Drug Crime

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:57 pm on 20th April 2022.

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Photo of Anthony Mangnall Anthony Mangnall Conservative, Totnes 2:57 pm, 20th April 2022

May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend Robbie Moore on securing the debate? He has touched on a number of issues that impact a range of our constituencies. I hope there will be some solutions at the end of the debate that we can all work on, on a cross-party basis. I am pleased to follow Ms Brown, who brings a huge amount of experience to the House in her shadow roles, and gives great evidence about what schools and communities can do in playing their part. I completely agree with the point made in both speeches about tackling county lines, to ensure that we can disrupt those who deal drugs across our country.

It will be no surprise that I am going to speak specifically about Devon and the south-west. I am representing other south-west colleagues who cannot be here. No Member of Parliament for the south-west would get away in such a debate without mentioning our police and crime commissioner, Alison Hernandez, and the work she is doing with us to tackle drug crime in rural and urban areas. It is a blight that we face, getting increasingly worse in a post-pandemic world. As the record of crime across the south-west decreases, crime around antisocial behaviour and drugs is on the up, which we see in the statistics reported across Devon and Cornwall. We need to see that addressed.

Our police and crime commissioner and our new South Devon sector inspector Ben Shardlow are working with Members of Parliament, parish, district and county councillors, inventing new schemes and initiatives to ensure a comprehensive level of engagement across the county, to report, identify and tackle those who seek to deal drugs, or who seek to influence people by trying to push them into the drugs trade, and seek to create antisocial behaviour.

It is particularly welcome that the Government have taken so many positive steps in the south-west. I believe that by the end of 2023, we will have more officers in south Devon alone than we did in 2010—46 new officers, 25 trainees and 21 transferee officers. However, they must be utilised in a proper and cohesive manner across the whole area, not just the urban areas with high population densities.

I am repeatedly shocked when I visit small villages—as I did over the recess—and parish councillors tell me about blacked-out Mercedes coming into their villages, blatantly dealing drugs, and about the antisocial behaviour that then follows. Just a few weeks ago, one constituent decided to video conference call me from his mobile phone. He turned his camera over and showed me two people dealing drugs on the other side of his fence, and although he reported it through the 101 system, which I will come on to in a second, there was no response from the police in that instance.

There is clearly a breakdown, because ordinary people across our constituencies are reporting these crimes but all too often they are not seeing the action taken to address them. I understand, of course, that the police have many pressures on them, but when that is not being dealt with by the police, it does not give people confidence that the issue will be addressed. We must look at ensuring that the new officers—in the instance of south Devon—are utilised and put on a strategic footing to cover every area in rural and urban settings.

Of course, I and others have mentioned county lines. We see it coming down from the midlands and coming up from Cornwall. South Devon seems to be a crossroads, where we see drugs coming in from all directions. We know where they are coming from, but we must be able to help build the system that allows us to document the evidence and information about what constituents are reporting.

That is where 101 becomes a problem. I must say, the pressure that has been placed on that system over the pandemic is clearly huge. However, it is also clear that people’s faith and confidence in it is not there. We must find a way in which the 101 system allows people to report crimes and know they are being documented, and then acted on, by the police. I hope that the Minister might spend a few seconds addressing that point in his remarks. As the hon. Member for West Ham said, local action requires comprehensive engagement from local society members, the police and the schools, working together to ensure that we can disrupt those who seek to bring harm and dangerous drugs into our areas.

I do not want to bang on for too long, but I have five suggestions, which I hope that the Minister might be able to adopt. The first is what has become known as the councillor advocate scheme, which Alison Hernandez, our police and crime commissioner, has launched in south Devon. It has proven to be a remarkably effective way in which parish councillors, district councillors and county councillors can all get involved and liaise with the police on a regular basis. A police officer might also attend their meetings to give them regular updates and briefings on measures being taken to ensure that crime is reduced in their areas, but also that there is a police presence.

I have already made the point about utilising officers, but we must think about how we do so. All over this country we have village halls that sit, not being used, from 6 o’clock in the evening to 6 o’clock in the morning. We should look to use those spaces as hubs for the police to stop by, throughout the evenings and nights, so that people know that, at any point, a police officer could be in their village or town. The parish councils that I have spoken to in my constituency are all universally behind that. If the Minister wants to use south Devon as a testing programme, I would be delighted. For just a small amount of money from his budget, I am sure I can make it work. It has had a positive response from those who think that it could allow us to address these issues.

My next point is on the substitution of officers. I am delighted that so many of our police officers want to go on training programmes, but there is great difficulty in replacing them when they are on those programmes. That is the problem. I am delighted to have a number of officers going off and doing firearms training courses, but no one can replace them while they are away. I think, although I am happy to be corrected by any hon. Member in this place, that a firearms training course takes 18 weeks. That means that one of my towns, and its surrounding area, is without one of its necessary and needed officers over that time.

From the person who deals on the street to the person who brings drugs into this country, we know that we must disrupt them at every single level. I believe that we can, and that there is a positive story about the uplift in officers, but we must go further, and must be able to ensure that we are addressing all levels of society.