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Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak in a debate that you are chairing, Mr. Cummings. I am grateful to have the opportunity to debate a subject that is causing much distress among local residents in my constituency and throughout West Yorkshire as a wholethe closure of local police station help desks. I am also grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins), for taking part in this debate. He is a reasonable man and I hope that he will be able to offer some hope to my constituents, for whom the problem is causing much distress.
West Yorkshire police has already decided to close 12 police station help desks. They are at Ovenden, Heckmondwike, Sowerby Bridge, Rothwell, Ossett, Normanton, Brighouse, Cleckheaton, Batley, Otley and, more importantly to me, Shipley and Bingley. West Yorkshire police has also said:
"Further work to identify if any other help desks should close is being carried out and this will also take into account the working hours of help desks, some of which will be reduced, however the details of these have yet to be finalised".
I hope that you will forgive me for being somewhat parochial, Mr. Cummings, and allow me to focus on the two police station help desks at Bingley and Shipley that are to close in my constituency. The closures would mean that no police station would be open to the public throughout my constituency at any time of the day. That is a disgrace. The Government and West Yorkshire police alike often sing the praises of neighbourhood policing and stress its importance. Indeed, I support the concept of neighbourhood policing, which is important to the general public. However, it would appear that I have a different understanding of neighbourhood policing from that of the police and the Government.
Neighbourhood policing should surely be about much more than seeing an extra officer walking down the street, although that would certainly be welcome. Surely neighbourhood policing should be about how close the police are to the community and how accessible they are. Having police stations open to the public is a vital part of neighbourhood policing. I would be grateful for the Minister's view on the importance to the Government of police stations in delivering their programme of neighbourhood policing.
Shipley used to be the centre of its own police division. Now it will not even have a police station open to the public. Are we really seeing a move towards more neighbourhood policing? From my constituents' perspective we are moving further away from neighbourhood policing, towards something much more remote.
The closure of these police stations to the public is not merely symbolic; it will have a real impact on people. What will happen, for example, when somebody in the centre of Shipley or Bingley sees something that they want or need to report to the police, but they do not
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happen to have the phone number to call at hand? What will happen to people who want to hand in lost property? What will happen when courts ask people to report to a local police station as a condition of bail? What will happen when, say, a motorist is asked to take their documents to a local police station? The answer for many people in my constituency will be that they cannot do so, because there will be nowhere to go locally. People will probably end up having to go to the divisional headquarters in Keighley. Surely that is unacceptable.
No doubt the Minister will say that those are operational matters that are best left to the police, without Government interference. I would certainly welcome a move towards allowing the police to work without Government interference, but West Yorkshire police does not want to take that decision. In a letter sent to me on 18 March, Chief Constable Colin Cramphorn says:
"I of course understand your concerns and indeed your unhappiness; none of us are happy about making cuts but we have been left no choice. This year's budget settlement, together with the failure to apply the needs based funding formula has cost West Yorkshire Police £15 million."
There is now talk in the local newspapers of West Yorkshire police needing to find savings of more than £17 million. It is clear from that letter that we are not talking about an operational decision entered into willingly by the police, but something that has been forced on them by the Government's inadequate funding. The police have said they are going ahead simply because they need to save £700,000 in their budget.
The police are placing the blame for the closures on the Government, so could the Minister explain why the funding for West Yorkshire police has left it so strapped for cash that it needs to take such drastic measures? Are we seeing another example of the Government presiding over feast and then famine in our public services? What will the Minister do to make up the chronic shortfall in funding for West Yorkshire police?
I am not entirely sure how West Yorkshire police has calculated a saving of £700,000 from closing these police station help desks. The force has said that the police stations themselves will not close and that they will still be used as operating bases. They will still be open, lit and heated; it is just that the public will not be able to have access to them. I therefore do not see how any savings can be made on the buildings.
West Yorkshire police has also said that it intends to avoid redundancies, so it appears that there will be no saving on staff costs either. Without savings on the buildings or on staff costs, I am not entirely sure how the figure of £700,000 was reached. Perhaps the Minister will be able to help me out and explain how such savings can be made without the closure of the buildings or staff cuts. Many people are concerned that the closure of the police stations will follow shortly to realise these savings. I intend to take up that point with the assistant chief constable when I meet him on 5 May to discuss the closures further.
