSOs as well.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

My hon. Friend is exactly right and I will come on to our plans for more PCSOs. They provide a neighbourhood link and, as she says, a more sustained connection to a community. They also ensure our police forces are more representative of the communities they serve, so they add an excellent dimension to our policing.

However, policing has not been the only problem. We are still reaping the pain from the catastrophic decision to downgrade thefts of £200 and under in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, which has been a godsend to shoplifters. It has created a generation of thieves who think they will not be caught or even investigated. On the back of that, high-volume organised retail crime has been generated, with huge criminal enterprises that we are now asking the police to dismantle—what a dreadful failure of public policy. Even now, when we know the impact that has had, the Government will not match our call to scrap that measure. Instead, Ministers cling to the idea that the police are geared up to follow all reasonable lines of inquiry and that, once again, they can do more with less. Of course they cannot do that. Our officers, police staff and communities deserve better than being set up to fail.

The Government weakened antisocial behaviour powers 10 years ago and brought in new powers that were so useless they are barely used, such as the community trigger. Getting rid of powers of arrest has proved a poor idea, even though they were warned not to do that. Community penalties have halved and there is a backlog of millions of hours of community payback schemes not completed because the Government cannot run the scheme properly. That is before we get to the failures with early intervention, with £1 billion taken out of youth service budgets and the dismantling of drug and alcohol services. The disruption we see in our town centres today stems from a litany of bad decisions taken by those on the Government Benches over the last 13 years. The Government have failed and our communities are paying the price.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

The shadow Minister is talking about bad decisions. Does he agree that the Labour police and crime commissioner made a bad decision not to reopen Dinnington police station when he had a £2 million budget underspend a few years ago? He was happy to reopen Edlington police station in Doncaster, but when it came to Rother Valley and Dinnington police station, he said no.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, those are devolved decisions where that individual has the mandate to make such decisions. His constituents have the right to change the police and crime commissioner at the next election. They also have the chance to change the Member of Parliament at the next election, so we shall wait for those judgments in due course.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I am pleased that he raises the matter of elections, because in July there was a council election in Dinnington, where the police station should be reopened, and the Conservatives increased their share of the vote by over 10%. It is clear that people want the police station to be reopened and they rejected Labour’s lack of policing in our area.

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

The hon. Gentleman wishes to express confidence and ease, but I am afraid he is not doing a very good job of it.

There is a better way: where the Government have failed, the Opposition have a plan to wrest back control of our streets. [Interruption.] Government Members might be interested in some of the concepts, including Jonathan Gullis, who chirps at me despite having asked me a question that I am going to address.

We make a community policing guarantee to our country. It starts with policing back on the beat, with 13,000 more police and police community support officers in neighbourhood teams. With funding based on conservative estimates of available savings identified by the Police Federation, we will restore visible police and PCSOs back on the streets, deterring and detecting crime, and building relationships and confidence.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

The shadow Minister will be aware that here in London, the Metropolitan police and Sadiq Khan, the Labour police and crime commissioner, were given significant funding by the Government to increase police numbers, but the force was the only one in the country not to hit its recruitment target, costing London over 1,000 police officers. How would his plan work here in London, with Sadiq Khan?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I will not take lectures on police numbers from a member of a party that cut them. As I said to his hon. Friend, Alexander Stafford, those are devolved matters. As a Government, we will make available the resourcing for 13,000 more police and police and community support officers.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech. We want to protect shop workers and stop shoplifting—it would be wrong to say that we did not—but in my constituency, which is similar to that of my hon. Friend, poverty stalks our land. The gap between rich and poor means that the country is the most divided I can remember in my 44 years in Parliament. There are desperate people in our communities. I do not approve of any of them breaking the law, but does my hon. Friend agree that it would be dishonest for any of us to pretend that poverty does not stalk this land?

Photo of Alex Norris Alex Norris Shadow Minister (Home Office) (Policing)

I do agree. One of the core missions of a future Labour Government will be to tackle that poverty and give everybody the opportunity to live full, productive and happy lives.

Secondly, on our policing guarantee, we will tackle antisocial behaviour in our town centres head on. In particular, we pledge to introduce new respect orders that will give the police and local communities the right tools to exclude from town centres those who repeatedly disrespect them. They will be a quick, effective tool that tilts the balance back to the vast majority of people who do things the right way.

Thirdly, we will stand up for shopworkers. We will scrap the disastrous £200 downgrade in the 2014 Act and thereby make it clear to thieves that open season is over and to retailers that we value their businesses. In the same vein, we will heed the call from USDAW, from all the major retailers and from all the representative bodies for a new specific offence of assault against a retail worker. As a Labour and Co-operative party Member of Parliament, I am proud to have spearheaded attempts to recognise assault against retail workers as an aggravating factor in sentencing, but we need greater clarity in the law. Having it as a sentencing factor alone does not seem to be acting as a deterrent, so we need a specific offence, as there is in Scotland thanks to the excellent work of Daniel Johnson MSP. That will send a clear signal to those who perpetrate attacks that it is not acceptable, and make it easier for the police to police this scourge.

Fourthly, we want to put communities back into community policing. Too often, people tell us that they feel policing is done to them rather than with them, and that they do not think that local policing priorities necessarily match their own. Much of the problem is about resourcing, given the Government’s denuding of police our forces. Our commitment is for town centre planning so that those who live, work, play and trade in our town centres will get to have a say in how they are protected. There will be proper community police plans to reflect the community’s priorities, with a named officer to work with as the plans develop.

Fifthly, the final component of our community policing guarantee is that we will restore the value and cachet of community policing. We will ensure that the path to career progression in policing is through officers getting to know their community, and that all neighbourhood officers have the skills and training to be problem solvers as well as recorders of crime. We will also work with the College of Policing and police chiefs to ensure that neighbourhood policing has access to cutting-edge technology and methods, including data analytics and hotspot policing.

That is our community policing guarantee. Taken in its aggregate, it is by far the boldest commitment to keeping our town centres safe that has been made in recent memory. That is the scale of ambition that we ought to see from the Government, but we simply do not.

This is good moment to talk about the Criminal Justice Bill, which is to some degree an attempt to address some of the issues we are debating. We did not oppose it on Second Reading and intend to work constructively in Committee to improve it. There are good things in the legislation—we are glad to see an enhanced focus on fraud; to see the police given powers to address issues that annoy our constituents, such as the search and seizure of stolen items that are GPs tracked; and to see greater flexibility around public spaces protection orders—but is that really it? This is the final year of this parliamentary term and we have a crime Bill that is tougher on homeless people than it is on those who terrorise our town centres. There is nothing on retail crime and nothing on neighbourhood policing. We will look to add measures in Committee, but we should not have to.

The Government can take the first step to addressing the situation by accepting our motion, but I fear that they may well not be minded to do so. I fear that we will hear the same messages we always hear: an attempt to convince the British public that they have never had it so good on policing—record this or record that—or that in some way our proposals will happen soon. [Interruption.] The right hon. Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire has not learned from the Home Secretary the lesson about chirping from the Front Bench. I say to him that the British public do not buy those arguments and deserve better. If he genuinely believes that the status quo is better than what is offered by those on the Opposition Benches, let us let the British public decide. Ask them whether they have never had it so good, or are ready for change. I will take my chances with them any day.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. Before I call the Minister, I remind colleagues that if they want to intervene, they are expected to stay for the entire speech by the person on whom they intervened. I do not want to set a time limit on speeches, but my advice is that after the Minister has finished I suspect there will be about eight minutes per Member.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office) 1:44, 5 December 2023

I am glad to have this opportunity to speak and hope to set the record straight. Forgive me if I do not recognise the counsel of despair emanating from the Opposition Benches. Alex Norris invites us to believe that there has been a catalogue of failure and that everything is getting worse, but the facts tell us something different. I do not pretend that everything is perfect—of course we need to protect our town centres and the people who use them, and I will come to all that in a moment—but for all the noise that these debates can generate, we do the public a disservice if we seek to distil everything into a row across the Dispatch Box without sometimes acknowledging the merits of the other side and the meaningful progress they have sometimes made.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

On that conciliatory note, could we all just pay tribute to what the police do, because they are the focus of the debate? They put on the uniform in the morning and say goodbye to their loved ones not knowing how their day is going to turn out. As we argue about where things should go in future, perhaps we can all agree that they do such an important job for our society and that we owe them a huge debt of gratitude.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I thank my right hon. Friend for that intervention. I accept without reservation that there is considerable courage and selflessness in being a first responder whose job and duty is to run towards danger when everybody else is running away from it.

Let me begin with the simplest facts. Since 2010, neighbourhood crime—the crimes that undermine the fabric of communities and make people feel unsafe in their homes and on their local streets—has fallen. The crime survey for England and Wales, which the Office for National Statistics described as

“the best estimate of long-term trends in crimes against the household population”, shows that since 2010 overall crime levels are down by more than 50%. Violent crimes as a whole, which include crimes that involve any form of offensive weapon, are down by 52%. Theft overall, which includes domestic burglary and the theft of a vehicle—some of the most invasive thefts that go directly to a person’s sense of personal security—has almost halved since we came into office. Domestic burglary currently stands at its lowest ever level.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

Does the Minister accept that the workplace is a personal place for those who work there? The Co-op Group has reported that in the year to date some 300,000 incidents of abuse and violence have taken place in shops up and down the country. Employees who are just there to sell to the public in their community are the victims of abuse and, in some cases, violence, but the police do not even turn up to 76% of reports, so how can people feel safe going to work?

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I will come specifically to shop workers. I have no difference of opinion with the Opposition on the points about the role of shop workers and some of the issues that affect them personally, and I reassure the hon. Gentleman that I will come to that.

There are today more police officers in England and Wales than at any other point in our nation’s history—

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

If I could just finish my sentence, I will of course give way to the hon. Lady. The most recent figures we have are from March 2023, when the figure for police offices in England and Wales was 149,566. It has never been higher. With that, I give way.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I wonder whether the Minister can provide the per capita of population figures.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

I do not have that figure, so I will have to write to the hon. Lady.

It is right that decisions about how police resources are deployed, including the number and composition of people in neighbourhood and local policing roles, are for the determination of chief constables, who know their beat better than anyone and are accountable to democratically elected police and crime commissioners. Nevertheless, the numbers have a broader significance, and I want to draw the Opposition’s attention to four points.

First, due to the investment in the police uplift programme, the number of police officers in local policing roles is the highest since comparable data began to be collected, with an increase of 6.5% in the 12 months to 31 March. We have more female officers and more officers from minority ethnic backgrounds than ever before—something that I hope the hon. Member for Nottingham North will agree is consistent with some of the conclusions that were certainly implied, if not made explicit, on the nature of representation in Baroness Casey’s report into conduct in the Metropolitan police.

We have more officers receiving specialist training for specific categories of crime. I will give the House one example, because yesterday I visited Avon and Somerset Police, the pioneering force conducting Operation Soteria Bluestone in the investigation of rape. They made it perfectly clear to me that the increase in numbers that they have seen locally has facilitated a huge increase in the number of specialist trained rape and serious sexual offences police officers. In fact, there are 2,000 nationwide. I noted that the hon. Gentleman said that we were setting the police up to fail. That could not be more different from the information that that force gave me yesterday—and if they are incorrect, I would appreciate it if he would explain why when he closes.

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

I put on record my support for the police, particularly Thames Valley Police—like the Minister, I represent a constituency in Berkshire. Can she update the House on the proportion of new officers who are still in training? It seems to be a very serious issue in Reading and the surrounding areas that, while officers have been recruited, they are still in training, as opposed to the fully trained and experienced officers who were lost through austerity.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman asks a fair question, and I will have to get back to him on that. I know that the number in my part of the Thames Valley is quite low, but that may not extend to Reading. He deserves an answer on that, and I will get one to him.

The Government have also ensured that the police have the resources they need. This year they received record funding of above £17.2 billion. That is an extra £550 million for frontline policing compared with last year. I gently remind those on the Opposition Benches that they voted against our police funding settlements every single year between 2016 and 2019.

I want to draw our attention down to community level and make a few observations. We have had a commitment from the National Police Chiefs’ Council—it was announced in August, as the hon. Member for Nottingham North will recall—that the police will follow up on all reasonable lines of inquiry and that there is no offence too small. That commitment is intended to offer huge reassurance to the public. It was also this Government who introduced the safer streets fund, which has been in receipt of £120 million already, for 270 projects covering all 43 police forces in England and Wales, and which is complemented by the StreetSafe app.

All that kind of thing can seem quite microscopic, as though it only affects individual streets or individual parks, reporting a broken light or a dark and dangerous corner of a popular area for jogging. The point is that people can report the area and action will be taken, and all that contributes to improving the fabric of communities up and down the United Kingdom.

I want to spend a moment on retail crime, which I will deal with in two parts: first I will cover shoplifting itself, and then I will move on to assault on retail workers. I take issue, very respectfully, with the suggestion that somehow the Government are being complacent in shoplifting. The Government are clear that we expect the police to take a zero-tolerance approach to shoplifting and violence towards shop workers. I want to disabuse anyone of the notion that somehow we have decriminalised shoplifting offences below £200.

I gently draw the shadow Minister’s attention to the following. In 2020, the National Business Crime Centre surveyed police forces in England and Wales, asking whether they had a policy of not responding to shoplifting if the goods were worth less than £200. Not one force in England and Wales said that it had such a policy. He will know as well as I do that the National Police Chiefs’ Council recently produced a retail crime action plan, which included a commitment to prioritise police attendance at the scene where violence had been used against shop staff.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I accept the explanation that it is not a written policy, but how does the Minister explain that in 76% of the 300,000 sample cases, the police did not turn up?

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

It is difficult for me to identify every single complaint and whether somebody has attended, but one thing I think is relevant is that the increase in shoplifting that we have regrettably seen over the past 12 months has been met by a corresponding and equivalent increase in the volume of charges for shoplifting offences. Charges are up by 29% in the past 12 months. I gently draw the hon. Gentleman’s attention to that.

I want to talk specifically about offences against retail workers. I invite the hon. Member for Nottingham North to answer this point when he closes—it is not put in an aggressive way, because I recognise the role that retail workers perform and it is completely unacceptable that they should be subject to violence in the line of their duties, but it is already unlawful to commit an act of assault. It is criminalised under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and the Offences against the Person Act 1861.

The hon. Gentleman knows, because we have already had this discussion, that there is a statutory obligation to treat the fact that an individual is a retail worker as an aggravating factor. He has identified the fact that the trade unions support a new law, but I say very respectfully that the judges do not, the Crown Prosecution Service does not and the police forces I have spoken to do not. The practitioners in this area of the law do not support a new law. Even though he has made that point, he has not identified any case where he considers there to have been a miscarriage of justice because the laws were not sufficient to offer protection. It is not enough simply to assert that we need new laws without setting out clearly why the existing statutory protection does not succeed.

