A common sore point I hear about from my constituents is the lack of police on the street and the dire state of police funding. This is particularly bad in smaller towns and villages, where many feel crime is not dealt with effectively and there is a real lack of faith in the system. I raised this issue in Parliament last week, asking the minister to engage more in supporting policing of small towns; whilst money has been poured in nationally, and we have seen improvements, there is still lots to do. Resources need to be spread as far as Penzance and the Isles of Scilly, not just to the larger towns and cities of the South West.
I meet regularly with the police and they stress to me that people MUST report every incident they see, even if they sometimes feel that it is not acted upon. The police tell me that the intelligence they collect is really useful in helping them get to the root of the problem, rather than just dealing with the individual on the street corner causing the problem.
You can read my contribution below:
I congratulate the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) on securing this important debate. It is great to have the opportunity to talk about policing and to commend our policemen and women, who do a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. There is no doubt that they face difficulties. We have fewer police and police community support officers, and that has created problems. I remind hon. Members and everyone who is listening that if Labour had not left the finances in such a state, perhaps that would not have happened. [Interruption.] Labour Members can argue about that, but the bottom line is that if the money is not there, we cannot employ the police we need. I have not met a politician on either side of the House who wants fewer police and to make the environment more difficult for them. Difficult decisions had to be made because the money was not there. We have to accept that and work together to make our communities safer.
I meet my police a lot and spend a lot of time with them. It annoys my police and crime commissioner that I have such a close relationship with them. They tell me not just that there is a lack of cash—there certainly is—and that they have lost lots of police officers, although that is certainly the case, but that crime has changed dramatically in the period we are talking about. They have to spend a huge amount of resources on counter-terrorism, even in west Cornwall and the far south-west. Hon. Members might think that it is not an issue there, but people come in through our ports and harbours, and they need to be followed, arrested and dealt with.
The police also say that they are spending a lot of time and money investigating historical sex crime and abuse. We must recognise that this debate is about not just money but attention being needed elsewhere.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech, as usual. Does he agree that we hear a lot about rurality in this place, but sometimes towns next to large conurbations have resources sucked out of them? Police stations are closing in Solihull, yet resources are going directly to Birmingham all the time. That is sometimes a huge challenge for those towns.
I welcome that intervention. I assure my hon. Friend that every person in Cornwall knows that argument. For a long time, including before we came to power, resources have been concentrated in Exeter and Devon, rather than in Cornwall, and that has always been a bone of contention. We have argued strongly that resources are needed right down as far as Penzance and the Isles of Scilly.
There is no doubt that in towns in Cornwall, there has been a rise in crime—sometimes violent crime, but certainly drug-related crime. I have talked about the change in the way that things are happening, and certainly drugs are moving around differently. The Government and the police and crime commissioner have made resources available, and have concentrated them in areas such as Penzance and elsewhere in Cornwall where people just did not feel safe. Things were going on in broad daylight that would not have gone on in the past. I completely accept that as we reduce numbers and the visibility of the police, other things are allowed to happen, which much be addressed.
Money has been poured in, and we have seen improvements, although there is still lots to do. The key thing is to communicate to the public that they must report every incident they see, even if they sometimes feel that that is not acted upon. The police tell me that the intelligence they collect is really useful in helping them get to the root of the problem, rather than just deal with the individual on the street corner causing a problem.
I pay tribute to Cornwall Council, the safer communities teams and the police in Cornwall for working together effectively over the past 18 months or so to address these problems, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Solihull (Julian Knight) said, that has sucked resources from other parts of my constituency. I ask the Minister to consider the audit that the hon. Member for Batley and Spen recommended. As resources have been reduced and focused on areas with particular problems, we have begun to see low but concerning levels of crime, antisocial behaviour, and alcohol and drug misuse in our very small towns, and people are not used to that. I represent a town that was always awarded the title of safest town in the country, but now people come to me because they are concerned about things going—at night, but also in the daytime—that they are not used to seeing. When that happens, it does not just make life uncomfortable for people, but harms the individuals who are caught up in that behaviour. There are opportunities that were not there before.
I ask the Minister to have a look at what is going on in very small towns where we are seeing problems. She should speak to police chiefs about how they will address that, and about what resources they can be given to put people on the street and to engage with the community. I have hosted meetings in St Ives and Helston with businesses, local communities and the police to talk about how communities and businesses can know when to report stuff, what to report and who they should report it to. It is really important that the police know where their resources are needed.
No one in this Chamber would deny that people deserve to feel safe and live in a place they can feel proud of. When they see concerning levels of antisocial behaviour and drug and alcohol misuse, their feeling of pride and safety is significantly compromised.
Will the hon. Gentleman also consider the impact that antisocial behaviour has on local businesses and restaurants? After a stabbing in Mitcham town centre only two weeks ago, the restaurateur of the local Italian restaurant said that his business dropped by 20%. Even though the stabbing was linked to gang issues that were of no consequence to the rest of the community, it made people feel unsafe, and they no longer wanted to go to his restaurant.
I welcome that intervention. High streets are in big enough trouble as it is without all this stuff going on. In St Ives and Penzance, people started to put stuff on Facebook. People who know St Ives will know that it is a massive tourist attraction, as are Helston and the Lizard. I am concerned about what the people putting stuff on Facebook are doing to their local economy by suggesting that those towns are not places to visit. The hon. Lady is absolutely right that there is a real impact on the local economy, which we must obviously work to support more effectively.
We do not want our families and children to be confronted by these problems or—dare I say it?—dragged into them. Policing is obviously important, but keeping people safe is about much more than how the police do their job and how visible they are. Will the Minister also look at what can be done to support local initiatives, often in the voluntary sector, that work with the police and the local authorities to nip these issues in the bud, and to support people who would otherwise be drawn into the criminal justice system or engage in behaviour that can be a slippery slope? We have all seen that in families that we represent.
Can the Minister talk to police chiefs about what is going on in rural areas? There is growing concern, and it is absolutely right that we nip the problem in the bud. I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the issue; it is the right debate to have. Hopefully, we can work across the House to make our constituencies safer, and to make them places of which we can be proud.