Before we begin, I encourage Members to wear masks when they are not speaking, in line with current Government guidance and that of the House of Commons Commission. I remind Members that they are asked by the House to have a covid lateral flow test twice a week if they are coming on to the parliamentary Estate. That can be done either at the testing centre in the House or at home. Please give each other and members of staff space when seated and when entering and leaving the Room.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered reopening local police stations.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, which I have not done before, Ms Fovargue, and to be here and see human beings around us. I have spent the last year and a half wondering what people are wearing below the television picture, rather than focusing on the screen. Human interaction is back, which is a good thing. It is also a great pleasure to see in his place my right hon. Friend and colleague the Minister for Crime and Policing, who has been immensely helpful to me and to all of us in Dorset on all policing matters, for which I am extremely grateful.
I am here to discuss something that I have wanted to get off my chest: my long-standing feeling that police station closures are the wrong direction of travel. I am an old-fashioned sort. I am not a luddite—where change is necessary, change is necessary—but I do not like the idea of changing the wheel when it does not need changing. I hope that my speech will demonstrate that, on this topic, the wheel has been unnecessarily turned too far. This has been on my mind for a long time, and I am delighted and grateful to be able to share my thoughts with colleagues.
As a soldier, during three tours in Northern Ireland between 1978 and 1987, I saw the overwhelming benefits of what we call human intelligence. In Belfast, Armagh and Strabane, the information was provided mainly by the simple yet devastatingly effective method of patrolling our streets, in rain and sun, day and night, and reassuring, observing, listening and talking to those we met. The mass of information that we gleaned was carefully built up piece by piece, helping to thwart the terrorists and to reassure the public. Although we were soldiers, I am confident that any police officer today would recognise that the role we played was, for the most part, similar to theirs.
For almost 200 years, bobbies on the beat, from Peelers to “Dixon of Dock Green”— my favourite programme at the time—have been a presence on our streets, policing by consent and living and working among us. They lived locally, often in police houses or stations, so they soon gained specialist knowledge of their area and of the bad eggs in it. Like our patrols in Northern Ireland, that intimate knowledge of their patch deterred criminals and reassured and protected the community.
I am tempted to say that those were the good old days—hence the “old-fashioned sort” remark. That pattern of policing ensured the public’s respect, which enabled officers to do their work effectively. Anyone my age remembers the days when a local bobby was in a position to identify a troublemaker in their early years, often staving off more serious offences later. Out on the beat, their physical presence deterred the criminals. The police station itself was a focal point for the community—a base from which patrols went out and to which concerned citizens went. Let us not forget that citizens are frequently required to report to the local police station for one reason or another, and that job has been made far harder by all the closures.
Regrettably, that past—some would say luddite—scenario no longer prevails. At least half of all police stations in England have closed over the past 10 years. Strangely, the numbers are not precise, but a number of freedom of information requests submitted to individual police forces by news organisations paint a worrying picture. The Times estimated in 2018 that 600 police stations had closed since 2010. A Daily Mail report in February 2021 estimated that the number lost was 667. I do not normally quote Opposition spokespeople, but I will today: the shadow Policing Minister, Louise Haigh, said in a debate on rural crime in 2019 that 400 stations in England had closed, with the number of police counters open to the public falling from 900 in 2010 to 500 in 2019. The Commons Library estimates that there has been a total loss of between 600 and 700 police stations over the last 10 years.
I will be grateful if my right hon. Friend provides an answer to this specific question today. As I understand it, none of the numbers is centrally held by the Home Office. Perhaps that is because individual police forces are responsible for the number and location of police stations in their area, and police chiefs have operational independence in making such decisions. Does my right hon. Friend think the Home Office ought to have better understanding or knowledge of what is going on in the 43 police areas? Any FOI requests are addressed to police forces and responses are mixed or partial, particularly where there is an element of commercial sensitivity, which means that buildings have been sold off, often controversially, for development. While the Home Office can and does publicly regret the closure of various stations, Ministers have no power to retain or reopen them; nor do they publish impact assessments relating to police office closures. Does this situation need closer scrutiny?
My hon. Friend Marco Longhi highlighted station closures in the west midlands in 2020, saying that his local police force was spending more than £30 million on refurbishing plush offices at its headquarters at Lloyd House in Birmingham. He added that police stations at Dudley and Sedgley had closed, despite the former being a major metropolitan town. In the last few years, others, including my hon. Friends the Members for Kensington (Felicity Buchan), for Solihull (Julian Knight), for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), and for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford), Members representing Merseyside, and the hon. Members for Leyton and Wanstead (John Cryer) and for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher), have repeatedly asked questions in the House about crime and reopening police stations in their constituencies.
Regrettably and inexorably, closures have rolled on, with some areas worse affected than others. For example, an FOI request in 2018 showed that 24 police stations in South Yorkshire closed between 2010 and 2018, and a similar request to the Metropolitan police this year revealed that 71 police stations in London have closed since 2010.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful case. It is often argued that modern policing does not require police stations, but so often it does. A police station that could stay open, instead of becoming just another Metropolitan police number, is the one in Wimbledon. Does he think the Mayor ought to be listening to his campaign and backing the campaign by myself and others to keep Wimbledon police station open?
I think the Mayor of London should be backing any campaign that my hon. Friend pushes forward, and I am sure that our right hon. Friend the Minister is listening very closely to him. Yes, of course, that closure should be reconsidered. Wimbledon is a very large area I can see major disadvantages from being without a police station, particularly for people who have been used to having a police station there for all the years that it has been there. So, yes, my hon. Friend is absolutely right and I totally support his request.
To continue focusing on the Metropolitan police, Members may recall that I said that 71 police stations in London had closed since 2010. Concern in the capital is such that Shaun Bailey, the Conservative mayoral candidate, pledged to reopen 38 police stations in London if he was elected. Regrettably, as we know, he was not.
Since the last lockdown, private security companies are reporting a 50% increase in neighbourhood watch groups and residence associations willing to pay for properly equipped patrols in areas such as Richmond Green, Chelsea, Cobham, Woodford Green, Mayfair and Knightsbridge. Uniformed patrols cover areas of up to three square miles or less at a cost of approximately £20 an hour. Unsurprisingly, they are proving extremely effective. Their success reminds me of the crime fighting revolution in New York in the 1990s. Broken windows, graffiti and disorder were seen as indicators of serious crime to come, but this was prevented by the simple expedient of more visible officers and zero tolerance.
On graffiti, I do not know whether other Members have noticed this, but I come into London off the A316, and before I get to the big Earl’s Court junction with the Tesco on the left, all the bridges and a huge advertising hoarding—normally showing films—are smothered in graffiti. Why has that not been removed? Why has no one gone out there and cleaned that up? If the people who did it come back and do it again, they should be arrested and charged. This is a little thing, but little things lead to big things. The first thing that any visitor coming in from Heathrow sees is graffiti all over the main road into the heart of London. Great! Come to graffiti-ridden Great Britain. Our railway lines and bridges are the same—everywhere you go, there is graffiti. What on earth are we doing to stop this? I am just gobsmacked.