Let me now turn to the issue of antisocial behaviour—it is not minor or trivial, and I make no bones about that. It is probably the principal crime that all MPs hear about, irrespective of the constituencies we represent. I want to reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have taken a range of legislative and non-legislative action. A new antisocial behaviour action plan was introduced earlier this year, backed by £160 million of funding to ensure that our commitments have real teeth. He will be aware of the hotspot patrolling pilot that has been conducted across 10 police forces and is about to be rolled out on a national basis because of its success.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

I thank the Minister for the £2.4 million given to South Yorkshire Police for antisocial behaviour hotspots, including in Maltby and Dinnington, areas in my constituency that are plagued by antisocial behaviour. When I met the police and the police and crime commissioner, they said that that money is making a real difference to getting boots on the ground and on patrols. I thank the Minister for the extra funds to clamp down on antisocial behaviour in Rother Valley.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

It is very heartening to hear that those funds are making a real difference in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

I also draw the shadow Minister’s attention to some of the new teeth, if I may call them that, in the Criminal Justice Bill. He will be aware that we have lowered the minimum age at which a community protection notice can be ordered to 10 years old. That is not just to achieve consistency with other aspects of criminal justice, but because we recognise that in reality quite a lot of antisocial behaviour is committed by those in the age 10 to 16 bracket. That is a common complaint that many in this House will be familiar with.

We have extended police powers to implement a public spaces protection order. I mention that simply because I could not differentiate between that and the respect order that the hon. Gentleman was describing, but it gives the police greater powers for a rapid response. We have also expanded the minimum exclusion period by 50%, from 48 hours to 72 hours, to give authorities more powers to implement dispersal arrangements.

Moving on to our Criminal Justice Bill, I think I noted the shadow Minister’s qualified agreement with at least some of its contents, and certainly those on the Opposition Benches did not vote against it on Second Reading. We respectfully say that the Bill takes the fight to the criminals, introducing new powers to enter premises and seize stolen goods—the example given repeatedly during the debate was of stolen mobile phones, the everyday theft that people endure. It contains new powers on knife crime to seize, retain and destroy a bladed article found on private property, without evidence that it has been used in conjunction with a criminal offence, but where there is a reasonable belief that it may be, and new laws on possession of a knife with intent.

I would add one or two other measures that are just as important to community safety. This Bill, for the first time, recognises coercive control as the cancer of a crime that it is, by putting those convicted of a serious offence in that regard under the multi-agency public protection arrangements and then putting them on the violent and sex offender register.

The hon. Member for Nottingham North was critical of the Criminal Justice Bill, but he neglected to say anything about the Sentencing Bill, which has its Second Reading tomorrow. That Bill will put some of the worst offenders away for longer, so some of the men who maraud on our streets to carry out the most grotesque offences against women—we all know their names—can anticipate a whole-life order without the possibility of parole, even if theirs was a one-off offence. Rapists, who under the last Labour Government served just 50% of their sentence behind bars under section 44 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, can now look forward to spending the entirety of their sentence in custody without the possibility of parole.

Photo of Barry Sheerman Barry Sheerman Labour/Co-operative, Huddersfield

I am not sure that I like the language of “taking the fight to the criminals.” The fact of the matter is that we want to deal with criminals in the right way. If only the Minister would look at the injustices of joint enterprise, under which almost 1,000 young people are in prison with long sentences for crimes in which they did not actually physically take the fight to anyone.

Photo of Laura Farris Laura Farris Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Ministry of Justice and Home Office)

The hon. Gentleman has been a compassionate campaigner on the issue of joint enterprise, and I have listened to him a lot over the years. I know that the matter was considered by the Court of Appeal, and its decision was not consistent with some of his remarks, but that conversation should be continued because it is a developing area of the law.

I will conclude with a quotation from a non-political figure. His Majesty’s chief inspector of constabulary, Andy Cooke, said recently:

“England and Wales are arguably safer than they have ever been.”

I make no apology for ending where I began: neighbourhood crime has fallen by 50% since 2010, and I am proud of that. Of course, we can go further, and we are building and developing police powers, new laws and community measures so that we can get there, protecting the law-abiding majority and cherishing the town centres in our communities by keeping them safe.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons) 2:01, 5 December 2023

1 hope that anyone who has visited Halifax recently would agree that, despite the years of austerity and the challenges typically facing northern Pennine towns, we are doing pretty well—thanks largely and in no small part to good decisions taken by our ambitious Labour council.

It is a particularly busy time of year. With the Christmas markets, the festive event season at the magnificent Piece Hall, and the cultural and independent retail offer at Dean Clough mill, we have a lot to be very proud of stretching right across the town. However, as in almost all town centres and the communities beyond, staying on top of antisocial behaviour and criminality is an ongoing challenge. We are the home of “Happy Valley”, but despite all our pride for the stunning backdrop that wraps around that gripping drama, we need to grapple with some of the darker realities that have inspired the show.

Research undertaken by Tom Scargill at the Halifax Courier shone a spotlight on exactly that. The Courier found that between August 2020 and September of this year, 355 people have been arrested for knife-related crimes in Calderdale, including two arrests for murder in August 2021, and five arrests for attempted murder. Offenders ranged from children as young as 12 to adult males in their 70s. Alongside harrowing incidents of sexual crime, there were 71 arrests for threats to kill, and 107 arrests for assault with injury involving knives. Those statistics are shocking, but behind every number is the harrowing experience of a victim.

Those statistics were published prior to the devastating events in the early hours of 2 October, when a triple stabbing in Halifax town centre claimed the lives of two young men aged just 19 and 21. The senseless tragedy sent shockwaves across the town, and our thoughts and condolences continue to be with the families and friends of those two young men who never came home from their night out. The tragedy occurred after a night out in Halifax’s thriving night-time economy. Knives should not be on our streets at any time of day, and the Government must strain every sinew to reverse that shameful trend.

I pay tribute to Pubwatch chair Martin Norris and vice-chair Simon Woodcock, who work incredibly hard to bring partners together to ensure that Halifax is a safe night out for everyone. However, they need help and support from the police, Calderdale Council and wider partners to embed best practice, responsible management and behaviours into the night-time economy, to the benefit of revellers and the wider community. I commend them for their efforts.

When I spend time knocking on doors and speaking to town centre businesses, people’s fear and experiences of crime feel more real than ever. Reports of drug dealing, antisocial behaviour and speeding in busy pedestrian areas come up on almost every street. I pay tribute to our local police officers, particularly our neighbourhood policing team, which is so ably led by Inspector Jim Graham. They are on the frontline of efforts to ensure that our town centres and wider neighbourhoods are safe and welcoming places. However, there are still 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police than in 2015, and teams are almost always carrying significant numbers of vacancies.

We will not improve safety in towns or across communities without looking after police officers themselves. The Police Federation of England and Wales has just launched its annual pay and morale survey for 2023. Last year’s survey revealed that 95% of the nearly 37,000 officers who responded said that their treatment by the Government had harmed their morale, while 87% said the same about their pay, so although there has been a great deal of consensus in the Chamber about paying tribute to police officers for the great work that they do in our communities, it is incredibly important that we establish a consensus on that point as well. The survey found that nine in 10 police officers feel that they are worse off financially than five years ago, and that nearly one in five officers plans on handing in their resignation as soon as possible, or within the next two years, because of reasons that include unfair pay.

Independent research carried out by the Social Market Foundation last year revealed that police officers’ pay had declined by 17% in real terms, making the police an outlier among protective services workers, public sector workers and all workers, who, over the same period, have had real-terms pay rises of 1%, 14% and 5% respectively. What it is about police officers, who have no industrial rights, that has made them such an easy target for attacks on their pay in recent years?

Hon. Members might remember that I started the Protect the Protectors campaign back in 2016 after I had been forced to call 999 from a police car to call for back up for the single-crewed police officer I was shadowing when a routine vehicle stop suddenly turned very nasty. The Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Act 2018 was passed thanks to an outstanding campaign by my hon. Friend Sir Chris Bryant. Although that legislation has not delivered the societal change of eradicating assaults on emergency service workers, as we had hoped, it did send out a strong message that that was not acceptable and would not be tolerated.

That legislation recognised the somewhat unique responsibilities of emergency service workers, who we ask to run towards danger on our behalf, but it is incredibly depressing that we now have to consider as a matter of urgency what further protections should be made available to retail workers. The results of the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied WorkersFreedom from Fear” survey of 2022 are shocking. They revealed that three quarters of retail workers have experienced verbal abuse, half had been threatened by a customer, and 8% had been assaulted. The survey revealed that nearly a third were considering changing their job, and more than four in 10 felt anxious about work, all because of high levels of abuse, threats and violence.

That comes as shoplifting has reached record levels—up 20% in West Yorkshire and 25% across England and Wales over the past year—with the number of offences reaching 1,000 per day, which paints a particularly depressing picture of what retail workers, store managers and business owners have to deal with. Despite that, the detection rate of shoplifters has actually fallen, as set out in Labour’s motion. I heard what the Minister said, but surely the Government’s decision in 2014 to bring in legislation to downgrade enforcement when the value of stolen goods is below £200 has had a detrimental impact on detection rates and completely diminished justice for shopkeepers who face brazen thefts from their stores. I hope that the Minister will be explicit about how that failure will be addressed.

The police and their partners work hard to keep our town centres safe, but it feels increasingly as if they are fighting a losing battle. Far from being tough on crime and the causes of crime, it feels like the past 13 years have been tough on policing, tough on the criminal justice system, and devastating for youth services. We need to rebuild those services if we are to start to reverse the ugly trends in our town centres and our communities. We need a Labour Government.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling 2:09, 5 December 2023

I know that in an Opposition day debate, it is customary for the Opposition to have a pop at the Government and for the Government to have a pop at the Opposition. However, on a serious note, even if I do not agree with some of the points that the Opposition are making and the conclusions they are drawing, the theme they have raised this afternoon is important. It is important that we debate it and discuss the work that has gone on. I will focus on three points: the high street generally, shops in particular, and the legislative framework that we are working under.

This subject is important, because economically, our high streets have had a difficult time recently, and it is important that we do what we can to get them to thrive. Covid has had an effect on many shops nationally, and the growth in online shopping has perhaps made our high streets not as attractive as they were in the past. We need to make sure that our high streets are an attractive place to shop. We have been celebrating Small Business Saturday recently; in that context, where crime and antisocial behaviour is a problem, it acts as a deterrent to shopping on the high street. We need to take that seriously and deal with it. In 2019, I stood on a manifesto that promised to recruit 20,000 extra police officers, and I am very pleased that that target has been smashed, with 418 extra officers in Nottinghamshire. Among other things, that has enabled us to have higher-profile local policing on the back of the cuts in neighbourhood crime, which, as has been set out, is down 51% since 2010.

To contextualise this matter, and on a personal note, I would like to thank Mark Stanley, my local neighbourhood policing inspector in Gedling, for his work. Faced with a particular problem with antisocial behaviour in Arnold in my constituency, the police did a lot of proactive work locally to put on more patrols and create a visible presence in the town centre. That is starting to have an effect; the extra resources that are now available have helped us to have proactive, intelligence-led policing. There is much more work to be done in Arnold and elsewhere, but we have made a good start.

Turning to shops in particular, retail is in focus as we approach Christmas, and the issues affecting retail workers have been much in the news, but they are a year-round issue. I agree with Alex Norris that the work of the Co-op—the shop, not the Co-operative party—has been helpful in raising the profile of incidents that have been affecting its staff. I have found the information it has supplied me with about Co-ops in my constituency very helpful; I am thinking in particular of the one on Coppice Road in Arnold, which I shopped at very regularly when I lived nearby. The Co-op has given very graphic explanations of some of the issues its staff have been facing, and I have had an opportunity to speak to staff there as well.

In that context, I welcome the launch of the Government’s retail crime action plan and the commitment to urgently attend scenes of shoplifting involving violence, where security guards have detained an offender, or where assistance is needed to secure evidence. I also welcome the introduction of the new specialist police team Pegasus to create a comprehensive intelligence picture of the organised crime gangs that are behind many shoplifting incidents, and locally, I welcome the fact that part of the £750,000 safer streets fund has been awarded to Netherfield and Colwick in my constituency. That will enable us to bring forward a whole raft of measures to cut crime, including CCTV, safer streets wardens, better street lighting, a burglary reduction officer and a Shopwatch radio scheme. Victoria retail park in Netherfield has been particularly affected by crime, and I hope that when these measures are introduced, they will target the specific issues that that area faces. I welcome the investment in that community.

In this debate, we have considered aspects of the legislative framework that underpins this issue. As legislators, we have two things that we can do: we can scrutinise those who have power, and we can make and repeal laws. If we feel strongly about a subject, there is a strong temptation to create new laws to try to deal with it. That is a very natural human reaction—as legislators, there are only so many levers that we can pull—but I would be reluctant to follow all of the recommendations in the motion. There is well-established legislation, from the Offences against the Person Act 1861 through to the Theft Act 1968 and beyond, that deals with these issues. If person A attacks or threatens person B, that is a bad thing in itself; we do not need to create extra offences to deal with it. What we have is sufficient, and there is danger in creating new offences.

To summarise, I am pleased with the great investment in dealing with crime, the extra police officers on our streets in Gedling and the extra measures that are being introduced, but there is obviously much more to be done. I look forward to the legislation that will come before the House shortly.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government) 2:15, 5 December 2023

The reason why we are all in the Chamber for this debate is that we understand the importance and significance of our town centres and high streets. They are our community, they are our economy, and in large part they are the heritage of our place—that is why we hold them so dear. Every town centre is different, unique in its character; even within constituencies, we recognise that. I see it myself in Oldham, Chadderton and Royton: each has its own identity, its own place in history, and its own role in the community.

Over the past decade or more, though, we have not just seen the usual changes that take place over a lifetime. Town centres have always had to change: they had to change when the rise of the shopping centre changed the traditional long high street, when the retail parks opened and when online retail took off. They have always adapted and changed, but now it feels like a combination of factors are undermining the potential of our town centres to thrive and have a place in the future, and some of them come at the direct behest of the Government. If we accept that our town centres are important for our community, our economy and our heritage, those are the things that will be affected if we do not take action.

Let us list some of the changes that will be familiar to every single community—almost nowhere in the country is protected from these changes. Banks, including banks that were bailed out by the taxpayer and are owned by the state, are closing high street branches. In the past 10 years, nearly 8,000 branches have closed, which of course affects local jobs, but also reduces the footfall in town centres and high streets. In some cases, if people cannot go to the bank, they do not have a reason to go into town at lunchtime. There are some exceptions—Nationwide, a mutual, has made a commitment to ensure that its branch network is maintained—but we do not see the same commitment from many high street operators. That is undermining our town centres.

Photo of Gavin Williamson Gavin Williamson Conservative, South Staffordshire

The hon. Gentleman is making a very important and valuable point. The development of banking hubs in some towns, such as in Stone following the loss of Lloyds bank, will have a big impact. Does he agree that banking hubs should be rolled out across many more towns in his constituency and mine?

