It is a pleasure to serve under you this afternoon, Mr Pritchard. I thank my neighbour, Robbie Moore, for securing this debate. He and I share a passion for tackling all of West Yorkshire’s problems. We regularly share a space in Westminster Hall; today is no different, so I thank him again for securing this important debate.
I suspect there is not a single constituency, as we have already started to hear, that is not affected by drugs and the misery that they inflict on individuals and communities. I am afraid to say that Halifax is no different. There seems to be an increasing audacity among those involved in the supply and dealing of drugs. Our inboxes and postbags are increasingly made up of concerned residents who witness drug deals in their areas and on their streets. Even in reporting those incidents to the police, as we have already heard, they feel powerless to take a meaningful stand and see it properly gripped.
I pay tribute to my local neighbourhood policing teams, as it is those officers who are at the forefront of the work to identify and address drugs activity. The pressures on neighbourhood policing teams is enormous, as the ability to get ahead of community issues is constantly compromised by having their resources diverted into response policing and responding to 999 calls, all ultimately a consequence of having fewer officers because of austerity, as hon. Members have pointed out.
In some districts of West Yorkshire, the demands on response and safeguarding teams are such that NPTs routinely operate with around 50% vacancies and abstractions in the numbers that they need—abstractions being the back-filling of roles in predominantly response policing on an almost constant basis, which inevitably compromises their capabilities. Neighbourhood policing is specialist and vital. It is the neighbourhood policing teams who primarily do the legwork on intelligence gathering and executing warrants relating to drugs.
In Calderdale, which covers just two constituencies—my Halifax constituency and the neighbouring Calder Valley—in the last two weeks alone there have been 23 instances of offences involving the possession of drugs, as well as eight instances of drugs trafficking. In the same two weeks, officers have uncovered four cannabis farms, taking the total up to seven cannabis farms dismantled by police in the last 31 days in just those two constituencies.
I normally joke in debates like this that the situation in Calderdale is not quite as bad as Sally Wainwright’s gripping “Happy Valley” would have us believe, but, worryingly, the stats speak for themselves. Only well-resourced NPTs with officers dedicated to this work, with protected time and defined and ring-fenced roles, allow us to get ahead in communities and get a grip of drug-related crime. If the Minister tells me that the resourcing of teams is an operational decision, I will make the point once again that it is the reduction in officer numbers, which we are still a long way off restoring, that has forced these difficult compromises for chief officers, setting back community-based policing.
Another massively aggravating issue in Calderdale, as I am sure is the case elsewhere, is fly-tipping, but in the context of this debate the fly-tipping of waste from cannabis grows. The dumping of bags of soil and clay pebbles in quiet rural lanes, as has happened in Northowram recently, is infuriating. It is evidence of crime upon crime—first the illegal grow, then the reckless dumping of waste, with councils being left to sort out the mess. I urge the Minister to consider all the ways that we can properly tackle this particular issue, including any and all forensics opportunities from this type of criminality.
I had the opportunity to visit the West Yorkshire violence reduction unit’s knife crime exhibition at the Royal Armouries in Leeds at the weekend. The work of the violence reduction unit has established that illegal drugs use and supply are significantly linked to violence in West Yorkshire, with schools commenting during a VRU survey that drugs had
“become the norm in many groups of young people, appear to be easy to obtain, and users are very young, for example in Year 7 making them around 11 years old”.
The targeted initiatives undertaken by the VRU are some of the best practice in the country. The At the Sharp End exhibition at the Royal Armouries showcases the work of Operation Jemlock, who I had the opportunity to spend a night shift with, and who have made over 6,000 arrests and confiscated over 1,000 weapons over the last two and a half years. I urge anyone to go and have a look at some of the weapons they have taken off our streets in West Yorkshire. It is truly terrifying stuff, and is all too often linked to drugs crime. Figures released by West Yorkshire police regarding the number of under-25s who have been involved in possession and/or use of knives or other sharp objects in the 12 months up to February 2022 reveal that police recorded 22 incidents in Calderdale. These included two 13-year-olds and one child aged just 10 in possession of a weapon. That is why the work of the violence reduction unit is so effective and essential; long may that funding continue.
Let me turn to the scourge of drug driving. Earlier this month I wrote to the Home Secretary regarding the freedom of information request I submitted to police forces, following roads policing officers around the country raising frustrations about delays in forensics meaning that drug drivers are getting away with their crimes. As the Minister knows, when an individual is arrested on suspicion of drug driving, usually having failed a roadside drug test and tested positive for cannabis or cocaine, the law requires that the police submit a confirmatory blood test in order for a suspect to be charged. As drug driving is a summary offence, if it takes longer than six months for forensic analysis to be undertaken on that blood sample, the police are unable to charge an individual.
I sent a freedom of information request to every police force in England and Wales, and data from those FOIs showed that in the past three years, at least 62 prosecutions of suspected drug drivers have collapsed due to forensic labs failing to turn around tests in the required six-month window. What is really concerning is that 21 police forces—nearly half—either failed to respond to the FOI or gave incomplete data, so we know that this is just a snapshot of a much bigger problem. Police have caught and arrested drug drivers, but broader criminal justice failures mean that those drug drivers get away with their crimes and are free to continue putting lives at risk on our roads.
In answer to a written parliamentary question on this issue from February, the Government suggested that this relates to pressures in the system, stating:
“between January and September 2021, there were some delays in drug drive testing due to Covid related pressures on forensic services. Toxicology supply has now significantly increased, and all backlogs have been cleared. Some cases could not be charged during this period, but none of these involved serious injury or death.”
Although it is reasonable to say that the pandemic strained forensic services, it is wrong to argue that this is the sole factor behind slow drug driving test turnaround times, as our research covers the past three years and suggests that there are long-term, systemic problems in getting drug drivers off our roads. I am still waiting to a response to my letter asking how the Government plan to address these ongoing pressures, and ensure that drug drivers are not at large and able to reoffend, putting lives at risk on our highways.
I place on record my thanks to Calderdale’s outstanding neighbourhood policing team inspectors, Ben Doughty and James Graham, and the sergeants, police constables and police community support officers in their teams, as well as PC Craig Nicholls from the Police Federation for sharing his insights and those of his members in preparation for today’s very important speech.