HC Deb 13 December 1993 vol 234 cc803-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Robert G. Hughes.]

11.48 pm
Mrs. Angela Knight (Erewash)

I am grateful for this opportunity to bring to the attention of the House the matter of policing in Derbyshire, which is of great importance to my constituents and to the residents of the county. I thank the Minister for being here to reply, and I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin) and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) for being here to support me.

The Derbyshire police force is in a uniquely difficult position. For the second year in succession it has not been granted its certificate of efficiency, and it is essential now that there is a positive future for the force, for its sake and particularly for the residents of the county. The policemen and policewomen of Derbyshire are doing an excellent job fighting crime in the county, but the force has suffered for many years from a lack of adequate funding by Derbyshire county council.

The sequence of events that has resulted in the police force losing its certificate has been documented in a series of reports by Her Majesty's inspector of constabulary. In his report of the 1990 inspection of the Derbyshire force the inspector stated: The County Council's corporate strategy does not permit any realistic growth in police spending in real terms and this has meant a virtual standstill in developing the Constabulary and its resources for the last 8 years … the consequences of Derbyshire … are evident. Those were his exact words. He went on to say: The bureaucratic requirements of the County Council and the Police Committee are a major obstacle to the efficient management of the Force.

Mr. Doug Hoyle (Warrington, North)

Stop reading.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris)

Order. If the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) wishes to intervene and ask the hon. Lady to give way, that is one thing; otherwise, I should be grateful if he would keep his thoughts to himself.

Mr. Hoyle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for any hon. Member to read his or her speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The use of copious notes is quite acceptable, particularly on the Adjournment motion.

Mrs. Knight

The report concluded that the constabulary was in several significant respects, on the brink of inefficiency. It stated: unless immediate and positive action is put in hand to improve the position, there must be a real risk of the Derbyshire Constabulary being adjudged inefficient". Those were the words of the inspector in 1990. He then made a series of recommendations. The police force addressed these recommendations with considerable success, but the police authority dragged its feet: it refused to allow the chief constable greater freedom to manage the force—something that had been allowed in other forces for many years.

In the summer of the following year, 1991, a further inspection was made——

Mr. Hoyle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I hope that it is a new point of order.

Mr. Hoyle

Yes, it is Mr. Deputy Speaker. What is the difference between using copious notes and reading a speech?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Not this evening. Mrs. Knight.

Mrs. Knight

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The subject is important—for Derbyshire and for other places in the country.

In 1991 the inspector found a shortfall of police on duty on the streets. He also found a low level of morale and a high rate of sickness. Despite—[Interruption.]

Mr. Hoyle

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could you bring to order those Conservative Members who are asking me to leave the Chamber because I am bringing to your attention the conduct of an hon. Member. I shall ask you to name the hon. Member if that hon. Member continues to point to me. Is it right for an hon. Member to ask another hon. Member to leave the chamber?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is only one hon. Member who can do that—me, as the occupant of the Chair. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to listen to the debate, he should do so, and the same applies to the Conservative Members sitting behind the hon. Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight).

Mrs. Knight

In January 1992, the inspector returned to Derbyshire. Despite all the previous warnings that he had given, he found that the force was considerably under strength—by 125 officers. He found that in that year there were fewer officers than there had been in 1981. The ratio of police per head of population in Derbyshire was considerably worse than the national average. Crime was rising, the police force was doing a good job despite its difficulties, but its resources were scant because of the many years it had been kept short of funds by Derbyshire county council.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Knight

I will not give way.

The inspector spoke to the chairman of the police authority. He learned that the Derbyshire constabulary had not even been allowed to submit a budget to the police authority for consideration. After considerable persuasion, the Labour chairman of the police authority told the chief constable that he would allow him to submit a budget that year but that he was not prepared to support a budget that was set at the standard spending assessment, despite an earlier request by the county council to the Department of the Environment to increase the SSA for policing purposes. The chief constable bid for £76 million. The county council reduced the amount. The police force did not get its certificate of efficiency.

Mr. Skinner

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Knight

I will not give way. The hon. Gentleman could have asked for this Adjournment debate. He could have asked me before if he wished to intervene. More importantly, he could have asked his Labour colleagues on the county council to ensure that the police force did not get into its present difficulties.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the nature of this debate about Derbyshire, and the fact that I am a Derbyshire Member of Parliament, is it in order for an hon. Member to acknowledge that when the Derbyshire county council asked for an extra 112 police officers the Government refused?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman knows that that is not a matter for the Chair.

Mrs. Knight

In all his reports, the inspector has rightly and properly excluded the police officers and their civilian colleagues from criticism. Instead, he declared that they were working far beyond the level that might reasonably be expected in the circumstances. It was not their fault; the fault clearly lay at the door of the county council.