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

I do agree with that—in fact, it is Labour party policy to create those banking hubs—but we should not have got into this position to begin with. It should have been required by law that the last bank in town has a community responsibility. There is not a single bank in Royton or Chadderton district centre; we would have to build a hub from scratch, because when the Lloyds and Halifax closed in the respective towns, the Government took no action to say, “Hang on. We have already lost five, six or seven banks. We need to make sure at least one remains, so that there is consumer choice.” There will be a lot of making-up to do when the election comes; it will be done, but I am afraid we will be starting from a very low point. However, I accept the right hon. Gentleman’s generous point about the importance of those banks.

We have had 9,000 shops close in the last decade, affecting 125,000 jobs in their communities: 41% of those were clothing shops, 19% sold household goods and 10% were convenience stores. Thinking about convenience stores, whether it be the local Co-op, Tesco Express or Morrisons, where will the cash machine be after the bank closes? The bank closes, the post office closes and the convenience store closes, and there is no cash machine for people to take out money from the bank, leading to financial isolation in many places.

Pubs are the beating heart or the anchor of many communities, and the place where people can get together to tackle loneliness and isolation. Particularly in industrial towns such as mine, the buildings of significance on the high street—where the heritage is really brought out and we get the character of the place—are the church, the pub and the town hall. In many places, those big assets are under threat. Some 13,600 pubs have closed in the last 10 years—the numbers are down 22%.

If we look at the public sector, in my town of Oldham—a town of a quarter of a million people—thousands of jobs are being taken away from the town centre. Those are people who do not go out to lunch to buy a sandwich and do not support local retail. More than that, it removes a sense of identity and of belonging in a place, and it has an impact on how safe people feel there. The Government have not just closed our county court and our magistrates court, but caused the closure of so many police stations that there is not a single custody cell in our town. Even if somebody was arrested for violence against a shop worker, they would be taken out of town to be processed. The chief superintendent in my town says that that has a material impact on the decisions officers take about arrests being made and people being taken to custody, because they cannot afford to take a whole day out from the frontline on the beat for that. It is having a material impact.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

My hon. Friend talks about the time that takes up for police officers. I was sat recently with my ill father for 24 hours in A&E—not just a TV programme—and I noticed that there were three shift changes of police officers to sit with somebody who was also waiting for 24 hours in A&E, so the crushing of public services elsewhere is detrimental for our police forces.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

We do see that, as I will come on to say a bit later. In Oldham town centre, we have a lot of conversions from offices, pubs and retail to houses in multiple occupation. A lot of complaints are caused by that concentration of high-demand social problems, but there is not the back support that used to be there for drug and alcohol abuse, domestic violence and on-street offences. In the end, the police are the only number people call because they are the only ones who might turn out. The point about attendance at A&E is absolutely right. In many places, the police are not just upholding the law, but trying to keep society together because all else has given way.

We see these problems much more broadly, even beyond the public sector and in local government. Our HMRC office has closed and the Department for Work and Pensions office has closed, taking hundreds or thousands of staff away from the town centre. We are also seeing cuts to arts and culture: local theatres have closed and local community organisations have withdrawn services away from towns.

More than that, in the face of such decline, local authorities have been disempowered in dealing with what follows. We have seen offices that used to provide footfall and jobs for the local community being converted, with no consideration of the capacity and infrastructure of the local community, to substandard accommodation—we call them guinea pig hutches because they are so small, and they do not provide the right living standards—or to HMOs in which people have shared accommodation. The Government’s housing benefit changes in relation to financial provision for under-21s are adding to that social problem. The market has been completely changed, so when we walk down a high street, what used to be a pub, a bank or a shop is completely blank. We can walk from door to door without seeing a single shopfront because they have been converted to that type of residential use, with all the issues that brings.

Another issue is ownership. The Government could bring in a register of beneficial ownership so that we know who owns our high streets. The trouble many local authorities have is that a building can be empty and boarded up for decades or generations, attracting antisocial behaviour, but they are not able to take any action because they cannot find out who the owner is. If the owner is registered at that address, but they are not there, how on earth does the local authority find out who owns it? Many owners are offshore or around the world. The Government could make that change, but they choose not to do so.

On taxation, how odd is it that with business rates, someone is taxed before they can take a penny through the till? They are taxed to open the shop door. They can take not a single penny through the till during a trading day, and they will pay to exist. There is no other form of taxation that charges people to exist; it is usually charged on the income they receive or the profits they make. That is not the case with business rates, and that is having a material impact on the survival of shops.

On transport and accessibility, how many bus routes have been cut so people cannot get into town? Especially in rural and coastal communities where the service is not as frequent, when it gets cut, how on earth do people get anywhere near their town centre?

On crime and antisocial behaviour, many MPs in the Chamber will have attended their local high street and town centre for Small Business Saturday, when we of course celebrate independent retailers, and they will have heard the same story that I have heard from Maggie Hughes, who owns a clothing shop called Zutti in Oldham. It is a staple of our community: it has been there for 40 years, and everybody knows and loves Maggie and the staff who work there. She is also the vice-chair of the town centre board. She said that she is fearful for the street and the way it is declining, because of antisocial behaviour and crime. For the first time ever, I had to wait to be buzzed in before I went through the door because, for her own safety and that of the shop workers, she has had to put a security lock on the door. That is not right.

It is not right that people go to work fearful for themselves and for their staff, let alone for their stock. Most retailers accept that, to a degree, they are going to get some marginal loss of stock, as they call it. However, they do not at all accept that the staff who are there to work—by the way, many of the employees in retail jobs in town centres are female—are vulnerable not just to theft, but to people turning violent if they are challenged. Even more than that, if when they are challenged they are detained, staff can call the police, but the police do not even turn up in the majority of cases.

We can see how all this is adding to the perfect storm, which is why the Co-operative party, USDAW, the Labour party and Co-operative Retail Services are demanding a change in the law to protect shop workers. It is not enough for this to be an aggravating factor; it has to be a stand-alone offence. This Parliament makes laws that we expect shop workers to uphold—on cigarette sales, on alcohol, on knives, on fireworks—and they deserve the protection of this Parliament in protecting our communities, so no more words; let us see action on that front.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Conservative, Northampton North 2:26, 5 December 2023

I commend this debate. When it comes to safety in town centres, my constituency of Northampton North has seen knife crime, and it has had a very painful impact. We all want safety in our town centres, and at the moment that is particularly true of the Jewish community, who have been subject to numerous antisemitic incidents in the last few weeks.

I would like to tell the House about a shocking example. I can relate this to an incident way back in 1963—60 years ago—in Bristol, when a boycott of the buses was organised by the people of Bristol because black people were barred, believe it or not, from working as crew on the Bristol Omnibus Company’s buses. Nowadays, the Bristol bus boycott of 1963 is rightly celebrated—I can see that Opposition Members know about it. It is celebrated as a reason for the racial discrimination laws that were passed later in the 1960s.

I mention that case because something similar is happening today, and over the last few days. That was 60 years ago, but in 2023 there is another heinous prejudice on the buses—this time on the London buses. The Independent newspaper today is among many reporting that Jewish children in north London are experiencing buses deliberately failing to stop to pick them up at bus stops. Several incidents are being investigated by the police, and the Metropolitan police have tweeted about this or spoken about it today.

In one incident, several Jewish schoolboys were waiting at Egerton Road bus stop in Stamford Hill and signalled for a bus to stop. The driver slowed down, but then continued without stopping. It is claimed that several passengers were encouraging the driver’s actions, making antisemitic remarks and thanking the driver for not stopping. Three days later, a similar incident occurred. A 13-year-old Jewish girl was on the bus, and she reported that the driver slowed down, but did not stop for Jewish schoolboys who were waiting to be picked up. This was early in the morning on their way to school. At the next stop, the driver did stop, proving therefore that it had been done for prejudiced reasons. That is a live example, 60 years on from the horrific boycott in Bristol—the boycott was a good thing, of course, but the reason for it was prejudice.

The Community Security Trust is a charity that I know is strongly supported by both the Conservative and Labour parties. I have been to its events, I am proud to say, and I have seen Labour leaders there for years, as well as Conservative leaders. It is an excellent charity and is strongly supported by all. It has reported the following incidents in the past few days: a young girl shouted out of a passing car, “dirty effing Jews” at a Jewish person walking past; a Jewish boy was at a bus stop and a group of youths shouted,

“let’s see you run Jew boy”, and then chased him; at a London train station, a man approached a Jewish girl and said,

“I hope you and all your people die in the war.”

A Jewish organisation that works in holocaust education received a message via its website saying:

Nazi Israel, which has nuclear weapons, must all surrender and be arrested to stand trial. White-hat hackers blast these Nazis.”

In Manchester, two men were walking towards a woman wearing a star of David, shouting, “Gas, gas.” In Essex a woman was woken up by banging on her front door, and a group of men shouting “get out bloody Jews.” In London, a woman said to a visibly Jewish man:

“Oh you are everywhere, just like the rest.”

On a bus in Brighton, a man repeatedly called a woman an “evil Jew”. A woman at a pro-Palestinian protest in Glasgow was holding a sign saying,

“one holocaust does not justify another.”

A rabbi in the west midlands received a phone call saying—I will not use offensive words—“I wiped myself on your Torah.” A woman shouted:

“You effing Jews think you own the world” at a passer-by in London. A Jewish boy was getting changed at school when two other students shouted, “you’re bombing Gaza.” Those are just a few examples from the past few weeks.

In the 54 days between the Hamas attacks and last Wednesday, CST recorded at least 1,747 antisemitic incidents across the United Kingdom, which is the highest ever total reported to CST across a 54-day period since it was established 40 years ago in 1984. Right now, in the last few minutes, in the Regent’s Park area of London an incident has been occurring. I have been told of large numbers of police attending Regent’s Park because of an incident to do with a banner that has been placed on a building which says, “globalise the intifada.”

When it comes to safety in town centres, it is crucial that safety applies to all. I would want to stand and defend any ethnic group or any person of any faith if they were subject to those sorts of attacks. I know people on the left and on the right who have spent their careers doing that. They are proud of doing so, and have done so for generations. We now see members of a very small community—a Jewish community which amounts to less than 0.5% of the total population of this country; only about 250,000 people in a population of 70 million—who are subject to the sort of abuse that frankly would not have been seen since the days of the Ku Klux Klan in America, and probably would have been the subject of disgust 70 or 80 years ago in this country. It certainly would have been at the time of the battle of Cable Street.

When it comes to safety for all, now is an opportunity for those who are not of the Jewish faith to support those who are. I commend Labour for holding this debate. I know that this issue goes across party political divides; this is not a party political point at all. That gives me comfort, because I know that all those of good faith in this country of any religion, and of none, and people of all ages, ethnicities, colours and social backgrounds, would know that the sort of examples I have been giving to the House today are abhorrent and a disgrace to this country. I must demand that the police, the Mayor of London, and everyone else in authority, including those responsible for Transport for London, immediately take action to deal with the examples I have given. This is becoming an emergency situation and the offenders must be caught. People who are driving buses and behaving in such a fashion should not only be dismissed for gross misconduct, but should attract serious criminal charges.

Photo of Catherine McKinnell Catherine McKinnell Shadow Minister (Education) (Schools) 2:35, 5 December 2023

I am sorry, in many respects, to follow Sir Michael Ellis and to hear the horrifying examples of antisemitism and racism that have surfaced on our streets. I absolutely agree that this is not a party political matter; it is one on which we in this House stand united, and we agree with the action he calls for. There is very much solidarity with all those in our country who face such abhorrent and unacceptable abuse.

What is a party political matter, however, is the current Government’s record on crime and policing, which is something we want to address as part of this debate. We know the challenges faced in our communities and on our streets, and businesses and individuals who work in those businesses are paying the price for a decline in the effectiveness of our policing, and collapsing confidence in it. That is the message that Government will hopefully get during this debate.

This weekend was Small Business Saturday—other colleagues have mentioned that—and like many, I spent Saturday morning visiting and speaking to businesses in my local area on Gosforth High Street. Those businesses are the beating heart of our communities. We treasure them more than ever, particularly after covid and the inability to go to the shops and the challenges around that. It is heart-warming to visit local independent businesses and, happily for those where I was on Saturday, to see them thriving, despite rising cost pressures, rising bills, and ever increasing competition from online sources. There was a lovely, thriving atmosphere in Gosforth at the weekend.

However, that does not change the reality for so many businesses which are facing a shocking increase in shoplifting. Across Northumbria last year there was a staggering 44% increase in shoplifting. That is horrendous, and with the £200 limit on Crown court prosecutions for shoplifting and antisocial behaviour, it is a real hammer blow for businesses that seem to be being told that they have to accept such behaviour as part of running their business. Many are paying for additional security just to run their businesses, and that is damaging not only to the businesses themselves, but to shop workers and those in the community who do not always have the confidence to go shopping in their local area. Retail crime is a real blight, and it is having profound financial and societal costs. That is why I support USDAW’s Freedom from Fear campaign. It is important to raise awareness of this issue and ensure that, in the hustle and bustle of Christmas shopping, we always treat shop workers with the respect that they deserve.

Some of the figures are horrifying. Seven out of 10 retail workers have been abused in the past 12 months, 49% have been threatened with physical violence, and 8% have been physically assaulted. The situation is real and a concern. Indeed, 88 major retail bosses felt compelled to contact the Government to demand action, because the reality of rising concern in our shops is happening on this Government’s watch. I hope the Minister is taking note of those concerns today.

I know that Northumbria’s police and crime commissioner Kim McGuinness is very focused on supporting Northumbria’s limited resources to identify repeat offenders and tackle this issue, but alongside that we have disproportionate cuts in funding to Northumbria’s police budgets, and current legislation is holding back action that could and should be taken against people who are shoplifting and causing disturbances in shops.

The Government’s approach to police funding has left the country with 10,000 fewer neighbourhood police and PCSOs since 2010. The Government congratulate themselves on putting an uplift back in place, but Northumbria police remains 427 officers short compared with pre-2010 levels. Those officers could be combating these issues and making communities feel safe and be safer, which is what we need to see. The hollowing out of neighbourhood policing has allowed antisocial behaviour to blight certain parts and communities, preventing people from shopping locally and driving people back into their homes or back to shopping online, when we know that we need to support these shops and make sure that people feel confident to go out shopping.

Newcastle has a world-renowned vibrant nightlife, which we want to see not just in the city centre, but in places such as Gosforth High Street and Osborne Road. People love to go out and eat in the bars and restaurants and socialise. We know that times are tough and people in my region are increasingly challenged financially, but the last thing we need is for people to feel a safety challenge in addition. We need our policing to be adequately resourced not just to tackle crime and antisocial behaviour, but to make sure that people feel safe to go out and be part of our community and of the vibrant nightlife and shopping experience that we should have in Newcastle. Sadly, though, we have seen a decline and a collapse in confidence.

We have shoplifting at record levels, with a thousand offences a day, 90% of crimes going unsolved, victims feeling completely let down and less neighbourhood policing compared with 2015. Although this Government have failed to tackle that, we know that there is another way. Personally, I think we just need a change of Government to rebuild that confidence and focus, to be tough on those who blight our towns and to put confidence back into the economy and our communities so that people can get out there and be part of the vibrant communities that we are all here to represent. That needs a Labour Government. We need one as soon as this Government will allow Parliament to call a general election.