The lessons learnt in New York are clear, I believe: regular visible foot patrols deter would-be offenders, or at least encourage them to go elsewhere. Whilst I would not want to push crime into another area, the solution for other areas is to do exactly the same as the first area has done to reduce crime. Critics argue that private security companies in London are a slippery slope towards privatising safety on our streets. Not surprisingly, most residents and business owners disagree entirely and instead welcome the decline in the crime and antisocial behaviour that sadly grew during the pandemic. Tellingly, one of the most successful of these organisations is called—wait for it— My Local Bobby. I think that speaks for itself.
Without doubt, all the closures are due more to straitened finances than to good operational decision making. To be fair to the Government, I am not here to attack my good friend the Policing Minister. We had to make tough decisions following the recession, and sadly the police took the brunt of the cuts. My aim today is to emphasise how important it is that we reopen police stations and get policemen and women back on the streets as fast as we can. Too many of my constituents and too many of the people I speak to do not see police officers unless they whizz past in a car. That is no good—that is hopeless. It is a necessary back-up, of course, but you cannot talk to somebody doing 30, 40, 50 or 60mph.
The Public Accounts Committee agree that it is a financial thing, saying in 2018 that forces were
“selling off more of their assets to try and raise some funds for capital investment and increasingly drawing on their reserves.”
Decreasing use of police counters, or footfall, was another factor. Statistics were not on the side of retention either: for example, the Mayor’s Office found evidence that between 2006 and 2016, in-person crime reporting fell from 22% to 8%. My personal comment to that, and I have a lot of anecdotal evidence, is that people are losing faith in reporting crimes to the police for fear that nothing will be done; it will just be a number. These statistics were used to justify the introduction of digital crime reporting services. They certainly have their place—of course they do; I am not a luddite to that extreme—but officers cannot patrol digitally, at least not to my knowledge. That is the advantage of having a building to patrol from. I also fear that many people have given up on reporting crime, and I have a lot of anecdotal evidence on that. Many constituents say, “We just don’t bother, Richard. Nothing is going to happen.” That is not a personal attack on the police. They are pushed, and I have nothing but praise for the Dorset police.
Other consultations show that people prefer to report non-urgent crime online. In my view, that sits uncomfortably with further anecdotal evidence that victims of property crime in particular can wait for days to see an officer post-burglary, and feel that their concerns are dismissed. I recall the impact of one burglary. Many years ago, when I worked for the BBC, I went to report on an elderly lady who had had all of her husband’s valuables stolen. He was a solider in the second world war and she had trinkets, medals—all the things we hold dear. They were stolen, and she died a week later. I have been burgled. My daughter has been burgled. A friend of mine was attacked in his home. I know the impact of burglary; I know what it is like. We need to have the resources to prevent it from happening, because the impact on everyone, from any background, is appalling. If your personal space, your home, is invaded, it scars you; it can even kill you. I am also not convinced that consultations are the right answer. I have been an MP for 11 years, and I have heard the word “consultation” more times than I care to remember. My humble opinion on consultations, I am afraid, is that they are usually a case of, “The decision has been made. We’d better do this just to keep people happy.”
Lord Justice Lindblom, for example, overturned the decision to close Wimbledon police station in July 2018 after the victim of a violent burglary argued that the police would not have reached him in time had the station been closed. How interesting that my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond mentioned that very police station; clearly, the battle continues.
There are also practicalities that may have been overlooked in the decisions to close police stations. Not all are physical or quantifiable, but they matter none the less, and all play a part in making a community feel safe. John Apter, national chair of the Police Federation of England and Wales, who represents 100,000 rank-and-file police officers, made exactly this point in 2018, telling The Times:
“Police stations in town centres provide a visible reassurance. One has to question the decision to withdraw visible policing from the streets.”
In 2018, Chief Constable Dave Thompson wrote in the National Police Chief Council blog:
“Budget cuts and a hands-off government approach to aspects of policing have meant hard choices for chief constables with consequences for the public and our people. The public’s experience is policing that is less visible, less responsive and less proactive.”
Closed custody suites have not helped either, making questioning and charging more difficult for both suspects and officers. Although digital information, CCTV and drones provide useful data, they can never tell the whole story, as I hope my Northern Ireland analogy explained. Frankly, one can combat CCTV and drones by simply putting on a balaclava, which, sadly, far too many people do.
I have always wondered—I ask my right hon. Friend and colleague the Minister to comment on this—why we do not make it illegal for people attending rallies to intentionally hide their faces. I know that there is a thin line, and it may be due to cold weather, but it is very difficult for a police officer to judge if a person is hiding their face or if it is just cold. However, I think we all know that if we see a person clad in a black mask with eyeholes, it is not because it is a cold day. They do it for two reasons: to frighten and intimidate, and to hide their identity.
None the less, as I understand it, future operational planning and the Government’s beating crime plan will offer an arm’s length, national online platform at Police.uk, where citizens can access
“a range of interactive police services in one coordinated place”.
Of course, that will not reach the elderly, the vulnerable and those without access to digital technology. I am not knocking this. I am sure it has a place, as all these things do. I am just emphasising again and again the significance of the police station manned day and night by officers who patrol on foot, backed up by those in cars, to deter crime and protect us.
Data from my constituency in Dorset shows that we lost 10 inquiry offices between 2011 and 2015. Those closures were attributed to financial pressures, lack of footfall, and consultation, and I have heard lack of footfall used frequently as a reason in the past. Certainly under David Cameron’s coalition Government I heard it said that no one wants to go to a station any more, but that is not the point. I personally do not care if not a soul goes to the police station. What I care about is that police officers come out and patrol the streets day and night, so that if one young woman is chased through the streets by some nutter, she—or a child, a man, a boy—has somewhere to go to find safety.
Six Dorset police stations have been sold since 2013—again, I am told, due to financial pressures and the consequential change to the way the police have had to operate. We are now left with seven stations and a drop-in hub. Dorset, as I am sure everyone knows, is a huge county. The situation has been inherited by our new chief constable, Scott Chilton, and police and crime commissioner David Sidwick, both of whom I warmly welcome to post and for whom I have huge respect. From what I have heard, they are very sympathetic to my way of thinking. They want police back on the beat, but, as there is everywhere, there is a clamour for resources.
The good news, for which I thank my right hon. Friend the Policing Minister, is that, at 1,326, police officer numbers in Dorset are at their highest level since March 2013, and will increase further by 90 to 100 officers in the next two years, boosted by an annual head count of about 90 police community support officers. We are very grateful for the extra officers we campaigned hard for, so I thank him very much indeed.
