Tory cuts have changed the nature of policing, not just the number of officers, argues Pat McFadden
For the last Labour government, neighbourhood policing was at the heart of fighting crime. A government elected in part on the slogan ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ knew that both parts of that equation were important.
As well as investment in Sure Start, youth provision, Educational Maintenance Allowances and a range of other initiatives, we also made sure we had a properly funded and staffed police force.
The concept of neighbourhood policing is simple and effective. The public want a visible police presence on the streets. And such a network helps the police gather priceless local intelligence and foster better relationships with the community.
We wanted to get away from the idea of the police purely as a rapid response service, racing through our towns and cities in fast cars with blue flashing lights. The idea was of the police as a regular – and visible – neighbourhood presence and service.
Such a concept was certainly not cheap and took time to build up. But eventually we put in place a comprehensive network of neighbourhood policing teams – usually one per ward with a number of police officers supported by the police community support officers Labour also introduced.
By 2010 there were 143,000 police officers and almost 80,000 PCSOs in England and Wales.
The election of the Conservatives drew progress to a halt. The traditional party of law and order cut police numbers year on year so much so that by earlier this year there had been a drop of 21,000 in the number of police officers compared to 2010 and a fall of around 40 per cent in the number of PCSOs.
The effect was stark. Where once there was one neighbourhood team per ward, now it is common to have one covering three times that area, with fewer officers than before. Picture this situation reversed, with a Labour government and a Conservative opposition. The Tories would be screaming about it from the rooftops.
However, it is not just police numbers that have fallen – it is also the capacity of the police to respond to crime in line with reasonable public expectations. Dave Thompson, chief constable of West Midlands police recently drew attention to the corrosive effect of the cuts when he said, ‘Core aspects of policing – such as answering calls, attending emergencies, investigating crime, bringing offenders to justice and neighbourhood policing – are being pushed beyond sustainability’.
There is frustration within police forces as officers who want to do their best to serve the public find themselves stretched ever thinner and unable to respond as effectively as they would like to the demands that they face.
And all the while police precepts are going up as government loads the costs of policing onto local voters and away from central government grants – leaving voters paying more to get less.
For a time, the Tories tried to justify the cuts by arguing they were taking place alongside falling crime and were therefore not having a damaging impact.
If that was ever true it certainly is not now. Nationally, homicide is up 14 per cent, robbery is up 22 per cent and knife crime up 12 per cent over the past year.
The level of knife crime in particular has come to epitomise public fears about the levels of violence on the streets. Night after night, reports are received of young lives being brutally cut short in a wave of terrifying stabbings. Parents grieving over the loss of their children and a seemingly powerless political debate about what to do in response.
If it is true that policing alone will not resolve the crisis we face over knife crime it is also true that policing is certainly an essential part of the response – and that if we keep cutting the number of officers we make it all the harder to respond to this critical issue.
Yet another round of cuts in officer numbers could well be the result of little known changes to police pension arrangements announced by the government in September. These changes come as a result of changes to the discount rate by which future pension liabilities are calculated – and so far the Treasury has refused to guarantee that police forces will not have to meet the extra costs from existing budgets.
The Association of Police and Crime Commissioners has estimated that if police forces have to fund the total cost of the changes themselves it could see another 10,000 officers lost. For a force like mine in the west Midlands it could mean the loss of 450 officers – intolerable after the 2,000 we have lost since 2010.
For Labour this should not just be an issue of public safety but also one of inequality. Freedom means little if you do not have confidence to go about your life without the fear of crime, or the anti-social behaviour which can be so corrosive to quality of life. The effects of continued cuts in policing are not felt in a uniform way. That is why speaking up for a properly resourced and funded police force is a progressive cause.
Everyone – no matter where they live – should be entitled to a reasonable amount of protection from the state. In a recent parliamentary debate on these issues, Labour member of parliament after Labour member of parliament made this case – as has Labour’s able frontbench spokesperson on the issue, Louise Haigh.
It is absolutely vital that the Treasury cover these increased costs, put a halt to cuts in police numbers and instead reverse the trend of recent years so that all parts of the community can be protected against crime. Doing that is part of our social justice pact with the voters. That is a lesson we learned in government and it is one we should not forget today.
Pat McFadden is member of parliament for Wolverhampton South East
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