§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]10.30 pm
§ Mr. David Faber (Westbury)
I am glad to have the opportunity to raise on the Adjournment the issue of the Wiltshire police force and the funding that has been made available to that force this year.
The motto of the Wiltshire police force is "Primus et Optimus". It is the oldest police force in the country and, we believe, very much the best. It is one of the smallest police forces and has one of the highest clear-up rates in the United Kingdom.
The financial settlement that we received this year must be seen against the background of substantial increases in police numbers in recent years and the very welcome reduction in the recorded rate of crime, which we have witnessed in Wiltshire during the past year.
In a recent parliamentary answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), whom I am delighted to see in his place, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, acknowledged that between 1979 and 1993 the total strength of the Wiltshire police force increased by about 40.1 per cent.—well above the average population growth in the county at the time. The number of officers increased by about 26.5 per cent. and the number of civilians by a staggering 96.3 per cent. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the chief constable and to all his staff—police officers and civilians—in the Wiltshire force.
This year, the settlement has come against a background of scare stories and scaremongering from the local Opposition parties, who at one stage threatened a 9 per cent. cash cut in Wiltshire's cash funding for this year. Statements such as "outrageous" and "breathtaking" appeared in the local press. In fact, if the new Wiltshire police authority spends up to its capping limit this year, as it always did under the county council police authority, we shall see a real-terms increase in funding for the Wiltshire police force this year of about 2.5 per cent. While I acknowledge that that is a disappointing increase compared with that for many other counties, it is one within which the local force should be well able to work.
I must draw the attention of my hon. Friend the Minister of State to one or two issues relating to the funding formula. The figures given by the old police authority, under Wiltshire county council control, at the beginning of the year—figures that were given to the Department of the Environment—amounted to a base budget for this year of about £57.8 million. The figure that the chief constable gave to the other Members of Parliament representing the county represented a base budget of about £58.76 million—a discrepancy of almost £1 million.
I spent several weeks trying to reconcile the difference between the two figures and I am most grateful to officials at the Home Office and the Department of the Environment for the considerable time and effort that they put into attempting to reconcile the figures. They were eventually explained to me, by the treasurer of the new police authority, as representing savings that have been rolled over from the previous year into the 1994–95 budget.
952 That begs three questions. First, why is it, when such crucial figures are being put to central Government and when local Members of Parliament are being lobbied, that the old police authority and the police force, as represented by the chief constable, are unable to agree on the correct level of funding and on the correct base budget for the year? Secondly, I should be grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister of State would confirm that such rolled-over savings should not be included in the base budget as I have been unable to confirm that so far. Thirdly, if such rolled-over savings are not to be included in the base budget, why is that not so in this case? Is it not fair that a base budget should be based on spending arising out of financial prudence from the previous year? We have had considerable confusion in Wiltshire in the past few months about our capping limit, and I should be grateful if my hon. Friend could make a few comments to try to clear some of the confusion.
I shall dwell for a moment on the main problems of the new funding formula as they affect Wiltshire and, indeed, as I believe that they affect several other counties which have suffered under that formula. In Wiltshire we have undoubtedly been penalised as regards pension payments for this year, and we envisage difficulties this year in funding those pension payments.
Allowance has been made in the 1994–95 budget to fund pension payments for officers eligible to retire during this financial year. However, it is likely that the pension expenditure allowed under the new formula will not be enough, given the reality of expected retirements for the year 1995–96. Police forces as a whole usually consider it prudent to allow full provision for those who may be eligible to retire, but in 1995–96 we may well be confronted with additional problems in Wiltshire.
For a variety of reasons, many of the officers who were due to retire before 31 March are likely to stay on until September 1995. As a result, about £1.6 million which would have been spent on payments for the 1994–95 year will not be spent. In previous years, under the old formula, 49 per cent. of those payments could have been rolled over into the following year, but unfortunately that is not permitted under the new formula.
I should be most grateful if my hon. Friend the Minister of State would consider the issue of pensions, and specifically if he would inquire whether a case can be made for a capping disregard to allow for such funds to be rolled over to allow some easing on pension payments in the current year.
The second problem that the formula has thrown up for us is that of the rural nature of the county which is spread out over a great area, with the exception of Swindon which is the large town in the county. It appears that those of us who live in rural areas—and police forces which operate in such areas—experience a certain amount of discrimination under the funding formula.
I believe that the standard spending assessment for education, which the Department of the Environment controls, includes some factor to take account of rural sparsity. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has been inquiring into that and I wonder whether he has made any progress in considering the issues for the funding formula in the coming year.
§ Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)
I too have brought pressure to bear on our hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, on the question of sparsity. It is a significant 953 issue, not only in my constituency and the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), but in the Devizes constituency next door—and I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) is in his place. Has the Minister received any response at the Home Office about that sparsity factor? I know that the Department of the Environment revises the statistical basis of its standard spending assessment calculation every year. That issue should surely be tackled for the Wiltshire police.