Dorset’s population is projected to rise by 4.3% a year, although the recent exodus from cities during the pandemic will not be factored in for some time, so that figure will inevitably rise. I have worked with many officers from Dorset Police, for whom, as I have said, I have huge respect. They are an absolutely dedicated, professional bunch of men and women who do their duty in appalling circumstances and sometimes at great risk to themselves. I have nothing but huge respect for them all. They are more aware than ever of showing a public face and appreciate that we have got to get to the more remote parts. It is of paramount importance, so both the chief constable and the new PCC are on board with that, which is great. Current plans to maximise time in the community include potentially locating mobile police stations in rural areas, and placing neighbourhood policing teams in shared community hubs—both thought to present a less formal face to the public.
On the formal face of the police, the police force are not social services. It is not a police service, but a police force. Their job is to catch criminals, lock them up and protect you, me and our families. That is their job, so I would think that a formal face, a formal uniform and a formal police station give reassurance. It is like seeing a formal soldier or a formal nurse. Nurses do not come dressed in jeans and a T-shirt; they come dressed in a nurse’s outfit, as would a doctor or a soldier. You would think, “Hm, yes.” Why should the police not be equally formal? Of course, they should be friendly and interact with the community, but that will get better if they mix more with the community, and a police station will allow them to do that.
There is a general conviction that technology will help forces to deploy more officers more effectively. Helpful though technology is, I am not convinced that it will result in bobbies on the beat, especially at night, when all too often the criminals come out to do their foul work. Violence against women and girls is now rightly at the top of the national police agenda. Sarah Everard’s tragic killing has unleashed an understandable torrent of emotion from women and girls, who report feeling unsafe on our streets, particularly at night.
Formerly, the presence of a police station, or at least an enquiry encounter in most neighbourhoods, provided some reassurance that there was a safe place to take refuge. That no longer exists in most areas. Now, until better arrangements are made, I understand that women and girls are being offered an app—yes, an app—on a mobile phone, to walk them home after work, school or college or an evening out. Yes, of course technology has a place, but an app will not prevent someone from being attacked or chased. There needs to be a physical building, with physical men and women in it, for protection, and there are too few of them left. I believe that the app, although well meant, is inadequate for the intended purpose, and will never replace the reassurance of a police station.
I welcome Dorset Police’s recent initiatives to identify and deter sexual offenders preying on vulnerable people enjoying a night out, and to introduce safer public spaces in popular night spots for women and girls in particular. That is very good news. StreetSafe, where unsafe or uncomfortable public places can be anonymously reported online, is a valuable addition. I also welcome Dorset’s independent review of local criminal justice response to rape and serious sexual offences.
Finally, we must not forget that police officers now operate in more difficult conditions. We see that every day, whether in the capital, Bristol or even in Dorset. Those brave men and women are facing very challenging times. Violent crime and terrorism have increased the risks they run, along with the general loss of deference in society. The forcefield that once protected them has sadly long gone.
For operational and security reasons it is increasingly rare to see a single officer patrolling a neighbourhood on foot. Understandably, after threats against their homes and families, many prefer to live anonymously, away from the areas they patrol and serve. I believe that their fundamental role, visible and on our streets, has not changed, nor must it ever. To do that effectively, officers need a base to operate from where they can stay warm, write up their reports, take people back to put into cells, and do all the things the police are meant to do.
I get the point that has been repeatedly made to me that a police officer’s job has changed to a huge degree, now dealing with online abuse and theft. The online world has introduced a raft of new areas for policing, which is without doubt taking officers off the beat. All I would say to the Minister for Crime and Policing is that we need more police on the street. We cannot lose the streets to the criminals, because that effective relationship between the citizen and the officer will otherwise be lost.
Police stations may be viewed as old-fashioned and expensive, but they are invaluable, giving officers more control of their area of responsibility and the public the reassurance they seek. Police officers do their job with our consent. Break the link between us and them and the divide will continue to grow. Police stations are not an anachronism; they must be the future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate Richard Drax on securing this important debate. Crime has been on the rise in London, except during the pandemic. But despite a rising rate of violent crime, and particularly knife crime, as the hon. Gentleman said, 71 police stations have closed since 2010. Many of those were under the watch of the Prime Minister when he was Mayor of London. Police numbers have been slashed, not least in my own borough of Richmond where not only have police numbers been cut but police are routinely extracted to go and police incidents and events elsewhere.
I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for mentioning the campaign to keep Wimbledon police station open. Although he is no longer here, I am delighted to hear that Stephen Hammond has thrown his weight behind Liberal Democrat councillor Paul Kohler’s campaign. He was the lecturer who was beaten up very badly and mounted a strong campaign to save Wimbledon police station. It was his successful legal challenge against the Mayor of London that saved Wimbledon police station. He continues to campaign to keep it open.
In my borough of Richmond upon Thames, we had Richmond police station close a few years ago and, now, Teddington police station in my constituency is on the brink of closure, despite violent knife-related incidents going up. Just two weeks ago, an 18-year-old Afghan refugee and Richmond upon Thames College student, Hazrat Wali, was stabbed to death in broad daylight close to the college. A few months ago in Teddington, less than a mile away from the police station that is about to be closed, another young person was stabbed—thankfully, not fatally on that occasion. Earlier this year in Richmond there was another fatal stabbing.
As the hon. Member for South Dorset said, one of the ways to tackle violent crime and knife crime is through community policing. We need more police officers on our streets. The Government have made a commitment to boost police officer numbers. Where will they go if all the police stations are closed? They need to be housed somewhere. The problem, which we will see following the closure of Teddington police station, is that when police stations close, local neighbourhood teams have far further to travel to get the area they are policing.
The safer neighbourhood teams for Teddington and Hampton Wick wards will have to be based out of Twickenham police station. That increases their travel time. If they are walking or taking the bus, no doubt that travel time will be increased even further because when a member of the public sees a uniformed police officer, they may well stop them along the way outside the neighbourhood they are meant to be looking after. Obviously, if they see something untoward happening, they will need to take action. If we want to boost community policing, which is essential to preventing crime and saving lives, police officers need to be based close to the areas that they are policing.
The other issue is fewer custody suites. Talking to my hon. Friend Sarah Olney and the leader of Richmond council, we discussed one of the challenges since Richmond police station closed, which is that we have fewer custody suites. The police are having to decide whether to charge someone they have stopped in Richmond town centre or other parts of Richmond on that side of the river, or to take hours out of their shift taking that person down to Kingston or Twickenham police stations.
It must be said that police stations offer some level of comfort and security to members of the public, and with rising knife crime and violent crime, I venture to say that Londoners would like to see more, not fewer, police stations. That visible police presence is critical for both reporting crime and communicating with the police, and that is more important now than ever when confidence in the Metropolitan Police Service in particular is plummeting. I appreciate that a fully-fledged police station may not be needed, given that more people are reporting crime online or by telephone, but some sort of visible police presence through a counter of some sort—there must be innovative and interesting ways we can think about that—is very important.
