As my hon. Friend points out, we have lost 571 police officers across the county. We have also lost a number of auxiliary support staff in forensics, criminal investigation and the detective arenas.
In fact, the figures provided by my friends in the Unison branch at Staffordshire police show that the number of forensic investigators is being cut from 24 to 12, which they have said will mean they will be unable to provide the level of support to the frontline police officers needed to gather the evidence to provide for CPS considerations on whether prosecutions are available. Those 12 places are being replaced with nine lower-skilled, lower-paid and lower-graded roles that do not have the necessary technical qualifications to provide support. The forensic investigators have made it quite clear that they want to be able to do their job, to help keep people safe. It is not just about frontline policing, but about the policy family and the public sector family around the police force that can allow for crime to be detected and criminals to be prosecuted.
My hon. Friend has also mentioned the current closure of police stations across Staffordshire. Chief inspectors and assistant chief constables have said to me that the demand for face-to-face interaction with the police is going down, and I fully accept that that is the case. Younger generations now wish to interact digitally through electronics, the telephone system and social media. That is a perfectly reasonable way to interact with the police force, but it should not be an either/or. It should not be that elderly people in my constituency living in Bentilee or Sneyd Green have to, as my hon. Friend pointed out, travel on two buses to the other end of the city to see a police officer.
Although I am grateful that we still have one open police station in Stoke-on-Trent, it is open only between 9 and 5—office hours. If people simply need to interact with the police for a non-crime or non-emergency-related issue, they cannot access the station at the weekend or in the evening. To me, that seems a perverse arrangement that does not make policing feel accessible, even though it might well be. Across the county of Staffordshire, with somewhere between 950,000 and 1 million people, only three police stations remain publicly open between the hours of 9 and 5. I do not care what people’s politics are—I cannot believe that anybody would justify to me that that is, for accessible policing, an appropriate access level for that many people dispersed across a county that is geographically quite different, depending on where one goes.
I represent arguably the most urban part of Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent. I have the city centre of Stoke-on-Trent and the council estate. If one travels down to the rural villages in the constituency of the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths), which has no public transport infrastructure and where there is little ability to travel, suddenly there is no access to policing. Yes, there are PCSOs who do their best, but they are now stretched so thin. The PCSO who regularly visits my office to talk to me about the activity happening in the area will tell me that she will have to walk miles in the course of a day to respond to jobs. On several occasions, she has simply been told, “Don’t respond to that—it is not a priority,” because there are not enough people to respond to crimes.
Over the last couple of months, I have seen a change in the crime that we are dealing with in my constituency. As my hon. Friend pointed out, there has been an increase in knife crime in Stoke-on-Trent. Five years ago, knife crime there was so rare that I doubt whether we had even one or two instances. I have had three stabbings in my constituency in the last six weeks.
I know the Government take this issue seriously—as my hon. Friend pointed out, the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Louth and Horncastle (Victoria Atkins), has met us and is acutely aware of our problems—but those leading on this in our constituencies are not the police, but the colleges, the schools and the third-sector groups that interact with young people. That is not because the police are not interested, but because the resource available to the police, and the capacity within the force, is simply not there to deal with something else on top of all the other parts that they are asked to do.
Although I am grateful that people such as Claire Gagan at Stoke-on-Trent Sixth Form College are taking such an active interest in the safety of our young people, that is not her job—her job is not to ensure that gang violence is dealt with on the streets of Stoke-on-Trent. She is not there to ensure that parents take responsibility for what their children bring into colleges on a day-to-day basis or to regulate gang activity across Stoke-on-Trent. She is doing it because she knows it has to be done, and the police are supporting that, but it is something that an old-fashioned police service should do.
The story of Stoke-on-Trent is that we are actually a safe place. I know that the testimony that has come out of this debate might suggest that we have problems, but, like all cities, we have our bad places and good places. I have been fortunate enough to work with some wonderful police officers, including Karen Stevenson, who looks after the southern part of my constituency, and Mark Barlow and John Owen, who look after the northern part with Superintendent Geoff Moore. They are wonderful people who are genuinely committed to neighbour policing in Stoke-on-Trent in Staffordshire, but they make it clear to us that there is so much more that they want to do. They can just about manage with what they are doing now, but they know there are things that they are simply not doing, and that—with the right resource, support and impetus from Government—they could do to make Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire a much safer place.
It is clear that part of this is about money. Some £38 million has been taken out of the Staffordshire police budget since 2010. The police and crime commissioner has tried to recoup some of that by raising the precept, but the precept goes only so far. When we have mainly band A council tax payers having to fund the 2% levy for adult social care and the 2.9% increase in council tax, and also having to try to pay for policing, the available pool of money to fund all this in Staffordshire simply does not exist, because of the demography and house type that we have in our city.
The Government will have to ask themselves: what more can they directly do? I know the Minister will respond by talking about the extra investment going into policing. More money for the police is welcome, but I ask the Minister to bear in mind that it is not just about more money for more police. One of the problems raised with me when I was out with the police on Operation Disrupt with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South—we very much enjoyed the chainsaw—was the question of where we would put more police officers coming into Stoke-on-Trent.
The police stations are no longer functioning and the police have moved into fire stations, so the fire stations are now at capacity. The community spaces in private finance initiative fire stations have been taken over. The chief inspector mentioned that she does not have the money to buy lockers for police to put their equipment in. It is all well and good having police officers, but we are not dealing with the long-term problems around police numbers if we cannot give them the resources, locker space, equipment, uniform and the training that they need to develop in their own careers.
It is not just the police numbers. Perhaps the Minister could explain how much of this new money will go into extra forensic investigators, extra detective support activity, digital crime prevention and the people who go out and tidy up crime scenes in homes after police have had to do raids. I recently had an incident in which, after one of the stabbings, the police had to follow a suspect into a private residence by kicking the back door down. The police had to pick up the bill for fixing that door and find the resources to replace it. These sorts of things have an impact on policing budgets and activity but are not simply sorted by having more police officers.
Of course, there is also the age-old problem of the magistrates and court system, which I know is outside the Minister’s immediate responsibility—I am sure he will be given that responsibility one day, as he demonstrates his brilliance in his Department. More police arresting more criminals means we need bigger custody suites, more custody sergeants and more space at magistrates courts to process those individuals who have been caught in crime.
I was told by a custody visitor only last week that police now spend more time waiting at the custody suite in Etruria in my constituency, because there are not enough custody sergeants to process all the people whom the police are rightly picking up for the crimes they commit. It means that they are not out on the street picking up the next lag who has done something wrong or providing the security that my older and vulnerable residents, and my communities, feel that they need.
I wonder whether I can tempt the Minister to comment on the fact that, out of every police and crime commissioner in the country, Matthew Ellis has the largest percentage office cost of them all—bigger than the West Midlands, Northumbria or South Yorkshire? It is a huge police force, and bigger than the Met. He spends £1.4 million, which, as a percentage of the money available to him, is almost 10% of his total. I wish the Minister would take that up.
I know the commissioner has said he is retiring at the next election, and I wish him well. I assume he is trying to get into this place—again, I wish him well—but surely every penny should be spent on trying to get more police, more frontline support and more officers out on the street, and not on public relations people sitting in a commissioner’s office.