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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:23 pm on 19th February 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Bill Esterson Bill Esterson Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Shadow Minister (International Trade) 3:23 pm, 19th February 2019

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Edward. I completely endorse everything my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Stephen Twigg on securing this debate.

Sam Cook, my constituent, was murdered in Liverpool city centre just over a year ago on the night of his 21st birthday celebration. He was in a bar, somebody shoved his girlfriend, he stepped in to intervene and was stabbed. He died, despite desperate attempts to save his life. Sam’s dad, Alan, spoke to me recently about his son. He said that he received that knock on the door that no one ever wants to receive. I left a message for him before the debate and said that I would be thinking of him throughout it. He wants to pay tribute to his son in the best way he feels able to—by succeeding in his campaign to reduce the number of knives on our streets. Let me set out what he said about Sam:

“He would come in and make everyone laugh. He was a joker and he always had a smile on his face. He was a decent kid too. All his friends went to Sam if ever there was an issue. He was sensible in the head.”

That was the glowing tribute paid to this young man by his dad, but however decent he was, he was still a victim of appalling knife crime.

We have heard already from my right hon. and hon. Friends the figures for the increase in violent crime that we face across Merseyside. I have the figures for knife crime over the past year. There was a total of 914 crimes involving knives on Merseyside between April 2018 and January 2019. That is an increase of 217 such crimes—an increase of 31%—compared with in the same period in the previous year. There have been two fatal stabbings, within the figures, in the past two years. One of the victims was Sam Cook, whom I have mentioned.

What Alan Cook is calling for is no more knives. What he is calling for is the action that the Government could take to increase the opportunity, through legislation, to reduce the number of knives on our streets and to reduce the potential for what has happened to his family happening to anybody else. That is uppermost in the mind of Alan and his family. He says:

“I don’t want any other family to go through what we have had to go through”,

because it is the worst thing in the world. I am sure that we would all agree wholeheartedly with that.

The problem is that the increase in knife crime has corresponded with a reduction in the number of officers on our streets. As my right hon. and hon. Friends have reminded us, central Government funding has seen a real-terms reduction of 32%, and there has been an overall reduction of 21% in real terms, after account has been taken of precept increases. Since the 2010-11 financial year, the precept element of funding for Merseyside police has risen significantly, going up from 15% of the force’s funding to 23% by next year. This is all because of the low council tax base that we have across most of the boroughs of Merseyside.

The force has made more than £110 million of savings. My hon. Friend Ms Eagle made the point that it feels as though it is being penalised for doing so. Over the period to which I have referred, the consequence of the cuts in funding has been a reduction in the workforce overall of 1,614. That is a fall of 22%, which is higher than the national figure of 18%. There has been a fall in the number of police officers of 1,120—a reduction of 24.4%, which is way above the 15% national average. That has been accompanied by a 46% fall in the number of PCSOs. That figure is also above the national average, which was 40% in that period. There are 215 fewer PCSOs.

Police staff numbers are also down. Not just the frontline but the very important support staff are affected; no one should ever be in any doubt about the importance of support staff and the work that they do. I spent a very interesting morning at the force control centre not long ago. I watched just how hard the staff in that centre, both uniformed and non-uniformed, work in trying to keep Merseyside safe.

We have had the biggest cuts. We have the lowest tax base. We have the biggest cuts in grant and the smallest potential to raise funds from council tax, as we have heard from my colleagues. But we still face one of the lowest increases in central Government funding, despite having the greatest need for resources because of the scale of the problems that we face. All this is not in isolation, because it goes alongside cuts elsewhere in the public sector. The cuts to the youth service have been especially severe—hundreds of millions of pounds across the country—and probation service funding is down 30% in the past three years.

I mention probation because the man who has now been convicted of murdering Sam Cook was on licence, having been convicted previously of being in possession of an offensive weapon. He was wandering round the streets of Blackpool waving a machete. He was given 16 months but was released after serving half that period and was then able to go and murder Sam Cook. The problem is that the public sector does not have the resources to prevent reoffending and to keep tabs on individuals such as the one who carried out that appalling crime.

We have a problem not only in direct services, but in council services more generally. The police service has to backfill for the National Health Service, especially in supporting people suffering from poor mental health, and there are other examples where officers carry out duties that are not part of mainstream policing. All these things add up to huge pressure on police time and contribute to making it much harder for the police to respond. In the case of Sam Cook, the issue was about prevention and making sure that they played their part in ensuring that he was kept safe. The increase in the number of knife crimes are all linked to the wider picture.

Like my hon. and right hon. Friends, I want to pay tribute to Merseyside police, whose officers do a very good job. Andy Cooke and Jane Kennedy work extremely hard at keeping our communities as safe as possible. We heard reference to Operation Castle, which has had a significant impact in reducing the level of burglary and recognises the damage that it does both physically and psychologically to its victims. We have also been told that unless additional resources are forthcoming, such an approach will become increasingly difficult to sustain, just as it will become harder to reverse the increase in violent crime that we have heard about in the examples given by me and my right hon. and hon. Friends.

I looked at the Hansard from 4 February and the Minister’s response to the urgent question from my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker on the proposed introduction of knife crime prevention orders. I said earlier that Alan Cook wants tougher laws introduced to help reduce knife crime, and I suppose knife crime prevention orders might be part of the answer. The Minister might remind us, as she did on 4 February, that the police want such orders introduced. I do not doubt that for one moment. However, if we see a continued decline in the number of police officers who can respond, and a reduction in the numbers of officers and their partners across the public sector because of continued pressure on public sector finances, who will carry out the knife crime prevention orders? Who will implement the new policy? Who will be there to police our streets and prevent knife crime and other violent crime from continuing to escalate?

I notice from the urgent question and the responses from the Minister that what is happening in Merseyside is repeated again and again right across the country. The same pattern is evident: a clear increase in the number of knives on our streets and in the number of attacks, as well as a fall in the amount of resources available. I want to be able to go away today and say to Alan Cook and his family and to Sam’s friends that the Minister agreed that Alan’s campaign for no more knives was the right campaign to support. Not only that, I want to say that she also said she would look seriously at giving an increase to Merseyside and other parts of the country where these things are a problem and where the resources that are needed are not there. We have those additional pressures, and my right hon. and hon. Friends have shown that the increase does not leave us at anything more than a standstill. I want the Minister to look very seriously at how our police are funded so that we can keep our communities safe and prevent any more Sam Cooks from happening.