The deputy Mayor for policing, the Met police and the Public Accounts Committee have all made abundantly clear to me in a number of recent meetings that the driver behind the sale of all these police stations in London is to raise money for operational purposes. That suggests to me that Home Office funding needs to be looked at to meet those operational needs, but we must also remember that those capital receipts will only last so long if they are being ploughed into operational needs. In the case of Teddington, some of that capital receipt when they sell the building should be ploughed into a base for the local teams, as I have pointed out.
The other problem with the massive financial driver behind this, as has been made clear to me in recent meetings, is that the Met police are now keen to sell to the highest bidder as fast as possible. That brings me on to another point about the future of these police stations. If a decision is taken that they must be closed, which the community does not want, given that we have an affordable and social housing crisis in this country—particularly somewhere such as south-west London where there are so few sites—why is there pressure to sell to the highest bidder, which ultimately means it just goes to luxury developers, who often cannot meet planning requirements, so buildings lie redundant? If we are forced to give up Teddington police station, I would be keen to see it go back to community use, primarily for affordable and social housing, because that is the biggest issue I see in my constituency.
I look forward to hearing from the policing Minister about the future of not only Teddington police station, but police stations across London, whether they can be saved and whether he will support my campaign to ensure that, if they must be sold off, they are kept for community use and for affordable and social housing.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Drax on securing this important debate. His speech was incredibly insightful, because we could all relate to it, and I will pick up on some of his points as I make progress.
The safety of local people is perhaps the greatest priority for any Government of any party. We now have devolution in West Yorkshire: in Keighley, which I represent, our new West Yorkshire Mayor now has the powers to form a police and crime plan and strategy, and has the remit of looking at that plan and working out where new police stations should be or where closures should not happen.
Of course it is right that people have confidence in their own security, whether they are at home or walking down their local high street or through their community. I believe that local police stations with a noticeable police presence play a key role in achieving that. My constituency has sadly experienced its own problems with police station closures in the two principal towns. In Keighley, the police station was relocated from the centre of town to the periphery, much to the dissatisfaction of local residents. In Ilkley we still have a police station, but it is unmanned.
I understand that police stations close for a range of reasons. An increase in online crime reporting and a general incorporation of digital technologies in the police force have meant that very few people use public desks at police stations. Instead, a majority of people contact the police by phone, at local meetings, online and through social media. Like those in many other professions, police officers have also been able to work flexibly and perform their duties without having to be present physically at a police station. But my inbox is full of messages from residents wanting to see police officers in a local police station going about their business on the beat, reassuring residents that they are being looked after. I truly believe that crime and antisocial behaviour, which are sadly all too big a problem in my constituency, are linked to local police stations not being manned and police stations moving out of the centre of town.
We have an excellent police station in Ilkley, which I went round not too long ago, but it is unmanned. It has just been done up and improved so that police officers can be there physically, but there are no physical police desks where a member of the public can go in and speak to their local police officer. That was a strategy adopted by our previous police and crime commissioner, Mark Burns-Williamson. In Keighley, the local police station—which was previously located right in the heart of town—was moved out of the town centre by Mark Burns-Williamson, then chair of the West Yorkshire police authority, to the dismay of many Keighley residents. The move came at a great cost to local taxpayers and stripped the police station out of the heart of our community.
I have said many times in the House that when crimes happen under everyone’s nose—including a huge drug dealing problem that we have—residents want to be able to go to their local police station. I held a surgery in Long Lee, one of the outlying settlements of Keighley. An elderly resident told me that she had contacted our local 101 service to report that she had witnessed a drug drop by a local taxi firm and that she had video footage for someone to come and collect. West Yorkshire police responded with, “Don’t worry, that happens all the time.” She then came to me with the footage, which I submitted to West Yorkshire police. She said that, although she had wanted to go to her local police station, she had not been able to do so because the station had been relocated from the town centre to the outskirts of town and she could not use the bus network to get there. That illustrates that moving our police station out of the centre of Keighley was a bad decision by the former police and crime commissioner.
We have a new West Yorkshire Mayor who is in charge of forming the police and crime strategy and is responsible for local policing in Keighley and Ilkley. I therefore call on her to deliver police stations in my constituency that are open and can be used by the public. Indeed, in Keighley, we have been promised a new police station back in the centre of town, despite it moving out 10 or so years ago. The big announcement was made, ironically, by our former police and crime commissioner just in advance of the general election in 2019 but, since then, nothing has happened.
This Conservative Government have already delivered 495 extra new police officers in West Yorkshire. We must ensure that those officers are on the beat in Keighley doing their job and that the public have a police station in the centre of town, as was promised by our previous police and crime commissioner. I want to ensure that my residents and my community feel reassured that having a police station in the centre of town means that crime will reduce. A stronger police presence means safer streets and much safer communities for us all to enjoy.
In a survey that was conducted earlier this year in my constituency, 68% of people felt that antisocial behaviour had increased as a result of not having a physical police station in the centre of town that they can go to and have connectivity with. If there are police stations in our town centres, people feel better about where they live. In turn, that will boost local businesses and communities, and it will improve aspiration.
Reopening town centre police stations is vital in my constituency. They offer not only a deterrent but reassurance to my constituents. The knock-on effect will be incredible. I urge our new West Yorkshire Mayor, who is in charge of our police, to listen to us in Keighley, to deliver a new police station in the centre of town, and to get our police station in Ilkley open for the public.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, and I congratulate Richard Drax on enabling us to have this most informative and important debate. Before I make my main remarks, I just want to say that through having a wife who comes from County Armagh, and having lived through the troubles while stepping out with my good lady and then when we married, I know exactly what he is saying about police and what they did in Northern Ireland—I put that on the record.
I will just make one point to my hon. Friend Munira Wilson. She mentioned a capital receipt being used for a revenue budget, and I would have thought from my experience in another place that that was questionable. Perhaps the Minister or his officials should look at that. I am not entirely sure that is right and proper, and it is worth looking at.
I regret very much that other Scottish Members are not present today—I am the only one. I want to tell a cautionary tale about what has happened in Scotland. I realise that policing is devolved and that this is not pertinent to the responsibilities of the Minister, but there is a lesson to be learned.
In 2013, the Scottish National party Government decided to amalgamate all the constabularies in Scotland into one Scottish police force. Many of us warned at the time that that would take away localism and would not work. In the period that followed, I saw a dreary litany of police station closures in my vast constituency. I will name them for the record: Lybster and Castletown in Caithness, Evanton and Invergordon in Easter Ross, and Dornoch, Bonar Bridge, Brora and Lairg in Sutherland—eight police stations gone. From my experience of working with my constituents, that has eroded localism, as has already been said. In turn, that has reduced trust in the police force, which is absolutely fundamental to policing and how it should be conducted.