§ Mr. Faber
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I think that that is the case. My hon. Friend the Minister, in a letter to colleagues just before the funding debate a few weeks ago, highlighted the pensions issue and the rural sparsity factor and said that he would take that into consideration. I thoroughly agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury and I very much hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to give us a few words of wisdom about the extent to which that review is progressing and whether he is able to give us any further advice this evening.
We now have a funding shortfall to fill. According to the chief constable, who has now published a list of possible cuts within the Wiltshire police force, it may be as much as £3 million.
As my hon. Friends in the county have pointed out on previous occasions, we hope that there will be no need for a reduction in police strength. The new police authority and the chief constable may be able to make savings, and I shall ask my hon. Friend the Minister about one or two of those. I understand that this year Wiltshire will receive £500,000, which it must spend in the current financial year on common police services such as the national police computer but that under the funding formula for next year that will not be the case. I am interested to know whether that money will revert to Wiltshire's funding and be additional money that the chief constable will be able to spend.
My hon. Friend the Minister and the chief constable will not want to talk at great length about security matters, but Wiltshire has way above the normal number of VIPs to protect and the county has a large and active special protection force. If the peace process in Northern Ireland continues to be successful and to reap the peace dividend, we hope that officers withdrawn from special protection duties will be able to boost the normal manpower available to the Wiltshire police force. Whether the budget is spent in hard cash or on numbers of police officers, I hope that it will revert to the Wiltshire police force and will not be subsumed into the national budget.
In the few minutes left to me, I shall strike a slightly discordant note. Like one or two of my hon. Friends, I have received many representations recently, both by post and at my surgeries, about the major concern caused by local press reports suggesting that the new police authority set up under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act 1994 may plan to spend as much as £200,000 on acquiring new premises for the police authority to meet in, possibly in Devizes close to the Wiltshire police headquarters. When I first heard that, I was surprised. Having done some research, I think that I have managed to understand where the various grants are available from and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for his written replies to me in recent weeks on that matter.
954 I understand that two grants are available to new police authorities and police forces under the Police and Magistrates' Courts Act to help set up the new police authorities. One is for £97,500, which is specifically for the use of the police authorities. In a letter sent to the chief constable of Wiltshire police on 8 July 1994, the payment of that initial grant is decreed as being to covercosts such as selection panel expenses, members' allowances, the appointment of a clerk and treasurer, accommodation and anything else directly attributable to the parallel running of two police authorities.In addition, an initial grant will be made available to the police force. Again as a result of a parliamentary reply from my hon. Friend the Minister, I understand that in the case of Wiltshire that grant will be some £400,000. The chief constable of Wiltshire, in a letter of 26 August 1994, applied for a grant of £220,000 to finance a new police headquarters in Devizes under the £400,000 grant. The submission was subsequently changed and a detailed claim was submitted by the clerk of the new Wiltshire police authority on 15 December 1994 for £180,000 for the new police authority headquarters.
Either way, I consider that those sums are unnecessary and a waste of public funds. They fall short for two reasons. First, why does a new police authority with a few members, which has already said that it plans to meet in town and village halls around the county, need to spend £200,000 on premises in which to meet when it already has facilities available to it in Trowbridge, where the old police authority has been meeting since time immemorial, for the sum of some £7,000 or £8,000 a year in rent? Even if the new police authority were to rent new buildings, I understand that that would cost £25,000 more than the rental on its existing accommodation at county hall. That is possibly the cost of one new police constable on the beat. At a time of cuts, that seems a very poor saving.
Secondly, I believe that an application of that type falls outside the spirit of the grant. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on that point. I understand that the Wiltshire police force applied for the grant originally. However, circumstances changed and the new Wiltshire police authority subsequently applied for the grant. In a letter of 31 January which was sent to the clerk of the Wiltshire shadow police authority, one of my hon. Friend's officials said:However, I note that the accommodation bid of £180,000 is now intended for the new police authority. Wiltshire's original letter of 26 August 1994 suggested that this accommodation was for the use of the police force …While it is for the police authority to decide how to spend its money, claims for initial financing grant for police force use will not be verified where they relate to expenditure incurred only for police authority use".Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the grant will not be given to the new police authority for its new premises? I have received information in the past couple of days from a reliable source that it is possible that the grant application will revert to the Wiltshire police force. I understand that premises have already been found close to the police headquarters on the outskirts of town in a new business park in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes. It is possible that the new police force will move into those premises and will be followed closely by the police authority.