Photo of Jerome Mayhew Jerome Mayhew Conservative, Broadland 2:42, 5 December 2023

I am grateful to the Opposition for calling this debate, because it spans the interests of every party, although apparently not the Liberal Democrats or the Scottish National party. For those who are taking part in this debate, keeping our town centres safe is enormously important. That includes all sorts of concerns, stretching from public disorder not only to more serious violence on the streets and low-grade antisocial behaviour, which can be an absolute scourge in our communities, but—this is particularly important for this debate—to shoplifting and violence associated with it.

That takes me to the meat of the motion that Labour has put forward for our consideration today. Its primary suggestion is that we need a new offence to deal specifically with violence against shopworkers. Presumably the argument behind that is that the offence against shopworkers is so different from other workers or other people on the high street that the tariff associated with that offence will be in some way different.

I listened carefully to what the shadow Minister, Alex Norris said in his opening remarks, but it left me confused, because as he is well aware, we already have section 156 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, which deals specifically with assaults on those providing a public service. I think it is common ground among us all that that includes shopworkers. Under the terms of section 156, which I will not read out—I will spare the House that—an assault against a shopworker is considered an aggravating factor. That leads us to the tariff.

Labour’s position appears to be—I would welcome further clarification on this, perhaps in the wind-ups—that there is something so peculiar about a shopworker receiving violence that the aggravating factors cannot be taken into account adequately under section 156. I do not understand what aggravating factors cannot be associated with the section 156 consideration. Surely the best person to decide the correct tariff is always the judiciary. That is the judge, who has all the evidence in front of them, assisted by legislation that clarifies in their mind what is and is not an aggravating factor according to the views of Parliament, and assisted by the sentencing guidelines. That is the right forum to decide the tariff for this kind of offence.

If we start going down to individual offences, so that we have a specific offence for shop workers, what about bus drivers? They are public servants who are exposed to the public. It is clearly outrageous when bus drivers are assaulted by the public in the course of their duties, which they are. What about that offence is less serious and requires a different tariff from those of shop workers? That is the logic of this motion from Labour. My concern is that by going for an eye-catching initiative—my suspicion is that this motion has been tabled to get a headline—Labour is doing an enormous disservice to the criminal justice system, when we need to empower our courts to assess the gravity of offences and let the judiciary, assisted by the sentencing guidelines, come to the right tariff .

I note in passing that Labour voted against Third Reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. In my submission, we already have sensible legislation that deals with aggravating features for people serving the public, which those on the Government Benches voted for and Labour voted against. It begs the question: why was the measure so bad then and why is it so good now?

The second part of Labour’s plan is the roll-out of something called a town centre policing plan. Perhaps Opposition Members failed to notice that on 23 October, the Government launched their own retail crime action plan. There are striking similarities, because our plan changes the priorities of the police and requires them to prioritise attendance at shoplifting, particularly shoplifting with violence, shoplifting where a suspect has been detained and shoplifting where it is necessary for the police to attend to secure evidence. Those are exactly the kind of things that we want the police to attend, to reinforce the public’s faith in the argument that every crime needs to be investigated and brought to justice. As my hon. Friend the Minister mentioned from the Front Bench in her opening remarks, no crime is too small to be investigated. The plan also prioritises hotspot patrols by the police, and it sets up Pegasus, which is the specialist policing team to deal with organised crime using shoplifting gangs as a mechanism to drive revenue. It is important that that is dealt with, too, and I am glad that the retail crime action plan tackles that.

Labour appears to be announcing or, rather, re-announcing what is already Government policy. That leads me to the third part of its plan, which is to announce 13,000 extra police and PCSOs to be used in town centres. I mention in passing that the comfortable majority of that number is PCSOs, not police officers. That appears to be dressing up a £360 million investment and ignoring the £3.6 billion investment that the Government have already put into the police, generating 20,000 extra police officers in the past three years. [Interruption.] From a sedentary position, Alex Davies-Jones says that we cut them. I can tell her that we have 1,897 police officers serving in Norfolk right now—more than ever before. That is an increase of 269 officers, which is driving down crime and increasing the capture of criminals in Norfolk, particularly in Broadland.

I wonder whether we should have confidence in Labour’s plans. It is either re-announcing Government plans or going for an eye-catching initiative, rather than looking for serious changes to the legislation. Let us look at Labour’s action in practice. Recorded crime is 34% higher in areas with Labour police and crime commissioners than in Conservative areas. The lived experience of all our constituents is that when Labour is in charge, crime is much higher, yet the Conservative record is that non-fraud crime has fallen since 2010. There has been a 50% fall in reported crimes, but let us look at the gold standard, which is the crime survey of England and Wales. By March 2023, our constituents’ experience of crime had dropped by 15% since before covid, and by a whopping 54% since 2010. That is even higher than the reported crime reduction.

Finally, I had a conversation with a seasoned senior officer in Norfolk, who said, “When I started out, if we had had the crime numbers that we have now, I’d have bitten your arm off.” Crime has fallen under the Conservative Government, and we should recognise that in this debate.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South 2:51, 5 December 2023

The comments of Sir Michael Ellis have support across the House, particularly those about safety and security for everybody, and about tackling all forms of racism and hate crimes. However, the Conservative Government have overseen the demise of town centres across the country, which is a key part of the failure to tackle town centre crime such as street drinking, harassment and littering. After 13 years, their legacy is one of damaging decline and collapsing confidence, and victims and communities have paid the price.

Antisocial behaviour has a devastating impact on communities and individuals. Over 90% of crimes are going unsolved, meaning that criminals are now less than half as likely to be caught than under the last Labour Government. Shoplifting has reached record levels and is driven by organised criminal gangs, with a 25% surge nationally over the past 12 months alone and 1,000 offences a day. Shoplifting is not a victimless crime. Theft from shops has long been a major flashpoint for violence and abuse against shop workers, and far too many shop workers face abuse and violence in our town centres.

The trade union USDAW’s latest survey results show that two thirds of its members working in retail suffer abuse from customers, with far too many experiencing threats and violence. Six in 10 of these incidents were triggered by theft from shops, which is clearly the result of a 25% increase in incidents of shoplifting, as shown by the latest ONS statistics, so I want to put on record my support for USDAW’s important Freedom From Fear campaign to prevent violence, threats and abuse against workers. Labour supports increasing protections for shop workers and will table amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill to ensure that there are tougher sentences for attacks on our shop workers. Everyone should have the right to work in safety and to live free from fear.

In Luton, we are proud of our community and the way Labour-run Luton Borough Council and local businesses continue to work together to improve safety in our town centre for everyone. It is good to see the Luton business improvement district team working with Luton Borough Council to support the night-time economy and improve night-time security by funding additional neighbourhood enforcement and security officers in the town centre to help prevent crime and improve safety for residents and businesses. That commitment to creating a safe, vibrant and inclusive nightlife for all has seen Luton town centre awarded purple flag status again, which I am pleased to see, and Luton Borough Council’s 2040 town centre masterplan will create a safer, cleaner and greener town centre. However, the need for Luton’s community to step up and support itself is a consequence of the Conservative Government’s 13 years of failure—13 years of cuts to our local services, cuts to youth services and cuts to bus services, and 13 years of rising poverty, pushing people away from our town centres and high streets and, sadly, sometimes into more desperate measures.

The issues facing our town centres would be addressed by Labour’s community policing guarantee. It includes scrapping the threshold brought in by the Tories in 2014 that prevents the prosecution of shoplifting under the value of £200, making it easier to take action against repeat offenders and ending the farce of offending going unpunished. It would create a new, specific standalone offence of violence against a shop worker, roll out town centre policing plans with guaranteed patrols of town centres, and put 13,000 extra police and community support officers back in town centres to crack down on antisocial behaviour. Like others have said, however, for this to happen—for action to make our town centres safer—we need a Labour Government.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East 2:56, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to follow Rachel Hopkins, and I recognise what my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis said about communities. Without speaking out of turn, I hope that we might have a debate on that very issue—whether it be in Government or, indeed, Opposition time—because it is so important and so current. I very much welcome today’s debate, even if I do not necessarily welcome the motion that goes with it.

Keeping our town centres safe is absolutely critical, but let us remember that they look different from a decade, two decades or three decades ago. Our fast-changing, ever digital world is impacting on every aspect of life: how we live, how we work, how we do business, how we communicate, how we socialise, how we entertain and, of course, how we shop. That has inevitably had a knock-on impact on our town centres, and we also have the global shocks to our economies of covid and the war in Ukraine, fuelling the cost of living crisis and the jump in employees no longer going to work but working from home. It has all been tough for our town centres. All these factors require local communities, councils and private sector stakeholders to reinvigorate a sense of purpose about what our town centres are for in the modern age, because if they do not, any reduction in activity, attraction, footfall or busyness in our town centres can and does lead to a vacuum that is then filled with antisocial behaviour, which further deters people from coming into our town centres.

Bournemouth has not only a vibrant town centre, but some attractive commercial, retail and hospitality hubs—for example, Tuckton, Boscombe High Street, Charminster, the huge Castlepoint shopping centre, our seafront and Southbourne, where I was delighted to spend Small Business Saturday. If Members are ever in that neck of the woods, I strongly recommend Syd’s Slaps coffee shop, where the staff are very hospitable and certainly look after their customers. I thank them very much for their hospitality.

I welcome the Government’s initiatives to support our town centres, which is what the almost £5 billion levelling-up fund is all about. For Bournemouth, this equated to over £18 million to support our seafront offering, and £21 million from the towns fund for Boscombe. However, when it comes to safety, I am concerned that ever more young people across the UK are choosing to carry knives. That is what I want to focus on as the main part of my speech, because it is leading to ever more people being harmed or killed by the use of knives. In the last decade, knife crime has jumped by 75%, which is already impacting on the night-time economies of too many town centres across Britain.

As a popular seaside town, Bournemouth has a vibrant nightlife, with thousands of visitors enjoying the night-time hospitality on any Friday or Saturday night. If we are to prevent Bournemouth from experiencing a similar rise in knife crime to that we have sadly seen in other parts of the country, we need action in Bournemouth now. As I have learned from joining Bournemouth’s police on a number of night-time patrols, the cause of the increase both is understood and can be tackled. The increase in the prevalence of young people carrying knives stems from peer pressure and a false belief that it is the best way they can defend themselves if they get into a serious confrontation. Of course, they are cheap and easy to get hold of.

I am pleased that the Government have banned the carrying of zombie knives, but we need to do more. I propose two initiatives—I am pleased to see the Minister for Crime, Policing and Fire in his place, because he will be familiar with what I am about to say. The first, relating to police resources, is a violence reduction unit. Such police units in other parts of the country have a proven track record in reducing knife crime in town centres. They do so not just by increasing policing but through working within the communities, including schools, to educate youngsters on the dangers of carrying knives. I have written to the Home Secretary and the Minister to request that.

Secondly, let us obligate all entertainment premises such as nightclubs licensed to operate after 11 pm to have metal-detector systems—either archways or handheld devices called wands—to guarantee that no one entering the premises is carrying a knife. I stress that that is not to point any fingers at the sector—there is rarely trouble inside those premises—but that would really deter the small but growing minority who choose to carry lethal weapons. It would also offer reassurance to the majority of the public who simply want to experience an enjoyable Saturday night out. Such measures are already in place in venues across the country, including for sports functions and in public buildings such as where we are today. I have written not only to the Home Secretary but to Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council asking the licensing committee to make that part of any licence to run premises. A statutory instrument will be required here to empower licensing committees to operate in that way.

Bournemouth has developed an enviable reputation over the decades as an attractive, safe seaside town for all the family. Today, there is a vibrant night-time economy trying to avoid knife crime, but we need robust action now to stamp out the worrying trend of carrying knives.

I am pleased to see police numbers now at record levels, even compared with 2010. The shadow Minister, Alex Norris, was keen to repeat that police numbers had indeed fallen over the period. He was less eager to clarify why tough choices were taken by the Government at the time that impacted on every Government budget across Whitehall. He really does need to recognise that and put the figures into context. I did not want to see police numbers go down, and I certainly did not want to see any reduction in any Government Departments. Unfortunately, we inherited a financial crisis that we had to endure and recover from.

I am pleased—and I hope the hon. Member for Nottingham North concurs—that numbers have returned to what they should have been over the last decade and are at record levels, as we heard from the Minister in her opening remarks. I end by repeating my earlier intervention. There are other factors as well, but our town centres are largely safe because of what our police do, and it is worth giving them gratitude for what they do and the service they provide. They do so with less thanks than they should be given. As I have stressed, they start the day not knowing how things will unfold. We owe them a huge debt of gratitude. I am pleased by what they do in Dorset and in Bournemouth. I give them thanks for the service they provide.

Photo of Sarah Edwards Sarah Edwards Labour, Tamworth 3:04, 5 December 2023

I thank Mr Ellwood for his contribution on knife crime and its effects on the community. Only last week, in my maiden speech, I paid tribute to my predecessor, Sir Robert Peel, who pioneered the leading principles of policing, which ring as true today as they did in 1829. Central to his philosophy was the integral role of rooting the police force within the community. Tamworth no longer has a police station with a front desk to report crimes, and many have raised with me their dismay at the town centre suffering from increased antisocial behaviour, but it is high-street shoplifting that I wish to raise specifically in the debate.

High-street retailers are struggling with the increased costs of their bills and their business rates, reduced profit margins and worries that footfall will reduce due to concerns about safety in town centres. To add to that difficulty, under this Government they are having to absorb up to £200 every time someone steals from their shop. That is simply not good enough. My constituent Onkar, who runs a convenience store, raised his concerns with me about how damaging shoplifting is to his business. He has reported shoplifting on many occasions but has not seen a single conviction in 13 years. That also means that he cannot recoup the costs of those lost goods.

Coupled with that, retail workers face unprecedented rates of violence, abuse and aggression while doing their jobs. Last year, survey data from USDAW of more than 7,000 shop workers—it has been cited many times by colleagues during the debate, but I will repeat it because it is so stark—reported that 70% suffered from verbal abuse, 49% received threats of violence, and nearly 8% were actually physically assaulted during the year. The report called for:

“Investment in community-led policing initiatives, which recognise the invaluable role that retail workers play in our communities and deliver locally-led programmes to guarantee worker safety.”

That is exactly what Labour’s community policing guarantee will do.

Labour will put police on the beat again, with a major expansion in neighbourhood policing, including putting 13,000 more PCSOs on the streets. Just as Peel professionalised the police force in 1829, Labour will professionalise neighbourhood policing, working with national bodies such as the College of Policing to create bespoke problem-solving skills that support communities. Labour will also introduce a new, specific offence against the assault of shop workers, which will protect people like Onkar and the shop workers of USDAW to ensure that everyone who works in retail can feel safe.