In my time as a councillor, I served for some years as a member of the Northern Joint Police Board, which was the interface between the police and the democratically elected councils for the highlands, Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles. It was the body that oversaw the police and engaged with them on policing matters. I can say from my experience that had the chief constable come to us, the politicians responsible, and said, “I propose to close the following eight police stations,” there would have been uproar. Some might have looked at that as being an unwarranted intervention by politicians in policing matters. On the other hand, we were the elected representatives of the people, we were in touch with our electorates in our wards, and we knew what would or would not wash. That accountability has gone, and I very much regret that. There have been calls for something to be established in its place, but I think I am correct in saying that, apart from public appointments by the Scottish Government, the local authorities have no power to appoint anyone who is in any sort of position to work with the police. Just for the record, it was a constructive relationship—it worked. Going back to what the hon. Member for South Dorset said, some things do work. Why change them?
I want to share an anecdote. When I was first elected as a councillor—a long time ago, in 1986—I was very pleased with myself. One Sunday, a retired colonel came to see me in my home and said, “Now look, it is disgraceful what happened last night. My wife and I live quietly in the middle of Tain, and when the local dance finished at midnight, all the youngsters came out drunk, shouting and misbehaving.”
It was having an appalling effect on this poor old couple, so I wrote to the chief constable, as a young councillor, aged 32, and said, “What do you intend to do about it? This is shocking!”—I had only been a councillor for a matter of weeks. I heard nothing for days, weeks, and perhaps a month, then Sergeant Magnus Mackay said, “Jamie, would you like to come up and just see me in the police station?” I went up, pleased with myself, and he said, “Now, this is the charge book. You wrote to the chief constable about the events of this date. Read that.”
What had happened was that the youngsters were coming out of the dance perfectly peacefully, and the colonel had come bouncing out of his, drunk and shouting at the youngsters. He had been arrested, and spent the night in the cells before he came to see me. The point of that anecdote is that Sergeant Magnus Mackay, feeling that he could talk to a local elected representative straight up about something, was what effective local policing is all about. It worked, and I realised that I had made a hash of it.
That was a cautionary tale—that is what can happen in part of the country. I very much regret that my SNP colleagues are not here today because I think that, while the matter is devolved to their colleagues in Edinburgh, the SNP Government have a responsibility for it.
Let me conclude with this: what we have today is, sadly, fairly far removed from what Sir Robert Peel first intended when he introduced policing all over the UK—that is why they are called bobbies; we know that. I hope that, in the fullness of time, the Welsh, Northern Irish and Scottish Governments, and perhaps Her Majesty’s Government too, could look again at first principles of policing and say, “Are we drifting from the way we should be doing it?” because, very sadly—this is true of Governments of all colours—I think we have drifted, and I rue the day that we have now reached.
It is always a pleasure to speak in these debates. I thank Richard Drax for the duty that he did in Northern Ireland—I do not think I have had many occasions to say this, but I wish to put it on record—and for his commitment to security through his position in the Army. We appreciate that there. The Province that we have today is a better Province because of the efforts of the hon. and gallant Gentleman and many of his colleagues, who did similar work. I want to thank him for that. I also thank him for leading the debate. There is nothing more reassuring to all our constituents than knowing that their safety is ensured through local policing.
I have had a long political career. I started in 1985 as a councillor, and chaired the policing board for our council area during that period, so policing has always been an issue in which I have had a deep interest. The Home Secretary has been under immense pressure to perfect policing. She has pledged, many times, to get more police officers on the street. The rough figure is 20,000—I think that the Chancellor confirmed that 20,000 figure today in his Budget speech today. Up until at least September, some 6,620 of those officers are in place, so there is clearly a commitment to the recruitment of police in a concerted, planned and strategic way. More police on our streets should come with more police stations, or the reopening of those that have previously been shut. The background information gives us some worrying figures, referring to some 667 being closed since 2010.
I know the Minister does not have responsibility for Northern Ireland—I understand that—but this is just to give a bit of background to the issues, from my experience as a councillor and in the Assembly. I have always been a great believer in and supporter of community policing. I have always felt, from my introduction as a local councillor many years ago, the importance of the bobby on the beat, as Jamie Stone referred to them. For me, it was the community officer, who everyone in the community knew. Each estate in the town, for example, had a community officer, or perhaps two, and they built up a very clear relationship and rapport with the local community. It really helped policing.
Police stations themselves give reassurance, because they are there, but they also need to have somebody inside for people to access. However, I believe that what gives people greater reassurance is having a community police officer on the beat in constituencies, including in the estates across the towns.
Recent statistics show that since 2010 the Metropolitan police service has closed some 71 police stations; they have been shut down. Similarly, in Northern Ireland multiple police stations have either been closed, shut down or had their opening hours drastically reduced since 2016. The Police Service of Northern Ireland outlined changes as part of its estate strategy. This included the sale of some 12 stations, which are no longer required for daily policing business. Four of those were in my constituency of Strangford: Portaferry; Ballynahinch; Saintfield; and Carryduff.
Portaferry is at the end of the Ards peninsula in my constituency of Strangford; I live in Greyabbey, halfway down the peninsula, on a farm in a rural community. If someone in Portaferry needed the police for an urgent matter, it would take some 33 minutes for a police officer to travel from the nearest town with a police station, which is Newtownards; that is also the town where my office is located. In a situation of dire need, can we really expect our constituents to wait over half an hour in some cases to be seen? Other Members—including the hon. Member for South Dorset, who secured this debate—have given similar examples.
Police station closures are one issue but the reduction in hours is another. An example of that was brought to my attention by a constituent who was out with his grandson at a play park that is located two minutes from a police station. There were young teenagers throwing bottles, causing havoc and engaging in other antisocial issues, which continue to be the No.1 issue; the hon. Member for South Dorset referred to antisocial issues, too, in his introduction to this debate. When my constituent went to the police station that was two minutes away to report the incident, he was turned away because the police station was not open. If there is going to be a police station, people need to have access to it; there at least needs to be some voice contact when people go to the front door, whether it is with someone centrally or whatever it may be. There definitely needs to be that system.
These are the on-the-ground issues that people care about, and our constituents have a right to feel safe and that their police service serves them, as it should. I mentioned yesterday in the debate about the Northern Ireland Bill that we have been asking for more police officers for years. We are making some steps towards that, but there are not yet enough police officers coming out of training colleges to replace those who are seeking retirement.
Over the last few years, we have had a raft of police officers retiring—those who are seasoned and who have lots of experience. I believe that it is always good for the police to retain some of those police officers to bring up the new officers who are coming in and train them in how to deal with the general public.
