HC Deb 28 March 1984 vol 57 cc346-9
Mr. Chris Smith

I beg to move amendment No. 21, in page 9, line 30, at end insert 'and the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District.'. This amendment addresses itself to the specific problem of the Metropolitan police and their surprising exclusion from the provisions of clause 13. The amendment seeks to require the Metropolitan police, along with all other rating authorities, to consult commercial and industrial ratepayers in the same way that all other local authorities are required to under the Bill. It is worth stating that under the Bill as at present drafted there is just one item of rate and grant-borne expenditure in the entire country that is not subject to statutory consultation with business ratepayers.

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That sole item is police expenditure in London. Unlike all other forms of local authority expenditure, police expenditure is excluded from the process of consultation furthermore, because the police authority for the London area is the Home Secretary, whereas in other parts of the country the police authorities are locally accountable, London will be the only police authority that is not required to consult the ratepayers. Other police authorities are required by clause 13 to consult. The amendment seeks to add the Metropolitan police to the list of authorities that are required to consult under the Bill.

There are two main reasons for the amendment. The first is accountability, which should be a simple matter. At present the Metropolitan police are accountable only to the Home Secretary. They are not accountable to the ratepayers of London. I would like to see the Metropolitan police become accountable to the ratepayers. Meanwhile, the next best thing is to require them, in setting their expenditure, to have some degree of consultation with the ratepayers of London especially as the Metropolitan police are far and away the most expensive police authority in the country per person served and per policeman employed. They cost at least twice as much as the average urban police authority.

In this instance, it is only the commercial and industrial ratepayers that we seek to include. I should have thought that that point would commend itself to the Government. A requirement for some consultation would widen the base of accountability. At the moment, there is no accountability to the people of London except a technical accountability through the answerability of the Home Secretary to Parliament.

The second argument is more important. In Committee, whenever we discussed the cost of the policing operations in London and the needs of London for effective policing, the Government always said that they recognised London's special need for expenditure on policing that was far above the norm for other urban areas. They accepted the fact that London has a special policing need and therefore a special need for expenditure on policing. I would not quarrel with that argument. I recognise that London has a special need in that respect. As a capital city and as—especially in the case of inner London—an area of massive deprivation, London has special problems.

However, it is strange that, although the Government are quite prepared to accept that argument in the case of the Metropolitan police, they are not prepared to accept it as it relates to other forms of local authority expenditure. Under the terms of the Bill, local authorities that spend more than the average urban area on social services, the provision of libraries or any other service are criticised by the Government. However, the Metropolitan police, who are spending more and producing less in terms of efficiency than other local authority services, are praised rather than criticised. Why are the Government prepared to apply those arguments about special need to the Metropolitan police but not prepared to accept them in relation to education, social services or any other local authority service?

At the moment, the Metropolitan police are not obliged to justify their expenditure to anyone other than the Home Secretary. They have a wonderful system that other local authorities, both Labour and Conservative, would dearly love to share. Their expenditure automatically equals their grant-related expenditure assessment. The Metropolitan police cannot go above or below the GRE, because GRE equals expenditure. Bearing that in mind, the Metropolitan police have a special duty to consult the ratepayers of London in a proper fashion.

There is, under the Bill, a process of consultation not with domestic ratepayers but with commercial and industrial ratepayers. Surely—at the very least—the Metropolitan police should be obliged to consult those interests like any other authority. If the police consult those interests they may become more open and more responsive about their expenditure, the efficiency of their operation and their policing decisions.

We challenge the Government to examine the arguments about the cost of policing in London and the needs of London as a capital city and an area of considerable deprivation, and to acknowledge that what is only right and proper for other local authorities should surely be right for this very expensive element of expenditure in our capital city. I hope that the Government will address themselves to those issues.

Mr. Waldegrave

Amendment No. 21 is a bit of a try-on. Those hon. Members who did not have the pleasure of spending 115 hours in Committee with the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), as I did, will have to take it from me that the subject of the Metropolitan police was brought up time after time, when Opposition Members could not think of anything else to talk about. They had one point which at first sight seemed to have substance. That point concerned the unusually expensive nature of policing in London. Opposition Members suggested that the same was true of ILEA. Labour Members also used the point to indulge in a few digs at the Metropolitan police. The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was more restrained in that line than his colleagues, but I regret that he found it necessary to join in. I do not believe that the House accepts the criticism of the Metropolitan police that we have just heard, even though the hon. Gentleman's criticism is more muted than that of some of his hon. Friends.