Finally, I pay tribute to the serving members of the police force, who still do the best they can despite consistent underfunding and under-resourcing over the last 13 years. I join colleagues in calling on the Government to take action and back Labour’s community policing guarantee.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 3:07, 5 December 2023

I welcome the debate, because it is so important to talk about the safety of our town centres and our high streets. In the Cities of London and Westminster, I am proud that we have what is perhaps considered the nation’s high street: Oxford Street. We also have Regent Street and Bond Street. Equally importantly, we have amazing local neighbourhood high streets, such as Marylebone high street and St John’s Wood high street—it is not in my constituency at the moment—which I visited last week for Small Business Saturday. On my visit, I was shocked to hear from shopkeepers about the rise in shoplifting. I also recently met the Marylebone Association in Marylebone high street, where local people are really concerned about the huge increase in shoplifting. I have spoken to shopkeepers and heard about the work that local councillors in Marylebone are doing with local retail staff. Some are now locking their doors and not allowing people in until they know who is coming in. Waitrose on Marylebone high street has taken away so many products—alcohol in particular—because it has had organised gangs going in, particularly at certain times, in an organised operation. I would like to see the local police do a lot more to tackle shoplifting, particularly in places such as that.

I also welcome the debate today because it is really important that we talk about the local policing of town centres. I know that the Government have put dealing with town centre safety very much at the heart of policing. My hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew mentioned the Government’s retail crime action plan, which is important. Things such as the antisocial behaviour action plan and the safer streets programme devolve money, funding and action to local communities, councils and police. I want to highlight the importance of police and crime commissioners and police chiefs in ensuring that our town centres and high streets are safe.

In London, we have a rather interesting situation with the Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan. Crime has gone up in the seven years that he has been Mayor, and 11% in the last year alone—that is 1,100 extra crimes. Research has been done recently on crime on the tube, which has risen more than 50%, fuelled by thefts and robberies. People come to the centre to shop or have a good night out in the night-time economy that we offer in the west end, but Oxford Circus and Leicester Square are among the worst tube stations for theft. That has happened under Sadiq Khan as the police and crime commissioner for London. My hon. Friend Mr French raised that issue when he intervened on the shadow Minister, Alex Norris, and said that Sadiq Khan has failed to recruit more than 1,000 extra officers on top of the 3,666 police officers that the Government have funded with the Met and the City of London police.

It is important to understand that it is up to local police teams. In London we have an excellent borough commander, Louise Puddefoot, ably supported by Chief Superintendent Beth Pirie, but their hands have been tied in Westminster. We have amazing neighbourhood police teams but they are often taken away from their neighbourhood duties to undertake ceremonial and protest duties, because Westminster is home to more than 500 demonstrations, marches and protests each year, in addition to the ceremonial activities such as the changing of the guard. I recently wrote to Assistant Commissioner Rolfe to ask whether the Met will establish a central police team that will undertake those ceremonial duties, so that we do not lose our neighbourhood police teams on a weekly basis. It is important to acknowledge the excellent work of our neighbourhood police officers, who are equally frustrated to be taken off neighbourhood duties for ceremonial duties.

When our neighbourhood police officers are taken away for ceremonial duties or protests, a huge vacuum is left. There has been a huge increase in antisocial behaviour around the cathedral on Victoria Street, Great Peter Street and around St Matthew’s Primary School. I have been heartbroken to read letters from year 6 children in that school, outlining what they see as they walk to and from school: men urinating and defecating in the street outside their school; men and women taking drugs and acting antisocially. I want more police action on that.

I recently held a local public meeting just off Victoria Street with the cathedral area residents group. More than 100 people turned up, and they were sick to the back teeth of dealing with all the antisocial behaviour in their neighbourhood. It is imperative that the police and Westminster City Council take a zero-tolerance approach to it. I am disappointed to report that in the last 18 months there has been a real increase in antisocial behaviour across Westminster, particularly people who are street drinking and begging. I would like the council to do an awful lot more. I produced a crime plan last year, having conducted a survey across Westminster to which nearly 5,000 people responded. Their top priority was more police officers on our street. If we see them in our neighbourhoods and high streets, that will prevent crime and stop the shoplifting. We need to get a grip of this.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Shadow Solicitor General

If the hon. Lady thinks that we need more police officers, should she not support Labour’s motion?

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I go back to my earlier comment: the Government gave funding to the Labour Mayor of London, but he failed to use that money to recruit up to 1,000 extra police officers on top of the 3,600 that the police have funded. That money went back into the pot, and other police forces have taken advantage of it. Over the last seven years under Sadiq Khan we have seen failure, failure, failure in many areas, but the biggest one has been crime. Any community across London will say that their biggest concern is crime and antisocial behaviour. Sadiq Khan has failed to answer that concern.

Local people want a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour and crime, particularly in our beloved shops including major brands across Westminster. Last summer I visited Boots in Piccadilly, and was shocked to hear about the number of incidents it is dealing with day in, day out. It is the only pharmacy open at midnight, so people who desperately need medication will go there. With the night-time economy as it is, Boots staff are often victims of assaults and shoplifting. They call the police, but they do not turn up.

In all my meetings with local people over the last year or two on this issue, that is the biggest concern that they raise: that when they call the police, they do not turn up. It might not be a life-threatening issue—someone might not be about to die—but they want the police to come and deal with someone comatose on the street or a shoplifter. The public must not give up on the police. They do an amazing job, and officers are there for us day in, day out, but they are being let down by the lack of serious leadership in the police in making sure that our bobbies are on the beat and doing what they should be doing. The public need to be encouraged to continue to report crime. I have only just learned that it is possible to report crime on Twitter or Facebook. It is really easy. The person reporting it will get a crime report and can follow it up. The police need information so that they can put the resources where they are needed.

To conclude, I welcome the opportunity to debate the importance of town centre and high street safety. We need more police officers on our streets. In London we have a Labour Mayor who has let us down time and again. It is not about funding police officers but about recruiting them and putting them on our streets.

Photo of Alistair Strathern Alistair Strathern Labour, Mid Bedfordshire 3:18, 5 December 2023

Let me start by sharing colleagues’ sentiments on the speech by my hon. Friend Alex Norris. It is important to continue to have cross-party consensus on the importance of stamping out antisemitism and racism across our streets. I share his horror at some of the examples he brought to the House’s attention.

Members on both sides of the Chamber who had the opportunity to come and visit us in Mid Bedfordshire recently may wonder what I am doing in a debate about town centres. Having spent one or two hours along Long Drive and trying to find that last house at the end of a road group, they may wonder whether they somehow missed the latest Westfield shopping centre at the end of a country lane. In Mid Bedfordshire we may not have anything quite on the scale of Oxford Street, but the town centres and hubs in my 48 towns and villages are no less important. From the fantastic Roger’s Bakery in Meppershall to the Cross Keys pub in Cranfield, those businesses showcase the very best of what a high street should be about: the beating heart of the community where we can all come together. But the heartbreaking reality of much of my campaign was speaking to people who simply do not feel safe on those streets anymore.

The Government keep telling us today that we have never had it so good when it comes to policing in Mid Bedfordshire, but the sad reality for people in my constituency could not feel more different. From Shefford to Wixams and from Wootton to Flitwick, many people just are not feeling safe on their streets. It is easy to see why: shoplifting up 7% and neighbourhood offences up across the county of Bedfordshire, but charging of offences across Bedfordshire down. The result: businesses, customers and communities left feeling vulnerable and exposed. Our high streets might not be on the same scale as those of other Members, but these issues have even greater resonance in my community. Without the networks of support and the visibility that larger high streets can provide, my shop owners, communities and shoppers can feel even more vulnerable when Governments fail to act. That cannot be right and cannot be left unaddressed.

During the campaign, I was incredibly heartened to see some cross-party consensus on this issue, with my rival Conservative party candidate, the local police and crime commissioner no less, conceding that policing in Bedfordshire was underfunded, that more needed to be invested in neighbourhood policing and that new approaches were necessary—with, I hasten to add, very little pressure from me to do so. But since arriving in this place, I am sad to say that I have felt that Labour is the only party with serious answers to these challenges. It should not be rocket science: it is about creating the thousands of extra neighbourhood officers we need to create a visible policing presence on our streets, rooted right across my towns, villages and communities; making sure we are taking retail crime seriously by creating a new offence to give extra protection to shopworkers; ending the floor on offences leading to follow-up for shoplifting; and having a focus on youth centres and provision to ensure our young people have better options available to them than bad choices. Those are the solutions my communities are crying out for, and they should not have to wait for a general election to see them.

This is a Government who, for all their faults— I hasten to add that I might think there are one or two—have not been afraid at times, in their best moments, to take some of the Labour party’s ideas and bring them forward, from aspects of Labour’s NHS workforce plan to getting more investment to our businesses. We welcome that. I urge those on the Government Benches to take this opportunity to add another example to that list. Do not let my communities wait any longer. Do not fall into the temptation of self-indulgence and pre-emptive leadership bids in the last few months of this Parliament. Let us get something done together for our communities and support Labour’s common-sense plan to take our high streets back, keep them safe, and invest to enable the neighbourhood policing my towns and villages are crying out for.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North 3:22, 5 December 2023

It is a pleasure to follow Alistair Strathern, who did a sterling job of representing his constituency with the pride and passion that I like to think I always give to my own speeches about the fine constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.

I am delighted that the Government have reached and exceeded their target to recruit 20,000 police officers, and that 333 are coming to the great county of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire. They will help to ensure that we can have neighbourhood policing in our communities, as modelled by the fantastic new chief constable Chris Noble. He is doing sterling work to ensure that officers are on the beat, out and about in their community, and standing up for the interests of the people day in, day out.

My hon. Friend Jerome Mayhew, sadly no longer in his place, did a sterling job of explaining why the motion is more election gimmick than reality. However, I accept and understand the passion that the shadow police Minister, Alex Norris, has in this area. He takes it very seriously indeed. I am always happy to sit down and discuss any forthcoming amendments, seeing as how in recent times I have ended up in the Lobby on the wrong side of the Chamber more than I should.

In Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent, we have had antisocial behaviour hotspot funding from the Government, which the police, fire and crime commissioner Ben Adams, who is doing a fantastic job for our community, has implemented so successfully that we have seen a 20% reduction in antisocial behaviour in those hotspot areas so far. The investment by the Conservative Government under a Conservative police, fire and crime commissioner, with a Conservative county council and nearly all 12 Staffordshire Members of Parliament—albeit that we have recently had one new addition in red—has made sure that we are delivering on the priorities of the people in our local area.

Stoke-on-Trent has benefited greatly from around £3 million in safer streets funding, with around £2 million having already been secured under the former Conservative-led council. That has seen investment in places such as Longton, which my hon. Friend Jack Brereton serves. We are now seeing a £250,000 investment in one of the great towns of our city, Tunstall. I passionately campaigned for that investment to improve our street lighting to make sure women and girls in particular feel safe in our community, as well as to make sure we have digital CCTV to help the police on the beat. I was backed by over 700 local residents who signed my petition and by the police, fire and crime commissioner.

Sadly, I was not backed by the leader of Stoke-on-Trent City Council, the Labour council member for Burslem ward. She told me to my face that no money was going to come to Tunstall, and that my petition was meaningless because it was on my own website and that the constituents I serve therefore did not matter. I lodged a complaint with the electoral officer at the council. Sadly, he whitewashed that particular complaint. It was very sad to see the passive-aggressive nature with which she approached that meeting, making a member of my staff feel incredibly uncomfortable, as well as denigrating the very people I am proud to stand up for and serve—the people of my constituency, some of whom are also her constituents. That goes to show that Labour may talk the talk, but it does not walk the walk when it comes to delivering for the people of Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke.

I am delighted that we got backing and funding, but there is of course more to be done. Now I want funding for Cobridge, which, between January and December 2022, saw a 75% increase in neighbourhood crime. It is important that we get the CCTV, street lighting and alley gates that we need to help that community feel safe. I will be looking for future rounds of safer streets funding, and I will be getting the signatures of local people.

I hope that this time the Labour-run council will get behind that, rather than playing petty party politics. It denigrated me for calling out the tiny minority of scrotes who deal drugs, the scumbags who fly-tip and the savages who create antisocial behaviour issues in our community. I was proud to say it in that video at the time and I am proud to say it again now, because I will not let a tiny minority of people ruin my town centre, despite all the investment that has gone in, from the £7 million to refurbish Tunstall town hall to the £3.5 million to open a brand-new living quarters for the over-50s in the former Tunstall Library and Baths. We have seen record funding in Kidsgrove, with the town centre hub on its way, a new pump track for young people to use, and the sports centre refurbished and reopened. All those things provide activities for our young people and our elderly to enjoy in our communities, helping to give the police an opportunity to engage with the local community to make sure that the overwhelming majority of law-abiding residents who do the right thing day in, day out are rightly rewarded and treated with the respect that they deserve.

Until recently, I had a Labour-run Kidsgrove Town Council. I was delighted when a campaign I successfully led meant that it was allowed to use some of its funding to finally put in new and improved CCTV. The Conservatives took that council in May 2022 for the first time ever. We have had investment in Bathpool Park, Clough Hall Park, Whitehall Avenue, Birchenwood, King Street and Heathcote Street, which means that CCTV can help to tackle the scourge of antisocial behaviour that happens at times in those particular areas.

I am grateful to the residents of Kidsgrove, Talke, Newchapel, Harriseahead, Mow Cop and Butt Lane for backing the campaign to give them that protection and aid our police, who no longer have to use the outdated CCTV system that required them to wait for a shop to open to go and use a VCR—I did not realise that those still existed—to download the videotape. Now that the cameras are monitored 24 hours a day from the Stoke-on-Trent control room, people can feel safe, because a Conservative Member of Parliament—the first ever Conservative Member of Parliament in Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke—has made sure, along with Conservative councillors, that we are delivering for our local area. [Interruption.]

I hear a bit of sedentary chuntering. Perhaps the hon. Member for Nottingham North is hoping for my demise, but whenever the election comes, I will be knocking on doors and telling people what is happening—I look forward to it. We had 70 years of Labour rotting our community away, taking it for granted and assuming that people were just cannon fodder for their votes, but now a Conservative has come and delivered for their area.

As I have said, a new Staffordshire community policing model was introduced in February 2022 under the excellent new chief constable, Chris Noble. Officers in 10 areas, alongside the neighbourhood police officers and police community support officers, are now helping to ensure that communities and businesses feel they have the safety and security that they need. I want to give a shout-out to a very special individual, Sergeant Chris Gifford, or “Giff”, as he is known by the bobbies on the beat. I was proud to do a night shift with him, and although he did not take the opportunity to put me in a cell and take a photograph, which would doubtless have earned him a lot of money, we did have a great opportunity to look around our neighbourhood and see the police on the beat.

I witnessed the power of the neighbourhood policing that Members on both sides of the House have espoused today. The knowledge that those officers gather on a daily basis, the individuals they are able to spot from a distance—I would never be able to identify someone that far away—and their ability to deal with offenders are invaluable to the local community, and they have my absolute support. I want to thank Sergeant Gifford and his team for allowing me to join them on the beat, and I look forward to doing so again soon.