Despite the difficulties, the force has had many successes. There are many things to the credit of the police officers. There is dedication to duty in all ranks of the service; the force was early into civilianisation so that more police officers could be used on policing duties; there are child protection units; the special constabulary is fully part of the force; there are crime prevention panels; and the force has good relations with the community and with schools. Those are excellent things that the force has done. I have the highest praise for those with whom I have contact—the present superintendent and the previous one, the chief inspectors and inspectors, and other policemen and policewomen and civilians of the Erewash division.

In 1992, the inspector set the Derbyshire police force six targets: to fill police and civilian vacancies and recruit up to its establishment by April this year; to resume promotions and train staff; to provide for police overtime to the metropolitan average; to undertake essential repairs; to improve the vehicle fleet; and to resource the scientific support for the force in Derbyshire. Many gains and improvements have been made. Efforts have been made at all levels.

The budget situation has improved, giving the police forces its first real growth for nearly 10 years. The Home Office has treated the force sympathetically with regard to capital. The establishment is now for 1,850 officers, but it is not yet up to that strength. Last winter, the chief constable said that he required £86 million in 1993 to maintain the momentum. The police authority only recommended slightly under £84 million. The county council reduced the figure to £80.2 million. That is why the force is still under strength. No wonder the force has its difficulties—it was £6 million short of its required budget. The six targets have not yet been fully reached and the certificate of efficiency was not granted again last month.

Not surprisingly, many members of the force feel that the community is judging them harshly—that they are not efficient. Although the inspector has praised the members of the force on many occasions for their dedication—and rightly so—questions are being asked and criticisms are being made about a situation which has allowed police officers to operate in those circumstances and which has allowed a deterioration in the quality of the service to the public. All too often, the needs of the Derbyshire police force and the Derbyshire public are not being met.

The chief constable responded to this year's report in a document entitled "Policing in Derbyshire—Meeting the Challenge". There is a challenge that must be met. The police service in Derbyshire and the residents need to know about their future.

Shortly after my election to the House, I spoke about the benefits of establishing a police authority separate from the county council. I look forward to the day when that happens in Derbyshire. I know that such a change will be in the Bill when it comes before Parliament. I hope that any parts of the Bill that it will be possible to anticipate early will be anticipated for the benefit of Derbyshire. The force is below strength, but it is starting to recruit again and the noble Lord Ferrers said on 16 November that he was hoping that it would be able to recruit to within 2 per cent. of its establishment.

Requests to increase the establishment of the police force have, surprisingly, not been made in every year over the past few years. This year, however, such a request was supported by the police authority. It would have had the advantage of increasing the police element of the SSA. When a force is under its existing establishment level, however, it is not altogether surprising if the establishment number is not increased. Yet Derbyshire police force finds itself in a unique situation, and one that is not of its own making. It is a special case, and it will be an advantage to all of us in the county if the numbers of policemen and policewomen are increased. Increasing the establishment numbers is one way, but accelerating civilianisation is another.

If the proposals that the chief constable recently made to the police authority are approved, that could result in a further 80 policemen and policewomen being released for policing duties next year. However, such a move requires the county council to approve a budget of £88 million, and there are real concerns that the budget will not be approved at that level. I ask the Home Office to do all that it can to ensure that that prudent proposal by the chief constable proceeds.

Additional capital approvals were made by the Home Office as recently as last month. If that were repeated again, it would also relieve some revenue cash for more policing. Looking to the county council has become an increasingly fruitless exercise. As a consequence, the residents of Derbyshire are looking to the Home Office to see what it can do to help to ensure that the police force gets the resources that it needs. The proposed changes to police funding, including cash-limited budgets, will make next year's budget particularly important. I trust that the Home Office formula for allocating budgets will take account of, and cater for, forces such as Derbyshire that have been continually under-resourced.

It is a fine police force, but that police force and 1 million residents have been neglected by the county council. Policemen and policewomen have been left to do a difficult job in increasingly impossible circumstances. The Derbyshire police force needs to see a future that is clear of the political controls that have bedeviled it. That will allow it to give the county the policing that it wants to give, and that the residents of the county deserve and have every right to expect.

12.2 am

Mr. Charles Hendry (High Peak)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) on the way in which she introduced the debate. In my constituency, as in hers and those of my other colleagues who represent Derbyshire constituencies, the fight against crime is the top priority. Our constituents would therefore welcome the powerful way in which she spoke. I endorse what she said.

