HC Deb 05 December 1991 vol 200 cc379-81
2. Mr. Clelland

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he next expects to meet the chairman of Northumbria police authority to discuss resources in the area.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Kenneth Baker)

I met the chairman of Northumbria police authority on 1 November when I visited Tyneside. Northumbria has received a generous increase in standard spending assessment of 17.3 per cent. In addition, it will be eligible for up to £3.66 million under the urban crime fund initiative that I announced on 26 November. Both the SSA increase and the experimental urban crime fund demonstrate clearly the Government's continuing commitment to a high level of police funding. The police authority has been facing serious difficulty in meeting the additional costs arising from the disturbances in Tyneside in September, so I am pleased to announce today that the Government will make a special payment towards those costs, at a rate of 95 per cent.

Mr. Clelland

That news will come as a welcome relief to the authority, which has been waiting for more than three months for a reply from the Home Secretary. Will he confirm that the 5 per cent. that the authority must now find from its budget is on top of the £4 million shortfall and the 116-officer shortfall in an area with rising crime? When will he get together with the Secretary of State for the Environment to put an end to the nonsense of capping, which is squeezing resources at a time of rapidly rising crime?

Mr. Baker

I do not agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said. I ask him to reflect on my answer. The increase this year in the Northumbria police SSA is 17 per cent. In addition, there is the experimental urban crime fund, from which Northumbria can benefit by £3.66 million. The 95 per cent. figure is the highest level that we have granted for any riot expenditure, and could involve a sum of between £5 million and £7 million, depending on the claims. That is a very generous, but correctly generous, settlement for Northumbria.

Mr. Devlin

I am sure that the people of Northumbria will welcome the excellent news that my right hon. Friend has given the House. Will he reflect on the fact that one of the most unpleasant duties of the Northumbria police is having to drag the mangled bodies of motorists from cars that have gone into ditches alongside the A1 while on their way to Scotland? The sooner that that road undergoes a major programme of improvement, with it possibly increased to motorway status, the better. Will he make the appropriate representations to his colleagues at the Department of Transport?

Mr. Baker

That question goes rather wide of the main question. I have driven along that road to Scotland many times and I know that beyond my hon. Friend's constituency it is not so good. I will draw my hon. Friend's suggestions to the attention of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

Mr. Sheerman

Can I put the Home Secretary back on the right road by telling him that the reason why morale in the Northumbria police force is low and why chief constables generally despair is not because the right hon. Gentleman suddenly makes a generous offer of help in a crisis, but because all chief constables, including the new chief constable of Northumbria, want consistency of funding so that they can be sure that they will get the officers and resources they require over a number of years? This year it has been impossible to plan policing in Northumbria because the force has 112 fewer officers than last year. That is not the way to run a police force, and that is why police morale is low. When will the right hon. Gentleman give that consistency and leadership to the police and back them for a change?

Mr. Baker

I remind the hon. Gentleman that since we have been in office there has been an increase of 693 officers in Northumbria's police strength. I approved an additional 26 posts from 1 October of this year, with a further 27 from 1 April of next year. The hon. Gentleman talks of the need for consistency, but the only consistency under Labour was in cutting the numbers of police—and at that time the hon. Gentleman was a member of the Cabinet.

Mr. Beith

Will the Home Secretary bear in mind that the rural areas of Northumberland have been especially difficult to police while the urban areas have been under great pressure and there has been a shortage of officers? Will he encourage the chief constable in the task that he has set himself of increasing the number of officers available for normal duties within the community?

Mr. Baker

I could not agree more with the hon. Gentleman. There is a very high proportion of police officers on the beat, although it varies from force to force. I should like about 80 per cent. of a force to be on the beat. I have spoken to the new chief constable of Northumbria and he is a most impressive officer. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has met him. We discussed the problems of policing rural Northumbria as well as the towns and cities. The hon. Gentleman's points are well made and I am sure that he will draw them to the attention of the chief constable.