We are trying not to let the woke arrive in Stoke-on-Trent, although the Labour party is desperately trying to import it up there. We do not want the chai latte and avocado brigade arriving in our area any time soon. I must say that I was very disappointed to see in the papers that Staffordshire police had introduced woke guidance: you cannot say “spokesman” or “policeman”, for example. I can only assume that that must emanate from the abysmal former chief constable, Gareth Morgan, who was a disgrace to the uniform, regularly sitting in his office without emerging to walk the streets with the local Members of Parliament in Stoke-on-Trent, unwilling to go out and tackle the issues of the day. In fact, morale was so low in the Staffordshire police force as a result of his appalling leadership—he was busy crying on camera, rather than actually delivering with the bobbies on the beat—that we had a recruitment and retention crisis. Thankfully he decided to finally disappear and be forgotten about. Now we have a great chief constable with great officers on the ground who are doing great things for our local community, and I assure the House that I am glad to see the back of Gareth Morgan.

I want to express my gratitude to those brave men and women in uniform who, day in, day out, serve our country and our communities, risking their lives and their safety for the freedoms that we are able to enjoy. I hope that if one day—it may come sooner than I wish—I am no longer in the House, I will be able to join the special constables, although I am sure that will prompt dread in the chief constable of Staffordshire.

I want to record my thanks to the great officers of that county. I want to thank Chief Inspector John Owen, who oversees the Newcastle-under-Lyme neighbourhood policing team and who I recently joined for a walkabout in Kidsgrove. I want to thank Chief Inspector Scott McGrath, who is in charge of the Stoke-on-Trent North neighbourhood policing team, and Inspector Hayley Eaton, his deputy; PC Jonathan Tench, who covers Burslem, Smallthorne, Baddeley Green, Milton and Norton; and PC Rachel Ford, who covers Tunstall with PCSO Sue Wall. Two of our finest officers, PC Edward Clarke and PCSO Anderson Cadman, will join me later today at 10 Downing Street to attend a reception to thank them for their service. They represent the very best of Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, and I am immensely proud to be their Member of Parliament—as I hope to be for many years to come.

Photo of Holly Lynch Holly Lynch Opposition Deputy Chief Whip (Commons)

I am sorry to interrupt, because the hon. Gentleman is making such a powerful speech. I join him in paying tribute to all those officers. Does he not think it a shame that they have endured a 17% real-terms pay cut in recent years, and does he not think they should be rewarded for their hard work and effort?

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I think the hon. Lady has forgotten the 7% rise in police officer pay that we saw this year. I have spoken to those officers about their living and how they work on the job, and they have of course raised with me the fact that money can be tight, but they understand that the Government have to be sensible with the public purse and cannot be seen to run amok with it, and they understand that any more money going into salaries may lead to less investment in new equipment and the technology that we need to track more crime. It may deprive them of the additional training for which they are desperate, because that is what enables them to patrol our streets. I am proud that our police are doing such a great job in recruiting 333 brand-new officers for Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire, in addition to the record numbers we are seeing across the United Kingdom. It is great news for our communities.

I like Holly Lynch a lot; she is a fine Member of Parliament—I know that will not help her on Twitter and I apologise for the grief she will now get—but she talks about Labour running police and crime, and I cannot think of anything worse, personally. The wokery that we saw the former chief constable bring in will trickle into our police force and we will see the police arresting people for thought crimes and nonsense like that, rather than having bobbies on the beat where they need to be, locking up the scumbags, scrotes and savages—that tiny minority who ruin it for the overwhelming law-abiding majority of our great community of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley 3:34, 5 December 2023

As a member of the wokerati, I absolutely will. I gently point out that the wokerati were coming alive in Woke-on-Trent under the current Government. I urge Jonathan Gullis not to be so fearful. I will take my lead from him in praising some of the officers. I want to praise our local copper, a police officer called Orla Jenkins. Such a rock star is she to my staff that when she came to visit my office recently, they put a countdown on the board to show how excited they were to see her. Local police officers who do the beating heart of the work in our communities deserve all of our praise.

On the point made by my hon. Friend Holly Lynch about the findings of lots of different people, the Social Market Foundation last year revealed that police officers’ pay had declined by 17% in real terms. Not last week but the week before, 24 coppers came knocking at my door—[Laughter.] Not last week but the week before, I got in a cab from Euston to an appointment that I had in London and the person driving my taxi was a sergeant in the Metropolitan police. He told me that on his off days he drives cabs. He also told me that his inspector, also in the Metropolitan police, did Deliveroo. That is the reality, and what I have heard today, certainly from the Minister and from the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North in his rousing speech, is fantasy. I respect the hon. Gentleman’s electioneering—it was absolutely top class—but does he know what the British public absolutely hate? They hate it when we stand in front of them and say, “Everything’s fine, isn’t it great, we are world leading,” but then when they call for a copper, nobody comes.

I had a security guard from the local B&Q in my constituency come to see me. He had previously worked in the Prison Service and he wanted to talk to me about strategies for preventing people who end up in prison from ending up there, and I was grateful to him for that. He also came in to tell me that he gets up at 3 o’clock in the morning to call 101 to report the crimes that have happened in B&Q that day because he cannot get through in the daytime. He told me that the impunity that he sees in his store is such that, on the day he came to see me, somebody had stolen a hot tub from B&Q. If people think they can get away with that level of crime, it is because criminals have never had it so good. There has never been a better time to break the law, with charging rates on the floor and hardly any crimes being detected. To bring people back to reality—in this amazing world we are pretending we live in—this applies even to the most serious cases. I recently dealt with a case where a woman whose husband was on bail for trying to kill her turned up at her house with a machete—the evidence was on a Ring doorbell camera—and five days later the police officers came.

I could stand here and say that all sorts of things need to change in police forces. I am here all day for better standards and better training, and for much more prioritisation of the kind of crimes I am talking about, but the reality is that that is like hoping for something that cannot exist while police officers across our country are expected to pick up the pieces of a crumbling society in every other regard.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I have a lot of respect for the hon. Lady, and we have done a few gigs together, including “Question Time”. I hesitate to pose this question, because I do not want to take away from where she is going, but she mentions society, which is quite personal to me. I am concerned that there is too much of a “walk on by” society. She mentions the theft of a hot tub, for example. Would she concur that there is a role for the general public? I do not want to encourage them to put themselves in danger but, collectively, the people who are around, not the police, are the first responders. They should perhaps react a bit more positively and proactively in calling out bad behaviour.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I absolutely agree with the right hon. Gentleman, in that I am a proper intervener. I will cross the road to have a fight. I have intervened in many domestic abuse situations while out door knocking. In fact, when I was door knocking for my hon. Friend Kim Leadbeater, I walked into somebody’s house to break up a domestic abuse incident. After years of working with offenders and victims, I am more than capable of accurately risk assessing a situation and intervening. I do not suggest for one second that anybody else who was door knocking with me could have done the same thing. We have to be very careful in how we manage that.

The trouble is that people in my constituency will tell Mr Ellwood, as they tell me, that they try to intervene. They see drug deals on their street every single day and they try to do something about it—they organise neighbourhood meetings, the local neighbourhood police come along and we all agree that it is a terrible problem—but when they ring about these hotspots, nobody comes and nothing changes. It is the same drug dealers, with the same dispossessed people walking up the street like zombies, every single day. They do not bother to report it any more, because there is no point.

On burglary, the police have become a third arm of the insurance companies. For a lot of people, the police are just there so that they can get a crime reference number. Orla Jenkins is a cracking copper and, more than anything, she just rings up people to give them a crime reference number. That is not why she went into policing. Officers are pulled away, and I have given the example of officers sitting and waiting in A&E for hours and hours.

As my hon. Friend Jim McMahon mentioned, the proliferation of unregulated exempt accommodation is one of the single biggest reasons for call-outs in the city where I live. Hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is spent on putting vulnerable people in inappropriate accommodation in our neighbourhoods, and the police are repeatedly called out. When I went on response with the police, every call we went to was to vulnerable people’s exempt accommodation in the city, and I was much better suited to that work than the police officers, because I ran vulnerable people’s accommodation for years.

For years, we have been asking the Government to regulate. Every single time I have asked a Minister for regulation to address this terrible, dangerous, exploitative accommodation, which causes antisocial behaviour on every street in Birmingham, on every street in Manchester and all across Oldham, as has been said—it might not be happening in rural communities, but it is happening in our urban communities, and it will be happening in Stoke-on-Trent—the Government have said to me, “We just don’t have parliamentary time to legislate on that yet. There isn’t parliamentary time.” I have been told that twice. So hundreds of thousands of pounds—hundreds of millions of pounds—of taxpayers’ money is going to bad landlords, housing crack addicts alongside rape victims. This is the country that has been created. It is causing harm, and the Government have the power to stop it, to regulate that accommodation and to end what would be at least half of all antisocial behaviour in the city where I live. They have the power to do it, but they do not, so the police get called out, and called out, and called out forever. That is a waste of their time, and it is something that the Government are directly responsible for, and could end.

I could make the same speech about the degradation of mental health services across our country, for every police officer who sits for 24 hours in a house because there is no emergency response any more. There is no protection for people when they are suffering suicide ideations, so a copper sits with them for hours. By the way, in my area there are 800 fewer police officers than there were in 2010. So much for “the best since records ever began!” If population is taken into account, the situation is even worse. [Interruption.] Would Jack Brereton like to intervene? No? Okay. I would welcome it; as I said, I am big on intervention.

Photo of Jonathan Gullis Jonathan Gullis Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent North

I reassure the hon. Lady that I completely concur with her views that our brave police officers should not have to sit with people with severe mental health disorders to keep them safe, when that is the job of the other emergency services. I will happily stand shoulder to shoulder with her and badger Government in any way necessary if there is time for legislation, because supporting our police officers should be an absolute priority of this Government.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Order. I am hoping to get on to the wind-ups by about 4.10 pm, for 10 minutes each, and we can then start the next debate shortly after that.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I welcome that intervention. Very noisy people from the midlands are my favourite. I actually think Stoke-on-Trent is in the north, but we are splitting hairs now.

I just think the gall to suggest that everything is all right looks really crass to the public. If hon. Members want to electioneer, as many of them seemed to want to do today, I suggest that they change that patter and do the things that they can do centrally, rather than blaming everybody else.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

If the remaining three speakers would speak for about seven minutes, we could keep to time—and Mr Brereton is going to show us how to do it.

Photo of Jack Brereton Jack Brereton Conservative, Stoke-on-Trent South 3:47, 5 December 2023

Although I do not agree with everything that Jess Phillips said, I agree with some points that she made. In Stoke-on-Trent we certainly see some of the issues that she mentioned.

I am pleased to speak in this Opposition day debate on keeping our town centres safe. I know that Members across the House care about that, but it is important to reflect that crime has halved in the period since 2010. That has made a massive difference, thanks to the work of this Government. We have started to see great new uses coming into our high streets to fill some of the empty spaces, and more community-led events. I know, however, that people locally in Stoke-on-Trent and across north Staffordshire want to feel safer when visiting our town centres and high streets. That is why this Government have been delivering the additional 20,000 police officers nationally, with an additional 333 specifically for Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent.

Although having more police on the beat is always welcome and very much needed, it is not the only action needed to address the issues that we face and to ensure that our town centres are safer. The Opposition motion is far too focused on narrow issues, assuming that further increasing the number of police officers is the magic solution, when actually we need to do a number of things.

There have certainly been issues when it comes to safety in our towns and on our high streets in Longton, Fenton and Meir, which are the main high streets in my constituency, and those issues are regularly raised with me. We have seen instances of antisocial behaviour, with shop owners having windows smashed, and more serious criminal damage with theft from businesses. It is terrible to see shop owners, who have put everything they have into running their small businesses, targeted by mindless vandals. We condemn those who attack and target shop workers—they must face the full force of the law. I welcome the actions the Government have taken through the retail crime action plan, the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022, and now the Sentencing Bill.

Most shockingly, in Longton town centre, the Dougie Mac hospice charity shop was targeted, with its windows smashed. I say to those who have behaved in this absolutely despicable way, “Think about the impact on local small businesses that cannot afford to repair the damage. You do not know when you or a family member may need the help of organisations like the Dougie Mac hospice.”

I welcome antisocial behaviour action plans to help people locally to take back control of our high streets. Only last Friday, I was out and about in Longton for one of our regular week-of-action walkabouts, with representatives from Staffordshire police, the city council and Staffordshire Fire and Rescue Service. I thank all the officers who were out with me. We reported a number of issues, and those fantastic officers are doing an excellent job trying to tackle and get on top of some of them. It was positive to hear that some of those who have targeted the town centre recently are now behind bars, thanks to the work of Staffordshire police.

In Longton, too many people have been getting away with horrific, mindless acts of criminality, particularly because of the lack of CCTV. Longton has the lowest coverage of any town centre in the Stoke-on-Trent area and that is why I have been working closely with our Staffordshire police, fire and crime commissioner, Ben Adams, and I am delighted that Longton town centre is set to benefit from the latest round of safer streets funding.

As my hon. Friend Jonathan Gullis, who is no longer in his place, said, we are receiving around half a million pounds for Longton and Tunstall from the safer streets fund. That will make a massive difference in delivering significantly enhanced CCTV coverage for the town centres, which they desperately need, so that nobody can escape the focus of the law. It will ensure that those who target our town centres face the action they deserve. Funding will be used to improve the area, including gating off some of the alleyways that have been a major attraction for antisocial behaviour.

One of the most significant issues facing local towns has been the impact of drug misuse, particularly the horrific drug monkey dust. As hon. Members know, I have been campaigning vociferously to get that horrific drug reclassified from the current class B to class A. The reason monkey dust is so damaging is that it does not just have a corrosive effect on the health of those who consume it; it also causes serious violence and antisocial behaviour in our communities, particularly our town centres.

Given its psychoactive properties, those under its influence have been seen to exhibit zombie-like and often superhuman behaviour, with police officers reporting that someone under its influence requires eight or more officers to restrain them. This horrific drug is highly addictive and far too cheaply and widely available in our towns, despite the best efforts of Staffordshire police and others. It is essential for this drug and other synthetic cathinones to be reclassified, as I have been calling for, to drive up the costs and consequences for the horrific dealers.

The provision of temporary accommodation in our town centres has also been a major concern and contributed significantly to antisocial behaviour. The Crown Hotel in Longton, right in the middle of our town centre, was used during the pandemic by local authorities to provide homeless accommodation. I refer the House to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests as a trustee of a local homeless charity in Stoke-on-Trent. Given the urgent need during the pandemic, it was absolutely right immediately to get people into that accommodation, but we are now more than three years on and more permanent accommodation is yet to be delivered.

The police have said that between January and May 2022 that one location generated 108 incidents. Between January and May this year it had dropped slightly to 76 incidents, but that is still an incident every two days. Of the individuals housed, it has been said that

“many…were homeless and included many individuals with chaotic lifestyles/complex needs with insufficient structure or support in place.”

It is quite clear that these individuals, many of whom have serious addiction and mental health problems, need far more intensive treatment and support than can ever be provided at the Crown.