The "parallel" is not a parallel. The Metropolitan police and the Receiver for the Metropolitan Police District are directly accountable to the House. They are directly accountable to the Home Secretary who is responsible for their budget. The democratic control that the hon. Gentleman rightly requires is exercised by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary, to the House. We should be introducing a peculiar anomaly if we imposed on him a requirement to consult only one section of the community, as the hon. Gentleman acknowledged —ratepayers in London — rather than to answer to the House.

Mr. Chris Smith

Does the Under-Secretary of State accept that the purpose of amendment No. 21 is to say that a second best is better than nothing at all? My ideal would be for the police authority to be directly accountable to the electorate through local authorities in London but as that does not come within the Bill's scope the second best is to seize on the processes of consultation that do exist under the Bill and say that they should apply to the Metropolitan police.

Mr. Waldegrave

I see the hon. Gentleman's argument but to introduce into clear and direct accountability a form of consultation that is designed for local authorities would make confused and unclear what is, at the moment, clear. All ratepayers must know the effect of the Metropolitan police precept. It is provided for in the rate demands rules, which require that the poundages of each precepting authority are shown on the rate demand. We shall be introducing new rules with effect from 1985–86 to ensure that the effect of each major precept, including that for the Receiver for the Metropolitan District Police, is spelt out in terms of the individual's rate bill. Clause 14 ensures that that information will go to all ratepayers, including council tenants and others who do not pay rates direct. This will ensure that both domestic and non-domestic ratepayers ace aware of the consequences of the precept levied by the receiver.

The hon. Gentleman's other argument, which became familiar in Committee, is that if it is right for the Metropolitan police to spend more than other police authorities, why is it not right that the Inner London education authority and other high-spending Labour-controlled authorities in London should spend more than authorities that run similar services elsewhere? At first sight, that seems a good argument but it does not bear close analysis. In regard to ILEA and other councils such as Islington, we try to take account, through the GREs, of the differential costs in London. The hon. Gentleman and I have debated that matter for many weary hours.

The Metropolitan police perform services for the entire country. That is not the case with ILEA or Islington council, although I do not doubt that the latter has a wide-ranging foreign policy. However, it is not commonly thought to offer services outside its area. The Metropolitan police provide the special branch and bear the heavy burden of diplomatic protection and protection of the royal palaces. They receive something called the imperial and national services grant from the Government — a new element of our national finances to me —which contributes to those costs. Those functions partly explain the Metropolitan police's high costs. Moreover, the force pays for many more of its support services than do others. They include property services, transport, communications, computers, catering and payrolls. Such costs are often carried by the local authority in provincial forces. It is estimated that for the Metropolitan police they are well above £100 million a year.

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I hope that the factors that I have outlined will convince the House that a comparison between the Metropolitan police and other forces in terms of expenditure is not real as it ignores the load of work associated with policing the capital, such as demonstrations and terrorism. When we debated this matter in Committee the Christmas terrorist wave was fresh in our memories as was the huge police operation that the Metropolitan police had to put on. Such functions are reflected in the higher ratio of police officers to population in London—there is one officer for every 268 people in London as opposed to one for every 458 people in the rest of England and Wales.

The long established system of the Home Secretary being the police authority for London has served the country and the capital well. I would not want to recommend that the House makes any changes. The Home Secretary comes before the House and is accountable for the Metropolitan police. That system works perfectly well. The hon. Gentleman passed lightly over his criticism of the Metropolitan police, but I am sure many right hon. and hon. Members do not want to leave this short debate with that taste in their mouths. I am sure that most of us accept that the Metropolitan police's work is of a high standard, and admire it. I hope that I have said enough to convince my right hon. and hon. Friends that there is little in the amendment and that, if the hon. Gentleman presses it to a Division, they will reject it. However, I hope that he will be persuaded not to go that far.

Question put and negatived.

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