The closure of the help desk at Shipley is even more of a scandal. It has already been closed for weeks, for refurbishmentyes, refurbishment. West Yorkshire police has spent tens of thousands of pounds
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refurbishing the help desk at Shipley, yet it will not even reopen to the public so that we can see it in all its splendour and glory. Surely the Minister must agree that that is a scandalous waste of taxpayers' money and more waste in our public services.
The Minister might also be interested to know that, at a time when West Yorkshire police has had to close these help desks, it is delivering an eight-page newspaper to every household in the county. Surely if money needs to be saved, that should be the first thing to go. The newspaper does not even inform people of the closure of the help desks. You could not make it up, Mr. Cummings. Do the Government encourage their money to be spent on that wasteful propaganda or does the Minister agree that a police force should not be able to afford to dish out a newspaper full of propaganda that nobody is interested in when it cannot even afford to keep its police station help desks open?
West Yorkshire police says that the help desks to close have been chosen because fewer than 100 people a week use them. That might be the case, but it does not reflect the importance that help desks have as a reassurance to the local community. The small number of people who use them is also due to their opening hours. Bingley police station is open from 9 am to l pm, Monday to Saturday, while Shipley police station's opening hours are only slightly more generous, with an extra two hours in the afternoon.
If the police can afford to open the stations to the public for only four hours a day, which bright spark decided that the best hours to open were between 9 am and 1 pm, when the fewest crimes are committed and most people are at work? No wonder hardly anybody is using the help desks. Has there been some encouragement to open the help desks at the most inconvenient times, so that we have fewer operational police stations and an excuse to get rid of them? Does the Minister agree that these stations should be open at hours that suit the public, not the people working in them?
If all these police stations are to be closed to the public for good, surely a trial run could be held with them opening in the evening to see how many people used them then. We could then ascertain whether people would use the local station if they had the opportunity to do so. Would the Minister agree to fund such a trial, keeping those stations open in the evening for a limited time to see how they were used?
The closures were forced through without public consultation, and with no one from the police authority or the senior ranks of West Yorkshire police even having the decency to come to Shipley and Bingley to explain why the help desks were being closed. If it was such a good idea to close them, I would have expected someone to explain the rationale behind the decision and to tell the local community why it was such a good idea.
People in my constituency feel extremely strongly about the matter. I have conducted one survey after another in my constituency, and crime and the fear of crime is constantly said to be the most important issue. Keeping local police stations open, even for a few hours a day, would at least give people the reassurance that the police were close at hand and that they cared about crime in the local community.
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A 900-signature petition from people concerned about the closure of the help desks was collected in only a few days by local residents Andrew Rowley and David Herdson, to whom I am grateful. It was presented to me last week. The fact that they were able to collect so many signatures in such a short time shows the strength of feeling in my constituency about the closure of the help desks; it shows how important they are in reassuring the local community. Some who signed the petition had used the police stations and some had not, but all felt that it was important that they should be able to do so.
The Minister could prevent the closures by giving West Yorkshire the necessary funding. The £15 million cut referred to by the chief constable in his letter to me would be extremely welcome, as it would safeguard the stations. Even £700,000 would keep them open to the public. Only £100,000 would keep the two stations in my constituency open to the public; that is all that would be needed to safeguard those two help desks. Given that the cost to West Yorkshire police of its unnecessary merger with other forces has been calculated at £50 million, with a nationwide cost of about £500 million, that is a drop in the ocean.
Keeping police stations open to the public is surely far more important than spending money on new logos and mottos for a regional police force. If the Minister were to ask my constituents, or even his, what else could be done with the money, how many of them does he think would ask for a regional police force? Does he not think that most would prefer to see the money spent on more police officers, and allowing more police stations to remain open for longer? I believe that the stations should be open for longer, not closed. Not only is it a bad move, it is a move in the wrong direction. I therefore urge the Minister to find the money to keep the police stations open. This issue demonstrates to us all how important neighbourhood policing is to the Government.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) on obtaining this debate. He is right that in his constituency and in mineand, I believe, in every constituencycrime and the fear of crime is a top priority. It is certainly a Government priority to ensure that we deliver greater safety and security to our communities. He is also right that a matter of such intense debate in his locality should be brought to Parliament, so that his and his constituents' views and concerns can be aired, and I congratulate him on doing so.