As I have said on several occasions, I call on the Labour-led council to cease use of the Crown Hotel. I am extremely concerned about the shocking safeguarding risks being taken by Stoke-on-Trent City Council when it comes to housing families with children at the Crown, thereby exposing children to totally unregulated settings alongside often highly dysfunctional individuals. The current situation is not in the best interests of anyone—not of those housed there and certainly not of Longton.

As I have said, the challenges faced in our town centres are not as simple as just creating a few more police officers: we also need more proactive action from local authorities, particularly given the need for greater enforcement in town centres. It is about not just criminal enforcement but the use of civil powers. I have been pleased to support the use of the shared prosperity fund for such purposes, creating some much-needed town centre wardens and heritage enforcement officers.

The move to online has resulted in our town centre being in a serious state of decline and our high street suffering significantly. We have some proactive owners, but we have also seen owners who are not taking responsibility. We need further action to ensure the enforcement that is needed. We must use a carrot-and-stick approach, and I very much hope that we will see further action.

I bring to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends my private Member’s Bill, which I will soon lay before the House. It is very much focused on ensuring that local authorities have a duty to review the condition of our high streets and put together action plans to deal with some of the issues. I very much hope that Members from all parties will support my Bill and the work I am doing to call for further action to address the decline of our high streets and some of the related issues. It is not just about more police on the beat. We need to take a number of actions to address the issues and I hope we see further Government action moving forward.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Kim Leadbeater Kim Leadbeater Opposition Whip (Commons) 3:57, 5 December 2023

I will do my very best, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am going to follow the lead of my hon. Friend Jess Phillips and focus on the reality of the situation on the ground for my constituents in Batley and Spen. I also thank her for her one-woman crime-fighting endeavour when she was in my constituency.

Our town centres are the lifeblood of our communities. In my constituency, people are incredibly proud of where they are from and often identify, first and foremost, with their immediate locality, whether that is Batley or Spen. The Spen valley is made up of a fantastic collection of towns and villages, all with their own strong local identity. I know how important that is because I was born and brought up there and have never lived anywhere else. There is Heckmondwike, where I went to school; Mirfield just down the road, where I had my first full-time job; Gomersal and Liversedge, where I have both lived and worked; and Birstall, Birkenshaw, Oakenshaw, Cleckheaton, Scholes, Roberttown and many more. All of them are special, but sadly all of them are also too often ignored by a Government who over 13 years have shown themselves to be totally out of touch with the day-to-day reality of the lives of so many people I represent.

I have worked closely with West Yorkshire police to tackle the scourges of dangerous driving, crime and antisocial behaviour in Batley and Spen, and they tell me how the cuts to police numbers and resources over the years have left them unable to serve the community as they would wish. They all want to do a great job, but it is increasingly difficult to do it as they would wish. Members should not take my word for it: the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, John Robins, made the point very clearly on BBC Radio Leeds in June. He is not political; he just wants to do the best for his officers and for the community. As John Robins said:

“We are able to deal with the most serious incidents in policing, from terrorism to serious organised crime, homicide and serious violence, but as you go down the list of issues, when you get towards visibility, engagement, patrols and neighbourhood policing, that’s the one that comes under the most pressure.”

He added:

“The saddest thing for the people of West Yorkshire and the UK is that’s the one the public see most and want the most of.”

Before the Conservatives try to claim credit for the most recent recruitment of officers, which of course I welcome, they need to recognise the serious damage already done by all those years of neglect, and acknowledge that they are simply giving back a few of the officers they have taken away. The chief constable compared the situation to people’s household budgets, and he is right. He said that

“through cost of living and mortgage increases people haven’t got the money that they want to live their life with… Since 2010 that’s what it has been like for policing. We’re 2,000 less officers and staff, £140m less—I can’t deliver what I want to deliver as a professional police officer.”

I met the Police Federation in Parliament last week, who also spoke candidly about the challenges faced by officers on the ground as a result of reduced numbers, retention and recruitment issues, and the impact on the mental health of their officers and their ability to do their job as they would wish to do it—adding again to the mental health crisis that has already been spoken about in this debate. I thank the fantastic neighbourhood police team in Batley and Spen for everything they do to keep our communities safe, but I know from the many conversations I have had with them that it is an uphill battle.

Our towns and villages deserve better than they have received under the Tories in many ways. The cost of living crisis has hit individuals and businesses alike, with inflation, rising interest rates and spiralling energy costs making life incredibly difficult. Labour’s plans for economic stability, growth, green investment, a warm homes fund, the abolition of business rates and reform of the NHS and social care sectors, all on the basis of strict fiscal responsibility, will make a huge difference.

First and foremost, though, people have a right to feel safe and to know that the police will be there when they are needed. I have received countless messages from constituents about speeding and reckless driving, selfish and dangerous parking, when pavements should be for people, criminal activity, including drug dealing, going on openly on the streets, and antisocial behaviour of all kinds, including the use of off-road bikes. It is not right that people should be expected to put up with such a state of affairs. It does not have to be like this.

That is why I am incredibly proud of the Labour party’s plans for a new community policing guarantee, announced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition at conference, which means guaranteed town centre patrols with 13,000 more neighbourhood police and PCSOs on the streets. Local people will be involved in setting local policing priorities and we will have tough new sentencing guidelines for assaults on retail workers, as already discussed—something that USDAW and many others have campaigned for brilliantly—and stronger police action on shoplifting.

Local councils, the police and the courts will be empowered to introduce zero-tolerance zones in town centres to help to crack down on antisocial behaviour. I was horrified to hear the stories from staff at Tesco in Cleckheaton recently about the dreadful abuse and attacks they face on a day-to-day basis. We cannot have small business owners and shopworkers feeling unsafe at work, and we cannot have local people feeling scared to go into their local town centre or village to do their shopping or to socialise.

As well as the many fantastic shops in my constituency’s towns and villages, they also have brilliant community centres, pubs, restaurants and cafés. They are places not only where people come together with family and friends, but where many fantastic community events take place and people have a chance to meet others from different backgrounds. That is really important for community cohesion and for addressing loneliness and social isolation.

However, many of those venues are struggling. I pay tribute to the chambers of trade up and down the country for the fantastic work they do in building strong towns and villages, including in my constituency, where we have the Birstall chamber of trade, Batley Business Association and the Spenborough chamber of trade and commerce. They are often run by volunteers and amazing local businesspeople who are at the heart of our communities.

A future Labour Government will offer individuals, businesses and communities not only a promise of financial security, but the physical security that we all need to be able to rely on as we go about our daily lives. The people of Batley and Spen deserve more, and the sooner the Conservatives admit that they have sadly failed our towns and villages, and make way for a Labour Government who understand the needs of our communities, the better.

Photo of Nigel Evans Nigel Evans Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means), Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee, Chair, Restoration and Renewal Programme Board Committee

Could those who took part in the debate make their way to the Chamber now for the wind-ups, which will start seven minutes after Mr Hunt starts speaking?

Photo of Tom Hunt Tom Hunt Conservative, Ipswich 4:04, 5 December 2023

The town centre has become one of the dominant issues in Ipswich. When I talk to constituents, it comes up perhaps more than any other issue, particularly over the past year or two. In the time that I have been the MP, there have been a few tragic cases. A few months after I was elected, my constituent Richard Day was killed on St Matthew’s Street. Early this year, a teenager was killed in a knife attack in broad daylight on Westgate Street. That had a chilling effect throughout the town. Just a few days ago, at the Clapgate Lane Conservative Club, an attacker held a knife to the throat of one of my constituents. I have written to those at the club and will be visiting it soon to discuss how they are recovering from that incident, which was very chilling.

The thing about the town centre is that some of the most inspiring people I have met in Ipswich have been in town centre businesses. Just this Monday, before travelling to Parliament, I visited Miss Quirky Kicks, which has relocated in Ipswich and has a new café-bar—if anybody in Ipswich is listening and wants to go, I suggest that they do. There is also Geek Retreat Ipswich, which of course is part of a national franchise but is actually pretty decentralised. Geek Retreat Ipswich does fantastic work. It had its two-year anniversary recently. Its work to support neurodiverse individuals in particular should be commended.

As the Member of Parliament for an area that has a great history and a town centre with inspirational businesses, but which faces challenges, it is sometimes difficult to get the balance right between representing the concerns of my constituents and not talking the town down. That is a difficult balancing act, and although I do my best to get it right, some people might think that I do not always get it right. I cannot pretend that things are a bed of roses, because I think my constituents would look at me and wonder if I was on something, so I have to speak frankly and directly about the challenges as I see them.

When I knock on doors at the moment, I hear the reality that a lot of Ipswich residents who have lived in the town their whole lives are shunning their own town centre; they are going to Bury St Edmunds, Woodbridge and other areas. That is a problem, and there are many reasons for it. Some of the things that affect our town centre affect town and city centres up and down the country, and they are not easy to tackle: the growth of online retail; empty units; business rates, which need further reform; and, of course, the Labour council’s car-parking charge, which, according to my recent survey, 76% of people think are too high—I am just dropping that one in there.

Safety and crime is probably the No. 1 issue. The reality is that large numbers of my constituents do not go into the town centre because they do not feel safe and secure doing so. On that point, we have had shared prosperity funding to increase the number of PCSOs in the town centre during daylight hours, we have had safer streets funding and, of course, we have had our share of the 20,000 police officer uplift, so we have more bobbies on the beat in the town centre. In the Suffolk constabulary, I deal perhaps the most with Superintendent Martin. I have a huge amount of time and respect for what the constabulary does—it will always have my backing.

What people are saying in their responses to my survey is clear. I personally enter all the survey responses myself. So far, I have entered almost 1,000 responses. It is a bit of a weird thing, but I like to feel the responses, and I can only do so if I enter them myself—it is very strange and is making my flat look a bit of a bomb site at the moment, with envelopes and surveys everywhere. But anyway, the nuts and bolts of the issue are that, when asked, “Do you support a zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour?”, 91% of responding constituents agreed. When it comes to the groups of large men we see—the groups of large men congregating and acting in a very antisocial way in the town centre, who are not dispersed by or engaged with by the police as directly as I would like—some 88% of those who responded to my survey said that they think those groups should be dispersed. Shoplifting is also a problem in the town, and 91% of respondents agreed that there should be tougher punishments for shoplifting, while only 3% disagreed.

The survey asked people which two of seven things would make the biggest difference towards getting them back into the town centre, and No. 1 of the seven was the police adopting a tougher, zero-tolerance approach to antisocial behaviour, so although I have a huge amount of respect for our police, we need more of them in the town centre. In addition, we need them to adopt a more robust attitude to dealing with the individuals in the town centre who are blighting the experience for the majority of my constituents and undermining a beautiful town and its historic centre. If people are not going into the town centre because of the behaviour of a small minority, that is a real problem.

On the shoplifting point, we do need to have the deterrent there. There is a challenge here, however, because some of those engaging in shoplifting are younger. One of the businesses I spoke to earlier this week said that those engaged in shoplifting are 16 and 17-year-olds, so it can be more challenging to deal with them.

In conclusion, based on my survey responses, when it comes to town centre safety, we need to boost the police presence in the town centre, adopt a zero-tolerance attitude and crack down incredibly hard on the rogue minority who are blighting the experience of the majority. We need to disperse the groups of large men who are hanging around and put in place much tougher punishments for those who engage in shoplifting. We have a great town in Ipswich—I am very proud to represent it—but the reality of the situation is that thousands of my constituents are shunning their own town centre because they do not feel safe. That is not me talking down the town; it is me seeking to represent my constituents. I am not going to stand here and pretend that everything is wonderful. Yes, I welcome the uplift and the shared prosperity funding, but we need action. We need to turn the situation around, and I will continue to work with the Minister—for whom I have quite a lot of time—to try to get robust action for my constituents.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy) 4:10, 5 December 2023

It is a privilege to close this important and timely debate on behalf of the Opposition, and to follow Tom Hunt, who gave us a fresh dose of reality. I welcome his candour in outlining the actual situation that is faced by so many of our town centres up and down the country.

Many hon. Members from across the House referenced issues with their own town centres, particularly knife crime. Mr Ellwood and my hon. Friend Holly Lynch all talked about the rise in serious violent crimes in our town centres. Sadly, our police are having to deal with those crimes more and more. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all her work on the Protect the Protectors campaign: she has been a vocal champion for looking after those who run towards danger when we all run away from it. It is absolutely imperative that we do more to protect not only our protectors—our first responders—but our shop workers and all those who are in our town centres, working hard to improve those town centres, boost our local economy, and make our towns better places to live and to enjoy retail and leisure activities. Sadly, because of the situation that has been described today, those people face significant challenges.

From the contributions of colleagues from across the House, it is clear that safety in our town centres is a growing concern for all of us and for our constituents. My hon. Friends Jim McMahon, for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Tamworth (Sarah Edwards) all referenced the challenges faced by the businesses on our local high streets. They are not only having to deal with bank closures up and down those high streets, as well as pub closures, rising business rates and a cost of living crisis, but with a spate of retail crime that is yet another hammer blow.

My hon. Friends for Luton South and for Tamworth also mentioned assaults on shop workers, which has been a key focus of this afternoon’s debate. Our retail workers go out to work not to be assaulted, to be verbally abused, or to have to protect their stock from shoplifting; they just want to earn a decent wage to take home to their family. Sadly, far too many of them are being put in harm’s way and are not receiving the adequate protections that they deserve.

My hon. Friends the Members for Mid Bedfordshire (Alistair Strathern) and for Batley and Spen (Kim Leadbeater), as well as the hon. Member for Ipswich, also outlined the harsh reality that so many of us in the UK face. Our town centres are the lifeblood of our communities; they are a valuable resource that nobody should take for granted, but far too often, they have been. People do not feel safe—that is the reality for many people in our country. They do not feel safe walking up and down their high streets or their residential streets, and the reality of exactly why that is has been laid bare before us all. Labour has a plan, but the Conservatives have failed to deliver any meaningful change for the past 13 years.

Later in my speech, I will outline exactly what the situation is, but I will first comment on the contributions made by my good and hon. Friend Jess Phillips. As always, she is a very vocal champion; she reminded us all not to be bystanders. Just last week I attended really important bystander training organised by the Suzy Lamplugh Trust. I implore all right hon. and hon. Members across the House to take part in that training. There was an interesting exchange between my hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Bournemouth East about exactly what society should do—how can we intervene? How can people feel empowered to do more?

Sadly, I think we have been far too desensitised, and this has become the norm. It is a sad indictment of the situation that people feel like this is just part and parcel of everyday life, but it should not be and it does not have to be. People can all do more, and they can all be active bystanders if they have had the appropriate training. If they feel it is safe, they can do more and can feel empowered to do more.

Photo of Tobias Ellwood Tobias Ellwood Conservative, Bournemouth East

I want to link this point to what my right hon. and learned Friend Sir Michael Ellis said. We all need to do intervene more when we see some of the terrible behaviour prompted by what is happening in the middle east, and to call it out. I hope the hon. Member would agree with that.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

I wholeheartedly agree, and I was going to come on to the very powerful speech by Sir Michael Ellis, outlining exactly the situation that faces us all. Everyone in our country should feel safe in their high streets, their communities and their homes, regardless of their colour, their religion or their background. I join him in paying tribute to the CST and Tell MAMA for raising awareness of the situation. Sadly, it has worsened as a result of the horrendous attacks in Israel on 7 October, but everyone should feel safe. I hope that this House has a greater opportunity to debate that as time goes on.