The removal of the certificate of efficiency for a second year is no reflection on the work of the police. They do a tremendous job for all our constituents, and we owe them a great debt of gratitude. A few weeks ago, I spent the night with the police in Glossop—not, I hasten to add, in one of their cells, but going out with them on patrol. I found a force acting as we would wish our police to work. The policemen and policewomen were courteous, efficient, hard working and dedicated. Over these difficult years, they have put in many hours of overtime, very often unpaid. They have worked long hours in difficult circumstances because they have wanted to put first the safety of the people of Derbyshire.

The problems that we face in Derbyshire in our policing go back, as my hon. Friend said, for some years. She has pointed out clearly how, over the past year, £86 million was requested, and £83 million was then endorsed by the police authority but the county council allocated only £80 million.

It was the county council that left our police force £6 million short. It was the county council, through the hostility that it expressed in previous years from the top towards the police, which led people not to apply to that police force.

Nothing shows as starkly the situation that the police in Derbyshire face as the figures produced last week on staffing levels in local authorities. They reveal that there has been some improvement in the past year in the number of those employed by our police force. They show that, of the 31 county councils, Derbyshire is fourth in terms of the increase in the number of its full-time employees. They also show that we lie fifth in terms of the increase in the number of part-time employees.

The starkest contrast is that provided by the comparison between the number of police in Derbyshire and the number of county council employees. Derbyshire police is thirteenth in the list of employers, whereas Derbyshire county council is eighth. The police force is the tenth largest employer of part-time employees, whereas the county council is the fourth largest employer of such workers in the country.

Those figures show that, over the years, the county council has systematically chosen to stuff county hall with bureaucrats and its friends. It has even employed the brother of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who had previously been sacked by it. Such is the way in which the council has sought to look after its own political interests at the expense of policing in Derbyshire. That is the crime that has been committed for many years in Derbyshire and our constituents have suffered.

I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) also wishes to speak, so I shall draw my remarks to a conclusion. In the local newspaper, the Buxton Advertiser, Councillor Eric Swain challenged me to answer the charge, "Who is to blame?" for the policing in Derbyshire. The answer is the county council, which has chosen to back other priorities than the police. That policy has undermined our police. I hope that that is clear enough for Councillor Swain to understand, because he and his colleagues chose those priorities.

In a couple of years, when the chief constable is able to decide how he spends the resources and on the appropriate staffing levels—a welcome change—that wretched, dreadful, miserable county council will have been abolished. On behalf of my constituents, I am pleased to support my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash.

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is an Adjournment debate a debate, or is it merely a presentation of one particular point of view, without any opportunity for the normal cross debate that occurs in the——

Mr. Deputy Speaker


Mr. Barnes

Opposition Members would then be able to express an opinion.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I understand the point of order. The hon. Gentleman has attended many Adjournment debates and he knows full well that, whichever hon. Member is successful in the ballot, it is for that person to choose the nature of the debate and to decide who may or may not take part in it.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Given that the hon. Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) referred to me, would it be in order for me to have a chance to speak, because with three Tories in a row making speeches, and a Tory Minister present to reply, the debate is rigged?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I do not need to repeat that it is for the hon. Member for Erewash, who was lucky in the ballot, to decide who may participate in the debate.

12.8 am

Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) on winning her place in the ballot and on the clear way in which she presented her case. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Mr. Hendry) on the points that he raised.

It was on 22 January 1991, almost three years ago, that I raised the same issue on the Adjournment. Since then, huge efforts have been made in Derbyshire. I should like to pay particular tribute to the police officers and the civilians who work in the force who have made valiant efforts to meet the strictures that were sensibly imposed by the inspector of constabulary, Mr. Dear.

Considerable success and changes have been achieved, especially on recruitment, training and re-equipping. There have also been some changes in attitudes. Everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash said was true, but I detect a shift in attitudes, particularly since Mr. Bookbinder, the former leader of the council, has left politics altogether and since the recent gaoling of the deputy leader of the county council, Mr. Shaun Stafford. Once the senior people go, attitudes change.

In my view—in this I may differ a little from my hon. Friends—the refusal to grant the efficiency certificate this time may be failing to take some of the changes into account. The decision runs the danger of being damaging. A continual refusal to grant the certificate becomes part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

My hon. Friends are right in saying that, if Derbyshire police are to return to full efficiency, they must have more officers. Mr. Dear said that himself. But the force cannot even recruit up to its establishment because it is at the upper level of its budget and the budget, at £80.2 million, is exactly, according to the Home Office's standard spending assessment, what it ought to be. We are stuck. The Home Office's own inspector is now more critical of the Home Office than of Derbyshire police.

I ask Home Office Ministers and the Treasury to take the matter seriously—rather more seriously, perhaps, than some Labour Members here tonight. I simply do not believe that a solution is beyond the grasp of our Government. We look forward to the changes in the pattern of police financing and management which are promised to us in the police Bill, but those measures are not likely to come into effect for some 18 months. Meanwhile, we must have more police officers in Derbyshire. I plead with my hon. Friend the Minister to take the matter seriously and do something about it.