The hon. Gentleman anticipated one aspect of my response early in his speech. The management of the police estate in West Yorkshire, the allocation of resources and budget decisions, and the ownership of police stations and how they function is a matter for local decision-takingit is a matter for the chief police constable and the police authority, although they should do it in a way that is open to public scrutiny and debate. The hon. Gentleman referred also to the fact that the assistant chief constable is anxious to enter into
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discussions with him and his colleagues. People want to have ready access to the police service. It is an important aspect of modern policing, so any change in the way that services are delivered should be taken only after surveys and appropriate consultation have been undertaken. That was certainly the case in relation to access to police station help desks in West Yorkshire.
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the opening times of help desks is not the sole determinant of the effectiveness or accessibility of the police. There are other more modern methods of taking the police service out into the community in a more accessible wayin shops on the high street, in kiosks and in mobile police stations, which are particularly relevant and helpful in rural areas. We need to get the right balance between access to the service and the visible presence of police officers and community support officers on the street. None the less, I applaud the hon. Gentleman's support for neighbourhood policing.
West Yorkshire police authority's decision was informed by research undertaken by Thornton management service, which was commissioned by the police authority to investigate the number of visitors attending front-counter help desks at police stations throughout West Yorkshire. That commission was the result of data provided by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary comparing the proportion of personnel working in various functions across the country. The HMIC data highlighted the fact that West Yorkshire had a higher than average proportion of personnel working in help-desks functions. Not only did the consultants gather data; they also made observations about the way in which the help desks were used. They concluded that, for reasons of efficiency, it made sense to close some desks, particularly those with low levels of activity. It was not done simply to close the service; it was done because it would allow the staff and resources currently used to keep those desks open to be redeployed.
That required not only number crunching but professional judgment and local knowledge. Although the criteria used to judge low activity was fewer than 100 visits a week, regard was given to the circumstances of the area. For example, although Todmorden police station had fewer than 100 visits a week, it remains open because it is in a more remote area. It is worth recording that the consultants found one station that had 54 visits a week by members of the public, but that 2,190 visits a week were made to another.
The police authority decided to consider the efficiency and effectiveness of the system to ensure that resources are used to the fullest effect. Like the hon. Gentleman, I have a list of the police stations that are affected. Most of those that are to remain open had help desks that were already open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They will continue to provide that service.
The hon. Gentleman noted that the help desk at the Bingley police station was open only from 9 am till 1 pm. He invited me to say that if it was open for longer, more people would visit it. That may be true, but opening it for longer would require more resources; it would be more expensive. Again, that is a decision for the police authority.
I emphasise that West Yorkshire police has assured me that it is listening to the concerns of the hon. Gentleman and others. Assistant Chief Constable
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Crompton has written to Members of Parliament and local authority councillors to explain the changes and invite dialogue. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is taking up that offer on 5 May, I think
Paul Goggins : That date is close to but just after local elections. The meeting will give the hon. Gentleman an opportunity to raise several of the points that he has raised today. He asked a perfectly legitimate question, which I cannot answer, about why money has been spent on refurbishing Shipley when, he alleges, that resource will not be used properly. I do not know the answer to that; I trust the hon. Gentleman's assertion in this debate, but he will get a better answer from Assistant Chief Constable Crompton than I can give him. He will also be able to ask him how the figure of £700,000 was estimated as the overall saving, and about several other practical issues.
Not everyone shares the hon. Gentleman's viewnot even everyone in his party. I noticed with interest a report in the Brighouse Echoa journal which I regularly look aton 14 April, I think, which quoted the Conservative candidate for the Brighouse ward in next month's council elections, Alan Taylor, as saying that
It went on to say that he claimed there had been "posturing and over reaction" to the proposed closure. I do not allege that the hon. Gentleman is posturing or overreacting, but there is clearly a debate to be had. There will be concerns within and across parties. The dialogue offered by the assistant chief constable is welcome.
Most people contact the police by telephone. We should encourage them to do that and to do it in an appropriate way. With the commitment to neighbourhood policing, we want not only for there to be telephone contact, but for officers to be known to local people by name, for mobile phone numbers to be available so that ready contact can be made, and higher visibility of officers on the street. All that is important in taking work forward.