As we have heard, the Government have ignored challenges ranging from antisocial behaviour on our streets to retail crime and violence against shop workers for far too long, and ordinary people are paying the price. By contrast, as I have said, Labour has made bold commitments because we recognise that people deserve to be safe in their communities. In government, we will halve serious and violent crime and raise confidence in the police and the criminal justice system within a decade.

Let us be clear: the challenge ahead of us, as we have heard, is significant. Thanks to this Tory Government’s shameful record, we are now seeing record instances—up by more than 30%—of criminal damage to shops, schools, leisure centres and businesses in our town centres. In the year ending September 2021, 41,500 offences of criminal damage to a building other than a dwelling were recorded by the police, yet the latest figures show that this has risen to almost 55,000, which is about 150 incidents every single day. How can this be allowed to continue?

The reality of the situation is that the Conservatives have failed to tackle the root causes of crime and violence. Over the last 13 years, the role of crime prevention work has been heavily downgraded by the Home Office, and leadership has been practically abandoned overnight. Rather than keeping people safe here in the UK, we have a Government who are more focused on wasting taxpayers’ money and chasing headlines for their failing asylum scheme. The Tories are simply out of touch.

Photo of Louie French Louie French Conservative, Old Bexley and Sidcup

On crime prevention, one of the best tools used in London is stop and search, which removes about 400 knives and weapons from London’s streets each month on average. Can the hon. Lady outline what the Labour party’s official position is on stop and search?

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

I welcome the intervention, and I know that stop and search has an appropriate place, particularly in targeting knife crime and offensive weapons. It can be an appropriate tool if used appropriately, with the police obviously having the appropriate training and support to do so. It cannot be a blanket policy to target everybody in our town centres; it has to be used appropriately, proportionately and effectively if it is to be used at all. It can be used as an appropriate tool and I recognise that it has a place, but there are other schemes and, as I have said, crime prevention has been overlooked far too much by this Government. There are many schemes to deal with that, and I will be outlining our plan.

I will welcome an intervention by the Minister if he wants to reach out to me, but I offer him an olive branch. I invite him to come and spend the day with me in Pontypridd, because I am confident that it will take him all of 10 minutes to understand the real issues that we are discussing.

Photo of Alex Davies-Jones Alex Davies-Jones Shadow Minister (Tech and Digital Economy)

Yes, happily.

In fact, my community, along with many others across the country, recently came together to commemorate White Ribbon Day, which is always a poignant moment to reflect on the huge battle we continue to face as we seek to end male violence against women and girls for good. One of the most shameful consequences of the last 13 years is the systemic failure to tackle violence against women and girls, which is having serious consequences. I rarely have to state the obvious, but sometimes clarity is overlooked in this place. I genuinely do not know whether men can truly understand the fear and the constant, often underlying concern that women feel when out on our streets and in our town centres. Our safety is not always at the forefront of our minds, but let it be known that it is always present in them. I know that women, across ages and across the political divide, know that feeling of asking a friend to take a longer and safer route home or to message when they are back. We have all become used to exhibiting such behaviour as second nature, but how on earth have we got to a point where women and girls cannot reliably feel safe when simply walking through our town centres?

Something commonly overlooked is the huge impact that the situation is having on older people, who may be equally vulnerable and the targets of crime. I have heard from a number of older residents—male and female—in my own area, who no longer feel safe visiting Pontypridd on market day. What used to be a bustling day for local businesses on the high street is now often a busy day for my local police force, who are having to do more and more with less and less. That is the simple reality of the situation: this Tory Government have sat by and made cuts to policing that are having a huge impact. Visible policing on our streets remains at record lows, and often police officers have to travel across county lines, which means the connections and knowledge of a local area are sadly lost.

I am lucky in south Wales to have the support of a fantastic, hardworking and award-winning set of police community support officers covering our town centre, including Constable Liam Noyce, Hannah Lowe, Christopher Jones, Lisa Banfield, and Shanie Ross. Sadly, I know that many other areas are not as fortunate. The Government’s lack of leadership means that they have failed to ensure that professional standards in policing are high enough. Recent events and appalling evidence of misconduct have also shown us the extent to which trust in policing can be shattered, and without that trust, policing by consent sadly becomes impossible.

Patterns of crime and vulnerability are changing, but neither the police nor the criminal justice system has kept up. Labour can, and will, do better. As a priority, a Labour Government will crack down on serious violent crime by preventing young people from getting drawn into crime and criminal gangs in the first place. We recognise that there are series issues with knife crime, which is destroying young lives, devastating families and undermining our communities.

To tackle that we need a serious programme of police reform and crime prevention. Government Departments must work together, and work with the Home Office, to intervene where young people are at risk and act quickly when knife crime incidents are recorded. At the moment police forces and local authorities are lacking in direction, but a Labour Government will take action at the root.

Whether that is by tackling websites that promote and sell machetes and dangerous knives, or taking action to stop vulnerable young people being drawn into crime and gangs by putting access to mental health support workers into every school, it is the Labour party that takes safety seriously.

It is utterly wrong that this Government have abandoned their basic duty to keep people safe on our streets and online. The numbers speak for themselves. Most of all, after 13 years of Tory Government, more than 90% of crimes are going unsolved. That means that criminals are less than half as likely to be caught now than when Labour was last in government. The Conservatives’ legacy on crime and justice is one of damaging decline and collapsing confidence, and victims and communities are paying the price. I echo the pleas of my hon. Friend Alex Norris, who asked the Minister to do better. If he cannot commit to getting the basics right on personal safety, people across the country will sadly continue to suffer. Only Labour has a solid plan for change, and never, ever, has the need been stronger.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department 4:22, 5 December 2023

I thank both shadow Ministers for the opportunity to debate this important topic, and it is a particular pleasure to follow Alex Davies-Jones. We worked together when we were both on the Culture, Media and Sport Front Benches. I am not sure whether she is following me or vice-versa, but it is a pleasure to continue to work with her.

I agree that the retail community, which serves this country so well, is the lifeblood of our town centres, and it breathes life into the heart of our communities. My very first job was working in a shop, in Sainsbury’s in south London, not far from my current constituency. I was stacking shelves among other things, so I have had direct experience of working on the frontline of retail, as I am sure other hon. Members have had as well.

Before I talk a little about shoplifting and antisocial behaviour—as a number of Members from across the House have said, more needs to be done there—I want to talk about the facts on crime and policing as a whole. We have heard many Opposition Members trying to paint a sort of dystopian, almost Dickensian picture as part of their pre-election campaigning—they have referred repeatedly to an election, and make no bones about it: this is a piece of electioneering. Their dystopian anecdotes do not bear scrutiny when measured against the facts. We owe it to this House and the public to be clear about the facts.

Let me start with the crime statistics. The Office for National Statistics says that the only reliable source of crime data is the crime survey of England and Wales. In the past year, all crime as measured by the crime survey has fallen by 10%. Since 2010, when this Government came into office, crime has fallen by 56% on a like-for-like basis, meaning that crime under the last Labour Government was around double the level it is today.

Looking at some of the more serious crime types individually, here are the falls we have seen since 2010: criminal damage is down by 73%, domestic burglary is down by 47%, theft from the person is down by 44%, vehicle theft is down by 39%, violence is down by 52% and total theft is down by 47%. Those are the facts, those are the figures and they are published by the independent Office for National Statistics. [Interruption.] The figures for the last year include fraud and are down by 10%.

Let me talk for a moment about police numbers. Some Opposition Members referred to the reduction in police numbers that occurred in the years following 2010, before I was even a Member of Parliament. Let us remember why there was financial pressure in those years. That was because, as Liam Byrne, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, helpfully said, there was no money left. The economic devastation left by the last Labour Government led to difficult choices. In the past three years, we have hired 21,000 more police officers.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I will give way in a moment. We now have 149,556 police officers employed in England and Wales. That is more than we have ever had at any time in this country’s history, including 2010. Labour has chosen to look today at neighbourhood policing, which is a subset of local policing. When we look at all local policing, which includes several different subcategories, the number has gone up from 61,000 to 67,000. That includes a number of categories, not just neighbourhood and response.

Photo of Jess Phillips Jess Phillips Labour, Birmingham, Yardley

I just wonder, as the Minister is doing such enthusiastic cheerleading for his Government, whether he could remind me who the biggest cheerleader was for the mini-Budget.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I am not sure what that has to do with the devastation that the last Labour Government wreaked on the economy, with the biggest recession for a generation and unemployment at twice the level it is today. I am surprised that the hon. Member wants to talk about the last Labour Government’s appalling economic record.

Let me return to crime and policing, or you will tick me off for being out of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. I acknowledged a moment ago that there are some areas where we need to do better, and shoplifting and antisocial behaviour are two of those, as Members on both sides of the House have said.

Let me start with shoplifting. Across the western world, including in the US, Germany and France, in the past year or two we have seen a considerable increase in shoplifting, and the same has happened in the United Kingdom. While the 29% increase in prosecutions for shoplifting in the past year is welcome, we clearly need to do more. That is why the Government set out a retail crime action plan to do more in this area, as my hon. Friend Tom Randall said in his excellent speech. That was published just a few weeks ago. It includes a commitment by the police to attend shoplifting incidents where that is necessary to secure evidence, where there has been an assault, or where a suspect has been detained, for example, by store security staff.

It is not acceptable, frankly, that the Co-op has discovered that in about three quarters of cases where its staff have detained an offender, the police did not attend. I have said directly to the police that that is not acceptable, and they have responded with the commitment they have made in the recent action plan. I expect better, and the police have committed to delivering better.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

I promised to give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling, but I will then give way to the hon. Member.

Photo of Tom Randall Tom Randall Conservative, Gedling

I am old enough to remember the last Labour Government. They went into the 2010 election promising a £1 billion cut to the Home Office budget, which I am sure would have had an effect on police numbers. Whether it was the coalition Government cleaning up Labour’s mess or the Labour Government cleaning up their own mess, someone would have had to make the difficult financial decisions in 2010 that my right hon. Friend the Minister outlined.

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

My hon. Friend has a much better memory than some Opposition Members.

Photo of Jim McMahon Jim McMahon Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

If we accept that there was nothing the Government could do about the near quarter of a million cases—the Minister has used the Co-operative Group’s figure himself—where a police officer did not turn up when somebody had been apprehended, is he now saying that, from today, a police officer will turn up to every single call from a Co-op store?

Photo of Chris Philp Chris Philp The Minister of State, Home Department

Chief Constable Amanda Blakeman, who is the National Police Chiefs’ Council lead on this issue, has committed in the retail crime action plan, which I urge the hon. Member to read, that where an offender has been detained, the police will prioritise attendance. I expect all of us in Parliament, and police and crime commissioners, to hold the police to account in delivering that commitment. The police have also committed to identify and target prolific offenders, and to always follow reasonable lines of inquiry in relation to all crimes, not just shoplifting. That includes, for example, always retrieving CCTV or mobile phone footage and running it through the police national database to seek a facial recognition match to identify offenders.

The technology has improved enormously, even in the last six to 12 months. The artificial intelligence that drives it means that images that appear to be blurred or partially obscured, which a year or two ago could not be matched, now can be matched. Always running images from Ring doorbells, mobile phone pictures, dashcam footage and CCTV footage through the police national database will lead to very many more offenders—shoplifters, but also others—being caught. I have asked all 43 police forces across England and Wales to double the use of retrospective facial recognition in the coming year, to make sure that more offenders are caught.

Time is pressing, so let me move on to antisocial behaviour, which a number of Members on both sides of the House rightly identified as a challenge in town centres. My hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Jonathan Gullis) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) both made, in their very different ways, powerful speeches on this topic, as did my hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich (Tom Hunt) and for Broadland (Jerome Mayhew) and others on both sides. Antisocial behaviour is a scourge. It leaves people feeling uneasy when they visit their town centres, and I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Ipswich that we need a zero-tolerance approach.

In the last five or six months, we have trialled antisocial behaviour hotspot patrols in a number of police force areas, and they have been extremely successful. In the areas where they have been run—they have been fully funded with extra money, by the way—they have reduced antisocial behaviour by something like 20% to 30%. Staffordshire is one of the counties that has been trialling the patrols, along with Lancashire and Essex. Because the approach has been so successful, we will roll it out across the whole country from April next year. It will be fully funded and that will pay for something like 30,000 hours a year of hotspot patrolling in each police force area, to address the issue of people feeling unsafe or uneasy in town centres. My hon. Friends the Members for Ipswich, for Stoke-on-Trent North and for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned that in their excellent speeches. It is coming soon; in fact, it is coming as soon as April.

I have set out the actions being taken on retail crime and on ASB, and I have set out the fact that crime is falling and that we have record police numbers, so let me come to the electioneering we heard from the Opposition. The hon. Members for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and for Newcastle upon Tyne North (Catherine McKinnell) called for an election in what was an extraordinary display of overconfidence, so let us have a look at what Labour delivers in government.

The last Labour Government delivered fewer police officers than we now have. They delivered double the levels of crime that we now have. In London, where there is a Labour police and crime commissioner, Sadiq Khan failed to recruit 1,089 officers, despite being given money by the Government, as my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken pointed out. He could have recruited them—the money was there—but he failed to do so. Knife crime under Sadiq Khan has gone up, and he was told off by the Office for National Statistics for misleading the public—let us be generous and say that it was unintentional—by claiming that knife crime had fallen on his watch. In the west midlands, where there is a Labour police and crime commissioner, they are looking at closing police stations.

Finally, let us look at the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022. Just a year ago, the Labour party voted against that Bill. Labour Members voted against increasing the sentences for people assaulting emergency workers. They voted against making assaulting a shop worker a statutory aggravating factor. They voted against measures to clamp down on disruptive protests. They voted against making whole-life orders for premeditated child murder mandatory. In fact, in the Bill Committee Labour even voted against keeping rapists in prison for longer, having introduced release at the halfway point in 2003.

We have seen Labour’s record in government and its record in London and the west midlands, and we have seen Labour Members voting against strong legislative measures. The Government have delivered record police numbers and falling crime. We have got a plan on antisocial behaviour and on shoplifting. I commend that to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
condemns the Government’s failure to tackle town centre crime;
is concerned that shoplifting has reached record levels, with a 25% rise over the past year and 1,000 offences per day, while the detection rate for shoplifters has fallen;
believes that immediate action must be taken to stop the increasing number of unacceptable incidents of violence and abuse faced by shop workers;
notes that the number of neighbourhood police officers and police community support officers has been reduced by 10,000 since 2015; and calls on the Government to back Labour’s community policing guarantee, which includes scrapping the £200 limit on crown court prosecutions for shoplifting in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, creating a new specific offence of violence against shop workers, rolling out town centre policing plans and putting 13,000 extra police and community support officers back in town centres to crack down on antisocial behaviour.