PMQs review: Hague offers jokes but no answers

Harman turns to the NHS as Hague steps in for Cameron.

With David Cameron at the G20 summit in Mexico and Nick Clegg at the UN summit in Rio, it was left to William Hague, who is First Secretary of State as well as Foreign Secretary, to hold the fort at today's PMQs, with Harriet Harman deputising for Ed Miliband (as is traditional on such occasions).

The session began slowly, with several banal questions from Harman on Burma (she asked Hague whether he would join her in expressing admiration for Aung San Suu Kyi). In response, Hague pointed out that he was the first European foreign minister to visit Burma earlier this year. However, the encounter took a partisan turn when Harman raised the NHS, traditionally a trump card for Labour at PMQs.

Hague managed to respond adequately enough to reports that cost-cutting NHS trusts are rationing care (he described it as "totally unacceptable" and pointed out that the Secretary of State can intervene) but failed to rebut Harman's claim that Cameron had broken his promise to increase the number of midwives. In response, in a series of references to Rebekah Brooks's infamous text to the PM, the deputy Labour leader quipped that before the election it was "Yes, we Cam". Now it's "No we can't." She added: "the Prime Minister said he could sum up his priority in three letters: NHS. Isn't it more like LOL?" The text was a political gift to Labour but Harman's jokes felt forced and fell rather flat.

It was Hague who had the line of the session when he noted Ed Balls's absence and quipped that he was off commissioning another poll into what people think of him, causing even Harman to laugh. The shadow chancellor, whose PMQs taunts routinely unsettle Cameron, will be pleased to know he was missed.

But on a more serious note, today's session was a reminder of why the NHS, even more than the economy, could prove an electoral headache for the Tories. Cameron worked hard to convince the electorate that the Tories could be trusted with the NHS and many now feel understandably betrayed. While Hague could deflect Harman's question about midwives with a reference to the doctors' strike (which Harman then condemned), that's not a trick Cameron will be able to play come 2015. "It's always the same, Labour builds up the NHS and Tories drag it down," said Harman at one point. The danger for the Tories is that most voters agree with her.

Foreign Secretary William Hague, who replaced David Cameron at today's Prime Minister's Questions. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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