The question of reducing and, in some places, closing police station help desks needs to be set against the overall record of the West Yorkshire police authority and the police officers in its area. The build-up of resources, their effectiveness and their deployment to reduce crime and make the area safer are impressive in the hon. Gentleman's area, as is the commitment to neighbourhood policing. West Yorkshire had a record 5,691 police officers in September 2005, which is 482 more than in March 1997 and an increase of 60 within a year. West Yorkshire is deeply committed to the introduction of community support officers and the development of their role. There were 433 CSOs there by last September, and those numbers will rise, not least with the Chancellor's commitment in the Budget to bring forward money to ensure that we can recruit CSOs in even greater numbers.
There is a strong commitment to neighbourhood policing, which is clearly a great priority for the Government. We recognise that citizens and
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communities want local policing that enables greater police understanding of local priorities and problems and enables them to tackle the issues that are most important to local people. We have committed ourselves to working with the police in West Yorkshire and elsewhere to ensure that neighbourhood policing is introduced to every community, including those in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, by April 2007. Initially, we thought that it might be 2008 before that development could occur, but the Chancellor's Budget commitment has enabled us to bring matters forward.
When neighbourhood policing teams are operating nationwide, communities will have access to policing services through a named point of contact. I accept that front desks and help desks are important, but it is that contact and access to individual police officers that is at the heart of our neighbourhood policing strategy, and that is what will make a difference. I am informed by West Yorkshire police that it has set up the framework for neighbourhood policing, which has increased local access to police throughout West Yorkshire. Teams of officers and community support officers already offer a highly visible and popular service. Increasing numbers of people are attending surgeries at police contact points. These are some of the innovations that I mentioned. They are held in accessible locations such as shops, schools and places of worship. West Yorkshire is firmly committed to rolling out these new and more modern places of contact.
West Yorkshire police has also recently established a neighbourhood policing website, which provides relevant, up-to-date information and a means of direct contact for people in every neighbourhood. Our constituents increasingly use new technology and go on to the internet to gain more information about their local police and public services, which is a good thing and will give more immediate contact.
West Yorkshire police has performed impressively on crime reduction. The latest crime figures for West Yorkshire show considerable improvement. A comparison of the figures for 200405 with those for 200304 shows that robbery offences are down 41 per cent., burglaries are down 37 per cent., and the theft of motor vehicles is down 28 per cent. These are impressive developments in West Yorkshire, which I am sure that the hon. Gentleman applauds, as do I, because it comes from the determined and focused efforts of police in his area.
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The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of funding and budgets; I have responded to debates in this place secured by Members from West Yorkshire. To be clear, the general Government grant for 200607 for West Yorkshire is £306.2 million. That is an increase of 3.2 per cent. over the comparable figure for 200506. However, a number of other elements need to be added to that. There was £800,000 in adjustments from budgets in earlier years. The police authority will also receive £4.32 million in a special formula grant, which is a consolidation of four former specific grants that will enable the authority to operate more flexibly. It will also benefit from about £41.6 million in funding for specific initiatives and capital provision. Therefore, the final police authority budget for 200607 is £380.2 million, which is a cash increase of £14.5 million compared with the year before.
I acknowledge, as I have in earlier debates, that if a strict application of the needs-based formula had been made, an extra £14.8 million would have been given to West Yorkshire police. We have to make a balanced judgment when it comes to ensuring that needs are met and that we have stability in the police service throughout the country. That is why we have floors and ceilings in relation to the way in which we set our budget. We want to retain that stability in the system, but we also want to move, as and when we can, to a situation in which the needs formula is more closely adopted.
The hon. Gentleman invited me to give an extra £700,000 to West Yorkshire police authority, but that is money that I do not have. As I said at the start, this is a matter for local decision making. However, even if we had been able to follow the needs assessment more clearly and give more money to West Yorkshire, questions of efficiency still arise. If there is inefficiency in the way in which the front-desk service is provided in police stations in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and if it needs to be made more efficient, that should be dealt with by his police authority. I would expect local Members of Parliament to look for those efficiencies.
I conclude by saying that this is a local matter for local debate and dialogue. I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman is engaging with that and I am sure that he will look forward to his meeting on 5 May.