At the very best, I believe that such an application is outside the spirit of the grant, and at the very worst—I hesitate to say it—I believe that the police authority is using underhand tactics to gain expensive new accommodation. I 955 hope that my hon. Friend will consider carefully the points that I have raised. I hope that he will consider whether the grant should be paid and whether it is viable expenditure by the new Wiltshire police authority.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)
I have listened carefully to the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Faber), which I take very seriously indeed. I am also grateful for the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). My hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), who is in his place, and for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Wiltshire, North (Mr. Needham) have made representations to me outside the Chamber about policing in Wiltshire. I am glad that they are in the Chamber tonight to hear my remarks.
The key purpose of the programme of reforms that we are implementing is to ensure a positive future for policing. I am very encouraged by recent figures which show crime on the retreat, and we must maintain and improve the conditions to take that process further.
Providing sufficient funding for the police service and distributing it fairly are rightly matters of prime concern. That is particulariy true at a time when we are introducing important changes to the system for the next financial year. Moving to the application of a new, objective formula for the allocation of resources between police authorities has been a complicated business. I expected to receive a large number of queries and I have not been disappointed. I will shortly he responding to a letter from my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury in which he passed on representations from the chief constable of Wiltshire.
The Wiltshire constabulary is an excellent example of the kind of strong local force that is the backbone of British policing. It is committed to quality and to the service of a wide range of local communities. While it is not a large force, it has a real sense of identity with the people of the county and that is the basis of the partnership which we see as an essential element in preventing and dealing with crime. A well-developed system of consultative groups allows for regular contact between officers and those whom they serve and there are also strong links with crime prevention panels. There are 4,116 neighbourhood watch schemes in Wiltshire covering more than 62,000 households.
The Wiltshire force is also forward-looking, with a strong record in technical development and effective liaison with other agencies, such as the Crown Prosecution Service. Most important of all, the force is playing a vital part in getting crime rates down. In the 12 months to June 1994—the latest period for which we have figures—recorded crime fell by 5 per cent. in England and Wales, but Wiltshire beat that figure with a fall of 9 per cent. Burglaries and vehicle crimes in the county fell by 7 per cent. and 12 per cent. respectively. Wiltshire's clear-up rate is also very good at 35 per cent, compared with a national average of 25 per cent.
Basic support in money terms for the Wiltshire force increases by 0.4 per cent. in 1995–96, and I understand that the budget for that financial year has now been set at £59.145 million. The uplift may seem modest, but we need to delve a little deeper to get a more accurate view of the position and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury for delving deeper.
956 First, Wiltshire certainly gets a fair share of resources under the formula as it currently stands. The relative demand for policing is assessed as higher in many other areas and that is not altogether surprising. Thankfully, Wiltshire is not a rabid hotbed of crime. While a number of English county forces historically spend less on policing, none recorded fewer offences than Wiltshire in the most recent year for which figures are available.
To be blunt, we have to recognise that any redistributive formula will produce gains and losses in relative terms. I am confident that while the formula will inevitably need further development to take into account such factors as rural sparsity, pensions and so on, it is working as fairly as possible, but some people will inevitably be disappointed with its local effects.
Wiltshire says that it is doing badly under the formula compared with 1994–95, but let us look at the background to the funding for 1994–95. It was based on an establishment which had increased by nearly 16 per cent. since 1979, almost double the national increase. As a Government, we are proud that Wiltshire had that dramatic increase in establishment. Over the same period, strength has grown by 255, or more than 25 per cent. compared with a national increase of 14 per cent., so between 1979 and 1995, total expenditure on policing in Wiltshire grew by nearly 154 per cent. in real terms, as against the national increase of 92 per cent. Therefore, any claim for further substantial additions to funding should be seen in the context of those generous increases over a period of 15 years.
The chief constable recently referred to a budget now standing at £60.677 million for 1994–95. Of course, the basic allocation for 1995–96 looks low in comparison, but the chief constable's figure includes significant savings from the 1993–94 budget rolled over with the county council's agreement. I understand that many of those savings related to unspent pensions provisions and that there is likely to be another underspend in that category in 1994–95. If there is, the county council may be prepared to make arrangements for the new police authority to have access to some of that money for 1995–96. The budget may then look distinctly healthier.
Pensions are a problem for police funding, but they can also distort proper comparisons between year-on-year budgets. Stated budget requirements may be inflated by making financial provision for all officers eligible to retire in a particular year. In practice, experience shows that much of that provision will often be left unspent.
My hon. Friend commented on the effect of capping on the Wiltshire police in 1995–96. As hon. Members know, capping is designed to protect council tax payers from the burden of supporting excessive increases in local authority spending. Base budgets for capping purposes and spending caps are a measure of the burden which has been or will be placed on local taxpayers. The final figures, therefore, exclude any expenditure which has been or will be funded by drawing on reserves or by income generated from charging for services. In the case of Wiltshire police authority, the 1994–95 base budget was reduced to reflect the county council's income from fees for registering births, marriages and deaths.