12.11 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Charles Wardle)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight) on her excellent speech and on her stalwart support for the cause of policing in Derbyshire, in which she has been joined in the Chamber by my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak (Mr. Hendry), for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie), and for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim) and my ministerial colleagues my hon. Friends the Members for Derby, North (Mr. Knight) and for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin).

We have heard some eloquent praise of the good work done by Derbyshire police. I join in that praise. The basic problems that Derbyshire police have faced are not the result of a failure on the part of the police. In many ways, and in different circumstances, the Derbyshire police have coped and are coping extremely well. The report by Her Majesty's inspectorate of constabulary makes that clear. It has also been made clear by the Minister of State, Lord Ferrers, and by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary on various occasions.

I also agree with my hon. Friends that Derbyshire's problems are not caused by standard spending assessments.

Mr. Skinner

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wardle

No; I want to make some progress.

The council has done its best to hide behind the SSAs. As the council well knows, and as the House well knows, SSAs are merely a guide. The council seems to be content to budget to spend well above its SSAs on just about every other major council service except the police. SSAs cannot take account each year of past adverse spending choices by the county council.

On a previous occasion, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) spoke about SSA,s. In a debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South, he said: Should not the Government ensure that the SSAs for many items, but particularly those relating to the police are increased?"—[Official Report, 11 November 1991; Vol. 198, c. 880.] The hard fact is that Derbyshire county council has underspent its SSAs year after year. In 1991 it underspent by 15.8 per cent. The next year it fell short by 17.2 per cent. The year after that it budgeted below its SSA by 4.3 per cent. and in the current year it has done so by 2.6 per cent. There we have the nub of the problem.

What has made things worse has been a cumbersome and unnecessary system——

Mr. Barnes

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Wardle

No; I would like to make some progress. A cumbersome and unnecessary system of bureaucratic council control has sapped morale year after year. The Labour Members present tonight seek to cover that up by their interventions and some of the points that they have made. It has prevented police force managers from doing the job that has been required. It is true that during the past couple of years there have been some relaxations, but unnecessary controls remain in place even today.

My hon. Friend the Member for Erewash was also right to point out that Derbyshire's problems are clearly not a result of ungenerous treatment. This year, for example, an extra £4.5 million capital allocation has been made available to it. When Derbyshire has made no bid for any increase in the complement of police officers—as was the case in five of the past 11 years—we cannot help. As my hon. Friends and the House will know, under the present system, a bid for more money has to be expressed in terms of additional police posts. Yet, during the periods 1984–87 and 1988–90, Derbyshire made no bid for additional posts whatsoever.

Mr. Skinner

It did—112.

Mr. Wardle

As the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has reminded us, this year Derbyshire belatedly made a bid. He will also be aware that this year, in the climate of sensible financial constraint, there have been no other bids for additional police. The existing problem is simply the result of a failure to bid for additional police posts. If Derbyshire had kept up with the national average of all police forces, excluding the Metropolitan police, it would have had an additional 51 posts, with the additional funding that that implies.

Mr. Barnes

If there is a problem and there are insufficient police officers in Derbyshire, why has the present request not been responded to? Why do not all hon. Members who represent Derbyshire—including Conservative Members—agree to see the Minister as part of a joint delegation to discuss funding, irrespective of their attitude to how the problem has arisen and whether it lies with the Government or the county council? Hon. Members will have different views on how the problem has arisen, but, as the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) said, we have a chance to resolve it. Why can we not have a joint deputation to discuss that?

Mr. Wardle

The hon. Gentleman persistently ducks the fact that in past years Derbyshire has underspent its SSA for police and has overspent in other areas. For example, last year it overspent on personal social services by 21 per cent., while underspending on the police in spite of the fact that the problem was clear for everyone in the House and in Derbyshire to see. It is no use the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Barnes) trying to cover up for mistakes that are all too obvious.

I shall seek to write to my hon. Friend with details of the programme that will remedy the situation in which Derbyshire still finds itself. I know that she will bear in mind that the reforms that are to be introduced in the police Bill, which will begin in another place in the new year, will greatly ease the position of the chief constable of Derbyshire, and all chief constables, because they will be able to allocate their resources as they see fit between officers and equipment and will be able to meet the requirements of Her Majesty's inspectorate.

I shall also write to my hon. Friend about the steps that my right hon. and noble Friend has agreed with Her Majesty's chief inspector of constabulary and the chief constable of Derbyshire—

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eighteen minutes past Twelve midnight.