Sarah Olney – 2020 Speech on Policing in South-West London

The speech made by Sarah Olney, the Liberal Democrat MP for Richmond Park, in the House of Commons on 7 October 2020.

I am grateful for the opportunity to debate this important issue on the Floor of the House. I want to start by paying tribute to our fantastic police officers in the south west command unit, who continue to provide exceptional service to local residents and who have gone above and beyond to keep our communities safe during lockdown. I would like to take this opportunity to thank Commander Sally Benatar for her years of service and wish her well in the future. I welcome Lis Chapple, the new lead of the south west command unit, and look forward to a productive working relationship with her.

Within the four boroughs that make up the south west command unit of the Metropolitan police, we have three of the four safest boroughs in London, including Richmond and Kingston, which I represent. The relative safety of our streets is, of course, something that local residents value highly and is part of what makes south-west London such an attractive and popular place to live, work and study. Those three relatively safe suburban boroughs, however, share the command unit with Wandsworth, with all the complexities and additional demands on policing that an inner-city borough represents. The resources of the south west command unit are therefore frequently skewed towards one borough, with implications for the remainder.

I want to state clearly that I support the Met’s goals of targeting violence reduction and that I absolutely want to see it putting all the resources needed towards saving young lives. The recent, tragic case of Archie Beston in my constituency has highlighted how quickly and unpredictably violence can occur, the devastating impact it has on those who are left behind and the importance of a rapid police response. My heart goes out to Archie’s family and friends, and I pray that the sentencing of the perpetrators later this month will help them to feel that justice has been done.

I remain concerned that, with scarce resources being targeted towards the most serious crimes, we lack sufficient officers to provide the kind of everyday policing that is so necessary to keeping our streets safe. I have written to the Mayor to share my concerns, and he has responded with information about the various measures that he has taken to increase police resources across the capital. He was unable to reassure me that we might see a future boost to police numbers in Richmond and Kingston because of the impact of the coronavirus on local authority budgets. That is not, of course, a problem confined to the capital, but in London, a shortfall in funding will mean that our police budget has to be cut. The Mayor’s estimate is that, unless the deficit can be addressed, our policing budget will be cut by £109.3 million over the next two years. This means even scarcer resources being targeted, by necessity, at the most serious crimes, leaving comparatively safer boroughs, such as those in the south-west, with even fewer resources for everyday policing.

In addition to the impact on funding, it is important to consider what impact the coronavirus has had on demand for policing. It will not have escaped the Minister’s notice that footfall in central London has dropped ​dramatically since March, and has not yet recovered, and the considerable resources that were once dedicated to policing the shops and leisure outlets of central London are not required in the same numbers that they once were. By contrast, footfall in suburban areas such as south-west London has increased considerably. During lockdown, in common with many other areas across London and the country as a whole, south-west London saw a big increase in antisocial behaviour.

On Richmond Green, Barnes Riverside, and Canbury Gardens in Kingston, crowds gathered to play loud music, get drunk and—most distressingly to local residents —private gardens were used when no public toilets were available. Large crowds attracted drug dealers and drug use, and those were only the most noticeable changes. Local police report an increase in cases of domestic violence, and incidents involving mental health issues. Crime, antisocial behaviour and other incidents requiring a police presence have shifted from our city centres to our suburbs. A policing demand profile that prioritises city centres may not be an appropriate template in future, and I urge the Home Office to work with the Metropolitan police and the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime to review how resources are allocated.

I wish to speak about how the absence of a physical police presence affects communities. Although we are far from unique in having this issue, the rise in antisocial behaviour that we experienced in Richmond and Kingston over the summer has made residents extremely anxious about their safety. Public drunkenness is extremely intimidating for everybody, but especially for lone females and the elderly. It is frightening to imagine that there is nobody to protect someone confronted by an unpredictable and aggressive individual. The same is true for drug dealing and drug taking. It takes only one incident to make people feel afraid of walking in their own streets and neighbourhoods, and that can have an incredibly repressive effect on people’s lives.

For young people, the threat of being mugged in our boroughs is real. I applaud some of the community initiatives that have sprung up to help young people protect themselves and their belongings, especially the excellent Mothers Against Muggings initiative in my constituency. Young people should not be made to feel they are responsible if they become victims of a crime, and neither should they have to curb their educational, sporting or social activities because of a fear of going out. A police presence, or at least the knowledge that the police are nearby, can go a long way towards helping people go about their lives with confidence. We can also deter crimes from being committed. That is not just better for those who avoid becoming victims of crime, with all the mental and physical anguish that results from that; it is good for those who are deterred from committing an act that may burden them with a criminal record.

These are anxious times everywhere, and it is not surprising that people are more concerned than usual about their safety, or that police should have had more demands on their time than before the pandemic. However, the feeling that the community is not being well served by the police has, in parts of my constituency, reached a point at which some residents are canvassing support for a privately funded police force to patrol specific areas. I wish to state publicly and clearly that I am completely opposed to any such initiative. Everybody ​has the right to safety and justice, regardless of their background or income, and it should not be reserved specifically for those who can pay for it. I am deeply concerned about the implications of the interests of customers of a private police force being enforced against those who have not paid for it. Will the Minister join me in opposing such initiatives, and reinforce the Government’s commitment to provide sufficient resources to maintain the safety of our streets?

If people do not live in fear of going out into their communities, they are more likely to engage with people of different backgrounds, to provide support to their neighbours, to shop in local shops, and to contribute to a safer, friendlier neighbourhood that is the best possible deterrent to crime and antisocial behaviour. Will the Government make a commitment to neighbourhood policing as the best way of building strong communities that prevent crime and support all their residents? Will they review policing demand profiles in response to the pandemic, and—above all—will they ensure that policing authorities across the country, and especially in London and the four boroughs of the south-west, have the resources they need to police effectively everywhere?