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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:49 pm on 19th February 2019.

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Photo of Maria Eagle Maria Eagle Labour, Garston and Halewood 2:49 pm, 19th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward, and to follow my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg, whom I congratulate on securing this timely debate. I agree with much of what he had to say, particularly on the consequences of year-on-year real-terms cuts. There is no doubt that the Lib Dem-Tory coalition Government from 2010 and the Tory Governments that succeeded them from 2015 slashed the capacity of Merseyside police to do the job that it does so well and that we all need it to do. My hon. Friend is correct that there has been, in effect, a 32% reduction in central Government funding in that time.

Even if we take into account the extra income raised by the allowed increase in the precept—he set out some of the issues relating to that, which I will come back to—there has still been a 21% reduction in real terms. My hon. Friend made it clear that it is not easy to raise the precept, partly because there is a low council tax base across Merseyside, and partly because the people who have to pay it face other cost pressures—they not only have to pay other precepts, but they are already hard-pressed to pay their ordinary bills. We therefore cannot simply keep saying that the precept can be raised.

It is a particularly deplorable trait—I do not blame the Minister personally for this—that the Government have tried to claim in the figures they put out that the increase in the precept is an increase in the money from them. The Department and Ministers—perhaps the Minister could address this—should stop including the money raised from the precept, if it is all collected, in the grant money, which gives the idea that the Government have handed over the money, when they have not. The difference it makes to Merseyside this year is between £8 million—the additional money that the Government have given—and £18 million. The Government cannot claim that they have given Merseyside police an increase of £18 million, as they repeatedly do.

There has been a switch from central Government funding to a reliance on hard-pressed council tax payers to pay for basic policing needs and to try to ameliorate the declining ability of the police. The force is down a quarter of its officers—1,120 police officers have gone on Merseyside. Although the increase of 40 that the police and crime commissioner is hoping to introduce this year is incredibly welcome, that does not make much of an impression, given that 1,120 officers and half of our PCSOs have gone.

Neighbourhood policing is particularly hard hit when hard choices have to be made about what the police can afford to do, because something has to give. That stores up problems for the future in a way that cannot be calculated at this stage. PCSOs and neighbourhood policing are the eyes and ears of the police. Neighbourhood policing prevents future crime and diverts young people and those who are going off the rails from the path they are choosing. It can lead to less crime in the future. To get rid of neighbourhood policing and make it impossible is a false economy. It is stupid in policy terms. It is damaging to the police’s future capacity to do their job.

Investigations have also been hard hit. If the police cannot investigate crime, crime does not get solved. People get away with crime, and lives of crime can continue with some reward. That is not a good way of dealing with possible future difficulties.

There has been an overall increase in all crimes on Merseyside of 29% in the past five years, and 12% in the past year. We are seeing an accelerating increase in crime on Merseyside. After 10 years of year-on-year, real-terms cuts in resource, that is not surprising. It is accelerating and will accelerate more if the Government do not realise that they cannot have policing in an area like Merseyside on the cheap. They must resource policing better, otherwise this will get worse.

That is without taking into consideration the new types of crime that we are beginning to see: there is masses of cyber-crime and online fraud, and people in our society have other vulnerabilities and need to be protected. New crime is coming along to challenge traditional policing, but old types of crimes are also coming back and increasing on Merseyside. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred to knife crime, as did Frank Field, and it has increased by 31% in the past year—a huge increase that includes fatal stabbings.

A number of us, including my right hon. Friend Mr Howarth and other Merseyside colleagues, have met Ministers from this Government and the previous one for three or four years. We have raised issues of gun crime and gangs, but we have received not one iota of help or one extra penny to deal with those issues. It is about time the Government ensured that Merseyside police, which is excellent at dealing with criminal gangs, gets the resources to turn back the tide which, at present, is rising.

Last week, the Liverpool Echo reported that there have been nine incidents of firearm discharge on Merseyside streets so far this year. The year is not very old. Those incidents include one fatal shooting. Another chap was shot while holding his child in his arms, and it would not have taken much for that incident to have been even worse than it ended up being. There has been a 29% increase in demand for police services on Merseyside in the past five years, but at the same time the overall police establishment has reduced by 22% and we have had year-on-year cuts. It is not rocket science, and it does not take a genius to see that that situation will lead to more, and worse, problems in future.

Merseyside police is consistently recognised by Her Majesty’s inspectorate of constabulary and fire and rescue services as one of the best performing metropolitan forces, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for it to do the job. Is it any wonder that those Merseyside police who took part in the Police Federation capacity and welfare survey, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby referred, reported a job satisfaction rating of four out of 10? Some 84% of police said that there were not enough officers to do the job properly, 67% said that their workload was “too high” or “much too high”, and 72% stated that they were often or always single-crewed. More than three quarters of those surveyed indicated that stress, low mood, anxiety or other health and wellbeing difficulties were assailing them and had done so in the previous year.

The Government claim that they have increased funds to Merseyside police—that is what we heard in the debate on the police grant report on the Floor of the House last week. Merseyside police has received a 5.8% cash increase for 2019-20, which is the joint lowest in the country together with Cleveland police. Therefore, the £8 million extra—that is £8 million, not £18 million—simply funds the police pension gap that has opened up because of the change in Government policy. What the Government are giving with one hand has already been taken away with the other before it is given. That £8 million will not lead to one extra police officer on our streets, and no Government money has been given to the police on Merseyside to help with policing on the streets next year. There has been no new money to provide policing services on Merseyside since 2010-11, only cuts. That is the reality, and it is simply not good enough.

Despite the horrendous and ongoing challenges, I commend Merseyside police and our police and crime commissioner, Jane Kennedy, for making good things happen when they can. They are using the extra precept money—the £10 million they hope to raise—to balance the budget and recruit an extra 40 police officers. That will make a dent in the 1,120 who have gone, but not much of one.

Through the careful use of inadequate resources, they can still do some good. Last year, a concerted focus on reducing burglary in dwelling houses, known as Operation Castle, resulted in a 22% fall, which equates to 1,616 fewer crimes of that distressing kind. In the last year, perpetrators of burglaries on dwelling houses have been sentenced to 130 years for those offences, which has taken dangerous and often repeat offenders off our streets. There is always more to be done, but that is a real achievement.

I commend the police and crime commissioner and the chief constable for recognising that police stations in communities that need them are a valuable resource. In that respect, they have recognised the campaigning efforts of Labour councillors and campaigners in Halewood and have undertaken to refurbish Halewood police station and open an new community police station in that building later this year. I welcome the extensive refurbishment of an asset once earmarked for closure. I commend the efforts of local Labour councillors on Halewood Town Council and Knowsley Council for their excellent and focused campaign, which has resulted in that good news.

In closing, however, if the Minister cannot offer Merseyside police far more resources, the crime issues that are building and worsening on Merseyside will only worsen further.