The Wiltshire police argued, understandably, that as they had no involvement with this work and saw none of the income it generated their base budget should be 957 reduced. The police base budget was correspondingly increased by some £26,000 from £57.82 million to £57.85 million.
My hon. Friend mentioned the concern in Wiltshire that an underspend in 1994–95 could not be carried forward into 1995–96 and benefit the police in that year because it would be included in the capping limit rather than being added to it. That is not the case. The underspend would be carried forward this year by putting money into reserves and then drawing on those reserves next year. Spending from reserves is entirely separate from capping because it does not impact on council tax payers whose interests capping is designed to protect. The spending from reserves in 1995–96 could, therefore, be used to finance additional expenditure above the capping limit.
My hon. Friend said that there was a suggestion that some money allocated for the police service might be used by the police authority for accommodation. I cannot comment on any strategy that a police authority might develop to circumvent the rules for the allocation of initial financing grant for police force use, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the expenditure against which initial financing grants will be paid will be subsequently scrutinised by district auditors who will be countersigning the grant claim form that will be required to be submitted by 31 December this year. Grant that has not been properly used will be reclaimed—it is as simple as that. At that stage, such money could not be re-allocated to another police authority.
§ Mr. Faber
I have been listening carefully to what my hon. Friend has been saying. The fact remains that the new Wiltshire police authority is under the impression that the grant has been approved. Indeed, in a letter that it sent to me today, it is clear that it believes that the £400,000 has been approved and, within that, the £180,000 for a new police authority headquarters at Devizes. Can my hon. Friend say whether that grant has been approved, or whether his officials are still considering it?
§ Mr. Maclean
I should like to respond in detail, but I was not aware of that letter. I should need to check it carefully before responding. I can say only that we believe that the law is quite clear. I am sure that no police authority would seek to act in a way that would get round the spirit of the law and risk the district auditor's not countersigning the grant claim form. Not only would the police authority not get access to the money, but the police service would not get access to the resources for which I am sure everyone is fighting. I should like to see the details of what the authority is claiming, and I should then be delighted to respond in writing to my hon. Friend and other hon. Friends.
I am confident that we can do more in Wiltshire and elsewhere to increase the number of officers on the beat where they can reassure the law-abiding public and deter potential offenders. The whole question of funding and the arguments about formulae arise because people want the maximum police effectiveness for the large amounts of money that are, rightly, spent on the police service. The Government's record speaks for itself. There has been an increase of 16,000 police officers since 1979, and we shall improve the position further from April by removing the central controls on numbers in each force. Chief 958 constables on the ground—not the Government and Whitehall—will decide force priorities and they will be able to choose freely between additional police officers, civilians, equipment or any other form of expenditure.
We shall keep up the pressure on police forces to put civilians into jobs that do not require police officers' powers, skills or expensive training. Since 1983, that process has helped us return more than 7,000 officers to front-line duties. We have been able to do that because, in addition to the 16,000 bobbies, we have recruited 16,000 civilians to take over the typewriters and release officers for front-line duties. Wiltshire has a very good record on civilianisation, but there are still a number of posts that civilians could do and should take over. That is the opinion of HM inspectorate of constabulary.
Having mentioned cash limiting of the police grant, I shall say a little more about the key change to the funding system. When linked to the introduction of free-standing police authorities, it will ensure that each force gets a full and clearly defined share of the resources available. Under the new system county councils will not be able to divert resources to other services as some—in fact, the majority, I believe, last year—have done in the past. Nor will additional spending attract automatic grant that will have to be financed from national taxation. The new system of formula funding will depend vitally on the effectiveness of the arrangements for distributing resources, and that is where the formula comes in.
The new formula fills the gap that existed under the old system and it corrects those anomalies. It provides a much more direct link between funding and policing needs. The key factor driving it is population, with particular social and demographic factors playing a small but significant part. Some allowance is made for roads and motorways and the number of officers on ports and protection duties. Around 9 per cent. of the formula is linked to predicted pensions expenditure. Although moving to an improved basis for distribution is all very well, I can assure my hon. Friends that we realise that there cannot be too much change all at once.
Nor do we imagine that we have got everything right the first time. We will continue to review and develop the formula this year and will do so in consultation with the police and local authority representatives. One focus of that work will be the way in which we allow for the special problems of policing rural areas in counties such as Wiltshire. No one will be happier than me, as a Member representing another rural county, if the police service comes to us with very good reasons and arguments about building in a sparsity factor. So far, we have not had arguments that would justify my making that change. I cannot depend on gut instinct, although I believe that the policing of rural areas is bound to have a greater cost than the policing of some urban areas.
§ The motion having been made after Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, MADAM DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Eleven o'clock.