The antisocial behaviour rates are rife and there is simply not enough localised policing, which, as I said earlier, I am a great supporter of, to help to deal with the smallest of crimes, which still matter and must be addressed. A colleague of mine in my constituency of Strangford is Peter Weir, one of the MLAs. I have conducted surveys in most towns in the constituency of Strangford. I do them on a regular basis. During a recess, I tend to take a couple of hours or maybe three or four hours—it depends on what the workload in the offices are—to go and knock a few doors and give out the resident surveys. About 80% to 90% of any responses that we get back on the surveys and questionnaires that we send out mention antisocial behaviour, which often stems from the use of drink and drugs by youths in local towns. This is an example of why local police stations are needed, and we should vouch for them and call for their reopening. Crime cannot be ignored and I believe that our police are there to keep us safe. We have a duty to work alongside them, as well. However, many people would say that it is becoming increasingly hard to do that, because of the closure of so many local police stations.
I am ever mindful that the Minister has no responsibility whatsoever for Northern Ireland, but I am also ever conscious of the fact that what is happening to us in Northern Ireland is replicated elsewhere. So may I ask the Minister to undertake discussions with his counterparts in the devolved Administrations, as this is not a topic that applies solely to England and the mainland? These issues are rife all over the United Kingdom. Is there another way of doing policing? Is there a better way of doing it? I am the old-fashioned type, who likes to see the policeman on the beat. I was always reassured to see a police car, and even more reassured to see police officers walking up and down the main streets in the towns or villages.
These issues are rife all over the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In particular, I would appreciate consideration being given to those who live in rural communities, as I do. I know what it is like to be a distance from the police station. Often, little thought is given to rural crime, which has been an issue in my constituency. I make it my business every day to read not just my local papers—provincial papers back home—but the daily papers here. There is a theme that policing is under pressure, and more so in rural areas—or there is a different type of pressure in rural areas, as I think the hon. Member for South Dorset referred to.
Our constituents’ safety should be at the forefront of our priorities. When they are telling us that we need more local policing, we must listen to them. Again, I thank the hon. Member for all that he has done in raising the issue, and others who have spoken. I am sure that this is a problem in some way for all of us across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Even those who unfortunately cannot be present for the debate would probably replicate and illustrate the concerns that we have expressed in their constituencies.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate Richard Drax on securing this important debate. We are all still mourning the loss of David Amess, who was a friend and colleague to many in this place. I have thought, following his death, of the police officers who would have had to be some of the first people on the scene to attend to that incident, and how horrific that must have been for them. I attended a funeral yesterday in my constituency of a 16-year-old boy who was murdered in his flat in front of his mother by many young teenage boys. Again, the police will have been the first people on the scene. We ask so much of our police officers, who face a difficult challenge. I start by thanking them for all that they do.
I have agreed in the main with everything that everybody has said. The hon. Member for South Dorset is right to question the direction of travel in terms of police station closures. I do not quite agree with some of his analysis. He was talking about the good old days of policing. I think that in many ways policing has come a long way and improved over the years. In the good old days, we probably would have turned a blind eye to domestic abuse, and we would not have uncovered some of the child abuse that we now do. In many ways, modern policing is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was.
I did not mean that in the slightest. The hon. Lady has taken what I said completely out of context. I was simply talking about the old way of doing things—catching criminals and locking them up, and having police officers on the beat. Of course, policing has changed. I totally accept that, but officers still need to be on the beat, baddies still need to be arrested and locked up, and we need to be protected. That has not changed.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I completely agree with the points that he makes; I was just contemplating the changing nature of crime, and the crime that we see, and what we do about it, which I think is a good shift. His fundamental point is about having police in our communities where we can see them and where they can see crime. We talked about the Peel principles—that the police are there to prevent crime, not just to tackle it once it happens. That is the starting point of our police service, and they cannot prevent crime unless they are there in our communities, understanding our neighbours.
I have reflected a lot since the death of David Amess about my own office space, and how it is one of the few places in our community where people can come and get access to an office, and the doors are open. The closure of a lot of our police stations reflects the closure of some of our other services. A lot of council services are now online. There are not many places where people can physically go and talk about their issues. Police stations are part of that picture.
As the shadow Minister of State for Police and the Fire Service, I spend all my time talking to the police, and talking about the impact of the cuts over the past 11 years. Since 2010, funding has been cut by £1.6 billion, and thousands of police have been taken off our streets. There are thousands fewer police officers now than there were in 2010; almost 8,000 fewer PCSOs; 7,500 fewer police staff; and 6,300 fewer special constables. The number of people who say that they never see police on the streets has doubled in that time.
As policing has suffered those cuts, the nature of crime is changing. We have high levels of violent crime, a high proportion of online crime—especially fraud, which is going through the roof—and the changing nature of terrorism, with the challenges that brings. The impact of cuts across other services, such as mental health services, youth work and the NHS, means that police are dealing with the fallout of a small state picking up the pieces when there is no one else left.
The hon. Member for South Dorset said that the police are not social workers. He is right; they are not. However, when I go out with police, they often provide that function because they are picking up people with mental health problems or substance misuse and spending hours taking them to A&E, going through the motions with them and making sure that they are okay, when actually we want the police on our streets preventing crime.
We have not just lost police officers. With all the cuts to police staff, we have lost the whole apparatus behind those who actively help to prevent and solve crime. As a response to and result of that, criminals are getting away with it; pathways to crime are open; and our children are being exploited by criminal thugs and groomed into violence. Our justice system is not making the right response and, at a national level, the problem is not taken seriously enough.
We talked about knife crime, which reached its highest levels on record in 2019-20 at more than 50,000 offences in a year. That is an extraordinary number, which has doubled since 2013-14. Between 2010 and 2019-20, knife crime rose in every single police force area in the country. Fraud and online crime has rocketed to such levels that most crimes are not even investigated. Outcomes for rape, which we have talked about over recent months, are at record low levels, at only 1.6%. Fewer than seven in every 100 violent crimes end up with a charge—an extraordinary figure.
Unlike this Government, Labour’s record in government shows that we can be trusted on policing and crime. By the time we left government, there had been 6 million fewer crimes than in 1997. The risk of being a victim of crime was at its lowest since the Crime Survey began in 1981, and police officers reached record numbers, up by almost 1,700 since 1997, alongside more than 16,000 PCSOs.
The figures on police station closures make grim reading. In 2018, The Times estimated that about 600 police stations had closed since 2010; the Daily Mail reported that it was 667. The closure of police stations forms a common thread across the length and breadth of the country. Regardless of whether the closures have happened under Conservative or Labour PCCs or Mayors, they are done because chief constables and PCCs can only play the hand they have been dealt by the Government here at Westminster.
