Lack of response to Leighton Buzzard armed robbery is ‘powerful’ example of why Beds Police need more cash

Policing was raised in The Commons
Policing was raised in The Commons

A Leighton Buzzard businessman who desperately called 999 for help as his colleague was being threatened with a metal bar by armed robbers provides “powerful” support to demands for more police funding in Bedfordshire.

That was the admission of Policing Minister Nick Hurd yesterday who accepted Home Office finances were under “a great deal of pressure”.

Andrew Selous MP

Andrew Selous MP

He was responding in the House of Commons to a passionate plea from a clearly frustrated South West Beds MP Andrew Selous, who used the armed robbery as an example of the impact of Beds Police’s funding crisis.

The robbery happened back in February, and the businessman told the LBO at the time “God help you if you’re in Leighton Buzzard ringing 999, because the police won’t come in time.”

When the LBO met with police chiefs last month, they admitted: “What happened to that gentleman is unacceptable and we can only apologise he didn’t get that right level of service.”

During the Commons debate, Mr Selous said “things were getting serious” in the face of “massive increases” in crime.

Policing Minister Nick Nurd

Policing Minister Nick Nurd

He claimed police protection and response times in Hertfordshire and Thames Valley were much better and that it was time to stand up for his constituents.

He also said the public’s rejection of a bid by former Beds Police and Crime Commissioner Olly Martins to increase council tax was a mistake, although he was criticial of the way the referendum was put to taxpayers.

He also slammed the Government for spending £5m on RAF centenary celebrations, when Beds had a £10m funding shortfall.

Mr Selous said: “For many years, Bedfordshire Police were adversely affected by what the Home Office called damping. That meant that they got between £3 million and £4 million a year less than the Government’s funding formula said they should receive.

The lack of police response to an armed robbery in Leighton Buzzard was used in the Commons debate

The lack of police response to an armed robbery in Leighton Buzzard was used in the Commons debate

“Bedfordshire is in the lowest quartile, for both budget and officers per head of population, of all police forces in England and Wales. It also has one of the smallest budgets in England and Wales, at £102 million.

“As a Bedfordshire Member of Parliament, I am not happy that residents of Hertfordshire and the Thames valley area receive higher levels of protection and response from their police forces than the people of Bedfordshire get from theirs.”

After making numerous speeches on the funding problems before, a clearly irritated Mr Selous added: “I am frankly getting tired of wasting my breath. Enough is enough as far as the people of Bedfordshire are concerned; things are getting serious.

“Comparing the period from 1 April 2016 to 31 August 2017 with the same period for the previous year, there was a 48.9% increase in the number of burglaries of residential homes and dwellings in Bedfordshire.

“That is a massive increase. There has been a 24% increase in the number of calls to the police requiring immediate response by officers, and a 12.2% increase in crime.

“On the increase in calls requiring immediate response, a businessman in Leighton Buzzard was recently threatened with a metal bar, but when he called 999 no officers were able to attend. As the Member of Parliament I am not happy for that situation to continue in my area.

“The effect of damping on Bedfordshire police — the £3 million to £4 million every year that the Government’s formula said we should get, but which we have never received — has come home to roost in an ugly and unacceptable way.

“Something I want to say to the people of Bedfordshire is that a couple of years ago we all had the opportunity to do something about the situation, because we had a vote to increase the police precept.

“I voted for it, because I want more officers on the streets, and I know that it must be paid for. I do not want to go over ancient history, but unfortunately the vote was probably not put to the people in the best way, as they were charged and then asked for permission.

“I do not think that people liked that; we were not able to get things the right way round. However, I voted for it, and if the vote had gone through there would be more funding for Bedfordshire police, and more officers. To be fair, I think that the people of Bedfordshire need to think about that, should the opportunity come around again.

“In Leighton Buzzard, at the police station that we used to have, many more sergeants and officers than now used to be based there on a regular basis; yet we are all paying more tax as a nation.

“In 2011-12 there were 1,264 police officers in Bedfordshire. There are now 1,124. That is a decrease of 140. We used to have 128 police community support officers; we now have 53. That is a decrease of 75.

“There used to be 864 police staff; there are now 758. That is a decrease of 106. We need to remember the stresses on police officers. There is burn-out and real strain; and people leave the force as a result.

“I give credit to our current police and crime commissioner, Kathryn Holloway; in her project of boosting the frontline, she managed to get an extra 96 officers on to the streets last year, and another 100 this year. That is the right thing to do.

“I want to tell the Government, however, that things are serious.

“A few days ago, I saw that they had allocated £5 million for a 100th anniversary celebration [for the RAF]. The event in question is worthy, and I am not quibbling as to its worth. However, I should like the Minister to take the message to the Treasury that we are now in an era of hard choices.

“I am sure that the anniversary is worthwhile; but the £5 million is half of the £10 million that Bedfordshire police need. Other colleagues present would fight me for it, and of course there must be a rational and fair way of allocating sums; but in an era of hard choices, when we need money for frontline police forces, can we really afford £5 million to celebrate a centenary, however worthy it may be? I should say that we cannot; we need to put the money where it is really needed.

“We have wonderful officers. I want in particular to give credit to Inspector Craig Gurr. He is a terrier on behalf of my constituents, and I rate him highly. I take the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) about the efficiency of officers.

“A few years ago Bedfordshire Police were one of the first forces to issue officers with BlackBerrys. I remember hearing from the Chief Constable and the Police Minister at the time that issuing those BlackBerrys led to a 12.5% increase in the time that each officer could spend on the streets.

“Of course efficiency and productivity are important. However, the figures show that recorded crime is rising in Leighton Buzzard, Dunstable and Houghton Regis. I am also well aware of the crime that isolated rural communities face; so I welcome the new rural crime force that our current commissioner has brought in.”

Police Minister Nick Hurd said Mr Selous had made a “powerful case” on behalf of Bedfordshire. He added: “His example of Leighton Buzzard was powerful. The system is under a great deal of pressure. As the shadow Minister pointed out, we have a devolved system, so these are local decisions about how to allocate inevitably finite resources in very difficult circumstances.

“However, I have to say to colleagues that, having just completed an exercise of speaking to or visiting every single one of the 43 forces in England and Wales, I am struck by the degree to which police and crime commissioners and police chiefs are absolutely determined to keep the community policing model as core business, as it were, and I join my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire in saluting Kathryn Holloway’s work in Bedfordshire.

“The settlement at the moment is flat cash for all police forces. We recognise, as I have said publicly, that demand has grown and is changing. We are also extremely sensitive to the strain that the police are under. Whenever I visit a police force, I have a meeting with frontline officers, and the message from those officers could not be clearer: they feel extremely stretched. They are working very hard under very difficult circumstances indeed.

“That is why we are conducting a demand and resilience review, led by myself. I will be visiting or speaking to every single force in England and Wales. The review will update our understanding of demand and how it is being managed, the implications of flat cash force by force and the strategy for reserves, which are public money. The last audited numbers in 2016 showed reserves of £1.8 billion. That figure is now down a bit, to perhaps around £1.6 billion, but it is still public money, and we need to know the plans for it.

“That review will be assessed in parallel with the fair funding review that colleagues will have tracked and that is of particular interest to Suffolk, Bedfordshire and other counties that feel they have been on the wrong end of the allocation in recent years. It will come together as a piece of analysis and work with the provisional grant report and provisional settlement for 2018-19, which I expect to come to the House before the year end.”

What’s your view? Do you think funding for Bedfordshire will improve in the future? Email news@lbobserver.co.uk