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Merseyside Police Funding — [Sir Edward Leigh in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Stephen Twigg Stephen Twigg Chair, International Development Committee 2:30 pm, 19th February 2019

There is no doubt that the nature of policing is changing and that technological innovation is providing opportunities, but I think that bobbies on the beat are still a fundamental part of what our constituents expect of policing. I will come on to that in a moment when I talk about the impact that almost a decade of austerity has had on neighbourhood policing across Merseyside, including in my constituency.

The increase in the precept enabled the chief constable to avoid a planned further cut of 100 police posts and provided the opportunity for an increase of 40 police officers across the whole of Merseyside. That is a modest increase, but welcome, and it is the first time that officer numbers have increased in nine years. In a sense, this relates to the point made by Gillian Keegan. If we contrast the position in a place such as Liverpool with that in her constituency, the Merseyside police force is heavily reliant on central Government for funding—77% comes from central Government. As that funding has been reduced, the only way in which the impact can be ameliorated is for local people to step in through the council tax. As a result, Merseyside police is more dependent on hard-working local taxpayers, whose contribution to its funding has risen from 15% in 2010-11 to 23% in the coming year. Even with that increase in council tax, the force’s overall funding has reduced, as I said.

Let me contrast that with Surrey, one of four police forces that raises more funds locally than it gets from central Government, simply because it has a much more affluent council tax base. Surrey raises 57% of its funds through council tax, compared with 23% on Merseyside. As a result, although its budget has fallen, it has fallen by a lot less than Merseyside’s. The same story could be told about other areas with high levels of social and economic deprivation. Surely, that is inherently unfair. Does the Minister recognise the unfairness of passing the burden on to the local taxpayer where the ability to raise more locally is demonstrably regressive, meaning that the system itself compounds existing inequalities?

Merseyside has consistently been recognised as one of the best performing metropolitan police forces in the country, but the combination of cuts and rising crime inevitably has serious implications. That brings me to the latest crime statistics. Office for National Statistics stats show that crime across Merseyside increased by 12% in the year to last September. That does not paint the full picture. Robbery was up 18%, violent crime was up 16% and knife crime was at its highest level in 10 years, with more than 900 serious incidents reported last year. My right hon. Friend Frank Field talked about the threat of shootings and firearms offences. I pay tribute to our police force for the priority it has given such offences in recent years, which meant firearms offences on Merseyside fell from 258 in 2012 to 199 in 2016. Very sadly, that trend has reversed: in 2017, the last full year for which we have figures, firearms offences increased sharply to 353.

People in Merseyside are bearing the brunt of police funding cuts, of which the most visible example for many is the loss of neighbourhood policing. Neighbourhood police are the eyes and ears in our communities. Although crime trends have changed, the importance of a visible policing presence on our streets surely has not, so one of the many areas of concern is that we have lost 46%—almost half—of our police community support officers since 2010. Neighbourhood policing is at the heart of tackling the scourge of antisocial behaviour, the low-level crime that so often makes people’s lives a misery. The loss of PCSOs, combined with the rise in more serious violent crime, has had the inevitable effect that, despite the best efforts of officers on the ground, they so often do not have the resources to respond to that blight on our communities.

One example of that is the impact of so-called scrambler bikes. I am delighted that my hon. Friend Louise Haigh is on the Front Bench, because she has led on that issue in the House. Those nuisance bikes are noisy, intimidating and frightening. They affect the quality of life of our constituents and pose a real threat to safety on roads, on footpaths and in parks. They endanger the safety of both pedestrians and other road users, and increasingly are used to carry out serious crime. I have worked with our commissioner and the local force to try to tackle the issue. Merseyside police is doing good things to identify and prosecute people for the illegal use of off-road bikes, but it tells me it needs the resources and powers to do more to tackle that appalling scourge.

I welcome the Home Office’s proposals to help tackle motorcycle-related crime by providing police officers with better legal protection when they pursue suspects. Those long-overdue proposals went out to consultation last May, but as I understand it, we have not yet had a Government response to that consultation. I hope the Minister can provide an update on the Government’s plans to tackle the scourge of scrambler bikes and motorcycle-related crime.

Another area of great concern in my constituency and across Merseyside is road safety, and the impact on road safety of the loss of funding. Across the country, the number of dedicated traffic police officers has fallen by nearly a third in the past decade. In that time, the decline in the number of deaths on our roads has stagnated; indeed, the number of deaths on our roads last year was at its highest since 2011.

In Merseyside, there has been a concerted effort to keep those numbers down, with the ultimate aim of nobody losing their life on our roads. More than 500 people were killed or seriously injured there in 2017, which was a significant drop from 599 the previous year. I pay tribute to Jane Kennedy for the personal lead she has provided in seeking seriously to reduce those numbers. Every single death or injury is one too many, and I fear that spending cuts could compromise the vision of zero deaths and serious injuries on our roads.

I briefly pay tribute to the fantastic work of the Bobby Colleran Trust, which campaigns for road safety around schools. It was set up by the family and friends of Bobby Colleran, a little boy who died on his way home from Blackmoor Park Infant School in West Derby in my constituency. They have dedicated themselves to working with schools, the local authority and others to limit the number of injuries and deaths, and to make our roads—especially those near schools—safer.

Rising crime and police cuts affect our communities, but they also directly affect those who work in the police service. Last week, a national Police Federation survey of 18,000 officers of all ranks found that nearly 90% of officers say that the police are understaffed. Responses from Merseyside reveal that 84% of officers say that not enough officers are available for the job to be done properly; that 72% are often or always single-crewed; and that 76% experienced stress and anxiety in the previous year. The survey paints an all-too-familiar picture to those of us who talk to police officers working in our constituencies. They are over-burdened, stressed out and often exhausted. They work under immense pressure with fewer resources at a time of rising crime.

Tragically, we have seen in Merseyside several shocking incidents of officers being targeted while carrying out their duties, including the tragic example of PC Dave Phillips, who was killed in a hit and run in Wallasey, in the constituency of my hon. Friend Ms Eagle. Other incidents include a petrol bombing at a scene in Anfield and an officer being stabbed in Huyton, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth.

There remains a lot of uncertainty over future funding levels for Merseyside police. I am told that the force’s own forecast is that, over the medium term, it may need to make further savings of around £22 million to balance the books. I hope that the Minister can give us some assurance that the Government recognise the scale of the challenge facing Merseyside police, and that there is the potential for new money to bridge this funding gap and provide the force with the resources it so desperately needs to tackle rising levels of crime.

It surely cannot be right that the largest cuts in police funding hit the communities with the greatest social and economic need. I urge the Home Office to engage with Merseyside police to address this serious funding crisis as a matter of urgency.