A report from the Public Accounts Committee in 2018 claimed that closures were due to cuts in police funding, that funding cuts had led to forces selling off more of their assets to try to raise funds for capital investment and increasingly drawing on their reserves. We know that in South Yorkshire, 24 police stations have shut their doors.
I want to make a very quick point. When I was referring to my constituency, where we saw Keighley police station moved out of the centre of town and relocated, with a new police station built on the outskirts of town, it was all undertaken by a Labour police and crime commissioner. The same Labour police and crime commissioner that was—we now have a Labour West Yorkshire Mayor—is having discussions about moving the police station back into the centre of town. Does that not show a lack of strategy rather than it simply being related to funding models that have been dripped down from the national level?
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but I disagree. If we look at the pattern of police station closures across the country, it has not just occurred in Keighley; it is everywhere. I was with the new West Yorkshire Mayor, Tracy Brabin, in her offices a couple of weeks ago talking about her approach to tackling crime, particularly, in that conversation, violence against women and girls. I am sure she will do the right thing. As has been mentioned, if 20,000 police officers are cut out of the system and then some are put back, there needs to be a physical place for people to go. The situation is that we closed everything down and are now having to look at whether we open things up again.
A lot has been said about the changing nature of how people want to report crime, and the opportunities available to report online. The hon. Member for South Dorset is right that there is a role for online reporting, and we need to look at how that works. In 2016, 8% of crimes were reported at police front counters—down from 22% in 2006. The Government’s so-called “Beating crime plan” includes proposals for every single person living in England and Wales to have digital access to police through a national online platform.
I suggest that that plan is not working. There is too much confusion about how and where to report crime, and the lack of action when people do. An extraordinary number of online fraud cases are not investigated at all. People report incidents online and wait a long time for a response. There are real pressures on the 101 service across the country, and victims of crime are increasingly calling 999 because they cannot get through on 101. The Cheshire police and crime commissioner said recently that 101 is “not fit for purpose”. Similar problems have been reported across the country.
Modern policing and the changing nature of crime mean that online reporting has an important role to play, but the value of face-to-face interaction with local police cannot be overstated. We need local neighbourhood policing in real life, not just online, and the Labour party is pushing for that. Neighbourhood policing and the role of PCSOs have never been more important. Police and place are intrinsically linked. When Labour was last in government, our policing reforms re-rooted British policing. We brought in neighbourhood policing teams all over England and Wales. We introduced the brilliant PCSOs, who are the eyes and ears of their communities. They provide vital intelligence and do a huge amount of preventive work. This Government have no plans to put more PCSOs back into communities.
A recent Police Foundation report found that, despite the Minister for Crime and Policing’s announcement on taking office that an extra 20,000 police officers would be recruited because people want to see more officers in their neighbourhoods, only 400 of the first tranche of 6,000 new recruits were deployed into neighbourhood roles—that is exactly the same number cut from the national PCSO cohort over the same period.
We want to ensure that in every neighbourhood, where people are frightened and afraid, there will a new police hub and neighbourhood prevention teams, bringing together police, community support officers, youth workers and local authority staff to tackle antisocial behaviour, as well as the perceived more serious crime that we have talked about. Where the graffiti starts, crime leads. That has to be tackled as a priority, as well as more serious crime.
Closures of police stations are sadly just one aspect of the attack on policing by Conservative Governments, which has culminated in a Britain characterised by increasing serious violence, antisocial behaviour at record levels tarnishing our streets, rape convictions at a record low, and violent crimes routinely going unresolved. Does the Minister agree with our overall argument that we need more police stations? What plans does he have to put them in place? Will he confirm whether the Budget contained any plans to increase the number of police stations? Does he agree with the public, who say that having a police station in their area makes them safer and prevents crime?
It is a great pleasure to appear before you, Ms Fovargue, I think for the first time. I am grateful to you for presiding over our proceedings. I congratulate my hon. Friend Richard Drax on securing this important debate. I know that he recognises that I do not, as a number of Members have said, have much sway over the doings of police and crime commissioners or the devolved Governments.
I have no more ability to get the SNP Government to address the issue raised by Jamie Stone than I have to get them to sort out the Edinburgh children’s hospital debacle. Indeed, I have less power than the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to deal with Croydon’s disastrous finances, controlled, of course, by the party of Sarah Jones. As far as London is concerned, the Mayor of London is in a much better position than me to make a decision about police stations in the capital, given that the mayoralty’s budget is significantly greater than the entire Home Office policing budget—approaching something like £19 billion.
I do recognise this issue and the important part that police stations play in people’s perceptions of safety in their local area. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset will agree that the police estate should not be set in aspic; there are buildings that are old and unsuitable, there are those that are in the wrong place and those that are inefficient or expensive to run. Often in the past we have found the police housed in Victorian buildings and custody suites that are not suitable for the modern day. Like all services—and like us in this glorious building in which we live—the police need to modernise their estate.
Very often that estate is not well disposed. When I became deputy Mayor for policing in London we inherited a chaotic estate of property across London. Dozens of buildings of all shapes and sizes that had accumulated over the decades—over two centuries of policing—meant that we often had, even here in Pimlico, two police stations that were broadly 10 minutes’ walk from each other, both fully operational with front counters. Therefore, some rationalisation, efficiency measures and decisions made locally about the best way to dispose of the police estate are obviously necessary. Quite rightly, that is the job of the locally elected police and crime commissioner, in conjunction with the operationally independent chief of police.
Having said that, I do recognise the role that police stations play in people’s sense of place. However, I think my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset said a couple of interesting and conflicting things in his speech. He said that he wanted police officers to mix more with the community, and that a police station would allow them to do that. He also said that he wanted to reopen police stations and get police back on the streets. Those two things may not necessarily achieve the same aim.
I will illustrate this to him with a story. Many years ago, when I was London Assembly member for West Central—which included Westminster, Kensington and Chelsea, and Hammersmith and Fulham—we had a horrible murder in Shepherd’s Bush. It was a dreadful murder; we were fighting knife crime across the city at the time. The then borough commander, a chap called Kevin Hurley, a chief superintendent who went on to be police and crime commissioner in Surrey, held a public meeting that I attended. During the public meeting there was a row of people at the front who said that the problem is that Shepherd’s Bush police station is not open 24 hours a day. Kevin said, “I’ll tell you what, then—I will reopen Shepherd’s Bush police station 24 hours a day if you tell me which four police officers you want me to take off patrol to man the front desk?” At which point, everybody said, “No, no, no. We don’t want you to do that. We would rather they were out on the street.” Which is exactly what my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset wants. Kevin then said, “Maybe what we should do is leave the lights on so it looks like it is open 24 hours a day—would that be enough?” They all thought that was a fantastic idea.
This illustrates quite neatly what my hon. Friend is talking about, which is the importance of a sense of presence. A police station, historically, has said something about police presence in an area. However, I know that he does not want the police sitting in a police station for longer than is necessary—he wants them out on the street.
My right hon. Friend is generous for allowing this intervention. What I am saying is that we need both. I quite accept that if they are manning the police station waiting for people to come in, they will not be on the streets. I want—and constituents want—both. That is the point. The point is about priorities, and I can think of many things that I would like to scrap to pay for it.
I understand, but overall what we want is a greater sense of presence by whatever means it is delivered. I hope my hon. Friend will see that as we progress with the police uplift. We have announced today that we have now recruited more than 11,000 police officers across England and Wales—a gross recruitment of 23,000 police officers to backfill retirement, so we can do something to reinforce that sense of presence.
My hon. Friend is right that alongside that sense of presence we want officers that have an intimate knowledge of their local neighbourhood. A critical issue for us is the connection between the police and public that comes from the relationship that they have in their local neighbourhoods. We tried to address that in London all those years ago by insisting that police officers serving on neighbourhood teams spent at least three years on them, rather than a year or 18 months before moving on. That meant that they could develop good knowledge of the area and the kinds of relationships to provide the reinforcement that both my hon. Friend and I want to see.
My hon. Friend referenced the revolution wrought in New York by a former mayor and police chief. Rather than investing in bricks and mortar, they flushed lots of cops out of the police stations and on to the streets, to the extent that it was very hard to go 50 yards without seeing a police officer dealing with the type of crime mentioned by my hon. Friend. I hope we will see more and more of that as the number of police officers increases.
In order to get there, we need more resource. I hope my hon. Friend will have seen—I am surprised that the hon. Member for Croydon Central did not mention this—that today’s Budget gave policing a remarkably good settlement. The Chancellor has agreed to generously fund the continuation of the uplift, so that we will get to 20,000 police officers and then, critically, maintain that number. By the time we get to the end of the programme in 2024-25, there will be an additional £540 million for policing. We have also given greater flexibility to police and crime commissioners so that they can add up to £10 to the precept every year for the next three years, which should raise something approaching three quarters of a billion pounds for them to invest in policing.
As we grow and expand, all police and crime commissioners and chief constables will need to review their estates, making sure that they are properly disposed and in the right place and that they have the capacity to cope with the new police officers coming on board. As my hon. Friend said, the ability to base themselves locally is important, because we want to minimise travel time to and from their place of work.
Well, much as I would love to go for world domination, my writ does not run to Scotland and my ideas are not always necessarily welcome there. I have to say, however, that we are working co-operatively with the Scottish Government on the issue of drugs, a problem from which the hon. Gentleman’s constituency suffers, as does all of Scotland. I made a very productive visit to Police Scotland a few months ago. I went to see them in their castle on the central belt and talked to them about what more work we can do together on drugs in particular. If he will forgive me, I will refrain from recommending the disposition of police stations in his constituency and leave that argument to him and his Scottish nationalist friends.
It is very important that police and crime commissioners and chief constables keep their property portfolio under review and expand it as required for operational requirements and for the size of their forces. It is critical that police officers are put in the right place with the right facilities.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset will remember that early on in the uplift programme, when we announced that 20,000 police officers were coming forward, there was hilarity in the media when I said that one of the biggest constraints might be locker space, because space would be needed for 20,000 lockers. Most of the officers, if not all of them, will be on the frontline, out on the streets, because they will be in their early years of service. However, that issue could represent a significant constraint, which is why we required a review of the property strategy for more police forces. I hope and believe that that will now happen, that as we move forward we will get the right property disposition, the right equipment that police officers need, the right accessibility for everybody to report crime and interact with police officers in any way they want, and that we will generally improve people’s sense and perception of safety in the public realm.
Finally, I want to raise the issue that my hon. Friend neatly portrayed in that age-old phrase, “bobbies on the beat”. He is right that there is a basic expectation from the British people that they will see police officers patrolling their streets and keeping people safe. He will be interested to know that a few months ago, we launched a “grip” programme where we put £18 million into police officers identifying where violence occurs in 18 areas of the country, with a sharp geographic focus. Violence is quite sticky and can often be confined to quite small areas. The police officers should visit those hotspots on a regular and, critically, a randomised basis, making sure that they know where they are. They have a little GPS locator that they can go in and out of, so that they know when to go there and when they have to leave. They only have to be there for 15 minutes or so: park the car somewhere high profile, walk around, talk to people, interact with local residents and shops, and then move on to the next hotspot.
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that some of the early results are showing enormous falls in violence. In Southend we saw a fall of over 70% in violence, and in Bedfordshire there was a fall of 44%. I hope that this approach, which used to be called hotspot policing or cops on dots, will help us know where crime occurs, when it will occur and sometimes by who and that if a police officer is there at the right place and time, we can deter crime.
I hope that the programme of grip policing will be so successful that it becomes business as usual, and we can return to the style of policing that my hon. Friend harked back to, which is one that is plugged into a local community, that is visible on the streets and, critically, that is effective in driving down crime. Whether that involves a police station, more police officers, or a certain style of policing, that has to be our objective, but our fundamental requirement is that crime falls significantly. I know that he and I are joined in that mission, and I will do what I can to support him.
I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend. As I said at the start of my speech, I have nothing but praise for him, his Department and Dorset police—all of whom do a wonderful job. From Dorset’s perspective, I am concerned by the rationalisation or the centralisation where there is a temptation to have large centres that are manned and out of which officers and others go. My concern is that it detaches the officer from the area that they have to police.
As my right hon. Friend knows, Dorset is a huge county with a huge police requirement in Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole to the east, as well as in the west in Weymouth. There are thousands of acres in Dorset where we hardly see a policeman through no fault of theirs, but they do not have the resources. I hope that the rationalisation does not go as far as saying that to do that effectively, we only have one police station in, say, Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole, rather than three or four well-positioned modern police stations. I understand that they cannot have old buildings, and nor do we want two police stations on top of each other.
To return to the point I have just made, a police station houses police officers. While I quite accept the example that my right hon. Friend gave, what if there were four officers manning that police station 24 hours a day? One of the common complaints from officers—I am sure this is true of officers across the country, too—is that when they arrest someone, they are off the streets: they go in the van and disappear. If they are dealing with a rowdy night in Weymouth—and there are a few of those—that means two or three officers gone, leaving their colleagues exposed. But if they could go back and hand those they have arrested over to the four officers at the local station, where there is a custody suite, they could then get straight back on the streets and do their job, which fulfils all requirements.
To end, I reiterate that I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. I know that he is absolutely in line with us and joined at the hip. I also know that he is restricted due to a lack of funds. That is an issue—I get that—and I know that he will continue to fight for more funds. I hope that I have not given the old-fashioned luddite view of policing. I did not mean that in the sense that Sarah Jones interpreted. What I meant was that we need officers on the beat who are visible to the public to reassure them, catch criminals and deter crime—